Thursday, January 23, 2020

In Memoriam: B.J. "BigFella" Johnson

Sadly, one of my best gaming buddies, B.J. Johnson (who identified online as "BigFella"), passed away suddenly and by surprise last weekend, at a fairly young age.

B.J. was at least a triple threat: an incredible artist, game designer, and miniature-modeller. We met around 1998 or so when we were both hired at Genetic Anomalies, Inc. (later a unit of THQ), along with Paul Siegel and others (see Paul's memory here, including the most perfect photo of BJ imaginable). None of us knew each other before that, but we've been lifelong friends ever since. In particular, we all started a regular D&D game that lasted for most of a decade, and allowed us to get to know each other much better outside work.

We've been living in separate states for a while, but we've always been in close contact and saw each other at least once a year at our regular house-con in the spring. Every year BJ would show up with jaw-droppingly elaborate game setups; entirely customized rules, handouts, play maps, 3D structures, customized miniatures for every PC and monster, lore and backstories... just on and on and on in unbelievable depth and detail. I've never seen anything like it, so consistently and in great variety, at any other game or convention I've ever been to. After every game he'd usually spend an hour or two pulling out extra boxes of miniatures and illustrations we didn't get to, telling every one's backstory.




His personal website, collecting samples of artwork, was at BigFella.com. His gaming blog, which he'd kept for the last decade, is on Blogspot: Saturday Night Sandbox. If you browse through those you can see him sharing many of his creations, miniature-making, and so forth. Also in recent years (partly at Paul's urging, which was as usual master-level advice that we all benefited from), he started pulling his multifacted creations into publications which he released on his storefront at DriveThruRPG: Big Fella Games. There you can see his abiding love for Mutant, Western, Arabian, and Halloween-themed stuff (all of which had been playtested for some years by those of us in his annual games).




Last July, one of the pinnacle joys in our Wandering DMs marathon livestream game was the fact that B.J. was watching and posting laugh-out-loud commentary all weekend long in the live chat. (Anytime everyone at the table spontaneously starts laughing it's because of something BJ said online.) In our last show last season, we riffed for a bit on how perfect it would be to have a livestream game where B.J. acted as a color commentary man. In the show from one week ago on self-publishing, at one point I waxed rhapsodical about how the single best thing in game development was to write a new piece of content and hand it off to an artist, who would give it back with some mind-blowing unexpected take on the subject... well, that story was really 100% me thinking about working with B.J. at Genetic Anomalies on the Chron X game (a feat which he pulled off dozens and dozens of times).




Adding to the list of tragedies is that for the past year or so he'd been writing a sci-fi game based on my OED rules for D&D, and had been regularly sending me chapters one after the other for proofreading, as well as artwork pieces, fancy maps, etc. New races, classes, aliens, robots, coding-music-magic system, equipment, spaceships, new worlds, galactic backstory, etc., etc., etc. The whole thing was just incredible and the culmination of about a decade of games he'd been running. It just seems unbelievable that he didn't get to have people see this finished.




I've always looked at BJ's design and world/adventure-building skills with a mixture of awe and jealousy. I figured if I could have even one-quarter of the productivity he did I'd be happy with myself. So, I'm pretty broken up about his passing at the moment.

Being distant it's hard to make this all concrete. As I try to reach out to people I keep thinking that there might be some mistake or miscommunication, that he'll pop up and send a "Hey, wait" email, and then I'll have to apologize to everyone immediately after. Having a project we were halfway through together is making it extra hard. I still have multiple pending messages from him and readings that I had to get back to him on, so every time I open my email right now it feels like I'm still mid-conversation with him.

So I guess I just had to share his embarrassment of creative riches with folks at least one more time. BJ had one of the biggest and most generous hearts of anyone I ever knew. We played off each other incredibly well, in a virtuous cycle, even if sometimes we might get prickly or impatient or hard-to-understand with other people in our lives. He was the epitome of someone being loving and faithful and self-sacrificing to friends and family. A lot of his improvised jokes and one-liners became part of my standard vocabulary. My longest-running PCs were in his games. He was most often voted team leader/caller in the large-player games I'd run, because everyone trusted him to be fair and equitable and supportive. He made the cover artwork to my DM screen. One time the two of us mercilessly massacred another 7-person team at a game of Pictionary. We traded off reading each other's toy-based 80's comic books. I sent him a select batch of my old Dragon magazines to fill out his collection last summer (he had to have all the Wormy comics). He gifted me with his classic ROM action figure after I said my parents had accidentally thrown mine out years ago.

I guess I could go on and on with lots of stories in that vein. Immensely hard to believe all those plot threads got snipped in the last week. If you go check out his work, I hope you'll get a fraction of the brightness that he put into my life.

11 comments:

  1. I don't knowed his work until now.
    Thank you for share.
    I'm gonna pray for him.

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  2. He sounds like a stand-up guy and a great friend. My condolences for your loss.

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  3. So sorry for your loss. As we get older and friends fall by the wayside, you come to realize that you never really lose them as long as you have memories like these. This is a wonderful tribute to an obviously wonderful person.

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  4. Very sorry to hear of his passing. I realized as I read your kind eulogy that I'd read Thousand Year Sandglass a few months ago, and really liked it. You have my condolences on your loss.

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  5. I'm sorry for your loss; sincere condolences to his family and friends. He sounds like a great guy.

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  6. Thanks to everyone who expressed regards -- it's really helpful and definitely appreciated.

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  7. My heartfelt condolences. I know it's little comfort at this time, but as long as you remember the light he brought into your life, he isn't truly lost.

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  8. Always difficult to lose a good friend; said a prayer for him and his family today at Mass. I never knew B.J. but I heard you and Paul mention him often enough in your Wandering DM chats. He sounds like a very special guy.

    Cherish his memory; celebrate his life. Best wishes.

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  9. What a great friend and a creative powerhouse! I am very sorry to hear of your loss.

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