Meeting of Minds – Sean Smith
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.
Sean Smith (he/him) is an indie RPG designer with a background in teaching and magic. He has been heavily involved in the indie RPG scene for a number of years producing his own OSR ruleset with Quarrel and Fable, entering the Game Chef competition with ‘Contempt for the Ogre Poet’, and releasing numerous projects through Itch.io.
Sean was good enough to take the time to answer some questions about his gaming history, the relationship between magic and roleplaying games, and what it is like trying to make money through itch.io and similar platforms.
Can you give us a bit of background on how you got into tabletop RPGs?
When I was ten, my best mate Edd brought The Warlock of Firetop Mountain into school and every break time we would sit on the picnic benches and try to beat the book. Invariably, we would always die to the vampire (I have since learned that if you even meet the vampire, you’ve gone the wrong way). That’s what got me into gamebooks and other Puffin titles then pointed the way to trad rpgs.
You have experience performing magic, both on-stage and close up. How have those experiences informed how you make games and supplements?
At a very base level, magic shows are about crystallising the moment: how often do you look quite that closely at a coin you’ve already had? Conceptually too, it leads to moments where people say, “Hey do you remember when we saw X?” That’s the same sort of thing I like to bring out in the games I write and run as well.
There are also a couple of design tenets that I find common between magic and games design. The first is that participants in each need to lower themselves into the shared imagined reality for it to work best: you’re taking part in something altered, and that’s different from watching a spectacle. The second is that nothing brings you out of that moment quicker than confusion — I aim to cull as much that might get in the way of people staying in the zone. That’s probably why my last two physical releases have been bound to postcards alone!
You entered the Game Chef competition with one of your games ‘Contempt for the Ogre Poet’. Can you explain a little about the competition and what it was like to enter it?
I don’t remember where I came across Game Chef, but the concept of it immediately piqued my attention when I did. You’ve given one theme, four “ingredients”, and nine days to design and write a new roleplaying game.
With the exception of the time scale, you’re encouraged to read the theme and ingredients as widely as possible. For Contempt, the theme was “There is no book”, which I used as the first half of the first sentence of the game: “There is no book in the land, not since the ogre-poet came.” From there I ran with the idea that this town had been staving off being eaten by distracting the ogre-poet with a book each year, but they’ve now run out. The rest of the game is a collaborative storytelling experience where you somehow try to solve this issue.
Entering the contest itself was fun because expressly writing something for others means you’re having to make distinct decisions early in the process rather than just going “oh we’ll fix that in post-production”. And in doing so, it meant I met several interesting designers whose work I doubt I’d have come across otherwise.
Your game Quarrel and Fable is one of the many Old School Roleplaying rulesets you can find on the site. OSR has become a popular genre in the last few years. What do you think has led to such an interest in this style of rulesets and the nostalgia for games as they used to be played?
At a base level, I think the OSR appeals for the same reason there’s been a folk horror revival of late: in complex times it’s comforting to lean towards simple traditions (even when they aren’t really traditional).
I actually see the OSRs (multifarious and siloed as they are) as an arts movement as much as a playstyle: modernism as a reaction to staid Victoriana, say. Often any claim of historical accuracy is a case of cherry-picking ambiguous artefacts and reading arbitrary decisions as outright intent.
That said, I tend to run and play games in that space because I’m a fan of their simplicity. There’s no capacity for system mastery and it makes it perfect for beginners and drunks.
Taking OSR as an arts movement for a moment. What other schools of RPG design do you think are present in the current explosion of interest in the hobby?
With the big dog in the room being Wizards’ 5E, there are a lot of successful and sought-after supplements, accessories and appendices for that. It’s where the big money is, and while there’s some really pleasant design work going on, there’s less experimentation.
There are a few other siloes of games design─you’ve Powered by the Apocalpyse games from a while back, though fewer people are playing in that space now unless it’s as a continuation of Jason Cordova’s Brindlewood Bay or Shawn Tomkin’s Ironsworn; you’ve Forged in the Dark titles which feel to me like a good crosspiece between legacy boardgames and directed rpg play; you’ve publishers like Fria Ligan and Modiphius pasting their house systems on exciting intellectual properties too.
Outside of specific schools of thought, there also seems to be a tendency towards designing by tool rather than total: there’s interesting stuff hearkening back to the powers design from DND4E, use of Otherkind dice (roll a bunch of D6 and draft them to specific outcomes), stepped dice systems (same target numbers but bigger dice if you’re more skilled). There’s a good mix.
You release mostly on itch.io. The indie scene has been exploding in the last few years. How hard do you find it to stand out in a crowded marketplace?
To some extent, I don’t try to. In my mind itch behaves similarly to somewhere like etsy or Bandcamp. It feels more like an industrial estate than a market: people will go there to buy something, but they’ll very rarely browse it. It behaves hugely differently from DriveThruRPG or Kickstarter, say.
As such, I spend more of my marketing effort entirely offsite. Basically existing within communities and talking about my games and performances when they’re relevant! It’s all very cabaret really.
What sort of income do you see from itch? Do you have any tips for someone looking to make money from the site?
I’ve averaged this across the last twelve months, but itch secures me about $54 each calendar month (though its payout process is quite slow). On the other hand, the last twelve months on DriveThruRPG have paid a mean of $34 (but their payouts are instantaneous since I became verified).Could you expand a bit on the payment process for itch? itch on the other hand requires manual approval of the payment request so it’s sometimes as long as three months before the payment actually arrives. It’s not a terrible aspect but its randomness can’t be planned for in the same way a smoother process works: I think that’s why I often see people selling digital on itch and taking prepayments for physical products on their own sites─if they’ve the infrastructure for that!
The single best way to get sale on itch seems to be through taking part in cooperative bundles, like the sort organised by Sprinting Owl. Game jams have brought me some income, but the best successes of those have tended to be design impetus and networking with other creators.
The rise of Dungeons and Dragons over the last few years has been meteoric. How do you think the popularity of DnD has affected smaller publishers like yourself?
To be fair, I consider DnD and other RPGs to be aligned but distinct hobby spaces: it’s like how buying books and reading books are sister hobbies. But I do think the rise of DnD to be another factor of the growth of nerddom within popular culture — things like the Marvel cinematic monopoly, the explosion of premium boardgames, and so on. And I think that growth has definitely sparked a wider interest in indie games. Hell, I don’t have to explain to people what an RPG is any more.
Do you have much experience introducing totally new roleplayers to the hobby? If so what games do you use to do that and why?
I spent ten years as a secondary school teacher and in the latter years I ran a “DND” club─”Mr Smith’s Delves of Perril (sic)” was its formal name! At the outset, we used Into the Odd because the kids were excited about the use of polyhedral dice. When it came to school holidays, I gave them a copy of Maze Rats since it runs using only D6s.
I’ve recently started an open table campaign where almost all players are completely new too: for that we’re using Old School Essentials because it looks official enough! That it’s mechanically based on an historic version of DND and that it exists in hardback has helped the players trust in something they’d not seen before. Plus, it’s popular enough that there’s lots of support for it and discussion of it online.
What RPG from a UK publisher are you most looking forward to running or playing?
The historians will say I am biased, as I’ve worked for the publisher before (did you know I was the editor on Orc Borg? no), but Rowan, Rook and Decard’s forthcoming Hollows sounds incredibly good: nothing like horrid monster fights vs. psychotrauma beasts.
I’m also excited to get in another game of League of Eternal Guardians — time travelling heroes tussle with eldritch cosmic monstrosities.