At the end of the May, Michael and Stephen Stagliano released their new podcast, The Tavern of Heroes, to wild success. Michael was kind enough to make time to grant me an exclusive Q&A interview regarding the podcast as well as the roleplaying game—which is also called Tavern of Heroes—that he and Stephen created for the podcast. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a huge shout out to Michael for granting me this interview. He’s a busy man with a day job and a family so his time is valuable. So THANK YOU, MICHAEL! Can’t say it enough.
NonZero Sum: First, could you tell us about yours and Stephen’s backgrounds in tabletop gaming in general? Have you pretty much always been “nerds”?
Michael Stagliano: Absolutely! Our experience in table-top gaming stems from the classics like Monopoly, Candyland, Yahtzee, Trouble, and others that we played as kids. Back in 2010 we got swept up in the board game revolution and got into titles like Catan, Ticket to Ride, Small World, Pirates Cove, Dominion, etc… Then four or five years ago we started getting into table-top RPG’s, namely DnD and Pathfinder. All of that gaming was surrounded by hours of console and PC gaming as well; WoW, Halo, Call of Duty, League of Legends… really any other big title you can name – we played. Sooo… to put it simply, YES, we have always been nerds and proud to wave our flag in nerdom!
NZS: What can you tell us about Stesso Games?
MS: Stesso Games is a company we started back in 2012. In Italian “stesso” can be used to mean “twin”. (It actually translates as “same”). We have four titles under the company: three board games and one card game. As Tavern of Heroes is owned by Stesso Games, it is our goal to eventually publish our rules system, the hero sheets, and the adventures (collectively “the game”) under Stesso. A few more fun facts: 1. I (Michael) actually owned a social sports company called Stesso Sports – we organized after work sports leagues for adults in the LA area. 2. Our other titles are called “Mice and Dice” (a family friendly dice-rolling game), “Spiritual Warfare” (a light rpg-strategy game), and “Skeleton Creek” (a 3-5 person card game, that plays like a ghost-hunt). SC is based of a NY Times Best Selling Author’s book called “Skeleton Creek”. The Author’s name is Patrick Carman. He actually played Spiritual Warfare, loved it, then asked us to develop a card game for his books.
NZS: That’s a clever name! And those games sound interesting. So, what compelled you to develop Tavern of Heroes into a live play podcast?
MS: The answer is two-fold. We actually decided to do the live-play as a marketing tool for the game. As mentioned above, the goal is to eventually publish the rules-system. What better way to go to market than to have an audience already loving the game-system? The second reason for making the show is we felt like there was much more to be done in the actual-play genre. We wanted to execute on a few major differences: 1. Shorter-form story telling. 2. Voice over actors (high quality talent). 3. Top-notch audio quality. 4. Sound design and scoring.
NZS: It’s definitely a winning combination. And I agree, I think you’ll have a solid fan-base built by the time you’re ready to publish this. I know I’m ready to buy it. So you guys launched on May 30, 2018 and the podcast was downloaded in 27 countries and shot straight to number 6 for the Hobbies and Board Games category AND you got nearly 2500 subscribers! Did you exceed your expectations?
MS: Haha, we did! Our goal was actually 2000 subscribers. We spent MONTHS building our marketing campaign, and once we took a broad look at our total social media reach (around 500k), we felt like 2000 was a safe number to shoot for. We DID NOT expect to be an international podcast on the first day. To celebrate the launch we went golfing in the afternoon together and basically spent all 18 holes talking about how lucky we feel to have so many advocates (like you, Patrick) that love the show, and seem like genuinely great people. You (and the other advocates) will never know how much it means to us.
NZS: I appreciate the kind words! The tabletop gaming community is wonderful. I’m happy to have contributed. Speaking of community, you worked closely with sponsors and several active tabletop gaming social media accounts across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (and maybe even more that I’m not aware of). What was that like? I know I personally wanted to sing your praises as soon as I listened to the Pilot episode back in early April. You masterfully opened the faucet to a steady stream rather than a full on gush. Do you think that helped build a better buzz so that by the time the faucet was all the way open there were plenty of people there to drink the water with very little going to waste?
MS: There are two words that come to mind when we think about the board game community in general. “Kind” and “supportive”. To put it simply, we have been overwhelmed by people’s willingness to help us out, spread the word, write reviews, and “drink the water” as you put it. Yes! I absolutely think that the buzz and success we had at launch is attributed directly to the 30 social media influencers we had in our corner. We will forever be thankful for their efforts.
NZS: You nailed it with Kind and Supportive! Regarding the game specifically, Tavern of Heroes has a pretty streamlined style of play and you’ve stated that you wanted it to be a low barrier-to-entry tabletop RPG. How can you effectively create such a rich and immersive game with a rulebook that is only 7 pages long? Is that really true? Seven pages?!
MS: Hahaha. The emails are already pouring in about the EXACT same thing. I’m telling you, it’s 7 pages! We cover everything! What to do on your turn, abilities, death, prone, DR, health points… The big thing to keep in mind is we lean into the cooperative-story telling part of an RPG, rather than the rules-mashing. Put another way, our game does not allow for sand-boxing, and super intricate spells and attacks. It’s like a video-game version of a table-top rpg – playing more like a hack-n-slash than a long-form adventure path. In a many ways it’s just not as good as 5e or Pathfinder, hahaha, it’s just much, much simpler. A super nerdy analogy I like to use is: If other systems are the extended edition of Lord of The Rings, Tavern of Heroes is the battle in the mines of Moria. Short, sweet, get in, get out – and TONS OF FUN!
NZS: I love it! In Episode 2 where Christine Lakin plays as Tia in “The House of Unending Shadow” she uses an ability called “Shadow Twin”. As soon as I heard that ability I immediately thought back to the Fiend Folio from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the extraplanar creature the Tween. Was this the inspiration for that ability or just coincidental? What other games served as inspiration for Tavern of Heroes?
MS: Haha! I can’t say that it was the inspiration, but I LOVE the reference. We definitely pulled bits and pieces from both 5e and Pathfinder. Especially some of the marco-rules like turn-economy, movement speed, etc… We modified specific mechanics, feats, abilities, spells from those systems as well; though everything we designed for the game we did through the lens of, “is this simple?”. Low-barrier to entry was bar for everything.
NZS: Is there anything more you could tell us about Malar Nightbringer? He seems ripe with legendary stories of past exploits. Will we get to hear his backstory or experience him going on any quests?
MS: HAHAHA! I get a smile on my face just thinking about Malar. Yes, you will get more and more back-story on Malar as the show goes on. We have six months of episodes archived, ready to release, and A LOT happens. I would love to provide a little spoiler though: Malar is a retired Hero, a Paladin of Shaya and one of the most legendary men in all of Elderon. He wields a MASSIVE two-handed hammer, and is always itching to get back to battle. Maybe… just maybe… one day he will get his chance…
NZS: Such a great character already from the little I’ve heard! How about Arronhall and Elderon? Personally, I’d love to read or listen to the history of world itself? The world is inhabited by humans. Does this suggest there are no elves or dwarves or any other typical races of the fantasy setting?
MS: Well Patrick, you are in luck, my friend. Currently on our website www.tavernofheroes.com there is an entire INTERACTIVE MAP of Elderon that will give you insights to every major geographical landmark in the world. Haha! Check it out! It’s awesome! It took hours and hours…and HOURS to put it together. And, correct there are no elves, dwarves or other races in our world, though we already have plans on expansion that could potentially include other races.
NZS: Haha! The White Stag Inn in the north. Too funny! I love that you guys use only two dice in your game. The d10 and the d6. I’m curious about that d10 though. You use the percentile portion of it so the faces are 10, 20, 30, and so on. So far all the defense ratings and modifiers are always rounded to the 10s place. Will we see things in the future where things are rounded to the 5s place or maybe even specific numbers (i.e. “Survival Check requires a 35”)? If not, I’m curious why you didn’t just go with a “normal” d10.
MS: Great question! We mulled this over for weeks. Ultimately we decided on the percentage die because it felt more accessible to deal with passing and failing on a scale out of 100. In other words, it’s easy to understand that: if it’s a DC80, you have a 20 percent chance of success (before modifiers). Now I realize the math is the same on a d10, but because we funneled everything through the eye of a “non-gamer”, we felt like a percentage die made more sense than a d10. In reality though, it’s six of one half-dozen of the other.
NZS: You said you hoped to release the game to the public possibly in 2019. Are you considering a “core rulebook” type of release where maybe we’d see the equivalent of a Player’s Handbook, Story Master’s Guide, and some sort of compendium of baddies? Although, at 7 pages for the rulebook you could easily fit that into a single volume, right?
MS: We haven’t exactly wrapped our head around “what will go in the box”, but I can tell you this: We will have a “core rulebook”, that will essentially act as the “instructions guide” for any other game, and EVERYONE will read that before they play. We will have hero-sheets which you can just sit down and play with. And the big one: we will have Adventures, that a story-master can literally just sit down and start reading through. These documents read much like a choose your-own-adventure. Again, because our game doesn’t allow for sand-boxing, our adventures (and therefore the StoryMaster) is constantly keeping the train on the tracks, and basically setting up the story to lead to combat. It is our goal to take ALL THE WORK out of running the game. We do all that for you. We want anyone to be able to pick up an Adventure having no experience with table-top rpg’s, and they can run a group of friends through a story with no problem at all. All the dialogue is written for you, all the checks, all the maps, everything is designed for the lowest possible barrier to entry.
NZS: Sounds great! I loved the choose your own adventure books when I was a child! One final question (and I know this is never easy): when you guys aren’t “ToH-ing”, what are some of your favorite games to play?
MS: Ohhhhhhh!!! This question is painful… we both have jobs and two kids under five, so there is, sadly, NOT a lot of gaming in our houses. That said, we have a long list of games we want to play, including: Gloomhaven, Terraforming Mars, King of Tokyo, Legend of the Five Rings, Azul, Pandemic and Arkham Horror. When we do get a chance to play, our wives love Spiritual Warfare (our title), Monopoly, Game of Thrones Catan, Boggle, Treasure Island, Guillotine, to name a few.
So that’s it for now. Be sure to read my initial review of the podcast in an article I wrote last month (complete with the trailer) and then be sure you follow the Tavern of Heroes on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Then download the show from wherever you get your podcasts. Listening each week with my daughter is one of my favorite activities! I’ll keep my ear to the ground on the details of Tavern of Heroes the RPG getting published and keep you all updated. I’m already on record for having said that Tavern of Heroes will probably be the best new live-play podcast of 2018. When this game releases in 2019 I think it will make a great addition to your collection. I can see where some would be put off by the “our game does not allow for sand-boxing” comment that Michael made earlier in the interview. Personally, I love the idea of a game where all the work has been done for you. Sometimes I want to play an RPG with guests who aren’t gamers and we ultimately switch to a board game instead. The game may have some role-playing elements you can slide into it but it isn’t quite the same. Sounds like with Tavern of Heroes your newbie would be ready to go in 15 minutes or less! In short, there is a place for short-form role-playing at your table whether you’re a casual gamer or a homebrew purist.