Updated on March 3, 2001

Interview with James Wyatt, Wizards of the Coast
an Interview by Eric Noah

Interview with James Wyatt, Author of the The Speaker in Dreams and co-author of Defenders of the Faith and Monsters of Faerun.

Just as recently as a year and a half ago, James Wyatt was one of us -- one of the legions of fans of D&D. Last winter, James landed his dream job as a game designer at WotC, and now he's creating great produts for 3rd Edition D&D! James was kind enough to answer a few questions about recent and upcoming products he's working on along with queries about how he landed the job.

You're a relative newcomer to WotC. What was your life like before that?

Well, as my little bio in the catalog says, game designer is career #5 for me--after stints as a childcare worker, ordained minister, tech writer, and web designer. But D&D has been a constant theme throughout, and since my time in ministry (5 years now), I've been seriously writing for publication. Before I got my current job, I spent hours every night working on articles and adventures for Dragon and Dungeon. I still do a little too much of that...

How did you land your job at WotC?

Hard work and perseverance! :) When I was hired at WotC, I had been trying for at least 3 1/2 years to get a job at TSR/WotC. I had been writing for the magazines like crazy, and had something like two dozen publication credits to my name. Then it was just a matter of a position coming open... Mike Selinker tells me that, when they were reviewing my resume, they went up to chat with Dave Gross and Chris Perkins about me, and apparently they both gave me positive verbal recommendations.

What do you think you bring to the D&D group?

What do I bring to the group? A sense of humor, sunny outlook, good grasp of the rules, and strong writing ability. I'm working on developing the Intuitive Rules Sense feat, possessed by such luminaries as Andy Collins and Jonathan Tweet, but I think it may actually be a prestige class ability rather than a feat, and I'm not sure I've met the prereqs for the prestige class yet...

What's it like writing D&D products for a living? Is there part of it you don't especially care for?

Have I mentioned that I have the coolest job in the world? It's just plain great, and there's no part of it I don't like. People like Jim Butler and Anthony Valterra are there to worry about the business end of things that I prefer not to think about, and Rich Baker has to do all the management stuff and coordination with other teams that I'd never want to have to do. I just get to come in every day and do pretty much exactly what I would be doing if I won the lottery and didn't have to work, only with more focus and tighter deadlines. And I get to do it for 3rd edition, which is wonderful, in a place where I'm surrounded by other people doing the same sort of work, and have my stuff cleaned up, illustrated, typeset, bound, and made beautiful in bookstores around the world. There's no down side to this.

Your adventure, The Speaker in Dreams, is a departure from the previous two core adventures for D&D -- it's much more event-based, and it's set in a city rather than a dungeon. Is there a trick or secret to designing an event-based adventure?

I owe the success of Speaker to Monte Cook, whose work in the DMG inspired the flowchart-based structure of the adventure. That said, yeah, there are certain tricks. The funny thing is, I've run a lot of city-based adventures--too darned many, as a matter of fact. I hate most of the ones I've run in the past. One player always has to ask the priests at the temple what they think is going on. One player always has to roleplay his bard singing for his supper at the tavern. One player has to haggle in the market. As Jeff Quick put it one day, some players really get into all the diplomacy and role-playing, and some players sit at the table and stack dice. The trick is keeping everyone happy--making sure that the bards and clerics with Diplomacy get their moment to shine, but a minute later, those dice come out of their stacks and start rolling attacks.

Speaker is an event-based, city adventure that plays like a dungeon crawl. And, whatever criticisms I may get about that fact, I'm rather proud of it.

How did you get assigned to co-author the Monsters of Faerun book?

That was my first assignment, and I got the job by virtue of being the new designer who got hired at the time that design on that book was supposed to start. I was designer A, and my co-author (for about a month, before Rob was hired) was designer B.

How did you select monsters for Monsters of Faerun?

When selecting monsters for the book, I tried to pick ones that had a particularly Realmsy feel to them. A lot of them are connected to organizations and villains of the Realms, like the Bane-monsters, the beasts of Xvim and of Malar, the Phaerlin giants and Dekanter goblins, the chosen ones and black unicorns, and so on. There are a couple of more generic monsters in there, but we tried to locate them solidly in the Realms. No encounter tables, as you know by now.

What new monsters of yours are in that book?

My creations in Monsters of Faerun: beast of Xvim, choldrith, Dekanter goblin, ghour, draegloth, ice serpent, Phaerlin giant, spectral panther, tainted one (yuan-ti), and Tyrantfog zombie.

Are you particularly adept at converting monsters?

Well, I am now! I learned at Skip's left hand, and by the time I was done with that book I had earned the title "Monster Boy." :)

There's been a sentiment since the Monster Manual came out that some of the CRs for creatures in that book are off (too low or too high). How do you go about setting the CR for a creature?

It's not an exact science, by any stretch. The CR guesstimator in Skip's "How to Design a Monster" document (in Dragon # 276) is a great start. Playtesting is the only way to hammer it out beyond that. I wrote about playtesting monster CRs on my website a little while ago, complete with Stan!'s doodle-illustration.

Did you work on the Forgotten Realms campaign setting at all? If so, what parts did you design?

I was not one of the designers assigned to that project. I was working on Speaker and Defenders of the Faith during much of the time it was being designed. When I finished Defenders, however, I spent about week writing the monsters section for the end of the campaign setting. I think Rich already listed the monsters that will be in there. I had already done up the stats for Monsters of Faerun, but we decided that there were some monsters that the Realms couldn't live without, if--heaven forfend--Monsters of Faerun were to go out of print during the shelf-life of the campaign setting book. Which is why the dracolich is in the campaign setting book. So the monsters are mine, though Rich took my sketchy, one-paragraph animal descriptions ("use the tiger statistics for the snow tiger") and turned them into full-fledged monster entries.

This spring we'll get to see the second class book, Defenders of the Faith, which you coauthored with Rich Redman. I would imagine your background in the ministry might make you a somewhat "ideal candidate" to write about D&D clerics?

It's almost the other way around! I was reflecting the other day on the fact that D&D is, in some ways, responsible for my ending up (a) a religious person, and (b) in the ministry for a while. The first-edition Deities and Demigods was responsible for sparking my interest in mythology, which led me to a college religion major, which contributed to my formational faith experiences, which led me into ministry... and now I've come full circle! I don't know that I'm necessarily particularly qualified to write about clerics (I think Sanaril, my cleric of Wee Jas in our current Monday night game, is only the second cleric I've played for any length of time), I think I am particularly well-qualified to write about religion.

I had a lot of fun with the prestige classes in that book, and I think my background shows through in many of them. One more level, and Sanaril will enter the contemplative class...

How similar is it to Sword & Fist in concept? Does it essentially have the same general content -- feats, prestige classes, weapons, locations, magic, strategies, rules variants -- or is it fairly different?

It's largely similar. Feats and prestige classes are in there. No new weapons, but there is new equipment. Temple maps accompany "organization"-like descriptions of churches grouped by alignment. New spells, and lots of tips on how to play an effective cleric or paladin.

Can you give us examples of new feats, new prestige classes, new spells, etc. that we will find in this book?

Well, I already mentioned the contemplative, and I'm especially proud of the liberator (who must be chaotic good). The "undead critical" feat recently leaked to you actually didn't survive the rules council review, but a version of it survives as the Divine Vengeance feat. There's material on divine intervention that I based on my Dragon article, "Heaven's Trump."

Over on my boards in particular, there is something of a sentiment that there are some balance or errata problems with Sword & Fist. Does this concern you at all for Defenders of the Faith? Has the "rules council" okayed everything in your book?

The rules council went over Defenders with a fine-toothed comb, and I'm confident that it is well balanced.

You have an active personal RPG website. Does your role at WotC conflict at all with your desire to share what you create for your own campaigns?

I have very little time to create material for my own campaigns any more, and I'm learning to live with that. I feel just as much personal ownership and investment in the material I've created for WotC as I do for my home games. My web site may be suffering for it, and I'd sure like to get a game started up on Aquela again, but overall I don't feel much of a conflict.

What's next for you? Are you working on something spiffy for D&D that you can talk about? Are you working on anything outside of the D&D brand that you can discuss?

I live solidly in D&D land, which I'm perfectly happy with. As you know, I was introduced last GenCon as one of the "new story guys" for the L5R card game, but I never ended up doing any work for that. Rob took the lead on story material for Gold Edition, which may or may not bear fruit in the wake of our sale of the L5R property.

As for my D&D projects... well, I've just finished something very cool and spiffy, but I don't think I should tell you what it is. What I will tell you is that I spent 8 months on it, wrote about 194,000 words (enough to fill a book the size of the DMG), and am very much looking forward to next October. As soon as our end-of-year catalog is published, you'll know exactly what I mean.

Of the products you didn't write that are currently on the schedule, which do you think is the coolest?

I can't get enough of the new Psionics Handbook. I keep it with me, hoping for a chance to read more and immerse myself fully in its glories. I'm glad to be done with my Big Project (tm), so that I have evenings free to look at it. It's part of why I want to start playing on Aquela again, just for the psionic, gun-toting dwarves.

The FR campaign setting is going to be pretty darned amazing, too.

My sincere thanks to James for taking the time to answer these questions. I know I'm looking forward to Defenders of the Faith now more than ever, as well as "The Big Project."

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