Hello and welcome to Faculty Meetings: The General advice and discussion show from The RPG Academy. This is Faculty Meeting # 59 – Interview with CB Droege about Dragon Line. A few months back Caleb and I had the pleasure of interviewing local writer, educator and game creator CB Droege about his success with a Kickstarter for a Campaign setting he wrote as well as a 2-player strategy game (Dragon line) he created as part of a Kickstarter Stretch goal. Unfortunately that audio was unusable. After several unsuccessful attempts to reschedule the interview CB agreed to write out at length some answers to our questions. So, here is the All -Text edition of Table Topics # 59
CB, welcome to the show. Would you mind introducing yourself to our audience?
I’m CB Droege, a poet and fantasy author from Cincinnati. I am also an instructor of English at a couple of local colleges. Gaming of all sorts is a hobby of mine. RPGs are no small part of that, but I’m also an avid collector and player of tactical boardgames and thoughtful video games.
Gaming is both my prefered method for digesting stories and my prefered social interaction. Double bonus if I get both, and table-top RPGs can offer that.
I’ve been playing RPGs in various incarnations for over twenty years. My first experience was a neighbor’s AD&D from-the-book campaign, and it soured me to TSR stuff for a long time. I loved the idea of table-top role-playing, but didn’t enjoy the system (It wasn’t until many years later that I realized it was just a bad GM, not a bad system). For years, my friends and I experimented with other systems, both published and homegrown, freeform and structured.For a long time, we used a system of my design which consisted entirely of opposed dice rolls, with ability and combat strength being represented by larger and more dice with no modifiers (for example: a particular weapon might be listed as 1d8+1d4, while a particular armor might be listed as 1d10, and the damage dealt would equal the difference in the rolls if the attacker won. The same kind of opposed rolls were used for everything.) It was a particularly good system for 1 DM / 1 Player situations, which is mostly what we were doing back then, but when we tried to do things in large groups the sheer number of dice to keep track of got overwhelming, and the lack of a formal rulebook frustrated some players.We abandoned the system completely for 3rd Edition when it came out, and have upgraded through 3.5 to Pathfinder smoothly in the time since. Of course, the membership of the group changed a lot over that time as well.For most of those years, I was the go-to GM. A lot of what I’ve learned about story-telling and world-building came from those many years of DMing.
My one published novel is not related to RPGs. Zeta Disconnect is a time-travel adventure novel. It’s been described as reminiscent of Philip K. Dick novels (specifically, it’s been compared to both “Total Recall” and “Minority Report”) which is not a surprise, considering how much Dick’s novels have influenced my personal ideas about fiction.My other publications are The Isles of the Sun campaign manual, which details the races, classes, magical items, NPCs, and so forth for The Isles setting; a series of chapbooks which showcase my short stories; and lots of little things published across various magazines and journals, including a bit of poetry.Unfortunately, though lots of my fiction and poetry has been published, very little of the fiction which ties directly into the Isles of the Sun setting has seen print. Hopefully, that will change in the near future.Upcoming projects include a collections of short fantasy stories, and a new novel, set as a prequel to the campaign setting.
This setting became The Isles of the Sun, and after a four year campaign, I had enough material for many books about the setting.I wouldn’t have sought publishing without the encouragement of those players, however. The campaign was such a joy for them all, and so different from any setting they’d adventured in before, they pushed me to put it all together into a book. Without that encouragement, I likely wouldn’t have ever thought of myself as a game-designer, just an author with a gaming hobby.
Kickstarter felt like a safe place for this project for a few reasons:Typically, I tried to have my work traditionally published, with publishing houses, and copy-editors, and the like, the way the novel and all my poetry and short stories have been to-date. But, I didn’t consider the setting guide a part of my writing career, it was just a side project, and didn’t need to go through traditional, “legitimate” publishing channels.In some ways, I had to approach the publication of the book as a bit of a lark, or I never would have gotten it done. Kickstarter was a way to do that. The entire time I was planning and running the Kickstarter campaign, part of me was thinking “When this fails, I’ll have a good excuse to side-line the project forever, and stop thinking about publishing a game book. I can point to the failure of the campaign and know that I tried, that it wasn’t meant to be, and I can move on.” Of course, that’s not what happened. The Kickstarter was successful, and then I had to do the damn thing. If it had failed, it would have been the perfect excuse for quitting. As a success, it became the perfect kick in the butt to make it work. This is part of the power of Kickstarter I think. Unfunded projects should not be seen as a failure, but as an idea that was successfully retracted before it got too far to turn back.Finally, it was great because of all the pre-publishing work that the book needed. Novels take a lot of work, but it’s mostly (other than copy-editing) the author’s own work, and can be done on the side while working other jobs. The real work of a novel comes after it’s published: Marketing and promotions, and such-like things that a publisher is better equipped to handle (at least in my own case: I’m not a good self-promoter). A game manual, however, requires lots of other pre-publication work. Illustrations being the bulk of it, but play-testing and typesetting are also important. The isles of the Sun manual could have been published without all those great illustrations, but it wouldn’t have been worth much. Good table-top manuals have good illustrations, and good illustrations require artists. A whole team of them, in this case. That meant that, unlike my fiction and poetry, this project required capital.
Working with the illustrators is likely where I learned the most from the Kickstarter publishing process. I had never done that before, and I vastly underestimated the difficulty of it. I had a great stable of talented artists lined up from day one, and thought that I could get all the illustrations from them, and into the book, in less than six-months, which is the time-frame I quoted on the Kickstarter page. After four months, only about 10% of the illustrations were done, and I knew I was in trouble. My artists were great, but they work at their own pace, and I had no good way to give them hard deadlines.
I hired more artists, kicked out others (very hard to do), started managing them with an online task manager, and tried to gently push them to finish illustrations more quickly. I was still on track for the book to take an extra two years to illustrate.
I had a stroke of luck when I found and hired Alexis Vivallo, who was (mixed blessing) not otherwise employed, and was willing to concentrate almost exclusively on my project. When it was all done, he had created about half of the illustrations in the book, including almost all of the large chapter-heading pages. If you notice a pervasive style among the books’ art, that’s Alexis’ style you’re seeing.
All the illustrations were finished only about 7 months overdue my original estimate, and, with the final rounds of editing and typesetting, put the whole book overdue by about ten months by the time it was set off to the printer, and by over a year by the time the first recipients got their books in hand.
If I do another Kickstarter for a book like this (or anything really), I’ll be much more careful with my time estimates, and then still give myself lots of padding. I never got any complaints from my backers, they were al very patient and supportive, but it was a burden I felt more strongly every day it was late, and I didn’t enjoy that aspect of the project. Better to take the chance that it will be early, than that it will be late.
The card game, Dragon Line, was the biggest surprise of the whole process. The game started out as an improvisation during a play session. I had told the players that there were some raucous folk playing a card-game at a market stall as they were walking around. It was one of those throw-away details designed more for atmosphere than anything else, but, as players often do, one player latched onto the detail, and asked for more.I started describing the game in adlibed detail. I told the players that it was a game invented by sailors, constructed of old promotional cards for a trading company. The players called it Dragon Line, and I described it, at the time as “sort of like the old card game War, but with some deck-construction and tactical decision making mixed in.”Later, that same player-character bought a deck of the cards from one of the locals, and tried to learn the game, so I had to come up with rules for how my players could play a game inside my game. I didn’t adlib this part, I made the player wait until I had the system in place before playing the game.The main goal with that system was to make it about the character playing the game, not the player, so I didn’t need rules for the game itself, just a series of rolls for the player to make, and a system for what those rolls and bonuses would be based on. A couple of the players got into collecting cards (which improved their rolls) and playing against any NPC they could find with a deck on hand. The version of Dragon Line in the guide is very close to the system I developed then.
When I was planning the Kickstarter, I felt like I needed some stretch goals because that’s a thing. One of the goals I came up with was to actually make a real-world playable version of the Dragon Line game. It was the second-highest goal, and I never thought I’d have to actually do it, but on the last day, in the last few minutes, it just barely crossed the goal line, and Dragon Line needed to be made real.
Well, my first advice is always “Fun is more important than rules or story”, but you probably get that alot, so I’ll go with a bit of a corollary to GMs “A flexible story won’t break as often.”