Engine Publishing and the guys from Gnome Stew recently announced their second book, Masks: 1,000 Characters to Populate Your Worlds, so we decided to interview the man behind it all, Martin Ralya.
Engine Publishing and the guys from Gnome Stew recently announced their second book, Masks: 1,000 Characters to Populate Your Worlds, so we decided to interview the man behind it all, Martin Ralya. We asked him about RPG blogging, Masks and Eureka among other topics, and Martin was very forthcoming with his answers. Without any further ado, here’s the interview:
FHR: Hello Martin! For starters, please introduce yourself to our readers, who may not all be in the know about Gnome Stew and your other projects, past and present. Tell us whatever you’d like us to know 🙂
Martin: Howdy, I’m Martin Ralya, and I’m mainly a writer and editor. I write for a living (marketing material for a big company), as well as for fun; my for-profit projects fall somewhere in between. Those started with getting my first RPG freelance gig back in 2004, and I was still freelancing when I started Treasure Tables (2005-2007) and Gnome Stew (2008-present). I founded Engine Publishing in 2009, and we published our first book, Eureka, in mid-2010.
There’s a strong focus on utility in my work. Treasure Tables was my attempt to get away from what I saw as a dearth of real “from the trenches” GMing advice, and Gnome Stew is the evolution of that concept – we’re serious about giving GMs good advice they can actually use, as opposed to fluff and bullshit. And Eureka, which is an adventure toolkit, has the same underlying philosophy, too.
Gnome Stew is the best-known thing I’ve ever worked on. It’s a multi-author GMing blog with a new article every weekday (give or take), and there are currently 10 of us writing content there. The authors of the Stew have all become friends over the past few years, and with one exception – Don, who was my real-life friend before the Stew – we didn’t know each other in person when we started out. It’s been a fun ride, and we’re not stopping anytime soon.
FHR: What was your motivation for starting your first GMing blog, Treasure Tables? How and when did you get the idea behind Gnome Stew? Do you think that things in the RPG blogosphere were different back when you were starting TT as opposed to how they are now, and what are those differences?
Martin: I’d muddled around with other RPG projects before Treasure Tables (TT). Only two ever gathered any steam: 3d6.org was my attempt to catalog every single feat, skill, and other discrete PC element in D&D 3rd Edition, and it was fun until the d20 glut hit in earnest and I realized I was going to go broke buying shitty books just so I could add three feats to my index.
I also took a stab at indexing Dragon magazines, only to discover that a) indexing is hard and b) someone else was already doing it, and better. But given that both of those projects were indexes in one form or another, it’s not hard to see where some of our obsession with indexing Eureka got its start.
When I started TT, there were a lot fewer RPG blogs, and only Johnn Four’s excellent Roleplaying Tips was solely dedicated to GMing advice. But Roleplaying Tips was weekly, and sometimes felt less personal and immediately useful than I would have liked, so I thought “Why not use my GMing experience to post regular, personal advice about GMing?” And poof, that was Treasure Tables.
Gnome Stew was a refinement on TT’s basic concept, but I recognized the fact that TT burned me the hell out. Trying to post seven days a week, solo except for the occasional guest post, was what prompted me to shutter TT in 2007. But I hadn’t lost the itch, so I recruited nine folks I knew through TT and we started the Stew. Spreading the workload among 10 people makes life a lot easier and the blog a much better resource for readers.
Partway through running TT, say in 2006 or so, the RPG blogosphere (I hate that fucking word) exploded. A lot of really good blogs got started, like Musings of the Chatty DM (now part of Critical Hits) and the original incarnation of Dungeon Mastering, to name just two. There were also a lot of shitty blogs, too, but the bad ones tended to slide out of sight pretty quick.
Now things have stabilized: There are a LOT of RPG blogs, many of them excellent, and many, many people feel comfortable sharing their experiences in this format – which is awesome. The more good advice, and good free RPG stuff in general, that’s out there, the better.
FHR: Since you have a lot of experience with RPG blogs, is there any advice you could give to aspiring bloggers about getting started and actually noticed in the sea of many? There is certainly a lot of people out there who have the talent and motivation to share great stuff with the rest of the world, but starting a blog may seem as a daunting prospect, especially if you haven’t done so before.
Martin: There a lot of ways to skin this cat, but this advice should work for most potential RPG bloggers:
1. Pick a topic you’re passionate about. Don’t worry if there are 10 other blogs on this topic, but don’t just pick, say, D&D without narrowing it down a bit – you want your chosen topic to be broad enough to give you lots to write about, but also narrow enough in scope that you stand out. And being passionate about it trumps everything else. Without passion, you’ll lose interests and your readers will quickly spot that you’re writing about a topic you don’t really care about.
2. Pick a theme/template you like, and don’t worry if it’s perfect. If you know enough about HTML, CSS, and the coding format of your platform of choice (WordPress, for me) to modify it, make some changes – but don’t worry too much about it right now. Getting good content in front of readers is more important. Try to make something about your site’s design unique and memorable, whether it’s the logo, specific colors, etc., and run with that. As you get more into it, devote some time and money to improving your site design.
3. Pick a schedule that you think will work and stick to it. Err on the side of fewer posts, rather than too many (which risks burnout). If you pick MWF, post on MWF; your readers will know when to drop by for new content. And for the love of Christ, don’t a) make your first post “Here’s what this awesome blog will be about!!!!” unless it’s also accompanied by a second post that’s actual content, and b) recognize that if you keep missing post dates and posting crap like “Sorry I haven’t been posting,” it means you’re not really interesting in running a blog.
4. Once you have some good content up – say 5-10 posts at a minimum – write to bloggers you respect and ask them to check it out. When you write something you’re particularly proud of, share it with EN World as a news scoop (if appropriate), and look for other folks to tell. Don’t be a pest or a giant attention whore, but recognize that you need to self-promote.
FHR: Wow, that’s some great practical advice! It’s bound to be very useful to those who’re thinking about starting blogging but don’t know how to begin. But let’s get to the hot topic now. Your upcoming title, Masks: 1,000 Characters to Populate Your Worlds is obviously a spiritual successor and a complementary resource to Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters. What are the similarities and differences between the two? What would you say are the best things about Masks?
Martin: “Complementary” is a good description. Masks is definitely going to be a great companion to Eureka – with both books, you have a lot of prep taken care of for you – but you don’t need Eureka to enjoy Masks or vice versa. Step back and squint, and there are lot of similarities: both provide a LOT of discrete elements, meticulously indexed and presented in a manner that makes them easy to use; both are multi-genre; both have an underlying structure that required a surprising amount of design work to get right, and which is largely transparent in the finished product; both are books I wished existed, but didn’t; and both are intended to be the definitive resource in their niche – books with a place on every GM’s shelf.
The biggest difference between them is that while Eureka is almost entirely a “prep book”, one you don’t reference at the table, Masks is both a prep book and a “table book”, designed to be used during play. With a Masks character in front of you, all you need is stats and you have a complete, vibrant character with lots of roleplaying cues and interesting hooks all ready to go.
I can’t describe the best things about Masks at this stage in the process, because a lot of the details are still under wraps. But the best thing about it overall will be that it should be useful to almost every GM, regardless of game system preferences, gaming tastes, etc. I know it’s big talk to say that a book should be on every single GM’s shelf, but that’s our aim with Masks – as it is with Eureka. If you run games, you can benefit from Masks.
I’m also fond of the fact that every standalone NPC illustrated in Masks is an actual NPC that’s written up in the book. Some of these we wrote and then handed to the artists, and others we did in reverse, taking an illustration and writing an NPC to match. That was a ton of fun, and it means that there aren’t any generic “filler” NPC illustrations in the book.
FHR: You and the other authors must surely have had many more ideas than those that made it into the final version of Eureka, and that will make it into Masks. What is your process of selecting what gets to be published and what not?
Martin: The authors self-select on an individual basis, and this was true for Eureka as well. I’ll use myself as an example: When I sat down to write Masks NPCs, I outlined them first, and if an idea didn’t work post-outline, I discarded it. The 100 NPCs I wrote for Masks are the 100 I wrote – I could write another 100, but there aren’t any completed NPCs on the cutting room floor, if you like. That’s true for all 10 authors.
On the flipside, there’s an approval process: NPCs come to me for a review before they go to the editors, and anything that doesn’t work gets sent back for a rewrite. The beauty of working with the Gnome Stew team, though, is that these guys are all insanely creative, and they know how to translate that creativity into print. We spend so much time on design, and on getting on the same page, that by the time anyone sits down in front of a keyboard we all know what we want in the finished product. There’s also such a strong template and structure underlying Masks characters that we can’t all write the same ones by accident, or have 100 scimitar-wielding dark elves – the template guides our choices and helps to ensure that we produce fun, useful characters. The approval process is a safety net that I’m pleased to rarely need – this is a fantastic team. And at the end of the day, these aren’t RPGs. You couldn’t write an RPG this way: With a game, you need iterations and back-and-forth and playtesting and all that. We lay down a solid foundation during the design phase, and then we write. We all have slightly different styles, but play within the boundaries we’ve established, and we turn that diversity – 10 different voices and GMing styles – into a strength.
FHR: Which are your favorite plots in Eureka and why? Can you give us a few hints about your favorite NPCs in Masks?
Martin: My all-time favorite Eureka plot is Phil Vecchione’s “The Party,” #495. It’s a horror scenario about an extradimensional entity that manifests itself as a vampiric party, sucking people in and draining their lives. It’s brilliant.
I’m not ready to share a favorite Masks NPC at this stage in the production process.
FHR: What are the differences in your experiences of developing Masks and Eureka? Since Masks is your second book in the same vein, you surely knew how to do certain stuff better than the last time, but there were certainly some new problems as well.
Martin: God, yes – we learned so much by making mistakes during development of Eureka! The biggest difference is that we have a better idea how long things will take this time around, and where the pain points will be. So for example we ran two milestones for Eureka writing: 50% due on this date, the rest due on that date. We had four milestones for Masks, which gave us more touchpoints for revisions, feedback, etc. And this time around, we ran a lot of tasks in parallel, rather than in sequence. So editing got underway while writing was still in progress, and most of the art is done even though there’s no book to put it in yet, etc.
The biggest new problem has been finding time: We all have full-time jobs, families, other obligations, and do this in what’s laughably called our “spare time”. I think nearly everyone on the design team is busier this time around than we were when we wrote Eureka.
FHR: On a related note – what do you think is more effective in indie/small-press publishing, doing it solo or working with a team? Is it easier to publish a work as the sole author or with a group of authors? It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on various aspects of this. And what is the difference between publishing and blogging in that regard?
Martin: I’ve never done it solo, so I have no idea. I don’t personally have all of the talents you need to pull that off well – I can write, edit, design, and oversee, but I can’t draw, do layout, do art direction, index, do formal project management, etc. nearly as well as the specialists who are taking on those jobs with Masks. There are 21 people on the Masks team for a reason – I couldn’t even come close to publishing a book like this solo, and if I did no one would buy it.
I can say that while managing a group this large can be challenging, it was worth it on Eureka and it’s been worth it on Masks. The shared enthusiasm, the abundance of good ideas, and the momentum a team this large generates is a huge source of inspiration for me.
On blogging versus publishing, publishing is a lot harder. Comparing being new to publishing (like I am now) to being new to blogging (like I was in 2005), they’re both intimidating and involve a lot of work, but holy shit does the workload not even compare. With a blog, you can walk away for a week and things probably won’t fall apart; with a book, walking away for a week is a lot harder. And there’s more pressure, too: The final cost to produce Masks will be in the thousands of dollars, and that’s real money – if we open preorders and only my mom orders one (thanks, Mom!), I’m screwed.
FHR: What are the future plans of Engine Publishing? If the sales and general interest are of any indication, it’s natural to assume that you’ll continue with works similar to Eureka and Masks. Are you perhaps considering a book about location or even setting ideas? Or do you wish to do something entirely different next? Are you sticking to systemless titles or are there any plans for system-specific publications too?
Martin: Masks probably looks like a logical follow-up to Eureka, but it wasn’t conceived until well after we’d published Eureka. I don’t have a grand plan for Engine Publishing’s product schedule, largely because I’m just one guy and I’m still learning. But I loved publishing Eureka, as difficult as it was at times, and I absolutely want to publish books after Masks. One Eureka- or Masks-sized book a year is probably about my limit, though, unless Engine Publishing adds an employee or partner or two.
That equation changes if there’s less work involved, of course. A shorter, single-author title with fewer moving parts, for example, should be easier to produce than Eureka or Masks. And in fact I’m considering a single-author project as well as another project that could both start up this year. (I’m secretive about details because I hate it when publishers announce things that never happen, not because I like being coy. I wait to announce anything until it’s more or less a certainty.)
For the time being, my focus is on system-neutral resources for GMs – that’s been my passion for the past six years, from Treasure Tables through Gnome Stew and Eureka. But I’m not closing any doors: like most gamers, I have an idea for an RPG that might see the light of day sometime, and I’m working on a card game I’d love to publish. The key for me is passion: If I don’t love something, and think other gamers will love it as much as I do, it’s not worth devoting my incredibly limited time to publishing it.
FHR: System-neutral resources seem like a good idea for small-press publishing because you can potentially reach a wider audience that way. Do you think there is a big opportunity to be seized here, or is it more of a GM-oriented niche?
Martin: I see a huge opportunity for companies publishing quality system-neutral material, not all of it GM-oriented. It’s trickier to produce player-oriented system-neutral material because players often want new mechanical goodies for their PCs, but I can conceive of system-neutral books I’d buy purely as a player. You’re likely right that it’s a niche, or subset, that lends itself mainly to products for GMs – but GMs buy a lot of books.
I love system-neutral material, which is why I’ve focused on producing it for the past six years, and why I’m focusing on it for Engine Publishing’s initial products. There are too few companies doing this, and the conventional wisdom is that “system-neutral material doesn’t sell”. I don’t believe that’s true, so I’m putting my money where my mouth is and trying to prove that I’m right.
FHR: And for the end of our interview, the obligatory humorous question. If you had to pick any other race besides human and gnome, which would it be? And which three RPG books would you carry into an underground shelter in the case of an all-out nuclear war?
Martin: That’s an easy one – finally, because you’ve asked some challenging questions! My favorite D&D race has always been dwarves – sacrilege for the guy who owns Gnome Stew, I know. I love gnomes, as well, but dwarves are my favorite to play. Maybe it’s just because I’m tall and weak, and love the idea of being short and tough?
In a fallout shelter, I’d want the Burning Wheel core book, the Burning Wheel Character Burner, and the old gray boxed Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. That would give me a lifetime of amazing gaming until the giant mutant cockroaches killed me for picking an indie RPG to take into the fallout shelter.
These are the best interview questions I’ve ever been asked, and you prompted me to talk about some stuff I’ve never shared in an interview before. Thanks for a fascinating, and fun, interview!
FHR: And thank you, Martin, for providing incredibly insightful and meaty answers! It’s been a real pleasure.
So there you have it folks, we hope that you found this interview enjoyable and useful. If you have any questions for Martin, you can reach him at martin(AT)gnomestew.com, and be sure to follow him and the other gnomes over at Gnome Stew.