[Interview] Joseph Browning (Expeditious Retreat Press)

Mal ein kleines Experiment. Passend zu der Gruftschrecken-Besprechung zu Pod Caverns of the sinister Shroom habe ich dem großartigen Joe Browning (Twitter: @Joseph_Browning) ein paar Fragen zu seiner Person und seinem kleinen, aber feinen Verlag Expeditious Retreat Press (XRP) gestellt. Ich hoffe, euer Englisch ist halbwegs sattelfest…

Pod Caverns of the sinister Shroom – (Co) XRP

Hi. Can you please tell my readers about your person and about XRP?

I’m Joseph Browning, owner of Expeditious Retreat Press. I’ve been TTRP gaming since 1980. I’m also an author of several works of fiction. My wife (Suzi Yee) and I started XRP in 2003 when the Open Game License (OGL) allowed third-party companies to create content for D&D. We started out making world building books for third edition, but our company’s products grew into other editions and game systems. In 2018, we launched into fiction with the Shattered Moon series, based on the gonzo post apocalyptic roleplaying game we had developed years ago, and the Salt Mine series which centers around a secret government agency that monitors supernatural activity.

I first became aware of XRP as the publisher of the Advanced Adventures for OSRIC during the first wave of OSR products. Was this your first try at publishing books, especially RPG books? How did you get into contact with all these great authors and artists?

Our first book was A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe, published for 3rd edition D&D in 2003, which won three Ennies that year. I had interacted on-line with Stuart Marshall and Matt Finch who used the OGL to create OSRIC and we were one of the first (if not the first) publisher of OSR materials under the OSRIC retro-clone starting in 2006, starting the Advance Adventures line out with Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, authored by Finch.

First edition was my introduction into role-playing games in my youth, and the opportunity to create new adventures in that style and system was just too much fun to pass up. I was very familiar with the aesthetic, both in art and how it played at the table, and I found many of the artists and freelancers on- line, either because they sought XRP out or I found them searching for particular styles of art.

I remember these years as a very creative time in the English language OSR scene. Do you have any interesting memories to share?

For me, one of the best memories is when we ran the Old School Renaissance booth at GenCon in 2011. We had dozens of different OSR publishers involved and it felt like the first time that the OSR had congealed around a physical location. It was awesome getting to meet all the people interested in that style of play and being able to suggest different new things to them was just great. It was also nice being able to let people know that the older gaming style was still going strong.

In the 9th epsiode of the Gruftschrecken podcast we talk about „Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom“, the first module in the AA series – any interesting trivia you could give us on this adventure?

Unfortunately, not really. However, that is the module that I’ve gotten the most play-report e-mails about. So many people laughing about TPK’s or crazy ideas that actually worked!

Gruftschrecken-Podcast – (Co) Mario Bühling

Along with AA, your one-on-one series of modules was very interesting. I only knew that from classic D&D and I bought all of those as well.

The one-on-one line started when we were in India around 2004 or so and there wasn’t any real way to play on-line yet, so we decided to do one player, one gm games. They take a bit of extra design care, but if you do it right you can have some really great adventures with minimal prep time.

You used to print your stuff yourself and sell it via the XRP online store. Why did you choose to publish via drivethrough (and Noble Knight, of course) now?

When we moved from the USA to The Netherlands it became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to have a home-based inventory, so we had to make that switch. I really liked running my own little shop and I miss it, but needs must, as the Brits say.

Browsing through the XRP drivethoughrpg account I can see there are only the AA adventures, the Magical Society books, the Old-School Gazette and Arden Vul – What happened to One-on-One, Sorcery & Super Science, the Lands of Darkness, Classified or Freeport?

They’re all still there. If you click on the below link, you’ll see all the various lines directly underneath the cover images of the hottest titles.

Oopsie. Okay. Why didn’t you try to market and publish Arden Vul via crowdfunding? That might just have worked. Could it be something for future projects (my megadungeon for example)?

We considered doing crowdfunding for Arden Vul, but the project took so long that by the time the publishing end started up, we were moving to The Netherlands with all the subsequent difficulties that created with fulfilment/shipping, etc.

Regarding your megadungeon it’s always an option, but the worldwide shipping network right now is all sorts of messed up and pricing out something in bulk is an even trickier business than normal.

I know publishers hate talking about numbers – but maybe you might tell us: Which module have you sold the most copies of? And is there a module you dearly love, but which is utterly unsuccessful?

Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom has sold the most, which is typical of any long line. Thankfully none of them have been unsuccessful, although the later ones in the line sell a lot less than the earlier ones. One I’m particularly proud of is one I wrote and published: Redtooth Ridge. I think it’s a stellar little low-level module.

Blacktooth Ridge – (Co) legrog.org + XRP

Do you playtest your modules or do you trust the authors to have done it enough to make the product fit for publication?

Most of the manuscripts we get have already been play tested, and the ones that haven’t we go over ourselves. One of the things we like to do is remember that there are many different niches a module can fill, and we try to get examples of each. Some people really like standard dungeons, some like killer dungeons, others like wacky adventures, and still others like overland/wilderness components. We try to get some of each type and judge each based upon the niche it’s trying to make. Not everyone’s going to like everything, but we try to make everything a good version of what it is.

A „gargantuan“ project close to my heart as I „brought the gang together“ in about 2010 or 2011 I guess – Arden Vul, the mega megadungeon by Rick Barton which can finally be bought – Can you tell us about this adventure, on the work flow, problems …?

Ah, Arden Vul was a beast. When I first saw it was about 1/4th the size of the finished product. Rick has a terminal degree in medieval studies and the manuscripts he’d hand over were some of the cleanest I’d seen, but even then there was a lot of required editing to make sure all the pieces came together, both with what came before and what came after. The maps, done by Andreas Claren, were another thing that required a lot of attention. Andreas worked off of Rick’s originals and they did a lot of correcting between
themselves before I saw them for my run. I’d create a list of corrections and then they’d do them or they’d correct my correction because I’d misunderstood something. It was very much a three-pairs-of-eyes affair. . I think I had something like 100,000 words of editing direction all total. And the thing is that it may seem like there was a lot of editing notes, but the final product is over 1,100 pages, so on a page-per- page basis it’s not that much, especially when you consider the tremendous 3-dimenionality of the work.

There’s a lot of interlocking pieces. As an example, there’s a lake on the top level under which is a sealed door that can be opened, draining the majority of the lake in process. This would, of course, flood everything below the door. It took a lot of time and effort to figure out the water flow (from the surface level all the way down to the bottom level, level 10) and the affect it would have on those areas!

Arden Vul – The Nether Reaches – (Co) Ardenvul.com + XRP

Arden Vul did take significantly longer than expected (10 years!) and once we’d gotten about 1⁄2 way through, I made the decision to forget about “how will I publish this?” and instead went with “It should be what it is and then we’ll worry about how to publish after it’s done.” That’s one of the reasons why the maps remained so sprawling and organic – they don’t carefully fit on a page of graph paper – unlike many other megadungeons. They’re completely organic and, IMO, that makes the play experience that much richer.

Let’s get crazy: Someone gave you the rights to publish an AD&D 2 setting. Which one would it be? Why? And what would you do with it?

I’d actually prefer Greyhawk circa 1e including the expanded information in the Gold Box version. I grew up on the folio version and that’s one that I think could be more-deeply fleshed out without being overbearing. I’d focus on modules as well as country gazetteers and hopefully finish them all.

And one thing I’d like to know personally, so you don’t have to answer it: The crazy American publishers move to Finland, while the cool, down-to-earth guys choose the Netherlands – Why did you move from the US to the Netherlands? Do you like it there? And why the heck have you never come over here to say hi and have a look at the wonderful Mosel river?

I didn’t like where the USA was heading and wanted to get somewhere that I thought was a better fit for us. The Netherlands has a treaty with the USA (DAFT – Dutch American Friendship Treaty) wherein if you have your own business and can support yourself, you can immigrate freely, bypassing the typical immigration channels. So The Netherlands became the best choice for our situation.

Covid is currently making it hard to enjoy living anywhere at the moment, sadly, but I’m glad that we’re here instead of in the USA. We definitely made the right choice. We’d planned to do some travelling (including the Mosel & Rhine valleys, actually) right before it hit, but now all such plans are on indefinite hold until infection rates get low enough where we could enjoy ourselves instead of focusing on remaining uninfected.

Thanks for your frank words and your time!

Certainly!

All the best to you and yours,

Joseph Browning