The following article is the first of two new features I will be adding to the blog this week. In what I hope is the first in a series of interviews with various players, gamemasters and other members of the roleplaying-game community, I present Ego Check. Ego Check will be a place to learn more about the people who you may have interacted with briefly on Twitter or through Comments on a variety of blogs. It is an opportunity for me to conduct a long-form interview to gain insight into how active members of the role-playing community are influenced and think about current topics and trends throughout the gaming world. The first Ego Check is focused on Jeff Gupton of Blackbyrne Publishing.
In the interview, he recounts his journey as a young player of roleplaying games and how this eventually led to him creating his own publishing company. He speaks about the trials and tribulations of 3rd Party Publishing (3PP), and advocates for greater unity in the 3PP community. I hope you enjoy the following interview as much as I did conducting it!
Can you please introduce yourself, and talk a bit how and when you started playing Dungeons & Dragons?
Greetings and Salutations! (ok, normally I don’t talk like that, but wanted to show off) My name is Jeff Gupton and I am the owner of Blackbyrne Publisher, a third-party publisher for both 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, as well as Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.
It was the spring of 1981 when I saw some of my 5th grade classmates playing this odd game with no board, no pieces and these weird shaped dice. Then I heard what they were saying, almost telling a story of sorts, so I sat and listened. I heard about spells being fired off, monsters being slain and treasure being found and was instantly hooked. That summer I saved all of my allowance and walked the four blocks from my home to The Hobby House and bought my first boxed set for Dungeons & Dragons. (not the Red Box everyone knows, but the one just prior, yes I’m that old) That fall when I returned to school, I had my box in my backpack, filled with characters I’d written and adventures I’d planned, and was ready to fight the good fight. It’s the feeling that I had when first playing the game that I hold on to as I write the adventures for Blackbyrne Publishing, hoping to convey or pass that along to the new fans of today.
As a side note, normally these were the same people who teased me about my weight issues and only kept me around to make fun of or play tricks on. But when we were playing D&D, that changed, there were no jokes at my expense, we were a team, and I think that says a lot about the game itself.
“Gamer” stereotypes often emphasize the negative affects of role-playing games, but it sounds like you gained acceptance and perhaps some level of respect with your peers when you started to play Dungeons & Dragons with them?
Yes, sadly, the mere mention of “gamer” in certain circles conjures up images of loners who live in their mother’s basement with wall to wall comic books and no real life friends, just the virtual ones. I myself have ruined many a first date by mentioning my appreciation for D&D, and while my wife isn’t a gamer all the time, she does appreciate and admire my passion which translates into unending support for what I do. I think gamers on the whole tend to put aside differences when faced with common interests. (the exception being participating in Edition Wars) When talking about the same game in a similar frame of mind, everyone becomes non-prejudiced, I wish more people outside the community could think like that. Of course, shows like The Big Bang Theory make nerds cool again, so that’s a plus.
As I got older, through 2nd and 3rd Ediction mainly, I had several people try to get me to run games for them as DM because of the originality of my adventures, gamers love a good story and I love to tell them, so it was a perfect match. I am proud to say that, with the release of my adventures and some of the bits I have put on my website, the gaming community it beginning to react in the same way, appreciating my writing and creativity. Respect from my peers is honestly how I measure success, not financial gain, but I do like getting paid for what I do.
I am very interested to hear about your current work. But first, how do you think those early experiences with D&D shaped your interest level and devotion to roleplaying games?
I think those early memories and experiences had a very deep impact because they were positive, it was on those occasions when I gamed that I felt accepted, a part of something larger.
(time to sound like my father . . .) In those days, there was no Internet and no way to globally share information other than TV and magazines.
To think I was participating in something bigger didn’t really hit me until ’83 when I moved to Sacramento and within a month I easily found a group to join. (right around the time of the Sat morning cartoons as well, THEN I knew it was BIG) I’ve talked about it before, but one of my most enjoyable games was as a player running through The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. The DM for the adventure was somewhat new, but told the story flawlessly, which drew me in despite the mechanical errors we were all making. That was about the time I decided that the rules should be secondary to the story, which is how I liked to run my games as a DM, still do to a certain extent. The other influences were the movies of the time, Krull, Dragonslayer, The Hobbit and Hawk: The Slayer just to name a few, all helped me with ideas for adventures, and later campaign settings.
That flows well into one thing I wanted to ask. Could you describe the process of being a player and DM and how that morphed into the desire to write your own adventures?
I began as a player, as most who are in the game do, but I was the type of kid that didn’t wait very well, the kind that shake presents to guess what they were. I always wanted to know what was behind every door, under every rug, inside every chest and sometimes as a player, you just don’t get all that information, you just failed to open whatever it was you wanted to open but my curiosity was too great. Many times we would finish an adventure module and I would run out to find a copy just to see what it was we might have missed. I even called out a DM for skipping parts, only to be told my first lesson as a DM, “NEVER run an adventure as is, make it yours.”
That’s when I began to play from behind the screen, and it was a liberating experience to say the least. Not only was the story in my hands, it was in my head as well. I could answer questions on the fly because the information was all mine, that was the most fun I’ve ever had playing D&D. After building up some confidence with running published adventures (and making them “mine”), I started to write my own. I remember the first one I wrote and then later ran. It was for 2nd Edition and I based it off the song “Sacred Heart” by Dio, a theme I actually revisited again in 3rd Edition but as a campaign arc instead of a single adventure. It was then I knew I was hooked, there was no turning back.
I continued to write adventures and work on settings through 2nd and 3rd Edition, but it was when 4th Edition came along that I felt like I was returning to the early days, that sense of nostalgia when I bought new books was very strong. I had been running a campaign for my group set in Forgotten Realms during the spring of 2009 when the bug to get published bit me. I did a mini-adventure for them that really blew their minds, something unique and different that they weren’t expecting. Since they seemed to really like it, I decided to pitch the idea to Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) as a Dungeon magazine article. While waiting for a response (that never came) I spent the weekend stuck in the house with a bad back. While I was resting up, I decided to listen to the Penny Arcade podcasts and when I got to series 2 with Wil Wheaton, I decided to Google his name and see what he was up to. That was when I discovered the world of Self-Published authors and researched the hell out of that topic.
I made myself a deal, if WOTC didn’t accept my adventure, I would publish it myself. Well, at the end of the 60 waiting period, I had myself declared legally insane, started up Blackbyrne Publishing and created “Within Death’s Gaze”, the adventure I hope WOTC thinks is the “one that got away”. As a side note, “Within Death’s Gaze” was also inspired by music, the album “Red of Tooth and Claw” by Murder By Death.
You talked about taking that first step into self-publishing. For those of us that perhaps think about doing that with our own stories and adventures, how did you make it happen?
The first thing I recommend is to slap yourself in the face, hard, and then ask yourself if you are still interested. You cannot please everyone, and if you try, you will be metaphorically getting slapped in the face every single day, taking the bad reviews/feedback and learning from them is how you will grow and earn respect at the same time. Iit took me a while to learn this, so I am putting it first so others won’t take as long as I did.
If you survive that phase, then you need to talk to the people in your life about it, it’s a major investment and I don’t mean just money, there is time, focus and emotional investments as well. If your loved ones are behind you and willing to not only watch you stumble and fall, but be there when you pick yourself up, then you have everything you need to move forward.
Next on my list would be to research and network, and a lot of it. Talk with other publishers, either just starting out like you, or already established. I spoke to a few companies that were in both categories and received some sound advice from getting a business license to dealing with the Open Game License (OGL) and Game System License (GSL) issues. I also hit the message boards and asked gamers directly what it is they wanted (specifically for me, what they wanted in an adventure) and take the information you can work with (remember, can’t please everyone) and build your product within your means. For example, the #1 complaint I heard about published adventures was the lack of included maps, which is what I decided to specialize in, followed very closely by weak storylines and encounter links.
From the other publishers I’ve talked with, starting out slow is the best course of action, like wading into a pool rather than cannon-balling into the deep end. All the programs I used in the beginning were open license freeware, or demo versions of larger products, mostly because I couldn’t afford anything more at the time, but mostly in the event it blows up in my face, I’m out no real investment. As I progressed, I bought more professional software and was able to upgrade my work. Work with what you have, I was lucky enough to have an art major in my group, so I turned to her for art for my first full adventure. Looking to your Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS) is also a bonus, if you are lucky to have one. Ask them if you can have a game day to promote your products and then invite participants to spread the word via the internet.
Last on my list would be, broaden your horizons, or the other cliché, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. When I set out on this path, I was looking at only doing adventures, but in the almost two years since, I saw that there should be more variety to offer. Including the adventures I am writing, I have a Campaign Setting (CS), a novel (set in the CS), a free-form rule set for various genres, a unique game using my free-form rules and kicking around the idea of either a magazine, or a co-op and magazine aimed at third-party publishers and independent game companies. There is a mountain of advice I could give, but those are the highlights, perhaps when I get the magazine up and running, I will devote more time to that topic.
You’ve obviously put a great deal of time and effort into building your publishing company. What would you say about the landscape for 3rd party publishers right now? How has it changed, for better or worse, since you started in 2009?
I think the landscape has changed very drastically since 2009, and for the better. In much the same way as Auto-Tune has made stars out of unknown performers, the internet has made publishers out of average gamers and, unlike Auto-Tune, that’s a good thing. The one thing that can make or break a game is too much of the same and not enough variety.
Anyone who was around the gaming world at the end of 2nd Edition should remember that the repetitive, and often useless, books that TSR, Inc. was producing that suffocated the industry. (my opinion, of course, but other’s share this) When WOTC opened up their d20 system to third-party publishers for 3rd Edition, it was a breath of fresh air. Now we could, as gamers, get more unique and interesting products from a wide variety of sources. With the explosion of the Internet and the ease of obtaining information, this community grew even larger with the advent of 4th Edition.
Looking back over the last two years, I can see some of the companies that were rising up alongside mine have been silent for some time, which makes me thankful to still be in everyone’s face at this time in our economy. Even over the last year, more and more companies are popping up ready to release product and join the community, and that I think is fantastic. Competition is nothing to fear, it’s what should be driving each and every one of us to put out quality rather than quantity.
The other advantage, which I have been talking with others about, is now that the community has grown to the size it is, it’s time for unification. As independent publishers and game companies, our individual voice could be lost to the cacophony of individual voices all shouting for space. Whereas, if we all spoke as one, or at least one at a time, we would be heard by a much broader audience giving us all a chance to survive and grow. I know with Blackbyrne, there is no way that I could reach every potential gamer or DM, but as a group we could bring attention to the fact that there are quality products out there for your games that aren’t released directly from WOTC or Paizo. In the end, it’s the gaming community that wins, having a plethora of product to choose from can only help enhance their individual games, from players to DM’s, there is something out there for everyone’s tastes. Looking ahead, I am a firm believer that the 3rd Party Publishing is going to be the backbone of the community, using the variety to keep the interest fresh and unique.
How do you see that unity developing between 3rd party publishers who are in competition with each other to some degree?
As I see it, I know that my adventures aren’t going to appeal to everyone out there, but I also know there is a bigger audience than I currently possess. If other companies see things the same way (as I hope they do) they should also know that a combined effort would bring all of us to the forefront easier than each of us clawing our way along. Even some of the bigger, already established companies should remember, they were once the little guy and could have used a boost like a unanimous voice.
It would also be easier to address some issues with WOTC and Paizo that all of us have been struggling with regarding the open system licenses. For the most part, I do not hear much in the way of negative comments toward Paizo (not opinion, just observation), but there are some serious problems with WOTC and maintenance of their GSL. I am almost certain that many complaints from individual companies go unnoticed or at least ignored, after all they are from low profile sources. But a unified, high-profile co-op could make it easier to get resolutions regarding the issues. After all as much as we need them, interest in our products is symbiotic with the sales of their products and we could help each other stay the course through these troubled times.
That sounds like an interesting idea, but how would something like that work? I imagine there are many 3rd party publishers out there just trying to survive. What exactly would you propose to create greater unity between 3rd party publishers?
I think that it might work if enough like-minded publishers would commit to the idea. It would be a source for shared resources, shared advertising and community support. For example, a full-page ad for a gamer magazine could cost me as an individual company $400 for one issue, which is so far outside my budget it’s not even funny. If say 10 publishers in a co-op setting place the same ad, not for each company but for the co-op’s website which would contain the information for each company, then it only costs each of us $40 which is perfect for someone who is like me who has a limited budget and, occasionally, must draw from a household budget for certain expenses. Perhaps a smaller scale co-op could work where (like a 4th Edition adventuring party) everyone were to assume a role: a Pathfinder publisher who deals with supplemental core rules, a 4th Edition adventure publisher, a publisher creating source books for a campaign setting in either 4th Edition or Pathfinder (or both) and so on, that way no one is stepping on each other’s toes.
Then, the hypothetical co-op could also share artwork that they could not afford individually. Theoretically commissioning one artist for X amount of pieces that would cost $20.00 bought one at a time, end up being more like $12.00 en masse. The co-op would have to work as a single entity, rather than multiple parts, in order to attain the benefits, but finding the right group of publishers who are willing to work with each other is the true task.
I encourage anyone else who is of the same mind as me to come forward and toss out some ideas, as they say, united we stand, divided we fall. Wow, I am so starting to sound like a Marxist!
Your plan seems to require coordination between many entities, and I certainly wish you luck with that. What about the individuals out there that want to dip their toe in the self-publishing waters but not open their own business; how should they start?
For someone wanting to get their ideas into print, but don’t want to take the plunge of a full-blown publishing company, there are many avenues out there. First I would recommend Lulu.com for individual writers who have work that doesn’t require anything more than proofreading and simply want to get their work in print/circulation. But for something more specific to the gaming community and requiring more than just the written word, I would recommend contacting some of the other established companies.
Similar to WOTC, there are some companies out there who take in submissions and publish the works as freelance writer publications, Soldier of Fortune by Matt James comes to mind. I have published two such adventures as “Fan Submitted” works from writers who contacted me looking to get their work out into the community. I would love to take on more of these projects, but my time has become limited as of late and I need to focus much of it towards my existing projects, especially if I (as the publisher) need to create maps, find art and format the work into a PDF. If someone was to provide me with an almost ready to go PDF, then it would be a different story and I’m sure other companies feel the same.
You mentioned earlier that you thought Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition was more assessable for 3rd party publishers. Why do you think that is? Also, being a long-time player of multiple editions, what do you think about the evolution of D&D over the years?
I believe Monte Cook has been heard as saying some of the early 3rd Edition rules were specifically written for min/max exploitation, but that might have been a rumor, but seemed true at the time if it was a rumor. Without creating an Edition Wars send up, there are a lot of enjoyable aspects of 3rd Edition (and 2nd Edition) that I have fond memories of, but most of those memories were as a player and not the DM. With the release of 4th Edition, it seemed very clear to me that the balance of the rules made a DM’s job much easier, restructuring of monsters so that even at Level 1, a party would have multiple targets on the grid rather than a handful of non-threatening monsters that theoretically could kill you in one lucky shot.
Honestly, this ease is a double-edged sword, on the one hand it makes it easier to work with the mechanics so that more time can be spent on story and roleplaying. On the other hand, this ease also makes it easier for DM’s to create their own adventures and not need to rely on published products to run their games. Having spent the better part of (gulp) thirty years playing D&D, I can honestly say that with each change in Edition, the progression has been a logical one. While there are some people who still enjoy and prefer the original version, if the game had never changed I doubt it would still have the same following.
People change, as do their tastes, perceptions and attitudes, we are a fast food, video game society and to not keep things fresh and contemporary is to commit corporate suicide. My kids are between 10 and 17 years old and I have taught them how to play 4th Edition and they love it, I don’t think I could say the same for any of the previous editions.
I have also heard from others that 4th Edition is the “easiest” to run as a DM. And you point out that ease could result in lower demand for pre-published materials. Especially with many free online resources and adventures out there, why should a DM pay for your or other 3rd party published adventures?
If anyone’s life is as hectic as mine can be, easy or not, you don’t always have time to prepare something for your weekly games. That is where published adventures come in handy, you can “cut and paste” ideas and fill in the gaps with your own information or use the adventure in its entirety.
One feature specific with my adventures is that I provide maps for every encounter, that alone saves time for both creating/drawing your own and then translating them into dungeon tiles or even 3-D terrain. Also, with the ease of 4th Edition, new DM’s are popping up all the time, and in some cases, at a younger age. Having a ready-made, hassle-free adventure can be just what you need to “cut your teeth” behind the screen. Since I also convert my adventures to work with Pathfinder RPG, published adventures can relieve some of the stress of being a DM for the same reasons I felt 3rd Edition was not DM friendly. However, sales of my 4th Edition adventures and Pathfinder RPG adventures seem about even, so it is hard to tell which market might have an advantage over the other.
How you decide on price point? And is Blackbyrn your only job?
I set the prices based on what I see out there with other companies, factor in the value of what I am including (mainly all the maps) and set a list price. Then I mark it down if I think the market would support it at a better price. Now the print on demand is based on my actual cost and fair market price for similar products. My full-time job is being a dad and husband, but the one that pays is a purchasing agent for a small local supply house. This works for the moment because, in my down time, they don’t mind if I do a little writing here and there. I spend my evenings and weekends working on new products and play-testing the adventures.
It has been great learning about your journey as a young player and DM to your current endeavors with your publishing company. Where can DMs check out your products and contact you with questions?
The best place for current information would be our website, www.blackbyrnepublishing.com, where I post current news, or you can join the Forums and talk with other DM’s and players about almost anything you like including my products.
To get a hold of me directly, I am available at JeffGupton@BlackbyrnePublishing.com and I do answer every email I get (non-spam that is). Thanks for the opportunity to talk about myself, my Ego needs to get out and stretch every now and then.