Here's a link to the product page of the Four Dollar Dungeons. You can also follow Four Dollar Dungeons on facebook.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a 50 year old software engineer, English national though half-Argentine on my father’s side. I am currently living in Newcastle with my partner of the last 9 years, though I was previously married for 14 years and living in the south of England. I have a 21 year old daughter who’s about to graduate from King’s College in London. I started RPGs when I was 16 and played Runequest, D&D and Rolemaster pretty solidly for the next 7 years. After graduating, my career and family life took over, but I returned to D&D (3rd) and Pathfinder 8 years ago after moving up north, and our gaming group has now been meeting every Monday night ever since. I was the sole GM of the group for the first 7 of those 8 years, but now three of us take it in turns.
How did you get into RPG design and what kind of projects have you been working on? What have been your best experiences?
Right from the beginning I wanted to design my own adventures, and during that first tranche of RPG playing I wrote most of what I ran. Returning to the hobby 20 years later I ran purchased adventures in the main, and some very good ones too, but a couple of years ago I decided that I wanted to write my own material again.
I have only ever written adventures, rather than anything else, and have so far produced 5. As for my best experiences, each adventure that I write provides me with the following:
- There is a moment in my writing when I fall in love with what I’m doing. Until that moment happens I can feel quite nervous that things aren’t falling into place – i.e. that it’s clumsy, or unbelievable or boring –then something magical seems to happen and I literally fall in love with it. For Panataxia, for example, this happened when I made the connection with the old Colossal Cave mainframe adventure and started writing in descriptions for the connecting passageways as well as the rooms.
- I love getting the cover picture made, which accounts for most of the money that I make on any given adventure at least in the first year. Although Atom did a great job on Panataxia my regular cover artist is Bradley McDevitt, who’s done four pictures for me already and is now working on the fifth. The way I work with my artists is to tell them what the adventure is about, send them works in progress, and then allow them to choose themselves what they want to draw. It’s very gratifying for me to see what someone like Bradley finds interesting and inspiring in my writing and then to see him bring his own vision into it as well. And when I start to see his vision taking shape, I change my writing to suit it.
- I love the feedback and reviews that I’ve received, particularly from Endzeitgeist. In a way I wish these things didn’t matter to me, but I have found Endzeitgeist’s reviews in particular to be personally very important, encouraging and uplifting.
I can’t answer that in general because different people play the game in different ways. My personal preference is for adventures which are written from a fantasy-world point of view rather than from a game point of view.
When and how did Four Dollar Dungeons get started?
I started work on my first adventure just under 2 years ago and published The Firemaker in November 2012. As a self-publisher I simply write my text, publish into PDF, and submit the result to Paizo and d20pfsrd. I use Word, Campaign Cartographer, and Excel to keep track of my accounts. I do everything myself apart from the artwork which is generally stock art except for the cover.
What can you tell about your products?
They’re medium-sized adventures with enough encounters and experience within them to raise four to six characters of a given level of experience up by one extra level. Each adventure should last three 4-hour sessions, except for Journey to Cathreay which takes somewhat longer. Each adventure costs $4 and, given the name of the product range, they will never cost any more!
I have a particular philosophy in mind when I write which I expand upon below.
Can you give us an exclusive teaser about a future product?
My next adventure is called “Dance Macabre”, and it’s a town based rescue-mission / investigation for 2nd level characters with some wilderness components thrown in as well. There are themes of immorality and decadence in there which I’m trying to explore – people who switch off their empathic circuits when evil starts to take root around them because they’re too self-satisfied with their own existences to bother looking– and also inhumanity, the “macabre” element if you like, which is about playing with our ideas about the difference between the living and the dead.
What are the best things about the Four Dollar Dungeons and what type of players or GMs would you recommend them for?
My aim is to write adventures which are fun to GM, because I believe that if I do then GMs will be able to run the adventures in a way which is fun for the players to play in. I see the GM as my customer, and I envisage them to be an intelligent mature person who wants to be inspired rather than instructed. I try to provide GMs with material which is entertaining, clear and easy to manage so that they feel empowered and facilitated to run the game in the way that they want to.
I write logical sandboxes, because sandboxes are fun to GM if they’re logical. A sandbox allows players to exercise their creativity, which often results in lots of crazy things going on around the gaming table. If the adventure is also logical, i.e. its basis makes sense and this is clearly communicated and understood by the GM, then the GM will have no problem improvising in response to all this player madness. This freedom to improvise by all parties is, to me, the essence of “maximum game fun”.
Logical sandboxes require paying attention to the rules, because the rules are part of the logic of the world. I know that there are limits to this, but without building your cinematic scenarios on the basis of the Pathfinder rules you risk putting the GM in a difficult position if the players don’t follow their cinematic script.
I pay due deference to balance and mechanics, and I stick quite rigidly to the experience and treasure guidelines, because I feel that today’s players can be quite pernickety about risks and rewards. I don’t want to give my GM any headaches on that score, and I also want my GM to be fully aware of treasure and experience so that they can properly plan in the adventure to fit in with their overall campaign.
I do try to make my adventures challenging as well, whilst sticking to my CR budget, by exploiting the setting in a way which is favourable to the encounters. This invites the players to think about the setting too, and to do the same thing for themselves in order to balance the encounter out. I think that an adventure is far more satisfying to run if you feel the players have risen to the challenge by immersing themselves in the setting rather than by just rolling a few dice.
I try to write adventures which make sense within a fantasy world. I get tired of reading encounters where monsters scream and fight to the death. Apart from anything else, I feel that reduces GMs to rules encyclopaedias and dice rolling machines. The game can have many more dimensions than this, and these dimensions come out naturally if, as an adventure writer, you try as hard as possible to “pretend that it’s all real”. Monsters shouldn’t only be ravenous predators or psychotic killers. It’s fun to look at the grey areas in behaviour as well as experimenting with the different ways in which fantasy elements can interact. It may seem paradoxical but I also find that by taking the reality seriously you end up generating a lot of humour.
The final point I want to make is that I write for the Pathfinder rules because I think they’re the best rules that I’ve ever come across for players. I love being a Pathfinder player and I can spend many hours messing around with character concepts and building PCs. I love all the player choice, and I love the way the encounter system works. This, to me, is the system’s forté, and very good it is at it too. GM enjoyment has been sacrificed a bit for this, but I think that it is up to the adventure writers to redress the balance and make the game fun to GM as well. I like the OSR principles, but I want to find ways to make them work with the Pathfinder game so that we get the best of both worlds.
What are the current goals for your company? What are the biggest challenges?
I aim to write 3 adventures a year, of gradually increasing character level. That schedule in itself is enough of a challenge!
Is there anything else people should know about Four Dollar Dungeons?
Each adventure has a free preview which should tell you, the GM, everything you need to know before deciding whether or not to buy it. I do all the work myself except for the artwork but including the maps – and although I’m not a professional map-maker I don’t think I do a bad job of them. I try very hard to make my adventures entertaining and easy to GM, but I’m always open to suggestions.
In your opinion, what are the most important things to consider when starting self-publishing?
To follow your dream. If you want to make money, you need to follow someone else’s advice. If you want to publish for your own pleasure, then my suggestion is that you set yourself a goal and then review the situation when you’ve achieved it. I decided that I would write 4 adventures come-what-may and then see how I felt before writing any more. I think that if I had received a lot of negative comments or indifference I would have stopped at that, but because I received encouragement I’ve decided to write 5 more. When I’ve written those 5, I’ll review the situation again. Had I had negative comments, I would still have been satisfied to have produced what I did, because that had been *my* dream, and I would have been happy to accept that my dream was not popular with others. If you are prepared for that, it is a very satisfying way to work.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t listen to feedback. No man is an island, as they say, however you must decide quite carefully to what degree you should allow that feedback to change what you do. If you start to produce what everybody else wants, rather than what you want, you’ll have lost your originality and your dream. People’s advice is worth listening to and some of the changes they recommend may well not be that disruptive, but we have enough mainstream products in the Pathfinder world already and I would far rather see, with self-publishers in particular, who are *truly* independent of any commercial influences, totally original material.
What skills, tools or other resources do you consider to be the most important in self-publishing?
If what you’re principally doing is writing then the most important skill that you need to develop is writing. This is a very good web-site for this (http://www.novel-writing-help.com/) but there are plenty of others, and as far as I can tell the main difference between writing an adventure and a novel is that adventures break the “show, don’t tell” rule.
If you are going to write adventures then design is very important. I’m not sure how you learn this, my approach is to produce two designs, one for the adventure as a situation which exists without the players being present, and the second as the typical narrative (which may have many variations) showing how the players will interact with that situation in order to produce a story.
What do you find most rewarding about self-publishing? What about least rewarding?
Most rewarding: the realisation of your imagination on paper. Least rewarding: fighting off aggression on the forums.
Is there any further advice you would give to someone interested in self-publishing?
Don’t let people put you off. If you can accept that nobody might like what you do, and you’re happy that you might end up a Pathfinder Van Gogh, then go for it (but don’t cut off your ear).