Running Mongoose Publishing: An Interview with Matthew Sprange

Matthew Sprange was kind enough to talk to me about running an RPG company, writing, adventures, and a bit more.

I interviewed Matthew Sprange a few years ago and he was kind enough to talk to me again about running an RPG company, his RPG writing, his RPG adventures, and a bit more. Mongoose Publishing (roleplaying games) can be found on Discord, X/Twitter, Bluesky, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Mongoose Publishing forums including State of the Mongoose 2023.

mongoose interview.JPG

Charlie Dunwoody (CD): Thanks for talking with me again, Matt. My understanding from reading State of the Mongoose 2023 is that you worked directly on Small Craft Catalogue and Adventure Class Ships for Traveller. What are one or two favorites you wrote for these books and what inspiration did you draw on while writing?
Matthew Sprange (MS):
Inspiration came from a lot of places. Traveller veterans will see designs that originated in the Classic era (such as the Type SX Frontiersman), and sometimes I happened across a piece of equipment or ship option in High Guard and thought ‘I can base a fun ship around that…’ As for favourites, well in Adventure Class Ships maybe something like the Antique Trader (an attempt to see just how basic we could get at TL9), or just about anything from the ‘Travellers Be Like…’ chapter, which took the premise that you have a group of Travellers who have way too much money, so what custom ship do they ordered built? So, you get the Executive Yacht with built-in hot tub, Custom Safari Ship with swimming pool, the Touring Ship which has an entire side that folds down into a stage to play rock concerts, and the Starborn Wanderer Travelling Cruiser, which is basically an attempt to build a 1,000 ton ship that is useful for just about any adventure, combining performance, weaponry, a little cargo space, a hangar large enough to carry another starship and, of course, all the expected luxuries – sticker price edges towards a billion Credits! The Small Craft Catalogue was an opportunity to really get into the little nooks and crannies of spacecraft design, as you can really lean into the single purpose element of the small stuff. So, you have the 6-ton Civilian Hopper (basically a space-going pickup truck), Advertising Boat (a floating billboard), Sailing Yacht (with actual sails for the solar wind), and the Vargr Belt Racer (all about the speed!). Once you have ships like that, even the high-powered military stuff can seem a little tame!

CD: I know this may be a bit like asking a parent which child is the favorite, but out of Traveller, Shield Maidens, and Paranoia what is one release or setting or idea etc. that really stands out to you that you’re especially proud of and why do you feel that way?
MS:
That is tough. Going to cheat and go for two! For Traveller, it is probably still (after all these years) The Pirates of Drinax. A massive (weighing 4.5 kg!) sandbox campaign where the players get to do what every Traveller campaign tries to stop them from doing – becoming space pirates! However, it is big enough and well supported enough to be a true sandbox, where there is a background story, but the players are not tied to specific results. You can be privateers and restore the Kingdom of Drinax, which is the initial premise set before the players – or they can pirate in their own names in their own ship, build a massive pirate fleet and be pirate kings and queens, start a war between the Aslan and Imperium, build the Kingdom of Drinax through commerce and diplomacy, start a mercenary company, become bounty hunters… The options are really endless, and we know groups who have been playing this campaign for literal years. I am also going to have to give a shout out to Shield Maidens, a completely new game and setting. Players take the titular role of Shield Maidens, true Daughters of Freya in a cyberpunk/Viking mash that will see them wage wars against fascist empires, travel the Nine Realms, and barter with (and fight!) actual gods. Our art team has knocked the ball out of the park on this one, so I would urge anyone who has not taken a look to pick up their axe, charge up their Guardian Shield, and take the fight to the Fenrir Empire!

CD: What is a recent table top RPG you have ran or played in and do you have an anecdote to share?
MS:
Actually, we have just wrapped up a red box Basic D&D campaign. We were playing through the King's Festival/Queen's Harvest adventures, and we had a lot of fun. I thought they might run into trouble assaulting the castle at the end, but they instead decided the evil queen had a point and got into the stronghold by saying they wanted to join her!

CD: 22 years making table top RPGs! Congrats! How did Mongoose not only survive this long but also continue to thrive and give back to employees?
MS:
We made mistakes. A lot of them. We made all the mistakes! Crucially, however, we survived them and then learned from them. If you can do that and take steps to make business stable (rather than always chasing the Next Big Thing), you have a decent shot of getting towards a quarter of a century of trading.

CD: Mongoose employees receive a company phone and company car along with many other perks all of which I find amazing (a recent example: Mongoose is Hiring (full-time Marketing Manager). For other RPG companies who want to do something similar, what recommendations do you have for them to take a first step in giving back to their employees and moving toward an employee run company?
MS:
It sounds obvious, but you have to want it. The trick, I think, is making the conscious decision that you don’t want the fifteen cars, the mansion, and the boat. Once you are off that particular treadmill, you can begin to support your staff rather than trying to squeeze every penny out of their toil. For us, there was a kind of watershed moment where we had done unexpectedly well in one month, so I decided (more or less on a whim) to give the staff a bonus – nothing too grand, just £250 each or so. However, it suddenly struck me that while it was not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, that little extra to someone on a normal wage was a Big Deal. It was money that had not already been assigned to food or rent or utility bills. It could be spent on a new console, or put towards a deposit for a house, or anything they had been working towards. But, and here is the important thing, on a strategic level, it cost the company nothing. It was easily absorbed. So, I started thinking… how far could we push that? Can we do larger bonuses, and more often? What other benefits can staff have? How good can we make their lives? Here is the thing I discovered – if you pay your staff more, the company starts earning more. This is something (granted, there are probably limits!) that pays for itself. I have started talking to other owners of RPG companies to try to convince them that this is something they could do themselves. And if they do not listen… well, we advertise for new permanent positions at Mongoose on a fairly regular basis!

CD: On the other side, are there any warnings or possible missteps you could discuss that you learned along the way that others could possibly avoid?
MS:
Way too many to list. I can say that the very first problem we faced, and it was a big one, was that we expanded way too quickly. In 2001-2002, we grew from nothing into something quite respectably sized, but we had no solid foundations, no proper management structure and, if I am brutally honest, no real idea of what we were doing on a strategic (and arguably tactical) level. It would be a few more years before the results of that exploded, but the shaky foundations were laid early on. The solution was to contract in size and rebuild… but we were very reluctant to do that (a common problem for businesses that get into this kind of muddle, as it seems like a step backwards), and so for a handful of years we were hobbling along. Turns out Happy Feet Two was right – sometimes you have to go back to go forward!

CD: Are there any interesting design methods Mongoose uses in writing RPGs, maybe a way of creating that is unique or especially useful or successful?
MS:
I am not sure there is a ‘standard’ way in the first place. Every writer approaches writing differently, and so every book is different. We have done formulaic writing in the past (the Slayer’s Guides and Quintessentials were designed from the ground up to be written by anyone capable of putting decent text together), but we have left that approach behind – not because it does not work (it clearly did and, indeed, it was a system I picked up while freelancing for Games Workshop in the 90s) but because it is less fun. These days we have the luxury (and breathing room) to do the books we want to do, rather than books we have to do, and that makes all the difference.

CD: Are there any submissions you are looking for from freelancers and what is the best way for freelancers to pitch ideas to Mongoose?
MS:
The quick answer to that is write for JTAS (Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society), which uses articles of 1-12 pages in length, so it is very easy to get to grips with. Some of our best frontline Traveller writers came up through that route, and it lets both us and the freelancer to get to know one another and figure out how we will work together. The longer answer is, before you approach us, please learn our games. If you come to us and say ‘I am Mr Big Time Freelancer, who has written for so many other companies and now I think I might write for you,’ the first thing we ask is whether they are familiar with our games. I swear, nine out of ten established freelancers who approach us in this way say ‘no, but I learn quick.’ Well… come back when you have done your homework, really. The idea that someone can just come along and grapple with something as large and complex as Traveller’s Charted Space universe is… a bit mindboggling, really. So yes, we want to see knowledge and we want to see passion, as well as the ability to string words together.

CD: Anything else you would like to share with the readers of EN World?
MS:
Probably too much! I think I would say that we do the games we want to do, the games that we enjoy playing ourselves, rather than the ones we know will bring in the most money, and I would hope that passion is very evident in our books. Also, because of our employee-led model, the vast majority of the money you spend on our books will go directly to the people actually putting those books together – the writers, the artists, the layout team. If that is the kind of thing that matters to you, there really won’t be too many other companies following this model (yet – I remain evangelical when chatting to other owners of RPG companies…). Other than that, if you have not checked out our games yet, swing by and take a look – you can explore space and alien worlds in Traveller, get your friends executed and avoid the traitors of Alpha Complex in Paranoia, sail a galley in Sea of Thieves, and fight against the gods in Shield Maidens. Welcome to Mongoose!
 

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody


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Swanosaurus

Adventurer
Great interview! I wasn't aware that Mongoose is such an awesome company ... I own a few Traveller books and really like the system, though I must confess that the setting is just a tad to traditional for me. So it's good news that they're not only doing Pioneer (which sounds really interesting, but probably to science-heavy for me), but also a new far future setting. I'm really hoping for some conceptually far-out space opera that reflects current literature by people like Arkady Martinez or Ann Leckie. (I suspect it won't be any flavour of space fantasy, since they have that covered with Shield Maidens.)

Just a note on the freelancer thing: I totally get that they want people already invested in their lines. But I also understand freelancers who maybe just want to dive into something new, but before making the huge investment to learn all about the Traveller setting, want to make sure that it's actually something that they will be able to write for. In terms of overall quality and consistency, though, I guess Mongoose is doing the right thing. Still, I love following RPG authors whose work I enjoy dipping their toes in different systems. Here's wondering what a Traveller adventure by Elizabeth Chaipraditkul or Scott Malthouse would look like.
 

POD is something to be proud of. Its a fantastic campaign with endless opportunities.
It really is. Sadly my campaign was nearly at the finish when the Companion and Shadows of Sindal came out, so I wasn't able to incorporate them into the main storyline. And I don't thing I'll ever be quite so enthusiastic to run it a second time as the first was such a success I'd always be comparing and doubting a new run.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
It really is. Sadly my campaign was nearly at the finish when the Companion and Shadows of Sindal came out, so I wasn't able to incorporate them into the main storyline. And I don't thing I'll ever be quite so enthusiastic to run it a second time as the first was such a success I'd always be comparing and doubting a new run.
I have started and crashed a few times with POD. So, I have been able to add a bit of Shadows of Sindal and the Companion. Currently, I am building out as much as possible from the modules in my Foundry. Will look for players sometime soon to try again.
 





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