I first learned about TPK Games’ Brian Berg a few weeks ago. I had clicked a link for a Kickstarter Project and saw his name as the creator, clicked his Facebook link and saw he was in Iowa and seemed like a down to earth guy, so I sent a friend request. Within about 10 minutes he added me with the note:
“On your page it showed randomly that you liked The Dude, LotR, DJ Mea and Raging Swan Press. So yeah, we can be friends.”
I recognized good brand messaging, quality artwork and solid marketing as well as what looked like really cool Pathfinder modules and material. I downloaded a couple of items from their store and confirmed; these guys make some good stuff and I might learn something by paying attention to them.
Being consumed with my own nerdy renaissance and rediscovered love of the fantasy role-playing game, I am greatly inspired by Brian Berg and his company. I have been fascinated by folks who make gaming an occupation since the 1980’s, Gary Gygax and AD&D. Brian was very forthcoming about his experience in writing and publishing and I owe him a debt of gratitude for agreeing to be interviewed. It’s even better that he turns out to be a really down to earth and genuinely nice guy! If you’ve ever thought you’d like to write for, draw/paint for or sell content for the Pathfinder Open Game License market, you need to read this interview. (And it wouldn’t hurt to pick up a few of their products to see what goes into quality independent Pathfinder RPG materials, as well as add to your collection.)
How / why did you start TPK Games?
We started publishing Total Party Kill Games products in 2011. I was a firm believer in the open gaming movement and personally purchased a LOT of third party content for 3.5 D&D and early Pathfinder. My business partner PJ and I were drinking some dark beer, mulling over the latest release by one of our peers. We both had a strong passion for gaming and creating our own content, and we really just said to ourselves that we needed to bring our own dark brand of fantasy to the masses. If only it was actually that simple!
I had written a lot of content (amateur/fan content) for a Rifts d20 project. There were a lot of folks following my work, and it was a lot of fun. It was not for profit though and the production values were very amateur. I even met with Kevin Siembieda (creator of Rifts) who not-so-politely told me that d20 was a terrible system and would never last. So the seed to publish my own work was there, it simply hadn’t taken root yet.
What were the struggles / challenges?
To be honest, there is a huge difference between WRITING your own gaming material and PUBLISHING your own gaming material. As a writer, you really only need to create the content, which is the fun part! As a publisher, you have deadlines. You have projects that need managed. You need to juggle time constraints plus author and artist egos. There is also the actual raw skills that are needed for everything. Can you or your team design? Do layout? Create art? Market your product? Do graphic design? Also, if you are not a “do-er,” don’t even bother. Know your limitations.
But luckily for us, we were ambitious, fearless and foolhardy. We simply forged onward and let nothing deter us. The good news is that we were able to respond to reviewer’s critiques and continually improve our offerings. We soon found ourselves building a following. The TPK brand of dark fantasy was here to stay.
What’s your personal favorite TPK Games product?
That’s a really difficult question. It’s like asking a parent which one of their children they love the best. I think that I really love one of our shorter villain supplements the most, Infamous Adversaries: Rax’ath Viz, the Creeping Rot. The reason I love it so much is because it represented a huge leap forward in our abilities and there was a great amount of collaboration that went into the product. We took a simple pathetic kobold and created something so vile that any player that was to come across our creation would have to shiver at the real evil within. They would be able to be emotionally invested in the defeat of such a great villain and would have lots of memories of the game when it was over. That’s something we really strive for with our content.
My favorite game supplement is the Malefactor, a class based on themes of doom and curses. Merely being in their proximity is prone to cause disaster, and these anti-heroes learn to channel their own misfortune onto others. It’s a really fun class that really encourages roleplaying.
If I had to pick an adventure, it would be The Ship of Fools. The ‘Ship’ is just one really mean explorative adventure. The players find a derelict ship and find out there really are worse things than ghost ships full of undead…
How important is the inclusion of art work in the final product?
I am of two minds on this. One, it isn’t important at all if you have great content. People will pay for great content if it was wrapped in toilet paper. On the other hand, you may never get a single sale on your product if no one glances at it twice. People do judge a book by its cover, and if your art or presentation is bad, they probably aren’t looking at you twice. Is it fair? No, but that’s precisely the mentality.
What’s planned for the future / coming up?
I have a lot of really great content coming for 2013. I wish there was more time in the day!
Let’s see, we just released Dwellers in Dream, our first themed race book. This one has five original fey-themed races within, and clocks in at a whopping 80 pages. Based on the popularity of this book, we’ll definitely be doing more. Expect to see more collaboration from us and other third party publishers in the design of these books. They are going to be fun for sure, both to read and to play with. One of my major design tenets is that the races have to make players say “Damn. I really want to play one of those!” There were plenty of races in the older editions that just filled a niche. They didn’t provide any substance or have any inherent roleplaying qualities. You played them because you liked that bonus to hit or some such. I wanted fresh races with strong playability and a reasonable excuse for existing in your setting.
This summer will also see the release of Laying Waste, a book on critical combat. We overhaul the entire critical hit system in d20 and Pathfinder and give you over 100 pages of new feats, archetypes, prestige classes, traits along with critical hit tables and fumble charts. Without question, this book will change how you play the game. Again, I have my own design philosophy on how critical hits should play out. Sheer hit point destruction is boring and quickly breaks down the game. Expect fun mechanics that enhance your gameplay.
There are also a handful of deadly TPK Games adventures coming out too. I don’t want to go into specifics, but this year will see some of the best adventures we’ve written published.
Do you prefer Hack n Slash or Epic Story?
I prefer story over hack and slash honestly. I put story above rules too. In fact, much of our hack and slash comes because of the story. In our adventures, we do not shy away from danger and combat. CRs exist to give relative strengths to encounter design; you should not be married to them. If the story calls for higher CRs, then use them. The players should not know they will be able to defeat every encounter. They should question the wisdom of combat every time. They should know that retreat might be necessary. They should want to use intelligent tactics rather than rushing in. Killing the monster is not always how you “win.” Lastly, poor choices should be “rewarded” with danger and the omnipresent worry of a Total Party Kill. Play our adventure The Ship of Fools and you will understand my meaning.
There was something really great about the older editions and their fear factor. The wandering monster tables weren’t based on CRs either, let me tell you. Many a time, we ran away like the cast of Monty Python. Being dumb or unlucky often mean your death. You really had to earn your levels.
When did you start gaming? What game / edition was your entry?
My first introduction to gaming was the 1st edition of D&D. I think it was probably the “gateway” game for many others as well. I owned all the original hardbacks and despite not knowing the rules initially, we had a lot of fun and made up everything as we went along. I was hooked. Shortly before that, my middle school English teacher had us read the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That was our entire year’s curriculum. There was no doubt that helped shape my love for fantasy. Man, I owe that guy a thank you letter!
Which do you prefer, running a game or playing? Why?
While I do enjoy both, I prefer to run games. I love seeing the look on people’s faces when they uncover my twisted plots or discover the nature of the adversaries I set forth to challenge them.
How often do you get to play for pleasure? Do you run a home game?
Sadly, I only game once a month, and sometimes not even that. My time is extremely limited between being a corporate zombie for a fortune 500 company, the CEO of TPK and still trying to have a family too.
When you want to create, what inspires you?
When I’m working, I love to listen to music. It really depends on my mood, but I dig everything from the Beatles to David Bowie on through the 80’s bad hair bands and some of the newer music such as Korn or Stone Sour. Alice Cooper is still my muse.
I’m also inspired by other authors. I’ve been gaming a long time and I’ve seen a ton of mechanics, so it’s great when someone does something fresh or bowls me over with a new twist on an old theme. The game is constantly in a state of evolution and I really love that.
What advice would you give to the upcoming game material author or entrepreneur?
If you are seriously thinking about this line of work, I strongly urge you to join Paizo’s RPG Superstar contest. To me, it is the de facto contest to show off your chops and get some notice in the industry. If you do really well, you might have the opportunity to write some material for Paizo. Even if you don’t make the top four, you might get a third party company (like us) to take note and say, “hey, this person’s design philosophy or brand of writing closely matches our own… we should offer them a job.” Barring all of that, you will get a ton of good feedback from industry insiders and learn some new tricks of the trade which will hopefully let you come back swinging next year.
Ironically, I never bothered with the RPG Superstar contest. I was already making content and never paid it any attention. I wish I had, it would have been a lot of fun. However, if you have the chops, you can probably skip the contest and go right to freelancing for some third party companies. Anyone who is really proud of their work should have some FINISHED examples of whatever they do best to shop around. If you want to consider writing with TPK, feel free to send us a line at Submissions@tpkgames.com. Just be prepared to answer some tough questions about your strengths and weaknesses, teamwork, communication skills and follow-through ability. The latter probably being the number one trait I look for in a writer/designer. Remember, everyone wants to write gaming books for a living. It’s a lot of work though, and looks a lot better on paper than in practice.
Well, since this is an interview I should probably leave on some high note or words of wisdom. I guess I’ll have to say that despite making money at this endeavor, it’s all about the friendships I’ve made over the years. Gaming has been good to me. People over the years have thought that gamers were nerds or social misfits, and while sometimes true, no stereotype is always accurate. Myself, I’m a very social person. In fact, my favorite aspect of gaming is the social one. Roleplaying is inherently a social game, played with friends face-to-face (though that is changing). No matter where you live, if you go to the local hobby store you can forge new friendships and bond over similar experiences and a love for the game.
Geek is the new jock. Look at television and movies and you will see that the supernatural and fantastical dominate. It’s not as eclectic as it once was, and it permeates pop culture. Having “nerdy” skills is cool these days as technology has become a badge and sometimes symbol of status. There is a reason that The Big Bang Theory is so popular. Embrace your inner geek and do what makes you happy.
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