Wolfgang Baur is the founder of Kobold Press, an award-winning independent tabletop game publisher. Founded in 2006, Kobold Press won the prestigious Diana Jones Award in 2008 for their crowd-funding/patron model of RPG publishing. Alongside their original Midgard & Warlock setting for Dungeons & Dragons 5E, Kobold Press has released a series of well-regarded tabletop game design books. Wolfgang took time out of his busy schedule to speak to us at length about his work as creator and publisher of RPGs.
- Tell us about the founding of Kobold Press. Did you always envision yourself as a games publisher?
Games were always the plan from the start. However, the style and form of publication shifted rapidly in the early days. Originally, I planned to be a self-publisher for digital-only game materials, in particular for things that I did not think would be viable in the existing major publishing houses (who all had PG-13 standards and preferred particular styles of adventure with broad appeal). I intended to serve fantasy niches such as steampunk, fey, and horror subgenres. I also enjoyed publishing with more direct engagements with fans and with a message-board-based community.
As it happened, for the first couple releases from Kobold Press, I was the lead and sometimes only game designer, though with heavy feedback from playtest and supporters. When I realized that my experience in magazine publishing would make it easier for me to bring in some other freelancers, I spoke to those people and got some projects going where I was not the main creator. And I soon saw that some of the community members were certainly talented newcomers. So I started publishing work by others, and took more of an editorial role. I stopped thinking of the company as self-publishing within the first year or two; it was much more fun to bring in some of my favorite game designers to strut their stuff in adventures, essays, and other game materials.
These days I'm as more publisher than editor, and Kobold Press is firmly established as a third-party publisher for Dungeons & Dragons. Over the 13 years of the company's history, we have published for 6 different RPG rules systems (3 of them editions of D&D, plus Pathfinder and Call of Cthulhu and Swords & Wizardry). Board games and card games aren't out of the question. You need to be flexible and adapt to the things that draw attention, but you also need to play to your strengths. In my particular case, that was having a long list of personal connections to well-known game freelancers; it would have been foolish not to pull in all that talent!
- Kobold Press has a reputation for strong RPG design, particularly in terms of the setting and flavor of Midgard. How do you maintain such a strong brand focus while working on other publisher's licenses? Are there trade-offs in terms of creative freedom?
The question presumes that we can't do two things at once.... Fortunately kobolds are numerous enough that we can tackle multiple overlapping projects! If it were just me running the show, I'd be sunk, but with both an art director and editor on staff, we can handle 2 large projects per year, plus dozens of smaller titles. Each project has its own lead designer, a dedicated lead editor, and dedicated freelance artists. One of the great joys of working with freelancers is that they can show up, do something amazing, and then ride off into the sunset (or the next project). Without that flexibility, it would be much more difficult.
The only licensed materials we've done in the last 5 years are for Wizards of the Coast, in particular their Dungeons & Dragons adventures Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Tyranny of Dragons. Those were both on tight timelines and required a full effort on our part, but they both were opportunities so compelling that we set aside smaller work to make sure it worked out (and hired a couple of those talented freelancers to keep all wheels spinning).
Midgard itself is the product of many years of experience and many rounds of playtesting. There's relatively little trade-off there; either a project is a Midgard title or it isn't. We have total control over how and when to expand the Midgard setting, and we've been deliberate about that.
- As an independent publisher active on both Kickstarter and Patreon, do you see crowd-funding as a way to supplement - both financially and creatively - gaps in traditional game publishing? If so, do you see any trends or indications that major publishers might be coming around to supporting more innovative content?
Kobold Press does relatively little traditional game publishing, if by that you mean investing in a years-long design and production cycle without crowdfunding. The reason is risk: Hardcover book print runs are expensive, and the sorts of highly illustrated monster manuals that Kobold Press has done for 5th Edition D&D have enormous art budgets (by small press standards, anyway). So we reduce risk by crowdfunding, and setting a print run that matches the size of the audience pretty closely, rather than needing to guess. I don't see crowdfunding as supplemental at all; it's the main way we know whether a particular project is worth pursuing at all.
- The Kobold Guides to game design are essential reference tools for game designers. How did the series come about?
The Kobold Guides were a happy accident: I had been blogging for my backers and patrons on various design topics, and a reader asked for a compilation of that material. I realized what might have been blindingly obvious to a more experienced publisher: blog essays are easy to collect, improve/expand, and offer to an audience that may have missed it online, or that might want to support you by picking up an inspirational or informative collection of your work. Over time, the series has been very fortunate to have contributions from some of the biggest names in RPGs and tabletop games: Monte Cook, Amber Scott, Ed Greenwood, Amanda Hamon, Mike Selinker, Margaret Weis, and many others have shared their practical tips and experience to help new and veteran game designers sharpen their work, and to help homebrew game masters keep their own games running strong.
- Any advice for design and illustration students at SVA looking to break into tabletop games?
The main advice I have these days is make sure you have a current gallery online and some kind of online presence to make it easy for an art director to see recent work as well as your "highlight reel". Shop those around with some polite introduction emails, and make it clear that you can meet a deadline. The demand for both design and illustration seems especially big at the moment, so it's a great time to jump in.
And because an interview is always too short to say it all, let me say there's a whole chapter on freelancing and breaking into the tabletop games field in the Kobold Guide to Game Design, 2nd Edition. Everyone finds their own road to publication. Yours may go with a series of publishers, self-publishing, an online fanbase: there are more ways than ever for your work to connect with the audience. Give us a shout at Kobold Press, or visit us at a convention sometime!
For more information about Wolfgang's work, you can follow him on Twitter (@monkeyking).
Several Kobold Press Design books, as well as the Midgard campaign books, are available at SVA Library West: https://sva.libguides.com/tabletop