It’s not every day that we get to enjoy seeing tabletop RPG legend Tom Fonss chime in on CRIT JUICE and all things geek, so let’s do this, with relish.
Q: CRIT JUICE is a blast. How did it all begin?
TF: Thanks, man! Gary Soldati, or “Handsome Gary” as I hope the entire world knows him, sent out a Facebook message gauging people’s interest in a D&D campaign he was going to DM. We were the ones who heeded the call and assembled in his tiny, musty, comic book-cluttered basement on the East Side. We had a stupid amount of fun role-playing together; the chemistry of the group was obvious from the first game; from there, it snowballed. David Crennan was brought in to DM. We started a brand-new campaign, with new characters, all under the umbrella of the Crit Juice podcast. Crit Juice, by the way, in case you’re interested or understandably befuddled by the name, comes from our nickname for whiskey & Coke Zero, our poison-of-choice at the gaming table. Brian McGrath brought in the beer sponsors like a boss. Matt Bucholtz produced and edited the podcast, created our website, manned our Twitter account and, all-around, ring-led the circus. Matt Cook, myself and Daniel Acker started hosting the games and helping out in varied ways beyond speaking in silly voices and scarfing down Lay’s Kettle-Cooked Jalapeno Chips and, before we knew it, Crit Juice was born.
Q: How many of you are still active in the CRIT JUICE podcast, from when it first began?
TF: Everyone but myself actually. I’ve been on hiatus for a little while now to focus on some other projects, mainly writing. But Crit Juice recently gained a player of sorts since we first began: Greg Binder, who, if you’ve watched any of the livestreams on twitch.tv/critjuice, you probably know him, erroneously and hilariously, as “Matt’s Landlord.” He’s become quite an asset to the team.
Q: What can you tell our readers about your character Gub, without giving too much away?
TF: Ha. Nothing! This is top-secret stuff we’re talkin’ here, people… Uh, no. He’s a dragonborn, fighter-slayer class. Intimidation is a large facet of his personality being that he was once a thug and hitman for the yakuza of Blazestone (think 1970’s Vegas meets the Mos Eisley cantina meets a volcanic hell-hole). In the early episodes we learn that something went down between Gub and the yakuza boss, Azmar the Ashmaker, and now Gub’s on the run. We also learn pretty quickly that he’s a complete jackass. Gub’s like the love-child of Batman and Randy ‘The Macho Man’ Savage, if that love
child was dragonborn, and at some point dropped on his head… and at some point developed a drinking problem.
Q: Share a favorite CRIT JUICE story with us?
TF: One of my fondest memories from our 4e campaign is when David Crennan introduced my character’s love interest. I’d spent months creating Gub’s backstory and the on-again-off-again romance between Gub and Dovana, a fellow Dragonborn assassin, was a significant part of his history. On the page, their relationship read as gritty and noir, like something out of Frank Miller’s Sin City. In real life, however, with two grown-ass nerds gazing longingly- nay, lustfully at each other across a dinky card table, it came off hilariously Telenovela-y. And although I never imagined it that way, I’m tickled it did. If you’re into tabletop RPGs and you’re lucky enough to have a GM half as talented as David Crennan, you’ve probably had this sort of moment. That moment when that character you created in your head takes form at the table in a utterly surprising way. The character you wrote
pages and pages about starts talking to you and there’s no time to sit there with your mouth agape because they’re there; they’re waiting for your reply. D&D and most tabletop RPGs allow players to partake in a shared plane of imagination like that. It’s really special.
Q: Which other tabletop RPGs besides D&D have you had the chance to enjoy?
TF: Unfortunately not many. I played Pathfinder briefly and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire on the Never Tell Me the Odds Podcast GMed by Mr. Crennan.
Q: David Crennan is a joy to listen to on the CRIT JUICE podcast. What is it that you enjoy most about his particular DMing style?
TF: Okay, I emailed David something like 18 pages regarding Gub’s backstory and the city of Blazestone. He was not dismayed in the least. Totally the contrary, he was inspired by the opportunity to bring it all to life and, man, did he ever. A lesser DM would’ve probably said: “Dude, I’ve got my own material I want to play around with here. So, like, I don’t know, pick your five favorite things from this short novel you sent me. M’kay?” He’s a collaborator but beyond that, just singularly, he’s a damn fine storyteller. If you’ve listened to the Crit Juice podcasts (and you should), you know this. His descriptions are theater of the mind at its best. He builds characters, sets moods, creates worlds with ease and expertise and relish, and bear in mind a lot of this is happening on the fly… He’s also a certified saint for dealing with an adventuring party filled with wise-cracking, half-in-the-bag, folks such as ourselves.
Q: David Crennan deserves a medal or something. Share a wild David Crennan story with us?
TF: There aren’t too many. Poor guy’s always having to play warden when things get nutty.
Q: What’s your wildest idea for the ultimate mash-up of two completely different genres, for a tabletop RPG?
TF: Oh man… I’m sure some incarnation of this already exists, but I’d love to play an RPG that’s a mashup of horror, sci-fi and comedy that takes place on the set of a 1960’s B-movie. The players could portray archetypes like the Ed Wood-esque director or the vacuous, primadonna leading lady or man and a slew of other characters. As the production gets going in-game, the supernatural elements in the script (i.e. Attack of the Atomic Space Pandas or whatever) start to bleed into the in-game reality and the players have to deal with it Galaxy Quest-style. I mean, that or a Big Trouble in Little China RPG would be just fine by me.
Q: Which book have you recently finished reading? Which book are you currently reading? Which book are you looking forward to reading later this summer?
TF: I just finished Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and the graphic novel Black Hole by Charles Burns. Both were awesome. I’ve been a huge King fan since I was… well, since I was way too young to be reading nightmare fuel like King. I had somehow skipped Salem’s Lot so I was happy to fix that. Black Hole was not at all what I expected but I liked what I got a whole lot more. The artwork alone was worth the purchase. I’m doing this weird thing this summer where I’m thematically choosing the books I read to sort of match up with where I’m going and what I’m doing. I just got back from visiting my girlfriend’s small-town on the east coast, hence the small-town-centric Salem’s Lot and Black Hole. I’m taking a camping trip up north and plan to read Thoreau’s Walden & On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Later, I’m going to the Gulf of Mexico, so The Ruins by Scott Smith and The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway are on the docket. Currently, I’m re-reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and struggling to finish Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death which I’ve been enjoying but trudging through nonetheless for the past few months. After that, I’m really excited to read Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves which, honestly, I think has been hyped up for me more than any novel in existence. I’m nervous it got too hyped, but I’m excited to find out one way or the other… and to hopefully get really, really scared.
Q: A camping trip up north? Where to?
TF: Yosemite! I’ve never been. Which is ridiculous because I was born and raised in California.
Q: Yosemite sure is gorgeous this time of year. So are the small towns along America’s eastern coast, come to think of it. What were your thoughts on the SALEM’S LOT novel, after having read it?
TF: I loved it. I had seen the ’79 TV mini-series a bunch of times, the one directed by Tobe Hooper. Agh! And James Mason! He was so good as Straker… The book however is much more of a social commentary on small towns and the banal horror that occurs. A lot of the moments that make you tense up don’t come from the blood-suckers but from the underbelly of small town life. However, the Marsten House was much eerier in the novel and the viral quality of vampires was far more terrifying and explored in the book.
Q: What are your five favorite science fiction moments/memories?
TF: Whoaaa. Too many to fit on a list of five, but here it goes (in no particular order):
#5. The ending to Stephen King’s short story The Jaunt. It’s the scariest ending to anything I’ve ever read.
#4. The second time I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first time was on the last day of 7th grade “Computer Typing Class.” They wheeled in a 17″ clunker, straight from the 1980’s, and I fell asleep twenty minutes in. The second time was on a big screen in me and my girlfriend’s garage-theater and it was glorious.
#3. Watching The Empire Strikes Back on VHS when I was a kid. I’d watch it over and over again and, to this day, I still find the film magical.
#2 Playing the Bioshock and Portal games for obvious reasons. If the reasons aren’t obvious to you, go! Go play them now, you fool!
#1 Watching nearly any Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. The Movie was hilarious and the Space Mutiny episode is probably the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. MST3K is, without a doubt, my favorite TV show of all-time.
Q: Favorite MST3K episode?
TF: Okay, well, Space Mutiny is without a doubt the best MST3K episode. I will happily argue that with anyone who says differently. However there are so many others that are only a fraction of a percent less hilarious: Werewolf, The Screaming Skull, The Girl in the Gold Boots, The Touch of Satan, Time Chasers, Hobgoblins, Prince of Space, The Final Sacrifice, Hamlet, The Deadly Bees, Eegah, Manos: The Hands of Fate… honestly I could talk about MST3K all day, so I’ll shut up before it gets obnoxious.
Q: What’s on television these days that really floats your boat?
TF: Stranger Things. Okay, let’s see, um… Strrrrrrranger Things. And uhhhh… Oh yeah, that fantastic, phenomenal show called Stranger Things. I mean… It’s everything I enjoy wrapped up in one show; it’s like… a delicious TV burrito stuffed with Stephen King and John Carpenter and Spielberg-ian flavors and I’m ready for seconds, man. Honestly, I like it so much it hurts. The Duffer Brothers are so smart to bring this type of storytelling to television. There was a glaring gap and, by god, they filled it. It’s about time too. In general though, these days, too much floats my boat but, somehow, not enough! I’m obviously deep in Game of Thrones withdrawal right now, real bad, real ugly. I watch a ton of Dateline NBC and true-crime shows. Keith Morrison is the best. Maya & Marty is fantastic! Grace and Frankie is probably my favorite comedy right now and the show’s pretty damn poignant too. Last Man on Earth, Black Mirror, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Knick (please come back to me), The Affair, Idiotsitter, The Fall, VICE, Penny Dreadful, American Ninja Warrior, Shark Tank… I… I watch too much TV is, basically, what I’m trying to tell you here, Tim. Ooo! And I’m ecstatic to start watching the one and only Matt Cook on Man with a Plan, with Matt LeBlanc. It’ll be on CBS. I got to see the taping of the pilot and it’s hilarious. Cook’s so friggin’ great in it.
Q: There’s no such thing as too much tv, Tom! What would you like to see happen in STRANGER THINGS S02?
TF: SPOILERS Y’ALL: An exploration of Nancy and Jonathan’s friendship or if it turns into something more. It reminded me a little bit of Leigh and Dennis from King’s Christine and I loved that. Will’s new dilemma. Eleven and Mike’s relationship. Plenty of Dustin saying and doing Goonie’s-esque things. Chief Hopper and the deal that was struck… I keep resisting the urge to say ‘go darker’ and ‘more geared towards the horror’ but I loved how the first season was balanced. I definitely don’t want too much explained though. I want to learn more about these characters and the circumstances they’re in, but I feel like explaining away the fear is an achilles heel of the genre. Once you put all of the eerie happenings under a fluorescent light, the horror sort of melts away.
Q: When do we finally get to see a CRIT JUICE television show?
TF: Oh dear lord, how I’d love that. A couple of years back, Daniel Acker and I wrote a Crit Juice pilot. It was more of a fictionalized version of our group’s dynamic at (and away from) the gaming table. We got as far as the pitching phase but, like most shows, it unfortunately didn’t move forward. However, I’d love to go back to the drawing board and tackle it from a different angle. I think the key would be to figure out how to weave the in-game characters and storylines with the out-of-game shenanigans. It would be an interesting nut to crack.
Q: Five dinner guests. Which five living writers would you invite to a dinner party?
TF: #1. Stephen King #2. Steve Martin #3. J.K. Rowling #4. Brian K. Vaughn #5. Bob Dylan
Q: Steve Martin, interesting. What would the two of you talk about?
TF: Oh god, I know this is a hypothetical but, even still, it probably wouldn’t last very long. The fanboy in me would crawl out and annoy him with a million different questions he’s probably so bored of answering. I’d want to talk to him about his early appearances on SNL, what it was like in those days. I’d ask him about the changes he’s seen over the decades in comedy, and storytelling in Hollywood, along with the changes in the physical town itself and the culture. I’d ask him his thoughts on screenwriting and writing in general. I’d gush about L.A. STORY, one of his lesser known films but, in my opinion, one that sticks with you. I’d say “Three Amigos! GO!” and he would eventually understand that to mean “Steve Martin, please tell me everything you remember about your experience on that amazing film.” And if he didn’t already ask for the check during the appetizers, I’d ask him about John Candy and what it was like working and knowing such a lovable, talented human being.
Q: What hasn’t really happened yet, in the tabletop RPG world, that you would love to see happen next?
TF: Well, I’ll say this: I do like that tabletop RPGs are still fairly niche. But there is also part of me, as nerd culture grows and becomes more and more an indistinguishable part of pop culture, that wishes tabletop RPGs got the same or, more realistically, a third of the amount of love and attention that, say, video games get. I friggin’ love video games, don’t get me wrong. But there are experiences that arise from tabletop RPGs, truly unique ones, that video games can’t offer a gamer. There’s a social element to them too that you don’t get and, no, being called an ‘idiot’ over XBOX Live is not really the same thing. Honest-to-god friendships can be forged in the process. Not to mention that tabletop gaming can be immersive in an entirely different way than most gamers are accustomed to. For every character I created in a D&D campaign, I unintentionally ended up writing a tome’s worth of backstory. Tabletop RPGs hook you and put you in a constructive, creative, imaginative sort of mindset. It’s not just cathartic like a lot of video games; it’s constructive.
Q: When the Tom Fonss biopic gets greenlit by a major motion picture studio, who will portray you, and what will the film be called?
TF: Daniel Radcliffe stars in That Was Super Weird, Right?