This has come as something as a surprise to many of us - I know I did a double take (in a delighted way!) when I saw that "Adventure design and development by Kobold Press" line. How did this come about? Did WotC approach you, or the other way around? How long has this been percolating?
Wolfgang: Wizards of the Coast approached us, and (because we’re not fools), the Kobold Press crew jumped on it. The Tyranny of Dragons adventures have been percolating since late 2013.
It must feel great to be back working on D&D in an official capacity again. What do you feel that Kobold Press brings to the table that perhaps WotC might be keen to take advantage of? How does a Kobold Press adventure differ from a WotC adventure?
Wolfgang: Kobold Press brings a lot to the table. Adventures have been our main focus for years: the company was founded to publish adventures, and other products such as gazetteers and game design guides came later. And of course, Steve Winter knows his way around D&D better than almost anyone.
Kobold adventures tend to explore the wild and experimental side of D&D: We’ve done adventures set atop walking gods and ethereal libraries in Midgard Tales, adventures among the strangest of the fey in Courts of the Shadow Fey, and even an adventure aboard a leviathan island for To the Edge of the World.
But even though our adventures usually feature outlandish fantasy and high adventure, we won a Gold ENnie for Streets of Zobeck, a mean-streets adventure anthology of noir nastiness that really earns the tagline “Don’t bring the paladin along on this one.”
We’re also focused on quality. We playtest and brainstorm and run our adventures at conventions so they work as intended.
The adventures are written by Wolfgang and Steve Winter, respectively. Were these written separately, or was it more of a team effort?
Wolfgang: Steve and I wrote the first book, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, as co-authors, and we both drafted versions of the outline. The whole book is split into chapters, and some are Steve’s and some are mine—we did read each other’s sections but didn’t rewrite them. It all links up pretty neatly.
According to your FAQ, this is a one-time deal. However, is official continuing support for the new edition of D&D something that Kobold Press would leap at if offered the opportunity? Is the design studio role a good fit for the Kobolds?
Wolfgang: It has been a pleasure working with Wizards of the Coast, and we’re glad to help the wider gaming community by providing an outside studio perspective on the new edition, plus an extra set of hands working during the frenzy of an edition launch.
Kobold Press has done about 20 crowdfunded projects, so it took a little getting used to someone else’s terminology and ways of doing things. But Wizards provided great support and were responsive to our desperate pleas when things got weird.
So although no creative partnership is ever without bumps, yes, Kobold Press would definitely consider doing another project with Wizards, if the topic and timeline and so forth lined up. Right now we’re still hustling to finalize the second book, The Rise of Tiamat, but it’s not too early to think about the future.
Most of us are familiar with the general structure of the new edition, and have the playtest documents. What would you say are the challenges and differences in writing for the new D&D as opposed to Pathfinder, the older 4E, and - lately - 13th Age materials you've been producing? Is it difficult to switch gears?
Steve: I've been playtesting the new edition of D&D since before the playtest went public, so shifting gears has become second nature. But also, the new edition has many similarities to my favorite, older editions of D&D. While there are many differences in the details, there's also a feeling of "coming home" in the overall tone and atmosphere of the game. That's been really refreshing, and even energizing where the work is concerned.
Wolfgang: Kobold Press has always been pretty nimble around rulesets: we started as a D&D 3.5 firm and of course doing Pathfinder is extremely similar and compatible with that set of rules. We’ve also done Call of Cthulhu and the others you list. Plus, we’ve both played a fair bit of the new edition of D&D, and older editions back to OD&D and Advanced D&D.
Generally speaking, writing for the new edition was much easier than writing for 3rd Edition or 4th Edition. There are fewer spreadsheets required. Not “none”, but less. That bought us design time to focus on encounters and settings.
How much system mastery did you have to develop and in how short a space of time? Were you operating with an evolving playtest document?
Steve: The rules evolved continually during our writing process, and that was a challenge. Fortunately, many of the changes to the core rules were more along the lines of fine-tuning than major realignments: skills changed names, conditions were deleted or added, that sort of thing. Changes like those are easy to catch up with globally. Even significant changes to character classes didn't affect us too much, unless someone gained a trick that would negate a whole encounter.
Where we were thrown off-balance multiple times was by changes in the Monster Manual. In more than a few cases, monsters that played central roles in important encounters were dropped from the book, or they were made significantly tougher or weaker after we wrote the encounters.
For example, an early draft of the Monster Manual contained the Human Warrior NPC as a 1st- or 2nd-level fighter. We relied on that stat block heavily in early encounters. Between our writing and the adventure being sent out for playtesting, Human Warriors in the MM were bumped up to about 5th level and no one alerted us. All the playtest reports contained comments like, "These waves of Human Warriors are slaughtering the PCs. We had three TPKs in the first episode alone! How stupid can you be, throwing level 5 foes at 1st-level characters?" I feel a little sorry for all those slaughtered heroes, but it's sort of funny, too.
Wolfgang: Yes, one of the main design challenges was that when we started, the rules were still very much in flux. Some of the design time was just eaten up learning new design preferences. We already had some system mastery from the playtests, but we had to unlearn a few things.
Working with an evolving document is one of the joys of any new edition launch. If it was easy, they would have asked someone else.
What parts of designing for the next edition of D&D made you rub your hands with glee? What does it do in a way that makes it easier, or more fun, for you as an adventure designer?
Steve: Every new edition of D&D—but 3rd and 4th especially—has moved the game in the direction of greater codification. More and more gets specified in terms of "this is how it must be" and less and less is left in the hands of the players and the DM to interpret or develop on their own.
The new edition of D&D seems to be shifting the balance in the opposite direction. It's stepping back toward a philosophy of saying, "You DMs and players are smart people—the rulebook doesn't need to tell you how to do every little thing. Here's a framework for modelling fantasy. Do what you want with it." There's a lot more specificity than there was in, say, OD&D or D&D Basic/Expert, but there's considerably more freedom than there was in 3rd and 4th edition.
As an adventure writer, that's tremendously liberating. Instead of spending all my mental energy figuring out the optimal spacing between foes or tightly scripting the precise order in which a monster will use each of its five special abilities, I can focus on plot and motivation. I can tell the DM, "The villain wants to accomplish this, but he'll run away if this happens," and leave it to the DM to handle that situation intelligently. That's better for me as a writer, and frankly, I think it's better for the DM, too.
Wolfgang: Customization options for monsters were the big one for me—you don’t need to haul out a spreadsheet just to modify an orc or hill giant into a slight variant. And I agree with Steve: trusting the DM to make some decisions, giving them a direction but not spelling out massive attack sequences, that seems like a step in the right direction. Codifying everything was getting out of hand.
What can you tell us about the adventures themselves? What levels do they cover? Would it be easy to use them in a setting other than the Forgotten Realms?
Wolfgang: The first book goes from level 1 to level 7 or 8 (depending on how the DM and players go through some sections).
It would be very easy to adapt the book to, say, the Midgard Campaign Setting, where the story fits into the expansion of the Dragon Empire or the Red Queen and could easily be rigged to run there. But using the Tyranny of Dragons adventures in settings other than the Realms would also require some retooling of people and places: major figures from the realms are part of the story, and you’d need to find a way to have similar NPCs and factions in whatever realm you moved it into.
It’s not impossible, but this is not a generic adventure.
Tiamat's a juicy villain! It must be fun to get your teeth into such an iconic part of D&D. What's the most fun thing about Tiamat, from both an adventure writer's point of view, and from a DM's point of view?
Steve: There's not too much I can say on this topic without dropping major spoilers. I can say this, though: Tiamat is a god. An evil, evil god. If characters meet her face-to-face, odds are they've lost the whole enchilada.
But that said, the people who worship Tiamat and who believe that putting her in charge of the world would be a good thing—they're a cool bunch of crazies to have as villains. Only serious psychopaths could think the world would be better off under Tiamat's scaly heel. That creates situations where the good guys can team up with some very odd allies, because even most evil folk have enough presence of mind to realize that Tiamat ascendant would be a bad deal for everyone.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these. I'll bet you're in demand right now. I'll say in advance that we love you more than all those other sites do! And we smell better, too!
Wolfgang: We love you, too, EN World. And yes, your fur smells terrific. Is that fur, EN World?
Steve: You probably smell better than I do, too, since meeting this deadline has meant cutting back on daily luxuries such as sleeping, shaving, and showering. But that's all done now! It's off to the hygiene chamber for me.
For more information on the D&D 5th Edition product schedule, and both of the Tyranny of Dragons adventures, check out EN World's comprehensive summary.