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Compiling WOLFGANG BAUR's AMA

Just over a month ago, Wolfgang Baur of Kobold Press held an Ask Me Anything (AMA) here on EN World. In addition to D&D 5E's Tyranny of Dragons, questions covered a wide range of subjects including D&D 5E, Pathfinder, the Midgard setting, and more. For those who missed it at a time, here's the full AMA compiled tidily into interview format for ease.

"Game designer and publisher. My best-known recent credits are with Kobold Press, WotC's Tyranny of Dragons adventures for D&D 5th Edition, Pathfinder, and the Midgard Campaign Setting.

My older designs include work for 3E and 2E D&D from WotC and TSR, such Frostburn, Planescape, Al-Qadim, and adventures for Dungeon Magazine, as well as Rise of the Runelords and the Kobold Guides to Game Design.

Coming soon on Kickstarter is Advanced Races Compendium for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game -- a book that gives players everything they need to play a monstrous, planar, undead, or underworld adventurer in Pathfinder. Kobold Press is working with RPG Superstar Steven Helt, Pathfinder Society developer Alistair Riggs, and superstar reviewer Endzeitgeist to sharpen and improve all of the new races from the successful Advanced Races PDF series. Full development, review, revisions, minor tweaks: every race is getting some love. Its pages are packed with PC racial feats, traits, spells, bloodlines, gear, magic items, archetypes and more for: Gearforged, Lizardfolk, Kobold, Ravenfolk, Shadow Fey, Tiefling, Tosculi (waspfolk), Aasimar, Centaur, Darakhul, Derro, Dragonkin, Lamia, Gnoll, Werelion."


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What were the difficulties of designing Tyranny of Dragons at the time that the Fifth Edition ruleset was being finalised?

Well, the Tyranny of Dragons adventure design started when there was no Monster Manual, and for me, that was a major difficulty. Both Steve Winter and I know the monsters available in a general sense, but at least for me, adventure design often begins with a trip to the Monster Manual for inspiration, for useful details, or combinations of creatures that might make a good encounter. That just wasn't available when we were working on Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

Which adventure - of the many excellent adventures you have designed - is the one which you are most proud of?

My favorite that I've designed is a tough one. I think Courts of the Shadow Fey wins that, because it has memorable NPCs, a few good twists, and an environment that doesn't get a lot of attention in fantasy RPGs.

Which published adventure that you didn't have a hand in designing is your favourite of all time?

My favorite adventure by someone else is probably "Horror on the Orient Express" for Call of Cthulhu. That has a lot to do with how I experienced it as a player. It was the first adventure I played in when I joined TSR, and the game master was David "Zeb" Cook, and my fellow players included Jeff Grubb, Dale Donovan, and Steven Schend, among others. It was extremely well-written, the players were all extremely sharp, and Zeb kept us on the edge of our seats for a full year of sessions.

What would you like to see WoTC do to 5th edition in regards to three facets? - you as a player, you as a game designer/writer, and you as a businessman?

As a player, I'm pretty satisfied with what we've seen so far. There's not much else I gotta have, though of course some new options for the core classes are always welcome. Wouldn't mind a second setting beside the Realms.

As a game designer and writer.... I'd really like to have a second Monster Manual. And an even larger set of pregen humanoid NPCs, something like Paizo's NPC Codex.

As a publisher and businessman, I want the OGL in some form, or a direct license from Wizards for particular books. I have both an adventure and a sourcebook I'd love to publish.


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Setting aside the obvious choice of Zobeck, what area of the Midgard Campaign Setting is your favorite? What part of the Southlands is your favorite? (If you can say.) I don’t mean to ask you to pick a favorite amongst your children but I’m curious which regions appeal to you most as a GM.

For my favorite Midgard region besides Zobeck... Yeah, it is exactly like picking among your children. I love Morgau & Doresh for the undead horror of it, but convincing players to send characters there is a bit of a challenge. I'm also extremely happy with adventure opportunities among the Cantons of the Ironcrags: things like the Halls of the Mountain King or the Peculiar Alchemist of Alpentor combine that stoic dwarven attitude of "Oh, nothing to see, no trouble here" with an undercurrent of "Argh, kill it, geddit offa me!" It's like Switzerland with mutant ogres and really weird hermit-compounds. I love it.

For the Southlands, it might seem like the grand and powerful river-nation of Nuria Natal would be the favorite (or Per-Bastet, the City of Cats with magical catslide alleys). Those are great, but as a campaign starting point I prefer the plucky little sultanate of Siwal, a free city that relies on trade and is surrounded by larger neighbors. Rather like a Zobeck of the sands. Small but fierce, as it were.

In the Kobold Guide to Magic, you talk about issues with teleport and ways you’ve modified it in your home campaigns. As a GM, do you find that to be a contentious decision with your players? Do you have to “sell it” to them?

The lack of teleport in the home game of Midgard is sort of long-established, and the existence of shadow roads and various transporting portals means that a journey does not always mean a 2,000 mile wilderness adventure. It might just mean bribing or slaying some portal guardians. I have not had to sell to my players, but then, a lot of my Midgard players are long, long, long-time RPG folks. They're pretty resilient and find ways to get their revenge with other magical manipulations.

I'm curious about how the adventures for 5E are produced. Did you guys furnish WotC with a final, completed product, or did they put the finishing touches on it? How much oversight was there?

The 5E adventures are produced as a combination of studio work and WotC oversight. For Kobold Press, we'd do some portion of the work, then we would get feedback from WotC on Realmslore, or story beats, or mechanics. Then we did more of the design, and got feedback from swarms of playtesters. Then we turned over another version for feedback on the art and layout. And so forth. It was iterative, and similar to video game design in the sense of many interested parties all looking to make the best adventure possible.

As you would expect, WotC had final approval on the book, since they're the publisher. Kobold Press did the heavy lifting in design, development, and editing, but Wizards had crucial input and set the direction for what they wanted.

I'm really, really pleased with how it turned out. It shows off the new edition and a somewhat more traditional playstyle than we've seen in a while.

One of the tenets of the Midgard setting is that it's a dark fantasy setting of deep magic - I hope that I got that right. How do you evoke dark fantasy and deep magic in your games?

Yep, dark fantasy and deep magic is definitely the direction of Midgard (and the Southlands as well, in a different way).

I think of the distinction as mostly a matter of tone. In dark fantasy, there are more fallen kingdoms and lost cities: ruins, decline, decay and evil on the rise. For me, that makes it easier for heroes to shine bright (and also, for them to die a horrible death eaten by a grue). The monsters and villains tend to be organized and sometimes quite open in their malevolent plans for conquest and enslavement. There's less safe harbors. To use a term from Rich Baker, it's more a "points of light" setting than "pools of darkness".

Why do you feel the distinction is important vs. traditional high fantasy?

The distinction isn't massive and there's overlap with traditional high fantasy, but I think it leaves more room for horror-tinged adventures. Midgard is, after all, the home of the Empire of the Ghouls, and the Walking Abominations of the Western Wastes, and the Master of Demon Mountain. There's more than 1 source of ultimate evil (in contrast to many high fantasy realms, which posit a primary bad guy).

Any chance of a Kobold's Guide to Dark Fantasy?

I would love to write a Kobold Guide to Dark Fantasy. Hmmmmmm.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on what makes an appealing Kickstarter for a game product. Do you have any secrets or words of wisdom for other Kickstarter game publishers?

Sure, since I'm running the Advanced Races Compendium Kickstarter right now, of course the topic is on my mind! I've run about 20 crowdfunded projects, and there's a few things that work for me and for Kobold Press.

1) For the basics of planning and creation, plus concrete tips on goals and reaching your audience, go read Monte Cook and Shanna Germain's ebook Kicking It: Successful Crowdfunding (available on DriveThru).

2) Only Kickstart a project you are passionate about. It's a very public way to make a project, and you'll need enthusiasm to carry you through the inevitable gripers, griefers, and snark that comes from doing game design publishing on the internet.

3) Building an audience takes time. Start early, and don't just talk about the funding part of your project. Share as much of what is cool about the project as you can. If you are not comfortable sharing your work, a big public crowdfunding process is going to be super-difficult. You need to be able to communicate why anyone should care, and why anyone should trust you.

4) Start small. I Kickstart hardcover books these days (because I can't afford to do them the traditional way), but I started by crowdfunding a single adventure that was specced at about 32 to 48 pages or so. I just wanted enough money to hire artists and a cartographer, really.

5) Launching a campaign setting as your first project is bold and ambitious and much, much, much less likely to be successful than something smaller that you can deliver in a reasonable time. People want to see a track record before they believe; Kickstarter backers are more skeptical now than they were. Build your reputation one brick at a time (and sneak in a few details of your campaign setting in the adventure! Use the ripples approach to building your world as in the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding)

6) Your funding goal is a budget. It's not a salary, and it's not play money. People are trusting you to make wise financial decisions to maximize the awesomeness of your Kickstarter. Make sure you know your costs, including the cost of your own time and the costs of editing, art, etc before you launch anything.

7) Don't be dull. Kickstarters are fundraising for a project, but they also have to be entertaining. Show a little humor or dark demonic fury or SOMETHING that shows why your project is fun to back.

Do you see any role for print magazines in the future of the hobby? What did your time with Dungeon/Dragon magazine and Kobold Quarterly teach you about running RPG periodicals? Is there any hope for KQ returning?


It's no secret that I love magazines, they got me my start in the RPG business as a freelancer and as a staffer, and yet...

I think there's extremely slim hope of KQ returning. It required about 4 months of my time every year to keep it going, and it stayed in the black, just barely, with declining circulation. Much of what I would have published in KQ now appears on the Kobold Press blog or as PDFs. The Kobold Press design contests are my slush pile these days. I still love to find new writers or new artists to publish.

Now, my time with Dragon/Dungeon and KQ taught me a lot about deadlines, working with freelancers & artists, editing text, writing a headline, and some of the skills required of a publisher. It was an amazing education learning editing, reading a slush pile from industry titans like Kim Mohan and Roger Moore and Barbara Young. I would not trade those magazine years for anything.

With that said, I think the time of the niche RPG magazine is coming to a close. It kills me to admit it, but readers have so many options now, and advertisers do as well. It is supremely hard to break even in magazines, and the returns.... The finances of a magazine are always a disaster.

So let me be clear, print magazines are stressful, difficult, ornery beasts. I love print magazines dearly and subscribe to more than a dozen, but I'm sort of a dying breed in this. I want Gygax Magazine to succeed (and have contributed editing and articles to it), and I love to cheer on and buy fanzines like the Excellent Travelling Volume (issue #2 out now!). I just don't believe that print magazines are a central source of RPG lore anymore: people look elsewhere for their gaming inspiration, surprises, art, essays, new monsters, etc.

Blogs and PDF publishing are strong and wonderful wellsprings of gaming, and I find joy in that. But I miss the age of magazines, and the sense that anything, ANYTHING could be between those covers. I would give a lot for a new set of "Pages from the Mages" in my mailbox. Hell, there's a whole section of spellbooks and spells in Deep Magic that are basically a nod to PftM.

I'm currently using the 13th Age edition of the Midgard Beastiary for my game, which has an excellent section on many of the races in the Advanced Race Compendium. However, the 13th Age edition of Deep Magic was so good that I was wondering if you had plans for a 13th Age Advanced Race Guide as well. I know the mechanics are different, but I'd love to see how these new races would adapt to 13th Age's more narratively focused style.

I like 13th Age, but I'm far from the biggest 13th Age fan at Kobold Press--that honor goes to Wade Rockett and kobold friend ASH LAW. And I suspect they'd love a crack at an Advanced Races Compendium for 13th Age. If the Advanced Races Compendium for Pathfinder does well (and it is 60% funded after 3 days!), then it is possible that a 13th Age version could happen down the line.

It's not on the schedule right now, though, and our calendar is pretty full into spring of 2016. So no promises on this one.

Can you talk for a minute about the races that are unique to the Midgard setting? Will any of those races be features in the Advanced Race Compendium?

Sure! The compendium expands on the Advanced Races series for PC options, including new races, monstrous races, and classic races; 15 races in all with new spells, feats, archetypes, etc.

The more traditional races include the aasimar, gnolls, kobolds, lizardfolk, tieflings, and a few more. The races that come from Midgard originally include:

1) The Ravenfolk, which are somewhat like tengu but changed up for a Norse or Slavic context. They are also called the Huginn, after one of Odin's ravens. Doomcroakers, rogues, and oracles, they're one of my favorites.

2) The Tosculi, or waspfolk. There's not a lot of insectfolk about, but these are somewhat like humanoid versions of the tarantula wasp (which is a nightmarish real species that, you know, eats tarantulas). The tosculi are a hive species, and the PC versions are the outcasts, called the Hiveless. I did a bunch of design and development with these for the Southlands, which ships this summer. They make strong villains and tragic longer heroes.

3) Darakhul: These are intelligent, social ghouls, as found in Midgard campaign setting's Empire of the Ghoul. Playing undead and generally evil PCs is tricky, but possible. They make wonderful, wonderful villains. If I could just run an all-underdark campaign again, they'd definitely be in it.

4) Dragonkin and Gearforged: These are Midgard takes on races found in various forms since forever, so I'm counting them as "half Midgard, half universal." The gearforged are automatons inhabited by human souls, living so long as the rust monsters don't catch them. The dragonkin are serpentine and have some secrets tied to the setting that... Well, dragons can keep a secret, for now. I have a dragonkin story to tell, but it's a stretch goal for the project. (You heard nothing about draconic secrets in this AMA...Nothing...)

5) Shadow Fey: One of my favorites, which are elves devoted to the Shadow Realm and a dark queen. They were the villains of the first campaign arc in Midgard, which was mostly Zobeck at the time. I wanted a race of fey who were snooty, vile, and totally right about being superior to your common human. They're arrogant, but not pure evil--they are sometimes caught doing the right and decent thing. Think of them as the neutral troublemakers in between the drow and the high elves on the alignment chart. The shadow fey have attitude, cool powers over shadow, and yeah, I love this chapter. Hell, I want to play one of the shadow fey.

The book as a whole is setting-neutral; it's not a Midgard supplement, though it includes sidebars and additional lore for the Midgard races.

If we're lucky, we'll also get to do the Trollkin or the Elfmarked or others specific to Midgard, as well as several classic species that gamers will know from Dragonlance or Greyhawk or elsewhere.

Do you have any upcoming projects planned for 5th Edition? I would love to see a Southlands bestiary conversion for 5e just as an example.

Yes, I do have several 5th Edition projects cooking, and the only one I can really talk about is the conversion of the Southlands Bestiary into 5E terms. That was a stretch goal of the Southlands project, and the resulting text contains 100 new monsters with 5th Edition stats. All the monsters of the Southlands, including variant mummies, demons, devils, and the dire spinosaurus are included.

The status for this stretch goal has been one of cautious optimism since the start. I've been holding out hope that an OGL would allow me to publish that as a standalone monster book, but so far there's been no sign of that 5th Edition OGL. So for now, a converted document is what we have. It's 100% playable, though not professionally edited, laid out, etc. If there's no OGL by the time the Southlands Bestiary for Pathfinder ships, I'll share the document with backers then. Some of the creatures may be posted on KoboldPress.com this summer.

The other 5th Edition projects I hope to announce this summer. One of them is tiny, and one is sort of ginormously mega-sized.

You probably get this one a lot, but how would you recommend one start cracking into the game/monster/adventure design industry?

I do get this question a lot, to the point where I wrote a whole book on the topic (Kobold Guide to Game Design). I also run a Freelancing 101 panel at conventions often, and talked about this on the Gaming Careers podcast last month, because there's not a lot of obvious ways to break in. Here's the short version, but I'll refer you to the Kobold Guide for more on this.

A) The entry level roads into RPG design are different now than they were back when, but the rungs I can point you to are 1) blogging well on design-intensive topics 2) self-publishing material for an open rules system or your own RPG system 3) winning a game design contest such as the recent Monarch of the Monsters contest for 5th Edition or Paizo's RPG Superstar and 4) pitch a project to a company with an open admissions policy (For Kobold Press, see the writer's guidelines)

B) The field is tiny and pays poorly. Rather more people are astronauts than are full-time RPG designesr with a staff job and health benefits. Go in with eyes open.

C) As with all creative projects, finding your audience is a major step. Just like novelists need to connect with a readership, you need to find the players and GMs who dig your style. If you do it yourself, you get that personal connection to your audience, but it's more work to get there. If you sign up with an established publisher, you get a shortcut to an existing audience, but you give up the rights to your work (almost all freelance tabletop game design work is done as work for hire).

How do you handle building/balancing/playtesting encounters? Do you have general guidelines you follow? Do you just have a bunch of pre-gen characters that you throw into a party and run combat a few rounds to see if it feels right? Or do you run the encounter multiple times with different party builds?

Oddly, there's a whole section on Playtesting in the "Guide to Game Design" as well. There's no super-formula here, other than to hand the manuscript to someone else and let them run it cold. Running your own playtests is better than not playtesting, but you tend to gloss over your own omissions. Finding good playtesters you can rely on for honest, useful feedback is extremely helpful, but it can take months or years. Not all playtesters are worth your time and effort. Cherish the ones who play it as written, deliver reports on time, and who provide clear data.

Has there ever been a time where you built an encounter, and in testing it, found it surprisingly more difficult than you initially anticipated? Either due to a particular mechanic being much more powerful in play than on paper, or an environmental effect crippling the party more than you expected?

This happens to me often, especially when I'm starting out with a new system. I tend to prefer more-lethal games over less-lethal ones, and I like horror and a certain level of panic in players when they run into key encounters. So, I think that my designs sometimes skew deadly. And I say this knowing full well that some designers skew toward "easy win" encounters, and need to crank up the difficulty. Neither of these is preferable, because what you're designing toward is excitement and a sense of urgency.

Designing for perfect balance (and not for thrills or joy or discovery or terror) is a bit of a fool's errand. You should provide encounters that excite people. Nothing is less exciting than a series of perfectly managable encounters without twists or surprises. This tendency toward "ooh, let's push the party to the limits" is an attitude that I embrace when I'm writing, and that I deplore when I'm editing or developing an adventure.

It's important to find out where the failure points are, and then make sure you're calibrated correctly. Sometimes, "calibrated correctly" means "there should be a TPK if the party is dumb enough to try this unprepared."

As a game designer you design adventures which are intended to be played by other people. Do you have any advise on how to make running a pre-written adventure/campaign more "easy", i.e. with less prep-work?

I wish there was a simple answer to the "make it easy to run" question, but the reality is that design is a set of tradeoffs. For Tyranny, all the stats are provided in a free PDF file to make it easy to access the monster stats, even without owning a Monster Manual. The Streets of Zobeck adventure collection has a set of complete 1 square/1 inch battle maps that backers got. Each of those was a commitment of time and money to make a better play experience.

Eventually, if you commit enough time and money to making a better adventure, you have to charge more. And then people complain that it is too expensive ("Why is this a hardcover? I want a softcover!" etc), or that it is too complex, or that there's too much reading. Suddenly, it's 400 pages in small type, and it intimidates people.

Go the other direction, like, say G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief by Gygax, and all you get is 8 pages, hardly any stats, hardly any maps, not a lot of support for the DM to run it without bringing some of his or her own mojo to the table to make it shine. That level of improvisation and energy is not for everyone; it's a high-wire act, but boy does that hone your DMing skills. (FWIW, I'd recommend Unframed: the Art of Improvisation as a guide to improving those chops.)

Different groups want different things. Beginners tend to want as much support as possible, all the stats, contingencies for everything, answers in the text for corner cases, map support, tokens, guidelines. Long-time players tend to want bullet lists, bare bones text that allows them to improvise in response to the players at the table, a bit more wiggle room, less wall of text.

So... It's impossible. One person's helpful guide and useful crutch tables is another person's wasted space and nanny-like handholding. One person's skimpy encounter description lacking detail is another DM's favorite opportunity to strut his stuff with hill giant lore.

You can also stuff an adventure with more detail and more maps and tables to make it easier. You're not always making it better, though, and over time, your audience needs less of that. My own take for Kobold Press adventures has always been that I trust the GM and the players to grab the coolest or most playable parts of the adventure *for their playstyle*--my goal is to provide tools for multiple types of gamers that are easy to access, but it's a matter of constraints and tradeoffs.

Besides Midgard, what is your favorite ever campaign setting?


I love a lot of settings, and yes, Midgard most of all, but if I have to choose it's a knife fight between Al-Qadim and Planescape. I'm going with Al-Qadim today, and I might go with Planescape tomorrow.

Don't you think my friend Steve Helt is just a bit kooky?


Maybe a tiny bit, in the way that game designers are slightly kooky. (It's in the job description.) But he's also an Iron GM, so I'm not gonna bring it up or anything.

Since Forgotten Realms was mentioned what city in the realms are you most fond of? Also what region are you most likely to run an adventure in? Any chance you have a brief example of something realms you enjoyed experiencing at the table?

The weird thing about me and the Realms is that I've written relatively few adventures for the setting, but the ones I have done are all among my favorites. The place lends itself to heroic action, it oozes adventure, it's the land of a million hooks. That's a wonderful playground for any DM or designer.

My favorite city is Waterdeep, because it's big and sprawling and has the most lore and a fine criminal underworld. I'm not a Realms loremaster by any stretch, mind you, but how can you not love Skullport?

For running a new adventure, I'm sort of thinking Calimshan, the Shining Sea, the Lake of Steam and the Border Kingdoms. Deserts and the Shaar Desolation, the Jungles of Chult. I've been in a tropical, high-adventure sort of mood because of the Southlands work, and I could easily run something Southland-ish or Al-Qadimish in the southern corner of the Realms.

Something I enjoyed at the table? Well, Steve Winter ran a wonderful campaign of the Barrowmaze megadungeon (converted for 5th Edition) last year. The necromancers and undead and traps of that were extremely enjoyable, a pure romp of the old school. The moment at the table that was trouble for us was the halfling barbarian who kept falling for the vampire's charm every time we visited. It became a running gag: we would visit the wrong section of the Barrowmaze, and presto, the barbarian is charmed, we lose and have to retreat.

It was nice to see a bunch of old-school industry vets being outsmarted by the monsters once or twice (and yep, my character was outsmarted there too!). We'd go lick our wounds and say "We'll get him next time--and you need to make one of those saves!"

Which were your favorite Al-Qadim products?

If I'm not counting my own AQ releases (Secrets of the Lamp with the City of Brass map by DCS leads by a nose over Assassin Mountain and the MC Al Qadim), then there's a limited number of others to choose from.

I think I'm going to go with the Complete Sha'ir's Handbook, because wow, if the sha'ir had not been invented, I think we would not have the sorcerer. It seems like a milestone in D&D history that's largely forgotten. Plus hey, the need to sometimes quibble with your familiar to GO GET THE DAMN SPELL still amuses me, as a player and GM.

Runner-up goes to Golden Voyages, because Sinbad.

Dammit, where's my fez, I gotta play some AQ again, or something in that vein. Sandships, temple ruins half-buried under dunes, and the juddering motion of something BIG moving below the surface.... (Oh, wait, maybe I want Dune the RPG).

Any chance of seeing Midgard as a 5th edition setting, or any of your productions at kobold press ? I love the dark fantasy and deep magic feel you managed to pull off with that settings.

I am working on plans and materials for Midgard 5th Edition, mainly races and Southlands elements so far. I'll be running a 5th Edition module at North Texas RPG Convention in June.

Updating a setting... Well, it's a big commitment from Kobold Press to revisit, update, and revise a hardcover like that, not to mention revised maps, art, rules, etc. One obstacle is that I have no idea whether an open license will become available from Wizards anytime soon, or whether I'd have to use some variant of the OGL instead.

I know there are many people who would like to see it soon (and I've had some volunteers to tackle it!). I'd prefer to do it under a license from Wizards if I can.

I feel the shadow roads were largely inspired by The Wheel of Time's Ways in the novels by Robert Jordan, did you read that saga?

I've never read the Wheel of Time, so I'm not familiar with his take on shadow roads. I know some people love the books, while others complain about the languid pacing.

Regardless, the idea is certain older than Jordan or me: hidden roads, fey travels, movement through the underworld. I had not seen it in a fantasy RPG, and I thought it was a good match for Midgard, since I nixed teleport for the home game a long time ago.

If you had three tips for unpublished fantasy and/or RPG authors, what would they be?


Three tips for unpublished authors and game designers? Sure, but I'm feeling a bit cyncial about the industry today, so:

1) Write write write (and don't quit your day job too early). Turn out a lot of prose. Speed keeps you fed; quality keeps you respected. Find a balance. Do the work.

2) Marry someone with health insurance. (It sounds like a joke, but I can assure you that many RPG designers suffer terribly from insufficient access to health care, and some go bankrupt.)

3) Read. See what other writers are doing. Emulate their style if it appeals. Dissect their mistakes to figure out where they went wrong. Notice yourself when you are reading: how did that encounter get you excited? Which sections do you skip? Become a sharp critic of other people's prose and mechanics. Then, put one of your own manuscripts aside for a week or two, and read with fresh eyes: turn that critical faculty on your own work.

What do you think are the biggest, starkest differences between publishing now and publishing back then? I'd love to get some perspective from someone who's written, published and edited with some of the best and brightest in the trade.

The biggest differences between then and now in publishing? There's so many! The field has overturned completely.

1) RPG books are now almost always in full color, and still affordable!

2) Everything is available in digital form as well as print. And digital editions are super-cheap.

3) There's 10x as many titles being produced. The proportion of crap is exactly the same (per Sturgeon).

4) The audience is more fragmented than it was then.

5) International awareness and translations are far more common now. French, German, and Swedish games make it into English, not just the other way around.

6) Smaller publishers have a better chance at survival.

7) Bigger publishers are more answerable to their fans than they once were, for good and for ill.

8) Overall, the art's gotten better (I know, some will disagree!)

9) Licensing worlds/books/movies has gone from occasional to the default. The golden age of RPG worldbuilding may be over.

10) TV and movies drive the cultural conversation more now, and books less.

Man, I didn't think I had 10 now-and-thens in me. Thanks for the challenge question!

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I was wondering if any unusual Planar races might show up in this Kickstarter. When I look at books that "got it right" for me in terms of Races, Pathfinder supplements like Blood of Angels Blood of Fiends, etc really hit the nail on the head. I say this because they gave lots of variations to the Race itself. This way not all Aasimars got +2 Wis and + 2 Cha, Not all Tieflings got +2 Dex, +2 Int, -2 Cha.

They included numerous types of bloodlines which had different attributions, which I think helped build parties where the entire group could be Tieflings, but not everyone had to have a bad Charisma.

The other section was the variant cosmetic traits, or the charts for alternate racial features.

Can we expect to see this level of detail in the Advanced Races Compendium?

Yes, we're planning variant versions of many of the races, offering different power levels and alternative racial traits. The goal is exactly that not all tieflings are the same, and not all aasimar are identical. Pathfinder is a game of extreme customization, and the Advanced Races Compendium supports that pretty extensively.

The capstone reward to choose a race and have a full 16 or 20-page chapter devoted to it is priced correctly for design, development, editing, multiple pieces of art, layout, and printing all those pages. But yes, I think a reward for a much smaller race is possible. I'll do some numbers.

Psionics has been heavily expanded by Dreamscarred Press, so it's unlikely that Kobold Press will visit that topic. Occult Adventures.... I'm not sure yet, honestly. I'm curious about it, but I haven't given a lot of thought to what might complement that material.

From your insider dealings and experience with WOTC on 5th edition, can you speak about any status on OGL or GSL? Which in your opinion looks more likely? And what insights or opinions could you offer as to the OGL situation (are you worried, frustrated, hopeful, reserved)?

Boy do I wish I had a better answer for you than "I don't have any special knowledge about the terms of a license."

Of course, I'm happy to speculate on it. My mood is cautiously hopeful, though I grow more frustrated every month that goes by.

I expected that if Wizards of the Coast were going to announce such a thing, they would announce it in time for publishers to print a 5th Edition book for a Gen Con release. That window is pretty much closed for hardcovers (remember that Gen Con is earlier this year), and the window is narrowing sharply for smaller things like adventures. So that opportunity to make a splash of licensed 5th Edition support for D&D is fading.

That might make sense if Wizards had announced a splashy D&D release of their own for Gen Con, but they have not (or at least, that's the impression I have gotten recently). They're talking video game stuff, but the tabletop side has a really slow, deliberate cadence to the releases.

That said, I remain hopeful that they'll release a license eventually. But exactly what form that takes, I have no idea.

Do you think that DM's today need more "hand-holding" than they did twenty years ago? There seems to be a need to have every eventuality mapped out in advance, keeping the players on track, rather than running with it and seeing where everyone ends up. Is that where you see the adventure designer heading, or is there still room for a more "Gygaxian" approach to adventure design?

It's a great question without a single answer, because different players and different gamemasters need different things. I think that a Starter Set or Beginner Box that doesn't do a lot of handholding is failing in its primary goal, which is making it easy to learn the game. I wish that the blue box had done a bit more handholding back when; it took me a while to figure out how basic things were meant to work.

And there's room out there for railroad-like (or adventure path-like) adventures, that are meant to keep players on track. I've played too many aimlessly wandering and incoherent scenarios where the game is "what do we do next?" because there's no clues, track, or goals stated in the early going, the middle, or toward the end. Most players like the occasional sign, and the more convoluted the plot and premise, the more handholding is appropriate.

But in the end, I think a lot of the joy that people take in great sandbox adventures (like, oh, the Lost City by Zeb Cook, or the Kingmaker adventure path) is the joy of making their own way and *uncovering* the goals and being the active, heroic figures who decide what to do about something. Done well, this sort of scenario is less about handholding and more about enabling discovery and presenting wonders at every turn.

And finally, there's the category of adventures that really are about piling up dangers, conflicts, and NPCs with opposite aims, and letting someone light a match. There's just no good way to plan out every element of a rogue's guild gang war with any certainty. There's chaos everywhere. A very fine scenario can be made out of a list of NPCs and their goals and resources; think of LARP play.

So where does that leave adventure design? Yes, I think there's room for scripted, guided play, especially for newer or less confident players, those who want maximum help. And there's room for adventures that provide inspiration, some great NPCs and dramatic scenery, and trust that the players and the DM will run with the parts that entertain them, spinning out their own story.

RPGs have always included an element of performance (watch me play my character as a badass! watch me give a cool villain's monologue!). They have also included elements of improv because they MUST rely on a DM at times (your character does WHAT? Well, ok, here's what happens...)

In other words, there's no one size fits all, and I hope that more experienced players show their skill at play by making adventures their own. A poor player can, of course, complain that any given adventure doesn't answer all questions. But many of the most memorable moments, for me, come from when a player puts a bit of their own magic into the game, because he or she knows what the party likes, what his friends like, and how to make the game awesome. That's always going to be a function of play, and good design leaves room for that. A tightly-scripted or detail-crowded design tries to cover everything, and fails to leave room for what I would consider more interesting and spontaneous play.

That's my take on it: design styles need to serve particular play styles or levels of experience, and no one design style is going to please everyone.

I've just finished running Hoard + Rise of Tiamat and I'm now running Hoard for another group, so thank you very much for writing them! I'm curious as to how you find the use of milestones in adventures - especially as Rise assumes their use. Do you find they change the way you design adventures? Any preferences for milestones or traditional XP?

For milestones: Well, they certainly simplify bookkeeping and can speed up level advancement (which is why we used them in Rise). I think they do change adventure design, as they make it possible to be confident that the PCs are level X by the time they reach encounter Y. That's useful for combat/encounter design. I rather like milestones for adventure paths.

At the same time, milestones sort of assume a story-centric, somewhat railroady style, and they can be interesting as they change the reward structure. Because killing monsters no longer brings XP directly, milestones can make a party smarter or at least more cautious around chancy fights. There's less "I need to kill this to level" metagaming.

I don't think I'd use milestones with more open-ended, exploratory adventures. I'd want people poking into odd corners and pulling levers and so forth, messing around. Milestones don't necessarily work for the wilderness, for character-driven campaigns, for improv-centric play styles.

I learned the game on XP systems, but I can see milestones being very useful. I just don't want them taking over, so I might dial them back to story awards as per 2nd Edition.

I am currently running a 5e campaign, converting one of your products. I am running Courts of the Shadow Fey. The party is about to enter the shadow plane and enter the actual courts. Any suggestions or advice on running or converting some of the elements.

I would certainly like to hear what converts easily, and what doesn't. I happen to have many of the monsters converted, and it's one of the adventures I'd love to offer for 5th Edition players sometime.

I don't have clever advice for it, though I can say that there's no such thing as too snooty when you're playing one of the shadow fey NPCs. Post or send a play writeup if you like!

And with that, folks, midnight chimes on the East Coast, and it's time to wrap up the AMA. Thank you all for your kind and challenging and interesting questions. I had a blast, and I hope Morrus does a bunch more of these AMAs this year.









 
Russ Morrissey

Comments



DaveDash

Explorer
Interesting that he says he likes deadly encounters. He sure does!

I want a MM2 and NPC codex as well. Especially some higher CR NPCs. I've created about 30 CR10-20 NPCs now and its time consuming work. I also want to see someone else's take on high level NPC design in 5e.
 

vandaexpress

First Post
Interesting that he says he likes deadly encounters. He sure does!

I want a MM2 and NPC codex as well. Especially some higher CR NPCs. I've created about 30 CR10-20 NPCs now and its time consuming work. I also want to see someone else's take on high level NPC design in 5e.
Ditto to this. Half the reason I buy the APs is to look at the included NPC stat blocks, especially to see where they fall on the CR spectrum given their role in the world. Chris Perkins mentioned on twitter that greater deities aren't statted out, but they have avatars that are roughly the strength of a lesser deity. He put Cthulhu as probably being a lesser deity and said that meant his CR would be in the mid to high 20s. We know that Tiamat is a CR30 lesser deity, elemental princes are generally high teens or low twenties.

The reason I speculate on this stuff so much is that my players are expressing an interest in heading to Thay, and I'm trying to figure out what CR someone like Szass Tam would be. He's a Lich, but he's more powerful than a typical lich. The old 3e CRs don't really translate very well into 5e once you're at the epic level.

Anyway. I'm rambling. I'd love an NPC codex.
 

DaveDash

Explorer
Ditto to this. Half the reason I buy the APs is to look at the included NPC stat blocks, especially to see where they fall on the CR spectrum given their role in the world. Chris Perkins mentioned on twitter that greater deities aren't statted out, but they have avatars that are roughly the strength of a lesser deity. He put Cthulhu as probably being a lesser deity and said that meant his CR would be in the mid to high 20s. We know that Tiamat is a CR30 lesser deity, elemental princes are generally high teens or low twenties.

The reason I speculate on this stuff so much is that my players are expressing an interest in heading to Thay, and I'm trying to figure out what CR someone like Szass Tam would be. He's a Lich, but he's more powerful than a typical lich. The old 3e CRs don't really translate very well into 5e once you're at the epic level.

Anyway. I'm rambling. I'd love an NPC codex.
Even for me just more villain templates and BBEG NPC's that are CR10+, it would save me SO much time.
 

vandaexpress

First Post
Even for me just more villain templates and BBEG NPC's that are CR10+, it would save me SO much time.
Agreed. Especially if you're trying to build something beyond a sack of hitpoints with direct damage attacks. If I were to guess, I'd say the two parts of prep that take up the most time for me are maps and custom statblocks. I don't even use custom statblocks that often, mostly I just reskin, but that's because I'm not confident enough in my system mastery to build a monster/npc without playtesting it a ton, particularly when you delve into new abilities or abilities that aren't documented in the traits table in the DMG, which you pretty much have to do if you want to make a memorable monster.

Also, speaking of templates, would love to see more official templates like the ones included for half-dragons, vampires, lycanthropes, etc.
 

DaveDash

Explorer
Agreed. Especially if you're trying to build something beyond a sack of hitpoints with direct damage attacks. If I were to guess, I'd say the two parts of prep that take up the most time for me are maps and custom statblocks. I don't even use custom statblocks that often, mostly I just reskin, but that's because I'm not confident enough in my system mastery to build a monster/npc without playtesting it a ton, particularly when you delve into new abilities or abilities that aren't documented in the traits table in the DMG, which you pretty much have to do if you want to make a memorable monster.

Also, speaking of templates, would love to see more official templates like the ones included for half-dragons, vampires, lycanthropes, etc.
Yeah.

I build a lot of NPCs because I'm converting 3rd edition content, and they love their monsters with templates and/or class levels. It's hard to reskin those, especially at the higher levels since there's a lack of content the higher the CR in the monsters manual.
Spell casters take the longest to work out - because unless your the hand-wavey type (I am not) it's fiddly to work out what their actual CR is. The last thing I want to do is have an epic fight with a BBEG spell caster type and the players one-shot it.

I also like to type everything out and then print it out, so I have the stat-block in front of me when I run combat, and all that typing takes time - a lot of time:
View attachment 68659

Edit: I blacked out some names due to copywrite.
 
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EthanSental

Adventurer
True, I'd buy a 5e NPC codex, one of the better hardbacks from paizo that I truly enjoy and use. The MM2 i'd buy but not in a hurry to purchase. Granted I didn't pick up the 5e books until November or so last year, but I'm glad I did!
 

MonsterEnvy

Adventurer
e Szass Tam would be. He's a Lich, but he's more powerful than a typical lich. The old 3e CRs don't really translate very well into 5e once you're at the epic level.
Two fun little facts. The art of the lich in the 5e monster manual is Szass Tam. As for stats, I actually thought of stats for him myself.


It's largely based off the Lich Stat block but buffed up considerably. For one his HP has been buffed from the Lich's 135 to 300. His abiliy scores are Str 11, Dex 16, Con 20, Int 22, Wis 20, Cha 20.

He has the added trait of Limited Magic immunity to all spells of 5th level or lower unless he wants to be affected. He has the Added Legendary Action of spending all 3 of his Legendary Actions to Concentrate on a spell. Freeing him up to concentrate on a second one i he wants to. He has been buffed up to a level 20 Caster over the Liches 18th level.

I don't feel like going over his spell selection right now but I added a new custom spell to Szass Tam in his 9th level slot.

Szass Tam's Supreme Counter Spell. A variation of Counter Spell. Like Counterspell it allows him to cancel out any spell being cast. The added feature is that it allows Szass Tam to take control of the spell instead of it just not working. You cast Fireball on Tam and suddenly he sends it back at your party. You cast True Polymorph on him suddenly the caster has been turned into a Book.

The final thing I gave Tam is an extra spellslot of each Level. Making him utterly unmatched as a caster. In the end I graded him CR 28.
 

vandaexpress

First Post
Two fun little facts. The art of the lich in the 5e monster manual is Szass Tam. As for stats, I actually thought of stats for him myself.


It's largely based off the Lich Stat block but buffed up considerably. For one his HP has been buffed from the Lich's 135 to 300. His abiliy scores are Str 11, Dex 16, Con 20, Int 22, Wis 20, Cha 20.

He has the added trait of Limited Magic immunity to all spells of 5th level or lower unless he wants to be affected. He has the Added Legendary Action of spending all 3 of his Legendary Actions to Concentrate on a spell. Freeing him up to concentrate on a second one i he wants to. He has been buffed up to a level 20 Caster over the Liches 18th level.

I don't feel like going over his spell selection right now but I added a new custom spell to Szass Tam in his 9th level slot.

Szass Tam's Supreme Counter Spell. A variation of Counter Spell. Like Counterspell it allows him to cancel out any spell being cast. The added feature is that it allows Szass Tam to take control of the spell instead of it just not working. You cast Fireball on Tam and suddenly he sends it back at your party. You cast True Polymorph on him suddenly the caster has been turned into a Book.

The final thing I gave Tam is an extra spellslot of each Level. Making him utterly unmatched as a caster. In the end I graded him CR 28.
You know, I was wondering about the 5e MM Lich art. I wasn't sure if it was Szass or just a continuation of 5e using red wizards a lot for artwork (like the Archmage).

I love those powers you came up with, especially the custom counterspell. I do wonder if CR 28 is appropriate for a non-deity though? Granted, Szass has demonstrated some pretty powerful capabilities in the novels (like summoning Bane), so you may be on the money.
 

MonsterEnvy

Adventurer
You know, I was wondering about the 5e MM Lich art. I wasn't sure if it was Szass or just a continuation of 5e using red wizards a lot for artwork (like the Archmage).

I love those powers you came up with, especially the custom counterspell. I do wonder if CR 28 is appropriate for a non-deity though? Granted, Szass has demonstrated some pretty powerful capabilities in the novels (like summoning Bane), so you may be on the money.
Szass has always been stated as around the level of Demon Lords and Deities in older editions. He has been presented as being one step away from claiming god hood in the novels as well. During the time he almost became a god he easily beat all of the other Zulkir's and killed them in ironic ways. (Like turning the Demon Summoner into a Manes.)
 

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