Over the summer, I ran my group through the first adventure in Tomb of Horrors, and it was an enjoyable experience for everyone that culminated in our departing Paladin (leaving town for graduate school) sacrificing himself so the party could escape. I look forward to the group uncovering the remaining adventures in Tomb of Horrors throughout the campaign, so I was eager to interview one of the designers for the book, Scott Fitzgerald Gray.
In a sprawling interview, he offers advice to freelance writers in the roleplaying-game industry. He speaks about his design work for Wizards of the Coast (e.g., Tomb of Horrors, Seekers of the Ashen Crown) including a candid exchange about the level of lethality in 4th Edition and why some new DMs may not fully appreciate the fine art of customization and improvisation. He speaks about his latest book, A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales, details his writing and editing process and comments on the growing mainstream acceptance of the fantasy and science-fiction genres.
Settle into a comfortable chair and enjoy my interview with Scott Fitzgerald Gray.
Thank you for agreeing to spend some time discussing your work. The bio on your site answers several questions including the veracity of your name, and states you have been able “to make a living doing exactly what [you] want to do by way of creating and shaping words.” You have identified yourself as a writer, screenwriter, editor, story editor, script consultant, writing teacher, and designer and editor of roleplaying games. So I must ask, how did words become so important to you?
Happy to be here, and thanks for the opportunity.
That’s a tough question, insofar as I can’t really remember a time when words weren’t important, so it’s hard to judge. However, I think the easiest way to sum it up would be to describe myself as an imagination addict, and to say that words continue to feed that addiction. Everyone who has kids knows that very early stage, ages 2 to 3, where everything is imagination. I remember that stage in my own life, in faint and scratchy flashbacks. I can remember even as i was learning to talk, making up my own stories and my own little worlds in which those stories took place. I can remember learning to read a few years later, and the mind-blowing revelation that reading suddenly gave me access to other people’s stories and worlds. I can remember starting to write my own stories in fourth grade and the incredible feeling of accomplishment, as unaccomplished as those stories were. I can remember my first exposure to speculative fiction and fantasy, the first time i saw “Star Wars”, my first exposure to Dungeons & Dragons — all of these seminal moments of imagination which, taken as a whole, kind of underline a hunger for the worlds and experiences that all start with words.
An “imagination addict,” I like that phrase! It seems you have turned your “addiction” for imagination into a career. However, I imagine there would be a frequent temptation to get lost in your own world(s) and lose track of reality. Could you discuss your process of delving into your creations while staying anchored in the real world?
Being lucky enough to be able to write and edit for a living is the most important element of that process, i think. Because you recognize that your creative work always comes attached to a certain number of real-world commitments (like the ability to eat), it tends to keep you nicely focused. When you know that the money you’re contracted for a particular project is covering your half of the mortgage for a certain number of months, you know explicitly how much time you can spend on that project, and when you’ve crossed that line and have gotten into “screwing around time” (though I manage an awful lot of that as well).
Beyond that, I’m also lucky enough to work in a number of different areas — I do a bit of RPG design, I do a greater amount of RPG editing, I work with screenwriters, directors, and producers as a story editor, and I do my own writing. For the most part, my film-industry work doesn’t focus on speculative fiction or fantasy, so I manage to stay creatively involved in a lot of genres even though I write mostly in fantasy and SF.
I sense balancing imagination with real-world commitments was not easy to accomplish. How were you able to carve a niche for yourself to make a living out of your need to write and create? What were some obstacles along the way and what were two or three of the biggest steps that ultimately made it happen?
As with most of the interesting things that happen in life, it was a kind of roundabout route and a number of happy accidents that got me to where I am right now. I’d always known that I wanted to write, but in high school, I managed to convince myself that writing was something I would do after I got a real career. At that point (as is true for a lot of people), the imagination was still going strong but the confidence hadn’t kept up. My university studies were a kind of complicated mix of comp sci, philosophy, and creative writing that guaranteed my unemployability. However, i lucked out by getting into magazine publishing just at the point where desktop publishing was taking over, making my weird mix of creative and technical skills an unexpectedly strong selling point.
Working in magazine and newspaper publishing got me into screenwriting (the first magazine I worked for was a small film-industry trade publication), and gave me a solid background in layout, design, editing, and the overall publishing process. That put me in a good position to start freelancing when I got tired of “real jobs” (or, more accurately, when they got tired of me). Then in late 2003, I saw a note on Sue Cook’s website saying that Wizards of the Coast were looking for freelance RPG editors. Despite the fact that I’d gotten back into D&D after a fairly lengthy absence with the advent of 3rd Edition, I’d never thought about doing RPG work before. But as with my initial experience in publishing, my odd mix of skills (a solid background in traditional editing and publishing, combined with being a complete geek) got me the gig.
The single most important thing that keeps me going is the fact that I work fairly actively in a number of areas, all of which I love. Making a living just as a freelance RPG designer or editor is tough. Making a living just as a story editor or screenwriter is tough. Making a living writing fiction is tough. Being able to combine all those things makes it easier.
I had to chuckle at your description of your collection of academic studies guaranteeing your unemployability. That is one of the primary reasons I went to graduate school; I knew an undergrad degree in Psychology was not going to get me very far in the workforce. You offer great advice for others out there who are trying to break into a certain industry – keep developing various skills and do not allow yourself to get pigeon-holed into a single role. What are other suggestions you have for aspiring writers out there trying to wedge into the RPG industry?
Well, the bad news is that the tabletop RPG industry is shrinking, as most people know (even as the hobby, as distinct from the industry, seems increasingly robust). The good news is that freelance labor still largely drives the industry, which means the opportunities are there. I assume that anybody reading this knows that Wizards of the Coast is in the middle of its fall submission period for Dragon and Dungeon, and the second-best advice I could give anyone who aspires to design for D&D is to take advantage of that and get a pitch in. The actual best advice I can give always runs the risk of sounding snotty, but here it is anyway — your work has to be great. Not just good; not just original; not just imaginative, but the absolute best you can make it. It gets mentioned a lot but it’s worth repeating: Dragon and Dungeon are pro markets open to unsolicited pitches by new writers. In the drastically shrinking marketplace for freelance writing, that’s increasingly rare. Wizards of the Coast pays top rates because it expects top-quality work, so make sure your work is that good. Chris Perkins had an editorial in October 2011 talking about the pitch window; inhumanly prolific designer Rob Schwalb wrote a great blog post last summer taking a solemn look at the realities of RPG freelancing. Rob’s piece isn’t for the faint of heart, but I think it’s good for aspiring writers and designers to know what they’re up against.
I’ve always felt that freelance artists and writers are in a tight squeeze with well-known entities. I have friends who are licensed to work for very-established intellectual properties, and I do not envy their lifestyle. They are at the mercy of companies with a countless supply of other talented people who are willing to work more hours for less money simply to “get their name out there and be recognized.” The very nature of the system seems to have a built-in dynamic where those fortunate enough to wedge their foot into the door become overworked and underpaid. Publish or perish.
Your advice to writers to ensure their work is great may be something that is too nebulous to process. What does it mean to be great? How would you operationalize greatness?
I think that reality is unfortunately true in a lot of creative industries, from the most well-established periodicals and publishing ventures through to the newest and most cutting-edge media. Certainly, in areas where freelance labor is dominant (including academia, fiction, screenwriting, and RPGs) it’s even more acute. But as far as how to operationalize greatness, I think the place to start is ‘passion’. You have to love what you’re doing, first and foremost, plain and simple. If you don’t, you can do the work, and you can take advantage of your talent, and you might even be successful for a time, but the momentum can’t sustain itself. I can’t say that I know any RPG writers who fall into the category of people who’ve failed to sustain their own passion, but I’ve known an awful lot of screenwriters over the years who fit that bill, and who crashed as a result. It’s important to recognize that the biggest names in the RPG industry all started out as players and fans — people whose singular passion for the game pushed them to become a part of the game. People as old as I am remember when Ed Greenwood was an unknown name in Dragon, penning articles that talked about a little home-brew campaign world he called the Forgotten Realms. Ed’s remarkable talent as a writer shows through even in those early pieces — but I have to believe that it was his passion for the game that turned those initial articles into something so much bigger.
Another important aspect of greatness is ‘mastery’ — which, simply put, means whatever you’re doing, do a lot of it. A creative trope that’s in high circulation right now involves the idea that it takes ten thousand hours of doing a particular thing to get great at that particular thing. And while that’s certainly not true across the board for people like Mozart, it definitely fit the pattern of my own life. I mentioned earlier that before I dropped Wizards of the Coast a line inquiring about freelance editing, I hadn’t really thought about doing RPG work — but even so, I was a guy who had already spent a whole hell of a lot more than ten thousand hours gaming during his wasted youth, and who had spent about fourteen thousand hours (seven years full-time) working in editing and publishing, and who had spent that much time again working in film and screenwriting.
And I think a third aspect of greatness comes from what you talk about — the ability to deal with criticism. Not just in the sense of developing a thick skin and the right kind of ego to survive as a creative person (though those things are important), but to be able to recognize that in every bit of criticism, you should be willing to look for things that will help you make your work better. Simply put, every single thing you work on should be at least slightly better than the last thing you worked on. Everything you do should teach you something; everything you learn, you should be able to apply it to the next thing you work on. Creativity and the pursuit of greatness has to be a continuum of constantly learning, revising, learning, and revising again. I personally don’t think that I’m the best editor or designer in the world, but I always try to make sure that everything I do builds on the experience of what I’ve done before.
Ah, yes, Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule from Outliers. A truly fascinating examination of the factors that result in success; I recommend that book to anyone reading this interview!
Your tips for achieving great work include passion, mastery and willingness to improve the product. I found an illustration (pictured right), which represents how I think about greatness in writing. The act of writing is easy – people send texts, emails, memos and other forms of written communication every day. Most people under the age of 30 who own a computer can probably type upwards of 40 words-per-minute. The cost of entry to write something is low, but to borrow your phrase again, “creating and shaping” words takes time and effort. I would not consider myself a writer, but I know how it feels to constantly pound a document into shape (and submission) through corrections, edits and deletions. It takes sweat and toil, and an emotional strength to look at the same document for the 50th time and find a new way to make it better for the audience.
I wonder if you could walk me through your routine for creating and shaping a 1,500-word article. What steps are involved in the beginning, middle and end of the process?
At the most macro level, I break down my beginning, middle, and end as ‘ideas’, ‘writing’, and ‘editing’. First you brainstorm, letting the ideas flow fast and furiously; then you render those ideas down into hopefully breathless prose; then you work that prose again (and again) to sharpen and focus it.
At the ideas stage, pretty much anything goes. However, I’m an inveterate outliner, so my own preferred approach to writing always starts with breaking things down. I like to sketch out what the piece is going to look like, generating quick ideas and laying them out as a kind of framework that gets revised and improved. Usually you have length guidelines in place as a starting point, so that with your example 1500-word article, you might start by breaking it down as 500 words of narrative, 1000 words of rules text; then you’d figure out how many discrete pieces of rules text (feats, powers, monsters, what have you) you can fit into those words. For an adventure or a larger sourcebook, you know your total page count and how much space you have for art, so it’s a matter of thinking about what you want to write, then blocking it out along the lines of “The intro should take up this much space; this section should take up this much space”, and so on. Adventures are fairly straightforward to block out because you can often start with the available encounter space and work backwards.
As well, the process is always tempered by what kind of writing you’re doing. Working on an assignment from Wizards usually involves working from an outline that the design leads and department heads have already crafted for you, so the approach with that sort of project is to build on existing foundations. Working on an RPG book usually also involves working with other designers, so their foundations and yours are always touching. RPG work is an extremely collaborative process, and that’s something that any designer or editor needs to be comfortable with. Certainly, there are exceptions — more so in the old days, when a single designer carrying an entire game line wasn’t out of the ordinary. These days, it’s more often about shared ideas and letting your own creativity springboard off of other people’s ideas.
When the outline is solid enough that I can “see” the book, or the story, or the film, or whatever in my mind’s eye, then it’s time to start actually writing — at which point, the outline usually gets completely revised, as it should be. Outlining is about working with raw ideas, so that you can make sure the ideas are solid before you commit to fully realizing them. Outlining should never be about telling the story before you tell the story; it’s about being able to see the story, so that when you’re mired within the story during the actual writing, you remember where you were starting from, where you’re going to, and the route you’re taking. For me, embracing and loving outlining has always been the best way to avoid endless rewrites, because it breaks the work down into manageable sections. You focus on one section to make that section work, trusting that the outline means it’ll lock solidly together with all the other sections. Obviously, revisions based on feedback and new direction from your lead designer or a department head are another issue. However, my experience has always been that a good outline helps shape the work in a way that prevents the worst kinds of “The assignment was 10k words but I’ve written 25k — How do I fix it?” kinds of heartbreak.
The final editing stage is equally important — and unfortunately is often hardest to embrace. Having struggled with the writing, it’s very difficult sometimes to go back and edit our own work — to let it sit for a week or two, try to look at it with fresh eyes, and assess what’s working and what isn’t. It’s too easy to fall to the pressure of deadlines by writing up to the eleventh hour, meaning that you simply don’t have time to let the work sit, then go back through it.
I’m always wary of making generalizations, but in my own experience on the editing side of things, most work that fails to hit the “great” benchmark does so because the writer’s focus is too much on the middle “writing” stage of the process. Without time spent outlining and playing with ideas, the ideas we commit to likely aren’t our best ideas. By finishing the writing and immediately firing the work out, we deny ourselves the opportunity to refocus and make the writing as good as it can be.
Thank you kindly for sharing the details regarding your creative process! I believe that will be helpful to many people who are just setting sail to navigate the freelancing waters. You’ve been able to maintain your independence by involving yourself in a little bit of everything, which makes you attractive to a variety of employers. The employer I’m most curious about is Wizards of the Coast. Can you speak about your work with Wizards since 2003?
For sure. My first “assignment” for Wizards was an editing test devised by Kim Mohan (30th-level arch-editor, fiendish brilliance template). Consisting of bits and pieces of the “Frostburn” supplement, it was to be completed on paper using old-fashioned editor’s marks and sent back for review. (One of the advantages of having worked in publishing for as long as I have is that you know about ancient secret arts like editor’s marks that the young kids have never been exposed to.) Kim liked what I did and offered me half of “Complete Arcane”, then liked my work on that enough to offer me “Races of Eberron”, and we carried on from there. Most of my work for Wizards has been editing, including working on quite a few of the 3rd Edition Eberron books (in addition to the two that i was a co-designer on, “Secrets of Sarlona” and “Dragons of Eberron”). For 4th Edition, I’ve edited all or part of eighteen books, edited a half-dozen or so Game Day and tournament adventures, co-wrote a couple of standalone adventures (“Prince of Undeath” and “Seekers of the Ashen Crown”), have edited articles for a few issues of Dragon and Dungeon, have written six adventures for Dungeon, and wrote/co-wrote two different versions of “The Tomb of Horrors”, both of which projects were so cool that I lovingly place them in a category all their own.
How did you feel when you received the news that you were going to “reboot” Tomb of Horrors for 4th Edition?
Giddy with delirium. I describe myself as an old-school gamer (which you can safely translate to just “old” if you like), having started playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school in the 80s. Playing through Tomb of Horrors (to spectacular failure the first time out) was an important watershed moment in our old campaign, and one that I still remember with great nostalgic fondness. People who played the Tomb back in the day usually divide pretty strongly into love-it/hate-it camps. I’ve always been very firmly in the former category, and was just as much a fan of Bruce Cordell’s 2nd Edition sequel Return to the Tomb of Horrors. As such, being asked to update and add to the Tomb canon was quite literally the coolest thing in the world.
The superadventure came first, starting as an email from Andy Collins and James Wyatt asking if I was interested in taking the project on. When I regained consciousness, I responded “Yes, please”. Ari Marmell was lead designer on the project and came in about a month before I did to put the outline together. We each worked on about half the book over two-and-a-half months, with a lot of back-and-forth on specific ideas and the overall feel of the adventure.
I never had the opportunity to run through the original Tomb of Horrors; I feel like I’m missing a major piece of D&D history. However, I have had the pleasure of running my group through the first segment, The Garden of Graves, of the 4th Edition Tomb of Horrors. My group is a few months away from entering the second segment of the book, The Tomb of Shadows. I’m diving into that segment at the moment to prepare, and I’d enjoy getting some insight about the creative process behind that and the rest of the book.
I would like to avoid spoilers so those that have not played it (including my players!) can enjoy the adventure in the future. But could you speak to the design process for The Tomb of Shadows? It sounds like you start with an outline and work from there, but I’m curious about design issues such as:
- Do the encounters drive the narrative or does the narrative drive the encounters?
- What is your level of responsibility in designing the encounters (XP Level, Stat Blocks for each monster, trap and hazard, etc.) compared to the overall story and narrative?
Well, I’ll preface this whole answer with SPOILER ALERT!, though i suspect most people know the broad strokes of how the super-adventure is set you. The process is different for every project, but in this case (digging back to have a look through my notes), the Tomb of Shadows started out as a rough setup of location and function as a part of Ari’s outline — the idea that the second part of the overall adventure would start out in the City of Moil, then finish up in a tomb dungeon below the necrotic sea into which the city is sinking. One of Ari’s primary touchstones in shaping the story of the super-adventure was that the events of Return to the Tomb of Horrors should be treated as canon backstory for the “present day”. I jumped on this idea whole-heartedly, and we expanded the concept so that our adventure would fit in not only with RToH but with Open Grave (which talked about and statted up Acererak) and Rob Schwalb’s “Legacy of Acererak” article in Dragon #371. As such, I pitched Ari on the idea of working in some interesting connections between the Shadow Tomb and RToH.
I suspect every designer has a slightly different way of working, and obviously a straight-up dungeon crawl has very different parameters than a more wide-open adventure. However, for me, adventure design is always a solid mix of narrative and encounters, and I work on both at the same time. In the case of the Shadow Tomb, Ari wanted that section of the adventure to be constructed most like the original Tomb of Horrors, so that helped to define the overall layout of the dungeon as a starting point — effectively using that map as a flowchart for how the mystery and the action would unfold. In some cases, specific ideas for traps and encounters came to mind, so I would work those up, then figure out where best to place them. In other cases, thinking about how the PCs are likely to move through the dungeon while exploring sets up the idea that you really want to have a killer encounter at a particular location. Overall, the Shadow Tomb is built so that it can be explored in a number of different ways, but each of those ways leads inexorably toward specific revelations of Acererak’s plots and the climactic encounter.
As a designer, one is responsible for everything in an adventure — the overall narrative (including revelations of lore and secrets that push the adventure forward), finalizing the number of encounters (very dependent on how much space you have), working out the encounter levels, working up stat blocks, designing new traps and hazards, modifying old ones, and so on. For the Shadow Tomb chapter (including the initial encounters in Moil), I used some monsters from existing sources, but also got to update and stat up creatures from RToH (the Moilian zombie, the winter wight, and one other whose name I won’t mention…), which was great fun. The traps and hazards in the Shadow Tomb are pretty much all new, some of which hearken right back to the original Tomb in terms of their intended level of deviousness; some of which are more straightforward.
How (and how often) were the encounters play-tested during the design process? Were you directly involved in playtesting or did others run through the encounters and later deliver notes to you and Ari?
At the writing stage, I ran some of the traps and a couple of whole encounters in games of my own, but there was no outside playtesting where I would hand over encounters to a group for feedback. The schedule for turning over an adventure like Tomb of Horrors unfortunately doesn’t provide a lot of time for that, as valuable as it obviously is. There were a few encounters and hazards that were inspired by or built on encounters from various campaigns over the years, but as a designer, you try to master the art of thinking like a player and a DM at the same time. I don’t know how other designers manage, but for me, my experience as an editor makes that easier. As an editor, you’re always trying to approach rules text and adventure design from the perspective of actually playing those rules.
Once Ari and I were done with the adventure, like all Wizards of the Coast books, it then went through a period of internal development (by Stephen Radney-MacFarland and Stephen Schubert). I don’t know for certain how much in-house playtesting was done on the adventure, but I know that’s often a general part of the development process.
That is an interesting dynamic in the development process. It sounds like you were free to design in the manner that suited you, and then Wizards of the Coast came in at the end to finish the product. How much back-and-forth was their with the Wizards’ staff once you “were done” with the adventure? Did the same development process apply to Seekers of the Ashen Crown and Prince of Undeath?
It’s not a matter of anyone finishing anyone else’s work; it’s a process of collaboration. The designers (Ari and I in this case) create the work, which development then fine-tunes and improves. Development looks mostly at mechanical issues, tweaking stat blocks, incorporating the latest rules changes, simplifying overly complex mechanics, and so on. The editors then take up the project after development, but their focus is more on clarity of language, trimming for length to fit the layout, looking for continuity issues, and so forth. Though it’s an inexact analogy, you can think of development in the RPG industry as “rules editing”, as opposed to “text editing”. However, for the most part, everyone who works on a book in the course of that collaborative process will probably have some input or comment on other parts of the process. Questions and answers usually fly back and forth from development and editing right until the book is going into final layout.
I’m sure things are different for every company, but for the most part, the books I’ve worked on at Wizards of the Coast follow a consistent process — department heads and lead designers create the outline and the framework for the book; the designers write the flavor and rules text, assembling the mechanical bits like stat blocks and art order descriptions; the developers focus on, hone, and improve the mechanical side of the design; the editors focus on and clean up the prose side of the design. Different books have different points of emphasis in that process. For example, a Monster Manual might have a lot more development than editing just because it’s so rules-intensive. A setting book might have more focus on editing. Adventures, being a good mix of rules and flavor, tend to split the difference.
You mentioned earlier that features of the 4th Edition Tomb of Horrors were intended to “hearken right back to the original Tomb in terms of their intended level of deviousness.” One criticism that has grown in strength over time is that 4th Edition is not deadly enough and players are capable of riding roughshod over published adventures and monsters, especially by Epic Tier when they are loaded with a bevy of magical gear, feats and powers. Your Tomb of Horrors debuted on July 20, 2010, just one month after the debut of Monster Manual 3 on June 15, 2010. Monster Manual 3 was a bright and shiny gift to DMs because it increased the damage output of monsters and introduced new mechanics for monsters to deal with status effects and other player techniques. How did the development of Monster Manual 3 influence the design of Tomb of Horrors?
And to a greater extent, what are your thoughts about the growing trend in game design, including the popularity of Fourthcore, featuring increased difficulty and lethality?
Lack of lethality (or, more specifically, a lack of save-or-instant-death lethality) is an essential part of 4th Edition, and I don’t have a problem with that per se. I specifically think it’s a good thing at lower levels, because one of the big differences between older versions of D&D compared to 3rd and 4th edition is the amount of time and attention wrapped up now in character generation. In my day (insert Grandpa Simpson voice), you created a PC in fifteen minutes. Most people played with two or three PCs at a time in the same adventure, and some of those got killed, and some of those you dropped just because you got bored with them, and you rolled up new characters in fifteen minutes at your next game session. These days, creating a new character is a serious investment in time and resource management, and especially for the sake of new players, I don’t have a problem with it being difficult for a DM to instant-kill a character at 1st level. Having said that, I think that 4e’s somewhat standard three-saves-or-die mechanic is vastly underrated by many players and DMs. I’ve said this a few times in other interviews and forum comments, but to my mind, dying quickly isn’t the worst thing that can happen to your character. Dying slowly is the worst thing that can happen to your character, and I’m quite proud of how many different ways the Tomb of Horrors can make that happen.
I think the larger issue with complaints about 4e’s lack of lethality or wimpy monsters in the epic tier is that DMs and players need to understand that they’re in charge of the game they’re playing, and that control of the game supersedes any mechanical issues. You mentioned MM3 and its new formulae for monster damage output, and I think it’s great that Wizards looks at how gameplay is evolving and makes adjustments to the rules as a whole in reaction. However, DMs need to remember that those kinds of adjustments are always in their purview, whether they’re part of the rules or not. The changes in MM3 unfortunately didn’t have an impact on the design of the Tomb of Horrors super-adventure for the simple reason that the Tomb came first, even though it was published after. (I was one of the editors on MM3, and worked on that project after finishing design work on the Tomb. It’s also a safe bet, just given the nature of the rules changes in MM3, that it was in development for a whole lot longer than anything else on the schedule at that time.) However, that shouldn’t prevent anyone DMing the Tomb from making changes on the fly if that’s what the adventure needs.
No published adventure is ever meant to played entirely as written, because your specific group of players will always find a way to mess things up in a way the designers couldn’t have anticipated. If the climactic encounter is going too easily because the players have the one specific magic item that will severely interfere with the solo boss’s area attacks, then the DM has full rights to tweak the encounter. An issue that a number of DMs have had with the other Tomb of Horrors I worked on (the RPGA Rewards adventure) is that too many of the traps can easily be noted by characters with maxed-out passive Perception. If that is the case and you’re the DM, you can react one of three ways — raise the trap Perception DCs across the board to adjust for the specifics of your group; say that certain traps simply can’t be found with passive Perception but need an active check (this is usually pretty easy to justify with magic traps); or embrace the inadvertent “failing” of the adventure as written, so that players get used to finding most of the traps without working at it, and so forget to work at it and are subsequently blindsided by the really deadly traps. Any approach turns the problem into a different type of challenge, and that’s always the DM’s goal.
I don’t play Fourthcore, but I love what it does and what it represents. For me, it’s always been the case that there’s the game; and then there’s the game the way you personally want to play it — in this case, players and DM coming together and deciding that they want a darker, grittier, more lethal feel to their campaign. I think a lot of newer players, especially those embracing the idea that 4th Edition is intentionally designed to be more balanced than its predecessor, feel like the game fails if it doesn’t work without customization. However, customization, modification, and improvisation have always been at the heart of what makes D&D the game it is.
The length of time required for character development is an excellent point, and something that I had not previously considered when thinking about lethality in 4th Edition. You highlighted an intriguing challenge for any game system – specification versus customization.
I once got into a discussion with another DM who claimed the original books for 4th Edition – Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual – were worthless because of various errata over the years. I disagreed strongly with the statement because I believe anyone could buy those books, play the game with those rules and still have a great experience. For me, the game is what you make it. But on the other hand, a system should be structured to function well with the rules as written. As a designer, how exacting do you feel the need to be when creating rules?
I’m inclined to agree with you, though I understand the position of people who feel a little let down when new rules seem to invalidate what came before. I definitely don’t think that the core books are invalid because of errata, though, any more than I think they were made invalid by the Essentials line. Likewise, v3.5 didn’t invalidate v3.0, nor did 2nd Edition AD&D invalidate the original AD&D. Especially in the current environment in which real-world feedback and “playtesting” is immediate through the internet, I think it’s almost inevitable that a game will evolve according to how it’s played, and it seems fairly obvious that understanding that is a big part of the reason why Wizards of the Coast chose to make D&D Online their primary portal for keeping the game current.
Having said that, however, a big part of the reason why I can roll with the ongoing changes that are a part of the current game is that I’m part of the generation that grew up with the idea that D&D is about absorbing a broad spectrum of rules, then improvising with those rules at every opportunity. When I started a 3rd Edition home campaign with my daughters, I dusted off some old AD&D modules that I’d bought and read but never actually played back in the day, then updated them to v3.5 on the fly, as we played. No prep, no translation, no rigorously looking for percentile odds for certain actions and converting them to skill check DCs. I just winged it, and it was awesome.
Now, I get that 4th Edition has been rightfully pitched as a game whose underlying foundations are balance and playability, to differentiate it from the engines of chaos that previous editions sometimes appear to be. And I’m totally good with that — except that I think it’s inadvertently created a sense among certain players that the game should be a fixed entity, with one set of rules that always simply work. And unfortunately, that’s just not the nature of tabletop RPGs. That kind of rules fix works fine in computer games, MMOs, and the like — but the thing that makes tabletop RPGs better than computer games (in my own humble opinion) is that veneer of chaos and uncertainty. The idea that at some point, a player can say to the best DM in the world “I’m going to try something that no one else has ever thought of,” and that this unthought-of action becomes a part of the game from that point forward.
It seems like you are giving permission to DMs to make 4th Edition their own through customization, modification and improvisation. And if I could read into your thoughts a bit more, I sense a slight feeling of exasperation that DMs and players feel beholden to the rules as written and are reluctant to adjust on the fly. How close is that sentiment to your thoughts on the matter?
Well, I’d love to be important enough for people to come to me for “permission” regarding how they play :-). But it’s probably safer to say that I’m just a big fan of encouraging people to fine-tune the rules, change up the details of encounters, and simply go nuts when and as needed. I won’t cop to “exasperation”, because I don’t think that a heavily improvisational style is the best way to play D&D, or even necessarily a better way than simply wanting to work with a published adventure the way it’s written. But I worry that the newer generation of players and DMs have lost touch with — or in some cases, simply never had a chance to see — that a seat-of-the-pants playing style can be an amazing amount of fun on both sides of the screen.
I actually wrote an adventure for Dungeon (“The Spiral Gate”) that attempted to incorporate a certain amount of improvisation on the DM’s part, in terms of setting up the allegiances between the PCs and two competing factions they get stuck between. Rather than the “You are approached by the good guys, who beseech you to take on the bad guys” approach that a lot of published adventures take, I left things totally open, then roughly broke down how the adventure and the encounters could play out differently depending on the choices the PCs make. It’s not ground-breaking design by any stretch, but I’ve gotten emails from a number of people (players and DMs alike) who really liked the adventure — most of whom were newer D&Ders who had previously never played that style of game, but who had been getting frustrated with the lack of choice and movement in a lot of contemporary adventures.
I wrote a trio of blog posts a while back talking about that adventure and the inspiration behind it.
One facet of Wizards of the Coast maintaining D&D online is that it removes some of the customization from players and DMs. For example, I wrote earlier in the year about how errata applied to Character Builder changes the equation in terms of ownership over the rules of the game. Character creation and management is tied to an online application the player cannot control. What are your thoughts about the steady stream of errata through Character Builder and how it might limit players’ ability to roll with the ongoing changes?
Yes, that is an issue (and I thought your blog post summed it up really well). Ultimately, the game needs to reflect the latest dynamics of design and the sense of how it’s being played in the real world — but having those changes rigidly codified makes it more difficult to use the tools if you happen to like the way things were. Certainly, this isn’t new to 4e. When v3.5 came out, I remember a blog or forum post from Monte Cook, where he responded to WotC’s contention that most of the changes in v3.5 were minor (a point that I agree with, overall), mentioning that your gnome illusionist with boots of speed might disagree. Going back even farther, the original Oriental Adventures and Unearthed Arcana were both supplements that original AD&D players like myself were ravenous for when they first came out. But in both cases, those books made questionable changes to existing rules that a lot of players didn’t like and had to choose to ignore or rewrite.
Having gaming and character creation tools online is a boon overall, but the one big change it makes is breaking the formerly exclusive relationship between the rules of the game and their acceptance and approval by the players of the game. For folks like myself who worked up from the Holmes Blue Box and AD&D (though I’m loath to continually remind people how middle-aged I actually am); for people who started with Mentzer D&D or 2nd Edition; even for people who started with v3.x — the rules aren’t the stuff in the books. The rules are in the stuff in the books that a specific group of players agrees to use. Playing AD&D but want to use D&D’s shorter combat round (as my group always did)? Whatever. Playing v3.5 but like v3.0’s longer durations for the buff spells? No problem. 4e, for better or worse, takes the rules to a level above approval by the players. As your blog post points out, people still have options for dealing with changes they don’t like — and in all honesty, it’s not that much more difficult to manage advancement by hand than it used to be to keep track of a binder’s worth of house rules, home-brew spells, and supplements from nominally incompatible systems. However, on a philosophical level, being implicitly told that you have to adopt a change because someone in charge tells you have to can rankle.
In the series of blog posts about an improvisation-heavy adventure you referenced above, you wrote the following:
The problem is that not all combat encounters deserve or need to be tactical encounters, but current adventure design is slanted so strongly toward the tactical encounter format that it creates a dependent relationship. Tactical encounters now define the game session as anchor points, where they were once simply part of a continuum of process and play that shaped itself in a largely gestalt fashion . . .
The bigger issue for me is that there are now countless D&D players — players of all ages, of varying experience — who don’t understand that improvisation is the heart of what this game is supposed to be about.
The tactical encounter format has done more than simply make certain players forget how to wing a combat encounter on the fly. The tactical encounter format has actively taught certain players that combat cannot be conducted that way.
First, I love reading the word “gestalt” in its proper context! Second, your use of the term “anchor” to describe combat really hit home for me. When I think of an anchor, I think of a heavy object that weighs something down and keeps it in the same place. Combat in 4th Edition does just this very thing as the tactical encounters can plod along for hours. As you wrote, not all combat encounters need to become tactical endeavors. How would you advise DMs to move away from the tactical encounter to something more free-flowing while playing 4th Edition?
Regarding “gestalt”, thanks; I can occasionally make myself look like I know what I’m talking about. :-) But to the bigger issue — At the heart of the best advice I can give to any player or DM is “Don’t be afraid to change things.” That initial hurdle is what holds back a lot of DMs, I think, because beginning DMs especially can worry too much about “Well, if I change up the encounter, adjust the threats, lose or add terrain effects, I’m going to mess with the encounter level and the XP”. Maybe you will; maybe you won’t — but do it anyway, because you and the players having fun in an encounter is more important than encounter level and XP. Just as players should step into an adventure or encounter thinking “What am I going to do next?”, a DM should feel that same degree of freedom.
The basic mechanical approach of changing up the monsters and hazards in some way is easily done (and can be an easy way for new DMs who are really freaked out about tweaking encounters to ease into the process). Beyond that (and more interestingly), a DM can and should look for ways to open up the field of battle and to not simply have the monsters standing in one place waiting for the PCs to arrive. Likewise, don’t be afraid to throw out a combat encounter if the PCs can think of a way to bypass that encounter or to neutralize the threat without fighting. If you’re playing your own adventure using your own maps or dungeon tiles, build a little five-encounter delve or set of site-based encounters but don’t assign specific monsters to specific areas. Instead, roll randomly and see what happens when you mix-and-match monster group A with terrain effects B. When the PCs wipe out half a group of foes, have those foes flee so that the PCs can pursue, turning a static fight in one room into an on-the-run battle through a half-dozen different types of terrain. Have those fleeing foes slam into the next group of monsters, making the earlier fight easier but the next fight more difficult. Or maybe the old foes and the new foes don’t get along. Will they fight alongside each other against the PCs? Roll for it, so that maybe the characters end up with the old foes as short-term allies, leading into an impromptu diplomatic skill challenge to establish a détente.
If you’re running a published adventure, this approach is often harder because of 4e’s need for large encounter areas, and the fact that many published adventures have nothing but corridors and small rooms between the encounter areas. However, as a DM, you should also learn to get comfortable modifying the maps of published adventures. Foes flee from the PCs? Turn a 10-foot-wide corridor into an additional room not on the map. Don’t like the fact that an adventure’s map has a straight-through, encounter-by-encounter forced layout? Throw in some extra corridors or a couple of malfunctioning teleport pads that can send the PCs anywhere. If the party ends up taking on one of the climactic encounters first, killing the solo boss at the start of the adventure, let it happen — and then make the PCs fight their out through the dungeon’s other denizens, all now enraged because their master has been killed. Or decide that the boss’s former servants will split into two factions once he’s dead, so that the PCs have to ally with one side in order to help overcome the other side and earn their freedom.
It seems like you are requesting for DMs to challenge themselves by opening the game to randomness and improvisation. I will certainly take your advice to heart in my campaign. You commented that players should step into an adventure or encounter thinking “What am I going to do next?” I’m curious about your future plans both inside Wizards of the Coast and other outside endeavors. What are you going to do next?
Absolutely. For me, though, it’s not just about the challenge — it’s about the idea that playing a faster, looser game can be a lot more fun, even as it entails a lot less work on the DM’s part. A lot of contemporary adventure design does a great job at the tactical level, but doesn’t leave a lot to the DM’s imagination. More so than anything else, regardless of edition, Dungeons & Dragons is a game of the imagination, and anything a DM can do to cut loose is a good thing.
As a lowly freelancer living in the Canadian hinterland, my plans sadly don’t go inside Wizards of the Coast all that much, though I’m still keeping busy for them. One of the things with all WotC freelancers is that we can’t talk about books we’ve worked on until they’ve been announced in the product schedule, but recent work that I can mention includes some design on Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium; being one of the editors on the Neverwinter Campaign Setting and the about-to-be-released Heroes of the Feywild; and editing some of the recently announced Heroes of the Elemental Chaos and The Dungeon Explorer’s Guide.
Outside of my RPG work for Wizards and a few pet gaming projects of my own, I’ve been focusing my time more and more the past few years on fiction, and particularly on a kind of darker, character-driven epic fantasy that’s always been a passion for me. My latest book is an epic-fantasy/sword-and-sorcery anthology, A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales, which lays out eight stories (six shorts, a novella, and an eponymous short novel) of heroes and villains caught up in the dark histories of nine artifact-weapons. It was a cool book to work on insofar as it covers a lot of narrative territory, from straight-up heroic fantasy to some lighter humor, to a bit of Hemingwayesque romance, to the quite dark and introspective narrative of A Prayer for Dead Kings.
I have three new novels in the works as well as a number of short pieces (some of which are being highlighted monthly on my website as a Free Fiction Friday thing. I’m also involved with a loose-knit group of writers (including a number of other folks involved in one capacity or another with Wizards of the Coast) calling itself the Monumental Works Group. The group represents an amazing range of styles and genres within the broad spectrum of fantasy and speculative fiction, which will be on display in a new anthology we’re putting together for release in December.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading the first two short stories in A Prayer For Dead Kings and Other Tales, and I was struck by the disparate styles in each story so far. The first focuses on an adventure of a fighter-and-wizard tandem, which reminded me (in a very good way) of a buddy-cop dynamic. The second is completely different in tone and told from an extremely unique point-of-view. I’m eager to continue with the rest of the book as it seems you really attempted to challenge yourself and push the boundaries with your approach to fiction. What were your motivations for writing a series of short stories and novel with such divergent styles in one collected work?
Thanks for your thoughts on the book, and glad you’re enjoying it. The impetus for the different feel between many of the stories was a combination of things. Partly, it was a desire to always try to push myself as a writer, insofar as if I find a particular style or voice too easy, I become wary of overusing it and will try to do something else. Partly it was the different nature of the stories, and trying to figure out the best way to tell each one. I’m a manic outliner for the most part, even on shorter fiction, and these were all stories where I knew in advance what the story was and where it was going. It was thus easy to get into a particular state of mind and voice that lent itself to the mood of each story. (Having said that, as fits the earlier notion of always trying to challenge myself, I recognized recently that my habit of strongly outlining even short fiction needed to be shaken up. Some of my more recent short pieces have thus been written “cold”, with only the sketchiest sense of where the story is going when I start.)
How has your work been affected by writing “hot” compared to writing from detailed outlines?
Writing in a more seat-of-the-pants fashion has been a really cool experience, insofar as I know I’m writing faster than I do when I’m outlining. Or, more accurately, when I’m writing this way, I’m kind of combining the outlining and the writing at the same time so that the sense of where the story is going is much more immediate. I’m also writing a bit shorter, which is another thing I aspire to. (As you’ll note from PfDK, a lot of my short fiction stays on the long side as the narrative builds up.)
You have been involved in writing for many years, and I wonder if you could comment on the changing landscape of the larger culture surrounding your work in fantasy. I believe we are somewhat close to the same age (I’m 35), and I don’t recall a time in my younger years when fantasy-based movies (The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) and television shows (Game of Thrones) were winning Oscars and Emmys. Meanwhile, vampires (Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries) and zombies (The Walking Dead) are accepted on the small and big screen. Not to mention the Harry Potter explosion over the past 10 years. What are your thoughts on fantasy – and geek culture in general – becoming more integrated into mainstream media and culture?
I’ve actually got about ten years on you, though my mental age remains steadfastly at fifteen, so I average out. :-) But yeah, same reaction from me. My sixteen-year-old self, hanging out in the high school library study carrels playing D&D at lunch, would have been amazed to imagine a world in which teenagers who had never played World of Warcraft or watched Lord of the Rings were the oddity. I think mainstream culture has finally clued into what fantasy fans have known for a long time — that pushing beyond the boundaries of the real world can make well-crafted story more emotionally compelling. I think the issue was that for many years, fantasy was seen as an excuse to not craft compelling character story. A lot of fantasy and SF writers (even some of the good ones) focused more on world-building than on character, and as a result, they tended to attract only the hardcore audience of fans who could appreciate the literary value of world-building. Over time, though, a reaction against that more placid literature (starting really in the ’60s with the so-called New Wave) started digging deeper, using the standard tropes of fantasy and SF to lay down more and more complex and challenging narratives.
I see a renewed maturity in fantasy and SF writing, whether books, films, or television. Storytellers are digging deeper than ever before into the foundations of fantasy in order to tell universal, compelling stories. The success of books like Harry Potter and Twilight isn’t just down to the imaginative elements of those series’ worlds — it’s the fact that J.K Rowling and Stephanie Meyer used their worlds to tell universal stories of alienation and hope that really resonated with readers. Now, i confess to not really being in Twilight’s target audience, but more in my own backyard, the readers who have made the Song of Ice and Fire books as popular as they are (and the viewers who watched HBO’s Game of Thrones who hadn’t read the books) have responded not just to George R.R. Martin’s talent as a world-builder and historian of the imagination, but to the fact that he’s peopled his world and its history with real, living, breathing characters. The struggles of Martin’s characters are archetypal. Their hopes and fears and pain are universal, and that’s what great writing has always been about.
I hope we both get to enjoy excellent fantasy and science-fiction writing in the future. And you are correct, it’s all about the archetypal characters and their personal struggles. I’m reminded of the great work by Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. But it is not a simple formula to perfect. How do you keep your work fresh and original as the market becomes overrun with fantasy and science-fiction themed material?
Campbell definitely lays the foundations for great heroic narrative, but I think the thing that every writer has to remember is that all stereotypes once started out as archetypes. At some point in time, someone was the first person to ever write a story about a princess locked in a tower waiting to be rescued, or a steely-thewed barbarian drinking and wenching his way into legend, or a character with no heroic ambition who finds himself suddenly possessed of an artifact that will destroy the world. And everyone who read those stories went “Hey, that’s really original!” Once the archetypes become familiar, however, turning the archetypes into a great story involves the writer digging deep to figure out how the archetypes connect to the real world as he or she sees it — and in the process of doing so, creating something wholly original. That process of digging deep, of creating a connection between fantasy and Faulkner’s human heart in conflict with itself, is what allows the broad-strokes stories described above to go beyond the basic archetypes-turned-stereotypes to become Tangled, or “Beyond the Black River”, or Lord of the Rings.
Digging deep is the difference between Dune and Star Wars, in the sense that both stories (talking just about the original film and the first book, not the overall canon) are built around a lot of the same broad, archetypal concepts, starting with the young naif who discovers that he’s the heir to great power and the center of a destiny he never dreamed of. (When he first saw Star Wars, and specifically the Tatooine sequences, Frank Herbert quipped that he didn’t mind how much George Lucas had borrowed from Dune, but that Lucas should probably have bought him lunch or something first.) I love both works (and like a lot of people my age, Star Wars was responsible for galvanizing my love of F&SF in junior high), but for me, Dune is the better story because it digs deeper into the world of its story — and in doing so, makes a stronger connection to the real world and to the reader.
Star Wars is a great yarn, and a lot of fun, but its morals and lessons are all very broad strokes (good vs. evil). Dune presents good vs. evil just as effectively, but to me, it also pushes into the more interesting realms of personal responsibility, free will, sacrifice, and the idea that the lines between good and evil can sometimes blur. Star Wars touches on all those things for sure (“There’s nothing for me here now. I want to come with you to Alderaan…”), because Lucas was clearly cognizant of their value and power. However, he left those concerns largely just on the surface, making them interesting backdrop to a lighter, more accessible story, but not the crux of why he was writing. By the same token, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books lay down clear divisions between good and evil, but then shatter and reforge those divisions as they dig deep into the character story. Digging deep is what makes the ending of Game of Thrones leave a reader or viewer feeling like they’ve lived through the pain and the darkness and the fading hope that Martin’s characters have lived through. The best fantasy and speculative fiction, regardless of how far the world of the story might be from our own, no matter how alien the characters might seem, creates a resonance with the real world because the writer has something to say about that real world and our place within it.
You’ve been extremely generous with your time! Thank you for discussing your writing and design process. How can people buy a copy of A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales? What is the best method for people to contact you if they have questions or comments?
My pleasure, and thank you. A Prayer for Dead Kings is out as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most of the other usual places. Convenient links are on the Book page at my website. My site also has a contact page with email, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ information, and I’m always happy to hear from people.