I’ve been a fan of Barrel Rider Games for awhile; the volume of output is amazing. And James Spahn’s The Hero's Journey 🔍 is a fantastic product, demonstrating how to “own” the rules that you use at the table.
I want to thank James for taking the time to respond to my questions.
Questions and Answers
I’ve noticed you’ve created quite a bit of content for Labyrinth Lord 🔍 and Sword & Wizardry: Whitebox. Which of your work came first? What drew you away from the first system and to the other? Have you went back? Why?
Labyrinth Lord definitely came first. I heard a few years before becoming involved in the Old School Renaissance (OSR 🔍) community, but dismissed it. I was still very much into 3.5 D&D and saw it as “simplistic” and “thin.” A few years later, I gave it a second look and realized what I was looking at. I was looking at a clone of the Dungeons and Dragons: Basic/Expert (B/X 🔍), which was the foundation for my first fantasy Role Playing Game (RPG 🔍), the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. I fell in love when I recalled those fast, free-spirit days of my gaming youth. Combined with the fact that I had just gotten sick of the supplement glut that had flooded the market in the wake of the Open Game License (OGL 🔍), and I found my first love all over again.
I started publishing because of my wife, who is also a gamer. She said to me “If you want to keep buying gaming books at this rate, you’re going to have to make more money.” So, I used an addiction to feed an addiction. Also, right around the time I started Barrel Rider Games a new RPG had just hit the market: The One Ring. It is the third incarnation of Middle-earth to hit the gaming table, and for my money the third time’s a charm. I instantly fell in love with the game. Unlike Middle Earth Role Playing Game (MERP 🔍) and Decipher’s versions of roleplaying in Tolkien’s sub-creation, The One Ring (TOR 🔍) was a game that was built around the source material. Previous incarnations had felt like Tolkien’s material was bent to fit a mechanic. I was so in love with TOR that after reading the original slipcase publication I swore to myself that one day I’d get to write for the game - somehow. Barrel Rider Games (BRG 🔍) was a kind of back door resume.
In both cases, it worked beyond my wildest dreams. BRG started with me just writing dollar classes and class variants for Labyrinth Lord, which I did for several years. It has grown to include material for Labyrinth Lord, Old School Reference and Index Compilation (OSRIC 🔍), Swords & Wizardry Complete, Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Starships and Spacemen (2nd edition), and a few original games like White Star and The Hero’s Journey. Top that off with my mad scheme to one day write Tolkien actually resulting in me contributing to several books in the TOR game line and parlaying that into a lucrative freelance career which includes working for publishers like Frog God Games, Cubicle 7 Entertainment, and Fantasy Flight Games, and I’m left rather flabbergasted.
I came to White Box after getting burnt out on Labyrinth Lord writing. As I got older even LL started to have too many fiddly bits for me. White Box’s single save, minimal classes, and reliance on a d20 and d6 almost exclusively really draw me into it. That and the fact that digest-sized books are just so much more appealing to me in terms of portability and ease of use.
I’ve dipped by toe back into LL on occasion, but these days I’m mainly focused on White Star, The Hero’s Journey, and White Box. Even that’s slowed, because I juggle BRG work with regular freelance jobs these days.
I appreciate that you released The Heroes Journey as Pay What You Want (PWYW 🔍), tell me a bit about the game. In particular, I’d like to know about your house rules? Do you use all of the ones from book?
I’ve never met a single gamer who played an RPG exactly as it was written. Gamers are creators by nature and we tend to be a bit of a weird bunch. It’s in our nature to fiddle, tinker, and modify things. So with THJ, I wanted a ton of house rules to show that the game could be easily modified to suit an individual group’s style. There are quite a few house rules in there that I would never use, but that doesn’t mean that other gamers feel the same - so if I had an idea for a variant rule and it seemed like someone somewhere along the way might enjoy it, I included it. Also, I wanted to encourage folks to come up with their own house rules by including so many. The game is made to be house ruled.
I was a bit surprised by the addition of the Jester class? What brought about it’s inclusion?
A lot of THJ’s classes found their roots on the old Dragon Magazine Non-Player Character (NPC 🔍) classes. Duelist, Jester, and a few others. The Jester specifically was included because I really like them and wanted to include them. Part of the reason THJ is PWYW is because it is, first and foremost, “White Box: James’s House Ruled Edition.” It also includes a lot of material previously published, but tweaked for use with this rules set - so I didn’t feel right charging twice for something.
It seems to me the addition of damage reduction for armor creates a more rigid barrier between The Heroes Journey and other OSR simulacra. What has been your experience in crossing between other OSR games and THJ? What have you heard from others?
Reduction Value was something I hemmed and hauled on for a while. But because THJ is a game built around the idea of it being “James’s House Ruled Edition,” I included it because I like it. It helps mitigate the low hit point threshold of THJ, which allows small monsters in large groups to remain a threat. It also makes shields more viable than a simple “+1 to Armor Class (AC 🔍),” and reflects how armor is meant to work more accurately.
As far as crossing them over with other OSR products, I’ve had little problem. I ballpark a Reduction Value on the fly and go forward. I’ve yet to have it create a genuine barrier at the table.
In most every gamer’s life they’ve misplaced or no longer possess something important in their personal gaming story. Do you have one of these? If so what is it? A little bit of detail?
This is a timely question. Over the past few years I have seriously whittled down my gaming collection. I’ve got from four floor-to-ceiling bookcases to two shelves. I got rid of a lot of treasures. The closest that relates to your question is my Rules Cyclopedia. I parted with it because as much as I love the game, I’m always going to want to run something else. I learned that even if you don’t physically own a product anymore that doesn’t make the memories any less valid or important. Besides, with the way Print-on-Demand is going I don’t think it will be long before everything is perpetually “in print” and available.
What is your motivation for cranking out OSR products? What were some early bumps that you encountered on the way? How did you overcome them?
My motivation is built on one question: “What would be fun?” A lot of my ideas come from my long work commute. An idea pops in my head and I hold on to it, twiddle it around in my brain, and then write it. I put it up for publication as an act of sharing the fun. I’ve had a few products along the way where the fun of the concept got lost in the design, though. When that happens, I take a step back and tackle it again later or simply walk away. If you lose the fun in your work then that’ll show on the page.
What has been most surprising about participating as a publisher in the OSR?
A lot of folks in the OSR are people I regarded as kind of living gods or heroes. Eventually I got the opportunity to meet and even work with them, which was a real thrill. I figured out pretty quickly that everyone in the industry is a fanboy or fangirl to one extent or another - we’re all just ordinary people who happen to share a passion. That helps keep ego in check and makes folks a lot more approachable.
I’m perpetually amazed by the generosity of the OSR, both as individuals and as a community. Many in the OSR community are willing to give all they possibly can to help out a fellow gamer. It’s a real honor to be a part of that, both as a giver and receiver, and it keeps me pretty grounded most of the time.
I’ve used OSR a few times, what does OSR mean to you?
OSR is about remembering those days as a kid when you wrote kingdoms and castles on graph paper, mapped out your entire campaign on loose leaf paper, and poured through your books to discover a fresh new monster. It’s about wonder and youthful energy. It’s not about any specific game, game mechanic, or period of publication. It’s about setting aside rules disputes, grabbing a fist full of dice and just having fun. The rules in an OSR game are there to facilitate fun and when they don’t do that, they can easily be ignored or modified. When I play or write in the OSR I feel 13 years old again, bound only by what would be “cool” to do - not by some rule book.