Audio Version of the Interview on Anchor here!
You're on the vanishing tower. I'm Jay Murphy of the Vanishing Tower, Vanishing Tower Press, all things Vanishing Tower. You are my second interview. The first one was Matthew Finch.
Oh, yeah, I interviewed him, too. He's a great guy.
Great interview. Just like him. You're way off the main street of the gaming world. I'm in the back alleys of the DIY scene. How did you find me then? Decide that, hey, we should reach out to this person because I'm in the bad neighborhood man.
Probably the same person who brought you Mat Finch, John Barnhouse. John keeps his fingers on the podcast interview show scene. So, I reached out to him and I said, look, you know, I want to I have to I'm trying something new. Basically, my current project tower in the moon went right to backerkit. I didn't do Kickstarter because I didn't need to fund it. It wasn't that expensive. But more importantly, I had already paid for it. I paid for the art. It was all that.
So, you printed physical copies?
I did. And then Backer Kit is, hey, I've got this product. You can buy it now.
Now, why is that something you would do on Drivethru or any other outlet?
Well, I mean, for one thing, drive through, takes a third of your money.
Yes, it's so if you're in in it for the long haul, those are that's margins that you can't absorb.
If I were. It's one of these sort of a vicious circle things. If I were pulling in routinely a thousand or fifteen hundred or so backers, everything would be different. And you could potentially just go to drive thru or whatever and whatever. But but I'm not. I am attempting to stake out my little corner of the world. And I'm not where I need to be in terms of sustainability as a long term. Yeah, I got this gaming ballistic.
Is that your full-time job?
Fantastic. So, you made the leap. I'm so glad you said that, because if you said you were working another job at forty hours a week, I would just feel really bad.
I was for a while. I was doing up until this last year. I drew my last paycheck a little from the company a little over a year ago and was formally laid off in June of 2020. Can't get a callback.
Yeah, and my resume is strong, but I cannot. Get. A response worth anything? So apparently my resume isn't quite as strong as I'd like to think, but it really ought to at least generate some.
It's the dead silence that is odd. So you were kind of pushed into it.
Pushed into it a little bit. I said, well, maybe I should try to do this for real.
Yeah, that's very exciting.
Well, yeah, but basically what it came down to is I had a project run long. My last one, the manuscripts that were turned in were not what they needed to be. They weren't what I thought that they should be. And so, I sent back for corrections, and they came back and they were not adjusted the way I needed. I said, okay, fine, I will do this. It was the project for character collections. I didn’t like it. It was OK. It was more Perilous Journeys Project for the Fantasy Trip, which was five books written by other people. But three of them were the third, fourth and fifth in a campaign series, fourth and fifth. I didn't feel the fifth one in particular started to be the NPC show. It was not characters having agency doing cool things. It was, Ooh, look at this good NPC and isn't he cool and blah, blah, blah. And I'm like, yeah, no, absolutely not. That that's not why people, if you want to do that, read a book or watch a movie. And so, I basically rewrote it. Had I been writing an adventure from scratch it would have been easier than trying to tie all the pieces together and preserve the core of it while basically making it something that the players were in the driver's seat. So that ran long. It was the only Kickstarter I've ever been late on that set me back, and then I was finishing that up. As the year turned, I was like, all right, I'm not going to go really job hunting until I deliver onto to my backers what I told them I would deliver. And I did that. And it was difficult and painful and made me gnash my teeth and whatever.
But it's very admirable because a lot of people throw in the towel and go dark.I wouldn’t say a lot. It just happens enough.
I've had people say, I will not preorder, I will not back. When you have a product talk to me, until then. Forget it. And it is stuff like that when people throw in the towel or they're like, well, gee, I have this money from a prior project, but I've used it and now I need more. So, I will use that money to make a new product because this one isn't going they will forward or whatever. But no, I might if I have a rep, it's on time, high quality. Give the backers what I told them and don't start something new until I finish the old thing. I don’t mean I don't feather. I try to keep my promises.
Very good. Your new product is Tower of the Moon.
It's a great looking module if you don't mind me calling it a module.
No, no. Absolutely.
I notice you're a fan of two column black and white, and I applaud that. Many game companies give you pages with drawings underneath it, illustrations underneath it, colors on the pages. And I find that very difficult to use as a game master.
Yeah, I do have some products that have the color or whatever, but the fantasy trip is delightfully old school and the black and white form factor is actually a production requirement.
As part of my license because Steve Jackson Games holds the copyright on the fantasy trip
And let's dive into this because this is intriguing you are doing backer kit, your stuff is out there, it's available for sale.
That's working out Kickstarter. You start with maybe an idea or maybe a half-finished product somewhere there, and you're looking for funding to make it come into existence.
From what I've been reading on your blog, it seems that correct me if I'm wrong. Kickstarter gave you a flood of interest in action. Financially wise for a project different than backer kit.
That is correct.
It is. And it's not. And I have three quarter composed in my head and have to post on the page trying to help backer kit saying, look, you know, the thing that Kickstarter is really good at is the countdown timer sense of urgency. Yes, I need this now. It gives you a feeling of participating in something and making something happen. So, it's not just, oh, I'm spending my money, it's I'm making this.
Oh, the participators feel a part ownership.
Yes, absolutely. I think they do. I want to help fund this kind of thing. And let me come back to that. Not right away, but in a minute, because I think I'll come back to it. And then the third thing that Kickstarter does pretty well is they have call it a mini forum. It's not spectacular, but the little community posts thing and that people can comment on the updates. And there's a level of interaction there that they provide around the project. And everyone at Kickstarter can theoretically see your thing. So, there is a built in on ramp for curious people taking advantage of the network effect that is Kickstarter and come in. And every project my audience would grow by a few dozen people.
Ideally, something takes off and you do something, and everyone loves it, and you get a million backers or whatever, or a thousand backers or 10000 backers. And then, you know, you've got what you need for like the rest of time, in a way, as long as you keep doing interesting things so it is mostly about reaching out to people who have already bought your stuff, because that's the mailing list that they provide. And I've curated one as well. So, for that, you're trying to leverage the marketing philosophy that the people most likely to give you money are people who have given you money before. They like this stuff, they bought your stuff, and I've run 12 projects now, or maybe this is my 13th makes my job. So I'm not an unknown to the people, to the 500 or so people who usually show up to get my stuff. I'm not unknown to them. They know that when they close, they know more or less what they've gotten. They've probably gotten it before and hopefully they want more of it. But what I'm not seeing in this case is the same number of people showing up to say, yes, give me Tower of the Moon. My fantasy audience has been very strong to this point between five hundred and six hundred and twenty people. But the backer kit, which was admittedly an experiment, is drawing about half that. So, it's not pulling people along. Now, the funny thing about Kickstarter and why it's just a little surprising is that while in the beginning you were funding your dream. Now most people come to Kickstarter. I think they were the most successful. People come with a project already.
Yes. Yes. Right. Yeah. Because the novelty has worn off a bit. The horror stories are well. So, I got to see a little more. You've got more skin in the game before I give you some cash. Show me sweat equity if you would.
Lay out. Show me a writing sample. Show me a cover if you can show me something that says that you can get there from here. And so you're the only real difference how I usually come to Kickstarter and how I came back at this time. It was two things. One is all the art was in hand instead of ending. And two, I placed a risk order for 100 copies of the physical product ahead of time.
That is a risk. A hundred copies is, in the game world is who knows?
So, if my prior projects had usually moved about 60 to 65 percent physical or, you know, real physical plus media. So usually about three to two. So I said, well, you know, three to two, 60 percent of all, you know, go low. Five hundred people. Right. That's 300. So, I'll order a third of that. That makes sense. And I sold through those right-away.
That was very fast. I placed another order for a hundred. And then I, I waited a day or so. I'm like now I'm on track to have the entire project fulfilled. OK. So, I might as well order the final 100 copies to make sure that I can basically as soon as people are placing their orders they can go out the door. And in the middle of this, I got an order from a retail outlet who has supported me before. And I was like, wow, you know, if I get more retail orders, I'm going to need a bunch more books. So, and that's where that third came from. Now, I haven't gotten into that yet, but I'm 12 copies away from finishing the second hundred.
So, in no ways has it been a failure.
So, where I am and I tend to be kind of open kimono, I find that if you look up, I do postmortems I publish.
I read those. I've read those before. They had my curiosity here at the Vanishing tower. I usually give an annual report in January to show the meager offerings that I got. But hey, people out in the world, there's, you know, 20 new people with these products. And it's, you know, it lives and breeze.
The project has paid for itself. And I had spent on international shipping. I'm sure everyone's heard this before. The international shipping is a Charlie Foxtrot right now. It is hopelessly, fully dorked up. So, people are paying 20 times what they 10, 20 times what they used to for a container. And, you know, like today, I got a note from ship station saying that the United States was suspending certain class of mail to Australia.
There you go. Well, fortunately, Doug, you're in the largest consumer market already. If you want to sell something, you go to America.
That's right. And but for the first time in my product history, I did not offer international print during this campaign. And while the campaign is, I think, you know, has been successful, not as successful as I'd like. And, you know, these projects are interesting because, you know, gaming projects in particular, you have a fairly large outlay on a per page or per product basis to get to a printable PDF. And first, you have to make that back. And then after that, the profit margin of each marginal sale goes way up because, you know you’re not digging yourself out of the hole. International shipping over my last project, my last project was Delvers to Go, powered by GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. Brilliantly executed by Kevin Smith, the author and something that I had written about in twenty fifteen or twenty sixteen saying this is what group's needs. I have always been a fan of GURPS since 1989. And the system. I love it. I play it. But this is what it needs. And I really thought that people would look at that and say, even if I'm an expert in the system, my friends aren't. And this lets me get to the table in 15 minutes. It's OSR fast. It's TFT fast, right? It's all west end game StarWars d6 fast. And now that a fan has created GURPS character sheet support and the author of GURPS Characters, this the officially licensed character generator is writing game aids for this. Some of my backers for this project can make a fully competent, ready to play, totally decked out dungeon fantasy role playing game characters. Three minutes, you can literally have a character die. And by the time your turn comes around, be ready to play with a new one in GURPS, even if you've never played GURPS.
I have played GURPS. We will be going into that a little bit.
Right. But it's a system that is heavily front loaded for both the game master and the player. You need to invest time to make your character. You usually need to chat with your game master. You go through the rules. The game master has to go and remove, is like the old line about the sculpture. First, take away everything that isn't your campaign. Then you have to take away everything that isn't available for characters. And then you have to as a player, you say, OK, now let me take away everything is in my character. And that can be laborious. It can take days or even weeks or whatever.
A lot of back and forth between the game master and the players.
There can be a lot of back and forth. Right. Whereas with Delvers to Go you have a lot of advantages playing. You can just do it and get done. You're like, I want to start here and then choose this and make these two or three other choices. So, it did OK. But because of international shipping, there were thousands of dollars in unforeseen expenses that left my working capital a little lighter than I'd like. And Tower of the Moon had brought me back. David has really brought me back to a solid foundation of working capital. If it continues to sell over the next two weeks of the campaign, I will have, you know, something to walk away with. Right, because I'm doing this for a job. It is no longer just kind of a pay for my hobby. But it's something that I need. I have an opportunity cost, right. I've got a Ph.D. in material science. I've got skills that I could bring. If I'm just sitting here not bringing anything to the family, I have to make different life choices. If I find myself making the same money as I did as a hobbyist when I was just kind of out there saying, yeah, I’m going to starve. The lights are out. But so, you know, I need to I need to contribute. And there's an opportunity cost to being a Full-Time game designer that my other skills would make up for. So I am in competition with myself, so to speak.
Well, you have Dragon Heresy and there's Dungeon Fantasy. What's the difference? What's going on there? Because I see that they're both GURPS. Am I wrong?
Dragon Heresy is not GURPS. It is a fantasy heartbreaker. It's D&D, but different. And many games are. But in this particular case, once fifth edition came out, I was reasonably impressed and pleased with the robustness of the game engine itself. I liked how the designers had whittled things down to a couple core mechanics that they used faithfully and attempted to, with reasonable success, simplify and streamline the resolution mechanics that would be brought to bear.
It's what I call the internal logic of a game.
That is a great way of putting it. The internal logic of the game is is straightforward. Some of the implementation of certain things were a little bit troublesome to people with certain outlooks. So, I don't know if you know Tim Short at Gothridge Manor or read his blog.
I've listened to his podcast, so I know the sound of the man's voice.
And Tim's a good guy, but one of the things that really bugged him and we were talking because we used to play in Tenkar’s Sword and Wizardry game together and that's how we got to know each other. But he just thought that the short rest and the long rest was just killing his willingness of suspension of disbelief because you know, you do a fight and you have a hard fight and you get done with it and then you take a long rest and you're just better. Everything's better. Your hit points are fully restored.
Yep. My reaction as well.
And he was like, I didn't like that. Yeah, I don't like it. And, you know, there are people who will point to page 82 of the old Dungeon Masters Guide first edition and say, look, hit points out what you think. They're not blood and guts and intestines on the floor. It's maybe the last couple of blows, like in Lord of the Rings movie. The Balrog and Gandalf are fighting and fighting and fighting and fighting. And he pulls up the sword and lightning hits it and he stabs the guy. And that's when he goes over to a negative hit point and he dies and that's it. But in my gaming life since 1981. I had never had it described to me by a game master or described it to other people as, oh, you swung your sword at the orc and he wet his pants a little bit, right. He swung the sword and he got hit or you hit and you try to describe it in a way that brings your players into the game. And so the bright blood flows.
You have to step back a little bit as the game master and the player and embellish the action at maybe a greater distance because of the narrative mechanical disconnect, the narrative isn’t just, oh, you lost hit points, you probably had a close call.
You were driven back a step. Right. But that's usually not how it was done. And I thought to myself, well, why not? Why not have a wound's track and a defense track or a vigor? I called it vigor. And as it turns out, that had already been invented, although I invented it on my own. But there's a wound and vigor system in, I think, the back and one of the Pathfinder books. And I know that when the Star Wars game had a separate wound effect. So. Okay, great parallel evolution. No problem. But what if we did that? What would happen if you enable wound and vigor and you said, well, what if I can get past the defense because I'm an old GURPS player. Right. And you're you have a defense role which totally negates an attack.
It's similar to Chaosium’s style of you taking offensive action and the defensive player has a chance to negate it.
Exactly. If I start doing defense roles, I might as well play GURPS, right? So, the defense role itself is neat and it has options to it, but it does come at a mechanical overhead cost. What do you mean? I hit, but then I didn't? There's a bit of a disconnect. And you know, when you have a one second tactical combat game, you know, you want to try and move things along. And so in any case, the one roll I thought one roll resolution was important to the 5E experience. So I didn't want to lose it. So what I said is, if you make your role by enough, you bypass vigor and go right to wounds. So, if you're decked out head to toe in plate, you don't even have to necessarily defend. I'll swing. You don't care because I'm not hitting you hard enough. And again, I'm not the only one to do it, but I really like how it works. You could spend a reaction to throw yourself out of the way by absorbing twice the roll damage.
As a designer, how extensively tested were these ideas?
Yeah, I think we put, I played the hell out of them before I wrote it up, because what happened was the 5E thing came out and say, hey, this is really cool. I talked to Tim, blah, blah, blah, you know, this would be cool. And then I had started like, oh, look, the shield is -you’re your Armor Class. But that's only 10 percent change in hit posture. It is not a big factor. Like how come like the first thing that you put on after a helmet or a little head protection, the first thing that you picked up for like thousands of years is a shield. But it's not mechanically advantaged, really, in 5E. You see a lot more two weapon fighters and stuff that you didn't see in history. So, what's up with that? So, I wanted the shield, as it turned out, the shield rules that I came up with were later, again, parallel evolution. But the Pathfinder reaction to employ the shield to block the blow was we've sort of ended up the same place. But I wanted shields to be cooler. And I was like, you know, that's my hunch. But. I didn't have any practical experience, so I went and got some I. I joined a HEMA, a group that does short sword and shield fighting, and you can see that on my blog.
You do Viking style sword and shield fighting.
And that was a fun coincidence because while playtesting the rules went through several iterations, I mean, I revised the heck out of them because I was doing all the stuff. I was like, oh, wouldn't this be cool?
When you had the rules ready to get tested was it three years before you, or in two years. When did this edition come out?
When did 5E come out? Twenty fifteen? Twenty sixteen?
Twenty sixteen is a good approximation.
The kick starter for Dragon Heresy was I think in late seventeen or twenty eighteen. The thing is though by the time that I had gotten there, I had four hundred thousand words written.
That's a lot of words.
I had three complete volumes and a complete monster manual. I had a complete campaign setting in the guide equivalent, and I had a very complete players book, level one through 20, blah, blah, blah. And they had announced the SRD. They had announced the DMS Guild or whatever. And I was like, oh, wow, they're going to let me do this sort of thing. You know, maybe I could throw a quick rules mod up. But as I was playtesting…
You have a different game.
I have a different game. And most importantly is one of these things where because of wounds and vigor and a few other things, when you went to look up a spell or whatever, you were going to have to constantly stop and say, how does this convert? And I feel that if you're a paying customer of mine, it is my job as the author and publisher to do the work for you.
Yes, I would agree.
And so very quickly, it became something where I was like, you know, I really ought to you know, if I'm going to turn all spells into wounds and vigor, I'm going to need a grimoire. If I'm going to turn character generation into wounds and vigor and blah, blah, blah, I'm you need the books. I was like, I might as well just do this. And then shortly after, I'm like, well, this is going to be challenging. They came out with the SRD and, you know, they didn't say, you know, I'm going to tell a total untruth, plagiarize all you want we’ll make more. They said here are the things, here's all the mechanics crunch, the one big daddy game. Here's the mechanics that that we cannot copyright and said, Yeah, go ahead, let a thousand flowers bloom very quickly. I realized that I could absolutely write all my own fluff around that, the mechanics that I want. I wanted a spear, the most common weapon in medieval history. I wanted those to be a little cooler. So, I invented a martial spear fighting style. I wanted to be able to take advantage of certain things, and I thought the advantage disadvantage was great. I said, oh, if you take a turn and attack action to evaluate or aim, you'd have advantage on the next attack. You can do that sort of thing to punch through an opponent's defenses or get around them or whatever.
Ever considered simultaneous rolls? The roll to hit and damage is decided in one? And both players, players and NPCs are rolling the dice at the same time. And that gives you a degree of success. I wrote USR Sword and Sorcery so I could plung down into that rabbit hole and I was quite happy with it.
That's not something that I wanted in my heart. It wasn't necessarily that I looked at it and said, no, I'm not going to do that. It was instead an affirmative decision where I wanted to say, look, 5E, it looks like a really good system. There are some things that I want to change, but I wanted to keep it the 5E experience. And so I did. And that was a very deliberate decision on my part to try and make it as approachable as possible to the point where an experienced player could pick up. One of the play tests that I did before I published was, I grabbed an adventure off of drivethru and without doing much more than prepping the math, ran it spontaneously and did conversion on the fly with only what I had in front of me.
If the game master is steeped or understands the internal logic of the game, you can do that, right? You can do that pretty fairly.
It must be capable of that. You can't be like, oh, I have calculations to do, right? You need to be quick enough, like, oh, this is this and this and both. But like, for example, I had a monster manual, so I said, oh, you're fighting three skeletons so I can look up the skeleton entries. I was able to use the references in the system to just play. And it was balanced enough because the places where Dragon Heresy was harder, like, you know, a little more brutal. It was more brutal to the bad guys to. It was an even handed kind of brutality. Ultimately, though, Rob Connelly from Bat in the Attic said, you know, there's a really famous game designer who you ought to talk to because he's really good at all this stuff. You should send him an email. And I sent him an email.
Care to say who this designer is?
I never do.
Yeah, I never do, it's just one of these things. He's like, look, this is a terrible plan. You've got four hundred thousand words and no history with Kickstarter. There's no proof that anyone should give you a dollar let alone one hundred and fifty thousand. And you are going to fail. You're going to fail huge because the rule about joint ventures, don't, because ninety five percent don't work. The rule for venture capital is don't, because ninety five percent of them lose money. Another four percent. Maybe break even then you're looking for that one percent that goes above and beyond. And the odds of being in that one percent are not awesome. They're one percent. And you need to have all the right things. So, this suggests to me I really shouldn't even respond. You're going be mad at me, but just don't. Get a rep. Do something else.
Well, that's one of the key things I think is important to be successful in a publishing enterprise is, you know, you can put your ego in the right place. You have to take the criticism from other people, reflect on it and find the truth out of it. And act on it.
Exactly, and that was what I sort of didn't I don't even remember thinking that I needed to argue with this guy when I remember thinking, I'm going to ask for advice. I needed to give it serious thought. And so what I did is I pulled out the old adage, if you're asking for advice and you're not going to take it, you're…
Why ask? You're just talking about yourself now.
So, I pulled the grappling system out of Dragon Heresy, which was based on a system that I had written for years. I published Dungeon Grappling. I went to conventions and stuff. I say, here are the rules for D&D grappling which don't suck?
A tall order.
Dungeon Grappling was my first published book. It's about 50 pages long, for Swords and Wizardry, 5E and Pathfinder.
It's the same philosophy like arms law, character law back in the 80s. You don't need a whole new game. Here's just something to add some punch to what you're doing.
Exactly. Ironically, First Sergeant Wizardry is the easiest.
And I had published a simplified version of this with Peter Dell'Orto in Gothard manor.
Sword and Wizardry is old school, the little little brown books, or Holmes? Probably little brown books.
That is an excellent question.
I got to ask. We got to get ask Mat.
That's the right place. In any case, the point of dungeon grappling was quite simply, if you are willing to abstract away all the complexity of the sword fighting and fencing and offense and defense in the role, 1D20 plus a bonus against an armor class, don't pull out some alternate system when it comes time to grappling, because as you study sword play the old fight manuals and stuff, there was really no separation between grappling and cutting and punching and stuff. They’re the same thing. So, use the same thing. Roll your D20 plus a bonus against some kind of armor class or grapple DC or whatever.
You're saying that hand-to-hand combat is eventually going to get really close.
Here's an example. You attack me with a sword. I parry. Push your blade off-line and use that to come in. Anyone who does unarmed combat will recognize those motions in the flow and that control. As whether it's Muay Thai or whatever, you know, wrestling, whatever. A lot of these moves and stuff that you do are foundational and they're universal.
So, wax on. Wax off.
Exactly. And the thing is that I do the Viking sword and shield thing and the style that we do. You don't just sit there with the shoulder. I’m trying to use the edge of the shield to dynamically move the opponent, open them up, you're not doing a bash, although you could if there's an opening. But what you're trying to do is control your opponent, control the line through pressure in order to open up for a strike where you can enter that space, strike, one strike fatally and get out without being struck back and grappling and striking merged together.
In that case, with sword binds and shield binds, Corker disarms, all of that stuff was not. And, you know, every attack leaves an opening and then throw the guy down, you know.
Does that break down, that those ideas break down in large formations, large field combat? The reason I asked that, Romans, how they fought with shields back then. It sounded a little more like rugby. There is a couple of hours of pressing, pushing and exerting pressure.
Right. And running in. And then when the someone is just exhausted and breaks down, then comes...
Yeah. Chop, chop, chop, chop.
Let me answer it in three ways. One is I'm not entirely sure that it breaks down because you have mutually reinforcing defensive lines. Control on you doesn't necessarily relieve the other two people who are helping you hold that line. Number two, what I would say is that it does kind of start to break down, but nobody cares because we're not simulating in a role-playing game exact combat. You're dueling. You're dueling one. And besides, if your players play the way mine play anything involving a formation is crazy talk.
Well, you know, you say crazy talk. And to me, that's a, that's a challenge. That's a creative challenge. How do you run the mass combat like any other encounter? The action is where the player is. They can't see the other side of the battlefield unless they're at a command position. And so how do you role play that out? So far, I've come up with some simple mass combat rules, as well as a lot of random tables to generate flavor on the battlefield and adjudicate it in a breezy manner.
I suspect that ultimately what you wind up doing there is if you're looking for mechanical inspiration, all that stuff, I think what you're probably going to do is say, OK, well, you're going to have an overall pressure feel. But instead of saying that happens over one second or five seconds or six seconds or whatever time span, it's a minute or six minutes. And what opportunity to do something interesting happens in that six minutes or ten minutes, because as you say, battles last a long time. And if you look at the casualty figure, while I'm sure that they were tragic to all involved, relatively speaking, what you usually see in a movie where a thousand people oh, my God, it's like three people standing in the field was carpeted with bodies or whatever.
That's just like, that way is Robert E Howard.
A few dozen people die. So, I've had quite enough of this. Thank you. They run away. And if there's going to be a slaughter, that's when it happens. But if two formations advance on each other, they poke at each other a little bit or do whatever and then like, yeah, you know, whatever. Then they fall back and maybe the nobles do their dueling thing and honor is satisfied. But by and large, the unusual circumstances like Agincourt where one side just mops the floor with the other. Even then, when you look at it, the casualty rates are not what you think based on media. So, you know, it's a lot of running and fleeing for your life and hiding and stuff. And like even in modern combat, the last man thing is rare. First of all, nobody really wants to do that because you get tired of it.
And formations could be reconstituted, and the savagery of the battle doesn't equate to destruction. You know, where does he get these other men? Well, it's some of the same it's a lot of the same guys. They just form up. So, I think. Yeah, you make it personalized. I'm going to solve it. Yeah.
So, you asked about Dragon Heresy, and what basically happened is I had three books ready to go. Person says start smaller. So, I started with Dungeon Grappling. I made a convention adventure called Lost Hall of Tyr, which is like sixty-four pages. I demoed the dungeon to demonstrate Dungeon grappling in twenty eighteen. Then I did the Kickstarter for that adventure, that gave me two under my belt and then I did the Dragon Heresy Kickstarter and I said because I wasn't doing it as a job if I get to this funding level, then I do an offset print run, big thing overseas and whatever, and I wasn't going to make it. And then at the last minute, someone came in and I had been saying, you know, for the top tier pledge, I would make you a Viking style shield…
I saw that on your blog.
If people are curious, go to gaming ballistic. You can see Viking shields. It's a five-hundred-dollar product. It's expensive. The shields that I made then are nowhere near as good as the shields that I can make now.
Is it like a book? Your next book is always better.
Yes, but in this case, it's you know, you get better at it. And my technique improved. I actually had better materials. I actually went and cut down a tree instead of going to Home Depot or Menard's and getting the wood. I've since learned to work with rawhide that I import. That is the proper thickness for a Viking shield. Stuff like that. And so these are very robust, really historically accurate. The only thing that I'm having a hard time now with is the person apparently who used to make the bosses of the shield that was the right historical weight and thickness, which is thin and light. He died. The company that I used to get them from can't find a thin light boss that I can put my own rivet holes in. Wow. So it's just one of those very surprising things. My Viking martial arts instructor does have the capability to forge the bosses. But someone said, you know, I was like, you know, if we get to fifteen thousand or sixteen thousand dollars, I'll do this awesome print run. I was like fifteen thousand forty five. It's 20 minutes before the end of the campaign. I'm watching the clock tick down like, oh, you know, we've only got four hundred and twenty some odd people. Not having this offset print run is probably OK and somebody bought two shields. Bingo. They dropped a thousand dollars on me. Wow. And pushed it over. Then I made the rookie mistake and then I said, you know, thousand dollars, a thousand book has the cost of whatever, but fifteen hundred bucks is much cheaper. I mean, those five hundred are a marginal cost. I have a lot of Dragon Heresy sitting in a warehouse somewhere. I talked to Steve Jackson and Phil Reed and said, hey, your Dungeon Fantasy role playing game box set is straight up what we talked about earlier. Take away everything that isn't a dungeon crawl roleplaying. Take it away, box it up and say this is what you need to play in this genre and all you're going to need is in the box. It's a physical corral
Do players come to a game of GURPS expecting all rules aew in force at all times?
I think there's two and three. Again, three answers in that. One is just. Yes. I think that they do.
That sucks for the GM.
The second answer is it's not just the players who come with that expectation. The GMs come with that expectation, too.
Not this guy, not Varnishing Tower. That's antithetical to our approach to the art of roleplaying games.
Operating within the constraints of a particular genre is not cheating. It's what you need in order to have a set of mutually satisfactory shared expectations without having to spend nine years talking about them and interrupting the game. If you are playing a sword and sorcery game and someone pulls out a blaster rifle someone going to get mad unless you're in expedition to the blaster peaks. That's the big reveal. It's not a castle but a spaceship. I'm sorry, spoilers, you know, 30 years ago adventure. But the thing is, is that when all of a sudden your expectations change and I had a great example of this in a modern game that I was playing when they were infiltrating a bad guy base and they're like, oh, there's a sentry over there. Like, yeah, no problem. I got this silencer. Like, they kill them and then, oh, you know, but no one heard, of course, because I have a silenced rifle. I'm like, no, it's suppressed. It's silence. It's not a movie. It's as loud as dropping a book on the floor. It just doesn't damage your hearing. That doesn't mean it's quiet and they're looking at me like I have violated them. Because I had violated their expectations unexpectedly. You know, there's no give backs with “I shot the guy.” Right. So it ended the session early and we actually did a reboot, said, OK, do we want to do cinematic suppressors?
Yes, we do. OK, cinematics suppressors. Goes for both sides now. So we actually sort of did a restart and then ran that session again.
The best a game master could do to prepare for these what I call genre tropes, genre expectations is to be well steeped in the source material. I'm talking about the books. I'm talking about the movies mostly. For me, it's books, it's fantasy books, it's sci fi books from way back. Sometimes I think that gets lost. There's a disconnect between people looking to the rules for the connection to the genre when it's just a tool to facilitate the genre that's already been written. And you're not going to tap into that visceral feel unless you read the source material or watch it.
That leads to the disconnect there, is that the media that I had set myself in were technical manuals, real work videos and battle reports and whatever, the hardcore way, because that had been an interest in my blog and my company for gaming ballistic, it is no surprise that the nitty gritty of that is of interest to me. Now, the people who were playing with me, my good friends, whatever the people who were playing with me knew of weapons and combat and stuff from action movies. When you pull out the pistol, you go off and three shots kill all the bad guys.
The classic one in this is I pull out my like two inch knife and I throw it from across the room and it hits in the chest and they're just that cinematic. What my former martial arts master used to say is knife throwing is the art of tossing away a perfectly useful weapon, accurately tossing away a perfectly usable weapon. You're just not, first of all, you're probably not going to hit. Second of all, even if you do. It's more of a distraction than a fatality. And it's certainly not the instant kill sort of thing that you'd get with a gun at the base of the skull and you're off like a switch. Right. That's not any of these things. But that's what people are familiar with. They see the knife throwing thing and they want to do that. They see Legolas doing the thing and they don't realize that the expected rate of fire of a bow was six arrows a minute. The sustained rate of fire is about 10 to 12 hours a minute, if you were good. And if you've ever tried one the pull is one hundred and some odd pounds. You draw it with your legs. I had the experience of drawing about an eighty-five pound bow some years back. And that's work.
I did see a guy. What is the guy's name? Not Stretton. There's another gentleman who casually draws a one hundred- and seventy-five-pound bow. Like it's nothing. It's the darndest thing. He's skinny. You wouldn't even know it to look at him.
Those are the people that gets the biomechanics just spot on.
Some of the people at the local archery range was saying is that you can get like these big, long linebacker guys coming in and will try and pull a compound bow and they can bench 350, but they can't pull the compound because it's a very specific kind of muscle. Now, once they figure out how to use it, they can they do it, no problem. But they struggle initially because it's a very specific technique, and we are a little far afield, but the point is, is that the box set in a universal generic flexible game is an absolute requirement. You have to start somewhere. And what this was for the most popular genre of roleplaying is fantasy. Nine or nine and a half dollars out of every 10 are spent in that genre.
So, you believe that the first role play game that was wildly popular. Spread throughout popular culture stamped the genre that was going to be played. What if Mark Miller's Traveller sold?
Well, it did. If Traveler had taken off or Gammel World or something else and had exploded. Maybe. Maybe it's well, what happened? But Star Wars was already. It was. No, it wasn't. It was seventy-seven and the games that were coming out. But it didn't have. No, I can't even say that because there was Buck Rogers and all the serials. It just didn't for whatever reason, the distributor just hit it. And then I think there was network effects. You played it because other people were playing it and you had a first mover advantage. And I think the thing is, is it's such a fertile ground. Yes. For that. Yes. Yes. Regardless of what might have happened, the Dungeon Fantasy role playing game came out in twenty fifteen or so. Twenty eighteen. And so by attacking the market leader, the market leading genre, saying, OK, this is the biggest thing we're going to get the most people. And this was not this is not just theory. They've had a Dungeon Fantasy subline that was out for a while and had sold multiple, multiple books. Right. I mean, they were like Dungeon Fantasy Nine or something. Right. So, I mean, people were buying them and they were selling. And so they it wasn't just, oh, well, maybe we'll cautiously do the most popular genre of the. We're no, we're going you know, we got to go all in with both of them. We're playing. That's what people are playing. And I went to Steve and Phil at the time. I said I would really like to take this Lost Hall of Tyre adventure I've written and support your game by converting it to this. And they said, talk to me later. I said, I will. So I waited. I said, how about now? Not now. And I did the Kickstarter. And Phil was flying through Minneapolis. And I came by and I said, here's this, Lost Hall of Tyre and here's Dungeon Grappler. So here are three examples of me successfully delivering a product that you can take home to Texas with. He said, OK, thank you. And then not terribly long thereafter we had a conversation and I said, I want to do this. And they said, OK, let's do this. I said, I would like to offer more than just my sixty-four pages because I've played this, I've seen it, I've got some reviews and I want to do more with it. They said, OK. I said, I want to do a lot more with it. This is OK. OK, so we're going to see what happens. And it wound up being one hundred and twenty-eight pages, had a town to base off called Ishtiaq, Mountain of Ice. It had better maps. I paid for better maps by the Midderlands guy, fantastic cartographer. Fantastic guy in the UK. He did my maps and it just got better. And it was quite successful, You know, I got five hundred or so people and people dug it and I got a great print run. And then I said, hey, you know, I'd like to do this again. And they said, yeah, do that. I said, I want to do it in the same Viking Norse inspired thing, because there's such great culture for role playing in Vikings. I mean, talk about your OG, go out, kill monsters and take your stuff.
They traveled too.
They were farmers and agrarians or whatever. However, their legends and their ideals are so squarely aligned with the fantasy RPG tropes. Yes. And the popular consciousness. Of those things are like this is what you expect, you expect shield maidens and fighting and so you deliver that and people enjoy it. And it really allows you to do a lot of things in mythology. So deep in the stories, in the monsters. Let me do a setting, and they said, all right. Shakespeare and Spider-Man. All right. And the really the two of them intersect. So, first of all, we'll start with Spiderman. Like any good story, this one's about a girl. Hmm. Right. So that's the opening line from the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movie. And I said, well, if you're going to have a girl, it's got to be a Romeo and Juliet thing, because you have to have star crossed lovers. They want to get together and they can't. Why not? OK, there's one layer. And what I wound up doing is creating a mind map, a relationship map you started with the star crossed lovers and then their immediate relations. And then who was influencing them and then who were supporting them?
That's what I did, what I focused on when I found myself in my own searchings and exploration's for creating my sword and sorcery city. That's how it developed. And I just made it cool.
Louise McMaster Bujold, who wrote the Proposition series, had something that she used to say, which was, let me think of the worst possible thing that could happen to the character and then I'll just write that. And that's kind of what you do, is you go and say, OK, how can these persons lives get complex. Right. And so you get all these branches and what ends up happening is you get the spider web of interactions, primary interactions, hostile interactions, friendly interactions, whatever, that create a web of relationships. Every time the player characters interact with somebody, they send ripples through that web. And what I have found is if you have a reasonably doesn't even have to be that deep, a reasonably robust relationship, you no longer have to plan. Because you can just let the characters do what they're going to do, they have an agenda. Right. And so you say, OK, this person just talk to these players, just had a friendly interaction with NPC A. NPC B is friendly with A. Okay. So B is going to want to help the players. F G and E don't care and H hates the PCs with a fiery passion of a thousand suns. So, when the ninjas show up, it's going to be one of them. And then because NPC F tries to kill the players, whoever was keeping an eye on the PC says, oh my goodness, there's a new faction in town and it just builds. And now NPC H goes and tries to ally with NPC D because it has aligning interest.
You're delivering the player's holy grail. They call it a living world.
That's right. That's right. And if you ever run out of things to do, you're like, all right, well, I have it mapped out, the relationships, and as long as you're about three deep you can almost always keep ahead. And so that's what Nordlandr does. And you're not supposed to pick favorites of your children. But I really think I did a good job with Nordlandr.