Jan 09

Faculty Meeting # 59 – CB Droege, All-text edition

cropped-New-RPG-Academy-Crest-Hi-Rez-clean-edges.pngHello 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. 

Do you consider yourself a Gamer?  What is your history with RPG’s?

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.

You are not only a game setting wrier, but you have other published novels. Tell us a little about those:



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.

Do you use your books as inspiration for the games you run or do your games inspire your stories?


A little of both, I suppose. When I do any world-building in the Darkworld setting (thats the name I use for the overall setting which The Isles of the Sun is a small part of) I’m always thinking about each detail in terms of role-playing narratives and non-interactive narratives simultaneously, so it’s dual work. From there, developing the narratives, the plots themselves, is very different work, creating a truly interactive and dynamic narrative for a group of players is very different from creating a static adventure story for a reading audience, so while the stories may interact, they almost never overlap, at least not by design.


When you prepare to run a game, do you prepare in the same way you prepare to write a book?


I’ve never really thought of these two processes in comparison to one another, but I suppose they do have some similarities. a big part of planning a piece of fiction is about understanding the characters and their motivations, and planning out their decision making processes, sometimes tweaking the characters themselves so that they will make the decisions one needs them to make to get them to the end of the story.Planning a role-playing adventure is also about character motivations and decision making processes, but it’s much more nebulous. I have to take the players’ personalities into account as well, if I know them well, and even then, it’s a probabilities game, not a science. I try to plan for the decisions I think they’ll make, and make those paths interesting, but as any GM knows, those kinds of plans often don’t last long.


You recently published a campaign setting based on your own work. Tell us about that process, how it developed, and your experience working on the project.


Darkworld is a fiction and gaming setting that I’ve been working on in bits and pieces since my very first attempt at DMing. The maps, the names of the characters and races, the political details, all have changed bit by bit over the years as I’ve refined it, but it’s still that same world.in 2008, a group of friends asked me to make them a new campaign, a fresh story in a fresh setting. I didn’t start from bedrock, however. I already had the mythology of Darkworld, I advanced the clock a few hundred years, twisting the paths of the peoples and governments of the world into a new place ripe for adventure, a place barely recognizable as the same world, even to the players who had adventured in it before (in fact, one of the really fun parts of the campaign for me, was slowly dropping hints about the mythology, and waiting for it to dawn on the players that some of this ‘history’ was events they had participated in in a previous campaign).

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.

You used KickStarter to successfully crowd fund your setting. Tell us about the crowd funding process and the experiences you gained in that process.



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.


You have also developed a card game based in your campaign world. Tell us about the game, how it’s developed, and what your plans are for it.


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.

I started with that adlibed description from that distant game-session and built from there. I didn’t want to make it a collectible game, like the in-world version, but I simulated that with a drafting process. The stream-lined play and clear rules made it a quick hit, but the first version were terrible on balance. Many play tests (by a fantastic group of volunteers, consisting partly of Kickstarter backers), and many iterations of the deck made the game what it is now. Somewhat ironically, Dragon Line is the most popular thing I’ve ever created, far outselling the campaign guide, and even surpassing the sales of my novel


Whats next for CB? More books, more games, perhaps another Kickstarter project?


Like most artists, I have a lot of plans and ideas pulling me in different directions. My primary love has always been short fantasy fiction, and that will likely never change, but I also enjoy branching out, and it’s difficult to decide what to do next. These are the things I’m working on:
I’ve got multiple short fiction pieces in the works, in various stages of completion and editing. I was planning to shop them around to magazines and anthologies, as I’ve done in the past, but I’m starting to feel like I don’t need all that. I may not be the best self-promoter, but recently I’ve learned that I can’t always trust publishers to be good promoters (or good anything) either, so I might decided to go it alone, and put out a book of collected stories under the Manawaker imprint.
I also have several stories and a lot of notes for a collection of non-fiction stories about growing up nerdy and atheist in suburbia in the 80s.
I know that eventually I need another novel. As much as I love writing short-fiction, Novels are the backbone of a modern author’s career. I’ve been putting off writing a Darkworld novel for over a decade, constantly telling myself that I’m not ready to begin the project, that Darkworld is too important to me to screw it up. I’ve decided to begin work on the first Darkworld novel, which takes place about 200 years before the ‘present’ in the setting guide, in the coming year, and the notes are already piling up.
I’d also like to do another Isles of the Sun game book, either as an expansion to the setting guide or a series of adventures (both, eventually). I would probably use Kickstarter again for such a project.
Finally, The success of Dragon Line has shown me that I might also have a knack for other types of game-design, so there is also a Darkworld strategy boardgame in development. If it ever gets to the stage where it starts to look like a real thing, that would likely also end up as a Kickstarter project. A lot of people have been telling me that I need to do a Dragon Line expansion first, though.
Obviously, I can’t do all of these projects at once, and right now, that’s sort of what I’ve been doing: pecking at each of these projects bit by bit as my fancy dictates, which is a fine way to live as an artist, but not a very good way to make a name or a career. If you have any tips for choosing a next project, let me know. 😀


If any of our audience wanted to get more info about your novels and game where could they go?


The best place to get Manawaker stuff is at the Manawaker eStore: http://mkt.com/manawaker
Everything is also available on Amazon, and that’s the easiest way to get eBooks of things, since I don’t have a way to do that in my eStore:
More information about Manawaker Studio and its publications can be found on the official website. There is also a blog there, which I use to keep fans posted about the business, as well as the occasional poem or short fiction piece.
On my personal, minimalist website, folks can find out about me and some of my other projects, though it doesn’t get as much attention or updates as the Manawaker site.


RPG Academy closer question: what advice would you give to a brand new player or GM?

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.”

What I mean is this: As GMs, we are world-builders and referees. We are also story-tellers, but that’s a job that has to be shared with the players. A good GM goes into a session or a campaign with a plan for the story certainly, but it’s just that: a plan. It cannot be set in stone. That much is something we hear a lot, of course. We talk about not keeping the story ‘on rails’, and letting the players guide the action, but how do you do that while also having a plan? You have a flexible plan (or, ideally, develop a sense for when a plan must be made flexible in real-time.
For example, in the last long campaign I ran, the second quarter of the campaign was meant to be a sort of on-the-run story-line, with the players being pursued across a country by the authorities. I had a whole sequence of quests and story lines set up for them: Places to hide, townsfolk to help in exchange for secrecy, a smuggler they must reach in time to get out of the country, all that goes with the trope. It was to begin when they pulled into port. The group had all been very anti-authoritarian and hard-headed through the first quarter of the campaign, so I thought this would be the easy part. Their ship pulled into port, and they were rudely questioned by the port authority and told (by only two, mean but weak looking guards) that they would be required to come along to the prison immediately and with no explanation. I fully expected them to knock these guys out and make a break for it, starting the chain of the story.
Instead they went along with the demand, and surrendered themselves and their weapons peacefully to the jerk port authority officers. I had not made a plan for that. I should have.
I gave myself some time to think by making them wait a bit in a cell. Perhaps they would even find a way to escape, and the story would be back on. They didn’t even try.
I made a new plan and I took them to meet with the governor of the city, who treated them nicely. By the end of the conversation, he had drafted them into his martial police service, and given them a mission to secretly cross the country to meet with a contact who would take them out of the country. There were a lot more details than that, of course, but the important part to my little anecdote is that all of the things I had planned on them doing as fugitives, they would now be doing as secret government agents.
This is what I mean about flexibility. I could have found a way to force them to become criminal fugitives, but that would have been less fun for the players. They would have surely felt the rails of the story then. I could also have completely abandoned the on-the-run storyline I developed, and come up with something else, but that would have been less fun (and more work) for me.
Instead, I kept the on-the-run quest line, but made tweaks to adapt it to their new situation. It would have been better had I planned it, and I learned to do that kind of planning going forward. In a way, it keeps the story on some kind of rails, but the rails aren’t visible to the players. Adventures and story lines can be designed in such a way that the arc stays intact, while the details can be flexed to fit the decisions the players have made.
In short: It doesn’t have to be a decision between ‘rails’ and ‘off-the-rails’. You can find a middle ground, and you can even plan for it, though you don’t always even have to.


Thank you so much CB for your time.  Very sorry that the audio version was a loss. We look forward to hearing about your future projects.




CB had the opportunity to stop by AcadeCon in November and show off his Dragon Line game.  We ran a small tournament of it (there are some pictures of us playing in FB page) and our Star Wars GM Brad P. ended up winning (despite my prediction that Rob had it in the bag after round 1) and CB gave him a signed copy of the game for his efforts.
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