This time on behalf of The DoucheyDM I am happy to bring you an interview with Brian Berg of TPK Games out of Waterloo, Iowa. TPK Games is known for some pretty killer (literally and figuratively) enemies and scenarios. They also are a good group of folks who like to interact with their fans, whether through their website, Facebook, or at a convention. Let’s get right into it.
Can you tell us a bit about the history of TPK Games?
Certainly. I think that here in Iowa, gaming is a pretty popular pastime since there is less to do than say California or Florida, and the people here are generally educated (though I can think of many instances to disprove that part of my theory). That leaves a lot of room for gaming of all varieties.
My partner Patrick (PJ) Harn and I spent many an evening gaming together over the years. We both spent a lot of time designing new classes, feats, etc. for our own personal campaign settings. One particular day we were chewing the fat and drinking some delicious dark beer and getting philosophic about the gaming industry. A number of third party companies were writing really good material to support the games we loved through the Open Gaming License.
We had just purchased one from a company called Super Genius Games. It was a small sourcebook, with a small but solid amount of content. We were deep in our cups, but laughed to ourselves and said “Why the hell aren’t we doing this?”
There is much blood, sweat and tears between that moment and now, but I don’t regret any of it at all. This endeavor has been so rewarding on many different levels.
What was the impetus behind the Infamous Adversaries line?
The Infamous Adversaries line was our first product idea. We wanted to do something different, something that was edgy and yet useful to GM’s. We decided that doing a line of inexpensive villains would be very handy. We set the price low and wanted it to be something that GM’s picked up, read and tossed right into their campaigns.
The product line expanded greatly in offering. Now we even include Hero Lab files of all the content within. The line has grown and attracted some really great authors who all want to come up with the worst villain they possibly can. It’s both a lot of fun and something that most GM’s can find useful at some point in their games.
How did creating Pathfinder compatible scenarios come about?
As for writing Pathfinder adventures, this was in the plans from day one. We wanted to get our feet wet on a simple product like the Infamous Adversaries, and learn from them before a huge undertaking like writing a full length adventure.
Again, we tried to create setting neutral adventures that fit easily into the campaigns of GM’s. It doesn’t matter if your game is in a home-brew setting or Golarion (the default Pathfinder setting), our adventures can be dropped into it.
Our goal for adventure writing is to produce an adventure that is really exciting and memorable. Something your players will talk about for years to come. Rumor has it that this is proving true. Our adventures are not exactly easy.
Any interest in writing for other RPG systems in the future?
A resounding yes. I’m very interested in eventually providing content for the Savage Worlds system. In addition, if Wizards of the Coast can create an acceptable license for their 5th edition game, then we will probably support it as well. That’s a big “if” though.
Can you give us an executive level overview of what it takes to publish a product from the original idea to a finished product you can hold in your hands?
It’s a nightmare. Honestly, publishing is sooooooooo much harder than I believed. You start with a concept, and people in general have lots of good ideas. You find out that the implementation or follow-through on those ideas is much harder than it seems. Once a concept is approved, it has to be given a rough draft, a concept with some flesh to it. Then if that is going good, you coordinate artwork, cartography, etc. Then with luck you don’t spend your money funding something that will never get written or finished. If you are able to successfully get a final draft from a writer, then it must be thoroughly vetted, playtested, and edited. Each of which is no small task either.
Once your product is finished, then you have to market it. Some markets are easy to get into, and others much less so. It’s a trick to know how to present something to make people generate buzz about it and be interested in trying you out.
Publishing gaming material is truly a gamble, and not for the faint of heart or for those who aren’t really, really driven.
It seems a lot of people think they can slap together a scenario, put it on DriveThruRPG, and then sit back and wait for the money to roll in. That’s obviously not a great plan. Any advice for others out there who want to self-publish?
A lot of people do exactly that. Unfortunately, places like DriveThruRPG are flooded with really amateur work. Amateur is not always a bad thing though, and we were those amateurs a couple years ago. So the key is taking feedback, knowing your audience, and having a solid vision beforehand. What is your brand? How are you going to differentiate your work from the multitudes of other wishful publishers? I think that is the hardest part.
Nearly every good idea you have is going to already be done by someone else. How do you make that idea your own and better than the last guy? It’s a really tough market, and brand is what separates you – and diligence.
What are you looking for in a submission? Do you want a complete scenario? A general outline with some sample text?
We do take submissions. Typically I hire freelance writers to assist us on all of our projects going forward. Sometimes though someone will hit me up with an idea for one of our lines that I just can’t say no to.
If someone wants to pitch us an idea (for any type of product really), they can contact me at Necro@tpkgames.com directly, or firstname.lastname@example.org. I am looking for a fully formed idea, with enough written to show some depth to your concept and a hint of your design ideas. Also, showing that you cared enough to proofread your own spelling and grammar is a must. A good submission to me is half to a full page of material.
You’ve been pretty active in the local convention scene and you’ll be at Gen Con in August. With working a regular job and the needs of the TPK Games business, how do you maintain the energy and enthusiasm to travel to all these conventions, interact with fans, run games, and be ambassadors for the company?
The energy and enthusiasm is the easy part. The time commitment is the harder part. I have a child who is 9, a girlfriend, a full time day job and I run TPK out of my office at home the rest of the time. I think life is about balance, and I try to commit equally to all of them.
I consider myself a very driven person, and my passion for gaming is part of the reason I can juggle all of this. My girlfriend is also very understanding and supportive, and I could not do this otherwise.
One of the things I’ve liked about TPK Games products is that you guy do not mess around. I consider your games very tough, but fair. If players go into one of your scenarios without proper preparation or forethought, odds are they are not walking out of there alive. Is this just your preferred way of gaming, or did you feel a certain amount of lethality had been lost in recent years?
That’s exactly our intent. We completely disregard the notion that adventures should be based on challenge ratings. We all grew up in the era of the wandering encounter charts, where a wrong turn could lead to a deadly encounter. You had to run sometimes or be really resourceful to live. We don’t want people to assume they can always win. That’s not how real life works either. We prefer to tell a story, one that really scares the hell out of you and makes you question whether or not you should actually bust through that door and face what’s inside.
TPK Games recently began a Kickstarter for a new project called The Bleeding Hollow. What can you tell us about it?
Oh man, the Bleeding Hollow. Well, you mentioned our style of adventures earlier. This is the mother of them all at this point. The Bleeding Hollow is an amazingly thought provoking adventure. It is a survival-horror sandbox style mega-adventure. It’s very ambitious, and we’ve been writing it for over a year.
Unfortunately, the plot is very spoilerish, so I don’t want to reveal anything. However, I can say that the adventure starts out very innocuous, playing just like any other store-bought adventure. But it slowly leads the players deeper and deeper into what could be a spiral of no return.
It’s one of those adventures that once the players realize what is happening, everyone will take a deep sigh and collectively say “oh shit!” The key to a good adventure is getting the emotional buy-in from the players. We do that and more. There will be times where even the best or worst alignments will be tested. Paladins may have to consider losing their powers just to stay alive or martyr themselves for their ideals. Are they worth dying for?
This is what makes memorable gaming.
You can find our Bleeding Hollow Kickstarter project here.
Even a single dollar donation will help promote us. The more backers we can get, the more attention we can attract. We are hoping to release this and several of our other books to the mass market upon its release, and support is key. Of course you can always pledge some money to the project and get a copy of the adventure itself before everyone else!
Any final thoughts?
TPK has been steamrolling through a lot of hurdles this year. The number one thing I want to say is a resounding THANK YOU to the fans and those who support us. I’ve met a few of the very successful gaming industry folks and they left a very poor impression upon me. Regardless of how successful we become, we are all gamers too. I will continue to go to conventions and want to sit in on other people’s games. I want to be friends with all of our fans and chat on Facebook about their own campaign settings and ideas. I want TPK to be successful, but I fully know we are getting to where we are because of the grass roots support of the fans. It will never be forgotten.
Some other fun things to look forward to are the Malefactor base class, a curse-eating, hex (ish…) wielding, bringer of doom. What, did you think we would settle for just writing adventures?
Also, we have a partnership with Super Genius Games coming up. We’re going to write an Infamous Adversary based on their awesome Death Knight class. Look forward to that one, it will be fun.
I literally have half of 2014 penciled out with tentative product releases. This year should see a dramatic increase in our releases and 2013 should be amazing as well. And I haven’t even mentioned a TPK Games campaign setting yet…
Thanks to TPK Games for taking the time to answer my questions. Be sure to check out the Bleeding Hollow Kickstarter and DriveThruRPG for all TPK Games products.
Filed under: Misc