Meeting of Minds – Brian Tyrrell

One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers, creators and publishers in the UK gaming scene. This series of articles interviews various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it.

Brian Tyrrell set up Dungeons on a Dime in 2018 to plug a gap in the market. Feeling that there weren’t a lot of resources to help people ease into roleplaying, and even to alleviate some of the feelings of trepidation that experienced players and GMs experience, Brian set about writing his own adventures with a light touch system attached. I’ve had the pleasure of receiving one of these for review, that will be coming next week, but in the meantime I wanted to pick Brian’s brain.

Brian has been generous enough to answer questions about the publishing imprint, his output, and the state of the RPG industry.

Dungeons & Dragons has exploded in popularity since the launch of 5th edition in 2014. As a small publisher producing RPGs right now, how much effect has the continued popularity had on your output?

Originally, 5th edition (and its many barriers to entry) were what inspired me to start making content. ‘Dungeons on a Dime’ first started as a series of zines combining all of the bits and pieces you’d need to run an adventure. I’d noticed that so much effort went into preparing adventures (even running an official book module) for the game master, and I wanted to streamline that experience with supportive material.

Over time as I got to know my writing style and audience better, I realised much of the content that folk struggle with is not the rules of a system. Quite the opposite—making new spells and monster stat blocks is something many GMs look forward to. Instead, it was pacing, character motivation and plot development that left many GMs feeling overwhelmed when preparing and running their games. Over the last year my content shifted from 5th Edition to System Neutral, and the feedback has been exceptionally positive. I talked about this shift a fair bit with my editor, Vi Huntsman.

The growing awareness of Dungeons and Dragons has definitely helped make many people aware of and more open minded about the joy and benefits of playing TTRPGs. However, I think it’s accessible media such as Critical Role and one-shot games such as Honey Heist that actually convert interested bystanders into new players.

What did you feel was missing from the world of RPGs that led you to approach your products from a beginners perspective?

TTRPGs are, at their core, games where you tell stories. As a new GM you have to spin a lot of plates at once, and entry level content has to bear that in mind. My checklist includes narrative pacing, game mechanics, improvisation, acting, maintaining active communication, and (most importantly) having fun. All at once, these new skills can be overwhelming.

The most prominent tools out there try to teach new players a very complex system – 5th Edition D&D. For context, Wizard’s in-house content isn’t very useful. The rules are long, sometimes 300 pages, and filled with jargon. A lot of the books are rooted in problematic or harmful stereotypes. The starter modules either railroad the party or provide too much unsupported open-world content for a new GM to know what to do with.

Prominent existing entry-level tools often try to boost new players into this inadequate system, and patch over its issues. D&D Beyond is a privately licensed character sheet simulator. The ‘Young Adventurer’s Guide’ series (Dungeons and Tombs, etc) from Ten Speed Press simply explain the core rules. Much of the accessible material I hold up as the front-line standard of D&D is instead homebrewed, such as the Ancestry & Cultures player background rework. While these resources are high quality, they come at a steep cost; they add additional expenses on top of an already pricey core ruleset, and require so much extra time and effort to use.

My goal for the games I make is to cut out this bloated middleman—to facilitate streamlined TTRPG experiences that also introduce all of the skills needed to run a successful game.

I’m not the first (or last) to do this. There are hundreds of rules-lite and one-shot games available at a fraction of D&D’s premium price tag. These games are infinitely more accessible to newer (and younger) players.

Overall, I love TTRPGs and what they can do for people. I even wrote an essay about it. I see the barriers to entry, and try to make things that avoid them completely, instead of building steep bridges over them.

It’s a striking cover. I’ll be doing a product review of this next week.

You’ve made your product available on Roll20, a virtual tabletop platform. Have you done much online gaming during lockdown, and do you think this year will lead to a shift in people’s attitudes towards virtual tabletops?

I’ve been playing in an online game every week since the middle of February 2020, after a history of snobbishly looking down on it. Honestly, I regret not playing online earlier.

VTTs (virtual tabletops) are much more powerful than we give them credit for. They are much more customizable than in-person games (with dynamic lighting, programmed dice macros, and searchable character sheets). They’re also more accessible than in-person games. For example, players can individually control the volume of the music they hear, which is fab for easily overstimulated players, or those who are hard of hearing. In my own liveshow, Beast Fables, we all draw on the shared battlemap-canvas while other players are talking, which is a unique experience I’ve never had before (even as I played D&D through 3 years of art school).

I was raised on in-person games around a table, and grew up around a fair few grognards. I absorbed a lot of the elitist ‘gamer’ mentality which I’ve had to break down and challenge myself on. One of those issues was around online gaming, and in retrospect it’s so inclusive, accessible, and comfortable that I think everyone should try it. I believe, like for myself, lockdown will push people to try new ways of connecting with each other. If you like board games or TTRPGs, you should definitely give a VTT a try.

To my mind RPGs are reluctant to learn from each other whereas board games constantly evolve, adapt mechanics from popular products etc. Would you agree or am I off the mark?

That’s not been my experience—if anything, my community loves to pitch in and help one another, as well as uplift and share each other’s work. I think the issue is who you surround yourself with, not the TTRPG community as a whole.

Regarding borrowing mechanics, I think it happens all the time. Mausritter, from Losing Games has a paragraph disclaimer at the start actively highlighting the different systems it has borrowed from or been inspired by, which I don’t think you’ll ever see in a board game.

Furthermore, I’ve played some really exciting games that blow ‘d20+stat+modifier+prof bonus’ out of the water. Adam Vass’ A Guide to Casting Phantoms in the Revolution has you fill a magic lantern with dice and roll them on a pentagram. The Impossible Dream’s Dread only uses a tower of bricks. There’s a wide variety out there waiting to be found.

The sheer amount of homebrew content for the major systems shows that as a community we have a lot of active members taking a base product, and reshaping it into their own thing.

Earlier work from the DOAD imprint.

Where is the best place to find this homebrew content and is there any you would personally recommend?

There are three main “open” markets for indie TTRPG and homebrew content, that I know of. They vary in formality, and in how effective they are at sharing work.

  • Itch.io. The main space for indie TTRPGs, Itch.io was originally (as I know) for video games, not books. However it’s adapted very nicely to our needs, and has the highest % of the sale go directly to the creator.
  • DriveThru RPG. One of the enduring originals, lots of creators publish through DriveThru. Its mid-2000s blog navigation is borderline janky, and it’s very hard to find what you want. But as a platform, it’s got variety and a decent recommendation algorithm, as far as I’ve used it.
  • Roll20 Marketplace. As the biggest VTT (virtual tabletop) platform out there right now, Roll20 is one of the easiest ways to game online at the moment. It also has the largest digital marketplace of pre-formatted TTRPG content, that slots directly into sessions for you to run. They have a focus on quality, and that reflects in the adventure, systems, tokens and maps you can find there. Roll20 curates and gently supports its creators, which the other platforms can’t boast.

Other spaces:

  • Honourable Mention: Twitter. A lot of the TTRPG scene is centered on Twitter, and many cool creators follow other cool creators. Often you can find hacks, 1 page systems, and homebrew posted with little fanfare.
  • Honourable Mention: D&D Beyond. 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons may be the most well known system out there currently, but it isn’t the be and end all of TTRPGs. As a one system platform, D&D Beyond is pretty great. It’s got a growing bank of neat tools, and homebrew is easy to write and format natively, as well as update without the need for your audience to download anything.

The only criticism I have is that the homebrew therein (as is symptomatic of all 5e content) is a wild west. You have no idea what is good, bad or balanced against the current meta until you play it.

  • Dishonourable Mention: DMs Guild. Ugh. It’s gross in every way, and you know it’s because WOTC has control over it (unlike D&D Beyond, which is entirely externally licenseD). As a platform, it highlights homophobic, transphobic, and blatantly racist content, both legacy from the 1980s as well new homebrews. It’s policies are poorly written and harmfully executed. It’s license (in essence) steals all work published to it through unmitigatable exclusivity. They take 50% of all digital sales, which is abhorrent—physical retailers normally take 40-60% of book sales, and have much higher running costs.

I’ve no comment about the staff, I’m sure they’re working as best they can with the bad hand they’ve been dealt. DMs Guild as a platform is a perfect example of how to exploit a community, instead of supporting it.

What game from a UK publisher are you most excited about right now?

Aside from my own stuff, I’m keen to see Inspirisles, and the progress of a few other educational games. Research proves games are a strong way to pick up and practice new skills, and Inspirisles seeks to teach British Sign Language through the mechanics of an RPG. BSL is a skill I personally want to have, and like many other accessibility products Inspirisles will help bring more imaginative voices to our community.

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Author: Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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