Ben Redmond is one of the key players at British RPG company Malladin’s Gate. This innovative publisher has made inroads in the PDF RPG product circles with some widely respected d20 products. The latest, DarkLore, blends the dark and gritty fantasy that many might associate with a low powered game with high fantasy elements. GameWyrd’s questions appear in strange blue, Ben’s answers are in typical black.
1) The company name “Malladin’s Gate” comes from the DarkLore campaign setting, right? How did that come about? Is Malladin your favourite feature of the game?
Actually the name Malladin’s Gate is very much derived from a combination of influences. What is now the DarkLore campaign setting was in full swing as our own D&D game long before Malladin’s Gate started up. Malladin himself was based on a combination of tow historical figures, Charlemagne and Salladin. The name is quite sneakily stolen from Salladin, just changing the first letter. There is a kind of unwritten rule that villains have names beginning with Mal, so it worked well to subliminally suggest in the game that he was perhaps a darker figure than the official game history dictates. The company name came about over a telephone conversation between myself and Nigel (my business and writing/designing partner). We started off with our own game system, a modern horror game called ShadowFlux, and were going to call ourselves Black Orifice Games, but after analysing the market place we decided to go with D20 instead (this was at the peak of D20 popularity when people were wondering if there would ever be a successful independent system). Hence we needed a different name, so were trying to come up with something more ‘Fantasy’ oriented. At the time I was playing Baldur’s Gate a lot and happened to have the CD case sitting on my desk aswe discussed the issue. I said “we need something like Baldur’s Gate,” and Nigel said “what about someone else’s gate.” It wasn’t much longer before Malladin’s name came up.
2) What is it about British RPG companies and darker than normal settings? Or is that misnomer?
It’s interesting you should say that. I think there’s a general trend not only in the RPGs, but also in fantasy/SciFi literature and other media. Tolkein’s on the dark side and I love the modern British writers such as KJ Parker and Peter F Hamilton that keep their stories dark. A lot of American writers can be seen to have a more colourful and chirpy outlook on the fantasy writing, emphasising the adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of this stuff too – David Eddings and Raymond E Feist are someof my favourites, too. That said, there’s also a good strong theme of comedy in British scifi, such as Pratchett, Red Dwarf and Douglas Adams. I think even these comedies have a dark edge, though. I think the reason for this is the media through which most SciFi is delivered in the respective countries. America has a lot of big budget TV shows, which have a requirement due to censorship laws to tone down any real horror elements whilst most SciFi and fantasy for the British fan comes on paper. That’s not to say that Americans are incapable of being dark. Robin Hobb is very dark at times and Midnight is so good we almost considered not bothering with DarkLore.
3) Is Malladin’s Gate a small company? Do you see yourselves as a company or as gamers with a for sale product?
Technically we’re not a company, we’re a co-operative. In size, we’re tiny. We’ve got three of us working on the writing side and spend most of what we make on just keeping things ticking over, getting art for the books and perhaps a little bit of extra pocket money for RPG books every month. I definitely think we’re more on the lines of gamers with a product to sell than a true company. We started off with big ambitions and targeted our products accordingly, looking for holes in the market place that we could fill with our own products. Hence the Forgotten Heroes line and the Academy Handbooks, a line with the goal of producing a book for each type of specialist wizard. In more recent months we’ve been concentrating on things we like. DarkLore is a labour of love, as will be Etherscope when we get time to write it. Now that we’re concentrating on these products we’re finding writing a lot more fun, and we’ve decided that at the end of the day, that should be our goal. There appears to be no big publishers picking off the best of the PDF market any more, so I think we’ll have to make ourselves content with putting out products that we love and having maybe 100 others buy them.
4) Has it been difficult getting noticed? What’s been the most challenging obstacle to commercial success so far?
Has it been difficult getting noticed? Yes and no. At first I was surprised how quickly we took off. I think Forgotten Heroes: Paladin hit the marketplace at exactly the right time. There had been nothing on Paladins since Defenders of the Faith and that was very strongly skewed towards Clerics. Hence our book took off well and a number of good reviews very early on helped sales. We didn’t really have to do anything. Our next book, St John’s College of Abjuration, didn’t sell well at all at first, and we couldn’t figure out why. There were no reviews appearing as they did for Paladin and we were baffled. So I asked around on industry message boards (EN World, RPG Net) and got a lot of helpful advice about marketing and getting review copies to official reviewers. Since then things have gone okay but not spectacularly. It can get quite frustrating at times. We seem to have hit a brick wall in sales and are struggling to get over 100 copies shifted, and not improving from product to product. When we started there were 4 or 5 companies that had deals with print houses, and we thought if we produced top quality products we might get noticed. Unfortunately that no longer seems to be happening in the industry at the moment and we seem to struggle to get the recognition we believe the quality of our products deserves. Some people may attribute our failures to things like a below average art content or editing, but these are all issues that we have taken steps to improve and have been getting gradually better in more recent releases. It’s annoying that the expense in fixing these issues is not carried over into sales. Hence we’re scaling down a bit and will be concentrating on writing what we want to write rather than what we think will get us noticed. We constantly get good reviews. DarkLore’s our best yet and always seems to be winning new fans, so maybe there’s some commercial, or at least critical, advantage to choosing to develop our favoured ideas.
5) If you could have gone straight to paper and not dabbled in the PDF industry first – would you have had?
Yes, definitely – if we’d had the money I’m sure we would have done. But I’m not sure that would be the best way to go. The impression I get is that it is very difficult to get distributed without any sort of pedigree, which in turn you can’t get without already being in print. The PDF platform allows us to at least get some critical acclaim for our works and then we can know whether we’re barking up the wrong tree or not. The worst review we’ve had was ‘Average’, so we can’t be doing too badly, can we? But the PDF and POD sales are low compared to print, and if we want to be successful we have to get in print. But that’s not looking likely for another couple of years at least, so we’re going to have to keep ourselves content with PDFs and good reviews.
6) Are gamers who buy PDF products the same sort of gamers who stick to traditional paper products? Or is there something fundamentally different about gamers who’re happy to explore PDF games?
I’m sure the market places are very different. I’m not sure if it’s anything specific to the types of people who buy as opposed to the types of things that are worth having in PDF rather than print. I think Phil Reed’s (Ronin Arts) got the best idea. They produce cheap 20-40 page supplements that are very open to use in lots of different games. That’s the key if you want to be successful in PDF alone. Keep it short and sweet and make sure anyone can use it. I think that’s the current trend in all the recent successful products. If you’re going to buy a book that’s going to be printed out on loose sheets of paper you need it to be small. The market place is too small to support products that get too specific. We’ve been trying to take this approach with our own work of late. DarkLore was conceived as a 40 page Campaign Primer and 20-30 page expansion supplements. The Primer grew to 80 pages and our supplements are likely to be bigger than 30 pages. We just have too much stuff to put in. Even at twice the expected size, there’s still a whole heap of other stuff I would have liked to have put in the DarkLore Campaign Primer. I’d like to think we can keep the page count down with Etherscope, but we’re probably going to fail at that :).
7) How does going to the trouble of preparing a professional RPG product affect your own view of the hobby? Do you even have time to roleplay any more?
I’ve not roleplayed for a while now, but that’s not strictly concerned with the writing. I’ve not actually done much writing either since September. My wife and myself were blessed by the arrival of our second son last march. Whilst off work on paternity leave (taking advantage of the new statutory 2 week leave we now get in the UK) I had time to think about where I was going with my life. I had been unhappy in my job (as an analyst programmer) for a good few years. I seriously looked at what it would take to become a full time writer, either as a freelancer or taking Malladin’s Gate forward with an investment and going into print. As soon as I did some sums and realised it was never going to provide me a living wage, I decided to think about other avenues. Hence I am now studying to become a teacher. I’ve got two years of an intensive course to complete before I qualify, so my writing and gaming in slow down as a result. I’m hoping to get to play some time in the New Year, provided I can get my assignments finished ?. The biggest difference becoming a writer has made to my view of the hobby has been more felt at the gaming store. I now buy more (I put aside my Malladin’s Gate money for RPG books only) but want less. I find myself put off by much of what is available in print because I don’t agree with the approach someone has made. One thing that I think we do well at Malladin’s Gate is having a kind of artistry about the actual game mechanics themselves. Far too often I see a mechanic that I think is messy or doesn’t capture the flavour of its intended outcome, despite it being well balanced and perfectly functional. Maybe I’m just too anal about it, but I now find messy mechanics painful to read. I think it must be something specific to me, because I never hear any comments in reviews about such things.
8) What advice would you give to anyone thinking of setting out and producing professional PDF gaming products of their own?
Go for it. You loose nothing. You can get started for next to nothing if you already have a computer, and provided you are confident about the quality of your material, go for it and enjoy the praise you’ll get in the reviews. You might find it difficult to get noticed at first, so take note of all the advice on marketing you can get. I also think there’s a lot of mileage in teaming up with others. I’d personally like to develop a more productive relationship with other PDF publishers, but most of us have competing products, or at least product lines, so it makes it very tricky. The most important thing for a prospective new publisher to bear in mind, though, is that this is not the first step to being a fulltime print publisher. Write what you want, don’t aim for commercial success or you’ll be disappointed (as we were).
9) If there’s anything you could change in the PDF industry what would it be?
I probably would have tried to get into writing sooner. :)
10) What has been your roleplaying industry highlight of 2003?
Was D20 Modern 2003? I think that has the potential to make a massive change to the D20 System over all. D20 Modern moves away from the ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to classes and tries to use very generic classes, combined with lots of multiclassing, to allow you to create whatever character concept you want. We’ve already used this approach with DarkLore and will be doing the same with Etherscope. I just hope that more companies take the same approach. If that was 2002, though, my next highlight would be Midnight. I really like Dark Fantasy and Midnight is very well done. It almost made us drop DarkLore, as we thought we’d have too much overlap, but I think DarkLore has too much going for it to have forgotten about. Our approach to the classes and systems I think is, so far, fairly unique and the world itself has a lot going for it, and is very different to midnight.
11) How influential do you think PDF RPGs and supplements will be in 2004? Will PDF products be more significant than they’ve been in 2003, less than or about the same?
That’s a difficult question. I’d like to think that some of us who regularly turn out quality products will get noticed and the PDF marketplace will prosper as a result. However, I get the impression that this will not happen and I think that anyone other than Malhavoc Press will trot along at the same respectable rate. Malhavoc have had a great year with Arcana Unearthed and look like only improving their lot in the new year.
12) What might we expect from Malladin’s Gate in 2004?
We’ve two products that are a few months off release: Epoch, a D20 system boardgame of civilisations and Martial Avengers, a D20 Modern class book for Strong and Fast Heroes. Epoch will have a name change, though as there’s already someone out there with the name, but we’ve not decided on what yet. We’re very hopeful for Martial Avengers. D20 Modern supplements have done very well on RPGNow of late and there’s not a class-specific supplement out for it yet. We’ve been very much hooked onto D20 Modern and really want to produce something that can become a classic of the line. Whether we will succeed, only time will tell. Other than that, we’re looking to get Etherscope started off and DarkLore expanded. We’ve looked into possibilities of producing Etherscope in print, for the sheer reason that we want it done properly. Even if no-one buys it, I’d like to have a full-colour hardback copy of it on my shelf. Etherscope is even more a labour of love than DarkLore was, and it’s a question of making sure we get it right. We’ve also got a freelance writer working on Forgotten Heroes: Barbarian, so that may appear at some point during next year. We’ve also got a lot of other projects on the boil but I don’t think we’ll manage to get to any of them next year. We’re thinking about releasing our original ShadowFlux system as an OGL system, with two supporting settings; the ShadowFlux modern horror it was designed for and a fantasy setting with east African influences. I’ve also got an idea for a SciFi setting that’s a mixture of Supers, Cthulu horror and low-tech, dark and gritty scifi. I’ve got a whole new crystal technology system created for that one, which is awaiting the release of D20 Future. We’ll probably want to expand on the Modern Heroes line if Martial Avengers does well. On top of that, I’ve been developing a new D20 Modern game to play with my gaming group, and if that is well received I’ll probably think about publishing it. It’s a strange mixture of white-wolf style goth-punk and low-level super powers but without the traditional gothic horror creatures. Nigel calls it Supers-Punk. We’ll just have to see what we think is best as we go forward. 13) What are you looking forward to most from the RPG sector in 2004?
Personally I’m looking forward to D20 Future. Not only do I have a campaign setting already lined up for it, but I also really like SciFi gaming and there’s not been much going for it in the D20 system. But perhaps my biggest anticipation is over the Aeon timeline products that Swords and Sorcery is developing. I was a very big fan of Trinity and played it a lot, so I can’t wait to see how they handle that in D20. My only nagging doubt is that I’ll not like how they converted it to D20 and be put off.
What do you think? Measured observations are welcome and you can leave them in the comment section below.