Categorized | Game Designers, Interviews

Interview with Martin & Aaron at Talisman Studios

Posted on February 19, 2008 by Matt-M-McElroy

How long has Talisman Studios been in business? Can you tell us a little bit about how your company got started?

MMK: Hi there . I’m Martin, the Publisher at Talisman Studios, which is in its fifth year and was started as an art and design studio by two of the most talented artists around – Aaron Acevedo and Jason Engle. And I’m not just saying that because Aaron’s reading this; check out their portfolios and you’ll see what I mean ( and

How do I fit in? I’m the Brit who adopted these guys in the old days… or was it the other way round? Anyway, in 2007 they asked me to join them and help turn Talisman into a full publisher… which is what we’ve done. In the last few months we released over fifty books and game accessories through our site at and launched three entire game lines.

Gamescapes are game accessories like map tiles for tabletop gaming. Shaintar is a wonderfully detailed fantasy world. Suzerain is a complete game system that allows people to roleplay in any setting, any world.

When you get right down to it we’re really just a cooperative of creative people looking to make an honest living doing the best games, art prints, graphic novels, and anything else that takes our fancy. And we’re only getting started. Some of the stuff for the rest of this year is… just exceptional.

Aaron, you want to talk about where we all got started, that freezing weekend at Holiday Inn Schenectady, scribbling mad ideas into the evening, trying not to get distracted while the women in the bar hit on Jason? It was your idea, after all. Not the women, but the weekend.

AAA: Thanks, Martin. I’m happy to. Truth is, there was serious talk about closing the studio before Martin got involved last year. Jason and I were both really busy with our freelance careers, and neither of us had the time or savvy to take Talisman to the next level. I went to Martin for some advise and after talking, we decided to keep the studio open with Martin at the helm and it’s made all the difference in the world.

That long, cold weekend in Schenectady started things off. We got together to talk about becoming a full-fledged publisher, which game lines we’d develop, and who’d be involved. It was controlled and chaotic all at once, with creative ideas flying as fast as the Mountain Dew went down. At the end we had a gameplan laid out. That’s where Gamescapes came from, as well as the plan to bring back Suzerain, Martin’s gorgeous RPG from his days running Treehouse Ltd.

What has been the most rewarding (and the most) disappointing part of working at a small press game studio?

MMK: Most rewarding? All of it. Most disappointing? None of it. Seriously.

Okay, it’s like this. We work really hard, long hours at odd times of day and night. Sometimes I get tired, and we insist on only making the highest quality stuff… which at three in the morning could frustrate any man. A few hours later the feeling’s gone, I look up from my work and see all the wonderful things we’re making and the people I’m working with. There’s nothing to compare. I’m lucky enough to work with my friends, and as we expand the Talisman family with new people, they’re a great bunch too. This is what I do. I hope it’s what I always get to do. No commute. No boss. You earn what people will pay you for making great books that the fans like. It’s not a lot of money, but that’s never why you’d do this.

AAA: I agree, the long hours can be pretty tough, it’s not unheard of for me to work 12 hour days for weeks on end, but I think that shows how engrossing the work can be. Working with such talented folks is incredibly satisfying. I just don’t want to stop. Ever!

Thankfully, my wife Jeannine is just as enthused, or I’d be in serious trouble .

MMK: And I’m going to be a father in the next few weeks. If my good lady wasn’t a very understanding sort, that would be seriously bad news. We’re both really lucky like that.

Why did you decide to use the Savage Worlds system for Shaintar, and how do you feel the system enhances the game’s fantasy feel?

AAA: Sean Fannon, Shaintar’s creator, had a few incarnations of Shaintar over the years (Fantasy Hero, Fuzion, d20, and more). He’s good friends with us, and all the time we’ve been watching him search for a system that would handle the epic scope of the stories he wanted to tell. None were quite right. It wasn’t until Shane [Hensely] showed him Savage Worlds that he finally found what he was looking for.

MMK: Savage Worlds really fits Shaintar. It’s fantasy gaming on an epic scale. You need to be able to have hordes of Ratzin charge into the scene, the characters squaring off against a couple of frenzied Minotaurs, and all that happening at a pace that gets across the intense adrenalin-rush of the situation.

AAA: Yeah. The system is very flexible, handles fast-paced action like no other, and doesn’t bog down with massive amounts of troops on the map; a perfect fit for the epic battles taking place in Shaintar. If you’re wading through a dozen 300 page books to find some appendix where it tells you what the rule is for fighting against a large opponent with a small weapon… forget it! Game over.

MMK: Savage Worlds keeps it down to what’s needed. A varied combat system to accommodate different fighting styles without crushing the game under a ton of unneeded rules. Enough social stats to help gauge a negotiation or diplomatic effort. Nothing extra. Perfect for epic fantasy, and Shaintar is definitely that. Oh, and Savage Worlds has tricks. They allow all manner of wonderful improvisation. We love tricks.

Do you game together regularly? Any stories to share?

MMK: We’re just starting up a Shaintar campaign using Fantasy Grounds (a great virtual gaming table), just for us guys. It’s our Monday gaming fix together. That’s the only practical way since we’re spread out all over the world.

However I will warn people about gaming with Aaron and Jason. We played in a Deadlands game a while back where we made some kick-ass characters and we were really proud of them. In the very first session we faced down the biggest wimp of a vampire in the world, some exotic dancer woman who’d only become a vampire the night before.

One character ended up cowering in the corner from the start, the second took a neck wound on the first round, and the third one just managed to bundle him out of the window where the two of them fell one floor into the street and the Doc (my character) broke his arm. Aaron’s prizefighter became a vampire snack, Jason’s sharpshooter bled out on the street, and the Doc couldn’t practice medicine again thanks to his busted arm. You’ve never seen so many 1’s rolled in such a short space of time!

AAA: Oh man, why’d you have to remind me of THAT game. Wow, not our finest moment. I seriously thought we had the situation handled when we got started… .

Martin and I actually got to know each other across the table of a Shaintar game back in 1999, when I was developing Shards of the Stone with Sean and Jason at Obsidian Studios.

MMK: In that shack of an office just off the beach.

AAA: That’s the one. Martin was playing an over-the-hill ex-general and I was playing a former Cardinal for the Prelacy of Camon in a massive battle against agents of Darkness. I think we had over a dozen people at the table that night, and it fell to the two of us to coordinate the battle from the back ranks.

MMK: Sean just loooooves a big game with some major carnage. Twelve people, and it hung together really well. He’s a master.

AAA: Martin’s character had some serious physical issues, so he wasn’t effective in battle any more, but he had all kinds useful military knowledge and my character was a scholar and diplomat with incredible charisma and no fighting skills at all (Sean couldn’t believe it when he saw my character, and ended up having to write new command and leadership rules to cover the things I wanted to do). We made a great team, and ultimately led our band to victory. It was a great time, and I’m hoping we get a chance to go back to those characters at some point… maybe we’ll get the chance with our new Fantasy Grounds campaign.

MMK: I’d love to dust off General Gunther Olar, if he hasn’t yet died of old age. That was a good game.

What made you decide to offer a unique game that could cross genres, but wasn’t too overly generic?

MMK: Ah, Suzerain. Well I tell you, one of the reasons was that nobody had done it before. There are game systems like GURPS but you nailed it – GURPS is generic. Too sterile for a lot of gamers. We got a bunch of people telling us that they wanted to do something that allowed them to play in any setting, any genre, but to have it feel alive. I first released Suzerain on an unsuspecting world as a limited edition art print book eight years ago. A thousand copies just disappeared overnight and we had none left.

We planned to expand on it, to show people a hundred mesmerizing worlds. We had the financial backing, but it all went horribly wrong (very horribly, in fact) on 9/11. We regrouped and spent years developing it in the background. 2007 was the first time that we had the stars align again, and it was an opportunity nobody wanted to pass by. Suzerain is a huge concept, a universe that has some truly amazing twists and turns coming up. More than anything else, we wanted to develop something we could be passionate about.

And Suzerain is worth being passionate about.

AAA: I’d never been a big fan of multi-genre systems. I played a bunch, but never found one that was truly satisfying. Something always seemed to be lost in the attempt to cover all the bases. Suzerain changed that for me. In a big way. It has an incredibly rich universe with in-game reasons for being multi-genre, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Like Martin says, it feels alive. Keep watching our site for announcements and you’ll see a lot more in the weeks and months to come.

Can you tell us a little bit more about Suzerain and what made you decide to mix pirates with monsters?

MMK: Gladly. Suzerain handles anything you throw at it. It’s the fallout shelter of roleplaying games. Where other systems explode under too much pressure, unable to adjust when you want to take them outside of their tidy little genre box, Suzerain just shrugs and takes it all. Come inside, folks. Your gaming’s safe in here, no matter what off-the-wall ideas you have.

Our view is that imagination doesn’t come in tidy little boxes. Your roleplaying shouldn’t be limited. Suzerain never gets in the way, unlike most games. If you want the characters in a modern game to suddenly go down a sewer and find a society of subterranean lizard wizards… go for it.

We mixed pirates and monsters because we’d been playing that world (Untamed Empires is its name) for a while and wanted to share it. It’s a way for players to see that Suzerain’s genre-mixing works. That, and pirates are cool. And sea monsters are cool. And we can lead straight into our horr… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

AAA: Suzerain is ‘a universe in gaming’. That’s our tagline and Suzerain really lives up to it. It has a big, sprawling story that crosses genres in a massively satisfying way, with layers and layers of depth across assorted media. Games, comics, illustrated fiction, and even music; we’ve got all that and more coming down the line. Each product reveals a bit more of the big picture, and we’re pretty sure that you folks are going to enjoy the ride.

How does Talisman Studios select artists for their projects? How soon do artists get involved in the process for publishing a game?

AAA: Well, to start, we have two leads: Jason for Shaintar and myself for Suzerain. We set the visual identity for each game line, then add new artists to develop them further. With Gamescapes, we open things up a bit, so you’re most likely to see new artists starting off there. Alida Saxon’s excellent work on our Pirate character cards is a great example. Her colored pencil on heavily textured paper is quite a leap from my digital painting but I think it worked really well for the material, so I invited her to work on a set of upcoming Suzerain cards.

We also encourage our contributors to collaborate and let us know what they’re passionate about, and then try to develop products around those passions. Alida and Michelle Klein are currently working on another set of Gamescapes character cards based around a Dark Carnival (see accompanying illustration), a project they came up with and pitched to me. It’s a fluid process to be sure, but I think it really works because our contributors are working on projects that really interest them and it shows in their work.

MMK: Exactly. We don’t see our projects as being a simple linear process. Art isn’t a sausage factory, not the words, not the illustration. We’re looking to bring people together who all love the project they’re doing and will give it the passion that sets it out from the crowd. That shines through in all our books and gaming accessories.

Of course, it means having illustrators and writers, an editor and designer all thinking about the project at the same time. You get some exceptional ideas that way. And with every month we’re doing more and more of that. Give it another few months and all of our projects will be team developed from the initial concept to the moment a customer buys that first copy.

What made you decide to offer gaming aids in addition to RPGs? Is the design process different?

AAA: Well, I’ve always been a fan of visual aids (go figure) and don’t think there are enough out there. Our players (for both in-house and convention games) have always responded extremely well to visual aids, so we thought it was a logical step to offer them as a product line.

MMK: The two work really well together for Talisman Studios. We have a great pedigree with people who’ve done many years of this kind of thing, both RPG books and accessories. When you have such a high-octane creative atmosphere it’s easy to bring the two sides together. Scenario books spark ideas for map tiles and character card sets inspire entire adventure arcs.

AAA: It also mixes the work up, so people can stay fresh by working on a Gamescapes set and then a Suzerain book, for instance. The two might be linked, but it’s a different type of thing.

MMK: I don’t want us to come across as arrogant but we’re pretty sure we have the best looking gaming accessories being made. We’re really proud of them, and they inspire our own people with some of the best ideas.

Okay, example time.

We were doing The Great Below, our Suzerain book about sea monsters and submersibles in a ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ type of environment. Jason had just done this amazing set of pirate ship map tiles. Stunning. Just a great set of tiles for any gaming table. We were all fired up. And the text for The Great Below was being put together at that time. We talked – Zach (the writer), Aaron (as illustrator and designer), and me. The story morphed as we talked and finally it turned out that the ship made it into the adventure. If you play the adventure and find that your characters start with a free ship, thank Jason. We loved the idea that players could use the ship tiles to run part of their adventure.

But that was only the start of it. The conversation kept evolving as the text took shape. What if there were twin ships, and one was sunken? Sunken ships are just the best location. Hey, what if we had a sea monster right there, living in the ship? Which is where Aaron took up the challenge and put together the sunken ship map tiles in two days flat. Astonishing.

Including the sea monster.

And then Zach saw the sunken ship and his mind went off the scale. What if the creature was a pet, and its owner had died in the battle that sank the ship? And was still there, as a ghost? We’d talked about featuring the spirit world and shamanism as a major theme of the book, but that was the icing on the cake.

The nautilus and sub-sea base came later, complete with mad scientist.

That’s pretty much how it works. Game accessories are actually a vital part of our creative process.

What are your favorite horror or dark fantasy RPGs?

MMK: Call Of Cthulhu will always have a place in my heart as the first horror RPG I ever played, about twenty years ago. Having sanity as a stat… genius decision.

AAA: I’m a Cthulhu fan too and I worked extensively on Fantasy Flight’s CCG.

MMK: But the first edition Vampire was pretty darn scary if you played it the way it originally started. I remember someone sitting me down at a gaming table in Sydney, Australia while I was living there in ’92 and he ran this game. He wouldn’t even tell us its name. And we only found out we’d been turned into vampires in the middle of the first session.

But it scared the heck out of all of us, even on a hot, blaringly bright Australian summer’s afternoon. To be the evil that stalks men – that’s horror. And you know you’ve been scared when you need to go outside into the sun to get rid of the cold creepy demon who’s crawling up and down your spine.

AAA: My favorite has to be Deadlands. I was a fanboy from the moment I saw Brom’s undead gunslinger and it was a dream come true to help develop Deadlands Reloaded with the guys at Pinnacle. Hey, the book got us an Origins Award, so the rest of the industry obviously thought it was pretty good too.

Do you have anything dark and lurking in your upcoming releases?

MMK: Just so happens that I’m doing the final edit on The Best Little Hellhouse In Texas, which is a mean and creepy take on the Wild West set in another corner of Suzerain’s Untamed Empires. That means you can face off against sea monsters and ships crewed by drowned men, then change scene to be in the parched desert of mutated skittering beasties and damned prospectors. It’s called Hellhouse for a reason, and we’re recommending it for mature audiences.

The book’s lurking in the dark at the moment, but it’s about to pounce on an unsuspecting public (before the end of February – keep checking our site for a release notice).

Know what I said about Suzerain having the flexibility to take your characters to different settings without collapsing? Well, Hellhouse and The Great Below are examples of just that. Sea monster piracy to horror western without breaking a sweat. Yes, it’s good clean game design, but it’s also the contents of all manner of mad genius minds bubbling away in their laboratories, coming up with these ideas. That’s the Talisman difference.

AAA: And don’t forget we’ve also got a bit of dark fantasy in the pipeline with Relic, another branch of the Suzerain universe. One of our first two adventures is set in the corrupt prison city of Isirion, which sits on top of a giant desert mesa and has a huge dungeon below it. Think of a fantasy Gangs of New York crossed with Gladiator and add The Thing working its way up through the prison dungeons. That’s what we’re doing there.

MMK: Oh yeah… that’s going to be great. I’m so proud to be the Publisher at Talisman Studios. Did I tell you how much I love my job?

Okay Aaron, time to go before they release the wimp vampire chick to kick our butts again.

Visit for more information on Shaintar, Suzerain and other upcoming projects.

Stop by the Flames Rising eBook Shop to download all of the great Talisman Studios products.

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