Hot off the successful Kickstarter campaign for their new (old) RPG, CGM spoke to Free League Publishing about the company’s design philosophy.
Swedish tabletop RPG studio Free League Publishing has been on a hot streak, with their last six Kickstarter campaigns fully funded in under half an hour, if not in mere minutes. Just last month their newest project Dragonbane, a reimagining of a 40-year-old Swedish classic, was an incredible success—achieving 7820% funding in just three weeks.
Founded in 2011, Free League Publishing has explored the farthest corners of the speculative fiction genre and established arguably the most diversified portfolio of tabletop RPGs in the business. It’s almost unprecedented in today’s gaming industry to see one company cover so many thematic bases without sacrificing quality, yet Free League pulls it off, regularly taking home fan-based awards like the ENNIES.
With the Dragonbane campaign over, and their new second edition of The One Ring hitting store shelves in early 2023, we spoke to Free League CEO Tomas Härenstam over email to discuss the company’s design philosophies, bringing a 40-year-old game to English audiences, and what sets them apart from other titans in their industry.
CGMagazine: First of all, congratulations on the tremendous success of The One Ring’s Kickstarter campaign—like most of your campaigns, fully funded within mere minutes. What was it about The One Ring’s first edition that made Free League interested in picking up the license back in 2020? And how did you go about overseeing the new edition?
Tomas Härenstam: Thank you! It’s a fantastic journey and an honour to work on the game. It started back in 2019, when my colleagues Nils and Martin visited the Essen Spiel convention in Germany—where I happen to be now when writing this, by the way—and met Francesco Nepitello, the lead designer of the first edition of The One Ring. It turned out that Francesco and Free League shared much of the same philosophy about game design. Soon we also learned that a new publisher for the upcoming new edition of the game might be needed, so we went after it. The rest is, as they say, history!
CGM: Tolkien’s world is dense with lore, pulled from a massive library of different writings made across his lifetime. What led to setting the game in the earlier areas of The Lord of the Rings, in a time period before Frodo was born?
Härenstam: Placing the game between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings made a lot of sense for us, as it is a time of great adventures and epic events, but at the same time, giving us and players freedom to weave our own adventures.
CGM: Free League’s latest project is Dragonbane, an English adaptation of Drakar och Demoner—Sweden’s biggest tabletop RPG. How did Free League go about adapting this 40-year-old game for this new edition and its biggest English launch yet? For experienced RPG fans that will be playing the system for the first time, what sets Dragonbane/Drakar och Demoner apart from the likes of D&D?
Härenstam: It was never an obvious choice for us to launch Drakar och Demoner in English, as it’s an iconic RPG in Sweden but unknown outside of Scandinavia. But after the initial announcement last year, we received plenty of interest from our international fans, and as we started to work on the game, we soon felt that this RPG would be too good to just keep for Swedish players!
The biggest challenge for the English version was to give Dragonbane its own identity, as Drakar och Demoner was always a fairly generic, classic fantasy RPG. But it always had a tinge of silliness and humour, and we decided to seize on that and make that even more explicit, a game for fun and laughs at the game table. That’s where the “mirth & mayhem” tagline came in. We also feel that Johan Egerkrans’ art perfectly underscores that theme, and that gives Dragonbane a great place among our other fantasy RPGs that lean more into grimdark and culture gaming.
CGM: Free League has seen great success with products based on both established IPs (ALIEN, Tolkien, etc) and “original” properties (Tales From the Loop, Vaesen). With many games and licenses in its toolbox, how does the company decide which products it will launch? Is there a conscious effort to split releases between licensed and original games?
Härenstam: Yes, our goal is to balance the two, developing our own original IPs alongside games based on the big brands. Also, we only work on licenses that we are truly passionate about, as the passion for the games that we design is a key factor to our success.
CGM: As a follow-up, are there any major differences between designing a game based on a beloved property like Tolkien and something original?
Härenstam: When working on a license, of course, we must pay close attention to everything that has been done before and make sure that we honour that work both in the quality of what we do and the details of that universe. There is also often a fanbase that needs to feel that we are doing right by the franchise that they love. That’s challenging for sure, but also a lot of fun. When working on our own original IPs, of course, we have much more freedom. We find that a mix between the two is the right formula for us.
CGM: Free League also publishes games across a diverse sampling of settings, from the high fantasy of The One Ring or Dragonbane, to the horrifying sci-fi of ALIEN and the cyberpunk dystopia of Blade Runner, to the nostalgic alt-history of Tales from the Loop, and the dark fantasy of Vaesen and MÖRK BORG. Likewise, is this diversity the result of a conscious effort on the company’s part, or just a happy coincidence?
Härenstam: I think it reflects our personalities as gamers and game designers. We love exploring new games, new themes, and new mechanics, never satisfied to just repeat the same formula again and again. Personally, I just moved from working on the Blade Runner RPG to Dragonbane, a tonal shift that almost gave me whiplash but also a fun change of pace. That said, despite the variety of games that we make, I think there is a consistency in our overall approach to game design and the quality of our work, from writing to art and graphic design.
CGM: There’s been considerable talk in the RPG community over the past few years about “the Swedish wave.” What do you think sets Swedish RPGs apart from others?
Härenstam: Good question! Sweden has a strong RPG tradition dating back to the early 1980s when it all started with Drakar och Demoner. For decades, Drakar och Demoner was the dominant RPG in Sweden, not Dungeons & Dragons. Many game designers from that era later went into the video game industry, which is also big in Sweden with titles like Minecraft and Battlefield. I think that the games’ industry has remained strong in Sweden ever since, and that reflects back on the revival of tabletop RPGs today.
CGM: Lastly, as a player and/or game master, which of Free League’s current lineup is your personal favourite to play/run?
Härenstam: Hm, I’m running internal playtests of Dragonbane now and having loads of fun with it. Still, I’d have to say that my greatest experience running an RPG lately was our internal playtest of the upcoming Blade Runner RPG.
[Last week Free League Publishing has released the Mythic Britain & Ireland expansion for Vaesen, the Nordic horror role-playing Game. If The Rings of Power finale leaves you looking for more Tolkien adventure, check out The One Ring at your local game store. Dragonbane, meanwhile, is expected to release in 2023.]