Meet Your Makers: V.J. Harris and Adam Hancock

Text reads: Meet Your Makers VJ Harris and Adam Hancock over a stormy ocean
Greetings Variants!
Berry here, with my first installment of a series “Meet your Makers”!  Throughout this series, I will be speaking with content creators and artisans working in the TTRPG Space.  For my first interview I met with the masterminds behind Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons supplement “An Elf and an Orc Had A Little Baby”.  This supplement provides a prospective player with robust rules for determining features based on each parent.  I was honored to have the chance to meet with creators V.J. and Adam, as this digital book was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary 2020. 

Icon of VJ Harris with Horns
V.J. Harris
Icon of Adam Hancock as an elf
Adam Hancock

Berry (she/her): First question is who are you and what do you do?
V.J. (they/he):
My name is Vic Harris, also known as V.J. Harris professionally. I am an administrator for a non profit called Social Movement Technologies and I’m a freelance TTRPG writer.

Adam (he/him): I’m Adam Hancock. I like to think of myself as a gnome because I have a pretty restless mind due to ADHD. Professionally, I’m a freelance writer and editor. And I make tabletop roleplaying games and game supplements.

Berry: How did you two come to work together?

Adam: I think I messaged Vic out of the blue one day.  Is that about right?

V.J.: Yeah honestly. Like I knew who Adam was because he was a big name in the DND/TTRPG sphere and just one day I had a message sitting in my inbox from him asking if I wanted to work together on An Elf and An Orc. I was really surprised and honored to have been asked by him. I like to tell people Adam took a shot on me and it paid off.

Berry: It’s great to hear that people can find each other like that in this space.

Adam: More specifically, Vic had filled out a survey I’d put out months earlier. It was designed to gather names of people who wanted a shot at collaborating on projects on the DMs Guild. I knew that if I wanted to make something that dealt with fantastical races, I couldn’t do it alone. Vic had already published on the Guild before I’d messaged him and he was also a sensitivity reader on race. I thought he would be the perfect partner!

Berry: Excuse the pun but: How did An Elf and An Orc come to be born?

Well Adam is the one that reached out to do the project but I had talked about the issues with race in dnd and like Adam said been a sensitivity reader for race before.

Adam: I had worked as an editor for Ryan Langr’s “Grazillax’s Guide to Ancestry” about a year previous. I really liked that supplement. It was groundbreaking at the time, but since that time I’d been puzzling out how I would reimagine fantasy races in my own game if I were to do it. It was just percolating in the back of my mind. Eventually, I started to think it was really about the specific individual adventurer, not some monolithic race or a line of ancestors. Just the character and their immediate birth parents. When Vic came on board, they immediately knew what to do to make it better. One huge improvement early on was how Vic changed how I was thinking about Ability score increases. I was treating Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution bonuses as inherited traits and Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma bonuses as learned ones. Right away, Vic was like, wouldn’t it be better if it was all learned and moved away from parentage? So much better and things immediately started clicking once we did that. Also, we were so lucky to work with our amazing editor Ashton Duncan! She did an outstanding job!

V.J.: I wanted us to completely move away from bioessentialism and that meant that there were for the most part no Attribute Score Increases associated with race. Now there is an exception for Humans for balancing and lore stuff but overall it isn’t tied to that.

Adam: You were absolutely right. D&D’s way of doing things was too ingrained in me at the time, but you were absolutely right. It’s much better this way. Another big improvement was when Vic encouraged me to include all of the published races in our book. Every last one that was allowed on the Guild, including outliers like the Grung and Locathah. It was a big undertaking, but I’m so glad we committed to it!

Berry: What about the project do you feel makes it stand out among similar projects?

V.J.: It takes customization to a whole new level. I like pretty much all of the other major attempts at fixing race but as far as I know they don’t have the same customization as we do. With E&O you could easily make 30 generations of a family line for your character to determine which traits you might be able to pick from.

Berry: Honestly, as a player, me too! When I describe your work, I get the most questions regarding Warforged.

V.J.: Yeah we’ve gotten a lot of questions about that one too.

Berry: Personally, I love the option! In a world where Wish exists, it’s interesting how many players limit themselves to what has been, instead of thinking about what could be!

V.J.: I’m happy to leave the logistics of how that works to the players and the DMs and just let the option exist to get people out of their box.

Adam: For me, it’s about the immediacy of it. It’s a story of you, your birth parents, your foster parent(s), your upbringing, and all the little choices that make up you. It gets me excited to play a character and have that kind of personalization that makes a character unique. It’s not about a bunch of people the character has never met—society with a capital S. It’s about one person and the people that mattered in molding and shaping that one person. That’s it. (And I think we’ve made it all balanced too!)

Berry: Our whole team (there are 5 of us) read through it that week. The feedback I got from J was “I don’t have any questions about it because it is so clear.”

Adam: Oh, I love hearing that!

V.J.: It always makes me happy to hear that. It was a work out balancing everything.

Berry: How long did it take to create?

V.J.: Three months right?

Berry: Oh wow! That is a lot more quickly than I would have guessed!

Adam: Oh, yeah, we figured this out once. Something like that. I had done a little work before approaching Vic. Just foundation stuff. But once Vic and I started working together, it was just about 3 months.

V.J.: It was pretty quick work in my opinion once we got started. I know I went into the project thinking it would take longer.

Adam: I think we were highly motivated. I remember feeling pretty excited about it. And it was so easy to work with Vic!

Hahaha Adam was also and continues to be a pleasure to work with. I know working with him on this project definitely made me a better creator.

Berry: It is so nice to hear the two of you talk each other up!

Adam: Oh, I remembered one other huge improvement that was all Vic. That appendix that allows you to create your own parentages and upbringings using a points system. That was totally Vic’s idea, and I think he authored it as well.

V.J.: Yeah that was my idea and I did do the writing for it but my design conversations with Adam about the project definitely played a huge part in its creation.

Berry: What are some of your favorite combinations of parentage?

Adam: Hmmm. That is a good question. Orcs and Tieflings are probably my favorite race. So a combination of those two.

I’m a DM by choice, so I haven’t had a chance to make any characters of my own. My favorite one I’ve heard of was a ghostwise halfling – (winter) eladrin pairing. Their class is barbarian. Cute and deadly. That sounds so fun!

Berry: Excellent choices!

V.J.: Oh yeah I remember that character. I think the best thing about this product is people tagging us about their characters!

Berry: What do you want others to take away from your content most?

V.J.: For me it’s two things. One, you don’t have to limit yourself in what you want to be. Nothing is out of the question. Two, dnd races do not have to  play into the issues of racism and bioessentialism to be fun to play. You don’t have to keep doing what’s in the 5e phb there are other options out there.

Adam: I agree with Vic on both counts there. Related to Vic’s first answer, I hope people get larger-than-they’re-used-to dose of agency. Like, the feeling that they can really make the character their own while still having inspiring and exciting options to choose from.

Berry: Can you tell me more about the art featured in the content?

Adam: The cover art was created by Atornii, a Filipina artist who does amazing work. She’s simply @atornii on Twitter.

V.J.: God it’s still one of the best pieces of art I’ve seen on the dmsguild in my opinion. Also the art inside the project was stock art and all Adam. He did all the leg work on that and I just looked at them for inspiration on particular characters.

Adam: Here’s Aroenii’s website! I wanted a scene that really embraced the fact that you can have a loving relationship between any two fantasy people. So Atornii and I talked about Christmas nativity scenes, if you can imagine. Something light and glowing and wholesome, but with a green orc and an elf.

Berry: I love that! I really get the feel from that honestly.

V.J.: I loved the choice of an orc because of how soft the image was and most people don’t see orcs that way for DND.

Berry: That’s a great point!

Adam: One person on Twitter really latched onto the orc woman on our cover, really identified with her. Said she even had the same hairstyle. That was so nice to hear that it meant something to this person.

Berry: You said that you both were published on the DMs Guild prior to this project. Do you have any thoughts or guidance for those interested in creating their own open game license content?

V.J.: My advice would be three things: One, try to do things as cheap as possible when you are first starting out if money is something you have to worry about to any degree. My first project I spent at least $300 on the cover and still haven’t recouped it. Two, make friends and shoot your shot wherever you see it. So what if you’ve never published anything and there’s a call for an amazing project. Your idea could be just what they are looking for. Three, learn how to say no for the sake of your mental health when necessary.

Berry: Oh number 3! The lesson we will all keep on learning!

Adam: For those who are just starting out, I would recommend they make what they love to make or what they would love to have at their table. Making what you think other people want or what will sell best just leads to burnout, in my opinion. And get a support network of other creators, if you can find one. People you trust and you can inspire and motivate mutually. Oh, Vic’s #3 is so important! ‘Guard your yes,’ as the ADHD community on Twitter says.

Berry: Excellent points from both of you! For those who have found you from this project, what else would you like them to know about this, or your other creations?

Adam: Well, Vic and I are working together again, along with Amber Litke. We’re making our own tabletop roleplaying game!

Berry: That is so exciting! What, if anything, can you tell us about it at this point?

V.J.: I can tell you it’s going to be awesome. It’ll simplify 5e for those who want that while still staying true to the game AND stretch goals willing will include some new mechanics. I’m making a more robust system for getting vampirism and lycanthropy so that’ll be fun.

Adam: It’s called Those Who Wander, and we’re Kickstarting it in January. We’re changing the way a character is made and how they progress throughout the campaign.

Berry: I’m interested already! Will it use the d20 system, or even dice at all?

Adam: It’ll feel pretty familiar to those who have played DND 5e, so yes, a d20 game system. But initiative has changed, character creation has changed, classes have been replaced by steps, and we’re writing all new creature lore.

Berry: There is nothing better than lore in my opinion!

V.J.: I’m super excited about creature lore as well. Oh also Adam and I are working together on a Kickstarter project I’m in charge of called The Crimson Gauntlet’s Guide to Disabilities and Neurodiverse Identities. It’s people in those communities writing about our experiences so DMs and players can engage with our identities respectfully and devoid of ableism. It’ll be out on Kickstarter in March. I honestly hope that I can keep working with Adam for years to come.

Adam: Yeah! Vic and I are busy.

Berry: Your friendship is the stuff of TTRPG creator dreams!

Adam: Amber is working on the steps system. The idea is that instead of choosing a class at character creation, you choose between two different features each time your character earns enough XP or the storyteller says it’s time to take another step. And which two features you have available to choose between depends on the step choice you made the last time. I think it’s a novel way to get these really specialized characters without ever overwhelming players with options. It’s always just a choice between two features. We imagine it like a journey with forks in the path all along the way. Left or right?

Berry: I’m excited to see it! To wrap up today, what is a charity/non-profit you would like to spotlight?

V.J.: So I don’t know how many people know this but in the UK the transgender community is currently suffering greatly due to the behavior of feminist identified transphobes/transmysogynist. It has now become nigh impossible for trans youth to receive any treatment they need in regards to puberty blockers. Gendered Intelligence focuses on helping trans youth from age 8 – 25.

Adam: The Rural Utah Project seeks to empower underrepresented voters in rural Utah through training, education, voter registration, and issue advocacy.

Cover of An Elf and an Orc Had A Little Baby

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Find this fantastic supplement here!
Please see Those Who Wander on Kickstarter!

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