Meet the Publisher: Geek Gamers
Geek Gamers is the host of Geek Gamers, a leading YouTube channel focusing on solo RPG, game design, and board games. She is also co-founder of 90th Street Productions, a book publisher of RPG supplements. I wanted to interview her thanks to the dramatic increase in popularity of solo gaming over the past few years. She was kind enough to respond to my questions.
Question: How did you get involved in solo roleplaying, and what about it made you develop it into such a passion? What's your favorite *part* of the experience; is there anything that really surprises you that emerges through play?
Answer: Solo RPG mixes together two of my favorite things: storytelling and gaming. I'd been playing board games and reading RPG rule sets for decades, since I was a child, and rolling up characters. Sometimes I'd try to put the characters into a story I made, either using elements from a rule set (which was basically just D&D at that time), or even into other books I was reading such as adventure or mystery novels. In the 1980s, it was hard for a girl to find a welcoming RPG group, so I improvised. I suppose you could say that this was the beginning of my solo roleplaying.
Fast forward to early 2017, when I had a board game YouTube channel and posted a video on one of my favorite childhood games, James Bond Assault! (1986). This wargame recreates scenes from the assault on the secret volcano rocket base in the 007 movie You Only Live Twice. The game rules suggest to players that they incorporate elements from the James Bond RPG (1983) into the board game itself. Few specific guidelines are included for doing this, but I demonstrated how it could be done in that video. That became my first "solo RPG" video, and I believe it to be one of the very first solo RPG vids ever on YouTube.
I received a lot of interest and questions from viewers about what I was doing in that video and in response began to create videos that took explicitly macro approaches to the topic. For example, I posted a series of videos on how to create your own solo RPG adventure where I talked about general elements of solo RPG, etc. I also posted videos on developing themes and storytelling and other big-picture solo RPG topics such as running NPCs in solo play (more on those below). Viewers' responses made it clear that there was a lot of interest, and so very little information about it. So I just kept making videos in response to the interest and once I started posting these videos, I realized there were so many avenues to explore.
In 2020, I expended my RPG message to book publishing when I co-founded (with a graphic designer) 90th Street Productions. Our first book, Wanderings: A d88 Gothic Roll & Read Table, easily enables readers to roll on excerpts from classic gothic fiction (primarily from the 1700s and 1800s) to generate character backstories, session settings, events, or whatever they can imagine. It's designed to be used by "regular" GMs who are looking for tableside random inspiration (or even GM prep), as well as the RPG soloist. I foresee many more book publications for solo RPGers. I have so many ideas but just need to find the time.
Q: What are some of your favorite systems to use for solo role-play, and what do you think is the
*best* system to use?
A: I'll answer the second question first: I don't think there is a "best" system. I believe any RPG rule set can be soloed, though some have higher barriers to entry than others. There are designers who have written rules specifically with the intention of supporting solo (or coop) play.
Perhaps the best known of this ilk is Ironsworn by Shawn Tomkin (2018). Scarlet Heroes by Kevin
Crawford (2016) was designed to be played with a GM and a single PC, but the book also offers support for solo play in the form of oracles and random tables that enable one person to generate randomized settings and encounters. Its mechanics will be familiar to players of RPGs, more so than those of Ironsworn, with its narrative-based interpretive rolls.
My go-to recommendations for soloists, however, are "lighter" rule sets. I like Maze Rats by Ben Milton (2016) because it is a sandbox toolkit with lots of random tables and very simple mechanics, allowing freedom to interpret and develop stories. Knave (2020) also by Ben Milton is another great choice, as is Into the Odd by Chris McDowall (2015, a revision coming soon).
Q: You've recently written a book, the Solo Game Master's Guide, available through Modiphius. Can
you talk a bit about the process of writing the book? I'm curious especially to hear how your
YouTube channel and the book played off each other; I see them as two very different mediums in
how they convey information, and I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on this.
A: This is a great question, and one that I haven't been asked before. I think I'll start with answering the second part. Yes, you are totally correct in that the medium of a YouTube channel and what someone might convey in a book are completely different, but somehow for me they are also very similar.
My YouTube channel is far from "typical". I don't have fancy sets or music or great animation; in fact, I don't even have my face. Many of my videos are just my hands paging through a three-ring binder of black and white papers. Lots of viewers tell me they listen to my videos as if they were podcasts, and if I had the time, I'd probably turn many of them into actual podcasts because I understand why viewers consume them that way. I'm working in a visual medium but not really providing much of a visual product.
Yet, my channel has been successful and I've got many devoted viewers. Why? I think it is precisely
because my content is not like much of the other content out there. I'm not hyping or promoting the latest game or rule set. Quite the opposite. I'm trying to present in-depth game discussion--thoughts about howRPG and board game designs actually work, how players may interact with mechanics to guide their own experiences--things like that. So: while my medium is YouTube, my content is really more like discussions or conversations someone might find on a game design podcast.
So how did the book come to be? Sometime in 2019, I noticed that another YouTuber posted a video basically cribbing from a video I did called Easy Ways to be Your Own GM. It's my most popular video to date and in it I outline four general categories of resources I think every successful solo RPG session has (or could use). In watching his video, something really clicked with me and I realized that what I was doing on my channel--and what I had been doing since 2017 when I posted my first "solo RPG" video--was really larger than just my channel. I was beginning to establish a lingua franca (if you want to call it that) for solo RPG, and starting to define the contours of a gaming niche. I knew that if I wanted to both protect as well as disseminate my ideas, I'd needto convey them in a way longer lasting than YouTube videos. The natural way would be to write a book.
The question then was just how to find the time...
In March 2020 when the pandemic started, like so many of us I became anxious and upset. And when I get anxious and upset the first thing in my life that is disrupted is my sleep. So I started waking up earlier and earlier each morning--I'm talking like 2 or 3 a.m. I'd sit in the dark and try to avoid the news. As I often do, I look at the comments on Geek Gamers first thing so I can respond to them, and thus I was on my channel in those early hours. I began thinking about the channel content, and the other person's video about my work and that's when I realized I should write a book.
At that point I systematically listened to all the videos on my channel that talked about "bigger concepts", such as creating theme in solo play or timekeeping or the basics of story for solo RPG. Many of the ideas in the book had their beginnings in these videos, and listening to my own work helped me develop the table of contents. It was off to laptop from there and eventually wrote The Solo Game Master's Guide.
The writing process itself was not hard. In the "real world"; I write about 100,000 words a year just as part of my job, and I've also published academic articles in the past on topics having nothing to do with gaming. So I wrote and edited the manuscript pretty quickly--probably in about 9 months. But then I needed to find a publisher. It did take a while to find the right one. When I finally connected with Modiphius I could tell they were going to be great because their vision for the finished product really aligned with mine. I'd written an RPG book, and it needed to look like an RPG book. They provided wonderful art for the project--something I never could have done--and made a
physical product that looks great and feels great to hold. It took longer to bring all that together than it did for me to write the manuscript, but the wait was worth it. My book looks like it belongs in the RPG world and I'm so grateful to them for that.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on the differences between random tools for group versus solo play? I
tend towards an old-school style of play, and rely on random rolls for a lot of what I generate as a
DM; I think the older style of game tends to lend itself a bit more to those tools, but am curious to
know what you think.
A: Not sure I'm understanding the question but I'll answer what I think you are asking which is [Editor's Note: Yes, she nailed it]: how does randomness function in solo play vs. group play. As a soloist, you are buying into the idea that you are the GM as well as the player. It's an entirely different mindset from group play (as I talk about extensively in my Solo GM Guide). As a player in a group, I put myself entirely in the hands of the GM. I don't think about where they are coming up with the story, whether its from random rolls tableside or GM prep done beforehand--I just want to be drawn into the world they are creating for me. Being a player with a great GM is so indulgent and I love it! All this to say:
I don't think much about how a GM creates that magic when I am a player. (And to answer a question I'm often asked: no, I don't GM for others. Occasionally I will run a one-off session for my family but that's about it.)
As a soloist, I reach for dice as infrequently as possible! I find that the fastest way to a "yes/no" dead end is when you are continually rolling dice looking for an answer to a question. If your story isn't strong enough to have a series of answers presenting themselves to you, there's probably something weak about the narrative. But rolling on random tables when soloing--especially if you already have a sense of why you are doing it--is one of the fastest ways to get a new narrative prompt. The "right" random tables will take you far when soloing and are essential to flesh out environments and scenes and NPCs, etc.
Q: Finally, talk a bit about your Youtube channel. You've got, what, over 300 videos on there. How
did the channel get its start, and where would you recommend newcomers to the channel start?
A: My kids are to blame for the existence of my YouTube channel. Years ago, my youngest was into playing the string game Cat's Cradle, and wanted me to film her hands in a demo of the game. She was at an age when hanging out with her mom was less and less appealing, but she needed me to film the video, so I did. This was for her friends only, as I wouldn't allow her to post it anywhere publically. As a joke, I suggested that we make a video about a game we'd been playing (Legions of Darkness, 2011). She agreed did, and the video sat on the ipad for more than year.
Then, when I was on maternity leave with my second kid, I did what every mom does for a break: I made a video about a wargame (Struggle for the Galactic Empire, 2009). That, too, sat unpublished for quite some time since I didn't have a clue as to how YouTube worked and had just made the video for my own relaxation and amusement. Eventually my oldest set me up as Geek Gamers on YouTube, we posted both videos and that's how the channel began. I was incredulous when I noticed that I had 35 subscribers. Then, as now, I don't *do* social media beyond the channel so I am amazed that people find out about it. I'm closing in on 14,000 subscribers and am sure if I made more social media efforts it could be double that by now. But even with over 300 videos on the channel, I just do this for fun and when the mood strikes so competition to be the biggest and most prominent isn't something I spend time on.
There is a lot to digest on the channel. My most popular video, and a perfect place to start if you haven't done much (or any) solo RPG, is Easy Ways to be Your Own GM, which outlines four general resources for solo RPG. For other solo RPG content, I recommend my solo RPG tutorial playlist, and for vids demoing specific rule sets the general solo RPG playlist.
For board gamers, I have tons of vids grouped by type: fantasy/adventure, indie publishers, etc. Going to the playlist section of the channel is the best place to start.