More than you ever wanted to know about AFR
My name is Erik Jensen. I have been a gaming and fantasy geek for as long as I can remember. When I was young I delved into Tolkien, Lewis, Baum, and other old greats of fantasy literature. I stumbled across reruns of old Star Trek on the TV when I was in second grade and got hooked for life.
A friend got a copy of a Dungeons and Dragons computer game when we were in grade school and we played it over and over again. In high school we moved on to the pen-and-paper version with a group of other friends, and I was soon DM-ing adventures through my own invented world (later converted to GURPS). While getting my PhD, I played D&D with a group consisting of myself (an ancient history major), three medieval history majors, a medieval literature expert, an Anglo-Saxonist, and a couple of Jesuit priests. (There is no experience that compares with getting to make a new house rule about polearm attacks because you presented the DM with a citation to the journal article which demonstrates that, yes, glaives were in fact used that way in 15th-century Switzerland.) Nowadays I still GM a campaign for some of those assorted friends, set in another of my own invented worlds.
I have long enjoyed writing, both serious and silly things. I’ve rarely done anything with my writings; I just write for my own enjoyment. One story was published several years ago in translation.
I have the good fortune to be married to a fellow geek and gamer (and the translator of my one published story). We WoW together, and it is much nicer with two.
In my day job, I’m a professor of ancient Mediterranean history (i.e. Greeks and Romans, plus a sideline in barbarians). It’s pretty much the best job I can imagine. I spend my days reading about things that fascinate me and then talking about them with people. And the amazing thing is that someone pays me to do that stuff.
About me and WoW
I was introduced to World of Warcraft by my good friend (the one I used to play computer D&D with all those years ago) during the vanilla age. After messing around on his account a little bit, I started playing on my own shortly before the Burning Crusade came out. My first character was a human holy priest, who is still my secondary main (my night elf bear druid has taken over as my real main character).
I had never played an MMORPG before, and I haven’t played any others. It was a very new and different experience for me. At first the world of WoW was disorienting. I am a quiet, introverted person who doesn’t enjoy talking with strangers (except when I’m teaching), and though I had played plenty of RPGs in my day and was very familiar with the idea of quests and class abilities and boldly venturing forth into the world to kill things and take their stuff, I was quite unprepared for a world in which it is normal to see someone dancing naked on top of a mailbox shouting “WARRORZ R EZMODE LOLL!!!!1” It took some adjusting, and I still don’t feel entirely comfortable with the MM-ness of the MMORPG. The first thing I do upon entering a city on a new character is leave trade chat, and only a few of my characters are in public guilds (my wife and I have a couple of private guilds that most of our toons hang out in).
I am most definitely an altaholic; I have 16 characters across two realms, and I’ve started and deleted several that weren’t working out for me. I have at least one of every class except death knight. (I’ve played around with a death knight and I like the way it works mechanically, but the style and lore of the death knight creep me out too much.) I love starting new characters and have been known to spend a few days playing a fresh character, just to delete it after it gets to level 20 because I’ve lost interest.
For the first few years of my WoW life I only played Alliance and I continue to think of myself as an Alliance player, although my characters are now about evenly split between Alliance and Horde. I don’t PvP. Well, I PvP when it is required for an achievement, but that’s it. I hate PvP and playing it leaves me feeling emotionally shredded. (Whoever designed School of Hard Knocks should not have a job in game design.) The faction conflict embedded in the game has never interested me and I have no patience with the meanness it seems to inspire in some sectors of the player base.
I enjoy most other aspects of the game, especially questing, crafting, exploration, and transmogging. I did a little raiding in Burning Crusade and became a very active raider in Wrath. Towards the end of Wrath I got really burned out on raiding and did very little of it in Cataclysm. I haven’t done any since then and don’t really intend to. Cataclysm dungeons also turned me off of random dungeoning, but Pandaria helped me get back into that a little bit. I’ve been taking everything pretty slowly since Cataclysm.
I don’t really role-play in a proper sense, but I do like to work out some backstory and personality traits for my characters and I sometimes enjoy playing around with emotes. My blood elf mage likes to curtsey at questgivers, for instance. I have been known to just refuse to do some quests because they are too abhorrent to the nature of the characters I’m playing (other characters may have no problem with them).
I have been playing WoW pretty much continuously since I first picked it up. There have been more and less intense periods, but it has been a part of my life now for many years. My wife and I play together and I have other friends I enjoy playing with– some that I know in the real world, some that I met in WoW and have come to know offline, some who I know only through WoW. The way I play and the experiences I look for in the game have changed over time. I would never have called myself hardcore, but I have gotten much more casual in my WoW-playing in the past few years.
The origins of AFR
I started making AFR comics in the early Burning Crusade days, when I was still relatively new to the game. I’m not sure where the impulse came from. I’d seen a few WoW-related comics (there weren’t many in those days, but there were some one-offs kicking around the web and a few series going), but I’d never made a comic before or done anything of the kind.
I still remember the first idea I had. It was about why mobs in Deadmines drop so much linen and wool cloth: because Mr. Smite is secretly a doily-loving Martha Stewart fan! The idea made me laugh and it stayed with me. How would I tell the joke? I thought it would make sense to start from the point of view of a couple of characters running Deadmines and talking about all the cloth they were getting, with the reveal of Martha Smite as the punchline. Where did those random adventurers come from and why were they running this dungeon together? The ideas began to turn over in my mind as I thought about who these characters should be and where their story should begin.
I started playing around designing characters and making images. The first characters I came up with were a male human warrior and a female night elf, who would go on to be Gord and Alaxia. (Embarrassing admission: when I first conceived Alaxia, I imagined her as a mage. I didn’t know at the time that night elves can’t be mages. Later I realized the mistake and made her into a druid. Little did I know how accurately I had predicted Cataclysm!) The first comic I made was supposed to be Alaxia and Gord meeting for the first time in the open world, although I didn’t play up that aspect of it. After a few more random ideas, I got around to making the Deadmines comic.
I didn’t do anything with these comics at first except make them and share them with a few friends and guildies. I had a few more ideas and made a few more comics. I figured I had maybe a dozen ideas to shake out of my head and that would be an end to it, but more ideas kept coming. It’s now over 200 and I’m still getting ideas. I’ve always said that when I run out of jokes, I’ll stop making comics, but that hasn’t happened yet.
I came up with the name Away From Reality because I thought the comics needed a name of some kind. I’m not especially pleased with it. It’s a cheap joke on a minor element of game mechanics and has no real connection to the comic. If I were starting again, I’d come up with a better name, but that’s the name on the comics and it’s too late to change it now.
I signed up for a free LiveJournal site so that I could post my new comics as I came up with them for other people to see. (That site is nothing but a fossil now.) I was making new comics at a rate of maybe one or two a month, but not on any kind of schedule. If I went two months without having a good idea, then it was two months between comics. It was a very casual hobby, and so it went on until the summer of 2008. That summer I experienced a computer crash that wiped out a lot of my files. I was able to salvage most of my personal data, but the 3D files that I used for making AFR were almost completely wiped out. (Fortunately, the comics images themselves were saved.)
It took a long time, but by the spring of 2009 I was back in business. I managed to recover a few things and rebuilt others. Some models and textures were gone for good (if you read through the comics from the beginning, you’ll notice some of the changes). I made some other changes around that time as well. Having to essentially start from scratch meant I had to decide just how serious I was about AFR, and I decided that I wanted to commit to making it a regular comic. I upgraded my 3D software, bought some better models to work with, and switched the site to WordPress (still free, but with better tools and support than LiveJournal). I committed to making a new comic every week, and I’m happy to say that even though it’s been tough sometimes, it’s a commitment that I’ve been able to keep so far.
How AFR is made
I have no artistic skill. Really, none. My stick people don’t even look like stick people. So, I have these comic ideas that I want to create in visual form, but no ability to do so myself. Instead, I use several programs to make the graphics for my comics.
The main program I use is Poser. I do all the character, costume, and prop work in Poser, as well as some of the backgrounds. I also use Bryce for exterior backgrounds. I use GIMP, an open-source image manipulation program for assembling the comic panels and doing touch-up and special effects like fire and magic. Finally, I do the text in Paint. (Serious computer artists are welcome to laugh at me here; I don’t consider myself one of those, either.)
I would love to see someone with actual artistic talent someday render some of my characters or comics, but for myself, this is all I can do.
Inspiration mostly comes to me while I’m playing, although I get a fair number of ideas from reading WoW-related sites like WoW Insider and listening to the WoW Insider podcast, which is my favorite exercise listening. The fastest I have ever gone from concept to finished comic is about an hour; that can happen when I’m ready to go and don’t need to make any special new sets, models, or props. Most comics take two to three hours of work.
Once I get an idea, it tends to simmer on the back burner of my brain for a few weeks until I like the way the joke works. Sometimes I will sketch a mock-up comic, especially if I need to work out the arrangement of comic panels (like this one). The next step is to fire up Poser and start making panels. I have all my regular characters, plus a number of stock “extras” prepped that can be differentiated by changing out hair or props or costume textures. If I require a specific prop or costume to make a joke work, I try to create it out of the resources I have, but sometimes I just have to go find a new model. (There’s no way to make a joke about sheeping people without a sheep model, for instance.)
From there it is a rather straightforward process of assembling the individual panels, touching-up artifacts of the render, and adding text.
The world of AFR
Some elements of AFR I decided on purposefully; others emerged through the process of creation. These are some of the principles I follow in making my comics:
The golden rule is the Rule of Funny. If it’s funny, I’ll do it. All other rules can be bent or broken for the sake of a good enough joke.
AFR is about World of Warcraft. That is its point of reference and the source of its jokes. Occasionally I reference other pieces of nerdenalia in my jokes, but AFR’s feet are firmly on the soil of Azeroth. (Well, except when they’re on Outland, but you know what I mean.) I’m not here to tell my own story or reimagine the world of Azeroth as something new, I’m here to tell you jokes about a world you know well.
The characters in my comic are characters in a game who know that they are characters in a game. They inhabit Azeroth as their world while at the same time seeing past the fourth wall to know about the mechanics of the game. Often the contradiction is a source of comedy. Presumably there are players in the real world playing these characters, but I rarely refer to or even think about them, and then only in the service of a particular joke (like when Thizzible’s mother started playing WoW.
The comic allows me to vent some of my grievances against Blizzard or against my fellow players, but I try to be fair about it. I strive to be more silly than mean and I hope to laugh with more than laugh at. Of course, everyone’s idea of where the line between good-natured ribbing and hurtful mockery lies is different, and it’s hard to know when I’m stepping over that line. Still, I try.
Every comic should stand on its own. There are running gags and series of comics that follow a particular storyline, but anyone coming to the comic fresh should be able to get the joke without having to page back through the latest comics or read up on the characters. This one is also hard to do, since a lot of the humor these days comes from the characters themselves and I can never be sure whether the personalities of the characters are really coming across as I intend. Again, I try.
The characters of AFR
The cast of characters in AFR has grown little by little from the initial pair of Alaxia and Gord, still the main characters of the comic, to include a regular stable of core characters and a set of recurring extras.
The characters in my comic are not elite or cutting edge. They don’t wear the latest tier of raid gear, they have to level up between expansions, and they suffer defeats and setbacks. They are ordinary people in an extraordinary world.
I have deliberately made a lot of female characters, both regular and occasional. There is a persistent stereotype in popular culture that women don’t play this kind of game, but that is emphatically not true. The population of female WoW-ers is huge and I want them to be reflected in my comic.
As much as anyone is, Gord is the main character of AFR. He is the group’s go-to tank, a protection warrior. I created Gord because I thought a tanking warrior made the ideal comic hero in the world of WoW: his job is to get punched in the face over and over again. He’s the perfect everyman. That idea has guided Gord’s character from the beginning: he means well and tries to do his best, but the world is determined to kick him in the teeth. Put another way, Gord is the Donald Duck of AFR.
It was odd at first when I started writing comics with Gord because at the time I didn’t have a warrior. In fact, I was several years into making AFR before I had a warrior alt. Nowadays I have two, one of them a tank.
The second main character of AFR. Alaxia hangs out with and quests with Gord a lot and they seem to enjoy each other’s company. I never got around to deciding what spec of druid Alaxia is, but since we rarely see her shapeshift, I guess she must be Restoration.
I originally wrote Alaxia as being “the smart one,” but that characterization didn’t stick. She’s still smart, of course, it just isn’t a defining feature of her character. Instead, she’s become “the nice one,” especially when paired against Morgatha. It makes for a better contrast with Gord: Gord knows that the world is out to get him, but he doesn’t let it get him down; Alaxia expects everything to work out fine and gets distressed when it doesn’t.
Alaxia’s costume has seen some of the biggest changes over time, as her original outfit uses some of the textures that I never recovered after my computer crash. (See it in all its glory here) I recreated something that used similar colors, but it’s not the same. Her original costume also had an outer robe with long trailing sleeves. It was a beautiful model and looked great on her, but the sleeves were just to cumbersome to pose every time, so in the end it had to go. Taking off the outer robe left her with bare shoulders, which didn’t look right for her (it’s the same model as Morgatha’s dress but with a different texture), so I added some sleeves and collar piece. (The new look)
Morgatha was the third major character to appear, coming in quite early because I needed a warlock in order to tell a particular joke. Her personality was well established by that first comic and has remained essentially the same: snarky, self-confident, impatient with other players’ bad behavior, and not shy about using violence to get what she wants.
Alaxia and Morgatha have developed a nice friendship over the course of the comics. I think Morgatha sees Alaxia as a little sister who needs a bit of shelter from the cruelties of the world. Alaxia is the only person Morgatha doesn’t snipe at when they do something foolish. The pleasure for me in writing the comics has been watching relationships like this emerge over time; I never planned for Morgatha and Alaxia to be friends, it just happened.
Morgatha is also the most openly sexual of the characters, which means she gets most of the dirty jokes. Sometimes I worry about that becoming too much of Morgatha’s schtick, since there is a lot more to her character. So far, though, I think I’ve managed to strike a balance.
As a healer, Hurgon has it even worse than Gord, if such a thing is possible. Unlike Gord, who gets regularly beat up by the world but lets it roll off his back, Hurgon takes it all personally. As a result, Hurgon is perpetually depressed. Having played a healer from the beginning, I can attest that this is a perfectly natural attitude for a healer to take! Hurgon and Gord, as healer and tank, have a (usually) friendly antagonism that comes through in some comics, although they are united by their annoyance towards the dps.
In addition to his role as the Eeyore of the group, Hurgon is also a little oblivious, probably a side-effect of spending all his time looking at little green bars instead of paying attention to the world around him.
Hurgon has had less to do in the comic lately as I just haven’t had very many good jokes for him, but he still pops up whenever the group needs a healer, or when I need someone to be grumpy and depressed.
Targe is not like the other characters in that he speaks in the mangled cant of WoW chat. His character was always intended to be less self-aware than the others, but he has other qualities to make up for it, most particularly his unfailing enthusiasm. While I didn’t really intend for Targe to represent a child playing WoW, he definitely has child-like qualities. One of these qualities is imagination: Targe can do things that shouldn’t be possible, like taming rocks and speccing as Legolas, because he simply doesn’t know that he can’t.
Thizzible began her AFR career inauspiciously in a one-off joke about how hard it is to really role-play in a game where you have to do quests to advance. I never intended for her to become a regular character (and her questing partner, Bowgrrl, hasn’t been seen again). When I wanted to do another joke about role-playing, though, I thought it made sense to bring her back. Once I struck on the idea that she role-plays as Jewish, I fell in love with the character and she became part of the cast. (The Jewish gnome idea actually came from a running gag in one of our old D&D campaigns.)
Like Alaxia, Thizzible’s look has changed a lot through the comic, partly because of lost files and partly because I wasn’t happy with her original look. Compare her first appearance and her current get-up.
Other characters show up when they’re needed for a particular joke, but none of them have made it as regulars, so their characters are much less well-defined than the core six.
The future of AFR
I’ll keep making comics as long as I have ideas that I think are funny. Whenever I get tired of playing WoW or run out of material, and I’m sure someday I will, AFR will come to a hopefully graceful end, but it’s been many years so far and that hasn’t happened yet.
In a couple of hundred strips, the comic has developed from what it started out as, but I’m proud to say that so far it has stayed true to its roots as a silly, one-joke-at-a-time comic. I have no intention of turning serious or starting on anything that could really be called continuity. For the foreseeable future, you can expect to click over to AFR once a week for a new joke about WoW.