The Letters Page: Publisher's Note 1
So Many Paul Questions
Run Time: 1:15:10
We start off with some... non-technical difficulties. After that, some goofs, some introductions, and more goofs, we talk about voting for episodes in September.
- Tuesday, September 1st: Publishers’ Note #2
- Tuesday, September 8th: Episode #155 - Creative Process: Ra Villains
- Tuesday, September 15th: Publishers’ Note #3
- Tuesday, September 22nd: Episode #156 - Writers’ Room: An issue of Terminal Ballistics, ft. Setback & Expatriette
- Tuesday, September 29th: Publishers’ Note #4
Then, finally, around the 22 minute mark, we get to your questions. Featuring a brand new song from Trevor!!!
Our plan was to read a bunch of letters from listeners and then also take questions from the chat. Instead, we got through a few letters, and then the multitude of questions from the chat overwhelmed us and we gave up on letters for this week, just to get through all the chat questions. Which ended up being great!
Around the 55 minutes in, ThePayneTrayn asks a question in the chat about brewing beer, which is a topic Paul has a lot of experience and knowledge on. Paul describes an all-rye ale that he has brewed, which was met with demands for the recipe. Here is that recipe, from Paul himself!
- 6lb malted rye
- 1lb medium crystal malt
- Starch conversion with 2.25gal H2O at 148F for 2 hours
- Mash out at 170F. Sparge with 3 gal H2O
- Bring to a boil. Add 1oz Holdings hops. Boil 45 min. Add 0.5oz Bramling hops. Boil 15 minutes. Add 0.5oz Bramling hops.
- Ferment with Wyeast 1968 London ESB yeast
Finally, we mentioned that next Publishers' Note will be a great time to ask Paul questions about his involvement in Spirit Island lore. If you have questions for Paul (or for Christopher and Adam), use our handy question submission form!
See you next time!
- So, this is the first Publisher’s note, which will have Christopher as usual, but Paul (Greater Than Games’ CEO) rather than Adam who’s off in the art mines.
- Paul’s been in a bunch of stuff here and there, including running a whole season of the RPG, but this is his first time being a major feature on the podcast. It’s gonna be great.
- [Christopher also shared the in-progress video on the GTG Slack channel, which prompts both Paul and I to, independently, make a reference to the rest of the crew running to watch Morpheus fight Neo - I got the quote backwards, though. He and Christopher thought I was correcting him, but it was just a coincidence of the timing with the streaming delay.]
- [While there were prepared letters that were selected to be read for this episode, things quickly get derailed and it becomes “Letters Page Patreon Discord Members Ask Paul Questions”, which may or may not actually have anything to do with Sentinel Comics. I’ll try to provide some context for them regardless.]
- Whats a day in the life of a high powered CEO in the gaming industry like? Dunno. Think we could get one on the show? Who could even qualify as a “high powered CEO” if we restrict things to the tabletop gaming industry? Maybe if you grade of a curve Paul would qualify within the context of the tabletop gaming industry in isolation.
- In the description of the voting options for upcoming episodes Christopher asks if Paul even knows what they’re talking about. One such is Captain Cosmic’s “dying star” arc [first brought up in Episode 130 with the Writer’s Room story involving Galactra]. Paul knows who Captain Cosmic is, and knows a bunch about the physics of dying stars in general, but wasn’t familiar with the story which Christopher briefly explains. In any event, this lost out to the Terminal Ballistics issue with Expatriette and Setback (whom Paul knows both who they are and the fact that they make out). The Creative Process options were Ra villains (but we’re making up new stuff, so likely not stuff like the Ennead) and Public Service Announcements of the Multiverse (the Ra topic won).
- [Here’s where they actually get to the formal “Questions Section” with the song. They joke about how it’s gonna say that “Christopher and Adam” are reading letters to you, but that it’s going to be Paul instead and so Trevor should just rerecord the song to fix it. He actually does; it comes in just before the 22 minute mark.]
- If Citizen Hammer needed to be away for some unspecified reason, who would get paired up with Citizen Anvil? Would he just be benched until his partner could return? Would Hammer just not be permitted to skip missions? The joke here is that Citizens Hammer and Anvil’s appearances are based on Adam and Christopher, respectively, so if who’s the Paul stand-in since Adam’s busy. They workshop a bit because it’s not going to be something that works as a trio, necessarily (Hammer, Anvil, and Tongs works - even Hammer and Tongs would, but Anvil and Tongs doesn’t really) and decide Citizen Forge is a good one. They also like the meta joke of him being the accountant of the Citizens of the Sun (forging checks and whatnot being part of his job) which kind of gets to an earlier comment about Paul doing innumerable spreadsheets in his CEO role earlier.
- Are there plans to continue the Prime War story in another form now that that product isn’t happening? They’ve answered this before, and they’re sure they’re going to have to answer it again so he doesn’t mind talking about it. Christopher and Adam had put a ton of work into crafting the story setup that was Prime War. There’s that whole episode about the Vertex comics after all. They want to use that work in some way in the future, but how that takes shape is a problem for future them. All of the planning/making processes are currently engaged with stuff that they are actively producing. They have to fight the impulse to find a way to use that “someday” when there’s so much stuff that’s actually being worked on now that takes precedent.
- For the Prime War story as it exists, we basically know very general things - that there are a few teams working towards the goals set by Prime Aspects (in particular, we follow the teams for Progress and Preservation [Mavericks of Disparation and Wardens of Disparation being the comic titles following those teams, respectively]). Is the story purely episodic or are there bigger arcs where the Prime Aspects are driving for particular goals? Do the heroes accomplish significant changes within the Prime Wars context? They don’t want to get super into it for the reasons stated earlier, but they’ll say what they can. It’s largely episodic, but there are some arcs and the plots are meant to be driving to particular ends. The heroes do accomplish significant changes in the universe, both to the Prime Aspects’ benefit, but also to their chagrin. Hopefully they eventually get to a point where they can tell those stories.
- I’ve seen a section of the GTG website that you accept submissions of games, but how does the process work? Have you made a game that submitted that way? Do you generally respond to submissions? They have worked on games submitted in that way and they do generally respond to such submissions. When a game submission comes in, they don’t go to Adam, Christopher, and Paul directly. There’s more of a middle committee step first. Paul will talk to that group about what kinds of games they’re looking to make and he and Maggie (the marketing director) will have similar discussions. Of the massive number of games submitted to GTG, they publish very few. What that committee does is look at things that have been anonymized (to eliminate the possibility of favoritism/nepotism situations) and are looking for ideas that match those general trends that have been decided to be what they’re looking for. Having a group of people doing this work also gets a lot of eyes looking at everything so the odds of something promising being overlooked for some reason are lower. This isn’t something as specific as “we want a game about dancing with a goat” because if they knew something that specific they’d just make it themselves. These are more styles of games than specific ideas that exist on a secret checklist somewhere. Lazer Ryderz wasn’t a game that they expected, but once they saw it they wanted to be the ones to make it. Spirit Island and Medium are also probably in that category of things that they didn’t even know they were looking for, but knew as soon as they saw it that it was a fit for them. There have also been submissions that they’ve had that reaction to, tried to sign, but they eventually went with another publisher in the end. And that’s fine. Obviously as a company if there’s going to be a good game get made, they’d like to be the ones to make it, but on a personal level as long as that good game gets made it’s a good result (though it’s always sad if that good game that they missed signing gets lost in development hell with some other publisher).
- How many board game companies are there? Where does GtG rank? There are pretty much infinite board game companies because of things like Kickstarter or other small-time shops where one or two people just decide to make a game. Ranking is also kind of difficult for that reason, but you can also kind of categorize. There are really big ones, medium-sized ones, small ones, and the plethora of those tiny things that are made possible by things like Kickstarter. GTG is solidly in the “medium” category.
- How has the pandemic affected publishing in China? Assuming that you mean “affected publishers’ ability to manufacture games in China”, we’re now almost back to normal. Early on this year the pandemic hit China really hard (being where things originated) and that coincided with the end of Chinese New Year. For the uninitiated and by way of a comparison: think of the week between Christmas and New Years Eve here in the US. Now expand that sort of celebration/things are shut down or at least operating at minimum state and expand it to be roughly three weeks instead and you basically have how things are in China roughly through the month of February. This year, the pandemic lockdowns really got started right at the end of that and the country was more or less shut down for an additional month on top of the New Years shutdown. They’ve worked out a lot of safety protocols and whatnot to get things up and running again, but by that point they had 2 months of backlog to work through in addition to the new stuff coming in. If a normal manufacturing run would expect 4-6 weeks, now you might have 1 or 2 weeks additional delay on top of that. Furthermore, we’ve also got delays on international shipping where you might also run into a week or two delay as things get through the shipping ports.
- How has the pandemic affected tabletop gaming sales? It has affected them, and the types of games that sell are a bit different, but we’re also in the weeds a bit and it will be more clear in hindsight when they can look at trends from the outside instead of trying to make sense of the numbers as they’re happening. The fact that a lot of brick and mortar game stores are closed because of the pandemic is likely a good chunk of the reason (and, sadly, there’s a portion of those stores that simply won’t be able to keep things going and resume operations later). They’ll have a better idea next summer - Q3 and Q4 are pretty critical for the industry. Q1 is meh, and Q2 is generally the worst in terms of sales for them, but that’s when the bulk of the closures were happening, so while this year’s Q2 is likely worse than usual, it’s never the important part of the year anyway. They’re just now getting into the big-business latter half of the year.
- Has there ever been a Tolkien/Sentinel Comics crossover? Have any Tolkien characters shown up in the pages of SC? No. The legal complexities involved in getting the rights to use those characters are so dire that they would never do it. The Tolkien Estate has, historically, been very difficult to work with and it’s only recently that things have started to open up a bit. [And while that is true, due to the contract for adaptations and merchandise rights for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien himself signed in the ’60s, most of the characters you’d probably think of in terms of Tolkien’s writing would actually be licensed through Middle-earth Enterprises, which is an entirely separate corporate body than the Tolkien Estate, which represents the Tolkien family itself. These organizations do not really get along at all. The “recently” that was mentioned in the answer is that since Tolkien’s son and literary executor Christopher stepped down from running the Tolkien Estate a few years ago, they’ve started making deals involving Tolkien’s IP that isn’t tied up with the aforementioned Middle-earth Enterprises. In particular, Amazon struck a multi-billion dollar deal for rights to make a series set in the Second Age of the world (where The Hobbit and LotR took place at the tail end of the Third Age. Which also prompts…]
- Has anyone heard any news about the Second Age TV show that was supposed to be happening at some point? They’ve recently resumed filming. Paul wants to know more about it. Things are looking good based on what we know from the map they released as a teaser. In particular, the fact that they included Tol Morwen is promising [it’s a small island near the top of the map that doesn’t really factor into the Second Age stories, but the fact that it was shown to exist means the people working on this are paying attention to small details.]
- Can Paul please talk more about how a star dies (tell him to star at the M point where the star has just converted everything to iron)? It depends on the mass of the star. Typically a star that is, he thinks, an F-type star or smaller will collapse into a white dwarf. So, stars have a range of types of what spectrum of light they emit that’s related to their mass and temperature etc [Paul rattles off the order of types from largest to smallest from memory - O, B, A, F, G, K, M]. Within each types there are numerical ratings as well from 0-9 with 0 being the hottest and 9 the coolest [also from memory]. So, an O0 star is the biggest/hottest category and is huge and blue, and an M9 is the smallest and coolest that still qualifies as a star. Our sun is a G2. Additionally, the bigger the star the faster it “burns” through its fuel. The lifespan of a G-type star is on the order of 10 billion years [also accurate from memory] and M-type ones are in the trillions of years, longer than the age of the universe and so no M-type star has ever died. O-Type stars burn out after millions of years before going supernova. For the smaller types of stars (like ours), they eventually run out of hydrogen to fuse and begin fusing heavier elements. Eventually, they start fusing iron, which is as far as this process can go. The core collapses and the outer layers of the star expand out, eventually becoming a nebula and we’re left with that core as a white dwarf which still gives off light just because it’s glowing that hot, not because there is active fusion occurring. Eventually, as it cools, it becomes less bright [think a white hot iron poker cooling through yellow, to red, then eventually nothing visible - it’s the exact same process] and eventually is just this inert chunk of star stuff out in space. Bigger stars (and he forgets the actual range here), the core is massive enough that it can’t really even stay as normal matter. The gravity is strong enough for the atomic nuclei involved to get pushed together enough for electrons and protons to collide, turning them into neutrons and you wind up with neutron stars that are a big ball of neutrons and they emit some weird radiation [they’re essentially an atomic nucleus that are on the order of a few km across, but have the mass of the sun - if you’ve ever heard that normal matter is almost entirely empty space due to the space between the electrons and nuclei, these things don’t have that empty space. They’re incredibly dense.] If we go to the largest types of stars, when they collapse they fuse even heavier elements past iron and then explode in a supernova, spreading those elements out. All of the stuff in the world that’s heavier than iron was created in these events, for the most part [if you smash something big into a neutron star such that it breaks up, the chunks don’t have enough mass individually to keep the neutrons tightly-packed anymore and so they can break into individual atoms again, and that’s another way for heavier elements to form]. For that matter, everything heavier than helium was made in stars too. [Although a member of the chat does point out later that most of our lithium is created by cosmic radiation - if you’ve got a heavier, star-created atom of carbon or something out in space and hit it with some high-energy particle, you can break it up into lithium. Paul didn’t know that, but it makes sense now that it’s pointed out to him.]
- What is your name? Paul Bender.
- What is your quest? To get through this episode successfully without cursing.
- What is your favorite color? Currently, purple.
- What is the capital of Assyria? Assuming you mean the ancient Assyrian Empire, Nineveh. Assyria doesn’t exist anymore, though. There are people who still identify as “Assyrian”, though, and there’s a lot of them living near the Iraqi city of Mosul.
- What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? It depends on whether you mean African or European swallow.
- How has the pandemic affected GTG’s marketing efforts? Well, they didn’t go to Gen Con for one (or conventions in general). Christopher acts excited by that, then mock saddened. His reasoning is that while Gen Con is a great show for the company and they like going, it’s also really nice to just have a year off. Both things can be true. Since 2001, Paul hasn’t taken a year off from Gen Con except 2003 (although he may have skipped 2010 as well, but can’t remember offhand).
- Paul, what is your favorite costume redesign for the RPG? This is a question that’s like… Say you had a book you were supposed to read for a class, but you didn’t get around to it. You were so busy with your math homework or something that you didn’t even read the SparkNotes or anything. You get to class and you figure you’ll be ok by just not raising your hand, but then the teacher calls on you anyway. That’s the feeling of this question. “I really thought that Adam’s improvement in art really was notable as you look through all the new stuff that he’s doing. It’s really been pretty remarkable to see the change from 2011 when we first started out to then the RPG and seeing that arc of his progress as an artist. So when I look at them, I overall like them as a body of work.” Then, of course, Christopher follows up asking if he had any particular hero that stands out. “I think it would be really inappropriate to just call one out.” His alternate answer would be “Legacy. Legacy’s always great and I like how his costume changed.” which Christopher gives him a hard time - you know why Legacy’s a really bad answer? “Because Legacy didn’t really change?” No, because Legacy isn’t Legacy anymore. Paul does mention that Legacy’s now Felicia, but this is one of those blunders that the “teacher” would trip you up with unless they throw you a bone like “You mean Heritage?” Yes of course, obviously.
- So what does a work day in the life of GTG’s CEO look like? Short version: having meetings or messing around with spreadsheets (including accounting and inventory programs that are related). His work like is likely 60% meetings, 30% spreadsheets, and 10% answering emails (this last category being something he had to work to get down to this level, largely by outsourcing many types of emails to other employees). Christopher brings up that one chunk of the meetings is basically just unstructured “Christopher calls up Paul to talk about something for 10 minutes to 2 hours” that’s just about daily. Maggie and Paul have similar conversations as well. Before the pandemic those were generally just people coming to his office to talk rather than a phone call, but here we are.
- It’s not a Gen Con year without Paul explaining shipping, so how has the virus affected shipping logistics? He mentioned before that importing is slower because of the backlog at ports, but for GTG’s warehouse in particular the pandemic has forced them to optimize a lot of stuff very quickly that’s actually worked out well for them. They bought some new machines to make it so that people don’t have to work close to one another. It’s been rough but has been working out. A non-virus-related difficulty has been the current US government messing with the US Postal Service. GTG doesn’t actually use the USPS for much of their shipping needs at the moment, but once the RPG fulfillment gets underway it could be a major problem as the Media Mail Service is the only option that gets them the pricing rate that makes things work for them and who knows what the actual time frames for delivery is going to be by the time that gets underway. More details on the warehouse: the entire company was basically working from home for March and April, they started having some people come into the warehouse in May. The warehouse space they had was something like 3/4 warehouse and 1/4 offices to begin with. They had people take what computers and whatnot home from the offices and converted them into additional warehouse/shipping processing spaces so that the people working there can have walls and doors between them while they work. Their previous method of doing high-volume shipping was just to get a lot of people working on it at once and getting assembly line efficiencies, but because they have to space people apart that doesn’t work in the current situation. So instead they’ve got people in their individual spaces with the necessary new machines to get things done.
- How does the launch of the digital version of Spirit Island affect sales of the non-digital version? It’s hard to draw direct lines of causality between things because we can’t run the counterfactual of “what would the world have been like if there was no digital version?” That being said, the sales of physical Spirit Island are strong following the digital version’s release. When digital SotM launched its physical version’s sales also remained quite strong. There is anecdotal evidence from other companies (one specific mention is Mayfair Games and the digital Catan) that indicated a slight bump in physical sales after the digital version and that seems to be something that could be true here as well (that is, that digital sales gets the game in front of more people who then go on to buy physical). They do not believe that digital sales hurt physical sales - it’s hard to say if they help, but they’re pretty confident that they don’t hurt.
- [Brief aside happens here where they hit the part of the chat where I had identified the image Paul is using as his video conference background (see the image in the show notes). It is Ted Nasmith’s 2004 painting “The Light of Valinor on the Western Sea”. Ted Nasmith is one of the more notable artists of Tolkien’s work (illustrated copies of The Silmarillion frequently use Nasmith’s paintings) and we see Paul’s enjoyment of Tolkien coming through here as well as my own given that I recognized the artist in question.]
- Paul, what was your favorite homebrew that you made? Assuming you mean actual brewing of beer rather than the alternative, his favorite is a 100% rye pale ale that he’s made a few times (as opposed to the mash being primarily barley with maybe some rye or wheat or oats). It’s something that a large commercial brewery probably can’t do because it would ruin their machines. When you’re making this stuff, you crack your grain and put it in water that you raise to a specific temperature (to get some enzymatic action going) and then drain it. Barley is great for this because the hulls don’t dissolve in water and so you can drain water through it fairly easily to get all of the sugars out that you then use the make the beer. Wheat, rye, and oats don’t behave as nicely and you’ll basically wind up with something the consistency of oatmeal or wallpaper paste which liquid will not drain through easily. You can get around that somewhat by mixing in non-dissolving rice hulls into the mash and being patient with it. Commercial brewers wouldn’t do this because it would take like 5 times as long or longer to get through just this step (likely much longer as you get into problems of the square-cube law variety if you try to scale up to commercial machinery) as well as probably gunking up the machines in the process.
- Can Paul share some thoughts about his time working at the Human Genome Institute? He worked at what was called the Genome Sequencing Center (also variously called the Genome Center, the Genome Institute, and the McDonnell Genome Institute after the naming rights got bought) at Washington University there in St. Louis. While he was there, the main thing was massive sequencing projects of primarily tumor/normal pairs (i.e. they have a sample from a person’s cancerous tumor and from normal cells and they’re trying to identify what mutation has happened to cause the cancer). It’s a big, ongoing task in cancer research - the more of these pairs they analyze the more information they have on what exactly causes different kinds of cancers in the first place and, hopefully, find ways to treat them based on that info. Paul did software engineering for them as they had a bunch of logistical problems that arose from the fact that these multi-million dollar machines that did the sequencing are the kinds of things that a major hospital might have 1 or 2 of, but this center had 50. The trick was doing some streamlining and whatnot to get them all working together.
- What are Singular Entities made of (in reference to all of the earlier stuff about how heavy elements are forged in stars)? If Christopher was going to answer that he’s probably say a bunch of vaguely scienc-y words like “They’re partly made of normal baryonic matter, but also stuff like dark matter and other things that we don’t have any knowledge of or ways to even measure.” If somebody asked Paul he’d probably just through out some weird answer like "Cool Whip" or something.
- Paul, would you be interested in doing a more Cosmic Sentinels Comics Live season? If so would you stick with more psuedo-science that’s common in Comics or would you include more Hard Science? If he were to run an SCRPG game in a cosmic setting, he’d definitely stick with comic book pseudoscience because that’s what’s more appropriate in that genre. That being said, he really does like hard science stuff and that can be a lot of fun, but you’d want a different kind of game than SCRPG to really use that.
- Paul, have we scared you from wanting to do these twice a month? No, this is delightful.
- Do you have a favorite spreadsheet? Yes. His favorite currently is one that took him quite a while to put together and he’s rather proud of it. Let’s say they have a very popular game come into the warehouse, but that they didn’t know exactly how popular it was going to be when they put in the initial print order. They need some way to allocate the stock they have to their wholesale customers/distributors when, for example, they have 5000 copies of the thing, but they’ve received 7000 copies worth of orders from everybody. How do you choose who gets how many? They allocate based on percentage of their overall sales that went to that customer in the preceding year. So, if a company was responsible for 9% of their overall revenue in 2019, they’ll allocate up to 9% of the copies of this game to that company (rounded down to the nearest case worth, which also winds up giving them a little buffer to work with). The spreadsheet does that calculation and had a lot of devilish details that needed to go into it. The problem is that sometimes a company doesn’t wind up wanting or needing their full allocation of orders (like they managed to get some copies from a previous print run elsewhere or something) or Paul wants to give them more (because they got shortchanged in a previous situation like this), so Paul needs to be able to manually adjust the counts for specific stores and automatically redo the calculations for everybody else that hasn’t been given a manual number. Getting a spreadsheet to do that is very complicated, but he managed it.
- Do you have a favorite spreadsheet program? Google Calc [which I assume is just what’s now called Google Sheets? I can’t easily find references to something by that name; the important bit is…] It’s what he used at his old job and they were all software engineers so they were comfortable using whatever rather than paying for Excel licenses. There are reasons to like Excel, but he can make Calc do it just fine. It’s similar to the idea of “there’s lots of reasons to use Photoshop, but I already know how to use GIMP.”
- Could you share a standard spread sheet of yours… specifically the one that has the entire Sentinels Timeline on it? Yes, they could do that.
- Paul, I know at one point plans were shown for this new office space for GtG; where does that stand? That’s complicated. They’ve spent the last 3 years trying to figure out where they will be, office-wise in 2021. Then 2020 messed up all of that and they’re still trying to figure it out. They wound up shelving their more ambitious plans, which is sad but also the correct financial decision. They’re now focusing on what’s the cheapest thing that will be exactly what they need. They have some options, but are still working on leases and whatnot. It’s a headache, but they’ve got to get something figured out by the end of the year.
- Can we get a recipe for that rye beer? Can you do a podcast on how to do homebrewing? Sure, recipe in the show notes. He could do that podcast in the same way that he could share the timeline spreadsheet. If they were to do a homebrewing podcast it would be the Paul and Trevor show.
- Paul, you like when hard science is in your fantasy stories, or do you want less of it in fantasy? He likes coherently crafted universes that are created in such a way as to be internally consistent. That’s something that can be defined and pointed out when things aren’t being consistent. Other than that, it can be grounded fantasy, space fantasy, hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, historical fiction, literary fiction, etc. as long as it meets that consistency threshold. Beyond that, he wants them to be personally compelling in some way although this is more subjective.