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The Fantasy Trip: Decks of Destiny Interview with Phil Reed (CEO Steve Jackson Games)

Through the Quickstarter article I did on EN World, I met Phil Reed, CEO of Steven Jackson Games and, from time-to-time, I ask him to share his thoughts. With their current Kickstarter for The Fantasy Trip: Decks of Destiny live, it’s the right time to do a full-blown interview. What follows is a discussion of Decks of Destiny, TFT in general, the second issue of their TFT zine, Hexagram, demand for TFT print over PDF, tariffs, and how publishers will be able to utilize their Pocket Box packaging for their products.

EGG EMBRY (EGG): Thank you for talking with me. Warehouse 23/Steve Jackson Games are back on Kickstarter with a new product. Tell me about The Fantasy Trip: Decks of Destiny.
PHIL REED (PR): Decks of Destiny is the first large expansion for The Fantasy Trip that has been published in over three decades. The box was designed as an aid for GMs who are fans of improv sessions or those GMs who are looking for tools to inspire adventures of their own design. As an added bonus, players who enjoy freeform play can use the set to run solo adventures. Decks of Destiny is a toolkit packed with cards, new terrain tiles, and journals to record your encounters, adventures, and campaigns.

EGG: For clarity, someone read the title to the Kickstarter – TFT: DECKS of Destiny – and thought you were doing a CCG or a Munchkin expansion instead of a tabletop RPG product. For that reader, can you assure them this is for the The Fantasy Trip, a tabletop RPG.
PR: This is definitely not a collectible title and it is not a stand-alone game. Players will need the Legacy Edition of The Fantasy Trip to make use of the tools we’ve packed in Decks of Destiny.

EGG: Why cards over, say, a book or the like?
PR: One of the nice things about using cards instead of tables in a book as a randomizer: The GM can customize a card deck by adding and/or removing cards. Tables in a book are a fixed feature; unless you’re ready to start scratching and writing on the table, the table is the same each time that you open the book. With the Decks of Destiny card decks, the only limit is the GM’s imagination. And we are including a journal for many of the decks; the Rumors deck and journal, for example, can be used together to plan and to record how various rumors play out in the game. Future expansions will include more cards, including cards compatible with those in Decks of Destiny, which will give GMs new ideas and concepts to shuffle into the existing decks.

EGG: Is the fan response to The Fantasy Trip what you expected it to be?
PR: The response to last year’s Legacy Edition campaign stunned many of us in the office. We knew that there was a demand for the game . . . we had no idea that so many long-time gamers missed The Fantasy Trip and wanted to see it return.

EGG: What TFT products have you created/re-created?
PR: The Legacy Edition is the core of the game and can be used to play The Fantasy Trip for at least three decades. How do we know this? The contents of the box -- the Melee and Wizard games, the In the Labyrinth rulebook, the Death Test (and Death Test 2) programmed adventures, as well as the Tollenkar’s Lair adventure -- were at the heart of the game for 30+ years and the game was played constantly in the time it was out-of-print. There’s no better sign of a game’s depth and sustainability than players sitting down at the table again and again for over three decades.

Following the Legacy Edition, we created five PDF adventures for The Fantasy Trip. Sales of the PDFs were, honestly, disappointing. After listening to the players, we took the adventures to Kickstarter where everything turned around. It appears that players of The Fantasy Trip want printed product; the hardcover edition of The Fantasy Trip Adventures is at the factory and on track to ship to Kickstarter backers in August.

We also created Hexagram, an old-school zine for The Fantasy Trip. The project was a lot of fun to work on and we’re mailing out the first issue in the next week or so. Steve had such a good time with Hexagram that he almost has a second issue ready to go!

EGG: You have the core rules, adventures, a zine, and now a deck of cards. You’re building out a nice catalogue of TFT products, and quickly. Are there plans to continue to expand TFT? Miniatures? More books? Can you tease what’s in the future?
PR: Miniatures? Too early to go into details, but I can say that I met with sculptors on two separate visits to China in the last year and we continue to discuss ideas. There are also adventures in various stages, Steve has written a book of monsters, and we have some other ideas that we aren’t quite ready to reveal. The players are guiding our overall direction with the game; we keep our eyes on the various forums and blogs and try to adapt our project plans to fit those ideas that come up again and again.

EGG: TFT has a built-in fanbase that harkens back to its first edition. For new fans, how do you pitch this product as a competitor to D&D or Pathfinder or another tabletop RPG?
PR: One of the greatest strengths of The Fantasy Trip is that there are multiple entry points into the game. The $119.95 Legacy Edition box can be overwhelming, yes, but someone interested in learning the game can pick up the $14.95 Melee and have a complete, ready-to-go tactical dungeon crawl game. And for those gamers who always have a tough time putting together a gaming group, the Melee game + the $19.95 Death Test box gives a player two solitaire adventures that can be played right out of the box.

The Fantasy Trip is a classic, created back in the late eighties when D&D was still new, and the game shows how one designer worked to add more balance and gaming fun to the then-new roleplaying genre. What is perhaps most surprising to me is that the game works well in today’s boardgame field; The Fantasy Trip was a tactical dungeon crawl game long before such titles as Descent and Gloomhaven were even imagined by their creators.

EGG: The decks come with multiple kinds of cards and dry-erase cards. In the context of TFT gameplay, what are the dry-erase cards used for?
PR: The dry-erase cards are so that a player can make notes and modifications to a card during the game . . . and then wipe it clean to go again. The various fighter, wizard, and creature cards are great if you want to randomly deal out characters and stage a quick fight. For those players in campaigns, the included journals are where you can make permanent notes about the various cards that are packed in the box.

EGG: It’s a deck of cards, but it’s not just a deck of cards as there are multiple types of card materials used within each deck from standard playing card materials to dry-erase materials. What goes into getting all of these types of cards into a quality box and shipped to your warehouse?
PR: A lot of planning. We work closely with our manufacturing partner, GPI, and start pricing out the options and finalizing our printing decisions before a lot of the work is completed on the creative side. Fortunately, we have over a decade of experience with GPI -- and they have relationships with the factories in China going back to the seventies -- so a lot of the work required to produce the game is, at this point, second nature. The larger issue with a project the size of Decks of Destiny -- over 20 stretch goals unlocked so far! -- is tracking the various components. We use Slack, spreadsheets, a seemingly-infinite number of emails, and constant calls and texts to stay on top of everything.

EGG: As new and returned roleplayers get into the hobby, many fans get directed to DriveThruRPG, Paizo.com, or the Open Gaming Store not to mention Amazon. Steve Jackson Games sales through Warehouse 23 as well as other outlets. What is the upside to owning that storefront and how has it helped SJG to be such a versatile company in gaming?
PR: Warehouse 23 was opened over two decades ago and gives us a stable, reliable online storefront that we control completely. Our games are offered at many, many online stores -- often without our input or knowledge -- but with Warehouse 23, we have a reliable place to send gamers to buy our titles online. Where possible, we would rather everyone shop at a local game store, but we know that isn’t always possible. For those who must buy online, Warehouse 23 offers direct access to our works.

EGG: Via W23, you sell third party products. What makes W23 a good storefront for gaming vendors?
PR: In some instances, such as Atlas Games, our relationship goes back many, many years. We offer publishers an alternate sales channel where they can reach fans of the Steve Jackson Games products. Warehouse 23 won’t replace a publisher’s other online efforts, but we do make a nice icing site for those who work with us.

EGG: I think the first time we exchanged emails you were in China meeting with factories. Without asking you to put your foot into the world’s politics, are there discussions around how SJG will address a potential tariff increase? Can you share any thoughts on how to address the potential for tariffs?
PR: It is too early to say for certain. The Toy Industry Association is lobbying to exclude toys and games from the tariffs, and we’re not willing to make immediate changes to our plans or business based on fear alone. We are watching the situation closely, discussing possible approaches to minimizing the hit if tariffs do go into effect, but it is too early for us to make any declarations or take any significant actions.

EGG: Due to your position as CEO of Steve Jackson Games, I would imagine you see a different side of the games industry than I do. Your company has tabletop hits, amazingly large-scale games like Ogre (which, after I held a copy, I could not imagine how much shipping the 4,000+ Kickstarter units cost), and Munchkin, to name a few. We have reports that the game market is slowing down in some areas combined with announcements of year-over-year declines is sales from SJG. How do you see the market performing in the short- and long-terms?
PR: The entire industry is nothing like it was five, ten, or fifteen years ago. These days, we’re working in a treadmill market where new games have weeks to make it; the days of launching a new game and spending the next six months or year steadily promoting and building sales are effectively gone. There are more games available than ever before -- a great thing for players! -- but the weight of a constant flood of new titles is already starting to crack the system.

Over the holidays, we had issues with our top sellers -- Munchkin and Zombie Dice -- being unavailable from some distributors. A small number of retailers reached out to us directly to ask why we let those two games go out-of-print for Christmas. It wasn’t that at all. The issue was that -- and remains -- distributors are so buried in new products that it becomes almost impossible to re-order games. The flood shows no sign of slowing, so all publishers are being forced to explore new sales channels and new ways to connect games with gamers.

EGG: I’m going to segue to one part of another project you’ve already Kickstarted, The Pocket Boxes. Being an RPGamer, I was attracted to the pocket box for Undead, a board game and a roleplaying game in a box the size of a paperback novel. How are The Pocket Boxes coming together? Assuming they’re a hit, what are the chances of using this setup as a way to offer mini-boxed sets of some stripped-down games?
PR: The Pocket Box campaign has led to us re-producing over 30 Steve Jackson Games titles from the eighties. We’re still working with the factory on scanning and cleaning every product; these are near-exact replicas of the originals and GPI is preparing all of the files by scanning the originals and that is taking a lot of time. So: Progress, but a little slower than we would like.

As to new mini-games: Yes! Part of the deal we made with GPI so that they would handle the bulk of the work on the project -- their team is responsible for the hardest parts of the job -- is that the new plastic Pocket Box is available to anyone who works with GPI. Have you always wanted to publish a Pocket Box game? Contact GPI and you can make your own game, and have it packed inside the box!

We also have ideas of our own; for now, though, our Pocket Box efforts are focused on successfully fulfilling the Kickstarter commitments.

EGG: For those that want to learn more about the Kickstarter, SJG, and W23, where can they go?
PR: As always, the Steve Jackson Games website is the best place to learn about our various games. Anyone interested in The Fantasy Trip and Decks of Destiny will want to visit www.thefantasytrip.game where we have posted several game articles, links to unboxing videos, and other info about the game.

The Fantasy Trip: Decks of Destiny by Steve Jackson Games

  • END DATE: Mon, June 3 2019 6:05 PM EDT.
“Many, many new cards and accessories for use with Steve Jackson's The Fantasy Trip roleplaying game!”

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Egg Embry

Egg Embry

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
"The Fantasy Trip is a classic, created back in the late eighties when D&D was still new, "

Typo there, should be late 1970's, otherwise I was on some very good illegal substances back then. Now, back to reading the article. :)


Didn't ask him anything about their support for Bill Webb? Curious...

I thought of it, too, but that would have been well outside the scope of what's clearly a promotional interview and would have come across as a non-sequitur in context.

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