This interview is part of a series focusing on candidates in the running for the 2014 ENnie Awards. The Gen Con EN World RPG Awards (the “ENnies”) are an annual fan-based celebration of excellence in tabletop role-playing gaming, with voting beginning 7 a.m. Central on Sunday, July 20 through 7 p.m. Central on Wednesday, July 30. The winners will be announced at Gen Con, the Grand Hall at the Historic Union Station on Friday, August 15. To vote, see http://www.ennie-awards.com/vote/. In this installment I interview James Layton, writer and host of the Grim Dark Podcast. He co-hosts the podcast with Michael Copping. This is the podcast's first ENnie nomination.
Michael Tresca (MT): Tell us about your company.
James Layton (JL): We created the podcast in October 2013 as a fan show about role playing in the Warhammer 40,000 universe - most notably through the game systems created by Fantasy Flight Games (Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade and Only War). We do a show every two weeks, averaging around 2 hours to 2 1/2 hours per show. Each show we focus on on one of the five game systems. A typical show will include news from FFG, Games Workshop and Behaviour Studios (a Montreal based production house currently developing a 40k MMO - Eternal Crusade); a look one of the system components of the game (including how it has worked for us in the past, and any house rules we use); an in-depth look at one of the character archetypes in the game, including advice about building better and more interesting characters; a review of one of the FFG role playing books; and a discussion about some aspect of the setting, or some technique for improving one's role playing skills and experience.
In some of our episodes we have had interviews with current and former writers for FFG including Tim Huckelbery, Andy Fischer, Ross Watson, Sam Stewart & Max Brooke. We have also had guest hosts from other podcasts and from among our own gaming circle in order to give a wider view on the games and products we enjoy. Although we focus on a specific set of games we try to include material of use to gamers across a variety of systems.
MT: What distinguishes your entries from your competitors?
JL: Other than the setting on which our material is based, we like to feel that we bring a unique view and way of doing things to the podcast. Neither of us have worked in the game industry, yet both of us have been players for over thirty years each. We have both been involved in running large scale LARPs based on this setting and many years ago, we both worked for Games Workshop (the creators of Warhammer 40,000). Both Mike and myself have been avid listeners of gaming podcasts for years, and we have tried to incorporate what we have learned from other shows about what works, what doesn't, and what brings listeners back. On top of all of this, we have been friends for over twenty years so we feel that we manage to maintain a pretty solid banter between the two of us and we're not afraid of giving each other trouble on air.
I have previously worked in professional audio, so we like to believe that (short of a few issues at the beginning) we present a generally professional product. We do what we can to engage with our audience including maintaining forums, actively answering every comment or question on our email, Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, and allowing our listeners to post audio voicemails through our website which we play and respond to on the show.
MT: Tell us about your nominated site.
JL: There's probably not a lot that I can say here that I have not already said. We do host a website for our podcast, but that is primary a place for major updates, polls and to host the episodes themselves. We have partnered with a major fan site for the setting known as Dark Reign (http://www.darkreign.org) who host our forums for us. When we created the podcast, we didn't just want to throw up a new set of forums and divide the community further, rather we wanted to find a partner and leverage both of our resources to drive fans both to their site and our podcast.
MT: What distinguishes your entries from your competitors?
JL: In some ways I would say that we are definitely the underdogs in the field. Looking at the twitter pages for some of the other podcasts being considered, I see that some have over 5,000 followers... a far cry from our 27. We are not mature in terms of the age of our show, but we like to feel that we present a product that has the maturity of an established podcast. Obviously our show is focused on a particular set of game systems from a particular producer, which limits our fanbase as opposed to more general gaming podcasts, but we have certainly seen single-game-setting shows go a long way in the past. In many ways, our inspiration comes from shows like Order 66.
MT: What does it take to produce a successful digital presence like yours?
JL: Not as much as a lot of people may think. There are so many fantastic resources out there now that allow you to establish yourself and your ideas on the Internet without any significant understanding of things like HTML, PHP, etc. Neither of us our web developers, but we found some content management tools that allowed us to focus on what we were producing, not how we were producing it. There are dozens of sites with suggestions on recording podcasts including what equipment and software to use - really something for any budget. We had our first three shows up and available with a full web presence, using hardware we already had and about $30 for 12 months hosting and content management.
MT: Any tips for newbies just entering the field?
JL: Once you've decided you want to engage in something like a podcast - just do it. We were slow to get started because we were second-guessing ourselves - we spent nearly 12 months trying to decide whether we should start a show or not, and when we did... it all came together so easily.
I think it's also very important that your passion for your hobby comes through in to the medium that you decide. You obviously care enough about the game or setting that you want to speak about, so make sure that people can pick up on your enthusiasm and they will come along for the ride.
MT: Any metrics on the number of listeners/viewers to your site?
JL: We run full site metrics, but turning the data in to something that is accurate requires a little creative interpretation. On average we see around 2,000 unique IPs hit our site each month, and we are currently serving about 1-1.5Tb of data from our site a month. Looking at hits to individual episode files, we tend to see around 200 downloads in the first few days after we put up a new show, and it begins to slow after that. Some of our earlier episodes have enjoyed over 1,500 downloads, so hopefully people are coming to us late, getting interested, and working through our back catalogue. Our sixth episode was a monster at over 4 hours... and I think a few people get stuck on that one.
MT: What do you think of the new edition of D&D?
JL: To be honest, neither of us have had a chance to play it yet, so it's hard to give an objective opinion. We've heard a lot from other people, but I'm not generally inclined make up my mind about a game without trying it myself. 3rd/3.5 Edition D&D was a favourite of mine, and although I enjoyed 4th Edition for organised play (RPGA), I struggled to make it work as a campaign game system. The things I have seen about D&D Next is that it seems to incorporate several of the features that really worked for 3rd/3.5 Edition, but that it still has some new elements to make it feel like it has progressed and is the next stage in an old favourite.
MT: Will you be at Gen Con? Where? Will any new products debut at Gen Con?
JL: We will be at Gen Con, and for both of us it will be our first time. Both Mike and I run role playing conventions here in Australia, but certainly nothing the scale of Gen Con. We are coming along to see what it's all about and hopefully network with some of the amazing developers of games we have played in our role playing career - especially the guys from Fantasy Flight Games. We were hoping to play more, but since most of Gen Con registration opens at 4am our time, we missed out on most of the games we wanted. We're just happy to come along though and socialise - we'd love to run in to listeners of our show, but are just as happy to hang out with people that enjoy the same hobby we do. We'll be recording an episode at Gen Con too.
MT: Where can we find out more about your site online?
JL: Our website is at www.grimdarkpodcast.com but we are more active over at our Facebook page - www.facebook.com/grimdarkpodcast or our Google+ page - plus.google.com/+grimdarkpodcast - there's also our forums at www.darkreign.org/community
MT: Anything else you'd like to share?
JL: Only to once again say what an honour it is to be considered among so many great companies, products, sites & shows. Being in Australia makes us feel a little distant from the global role playing scene but putting the podcast together has really made this aspect of the world feel a lot closer. We owe any success we achieve to the fans of our show, because without them, we're just a couple of role players sharing old gaming stories with one another.
Thank you once again Michael for contacting us, and all the best with your column.