Interview: Nicholas Kristof of Fantasy Cartographic

Fantasy Cartographic recently sent me a copy of their latest 4th Edition PDF release “The Martialist” for review. Buried under many projects at the time and not a huge fan of 4th

Dragonborn Martialist
Dragonborn Martialist

edition, I politely begged off.

Then, in the dark of the night, I read the book and it impressed me. Most PDF supplements fall in to the “adequate” to “terrible” category, but this one was distinctly above average. The original art, layout, editing and depth exceeded my expectations. However, I have a distinct bias against 4e. So, rather than do a review of the supplement, I interviewed the author and company owner Nicholas Kristof instead. My reasoning is simple; regardless of my feelings on the system, talented writers and publishers deserve attention, regardless of the system they choose to use.  The Martialist demonstrated that  Fantasy Cartographic had that talent.

Nick currently lives in Europe, so we did the interview through email. Here are his responses. I think this is one of my more informative interviews because he talks about the PDF market, as opposed to a dead-tree publisher. I learned quite a bit. Enough Trask prattling, on to the interview!

Nick: Trask, First I wanted to thank you for taking the time to interview me. As you can imagine, “getting the word out” is vitally important—especially for a small company such as mine. I think that The Fantasy Cartographic is going to be doing some nice things in the coming months and this interview will help us to become a little better known.

Trask: Could you give us some of your gaming background? What is your history as regards to gaming?

Nick: I’ve been playing D&D since 1980 or so, although my earliest recollections are trying to watch my older brothers and their friends play when I was too young. My oldest brother played AD&D with me and then helped me DM him in my first campaign. I also played D&D (the Red Box set) with my best friend Mike for a few years before he and I moved up to AD&D. Even when we first started, Mike and I were creating our own stuff. I created a barbarian character class and he created a samurai class for the Red Box set. Also played some Champions, some Robotech, and one or two others. Played a lot of board games as well—Risk was probably my favorite. Some complain about it as too simplistic or too long or too this or that, but I still love a good game of Risk.

Trask: How did your company “Fantasy Cartographic” come about?

Nick: Like most people who play rpgs, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at actually producing ‘professional’ gaming material. For awhile, that took the form of submissions to Dragon and Dungeon magazine. Then college and the real world pulled me away from gaming for many years. When I found the time to get back into it, the 3E age was in full swing, and, due to the OGL, anybody could publish gaming material. Websites like RPGNow.com made it (and obviously still make it) easy to distribute material. I had some maps lying around and got together with the group of guys that I gamed with many years ago. We wrote system-less descriptions of the fantasy locations detailed by the maps, put them all together, and that became our first product, “Locales, Volume One”.

Trask: Your previous releases were map/plot hook supplements like “Locales, Volume One.” Why the switch to character supplements?

Nick: As I said, “Locales, Volume One” was written system-less because none of us had any experience playing 3rd Edition D&D. In fact, there was a significant portion of that group of guys who were still interested in D&D but had no interest in 3E. I felt much the same way. Between us, we started (and for the most part stopped) playing D&D with the Red Box set or AD&D. I felt that it would be stupid to try to learn a new system just for the purpose of publishing material. That changed with the release of 4E. I felt that in some ways the playing field had been leveled, and we could jump into producing material for 4E at the same time as everyone else. As for why the switch into character supplements? Probably because it seemed the most interesting to me. Although in hindsight, also the most difficult.

Trask: Tell me about the “Martialist.” What does the book contain? What is the class theme?

Nick: Fantasy Class: Martialist details a single new character class for 4E D&D. It includes everything that is needed to play the class up through the epic tier, including all of the exploits (about six per level), feats (60+), paragon paths (8), and epic destinies (3). It also includes sixteen new magic items and optional rules for playing the class. Finally, it includes power cards for all of the exploits. Basically, I included everything that I felt was necessary to provide a complete character class. One or two of the other websites that reviewed the Martialist commented that I must really be into martial arts, because there is so much material. Actually, I’m not that into martial arts at all—I just felt that if I was going to do a class that is basically a martial artist, I wanted to do it right. As I said, the theme of the character is one of martial arts, but I wanted to stay away from the Oriental trappings of your typical monk. The martialist is just a tough character who knows how to use his body to damage yours.

Trask: What was your inspiration for the Martialist and the prison origin of the class?

Nick: Honestly, when I first started work on it, the main inspiration was professional wrestling. I was experimenting with 4E power creation and trying to create mechanics for the signature moves of some of the wrestlers that I watched when I was a kid. I was thinking of creating a player vs. player wrestling game based upon 4E combat mechanics. About a third of the way through the process, the prison idea popped into my head, and I realized that I had the makings of an actual fantasy character class. For your readers’ benefit, the martialist class arose amongst a population of prisoners in a prison where all personal belongings were outlawed and what objects were readily available would crumble if used as weapons. The idea is that if all you have to use as a weapon is your own body, you’re going to get very good at using it.

Trask: The class goes all the way to level 30. How hard was it to create and balance that many different powers?

Nick: Creating the powers up to level 30 plus paragon and epic powers was the hardest part of the project. For each power, I came up with a name or I wrote the flavor text first. Then I determined the mechanics. In most cases, between the PHB and Martial Power, I had enough exploits from other classes to judge the approximate damage and effects that would be appropriate. I then subjected them to playtesting, of which you can never do enough. Ultimately, whatever success we had with the balance of the powers (and I believe that we were successful in this regard), I owe to a very good mechanics editor who I brought into the project fairly early. His knowledge of the rules and mechanics is top notch, and his feedback was almost always spot-on. I know this for a fact, because there are instances where I went against his recommendation, and some of the other people who have reviewed it commented on things in their reviews that he recommended against. His name is Alex Mont by the way; I highly recommend him.

Trask: Who did the cover and interior art?

Nick: VShane did all of the art. We are indebted to him for his abilities and willingness to work with us to achieve our vision for the project. Check out his art at http://www.pen-paper.net/artgallery/V_Shane/ or at http://vshane-art.com/. He is talented and professional, and we will use his services for as long as he will work with us.

Trask: What was the biggest issue with getting the book published? Editing, art, layout or something else?

Nick: The biggest issue was layout. I made a lot of rookie mistakes in the process of creating the document. I say rookie mistakes, because although the Martialist was not the Fantasy Cartographic’s first release, I wanted to really up our game in terms of appearance and design, so I was trying a lot of things that I had not done before. The biggest mistake was that I started layout before writing was complete. I always felt that I needed to know how it was going to look, so I’d lay it out. Then the text would change, and I would have to re-do the layout. I’m embarrassed to say that that happened a lot, even after I realized that it was a problem. I just couldn’t help myself. As you can imagine, editing and art played a part in this, because as the text gets edited or new art becomes available, the layout would have to change. Aside from the art, by VShane, I did all of the layout and graphic design for the entire project. I learned a lot. Hopefully, the Martialist looks good on the computer screen or on paper, and I’ll be able to repeat that quality in the future.

Trask: Any future releases planned from “Fantasy Cartographic?”

Nick: Yes. We are currently working on our second character class supplement. This time, I have partnered with an individual to release a class that people who frequent ENWorld have probably seen before. I can’t say too much at this time, but it is a “homebrew” class from ENWorld that really caught my eye. The format will be similar to the Martialist; it will also include art by VShane. We are also planning to revise, update, and expand on the Martialist in the next month or two. My plan right now is to re-release it at RPGNow with updated cover art, more material, and a slightly tweaked layout (I can’t help myself). A great advantage of RPGNow is that those who have already purchased it will be able to download the update for free. And hopefully, we’ll drive more sales as well. We’re also going to be setting up a website. I’ve come to the conclusion that a web presence is almost required for a company that sells only PDFs. Finally, I’m probably going to start a blog, the main focus of which will be my experiences running the Fantasy Cartographic: a no-holds-barred look at the business from my perspective. I plan on discussing pricing, sales, our successes and failures—all of it. I hope that by detailing what I’ve done (mostly wrong, I would say), others will learn some lessons and maybe do better for themselves. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed every minute though.

Trask: Do you have any advice for a potential PDF RPG publisher just starting out? Did you run in to an issue you did not expect and might warn a new publisher about?

Nick: Here are a couple thoughts, in no particular order:

    1. Don’t underestimate the time that you will need to spend on the business side of things. The creativity and writing and art are the fun parts of doing this; but it is the other stuff (advertising, working with freelancers, worrying about the finances, communicating with everyone and anyone) that will determine your success, much moreso than people might believe.
    2. Start small. A line of five, ten, fifteen page products released over time will probably be more lucrative than one 75 page product in the same time period. This is for a number of reasons, but I’ll list two:

    • Steady releases over time will build awareness of your company and drive sales—momentum is important.
    • Smaller products can be priced higher for an equivalent number of pages. As a brand new company, you can release a 5 page pdf and sell it for a buck, a 10-15 page product for two, but if you release a 75 page product as a brand new company, you won’t get many sales if it costs over 4 bucks or so. People just aren’t going to spend several dollars of their hard-earned cash on a name that they do not know, period.

    3. I’m always looking to work with new people. If someone out there has a class that they want to publish, contact us (click here and solve captcha for the email address). If someone wants to do something else mapping or 4E related, contact us. We’ll take a look. My model is to split the profits evenly between all contributors in proportion to their contribution to a project. The individual that we are working with on the next class supplement might earn more than the Fantasy Cartographic if sales do well.

    I would like to thank Nick for his time and great responses. If you would like further information about Fantasy Cartographic, you can find their products on RPGnow or contact them directly.

    Full disclosure,  I do receive a small affiliate credit for anything you buy using the RPGNow links on this page . All of which I promptly use to buy more PDF products for review, including the “Locales, Volume 1” listed above for a future review.

    Trask, The Last Tyromancer

    trask

    Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.