The time draws near for the spooks and spirits of Ravenloft to be unleashed upon our unsuspecting world. While I’m obviously very excited for the release of Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft on May 18th, I’m perhaps more excited about the Shadowy Silver Edition that Beadle & Grimm’s Pandemonium Warehouse is releasing to enhance your adventures in the domains of dread. To learn a bit more about the process that went into the new box, I sat down with Beadle & Grimm’s co-founder Matthew Lillard (you know him from many things) to have a bit of a chat. It kind of spiraled from there.
Dan: You and the rest of the team have been big fans of D&D for a while, and I’ve been wondering what your experience with Ravenloft is as a player and fan?
Matt: It was interesting. When we first started playing together 31 years ago we were in the Forgotten Realms, but we never really got into Ravenloft. So when the new book was announced, there was a window of opportunity before we had to start working on it, for someone to run the campaign. I’d never DM’d before and, since I was taking the lead on the Ravenloft book, I decided it was time and dove headfirst into it.
So for me, Ravenloft has really a special place in my heart. Now I’ve DM’d the campaign it for a couple of groups — for the Beadle & Grimm’s guys, a group of Hollywood writers, and I’m DMing my kids. So my Ravenloft world expanded tenfold before I even got a chance to make the box.
Dan: You’re the Ravenloft guy, you’re just now the Ravenloft Expert (TM). You need like, a cape or something to wear around that, you know.
Matt: Right, I’m sucking blood as we speak.
Dan: So then you did the Strahd Box?
Matt: I’ve never experienced playing with one of our boxes, and recently got to sit down and play with one arond the table, in person. It was awesome. My players were at the end of Argynvostholt section and got invited to Castle Ravenloft, spoiler alert, to sit with Strahd for dinner. I got to hand across the invitation and they freaked out over that. And then, right after, I got to hand them the Tomb of Strahd handout. So that was super rewarding for me.
Dan: When it comes to this new release, you transitioned out of the Strahd box into the Van Richten’s box. So you’re just kind of got to stay in Ravenloft. Was that an easy transition?
Matt: It was a couple things. I really wanted to do the next Platinum Edition box, but since this company operates between day jobs things can be kind of weird. So because of how everyone’s job was going, and because a Platinum box takes pretty much all summer and my summer was definitely going to be busy, we decided that Paul [Shapiro] would run the Platinum box again, and I would run Van Richten’s.
Dan: What other boxes were you in charge of?
Matt : I did Waterdeep (EN: Dragon Heist Platinum Edition), our first box, when we were still figuring things out. Figuring out international shipping, delivery mechanisms, figuring out printing, how to produce our coins and jewelry pieces…we made so many mistakes that first time out. I flew to Texas and was packing boxes and shipping them out the day before Christmas. It was really, really crazy. We were sort of a mess back then! That said, there are really cool things about that Waterdeep box, like Trollskull Manor. There were these little shot glasses that had a Trollskull on them that were collapsible. We had these huge battle tiles that were rooftops. Still proud of that box.
Dan: But now you’ve got things figured out.
Matt: No; (laughs). I mean, this is our ninth box, so YES, we’ve figured LOTS of stuff out!. The first one we were working on all day, every day just really trying to figure out vendors and get everything right. We took all these early sales. I’ll never forget a reddit post that said “Do not buy this box, this thing’s a rip-off.”
I said “Rip off?! Nobody’s ripping you off!” We threw everything we could into that box. That is what guides us. How many touches at a table does a piece get? Can we make a DM’s job easier and therefore make the player’s experience better? That’s it. And if it comes down to making something that’s cool, and we make less money, we’ll do something cool. Because we still can, because we’re really still just five dudes trying to build a cool company. We can focus on the cool stuff more than other companies because we’re not trying to feed our kids on it.
Dan: Even as you’ve grown, you’ve kept that ethos strong I think.
Matt: We have, but I think we have to change our story a little. We’ve changed. We hired Justice (Arman) full time. We’re branching out; we have a huge announcement coming up that’s going to change, hopefully, the trajectory of our company. We have multiple opportunities coming at us now to do new things with new game systems. The company is expanding in really exciting and cool ways. And, quite frankly, it’s just a matter of time before we start leaving our day jobs and Beadle & Grimm’s becomes the day job.
Dan: So I’m wondering how you go about deciding the different classifications of the boxes? The last setting box was Gold and the new one is Silver, so what’s the math that goes into it?
Matt: It ALL depends on what goes into the box. That’s the truth. We’re trying to deliver box experiences for everyone. The Platinum Editions are $500 and I don’t see that changing, we may increase the number of boxes we produce? We’re thinking of producing 1250 numbered editions. The [Ghosts of] Saltmarsh is a great box. There’s a lot in that Saltmarsh Box, and I think at $175 it delivers a lot of bang for the buck. You don’t have to play a B&G box to have fun at D&D, that’s for sure. But if you do we believe it’ll bring value to your game.
The Legendary Strahd Box was supposed to be a Silver Box but it came down to the Ravenloft Maps. Do you just map the dungeon, do you map the first floor map where you’re having dinner with Strahd? The last battle with Strahd, you could end up almost anywhere in that castle. So, looking at it, we thought “Well, why don’t we just do the whole thing at 24 by 30.” And that ends up being a huge cost for the box, and it’s the most expensive thing our company’s ever invested in. We were like, “Let’s just go for it, the players will love it,” and that moved it from a Silver to a Legendary edition. At the start of the Strahd development process we still weren’t really sure how people would respond. It’s not like Wizards was adding new things to the adventure. So we were worried that people wouldn’t buy a box…but we’ve just gone into the second reprint of it because it’s so damned successful. We’re very excited about that. But to answer your original question, the adventure dictates what sorta box we build
Dan: I’m curious what your experience has been in making horror work, or how you get horror to work in a game that’s collaborative. You know, everyone’s working together. It can be hard to scare D&D players.
Matt: It’s all about the investment in the game. In terms of DMing it’s really about using your imagination; it’s putting energy into it, and putting the characters in a situation where they’re really compromised.
For example, I’m about to run this dinner encounter with Strahd, I’ve decided to drop in a bunch of stuff that’s happening in the world outside of the mists. One of the PC’s father is the king of the Dwarven kingdom and he’s fallen sick, he’s dying because one of Strahd’s Vistani minions have poisoned him. So all of a sudden, you’re adding tension and you’re adding really high emotional stakes that the players can relate to. I’ve had a character bitten twice by Strahd: one more bite, and she’s gone. Hopefully that gets their attention and they invest in the storyline.
Dan: What’s it like prepping and getting stuff ready and thinking about what’s going to go into a box, to focus on a setting as opposed to being tied to a concrete set of adventures?
Matt: Our whole thing is “how do we buff out an adventure”…but then there’s no adventures. It gets complicated. For example, in the Eberron box we built a bunch of killer maps, we made our bonus encounters a little meatier so the DM could launch into their own adventures. And then we tried to buff the world out with things like the feather token and the dragon crystals.
In Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft, there’s a mini-adventure that we really fell in love with called “The House of Lament”. It was a great opportunity for us to do what we do really well. It’s 20 pages, 1st – 3rd level and because it’s so tight, and small, we could totally buff it out. We did a killer map by Jared Blando, all kinds of handouts, jewelry pieces, and encounter cards. It came out fantastic and I think people are gonna love it.
We sort of let the domains be the domains because we weren’t sure which ones to do. So we did something we’ve never done before, but we’re really excited about. Instead of the little one-to-two page bonus adventures we usually provide in our box, we made them a little longer, a little more drawn out. We support them with maps and quarter page art and jewelry pieces. It’s sort of our first foray into writing more in-depth content. In this box it’s possible for a DM to go from “House of Lament” to our mini-adventures and get their PC’s to 8th level, which can then lead them straight into the dinner with Strahd at Castle Ravenloft.
Dan: So this is kind of your first time really producing something like that.
Matt: YES! And it’s been super fun. We’re all creatives, all of us have a theater background, except for Charlie, who’s in the military, which is the farthest thing from creativity. But he’s a novelist so we let him in the club! We were sort of all in our midlife crisis stage of life, and we thought about what we wanted to do with our lives. Our ideas revolved around things like a mystery box or an escape room, but all of it had to do with stories. So this is a natural progression for us to move in that direction and start to create content. But who knows? We’re growing so fast right now, we’re sort of all figuring it out as we go.
Dan: What was the thought process behind the box covers? How’d you decide which ones to do?
Matt: It’s always one of the first questions we answer…what are we going to put on the box cover. It’s usually a piece of art that comes from the book. For this box, we loved these marks of Horror and thought they’d work great. We were arguing over which one should make the cover. We couldn’t decide so we just made for of ’em.
We had a bet between us to guess which one would sell the best, and I didn’t win. I’m not going to tell you, but there’s one that’s winning. Which one do you think it is?
Dan: It’s hard to choose. I love the goat but-
Matt: The goat is so weird and creepy! I wanted that to be the t-shirt, just make that the whole shirt.
Dan: I think it’s probably the tentacle. D&D players love their mind flayers and Cthulhu.
Matt: Well, I can’t tell you, I’m sworn to secrecy. I will share with you…we’ve sold more boxes this week than we’ve ever sold of any box ever
Dan: Well Strahd is a big part of 5E and Ravenloft is so popular.
Matt: So huge. And I don’t think any of us knew. I mean, we’d be at cons and people were like, “Why don’t you do Strahd? “When are you doing Strahd?” And I was like, “Oh, my God, what is the deal with Strahd? What is the big deal? It’s a big Empire.” It wasn’t until after I DM’d did I understand what an incredible adventure it really is.
Dan: So what was the favorite thing you put in the Ravenloft box?
Matt: I’m going to cheat and pick two things. The first is the Mist Talisman we got create, it’s something I’m really proud of. It’s got a super hard core, punk rock or metal vibe and I’m into it. I also love the four adventures we included, from four different writers in the company that take you up to 8th level. They take players through the mists and they get to experience lots of different domains… People are really going to like it.
You can still pre-order your copy of Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft Shadowy Silver Edition at the Beadle & Grimm’s shop. Also while you’re there, grab a Troutalope pin because apparently they have too many. You can also pre-order Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, D&D Beyond, and your FLGS.
Images courtesy Beadle & Grimm’s and Wizards of the Coast
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