An Interview with Jodi Black of Beautiful Brains Books and Games

This week we have Jodi Black of Beautiful Brains Books and Games, a new online game store. Jodi is also, I found out, an editor of award winning RPG’s. I met Jodi last year at MACE and found her to be charming and fun. So when I found out she had opened an online store I thought it was a good opportunity to interview her about it.

Tom: So Jodi, tell us about yourself and your store.

Jodi: I’ve been an RPG editor for the past 5 years (building on my experience as a grant writer) and when the recession hit, I looked around for another way to bring in some income for the family. It’s not a huge leap to consider selling the books I’ve worked on as an editor! Thus Beautiful Brains Books and Games was born. The store is online- and convention-only, which allows me to do everything I love: be home for my kids and go to tons of cons. . The concept for my store is to be a “FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store)… Online.” At the cons or online, I like to listen to gamers talk about games they love to play or would like to try out and why. I love trying to help my customers pick out new products that they might not have heard of. It helps that I know a lot of details on the books I’ve edited, and on the ones I carry bit did not edit, I carry them because they fascinate me. I’ve been an RPG gamer for about 15 years so I am familiar with the industry, too.

Tom: I was not aware that you were an editor. That’s very cool. I haven’t heard of a ‘convention only’ store. That’s interesting. I think your focus on the customer is awesome.

Jodi (blushing): Well, thanks! I do love meeting gamers, so it’s only natural to offer them what I’d want for myself. I’ve edited for Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Reality Blurs, 12 to Midnight, and Exile Game Studios, and there is a new Indie group that has me on task for their first book which I should receive any day now. I love it. I’ve always been a grammar Nazi, and I clean up the errors spellcheck can’t flag. I’m also rather good at helping to organize and balance the flow of the book. Rules are not my strong point, but I figure if I can help a publisher clarify the rules so even I understand them, then they’re clear for everyone else too. 

Tom: What is the most important thing you believe a retailer can do to encourage or serve their customers?

Jodi: I think customers value cost, honesty, integrity, going above and beyond on the customer service, and a selection geared toward their tastes. A lot of gamers that are loyal to a retailer expect a discount on the items they purchase, especially considering we can all go to Amazon and get it practically 50% off. I offer a flat 10% discount and also have a “Minions Loyalty Program” that is based on lifetime sales.

Honesty, Integrity, and Customer Service are all aspects of this industry that are different from most. You sort of expect your bank to screw you on the fees every once in a while; but if a game retailer messes up once they are not easily forgiven. So it’s important to follow through on what you say you’ll do as a retailer. I pride myself on doing that. In fact, I messed up with my first credit card sale and still have a note on his file that I owe him $1.05! I’ve sent him an email about it and plan to make good on that the next convention I see him.

Selection is the key point that sets me apart from other retailers. There are so many facets to gamerdom that it’s just impossible to carry everything in a storefront. I’ve been fortunate to make good friends who own game stores, and some of them admit that it’s too risky to stock niche products like “indie” RPGs. Beautiful Brains is just RPGs, just the “indie” systems I have found and like, and just convention and online communities. For some businesses this is profit suicide, but I’d rather focus on just one thing and do it well before branching out. Besides, my market research supports my theory so far. 

One last thing a lot of gamers expect from a retailer is the ability to connect to other gamers. Most storefronts do a fantastic job of this by scheduling tournaments and providing game play space in their precious square footage (you have no idea how expensive it is to maintain game space!). Ideally the people playing games there are loyal to the retailer, but it’s a gamble. Some gamers don’t have as much time to spend every week in the game store. I personally have set foot in a game store less than once a month since we had kids. I think this is why conventions have become increasingly popular. It’s a weekend away—a vacation from the real world—to focus on gaming and meet other people who enjoy the same games you do. It’s also a hard balance for the storefront retailer to maintain, between which employees will go to the convention and who will mind the store, and what to bring to sell… which is why I focus on just the conventions. I have big plans for my website to encourage the sort of community you typically find at conventions, and to begin with I have the forums. There is more coming… big plans… really cool awesome plans… but that’s all I can say for now!

Tom: I’m intrigued! I can’t wait to see what you have in store. Ha! What is one thing you would like to see game companies do to support you better?

Jodi: Well, I certainly appreciate it when they promote me as a retailer of their products to their customers, like Third Eye Games has done. Most of them already offer discounts and freebies to promote their products, so all I have to do is be creative about what to ask for, and just ask. Trust me, they’d much rather I sell their products than them keep up with it! I really can’t suggest much here that they aren’t already doing.

Tom: What sort of discounts or special programs do you offer?

Jodi: I offer a 10% discount using the coupon code “ILoveBrains” on all my products, including preorders and new releases. I also have a Minions Loyalty Program that gives you a lifetime discount; 15% off after $200 in sales and 20% off after $500. I also run some specials at conventions. When we kicked off the website at GenCon this year I gave a 20% discount!

I also bring some products to conventions that I don’t sell online, things like closeout deals I’ve gotten from the distributor. Another reason to buy at the convention is no shipping.  But most people are just happy to have the chance to peruse a game their FLGS might not carry.

I try to sponsor an event that lets people play the games I carry, such as Savage Saturday Night at MACE. I’m bringing in pizza and sodas for the GMs an hour before the game time starts so they have time to eat dinner and set up. I do something extra for my volunteers, too, but what those volunteers are doing and what their rewards are vary from event to event.

I also have some plans in the works to make my website a destination and resource for RPG gamers, but I know better than to spill something before the details are worked out. “Like” Beautiful Brains (the store) on Facebook to get the latest updates, or subscribe to my blog at the website.

Tom: Your discounts seem in line with the rest of the world. I like that you are bringing even greater discounts to the cons. That makes an impression with people. When I go to a con, I want to get a deal. That’s part of the con experience. Offering items that other FLGS may not carry is golden. I’m big into indie RPG’s. Neither of my FLGS’s stock any of them so I have to order online for the most part. I’ve had success at cons finding those games also. I attend MACE. I love it. It is, as you said, ‘a vacation from the world.’ And it is usually around my birthday so it’s my present to me. It’s actually on my birthday this year by the way. So tell me Happy Birthday when you see me. I really like that Beautiful Brains is sponsoring Savage Saturday Night. That is a great event and Pinnacle does a fantastic job with that. I will be there. I will definitely be on FBook. I have this question hanging out there. You mentioned the economic situation. Why open a store now?

Jodi: Times are tough, make no bones about it. We’ve had to make a few sacrifices in our family and dig into the savings plan, but I feel pretty strongly that what I’m offering is serving a need RPG gamers have. To test the idea, I won a grant to take the FastTrac New Venture class sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurs. I also worked with my alma mater, Lenoir-Rhyne University, to conduct a market research study. Feedback from both sources convinced me to NOT open a storefront. That was a sobering thought, because what gamer doesn’t envision owning a store full of the games they love and getting to game as much as they want? But the startup costs and overhead are just too high. Research shows people are scaling back on the nonessentials like dining out and going to movies, but still make room for their hobbies. Besides, just one $40 RPG book can provide literally hundreds of hours of entertainment with family and friends, so it’s a wise investment.

And of course, no one else in my area was taking RPGs to conventions to sell. The success of my booths at conventions in the Southeast convinced me that investing in a good website was the next step. Now the combo of convention and online sales should support me enough to keep me employed full time. And that was the goal, after all. I also employ contract employees to help with the booth and events so the grant folks are happy that I’m spurring the economy.

Tom: I admire you for doing the research. This seems like a well-informed decision. You are right. Cutbacks are a way of life now. I went from a game a month to one a quarter. Your point that RPG’s (and games in general) are a good investment is spot on. Did you get any help or advice from other store owners? If so what kind of help?

Jodi: You wouldn’t believe how helpful the storefront owners were! They gave me breakdowns on their budgets, startup costs, benefits, stocking choices, hours, pay, vacation time… I was blown away by how friendly and helpful they were. I would just like to say for the record: Please support your FLGS. It’s tough to offer that space for gamers to meet in. But if you’re not happy with your FLGS, please consider Beautiful Brains Books and Games.

Tom: In your opinion, what makes a good player?

Jodi: I’d rather see people try gaming without worrying if they’ll be good at it or not. A lot of people I know who won’t try it do so on the basis of “I’m not good at math” or “I’m not smart enough.”

If a First Grader can do it, an adult can! But once you decide to be a gamer, there are a few things that make it a lot more fun for the other gamers and the GM (so I guess those are skills to strive for to be a good player). First, of course, are a good imagination and people skills. Players need to be able to visualize the scene in their mind’s eye since the point of a pen-and-paper RPG is there’s little to help with that at the table. People skills are also important, or else the social nicety such as letting each person have a turn to speak disallows others to play. Problem-solving skills and the ability to understand the rule set are secondary since the more you play, the better you get. Finally, a little acting ability and descriptive speech patterns really make for memorable characters. It’s one thing to say “I hit with my sword” versus “I charge at my foe—AyYah!—and swing my sword at his crotch.” As for math and reading comprehension, playing also increases those skills. Some games involve less math than others, and pretty much a First Grade reading level will, given time, let you work out the rules to play (GMs need to comprehend a lot more). This is why I love promoting RPGs to my kids’ friends and teachers!

Tom: What games are you playing?

Jodi: Not enough.  Our gaming group is currently finishing up a Savage Worlds campaign using the RunePunk setting and Plot Point campaign, although since I edited that book, our GM has changed the Plot Points a tad. We also get together with gaming friends that have moved away about twice a year to play everything from 4E to M&M, but we gravitate toward Savage Worlds games. At home my eldest runs a Faery’s Tale game when she can, and Clint runs a Dragon Age RPG game when he can. I have run a Savage Worlds “Leverage” game for my kids and 2 neighborhood boys a couple of times, once co-GMing with one of the boys who took the crew to the Moon! We keep trying to institute a weekly game night and failing, but the dream is still there.

Tom: You mention your kids a lot. I think that is so awesome. My kids and I game at least once a week, board games right now. But it is such a cool thing to share with them. I know that one of your children is an excellent GM. Would you mind telling us a bit about them and your family gaming life?

Jodi: Well, we are your typical busy family (or maybe busier than some, only I would be this crazy). It seems every day after school we’re running to some dance or music lesson or church or school activity! My eldest also has the acting bug hard, so we do shows with the local community theatre every time they’ll let us. I think this outgoing creativity helps her as a GM. My youngest is very creative, too, but in a subtler way. This past year we have seen increased use of the “hand puppets.” She uses her middle finger as a head and the four other fingers as legs. The little hand puppets go on lots of adventures, flying, sliding down banisters, picking things up… It’s very hard to make them put away the hand puppets since they’re attached!

Even though we only find time to game when we’re camping or when we put it on the calendar a week in advance, we talk about it literally every day. It helps that both Clint and I are busy in the industry, so it’s just us talking about our work day at dinner. And it’s not uncommon for my kids to say “Critical!” when I score a sweet parking space, so the jargon is part of our lives. The day after we’ve been gaming with our friends (which is about once a month) they want to know the story of what happened in game.

In the latest Faery’s Tale game, we switched around the types of characters, so that my youngest was played a Brownie instead of me, I played a warrior Sprite instead of her, and Clint played a Pixie instead of a Pooka. I can’t spill the beans on what happened, though, since she’s using that scenario for her con game at HickoryCon, and maybe MACE. 

There are so many games and so little time! We do have a good number of board games, but if we’re going to clean the table off, we might as well really GAME.  I think the last board game we played was Scrabble. Or Gloom; we love Gloom.

Tom: Anything else you would like to tell everyone?

Jodi: Something people find interesting is how I got into RPGs. I have a reputation for being something of a ditz, and it must be so since I loved watching the D&D cartoons in the 80s, but never clued into the idea that it was a game you could play! I was in college when I finally convinced the guys in my Lutheran Student Movement group to let me play a D&D game with them, and I loved it so much that I told everyone I met about it. My Grand Big Sis in my sorority (well, fraternity, actually) heard me and invited me to join her group in GURPS. I met my husband in that group and we are still gaming as a group today, 15 years later! We haven’t played GURPS in a while, but it still holds a special place in my gaming history.

Tom: Any links you would like people to visit?

Jodi: Well, visit my store, Beautiful Brains Books and Games and let me know what you think. I’m very open to creative constructive criticism. Also on my forums is a thread of research supporting the positive impact reading and playing games has on brains young and old. Check them out! I also try to keep up on the forums offered by the publishers I carry, so look for “Muse” there. 

Jodi: Thank you, Tom, for giving me the chance to talk about why I started an online-and convention-based game store. I think a lot of gamers think about opening a store, but not many do the research to think it through. I did my homework, took almost a year to study it, started small, and have big dreams. I think RPG gamers will enjoy the books I carry, and I hope they’ll make plans to check me out at the booth in the upcoming conventions. I’ll be at Con on the Cob in Hudson, OH Oct. 14-17 and MACE in High Point, NC Nov. 12-14. See you there, and Use Your Beautiful Brain!

Tom: Thank you for this excellent interview Jodi. It was a real pleasure ‘talking’ to you and learning about Beautiful Brains Books and Games. And about you. I’ll definitely see you at MACE both at your booth and perhaps at Savage Saturday Night.

Please visit Beautiful Brains Books and Games. Check out their FaceBook page. Sign up for the forums and have some interesting discussions with Jodi and the gang.  And leave your Feedback right here.