Question: I'm aware of you mostly as someone who puts out an amazing number of discrete mini or rules-light games, rather than setting or system-specific content. What led you down that path, and what are some challenges and advantages to doing what you do?
Answer: First, although I seem to be known for micro-games, I actually started publishing stuff with a series of adventure modules for Tiny Dungeons and Tiny Frontiers. Those are available at drivethrurpg, through Alan Bahr's Tiny Trove program. I could spend this entire interview talking about how much I love writing for the Tiny rules. The simplicity of the Traits system makes it really, really easy to do innovative things with NPCs and environmental stuff. If Alan was more open with licensing, I might not have branched out into what I'm doing now.
As far as the transition from adventures to micro-games to these bigger setting books: Early in my gaming career (thirty years ago) I got very into detailed settings. I particularly liked Dark Sun, and I'll talk a bit more about that as an influence. But as splatbooks accumulated and I had limited funds and attention to keep up with ever-expanding lore, I got turned off by the level of investment required by Big Fantasy. In hindsight, the disconnect between the amount of material provided for player knowledge, vs the amount of information that a player's character would be likely to know or care about, created some cognitive dissonance. But back then, in the early 2000s, immense settings were kind of where things were at. That led to a lull in my gaming as I realized that I had always been more of a casual gamer rather than a dedicated grognard, and I had other priorities. When time opened up again, and I renewed my interest in games, I intentionally focused on rules light stuff. I think I found Tiny Dungeons by searching for "simpler D&D."
I recognize that a lot of people are like me, we enjoy telling stories but have limited head space and time to do so. That recognition continues to drive my interest in micro-games, such as Tunnel Goons and 2400/24XX. Additionally, the micro-game space is very open to hacking, and for those two engines in particular it is a fundamental expectation that hacks will do something interesting that adjusts the rules to a particular setting. The challenge in writing hacks of those engines is that there is a threshold of new and different, and there are many people with really great new ideas. It's hard to stand out from such a field of talent.
Q. You sell on both Drivethru and itch. Which do you prefer as a sales platform, and which do you find easiest to work with?
A. I choose to sell on Drivethru and on itch because each platform has specific advantages.
Drivethru is where I started to make whatever reputation I have, through the Community Content program (specifically Tiny Trove). They have great support and exposure for small creators through their features like "Customers Who Bought this Title also Purchased," their site wide sales, and their weekly newsletter. Two of my things (Sharps of the Knife, and Bitter Broth) so far have been featured in Drivethru newsletters - I'm kind of proud that they like my stuff! Drivethru also reaches a much larger and more focused market for TTRPGs, compared to itch. Moreover, Drivethru handles creator payments more easily and particularly is good for splitting royalties on collaborative projects. And Drivethru enables content advertising (though the banner ads could be placed a bit more prominently).
On the other hand, itch is an artsier platform. Creators get much more control of how their products are presented, a slightly larger royalty on each sale, there is a great deal of support for doing interesting things with the individual product pages and with the creator profile (which is a feature that Drivethru really doesn't enable nearly as well). The more social features of itch (Collections and Following) are good for content discovery in a different way than the more traditional mode of Drivethru.
Q. Talk a little bit about your upcoming release -- Listening to a Vanished God -- and if you have anything planned after than (assuming you've thought that far ahead).
A. As far as my upcoming releases, I actually have two moderately large settings coming out in the next few months. There's "Listening to a Vanished God," which sparked this interview request. Also, for Risus, there's a rework and expansion of "Sharps of the Knife" - the working title for that is "After the Serpent (Swallows the Sun)." Both releases were driven by what I've referred to as the fundamental expectation that micro-game hacks will do innovative things with settings. My approach to each setting was driven by some design notes that Rich Burlew used to have posted at giantitp.com. A long time ago he participated in a Wizards of the Coast setting design competition, and his notes from that effort provided a lot of good tips on making settings something other than bland generic fantasy. A key point he made (paraphrased) was that setting designers should start by mutating just a couple of assumptions of a generic setting, and then really work through how those changes would ripple through the new setting.
So in Listening to a Vanished God, it's a setting mainly about magic users who derive their powers from the whispering voice of a deity who has disappeared from the land that they used to rule. It also works through a thing I think is true of many religious belief systems, which is that they can be used as a justification or normalization of narcissistic parenting and leadership styles. So the god who disappeared in LitaVaG, was not a super-nice entity, and the words it whispers can introduce a lot of problems, almost like magical pollution. Much more of a swords and sorcery feel to that setting than to a typical DnD game, where the assumption is that magic has no externalities. I mentioned Dark Sun above, and the LitaVaG setting is built around a somewhat different take on the defilers from Athas.
After the Serpent twists another assumption. Fantasy games always look at the undead as horrific monsters. But what if there's a culture that accepts or even reveres the unliving? Standard DnD would say, oh, that culture's gotta be evil and must be exterminated. I thought it would be interesting to center a culture like that and then explore what it's like for them to be colonized by another culture that does fear the unliving. The setting of After the Serpent is all-humans, no magic, the only monsters are trolls.
Q. Finally, tell us a little bit about yourself. How you got into gaming, what your favorite sort of games are, and anything else you might want to share.
A. I got into gaming because I grew up in a very boring rural area, and because my parents gave a lot of their attention to fantasy and science fiction literature. I was alienated from a lot of my peers early in childhood, financially and for other reasons. Exploring fantasy worlds gave me an escape from some hardships and also inspired me to work toward excellence. As I became more of a sociable person, some of the friends I made also were into fantasy stuff and enjoyed hanging out together to game. So I got into gaming as a social and creative outlet. I have always enjoyed running games: as a younger person, in order to have authority and creative control and amaze an audience; as an older person, in order to share authority and control and be amazed by the other players. When I am a player, I expect to be invited to do more than just react to the monster-of-the-moment. Alexis of tao-dnd has been a big inspiration to my gaming style.
My favorite games are definitely 2400, Tunnel Goons, and Tiny Dungeons / Tiny Frontiers. Oh, I should mention Risus in my list of favorite games. Like the Tiny stuff, it's really easy to write for and it's easy to run and play as well. There is a tendency for Risus to run a little goofier than I would like, but it can be reined in by managing expectations at the start. I've had a couple of really fun Risus games in the After the Serpent setting.
I prefer the nom de plume of Tibbius because in my day job I'm an intellectual property attorney who works for a very respectable and non-controversial small firm. It's important for my professional life to keep my gaming hobby in its own stream; there's no way to tell what potential clients might shy away from an attorney who also writes rpgs. On the other hand there's no way to tell what clients might be attracted by that. So I play it conservative and try to keep the two roles separate.