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Born in fire: An interview with Alex Karaczun, CEO & President of Fire Born Games

Guest Writer: Christopher Bishop

Alex Karaczun

Alex Karaczun of Fire Born Games

CB: Tell us your origin story in gaming. What brought you to the table, what have you enjoyed the most in roleplaying and what keeps you there today?

AK: When I was in middle school, I think it was 7th grade, my friend Michael got a copy of the 1977 Holmes Basic Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I’d guess it was early 1980 when we started playing B2 Keep on the Borderlands at his kitchen table. Michael DMed, and I ran a handful of Player Characters. We played through the module for probably over a year. Michael expanded on the content surrounding the Keep and the Caves of Chaos.

Over the course of the that year we both purchased the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardbacks as we could afford them with our allowance. We started including content from those books in our adventures in the borderlands.

As can sometimes be the case Michael and I drifted apart in Middle School and I had no one to game with. Then one day while seated on my friend Adam’s porch and regaling him with the exploits of my characters, he excused himself and went into the house. He returned with a copy of the Holmes Basic box that he had received as a gift, but never played. Adam along with a few other friends and the older of my two sisters became my new gaming group with myself as DM.

CB: Of all the myriad of systems out there which system works for your table?

AK: My favorite is still Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition. We play using what are considered by some the 1.5 edition books (Fiend Folio, Monster Manual II, Unearthed Arcana, Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, Wilderness Survival Guide and Manual of the Planes) plus a smattering of Dragon Magazine material from the same era.

CB: Almost reminds me of the old Hackmaster 4e product by KenzerCo. They used 1st edition as a backbone and every minute rule mentioned in the game books as well as Dragon Magazine up till issue 168 to make their system. (I could be wrong on the exact issue number) In fact I think Hackmaster 4E may have been the first officially sanctioned OGL allowed OSR revision come to think of it. So how do you feel about the direction the OSR movement has taken? I can think of several OSR Revisions to the 1st Edition/White Box Era system such as OSRIC, Swords and Wizardry. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Labyrinth Lord, DCC RPG to name a few. I love it personally but I also worry that it further divides a niche hobby that is already pretty dang small population wise. What is your stance?

AK: Well it is really the OSR that got me back into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. My group had played AD&D 2nd Edition, D&D 3rd Edition, version 3.5, 4th Edition and 5th Edition. My personal contact with what was really by that point an 8-year-old movement really brought me back to my roots. I realized that what was missing from my enjoyment of role playing was an almost indefinable quality present in the game I’d played as a boy.

I don’t think the OSR divides our hobby. People are going to play what they like. Back in the 80s there were still dozens of role playing options. Not much has changed in that regard. Some of the companies or systems aren’t around anymore, but choice still reigns.

I think what divides our hobby is intolerance. I’m an old school grognard, and I see others like me deride new players for different choices. Nothing could be worse for hobby gaming. No one is forcing anyone to play anything they don’t like, but regardless of what we play we’re all hobby gamers. If you think you’re chosen edition is the best, great! Go out and recruit new converts. That is how we grow the hobby.

CB: Previously, you were part of Mischief Inc, but recently changed to Fire Born Games. What was the motivating reason for this change (if it was a negative thing that would cause issues were it mentioned feel free to avoid or change this question to keep bridges intact so to speak)

AK: Mischief, Inc. was a name from my past and that of my former business partner. Fire Born Games represents now and the future. My daughter’s name, which is Celtic in origin, means ‘born of fire,’ thus the name and the Celtic feel of the logo design.

CB: I was a huge fan of A1 A Forgotten Evil and F1 The Tomb of Rakoss the Undying. I notice you have a few modules listed on Fire Born Games, but are there any plans to expand upon the A1 story arc?

A1, a typical Fire Born Games module

AK: Absolutely! A1 A Forgotten Evil is the first module in the Ancient Evil series of modules. I envision at least two more modules, tentatively named A2 What Lies Beneath, and A3 Weapon of War, that will continue the story. These modules exist in barebones format from a time that I used them as part of a campaign I ran. They need to be fleshed out considerably, but the main plots are designed.

CB: One of the big draws to your A1 module was the extensive use of classic TSR module style. Blue inside cover maps, similar font style, pregen characters etc. One of the major issues some of my readers had was in actually finding these in that format in a PoD online store. Do you have any plans on how you will get modules out there as Fire Born Games?

My personal copy of the A1 module and a fine example of the level of detail present and the old school feel to the module

AK: Alas, print on demand has been an elusive quest for us. Our design specs and quality standards call for detached covers and full color bleeds on the inside of the cover as you noted. So far, no print on demand service seems capable of these requirements. We had a brief glimmer of hope when the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Wizards of the Coast, announced print on demand for classic modules. We’d hoped they’d be able to wrangle the specification we’d been looking for, but that turned out to not be the case.

Print copies of our adventures are available directly from us with the old branding. New physical print runs are unlikely unless we become an overnight sensation, but they are available for as long as they last. Customers interested in a copy could try to convince their brick and mortar Favorite Local Gaming Shop to carry our products, or they can contact us at info@fireborngames.com and we can discuss a sale over PayPal.

CB: I am sure it is hard to find a publisher for a niche game market. I am not however sure what a raving success is in terms of sales for a product, but I have been told several times that if you break even you did well. I really feel like these days if a product makes it to print, it was more a labor of love that got it that far than any sort of profit motivation. What is your take on this? How do you see the rpg market, especially the OSR portion of the RPG Market?

AK: I would largely agree with your assessment. Because we are out there and have (in my opinion) a professional looking presence, a lot of people assume we are making money hand over fist. The truth is I have personally put thousands of dollars of my own money into making this company a reality and have not seen a cent back into my pocket. This is an all too common story throughout the 3rd party sector of the industry. My goal is to make the company sustainable. In other words, to make sure that the revenue coming in is just enough to fund the next project. That is my definition of success. To have 2nd printing runs of physical product would take more success than that, and that is exceedingly rare in this industry. Part of what makes that level of success so rare is the devaluing of the industry’s products. In 1980 TSR sold 16-page modules for $5.50, that comes out to over $20 in today’s dollars. Few are willing to pay that in a market flooded with $2 product, and fewer still are willing to demand that for their own hard work.

The professional level of design in the inside of a module

CB: Where do you see Fire Born Games heading in the future? Module Development, Campaign Setting or perhaps even doing your own version of a retro clone to 1st Ed AD&D?

AK: For now our focus is on adventure modules. We have several in the pipeline, and more in initial stages of design and development. I think we’d eventually like to do a Gazetteer style Twelve Kingdoms setting, but that is likely years away unless our fortunes change dramatically.

I’d kicked around the idea of a retro clone based on my own campaign house rules and some ‘modern’ expansion material, but workshopping that on several forums was not encouraging. If we decided to go this route we’d be gambling with a lot of time and money, and it would be even further down the road than a setting.

CB: Name me 6 of your favorite book authors and brief mention of how their work has influenced your own?

AK:
·1 J.R.R. Tolkien – I read The Hobbit in 5th Grade and Lord of the Rings in 6th and 7th Grade. No other author has had the impact on me that Tolkien has. His descriptive language is enchanting. I also consider myself something of an amateur Tolkien scholar. If you can wrangle me into a glass of wine at a Convention I’d be more than happy to discuss Tolkien’s Arda at length.

·2 C.S. Lewis – My 4th Grade Language Arts teacher Miss Suess read books to us on Fridays when we’d finished our work for the week early. She read books like The Mouse and the Motorcycle (Beverly Cleary) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I became hooked on Lewis almost immediately, I finished all seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia over the course of 4th and 5th Grades. Lewis doesn’t have the narrative strengths of Tolkien, but his pacing can at times be flawless. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was my gateway drug.

·3 Michael Moorcock – As my tastes in fiction matured I found Michael Moorcock, due in no small part to Dungeons & Dragons and in particular James M. Ward’s excellent Deities & Demigods book. As might be expected my campaigns took a fatalistic and dark turn as I went first through the Elric serials, then Corum and finally Hawkmoon. I love Moorcock for his ability to convey mood and show the interconnections of fated actions over the course of all his Eternal Champions stories.

·4 H. P. Lovecraft – I didn’t discover Lovecraft until late in High School and early in my college years, but his work had a profound impact on how I view horror elements in the worlds I create. You may find that these elements are understated in my work, and that is by design. I want to give the reader and the players a sense through small hints that something just isn’t right. They may not be able to put their finger on it, but there is a nagging sense of danger, dread, or something that is outside the ken of mortal beings…something other.

·5 Samuel L. Clemens – The genius of Clemens is found most assuredly in his wisdom and singular wit. Though I don’t often find direct application of his work to adventure design, you might notice that my sense of humor is influenced by his to a large degree.

“There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless. Observe the ass, for instance; his character is about perfect, he is the choicest spirit among all the humbler animals, yet see what ridicule has brought him to. Instead of feeling complimented when we are called an ass, we are left in doubt.” – Pudd’nhead Wilson

·6 Lloyd Alexander – I read the Chronicles of Prydain in 5th and 6th Grade. Lloyd Alexander’s influence and through him the Mabinogion are perhaps the most profound influence on the setting of The Twelve Kingdoms. Before reading Tolkien, Alexander was all I could talk about to anyone who would listen. My love for Welsh/Celtic myth and culture comes from the Chronicles of Prydain.

CB: Okay, in the same train of thought as the question before, tell me 6 game designers modern or old school that you respect and try to emulate.

AK: This is so hard, I really want to say something nice about dozens of games designers and how they have influenced my work today, but okay here are six in as close to an order of importance as I can muster.

·7 E. Gary Gygax – THE Dungeon Master. Not only do I have tremendous respect for Gary and all that he accomplished, I would not rather read any other game designer’s work more than Gary’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books. You might even recognize a bit of Gary’s baroque prose in my own writing (I can only hope). Every single adventure he wrote for AD&D is a classic, there are no duds with the possible exception of T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil. ToEE is a strange case though. As I understand it from the incomparable Frank Mentzer, the manuscript he received to ‘finish’ was, at best game notes from at table game sessions, and at worst far less organized than even that. Even still ToEE is a strong module if a DM puts in a little extra work, and T1 The Village of Hommlet is in my mind in contention for the very best of Gary’s work. Perhaps my favorite of Gary’s modules are B1 The Keep on the Borderlands and S1 Tomb of Horrors.

·8 Marc Miller – Traveller is my second role playing love. We started playing in the early 80s and switched back and forth with AD&D for a long while. I love the deadliness of the system and the detail of the background setting. Marc’s writing style is a little more difficult for me personally, but I love the innovations that he put into Traveller. The character creation process alone is pure genius.

·9 James M. Ward – Jim has moved up in this list lately as I came to appreciate his sometimes underrated contribution to the role playing game industry. Gamma World knocked my socks off when I first saw it in the early 80s, and as I mentioned above Deities & Demigods opened my game and my mind to so many new possibilities it would be hard to overestimate the impact it had. His work on the hardback Greyhawk Adventures book was of great importance to me as a, then and now, long time player in the World of Greyhawk. His modern works with Troll Lord Games, most notably the Storyteller’s Thesaurus reference, is some of his best work.

·10 Tom Moldvay – While I am more a fan of the Holmes Basic Edition of Dungeons & Dragons than Tom’s Basic Set rules, his work on modules simply floored me. X2 Castle Amber (Château d’Amberville) is easily one of my favorite modules of all time. Tom for me represents fun, pulpy settings from X1 Isle of Dread to B4 The Lost City, Tom seemed to always develop module settings, or sandboxes rather than simply site based dungeons.

·11 Jennell Jaquays – Though more of a new discovery for me (I was hardly aware of Judge’s Guild back in the 80s), I am nevertheless stunned by Jaquays’ level design. I have taken to heart all the lessons I have learned and am learning from Jennell and am trying to put them to good use in my new designs. Look for more “Jaquayed” dungeons from Fire Born Games in the future!

·12 Lenard Lakofka – L2 The Assassin’s Knot is one of the best examples I can think of that shows how to use the rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to great effect! Lenard seems to really have thought through the effects that magic and magic items would have on a society, and how nefarious characters would try to use magic technology to get away with murder. L2 The Assassin’s Knot is not just a great murder mystery, but it is also a primer on knowing the rules and using them to great effect.

CB: Okay your handed a blank character sheet, a set of dice and told the game starts in 30 minutes. The fates are with you and the dice come up perfect for your favorite class choice. What kind of character (race/class/alignment) would you pick?

AK: Easy. Elven Magic-user. Chaotic Good.

CB: It’s funny you should say that. I have noticed that a lot of older Dungeon Master’s when allowed to sit in the player’ seat almost invariably pick Wizards or Spellcaster’s of some kind as opposed to the beefy fighter or sly thief. Why do you think that trend exists? What makes a spell caster so much more appealing to someone use to sitting on the other side of the screen?

AK: <laughs> I’ve never really thought about it that way. Magic-user has always been my favorite class, and I never even really grumbled about the lack of spells or perceived uselessness at lower levels. I always thought it was just cool, for that one fight, to be able to put half a dozen orcs to sleep.

I suppose that maybe it comes down to an aspect that I feel is a favorite of a lot of old school DMs; exploration. Magic-users are great at getting around exploration barriers with the right spell complement. Relatively low-level spells such as Locate Object, Wizard Eye and others really make a difference when everyone in the party is at a loss. Although my first spell at 1st level is usually the old standards of Magic Missile, or Sleep, subsequent spells are almost always something that will aid in exploration.

CB: Earlier I mentioned the Twelve Kingdoms. Tell me more about this setting. How did it get its start, how old is it (in real years) and how many players have ventured there?

AK: The Twelve Kingdoms is relatively new (less than a decade), but the ideas expressed in the setting go back to my earliest days of world building in the early 80s.

The Twelve Kingdoms are a collection of twelve city-states occupying the same location as the ancient Kingdom of Cadarn. A tragedy befell a particularly loved king, Merric III, and his heirs. The kingdom, unable to find as charismatic a leader to hold it together, splintered into the city-states as they exist today.

Opposing the Twelve Kingdoms is an ancient human empire named Maere. They opposed each other for centuries and it is feared that this old rival will one day invade the Twelve Kingdoms as they did numerous times in the past. Many of the kingdoms closest to the empire fear that if this happens the Twelve Kingdoms will not stand.

Unlike many other settings published, gods are a bit different in the world of Daearoedd. Instead of many competing pantheons of human, demi-human and humanoid deities, the gods of Daearoedd have different aspects dependent on the worshiper. For instance, Cysgodion is to the Werin people of The Twelve Kingdoms the lesser goddess of martial prowess and asceticism, shadows, and death. To the Abaedan people of Maere the deity is Heolstor a male aspect. The Alban barbarians revere her as Scáthach a teacher of unarmed combat. The Drow god Dívôreth is a master of drow style combat and Dífuineth is the elven maiden of battle. Goblins and Hobgoblins worship Homalyos for his strategic genius while the orcs look to Mutzal for guidance and favor in war time. All of these gods and goddesses are merely aspects of the same divine being though mortals have no knowledge or understanding of this. The deities themselves show mercurial whims changing exact portfolios and alignments as suits those who they can convince to worship them.

CB: What is the next product on the line up for Fire Born Games?

AK: The next product and Kickstarter will be a total rewrite of our previously published adventure The Inheritance, now designated B1. I am loosening up the linear nature of the original, and expanding the primary dungeon. It will also be reorganized to fit the structure of the latest releases with Magic, Monsters, Spells and Pre-Gens at the back. As we did with our first Kickstarter this will be bundled with F2 Barrow of the Orc King. The F Series (Free) adventure modules are only available in print form from these Kickstarters, though they are not technically free in print form.

CB: Are you currently looking for any sort of staff positions for Fire Born? (writers, artists etc this might be your chance to get a few extra hook ups)

AK: We are not quite ready to accept submissions yet, but that is something we very much want to do. When we do open this up, we are going to ask for pitches, not finished manuscripts. We’ll commission manuscripts for pitches we like. For someone who just cannot wait until we open submissions they can send pitches to info@fireborngames.com. Manuscripts will not be read. Illustrators who would like to work with us can contact us at the same email address. We are most interested in illustrators with an understanding of old school sensibilities and styles.

I’m hesitant to try to fill staff positions, only because we don’t pay our staff, so candidates would have to really want to work in the industry and in particular with us. The only payoff is satisfaction in a job well done. Currently we are four people; myself, Karen Henery our Art Director, Matthew Ray our Creative Director and Bill Volk our Systems Conversion Manager. I’d love to have an Editor, a Graphic Designer, a Business Manager, and a Social Media/Marketing Director, but if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

CB: What is one item on the horizon roleplaying wise you are interested in?

AK: Ernest Gary Gygax Jr.’s Marmoreal Tomb Campaign Starter. End of story.

CB: Do you have a favorite game outside of roleplaying you have been spending a lot of time in?

AK: I am a big fan of computer games, but alas with a full-time job, a wife and daughter, and a publishing business on the side, I find little time if any to play computer games. I still play some of the old DOS and Windows Dungeons & Dragons games (Gold Box, Eye of the Beholder Series, Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights), plus I like some of the new games being put out that are similar to those such as Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny. I’ve always been a big fan of RTS and Starcraft II is a current favorite. I’m also a big Diablo III fan. I’ve also spent a lot of my recent gaming time in Crusader Kings II. Wonderful rich game experience!

CB: How do you feel about MMORPGs? A lot of folks who enjoyed tabletop gaming turned to MMOs (myself included while in the military) to scratch the roleplaying itch. Do these games in your mind offer any experience on par with the table?

AK: I’ve played several MMORPGs. Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 were favorites (thank you home towner Jeff Grubb!)! They are great to an extent, but rarely compete with real table top gaming for me. MMORPGs cannot truly be interactive in the way a human DM can, and so they always end up feeling canned and linear to me. They are great for what they are, but I think the RP part of the name is a misnomer.

CB: As a small independent publisher with an eye for quality, and a definite feel and presentation you desire to see for your product, how hard is it to achieve that goal when you are competing in the same waters as giants like Paizo and WotC? How does this effect the choices you make?

AK: Achieving the quality isn’t the hard part. At least not if you have some money to throw at your work, and I’ve been lucky in that regard having both a good paying job (except for a couple years unemployed) and an understanding wife. The difficulty is in gaining exposure in a small community that is inundated with products. Big companies like Paizo and Wizards of the Coast certainly don’t make things easy by being able to put together far slicker looking products.

For me it boiled down to a choice between looking like Paizo and Wizards of the Coast or looking nothing like them. I chose to emulate instead the products of my youth, and hopefully tap into a little bit of nostalgia among those in our small hobby gaming community. For the most part I think that has been successful. We do occasionally get complaints about using that familiar trade dress, or using the same designators as an old “classic,” but those are few and far between compared to the sense of acceptance we hear from others. We get a lot of comments exclaiming how cool it is that a customer can still get content for a system they love and how well they fit in with their collection of products from the 80s.

An example of the old school feel inside of a Fire Born Games module

We also must choose between well-known, or little-known illustrators. We’ve used illustrators like Jeff Dee and Storn Cook, and I’d kill to be able to afford Jeff Easley, but we’ve tried more to rely on names like Jordan Worley, Karina MacGill, Matt Ray and a few others. I’ve recently stumbled across Luigi Castellani and look forward to working more with him. His orcs are bomb!

As far as writers go, we’re in the same boat. I do most of the writing, but Matt and Bill are doing their part there as well. My dream is to commission something from Lenard Lakofka, or Lawrence Schick, but for now we’ll look for talent among lesser known or unknown names.

I guess what all this really boils down to is not competing directly with the giants, but trying to fill niches that they ignore, or underserve. When Wizards of the Coast went digital their slogan was, “All Editions Available Again!” but that doesn’t mean all editions supported again apparently.

CB: You are thrust back in time with little notice. You have just a few scant minutes to grab a few useful items (we shall say enough to fill a backpack and both hands and pockets) What do you grab and why?

AK: Well you must be way more specific than that! Am I going back to Victorian England, feudal Japan, or the Bronze Age?

CB: Let’s say for whatever reason it is a portal that leads to the 13th Century. You are unsure what location you will land in you only know the time it leads to.

AK: In that case I’m grabbing my copy of The Canterbury Tales, passing it off as my own work and living out my life as a medieval pop star. Boy won’t Geoffrey be pissed!

CB: And finally, the question on everyone’s minds. Star Wars, Star Trek or both and why?

AK: This is hard because I love both to some extent. I’d have to say Star Wars because it really revs up my imagination a lot more than Star Trek. However, my first Science Fiction love was Star Trek: TOS. So that will always hold a strong place in my heart.

CB: I myself am a huge Star Wars fan, but like yourself had a special fondness for Star Trek: The Original Series. If I really think back on it though, I can recall plenty of times I was swinging a broomstick as a lightsaber, blasting Stormtroopers with my laser pistol with friends in school. What exactly makes the two differ? Do you think it was the more military hard science fiction edge that Star Trek possesses? I know for my part I can almost believe Star Trek is possible, but Star Wars was more of a pure fantasy affair in my mind. What factors do you think create such a rift for some folks between the two properties?

AK: I understand people can get passionate about things that they love, but honestly, I think it is just more of an “us against them” mentality that seems so prevalent these days. I don’t actually think it is anything inherent to the properties themselves. Hey guys, we all like science fiction, can’t we all just have that in common? If you think about it, this kind of divide is just more of the same kind of thing we were just discussing with the OSR and the splintering of hobby gaming.

Catch up with Fire Born Games at http://www.fireborngames.com You can purchase their current line of products through https://www.opengamingstore.com/collections/fire-born-games as well.

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