Interview: Gavin Norman Talks B/X Essentials, Dolmenwood, and What’s Next for Necrotic Gnome!

I am pleased to report that Gavin Norman, proprietor of Necrotic Gnome and author/editor/designer of the B/X Essentials line of books, has graciously agreed to be interrogated by a weird dude with a possum avatar! In fact, Gavin agreed to do this quite awhile ago, while I was still finishing up the B/X Essentials review. It’s all just been sitting here for days and days while I posted other things according to my plan for pacing articles, and I’m sure Gavin must have hated the suspense. But that’s what I’m here for – mild annoyance. And rabies. Probably also rabies.

So now that I have finished editing the typos on the review, missing most of them in the process no doubt, and it’s finally been posted, the time is at last at hand for Gavin’s words to grace the pages of this blog and save us from more of mine: 

1. I have to open on a selfish note and ask a question I’ve been curious about for awhile now: why “Necrotic Gnome”?

Ha! I’m surprised that no one has ever asked me about that before. The name comes from an old campaign I was running, years ago. It was set in the sewers and catacombs below a great city. At one point, the players came across a pair of giant trash heaps, accumulated from the city above. Various scavengers plied the heaps, searching for discarded treasures. A village of ratlings (who were also a playable race-class in that setting — just re-skinned halflings, as far as I remember) had delved tunnels into one of the heaps, including an inn. Its name? The Necrotic Gnome.

So that phrase just stuck with me, and seemed like a fun name for an RPG publishing company, when it came to choosing one.

2. It’s safe to say Necrotic Gnome is best known for its flagship product, which is B/X Essentials. What spurred you to take on the project of reorganizing the B/X rules?

The seed of the idea for B/X Essentials goes back a little way. I’d downloaded the A5 formatted PDF of OSRIC and had the thought that printing it as a set of booklets would be fun. So I spent a while splitting the PDF up, moving a few pages around into an order that made more sense, and setting up a private print run at Lulu. I received my OSRIC core rules, classes, and spells booklets, thought “nice! if I ever play OSRIC, these will be super handy”, and put them on the shelf. I never played OSRIC, but the seed was planted.

A year or two later, running my regular Labyrinth Lord game, I noticed something: I was bringing the two full-size LL hardcovers to the table, and yet never referring to them, apart from giving them to a player occasionally to look up a spell. After the game, this realisation stuck with me: why am I bringing these books to the table, if I never refer to them during play? The idea of a set of small, easy-to-reference booklets came back to me, and I started chopping up Labyrinth Lord, starting with the plain text edition. My intention was purely to create something rough and ready for my own use.

But the more I dug into it, the more I realised that the reason I wasn’t using my LL books as reference wasn’t just the big hardcover tome format. The text of Labyrinth Lord itself just isn’t written or structured in a way that makes it easy to reference. So I started not only chopping the document up into sections for printing, but also editing and restructuring the text. Soon enough, the scope of what I was doing became clear (it was a huge project — much larger than the simple, rough, home printing project I’d begun!), and my enthusiasm surged as I realised that what I was doing could be of benefit to other people as well, not just me.

So B/X Essentials has always been about producing the game books that I want to use in my own games. I’m delighted to be able to use them now, and delighted that other people are also finding them useful.

3. The OSR industry is not as small as it once was, and a lot of popular B/X retroclones exist alongside your own. Some of them even had a foothold in the market before your own work did. How do you feel you set yourself apart?

In terms of the B/X retroclone market, yeah, there were definitely some big players around long before I dipped my toes into those waters. As I already mentioned, Labyrinth Lord is, of course, the big one. And I have to thank Dan Proctor for his generosity in releasing the text of that game as Open Game Content. His work there really kickstarted something. Lamentations of the Flame Princess contains elements of the Labyrinth Lord text, and parts of the same text formed the basis of the first two B/X Essentials books. I like to think of this body of open-licensed text evolving and being refined over time. I have taken some of Dan’s text, reorganised it, re-edited it, rewritten bits, brought it back in line with B/X, and finally re-released it, still as Open Game Content. I hope that others will, in turn, take my work and tweak it in their own ways, continuing the evolution of the text.

As to how I feel I set myself apart, the focus on usability is the big thing, I feel. Everything in B/X Essentials — from the writing and editing, to the organisation and layout — is designed with one question in mind: how can these books be the best in-play rules references possible? Now, I’m by no means claiming that what I’ve come up with is perfect. It can definitely be improved, as can… everything, really. But I feel that the books I’ve produced are genuinely better rules reference books than the original B/X books or any other clone.

The other thing that sets B/X Essentials apart from other clones or B/X-inspired games is, of course, that it is a pure clone. I’ve made a great effort (with the invaluable proofreading assistance of a dedicated team of lovable B/X rules nerds) to make sure it presents a 100% accurate rules clone. This really is a rules reference for the original game, without any kind of tweaks, house rules, or authorial inventions. Except in one area: in places where I found the original rules self-contradictory (there are actually quite a few of these!), I have made editorial decisions, clearing up the ambiguity one way or the other. Such choices are always noted in the text, though.

4. Now, a lot of us remember the Basic rulebook back in the day as a 64-page booklet, and Expert as it’s own 64 page rulebook. You’ve reorganized this into a more holistic format, commissioned all-new artwork by some amazing folks like Alex Mayo and Luka Rejec, and produced four total books now – but the total page count is now ~160 pages as a result even before the next part of the core set (Adventures and Treasures) – What’s the rationale and cause behind such an expansion in size?

I’ve seen people mention this before: that the page count of B/X Essentials is larger than that of the original B/X D&D books. This is indubitably true, but it’s a highly misleading metric. What you have to remember is that the B/X D&D books are US Letter sized pages. These are much larger than the 6″×9″ pages that B/X Essentials is formatted for, meaning that it’s possible to fit significantly more content on each page. So the raw page count doesn’t really mean anything much.

What is relevant is the word count. I’ve never checked this before actually, so (if you’ll forgive me geeking out on this point) let’s do a quick bit of math. Basic D&D consists of about 57K words. Expert D&D consists of 56K words. B/X Essentials: Core Rules is 14K words, Classes and Equipment is 15K words, Cleric and Magic-User Spells is 12K words, Monsters is 24K words, and the just-finished draft of Adventures and Treasures is 19K words. Adding all of that up, we get 113K words total for Basic / Expert D&D, and 84K words total for B/X Essentials. The numbers are clear: B/X Essentials is significantly less verbose that the original B/X. (Phew, I’m happy the numbers worked out in favour of my argument there!)

5. With B/X Essentials Monsters out, the next book in the planned core line is Adventures and Treasures, which would just about wrap it up. What’s the big priority for the line going forward from there?

My immediate plan is to have the complete “classic” set of B/X Essentials books finished in time for the SPIEL convention in October. At the time of writing (in late July), I’ve just finished the text of Adventures and Treasures, so this feels like a readily achievable goal.

Following that, the main focus with B/X Essentials is going into planning a crowdfunding campaign for deluxe, non-print-on-demand editions. We (myself and my publishing partners at Quality Beast) are planning a Kickstarter for early 2019, to produce a fancy, all-in-one hardback edition of the B/X Essentials rules, along with a boxed set of the five booklets. It’s not 100% decided yet, but we’ll probably have some nice extras to go with the Kickstarter editions, for example B/X Essentials character sheets and a referee’s screen (and maybe dice for the boxed set).

6. Another big project for you is the Dolmenwood setting. You’ve produced a number of resources for this now and it only seems to be gaining steam. What’s your best pitch to someone curious about Dolmenwood, and what inspired you to generate an original setting and share it?

Quick elevator pitch: Dolmenwood is weird, fairy tale, hex-crawl setting centred on a mossy, murky forest, in a backwater kingdom on the borders of Fairy. It’s designed as a mini campaign setting (the forest is about 200 miles across), so that it can be slotted into an existing milieu as desired by the referee. The setting features: all new monsters (no D&D standards), loads of new player character classes (including moss dwarfs and shape-shifting, fairy cats), inter-faction conflict (the battle of Law, Neutrality, and Chaos is forefront), and oodles of random tables (for everything from tavern fare to psychedelics to standing stones).

The origins of Dolmenwood go back to early 2013, when Greg Gorgonmilk and I started discussing the idea of writing a weird fantasy campaign setting. Over the course of some weeks of emailing back and forth, the seeds of what would come to be Dolmenwood were sown. I think the inspiration for writing a new setting was that we felt we’d tapped into a vein of fantasy that has perhaps not been thoroughly explored in D&D — a pre-20th century fantasy founded on fairy tales and folklore, rather than on the writings of D&D mainstays such as Tolkien, Leiber, Howard, etc. Fairy — the timeless Otherworld parallel to the mortal world of men and women — plays a major role in Dolmenwood, which is also something that was never a major element in classic A/D&D. Plus we threw in a healthy dose of psychedelia, for good measure.

7. What can we expect to see in the future for Dolmenwood content? On your blog you mention a hardcover campaign setting book – can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Right back in 2013, at the inception of Dolmenwood, Greg and I planned to publish the setting as a series of hardcover books — a campaign book for the referee, a players book with all the new classes, a monster manual, and so on. This vision was at once inspiring and daunting! Once we realised how much work would be involved in this, I suggested that we start things off on a smaller scale, by writing about Dolmenwood in a series of zine issues. Thus was born Wormskin, the Dolmenwood zine, which allowed us to publish aspects of the setting piecemeal, following whichever moss-clad pathways we found ourselves on.

Greg’s involvement with Dolmenwood dwindled along the way, but I continued exploring the primeval wood, and now, eight issues of Wormskin later, the original vision of the hardcover setting books hasn’t left me. I am now channeling all the ley-energies of Dolmenwood to bring the Campaign Book into manifest existence. The idea is that, where Dolmenwood currently only exists in a piecemeal collection of articles spread across the extant issues of Wormskin, the Campaign Book will present the setting in its entirety. All 184 hexes on the campaign map will be detailed, all factions will receive a full treatment, the history and culture of the setting will be thoroughly described, and so on. This will be the be-all-and-end-all of Dolmenwood, from the perspective of a referee wanting to run campaigns set there. And again, like the B/X Essentials books, the plan is to produce this as a lavishly illustrated, deluxe print run, funded via a Kickstarter campaign in 2019.

8. There’s no shortage of B/X compatible modules and adventures out there, but with Dolmenwood on your mind nowadays, are you planning to publish more adventures set there, using B/X Essentials?

The connection (or not) between Dolmenwood and B/X Essentials is actually still coalescing in my mind. I mean, Dolmenwood is written for the B/X D&D rules, so there’s clearly a connection, but I’m still considering how or if to bring the two product lines together.

But yes, there are more Dolmenwood adventure modules in the works. Next up is a 1st-3rd level adventure called The Fungus That Came To Blackeswell, by Yves Geens, illustrated by Thomas Novosel. We’ve been running play tests over the last couple of months, and are now on the cusp of launching into layout. I’m hoping we’ll see that reach publication by the end of 2018.

9. Recently you announced a big new partnership arrangement with Quality Beast. What is this going to mean for you going forward? What new opportunities does it open for Necrotic Gnome, and what can fans get excited about?

The partnership came about because I am personal friends with the people behind Quality Beast. Most of them either live in Berlin, or are colleagues (or ex-colleagues) from my day job, or both. So I’ve been watching them grow their game publishing company over the last couple of years, and have been super impressed at the level of quality and professionalism they’re going for, and at the scale of operations possible in the processes they’re establishing. I’ve been wanting to take Necrotic Gnome to the fabled “next level” for some time, and seeing my friends setting up all this serious publishing infrastructure was super inspiring to me. It was an obvious move for us to combine forces.

The biggest things, from my perspective, that this partnership brings are higher production values and a larger reach. As I’ve already mentioned, we’re planning to do crowdfunding campaigns for deluxe print runs of upcoming Necrotic Gnome books, so this will represent a big step beyond the limitations of the print-on-demand production model that I’ve used up until this point. Likewise, with the infrastructure that my pals at Quality Beast are establishing, I hope to get Necrotic Gnome books into way more people’s hands than currently. The beginnings of this are our appearances at conventions, but we’re also setting up contacts with retailers and distributors, to get our products into physical stores, beyond the limited scope of RPGNow.

10. You’ve been to a lot of conventions this year, all of them in Europe, where you’re based. Any hope of seeing you stateside anytime soon?

I’d love to get to one of the US cons! Nothing is being concretely planned yet, but I hope to bring Necrotic Gnome to at least one in 2019. Gary Con would be my first choice.

11. Before we wrap this up, is there anything you’d like to plug? Any projects or announcements or special deals that are close to your heart that you’d like to bring awareness to?

Yes, there is one more thing (to quote the inimitable Lieutenant Columbo) that I’d like to mention about my future plans for B/X Essentials. I talked previously about the plan for the deluxe combined edition and boxed set of the five “classic” booklets that encompass the rules of the original B/X game, but this is actually only the beginning of B/X Essentials, for those who want more.

The way I’ve split the classic rules up into separate booklets means that it’s easy to replace elements of the game. For example, the Classes and Equipment book, which details the classic fantasy classes, could be replaced with a book of classes for post-apocalyptic campaigns; the classic bestiary presented in the Monsters book could be replaced with a book of completely new monsters, say for a Lost World setting; the standard Cleric and Magic-User Spells could be replaced with a book of necromancer and elementalist spells; and so on. With this approach, the Core Rules book can form the foundation for any number of weird and wonderful campaigns, with the “extras” (classes, spells, monsters, and treasures) provided by slotting in replacements.

The sky’s the limit, really, with this modular approach to a game. There are several such modules in development for B/X Essentials right now (I recently announced the Post-Apocalyptic Classes and Equipment book), and I (and other people) have ideas for many more in the future. My dream would be for B/X Essentials to eventually span many different genres and campaign settings, all based on the same, streamlined Core Rules, and all 100% cross-compatible. That’s a way off yet, but it’s going to be fun getting there!

Thanks for asking such fruitful questions, Daniel!

Well, first of all, thank you for being so damn helpful and friendly, Gavin! Second, thanks for taking the time to answer so many questions and for doing the grade school math I should have done before asking about the page count – I left that discussion in the original review article out of “journalistic integrity” or something vaguely approaching it. I can’t believe I hadn’t considered that simple difference between 6×9 and 8.5×11 paper, but I think it’s because I’ve only had the PDFs. At least, that’s what I’ll blame it on! Regardless of my own stupidity, and that of others, I am overjoyed that you took the time to sit and answer so much for my little blog. Thank you very much, and I can’t wait to have you back for more when Dolmenwood and the Kickstarters get underway with a vengeance!

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