Designer Interview: Martin Ralya from Gnome Stew & Engine Publishing

For those of you who don’t know the name Martin Ralya in the context of roleplaying games, I’ll provide just a few highlights:

  • Martin runs (since May 2008) and writes for Gnome Stew with a team of talented writers and GMs, which is host to more than 950 articles, 1,000+ visitors a day, and more gnomes than you can shake a stick at (they’ll probably just magic the stick away even, so I wouldn’t try it!)… Gnome Stew and Treasure Tables have both been nominated for the ENnie Awards. Gnome Stew has won a silver for Best Blog in 2011 and a silver for Best Blog in 2010, so the gaming community obviously supports what the gnomes do every day in the stew!
  • Before that he ran and wrote for Treasure Tables, which though inactive now is still home to more than 750 articles about GMing
  • In 2009, Martin started a small-press publishing company called Engine Publishing that put out Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters in 2010 and Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game in 2011. So far (according to MartinRalya.com), Engine has sold more than 2,000 copies of their books since June 2010…
  • Beyond that, he’s written freelance for Paizo Publishing, Goodman Games, Necromancer Games, Tabletop Adventures, 93 Games Studio, and many more projects and companies…

So as you can see, Martin doesn’t sit idle for long – plus he has a family!

After I reviewed Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game recently, I asked Martin if he’d answer a few questions for Game Knight Reviews and he kindly consented…

Q1: According to your portal site (http://www.martinralya.com/), you’ve been gaming since 1987. What was the first game you ever played in? And what are you playing now?

Lords of Creation

Image via Wikipedia

My first gaming experience was “running” Lords of Creation in 1987, but I had no idea what I was doing and it usually just turned into buying equipment and then telling a story. My first time as a player, and my first real gaming experience, was on a family vacation in 1988 or 1989, when my friend David introduced me to red box D&D. I bought the AD&D 2e core books in 1989, starting running games myself, and have never looked back.

Right now, I’m both running and playing in a CODA Star Trek game. I GM the main cast game, and my friend Don Mappin (also a Gnome Stew author) GMs a “below decks” game with different PCs set on the same ship. The narratives connect to each other loosely and organically, and it’s a ton of fun.

Q2: It’s obvious from your writing that it’s a definite passion of yours. How do your skills as a marketing writer translate to gaming? Or did the gaming writing come first?

My experience as an RPG freelancer and blogger are a large part of what landed me my current job. They do feed into each other, though: Both feature tight deadlines, a need to write even when I don’t particularly feel like it, and a need to produce quality material regardless of the topic or other considerations.

Q3: What are your favorite types of content to write for Gnome Stew? Why?

After three-plus years, it varies. Right now, I’m having the most fun with Martin’s Mentions (here’s the series: http://www.gnomestew.com/tag/martins-mentions), which combine link roundups with editorial content, GMing inspiration, and other loose ends. They’re a lot of fun to write.

Over the long haul, though, my favorites tend to be the articles where I feel like I have a strong point to make, and that point comes directly out of my own experiences as a GM and/or player. Here’s a recent example: http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/ill-never-be-able-to-do-this-justice-syndrome.

Q4: Of the articles you don’t write for Gnome Stew, what do you find the most useful? Of the articles you and the other gnomes have written, what article(s) have surprised you the most at their success or insights?

Part of what I love about writing for the Stew, and working with the other gnomes, is that as much as our tastes and biases and interests overlap, they also diverge. So I tend to enjoy the articles that surprise me, or look at something from a perspective that’s unfamiliar to me, the most.

Star Wars Roleplaying Game (West End Games)

Image via Wikipedia

One of my all-time favorite articles on the Stew fits this mold: http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/deep-as-a-puddle-character-development-with-tarot. In that one, Scott looks at using a tarot deck to generate NPCs, and it blew my mind — it’s an awesome technique.

Matt’s take on Star Wars RPGs took us all by surprise, and brought us as close as we’ve ever come to banning someone from the Stew: http://www.gnomestew.com/hot-buttons/the-concept-of-a-star-wars-rpg-should-die-in-a-fire. He didn’t write it for hits, though, which
is why it works.

Going back further, John’s look at puzzles in RPGs has become one of the most-read articles on the site: http://www.gnomestew.com/johnnys-five/johnnys-five-five-things-that-puzzles-in-rpgs-should-do. I wasn’t surprised that it was good (that never surprises me!), but the life it has taken on since he published it has been surprising and awesome.

Q5: What board or card games do you like to play when you’re not playing a more traditional RPG? Do you play at home with your wife and daughter? (I’m guessing the beagle wants to play, but just gets in the way if he’s anything like our dogs!)

This question is a bit like trying to get a sip of water from a fire hose — I’m a huge board and card gamer. The best answer might just be a link to my Geekdo profile, which lists the 200+ board/card games in my collection, along with ratings and comments for all of them.

My favorites include Pandemic, Dominion, Galaxy Trucker, Wizard, and Biblios. I also just got my group hooked on Warhammer: Invasion, the best expandable card game I’ve ever played, and it’s fast becoming one of my all-time favorite games.

Alysia and I play games together every week or two, and we have a great two-player collection. Some of our favorites are Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, Haggis, and Mr. Jack. I’m currently itching to get Letters from Whitechapel to the table with her, and the fact that there are three Jack the Ripper-themed games in that list may say more about us than I intended!

We’ve also successfully played one game with our daughter, Lark, which we all love: Go Away Monster! She’s two, and can actually play it start to finish — and requests it. I highly recommend it to any parent. Candyland has also come out a few times, but she’s not quite there yet.

Q6: How regularly do you get to play while holding down a job, multiple hats as a blogger and small publisher, and family man? How do you manage to get everything done? Do you ever sleep? Or are you a caffeine addict like many of us?

My group tries for once a week, and usually hits twice a month. Every Saturday night is set aside for gaming, and if it doesn’t pan out we usually get together for board games, which is also great.

I’m a huge caffeine addict, which is one of the ways I manage to get things done. I usually have two or three cups of coffee in the morning, and if I have work to do at home that’s going to keep me up late, I’ll have an energy drink after Lark goes to bed.

But the simple answer is that I don’t get everything done, it just looks like I do! It’s amazing how much goes undone. I try to prioritize and do the most important stuff, but honestly I don’t always get that right.

Q7: Since kicking off Engine Publishing a couple of years ago, what has been the hardest part of being a small publisher? What has been the easiest?

The hardest part has been the time commitment. I draw a pretty hard line around family time and gaming time, and after work and a commute and whatever else needs doing, that pretty much leaves 8:00-whenever for publishing stuff. With Eureka taking a year and Masks taking 10 months, and a solid three months or so of crunch time baked into each of those projects, that adds up to a lot of late nights and lost sleep.

The easiest part has been designing both books. Not in the sense that design is easy (it isn’t), but in the sense that the process flowed well thanks to the quality of the design team — working with the gnomes rocks. Everyone brings their own take on things, sacred cows get slaughtered, things morph and change, and the end product is much, much better than my original concept.

Q8: Any thoughts on what’s next after Eureka and Masks? How has the response to the second book been compared to the first?

Lots of thoughts! I’m still in my contractually mandated “Don’t Work on Another Book Right Now or You’ll Be Sleeping on the Couch” period, though. There are around 10 ideas on my plate, some small and some large. I never talk about my next project until it’s well underway, though, so no teasers yet.

The response to Masks has been overwhelming. Eureka sold just over 450 copies in its first quarter, and Masks has already sold over 525 with three weeks still to go. Both books have been well-received by reviewers and fans alike, but the buzz and critical response and general reception for Masks has been bigger and better than for Eureka. That’s really fantastic to see — all the more so because both books were gambles in their own way.

Q9: I’m a huge fan of system-independent resources like Eureka and Masks. As sources of inspiration, both books are going to be indispensable in my own toolbox and I’m surprised that there aren’t more publishers trying to fill that gap. Do you see a trend towards more of this sort of content? If not, why not?

Thank you! That’s really fantastic to hear.

I see a small uptick in the production of system-neutral resources over the past few years (for example, there used to only be a couple of pure GMing advice books, and now there are a handful), but that could just be because there are more small-press publishers jumping into the mix. I think that a lot of larger publishers don’t believe that there’s enough money in system-neutral material to justify publishing it, which is a shame.

One of the things I love about system-neutral resources is that they’re generally timeless. I still use Palladium’s Compendium of Weapons, Armor, and Castles, which is ancient; I hope people will still be using Masks and Eureka in 20 years, too. That seems like the kind of thing any publisher would want to add to their catalog, and that any retailer would want to have on hand.

Q10: Lastly… If there’s a question I didn’t ask that you’d have liked to be asked… What would it have been and what would your answer have been?

I’ve waited years for someone to ask me about the gnomes I have tattooed on my penis, but no one ever has. The answer is that they’re real, and they’re spectacular.

Thank you for interviewing me — this has been a lot of fun!

A huge thank you goes out to Martin for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions. And I wish him and all the gnomes all the best at Gnome Stew and Engine Publishing. Gnome Power helps the lights keep burning in more than a few campaigns around the world!

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