Interviewing Brennan Taylor

By Simon Rogers

Brennan Taylor is the co-founder of Indie Press Revolution, and the writer of such games as Mortal Coil and the forthcoming “How We Came to Live Here.” We cover his games and explore what IPR has to offer small publishers and retailers.

Brennan, tell me a little bit about your history as a gamer.

I started way back in 5th grade on Red Box D&D. Gaming quickly became my favorite hobby, and I’ve kept up playing steadily since. I played D&D for most of my teen years, but in high school started to branch out to some other systems: Runequest, MERP from Iron Crown, Palladium, and Warhammer Fantasy. In college I started to play Vampire, largely because my future wife showed an interest in the game and I thought it would be a great way to spend more time with her. Around 2001 I met Vincent Baker at a convention and he told me about the Forge. I looked at their game reviews and bought a copy of Dust Devils, and that’s when I became a big indie games fan.

Which games have you most enjoyed playing recently?

I’ve played a variation on my Bulldogs! sci-fi setting using the Spirit of the Century rules and that’s been a blast. I am thinking about working that up as a real product because the rules and setting are such a perfect fit. I also got in a session of Houses of the Blooded and I’m very impressed by that system. It’s pitch-perfect for what John Wick was trying to do and I think it’s one of his best games.

I note that you are playing the new edition of D&D. How are you enjoying 4th Edition? It’s been describing as an “excellent miniatures game,” possibly to the detriment of roleplaying. To what extent do you agree with that statement?

I guess you could call it that, but that really doesn’t make me like it any less. The designers of 4th Edition really took a hard look at what they wanted the game to do, and they came up with a really tight design aimed at precisely the kind of gameplay they were after. It has a strong MMORPG feel, and I actually like that. If I’m going to play a game with strong tactical combat, I appreciate how rigorously balanced the system is. I also really like how they stepped up the teamwork. The characters can work together really effectively as a unit, and group strategy is really important in the game. That makes it even more enjoyable for me. I really don’t see there being more or less support for roleplaying in the rules compared to older editions.

What was your first experience of publishing like?

It was pretty much a complete disaster. I wrote and self-published a fantasy game called The Legend of Yore. It was my own answer to D&D, just like hundreds of other first-time game designers have done before and since. It was a commercial flop, but I did learn a lot about publishing and distribution while wasting several thousand dollars. My next efforts were far more realistic in their expectations and far more successful.

What was your first publishing success, and what lessons did you take from Legends of Yore?

My first real success was Mortal Coil. I published Bulldogs! before that, and although I didn’t lose money on that, it wasn’t a great success either. With Mortal Coil I took the lessons from my previous efforts and managed to build good buzz before I released it. I also was far more realistic about expected sales, and I actually ran the numbers on it. Planning is the biggest key to success, along with relentless self-promotion.

In a previous interview “The Games The Thing – Dec 06” you say you “aren’t a theory guy.” Is it that you are slightly embarrassed to be associated with inevitable debates that GNS theory causes, have you just not read it, or read it but not understood it? To what extent do you think your roleplaying game writing has been informed (directly or indirectly) by theory?

I have read the GNS theory and a lot of other theory, and I am pretty sure I understand it. What I meant by that comment is that I’m not a guy who comes up with theory of his own. I don’t consider myself particularly innovative in theory, and I haven’t written anything theory-related. I really am more interested in game rules themselves and how they work in play. That’s my main focus. I would say Mortal Coil is very influenced by the theory from the Forge. I consider it a Narrativist game, and it is very story-focused in what the rules ask you to do when playing.

You are releasing a new version of Mortal Coil. My game group have really enjoyed the setting creation of Mortal Coil, and I like the token-based mechanics but we found complex conflicts a little different to manage. This issue has been experienced by a few other groups, I think. How have you addressed this in the new version?

I’ve jettisoned some of the complexities in the rules and tried to streamline and better explain the procedure of the token-based mechanics. Most of what was wrong in the first edition is a failure to communicate, really. I also had a few counterproductive rules in the book that made the system more difficult. For example, in the first edition I advised people to do conflicts between only two characters at a time, and that’s often just not practical. The new rules have much better descriptions of all of the steps you take in a conflict, and there is an extended example in the book of a conflict between six different characters and how to run that.

Your latest game is How We Came to Live Here, “an exploration of characters and culture in a fantasy world modeled on the American Southwest.” Tell us a little more about this setting, and what it was that lead you to write a game this background?

The setting is a fantasy Southwest with an imaginary culture based on pre-Columbian ruins in the area. I am from the Southwest originally, and so it is a region I find interesting. There are hardly any games that deal with Native American cultures, and it struck me as an interesting topic. I love folklore, and the game is very heavily based on folklore. Character and setting generation focuses on interpersonal relationships, and the tensions between community needs and individual desires. The gender roles are very strict, and relations between men and women are a big theme in the game. Family relations are also important.You get some very emotionally wrenching and often very bloody stories in this game.

Who are the PCs in this setting?

Player characters are young heroes in a small village. The characters have personal ambitions, things they want to achieve in the game, and there are two GMs, one focusing on community influences who pushes conformity and tradition, and the other focused on outside influences who pushes chaos and the breaking of ties. Player characters have to navigate between these influences and also pursue their own personal goals. Basically, characters are constantly making choices. Do I pursue the woman I am interested in or do I help the elders in the village? Do I make a deal with that creepy sorcerer, or do I take second fiddle to my brother for the good of my clan?

How does the system manage the power balance between the two GMs and the player? Is it explicit?

It’s explicit. The GMs have a set pool of resources, and the players all start with a certain set of resources as well. Players will slowly gain in power, while the GMs do not, so unless the players get crushed early on they should eventually prevail.

You’ve released How We Came to Live Here as an ashcan. I find that playtesting is a very variable experience; sometimes I get lots of signups and little feedback, sometimes just a few excellent reports from a few people. How is the ashcan experience working out for you? What would you say to people interested in playtesting?

I had over 900 downloads of the game in the first week I released it for testing. That was back in July. To date, I have had zero play reports from anyone who downloaded the game. I’m pretty disappointed in the results. I got a lot of criticism about Mortal Coil having been insufficiently playtested when it was released, and I was hoping to get more feedback for How We Came to Live Here. Since I need to nail down the rules starting in January to keep on schedule, I am not sure I’ll have any outside feedback for this game. It’s pretty frustrating.

Are you still after playtesters, and how should they approach you?

Drop me an e-mail! It’s madhatter@galileogames.com . I am definitely interested in more playtesters, and I’d like to get some reports before I move ahead with the game in the spring.

Moving on to Indie Press Revolution. IPR has grown enormously over the past couple of years. What major changes have you overseen?

The growth of IPR has been pretty amazing. I never expected it to get this big. I was doing all the fulfillment myself, twice a week, when I started. The volume got so huge I had to get someone else to take over that part of the job. We do mailings every business day now, and our monthly volume is about the same as it was the first year I ran the company. We also have over 70 member publishers now, and some are a bit bigger than I originally envisioned when I started IPR. What we’re offering is appealing to all sorts of publishers, though. It just proves that there was a niche going unfilled in the game industry when we got rolling.

The retailers who buy via IPR, are they repeat customers? What type of retailers should stock IPR products, and which shouldn’t?

RPGs in general are a tough sell. They require a lot of expertise and care to sell properly. The right kind of retailer is one who is interested in building a culture of gaming around their store. If they can bring people in and get them interested in actually running games, this can create a self-sustaining market for RPGs. This does take effort though, so only retailers who want to put the effort in should be trying out indie games. These games don’t sell themselves. There are probably only a handful of RPG titles that do. Knowing your stuff is essential.

Do you think that IPR still serves the needs of the small creator-owned publishers? Is it an alternative to direct mail order, or a replacement?

I think you can do direct mail order on your own as a small publisher and still use IPR. I think IPR’s customer base is it’s own animal, and getting in there will help complement rather than replace other methods. Of course, you can just use IPR if that’s all you want. I want to better represent some of our smaller publishers. I try to feature these products in my Voice of the Revolution reviews, and I am thinking of some ways to better serve the little guys. We’ll see what we can come up with.

Indie Press Revolution

What quality controls do you have over the products you stock?

I review almost all the products we have on the site. A publisher doesn’t get to list with us unless I’ve seen and approved the product he wants to sell. I have pretty strict standards, and as IPR has grown I’ve gotten more selective rather than less.

IPR is set up as privately owned company. How do you balance the wants of publishers, shareholders and customers in this arrangement?

That’s always a tough thing to do. I try to keep the interests of each group in mind every time a decision gets made. I like to get input for the publishers, and sometimes I’ve had ideas they really hated. When that happens, the idea often gets scrapped. As far as customers are concerned, I want IPR to be a reliable place. A big part of our reputation is based on quality, so I want to make sure that I maintain the standards people expect when choosing new games and products to include. Fred Hicks is also great at customer service, so having him on board has been wonderful. We almost always manage to satisfy customers when they have a complaint. The shareholders are also a great crew. It’s a small group, and every single one bought into the company because they like our mission and are interested in helping publishers out in the hobby. They are really supportive and a great collection of minds, with perspectives from publishing, to play, to retailing.

What changes and new releases can we look forward to in IPR over the next year?

Keep an eye out for something big on the publishing side. I’d like IPR to use it’s muscle to help sponsor innovation and new blood in the hobby, and that’s something we are going to roll out before long. As far as new releases, we are pleased to have Cubicle 7 joining us this fall. They recently got the license to do the Dr. Who RPG, and I’m excited about that. They also publish Starblazers, a pulp sci-fi implementation of the FATE rules. Adamant Entertainment is also joining us, with their new license of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon setting. These are both really exciting to me.

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