An Interview with Quinn Conklin, author of Toys for the Sandbox
The following is an email interview conducted with Quinn Conklin. The image in the above banner was created by Rodney Ruppert for the cover of Toys for the Sandbox #15, Orcs of Hermit Island.
TEO: Quinn, first off, thank you so much for your time. I’ve had the opportunity to read several
issues of your system independent RPG supplement Toys for the Sandbox, and I’m impressed
by the content. The first question that comes to mind is why did you decide to publish it
QUINN: Overoptimism. I felt when we where starting this that it could reasonably sell around 500 copies of each issue and if I could do that weekly I could leave my day job and have the same amount of income. Also my professional writing background is journalism. In that field I became accustomed to same day deadlines going monthly was just to far out of the norm for me.
TEO: Overoptimism. I like that. I’m a bit of an underoptimist myself. Your mention of salary brings to mind my next question, which is about money. How did you arrive at your totally affordable price point ($0.99), and how is it working out?
QUINN: I was thinking of going for $1.50 but Michael Garcia of Occult Moon pushed hard for the 99 cent price point. He felt it would attract more people.
So far it seems to be good. It is sort of hard to say how it would be at a different price point.
TEO: A well regarded publisher once told me that setting the price there would be problematic. They explained that $1.99 is about as low as one can feasibly go due to the fees sites like RPGNOW have to pay per transaction, and that going any lower would hang up sales. Have you experienced any issues like that?
QUINN: There have been a few snags along the way do to the low price point. The main one being the inability to discount our titles on a single item basis. For the most part RPGNow takes a percentage of sales except that they have a minimum of 30 cents. Since we are already at that minimum it means any discount we give comes from the very small portion that goes to pay the company and talent.
One way we have gotten around this is by offering the back issue bundles. Since RPGNow takes its cut from the total price we can discount several issues in the bundle and not lose more money than we mean to on the deal. That said, the third back issue bundle containing issues 11-15 will be coming out on Wednesday, April 25th.
The other problem with this price point is that it keeps our staff small. We all work on royalties from the sales, which means that some of the money from each purchase is going to the talent. The downside is 99 cents is a small pie to cut, and so I tend to wind up wearing more hats than I feel comfortable with most weeks. Mostly this deals with the art, covers and maps, areas where I do not feel as confident in my skills. That said, when the choice is between fail, or making something happen I will go for making something happen every time.
TEO: I like the way some of the supplements are optionally intertwined. Of the one’s I read it was most notable that The Orcs of Hermit Island, Issue #15 was fleshing out an aspect of The Hermit, Issue #4. This method gives me room to use the latter independently if I’ve already developed that portion, or to integrate it. How much of that is intentional brilliance on your part, and how much of it is (still brilliant in a different way), “Here comes the deadline, what did I leave out before that is inspiring?” and how do you manage the forced march to your weekly deadline?
QUINN: The idea to interconnect the issues came while I was writing the issue 2: The fairy glade. It was a way to make TftSb feel like part of a larger world and plays a bit towards my own GMing style. When i am running a game I tend to drop a lot of bread crumbs and see which ones the players snatch up. When writing TftSb I tend to do the same thing, I see a thread and say, “Oh, I could tie that to this.”
The Hermits island is a particular case. When we first started gearing up to work on TftSb Garcia presented me with a list of ideas for locations. One of those was an island. I felt that was too generic, like inns there is more than one type of island. I decided I was going to write up an island with a hermit and three other places to explore. In practice there turned out to be only two of those that i felt like talking about, the catacombs under the old monastery and the orc camp. The forth was going to the shipwrecks in the bay, but I just used that as a hook for The One That Got Away.
As for managing the “march to the deadline” it mainly has to do with planing. At the beginning of the month I take some time and figure out a list of locations that I want to cover. I make an effort to split these between what I think of as civilized (inns, shops and so on) and wild (places like the hermits island or the Astral Star). I also try to throw something strange or different in to the month, such the orc camp with orcs who have found religion. Once I have my locations sorted out for the month I try to get my writing done on Mondays, I have a template that I work from but I tend to skip around a bit. This piece of flavor text leads to that hook (at least in my mind), that hook gets a rumor and out of that grows a logical NPC to include. Sometimes in all of that I will think of a twist or two for a hook and add that. By Tuesday I have finished the writing portion and then it is waiting for edits to come back. Once I have those it is time to do the layout and draw the map. Once that is done it is just a matter waiting for cover art or the call that I have to do that artwork myself depending on Rodney’s schedule.
Final edits are usually done Friday morning and it is all sent over to Garcia to get published.
TEO: The bundle seems like a decent solution. At some point volume is likely to make up for the individually low price, and those who can see themselves making several purchases will probably opt for the cheaper bundles, but if RPGNOW requires a minimum of $0.30 how does that factor into you free titles like The Wizard’s Tower, Issue #00?
QUINN: RPGNow takes no cut on the free items. If they did giving away free issues would bankrupt us. We have already had nearly 600 downloads of issue 0 and if we had to pay for each of those it would be almost $200.00 out of our pockets.
TEO: Is there an imposed limit on how many free items you may have?
QUINN: I do not know of any limit on the amount of free content. I really don’t have much to do with the publishing end of things.
TEO: On publishing, I noticed that Occult Moon is operating out of Oklahoma while you’re situated out here on the left coast. How did you, and Michael Garcia come to meet?
QUINN: Garcia and I met via G+ and a shared gaming circle. I was working on Homicidal Transients with A. Miles Davis and Garcia was talking about starting Occult Moon about the same time. Work was winding down on HoTr and I was starting to think about what my next project would be and started talking with Garcia (I call him that because there are way to many Mikes in my life and need a way to keep them all separate). We talked about starting with a small simple one sheet project that we would tag-team writing just to get the company started. By the time layout was done on the first issue and I had written the content that had grown to a 4 page product. That has grown over time to 8 pages as we played with format and I allowed myself to be a bit more verbose.
TEO: Now, you addressed your methods, but let’s turn to the madness itself. I read on your blog, “We are the government, we are our society, we are our culture.” Is this where your drive comes from?
QUINN: Holy crap what a question. I would not say this is where my drive comes from but it is part of my character. I am drawn to dichotomies, intertwining opposites if you will and one of those that truly intrigues me is reaming true to myself, while still being part of society. We have to remember that when we point the finger at a social problem we are pointing back at ourselves, if we want things to change it needs to be more action and less talk. More working together and less blame.
I believe the way to change societies ills is not work on a large scale but work on changing our the world around us here and now, the way we interact with others, the way we treat ourselves. We do not need permission to make these sorts of changes we just need to commit ourselves to them.
TEO: Well put! So, I think I may see some changes right in your work. I noticed with the Orcs in Issue #15 you try to stay true to the spirit of fantasy tropes while giving them a a way out of their typical pigeon hole. What inspired that choice?
QUINN: If i stayed true to the tropes there would be few, if any, surprises. I want to write something that adds value and that perhaps gives some one a thought they had not had before. Also it is an easy way for me to work. I ask myself what would people expect and how would it look if things where different.
TEO: What inspires you to write in general, and who, or what would you credit as influences?
QUINN: One of my big influences would have to be Steven Brust. I read somewhere (I think it was in the back of one of his novels) about his writing process and how he had a note across from his desk that read “I am going to show you something cool.” That is what I strive to do with the things I write.
The other major inspiration for me is ideas. I want to share a thought with people and encourage them to think about it themselves. Sometimes that idea is an adventure seed other times it is a way to be a better person.
TEO: On adventure seeds, thus far Toys for the Sandbox has been aimed at the fantasy genre. Do you have any plans to include Sci-Fi, pulp, or modern material in the future?
QUINN: There has been some talk about doing additional lines, and perhaps one for post apocalyptic settings but that would probably be written by someone else.
TEO: I almost forgot to ask what was the first RPG you ever played, which do you have the most history with, and what is your current favorite?
QUINN: My first RPG was AD&D which I started playing in 4th grade, the first game I owned was the red box basic set which was Christmas present that same year. I have a long history with the Palladium system, we played a lot of Heroes Unlimited, Ninjas and Super Spies and Beyond the Supernatural. My gaming group at the time took turns GMing a single large game world that had elements from all of the above games but the over all feel was superheroes.
My favorite game is probably Deadlands, I love the Dresden Files RPG and most of the other fate stuff but the classic Deadlands is an easy place for me to tell a story.
I should add a note about the game Living Steel which I never played but was one of the other games I picked up early in my gaming life. The system was overly math heavy and really to crunchy for words but i loved the premise and have often tried to recreate it in other games. The premise was a team of heroes placed in suspended animation to rebuild the world after a disaster.
TEO: The only system none of us is familiar with is probably Living Steel, but it sounds awesome. Is your breadth of experience with all these different titles what lead you to creating a system independent product?
QUINN: Not particularly, or should I say not consciously. The main reason for going system neutral with this was, why just help Pathfinder GMs or White Box GM’s?
TEO: This will be my last question, and I’d like you to give it very serious consideration, very serious, if you could be anything from the wealth of entries all these years what D&D creature would you be?
QUINN: It is hard for me to say what monster I would like to be if I had a choice… After much thought I would probably have to go with being a Rakasha.
TEO: Quinn, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview!
QUINN: You’re welcome.
Issue #16 of Toys for the Sandbox, The Ice Merchant, was just released as was the back issue bundle Quinn mentions below. Grab them both here at RPGNOW.