Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Q&A With Brett M. Bernstein

Today I'm pleased to interview Precis Intermedia's Brett M. Bernstein. Brett is the author and/or publisher of countless distinguished games and gaming products through Precis Intermedia (sometimes referred to as PIG). His company remains one of the most quality, successful, and well-recognized small press gaming companies. Brett was kind enough to answer the following questions about running a small press endeavor, his publishing efforts, and his upcoming boxed set, Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits!

1) It's been a tough year for a lot of folks economically, both in and out of the hobby. Have you seen any indicators, adjustments. or changes in your RPG company as a result?

I've tried a lot of different marketing ideas over the years and found that methods other small press publishers employ often don't work for me. Meaning: I do things a little differently from other publishers. While the economic climate has affected secondary aspects like distribution, it has not directly affected the core aspects like digital goods and direct-orders.

2) I've always thought your site and your products (especially the available customization of your Disposable Heroes line) offered pdf solutions for gamers well ahead of the curve. Was that a conscious design? Do you see any differing trends for gamers who buy print copies vs. those who buy electronic copies of your games?

I suppose everything I do is of conscious design, but some of it is also due to serendipity or just a desire to work more efficiently. Disposable Heroes Paper Minis, for example, was originally put together as a single download of the first three fantasy sets. They were assembled in InDesign (or maybe QuarkXPress -- whatever I was using at the time). It was a lot of work, fitting 90 images into boxes and making sure they were positioned just right. Actually, it was 180 images for both front and back. When it was time to prepare the critters, I delayed it in lieu of automating the process. It wasn't just to lessen my workload -- I wanted to make the paper miniatures more flexible -- basically add more value to them. This was the birth of the current customizable system for Disposable Heroes. It started out much more basic than it is now though, evolving over time. Originally, they just outputted a custom selection of a-frame figures individually or as armies. Over time, I added labeling, numbering, and the outputting of flat counters and tri-fold figures. Today, the system also does things specifically for me behind the scenes. All the miniatures that are included with some games are output from this system. One such case is the Brutes Fantasy Miniatures Microgame.

I haven't been able to spot any differing trends between print and PDF customers, especially since the line has become very blurred. I offer to make physical books out of most of the PDFs in the catalog, so a PDF-only customer can easily morph into a print customer one week or six months after purchase. Of course, It's hard to gauge such a thing for those who purchase physical books from other sources, like retailers, but that's another topic altogether.

3) Larger publishers like Paizo and Wizards of the Coast have a larger fanbase. Yet companies such as yours, Evil Hat, and a few others have carved a niche for yourself on the gaming landscape. What does a small press company need to do to get attention with so many options out there? Do you think there's anything they can offer a larger company can't?

I'm still trying to figure that out myself. Niche is probably the point. Take the genreDiversion games. These are less than $5, less than 100 pages, and provide ready-to-play scenarios and characters. They have been optimized to be downloaded and printed quickly. They probably wouldn't appeal to those who want to spend some cash on a shiny new hardback book, but they are perfect for those wanting to play a game that gets them started as quickly as possible and for the price of a fast-food lunch. I'm cheap, I don't have a lot of time to read large tomes, I like toolboxes, and I want to play NOW. That's who genreDiversion games are designed for -- people like me.

I would like to say that a smaller company can offer a personal touch, but that's just not always the case. I've seen some horrible small press support and I've seen some fantastic support from larger companies. If anything, a smaller company is probably more flexible to meet their customer's needs and produce games that wouldn't have enough of a target audience for larger ones. I guess it all depends on the specific company.

4) Looking back at your earlier work, what's one lesson as a small press publisher you wish you had learned a lot sooner?

Get manacles on your freelancers. They go missing far too often. Oh, MY work. Let's see. I'm sure there are hundreds of things I'd do differently if I could, but then I wouldn't have learned what I know today from all the trial and error.

5) Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! is your company's entry into the boxed set market. Why a boxed set, and what can gamers can expect from this?

I have fond memories of the boxed games from the 80s and 90s. A good number of them have been crushed by now though, but I still have many on my bookshelves. Treasure Awaits! became a boxed set not because I wanted to do a boxed set, but because it was a natural fit. The design of the game almost requires three separate books and loose sheets. It's designed to be an introductory game with a solo or GM-less dungeon adventure. This involves way too much page-flipping for a single book. Thus, a boxed set makes perfect sense. It's a lot of work to make one. Making one book is relatively easy, but three books, reference booklet, blank sheets, boxes -- that's tiring :)

Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! produces a very retro-feeling, dungeon-crawling experience. Unlike the current trend for retro-fantasy, Treasure Awaits! is not a clone. It was designed with three primary goals: solo-play, GM-less play, and a simple system. It relies on only one or two six-sided dice. The first book teaches you how to play. The second book lets you explore a dungeon by yourself or with friends. The third book helps you make your own dungeons and direct games. Playtesters had family members never before interested in RPGs excited to play. It was great to hear that.

6) You recently released Gnomemurdered, a comedy-style RPG, written by RPG Pundit. Working on that type of RPG seems like it would present some unique challenges, right?

This may surprise quite a few people, but RPGPundit is very easy to work with on projects like this. He wrote the game as if it were a regular RPG, so that makes it a lot easier on me. The humor can be obvious, but it's subdued rather than being in-your-face or slapstick. Beside that, there's some great advice in there and the game is completely playable. The sample scenarios, which are parodies of other games and stories, are worth the cost of the book alone. That said, editing is right at the top of the list for my least-favorite jobs. When I publish other people's manuscripts, it's a huge chore for me to edit no matter how well it might be written. While it was a pain at times, I've worked on worse books. I also had some fun with the layout.

7) I'm sure you've been on the end of both some good and bad reviews over the years. This past year, we've seen some poor reactions to reviews by some normally well-regarded RPG publishers. Is it hard to keep your emotions in check when reading a poor review of something you put so much work into?

I've gone overboard a few times. It's par for the course. It's the personal and very insulting reviews that really set you off. This type of reviewer is often seeking to shock the reader or slant the review with an agenda in mind. I've had one review by someone who never even saw the product. The average review, whether good or bad, is usually honest and well-crafted, however. You can't fault someone for stating his opinions when it is done in an honest manner. The best advice I can offer is never to write an email or post a message while you're upset. Wait a few hours or even a few days to calm down and then go with a simple thank you or objective corrections.

8) Precis Intermedia has always seemed to me a very professional endeavor, regardless of its size. Do you think your company's professionalism has been key in your notice and success in the hobby, and if so, to what extent?

I'm not sure how to answer that. I don't know if it is key, but professionalism is certainly important. While I do prefer a more professional attitude, sometimes when I converse with certain people via email they can take offense. I forget that typing is a far cry from speaking, so my dry wit or straight-talk throws them. I have to go back and explain that I was either kidding around or simply telling them how it was. So I guess professionalism is also a handicap, because people can't understand the intentions behind some things that I type.

9) What's on deck for Precis Intermedia?

Too much :) Warcosm Assault is probably next. That's the stand-alone starship boarding actions game and add-on for Warcosm. Bold & Brave is the supers add-on for The genreDiversion 3E Manual. More Disposable Heroes sets. Then there's Pete Spahn's Stormrift RPG, which is sort of an alien-invasion/post-apocalypse game. The RPGPundit's GMing Guide is also in the queue -- I'm curious to see how this is received. And lots of other ongoing projects.


Eric Wilde said...

They were assembled in InDesign

Always good to hear a customer of my own use my products to further the hobby.

Good post, thanks!

clash bowley said...

Ha! what a puff piece! not a word about the countless gnome slaves he's bought with his ill gotten gains, who he forces to hand copy every Gnomemurdered book he sells! Nothing about the poisoned knife he carries to shove in the kidneys of aother game publishers in his mad rush to get to the top of the Small Press heap! Not a whisper of his ripping off Treasure Awaits from a poor, elderly, crippled Haitian survivor for a bottle of Dasani and a cigarette butt! You don't dare to print the truth about this heinous monster!


Zachary The First said...

What can I say? His goons got to me.

clash bowley said...

That's what you get for dealing with the criminal underclass!