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Interviews: Bad Axe Games

Newcomer Bad Axe Games was founded by a staff of dedicated gamers to "fill in the blanks" of the D&D3/D20 industry. Its first product, Heroes of High Favor: Dwarves, ships to stores next month, and kicks off a line of similar supplements. Joe Kushner asked Bad Axe's Benjamin Durbin a few questions for OgreCave:

Please introduce yourself and the company.

My name is Benjamin Durbin. I founded Bad Axe Games in March '02 simply because I got tired of waiting for products that I could relate to, as a player. I had a dwarf PC I had been playing for over a year, a fighter-rogue, and I was just waiting for a book that suited him. And I waited... and waited... And eventually we got a couple of fighter splatbooks with really bizarre fighting styles, and we got a rogue splatbook with really bizarre prestige classes. But nothing that, in my opinion, any "normal" player would find useful. I just wasn't sitting around thinking, "Hey, it would be cool to turn my PC into a giant pile of ooze!" A nd so it seemed to me that in the interests of being "different" publishers were leaving some pretty big holes in some fairly standard places that needed addressing. So we started the company to fill that need. We have two tag-lines at Bad Axe: "Games with Grit" and "Embrace the Iconic!" That should give you a fairly good idea of what we'd like to provide. Not a lot of really high-fantasy, high-concept stuff.

I am very fortunate to work with a group of partners who have a lot of experience in their various fields. I have a great illustrator, Andrew Hale, who was the first to come on board with me. Andy heads up artwork, does logos, common graphic elements for each book, and generally helps set the "line look." In fact it was Andy, while I was struggling to give the company a distinguished-sounding name, who sent me a terse, 3-word email that simply said: BAD AXE GAMES. Andy also did the cover design for the first Dwarves book, but he's still itching to do a color painting for me, so he was very disappointed when I handed off his black-and-white cover sketch for my graphic designer to take into Photoshop. And w e have talented guys in other fields-- a lawyer, a pre-press man, a copy editor-- but we're all gamers, every last one.

Why did you go with a non-standard format?

Well, it certainly wasn't a "business" decision. Many retailers balk at the smaller size books because they tend to get lost in the shuffle. In the end, though, we felt it was an aesthetic decision, and we'd just have to take the consequences from the retailers. The amount of content we had was suitable for 32 pages at standard size. Unfortunately, 32 pages is too narrow for perfect binding, you can only staple it. Well, since we weren't remotely interested in adding a bunch of filler to the full size version just to pad it out (things like new weapons, dozens of those cruddy +2/+2 skill feats, padding the margins with artwork, using a bigger font) we decided to cut the size of the book down to 6x9 and go with perfect binding. As it turns out we actually had to reduce the font size to make it all fit in the smaller format. The cost to the end user is exactly the same, but we just felt a smaller perfect-bound book was a little nicer for the players to have in their collection. These books are really for players, so I think the smaller size is kind of... well, I hate to say it: kind of cute. You can tell it's a player's book because of that size. They remind me of the old Aurora's Whole Realms Catalogue. I loved that book back in the day, I carried it in my bag everywhere.

Why should people buy your book instead of Hammer & Helm or Q. Dwarf?

Well, if they like dwarves, they should probably get them all, right? But we know there are folks out there on a budget. Our book is priced at $9.95 retail and is just packed with crunchy bits for players. If you feel like you need to spend a little more for a higher page count, or for more background material on dwarves, we understand. But I have to say I hate the exercise of buying a book and then going through it to see how much of it is actually useful and how much of it is just going to get tossed. Honestly, I have entire sections of longer books that I don't ever look at. I hope that we'll save you the trouble. We have feats, classic fighting styles, skills, and prestige classes-- one prestige class for every fighter-multiclass combo: a fighter-barbarian, a fighter-bard, a fighter-cleric, and so on. Every class has just a paragraph or two explaining how to get in character and find your role within the group, but even this has a crunchy-bits feel to it: what skills you can focus on to make yourself stand apart or be useful, things like that. At the very back of the book we have a 2-page spread with some roleplaying tips designed around "The Seven Dwarven Virtues." So, two pages of "pure" fluff.

What's next on the line up?

Half-orcs are next. Andy is doing the art again, and setting the mood with some really feral, nasty looking brutes. We're keeping the same tight focus that the Heroes of High Favor line is built around. You'll find barbarian-multiclass prestige options, a good batch of barbarian-themed feats, and some new stuff you can do with some of the core barbarian skills: intimidate, handle animal, wilderness lore, etc. Just a word of warning, these half-orcs aren't angst ridden city boys ashamed of their heritage. These are tusked, horny, savage, proud barbarians, more content at the front of a horde than lounging around the local inn.

After that it's Elves for the Heroes of High Favor line. We'll eventually get around to all of the races and their favored classes.

We also have a campaign series of adventures coming up. We're taking the approach with these of revealing the campaign world a bit at a time through the adventures, in that same cool way that 1e Greyhawk was slowly revealed to the players and only hinted at a larger world beyond their experience. And of course we'll eventually follow up with a campaign rulebook that ties it all together.

Do you play or GM?

Both. My main character right now is a surly dwarf called Wulf Ratbane. When that game isn't running, I play a sword-shattering shaman. (Well, ok, I dream of being a sword-shattering shaman, but what he really does is run around every combat with a healing wand. He's almost 8th level now and I think he's thrown maybe 3 punches in all that time... But someday...) And I GM once every week for a few hours on Wednesday night and try out new rules. I'm very lucky to have an interesting group of players all around.

How has the D20 system changed your life?

Well, I'm finally playing D&D again! I was out of the loop for most of 2e, and most recently doing nothing but Warhammer 40K-- lots of tournaments. I really only had one buddy in the area that was into RPG's at all, so I posted my name and address in a local shop and got hooked up with half a dozen new players just in my own neighborhood. And I successfully converted a lot of 40K buddies, as well. 3e is so perfectly suited to wargaming types, we love the integration of battlemats and miniatures, the tactical options, choosing feats and so on. I'm good at miniature wargames, but I am really an RPG guy at heart. Just happen to be a very tactical player.

Do you see Bad Axe doing any OGL Interlink products in the future?

I guess that depends on Green Ronin and Paradigm. Since they currently control the trademark, they are the only ones in a position to reach out. I don't presume to think that a small start-up like Bad Axe is even on their radar, but I hope that after a couple of successful products we'll get some notice. It's certainly something I would be interested in. Frankly I am very disappointed in the squabbling over "territory" that seems to be going on among d20 publishers. It is not a friendly time to enter into the business of d20. And so, I have incredible respect for Green Ronin and Paradigm taking the first step in that regard, to add a bit of gentleman's honor back to this.

How much material will be Open Gaming Content?

In a nutshell, if it's not flavor text or artwork, it's OGC. We put OPEN CONTENT at the bottom of every page that's open content. It's all very clearly seperated. I don't think anyone is served by confounding the issue with legalese or burying the designations in obscure places.

How did you wind up with Osseum and is it intimidating to be on the same distributor as so many other D20 publishers?

After looking around at my options, I went with Osseum because it was clear they were the best. They take a little bigger bite than some other fulfillment houses but their level of experience and professionalism just left me thinking, "Why take a chance over a couple percent?" They've been great to work with so far. I put together a package showing them what we could bring to the table and they were impressed enough with the quality and professionalism to pick us up.

I can't say I'm intimidated to be with Osseum amongst some very big names, no. I'm intimidated to be on the shelf at retail against them, yes, but as far as Osseum is concerned I think it's a plus to be in such company. It may put me in a position to sell a few more copies, after all, just tagging along like a little brother.

Are there any words of advice you have for those interested in doing a D20 product or two?

There are a lot more hurdles to get over than I ever dreamed there would be. I made a conscious decision going into this that I was not going to do PDF, as I felt that the Bad Axe staff had the experience and talent to put our best foot forward right out of the gate. I knew I wanted to do print products, and I was willing to assume a lot of risk, and invest a lot of time and money, to do it. If you don't have a lot of time and money, or you can't afford the risk, then PDF is definitely the way to go.

One last note: As I sat here typing this, FedEx stopped by with my first set of fully bound, finished product. I can't tell you how great it feels to hold a printed product in my hands. For me, at least, the reward was worth the risk!

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