Rob Schwalb on Shadow of the Demon Lord and the Gaming Industry

This is an interview I conducted with Rob Schwalb of Schwalb Entertainment as part of the AetherCon V Convention Program.


JI: Recently on the Talking Tabletop podcast you said that you always pay freelancers who work for you at the top of the industry’s pay scale. Why is it important to you that designers be compensated in this way and what lesson do you hope consumers and other small game companies take from this example?

RS: I clawed my way into the RPG design business the hard way, selling words for as little as two cents a word and there are still two large published projects I wrote but never saw a dime in compensation. RPG design and writing rates haven’t changed in the 15 years I’ve been working in the field and most companies still pay between four cents or less per word. Here’s the thing. We make products for a very niche market. If we want great product, cool ideas, and more from the brightest minds in the business, publishers have to pony up for the talent. I hope, in some small way, to nudge the publishers toward improving their rates, even if this means raising the prices of products by a modest amount to compensate. Of course, being the publisher and lead designer for my small company means I shoulder most of the writing largely to keep costs under control. Not every company can do this and I understand and so it’s a knot I’m not sure will ever get untied.

JI: Shadow of the Demon Lord is a wonderfully elegant game that’s easy to learn and play, but also provides players endless options when building characters. How did you crack the code of simple gameplay and limitless options?

RS: Hey thanks! During design, I strove to please two groups of people so I could bring them to the same table and have a great experience. The first group included the casual players, people with an interest in the hobby, but are neither willing nor interested in spending an hour making ten decisions to create a character. Furthermore, they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the campaign or what mechanical choice they’re going to make next. Hell, they probably can’t commit to a weekly or even bimonthly game.

I also focused on invested players, people who live and breathe tabletop RPGs, who delight in making characters and tinkering with the game. These folks, especially those who come from traditional tabletop RPGs, expect to be able to make meaningful and interesting choices in character development and during game play. They have an idea about what kind of character they want to play and they expect the game to deliver the options they need to realize that character in play.

The casual audience’s needs kept my crunchy impulse in check, and let me focus on delivering those things that would keep both kinds of players at the same table. The result was a trim, flexible game engine that could adapt to a variety of circumstances and is easy to learn and master. The mechanical options, which, as you point out, are many, live inside of bigger decision points. Invested players still have lots to choose from, but they choose big packages rather than spend their time making decisions about the small things that, in my experience, don’t really matter much at all.

Rather than carve up these widgets into smaller buckets, I delivered them in big packages called paths. You choose three paths over the life of the campaign, which lets the character adapt and grow as the story progresses, while bundling interesting things together to completely bypass decision paralysis when a player is faced with combining mechanical elements from eight or more different sources. So at the start of the campaign, characters are quite simple and easy to make. Each adventure completed grows the character’s complexity from the widgets gained from previous or new big decision points. However, the player has the time to master those widgets and see how they work in play during the adventure, so that by the time the adventure ends, the player is ready to learn something new.


JI: How did you manage to get so many quality products shipped in so little time and why is it important for you to be so prolific?

RS: As of this writing, the game has only been out 14 months and I just released the 100th title. I’ve always been prolific when it comes to game design, even if it costs me free time, sanity, happiness, and my liver. The reason for pushing hard on SotDL is that my wee company is fighting for a place in a crowded field. Offering options and expansions to the core that cover a variety of subjects reinforces to customers that the game is alive and well, supported, and offering new and exciting expansions to the core. Delivering these expansions in bite-sized pieces lets people keep up with the game each week for less than it costs to buy a cup of coffee.

JI: I follow you on social media. I’ve never seen a setting that so well represents the designer’s personality, fears, and sense of humor as Shadow of the Demon Lord. How do you tap into something so personal while writing and how do you make those feelings accessible?

It’s probably bad to say this, but I am terrible at work-life balance. I wanted this game to reflect my tastes and sensibilities and I drew from all the things I love about the hobby, all my fears and disappointments, frustrations and blinding hatred that the business, games, and everything else awakens inside of me. My head is a garden in which anxiety, stress, depression, doubt, and so many other terrible things grow. So, I guess, the game is a harvest of those horrors growing there.

JI: What do you think separates Shadow of the Demon Lord from other RPGs?

RS: I was very pragmatic about the design. We’re busy people, maybe busier now than ever before. We have responsibilities. We have competing interests. We live complex and difficult lives. Who the hell has three years to invest in a campaign? Who can make all the game sessions making up the adventure? Heck, I sure can’t. SotDL drags the best part of the campaign—the world-ending, world-shaking event—to the fore. A campaign asks players to commit to some number of adventures no greater than eleven. And, each adventure is a self-contained contained story, ideally playable in a single sitting, so if you can’t make the next session, it’s no big deal. SotDL a game for adults busy doing adult things but who still want to climb out of their lives for a few hours and kill a few demons with their friends over beers and pizza.

JI: There are more than 25 adventures out for Shadow of the Demon Lord. What are some of your favorites and why?

RS: You know, all of the adventures we’ve released hold a special place in my dark heart since most of them represent a designer’s interpretation of my game. Some are linear, some are not. Some are simple, while others are quite complex. We have disgusting adventures, moral dilemmas, and tragedies. Of the adventures I did not write, some of my favorites include The Apple of Her Eye by Steve Kenson. I’ve run this one several times and it almost always ends in a “feel bad” way. A Measure of Faith by Steve Townsend is also great fun as it has a strong and interesting story, while also leveraging the rampant, widespread madness. TS Luikart’s Beware the Tides of Karshoon was a ton of fun since it was like going back to the WFRP days. Finally, I really dug Cam Banks’ The Gorgon’s Tears as it delivered an interesting mystery with interesting consequences.

Of the ones I’ve written, The Curious Case of Farmer Ham (see Tales of the Demon Lord) was one of the first I wrote for the game and thus has a special place in my heart. My Father Left Forever, inside Terrible Beauty, takes a good long look at what it means to be enslaved by a faerie.

JI: What’s do you think consumers should do to help change the way RPG industry professionals are compensated?

RS: If I knew the answer to this question, I would hope to be working less and making more than I do. It’s a sinkhole from which I’m not sure we can escape. I think the trouble is that some folks don’t place value on the product. I mean, it’s not like there’s a shortage of playable RPGs, right? But, where I stumble is when I think about console games. One might give you 20-40 hours of steady enjoyment and people are willing to shell out $60 to play it. A tabletop RPG could provide countless hours of enjoyment for everyone at the table, yet $50 is considered high. It’s true that a tabletop RPG takes less capital and time to create than does a video game, but a tabletop RPG and supplements are made from a smaller pool of people who work the same kinds of hours, who have to master a broad range of design skills, and get a modest return, if they’re lucky, on their investment. This all said, I’m not sure seeking and fighting for fair compensation in the tabletop world is anything more than tilting at windmills and thus I focus on paying fair rates and producing on top notch products in the hopes of inspiring others to do the same.

JI: The Schwalb Entertainment website and online shop appear to be built to handle more product lines than just Shadow of the Demon Lord. Can you give us a hint about what’s to come?

We have some fun things coming next year, all driven by Kickstarter campaigns, though the next batch of products will be further expansions on Shadow of the Demon Lord, though with a far saner release schedule. We’re going to be bringing Freeport to the world the Demon Lord, plus produce a delicious bestiary, a book on magic, and rules for playing legendary characters, though who move beyond the group to become movers and shakers in the world. While working on these, I will starting design on a new game powered by the Demon Lord that I hope to reveal in 2018. Fun stuff coming, so stay tuned!

Check out more great interviews like this one by grabbing your copy of the AetherCon V Convention Program being released Nov/1/2016 here:

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