Interview with Brendan co-owner of Magpie Games

I had the chance to chat with Brendan about his experiences with TTRPGs since he was a kid and about all the wonderful RPGs he’s created and been part of. He shares his XP with us here as we talk about Avatar Legends, Root RPG, Masks: A New Generation, and his personal words of advice and wisdom.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Brendan Conway.  I am much older than I would like, but I’ve been doing RPGs in some form or another since, gosh, I was 7 or 8 years old!

I was playing D&D and RPGs all throughout elementary school, high school, and college.  I’ve been working in the industry more seriously for over a decade on a number of different projects, and nowadays, I am one of the co-owners of Magpie Games.  I am the systems lead developer on Avatar Legends: The Role Playing Game, Root RPG, and Masks: A New Generation.

So, you started playing tabletop RPGs when you were 7 or 8 years old – do you have one favorite moment from one of your games that you could share with us? 

It’s so hard!  One moment… I have to pick just one!

Everyone has a hard time with this one.  You’re picking one out of years of experience!

There’s two that really stand out.  I don’t want to pick two and break the question, but one feels perfect for my current incarnation and experiences and what you would do.  The other is a lightbulb moment.

Go ahead!  I’m OK with you picking two!

The first is when I got to run an RPG for my niece and nephew for the very first time.  They had never played before.  Their parents are aware of what I do; they aren’t unfamiliar, but it’s not a thing they do.  They were never going to do this themselves, so they asked me to see how this would go with their two kids. My nephew is autistic, so they had questions about how he would latch onto it, how he loves certain characters, and generally how it would all go.  

We just ran a short little game using an incredibly simplified ruleset, it was only a half hour of play.  We started by asking who they wanted to be, and I think he played Mario, and my niece played Zelda.  Their dad participated, and he was Robin Hood, so it was Mario, Zelda, and Robin Hood up against Bowser.

We told this short story of Bowser attacking, and they were responding and trying to save the Mushroom Kingdom – they had such a blast! 

Seeing how excited my nephew got was amazing, and it was a great experience for me because I had not personally had many times introducing TTRPGs as someone’s first ever experience with it.  They’d never seen anything before, they’d never watched any live plays.  This is it!  This is the first time!

It was nerve-wracking setting it up in advance, but it was wonderful.  That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

The other one is the lightbulb moment.  I was running a game in college for my friends; it was Monte Cook’s World of Darkness; it was a modern fantasy with a weird skew.  We had been playing for a little bit with these darker figures like a werewolf or a vampire.  They had been responding to threats each week, but there was also an ongoing story arc for the entire season, and this dawning moment happened when, one session, we picked up, and they didn’t turn to the threat of the week. 

They wanted to take down the bad guys.  They saw him and how much of a threat he was, and they wanted to enact their own plan and be proactive with this whole scheme they hatched.  

This is what I wanted!  I wanted them to be so interested and involved that they were coming up with their own plans.  I was just responding to them but thrilled to watch what happened.  

It was so beautiful because after all of that build up of being a GM asking yourself if the story was good, is this a good antagonist, are the challenges set OK, and so on, and they finally just took the ball and ran with it. 

It was amazing; I loved it.  

I love just responding to what they are bringing to it and being surprised and excited and giving some back to them and back and forth.  It was a beautiful moment for me; everything came together right there.

What is Magpie Games all about?

Magpie Games celebrated our 10 year anniversary, I think, a year or two ago – what even is time?!

We are a game design and game publishing company committed, probably above all, to producing really great games that tell the stories that we want to see. We want to make the kinds of games that we want to play and give the players the ball so they can give it back to the GM and back and forth with everyone surprising each other and generating that interest.  

We also want to make our games say something. They support a style of play while also having something else inside of them that’s commenting about a thing and giving a new way to look at that thing.  We’re trying to make gains that are helping you and bringing something else to the game so everyone at the table can grow.

Beyond that, we’re committed to bringing in diverse creators and diverse voices in the industry, so it’s important for us to produce lots of different projects with different creators.  It’s important to us to continue to produce different kinds of projects too.  At this point, we have done The Avatar Legends RPG, which is just an enormous license, but we’ve also, in our history, done a whole bunch of smaller projects with a whole bunch of niche spaces, and continuing to do those is important to us too.

We’re doing more projects where we are taking the work of somebody else and we’re working with them to really refine that game, make it as strong as we possibly can, and then publish to bring our experience in on the production and publishing side to someone who is relatively new to the industry. 

We have a lot of fingers in a lot of pots, but the core of it is that we want to make games that are really wonderful to play, that are exciting, and that add something to help and support the people playing them.  That’s the beating heart.

Can you tell us a bit more detail about a couple of the games you’ve made?

The three I mentioned [Avatar Legends: The Role Playing Game, Root RPG, and Masks: A New Generation] are good, especially with my involvement with them, in particular.

Avatar Legends

Avatar Legends is based on Avatar the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, and all the new material coming out, which we’re super excited for.  It’s, by far, the biggest project that we have ever worked on, and it’s this radically different situation because there’s so many people, and it’s such a giant audience.  It puts a ton of pressure on us to make this game for all of these people and support this vision, but also to try to introduce these new ideas where we’re pushing a little bit and helping people see a new kind of game that they haven’t played before

One of the things that we’re so excited about is the way that the game has been received.  It’s different, and people seem to like the differences.  It’s not exactly like D&D where a lot of players are either coming from D&D or a similar game; these are players who have never played anything like this before.  Some are brand new into RPGs – one of our goals was to see how many people could play for the first time and get into it.

There’s a lot of this balancing act with our game design to see how we can serve RPG veterans and give them a TTRPG that they’re excited for and scratch their itch for a little bit of depth while also making it friendly and not intimidating for newcomers who have never played before.  That balancing of different goals and needs was one of the greatest struggles, but we’re really happy with how it turned out.

We made a game that, to us, captures the essence of the characters from the shows going on journeys or making decisions about what they believe or who they are or what matters most to them and trying to resolve it with some sense of balance.  So, we came up with this whole balance track that puts your two issues opposed to each other.  You’re going back and forth in the balance track over your story, and that turned out to be such a great mechanic for capturing the way those stories flow.  It lets us show that this villain is totally out of balance, and that’s why he’s so scared and committed to this one thing.  He’s dangerous, and it’s a real problem, but maybe you can bring him back by helping to restore his balance. 

It made all the stories available in a way that we were really happy about and proud of.

Thank goodness that we had this incredible team.  Thank goodness we had all of the support.  Thank goodness we had feedback from everybody.

It has turned out to be an incredibly rewarding experience to have been part of the team that put this into the world.

Root RPG

I’m sort of doing the games backwards because Avatar Legends is the most recent.  For Root, that was our first Magpie licensed project because it was a licensed board game previously.  

We were playing the board game, and it was really fun.  We started wondering if there was an RPG for it and if maybe we could make it. 

Almost randomly, we managed to connect with Leder Games and came up with a pitch.  That, too, was a different experience for us.  We were adapting a game that already existed, and we knew we had to represent elements that people already loved in the board game, but, at the same time, we couldn’t just do a 1:1 of the board game.  We had to invent a different space to make it work.  

That’s why we started focusing on the group of vagabonds, and we knew it was going to have kind of the feel of D&D, but we wanted it to be surprising, it’s going to change the world around you.  There are factions and powers that are pushing and pulling, and you are part of a living world.  That became one of the main things we wanted to go for.  We wanted a world that doesn’t just revolve around you – you go to a new place and discover how it works, then it changes and responds to your actions when you return to it later.

And also… at the same time… you get to play a possum wearing armor and holding a little bow, and that’s always wonderful.

The trick with Root for us was the realization of how much Kyle Ferrin’s art for the game defines it and brings it to life. 

People come in because of that art and getting to play as a cute animal with a little sword.  Then, they actually start playing and get that moment of surprise of… Oh!  This is actually pushing on me, and I’m going to push back because I care. I’ve committed to this clearing and want to defend it!  I want to make it better!  So, that means when this other faction comes in, I’ve got to push back on that!  I need to figure out a way to deal with this!

It creates those cycles that we really loved and longed for.  

So, Root was, for me, a testing of my ability to both honor the original work and to still do something new and different.  I needed to understand that theme and really elaborate on it.

Masks: A New Generation

Still working backwards in time, the last one I want to talk about is Masks: A New Generation.

Masks was me coming out of college and trying to figure out who I was going to be and what I was going to do.  I was grappling with a whole bunch of ideas all at once. 

At the same time, there’s this comic book cover that shows a time displaced version of Cyclops and Wolverine’s young female clone kissing, and I was like… this encapsulates superhero nonsense high melodrama perfection.  I loved it.  Everyone who saw it was like.. This needs to be a game!  And I agreed!

That was the kernel, but then I also thought about how this is letting me say something about what I’ve gone through and what I think and feel.  That combination was what enabled me to help make it something a little bit special.  It wasn’t just replicating superhero media, but it was also about more personal elements. There’s a piece of me in the game.

As an original property, it’s incredible to watch people pick it up and keep playing.  They’re still playing it today.  I love hearing stories about what people are coming up with and having them tell me about their superhero and seeing drawings of their characters.  I love it. 

There’s something special about the fact that it still connects with people time and time again.  I’m incredibly proud that Masks was the big door-opening for me to say this is what I do for a living.

What advice do you have for people who are new to tabletop RPGs or who are looking to introduce a new player?

So, it’s a piece of advice that we put into all of our games.  It’s one of our repeated game principles.  

If you’re introducing somebody new, the single most important thing is to be a fan.  Be excited. Be thrilled for them.  Be like you are wanting to watch them, not just win and be awesome, but be challenged in an interesting and fun way.  

Go in wanting to see them overcome and also contend with what failure is but don’t go in trying to be the opposition.  Your job is not even exactly to be the full rules arbiter.  It’s not necessary to get into the full spectrum of rules up front. 

If I’m introducing someone to Masks for the first time, I will slowly introduce things.  Introducing Avatar Legends, I’m not going to go into all of the combat mechanics at first.  I’m going to just try to get you in, and the very first thing I can do to get anyone in is to ask about how cool their character is.  I get them to tell me about their character and talk about it…. Oh, this sounds like there was some real trouble in your past!  Would you say there’s someone who’s like, a dark figure still hanging over your head who might come back and make trouble?  Because, that’s not me causing trouble for you.. No, it is absolutely me causing trouble for you… it is me being excited that you’re invested and participating in your story!

The magic of this entire form can be hidden sometimes by the fact that we say you have a character and I have a character and the GM plays everyone else.  There can be a sense that there are these divisions between us, but the joy is that I care about your characters.  I’m invested in your story when I make a PC with someone.  

For somebody who is starting for the very first time, the best thing you can do is make a character that you’re excited about and that everyone else is around you can find a way to connect with.  Ask them questions about their character.  Be invested as best you can and as early as you can because the more you care about everything, the bigger the feedback loop of excitement is at the table.

For you as the introducer, build moments where we’re so invested.  We get there through constant reinforcement that what you do matters, your choice matters, and they integrate with everybody else’s to create this beautiful thing bigger than any one of us can make on our own.  That matters.

And for those coming in, be open to that.  Feed into that play with everybody else.  Don’t just be focused on your own thing. 

It’s the easiest thing in the world to pay attention only to your own character, and that’s a comfort in that opening, especially when you’re unfamiliar and aren’t sure what to do.  As you’re coming into it more though, try to expand to everything else and you’ll see more.  That’s the beauty and the joy of the whole endeavor. 

Sometimes, I look at my experiences as a kid, and I can see that there were times that I didn’t learn the right lesson.  There were times where it was a competition and we each wanted to look cooler than the other person, or it got into running the game opposed to the players.  That can work, but, in general, it doesn’t get into that collaborative storytelling.

Be invested, be excited for the things that other people at the table are doing, and they will be excited for the things you’re doing.  Everyone is going to build something together.

Thank you Brendan!  It was great getting to chat with you!

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