Earlier this summer, I was contacted by Andy Hand, the creator of Boccob’s Blessed Blog and co-owner of Limitless Adventures, which is a new endeavor by him and Michael Johnson. He contacted me to ask if I would be interested in reviewing the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons products that are now available for purchase through Limitless Adventures and other outlets. Rather than a product review, I thought it would be more fun to interview him about the challenges and opportunities involved in self-publishing D&D content. Below, he speaks about he long history with roleplaying games and how the Open Game License has evolved over the years including the recent introduction of the DM Guild through Wizards of the Coast. We also delved into design philosophy between editions and entered a bit of a debate around issue of Dungeon Masters “fudging” die results for reasons. Enjoy the interview leave a question below if you have any thoughts or reactions.
You started Boccob’s Blessed Blog over six years ago, which was during the upswing in attention to all things Dungeons & Dragons based on the release of 4th Edition in 2008. What were some of the key motivations to start writing about gaming back then?
I started Boccob’s in response to 4th Edition. I started playing D&D with Basic in 1990; I still think the Rule Cyclopedia is the greatest D&D product ever written. Our group quickly evolved to 2nd Edition, and then moved to 3rd in 2000, so suffice it say, we’ve played a lot of D&D. We loved the changes that came along with 3rd edition and played it zealously for years. When 4th came out we didn’t care for it and started to archive as much 3.5 material from the Wizards of the Coast website as we could, knowing that they’d clear out the old to make way for the new – which they did, and a lot of great content was lost. I wanted a place to post new 3.5 material and continue the conversation started by the Open Game License.
Your experience is quite different from my own; I started writing in 2011 after falling in love with 4th Edition. I took a long break after playing some 2nd Edition as a teenager and still have yet to play any form of 3rd Edition D&D. The Open Game License first came about in 2000, and it has gone through a variety of forms over the years. How has producing D&D content through the OGL changed over the years and editions?
The Open Game License revitalized the gaming community and allowed countless d20-powered systems to come to life, as well as letting third party and independent designers develop products that could be used for D&D 3.0/3.5. It was a glorious time with nearly infinite character customization option for the players and endless adventure paths and campaign ideas for the DMs.
Paizo continued the tradition with Pathfinder and have made a great deal of their content available. The whole idea of an open game license really fosters a creative community and makes the game richer and more diverse. We are seeing a second big surge in content since Wizards of the Coast released the SRD5, which allows the core content of 5th Edition to be used by third party developers. It is a great time for D&D!
While I created a series of monsters for 4th Edition, I have yet to dip my toe in the waters of publishing D&D content. It sounds like you have been publishing content through the OGL for many years. What key pieces of advice would you offer to other creators that want to get their work out there and noticed?
The content needs to stand out. Tropes and familiar fantasy archetypes are fun and comfortable, but you have to put a new spin on them. Make sure your product looks clean, I’m not talking art (which is important), but make sure it is devoid of typos, misspelling, and style issues. Lastly, if you want to be noticed, put your work out there for the community to see. Post your finished product on the D&D sub-Reddits, Facebook groups, and forums. Ask for feedback and comments. When I used to teach writing, I would tell my students that good writing happens through corroboration and revision; as we’ve seen with 5th Edition, which is successful because of the massive playtests and feedback from the community.
When you believe you have a well-polished product, how do you balance putting your work out there for free with trying to get people motivated to buy it?
The, “Hey buy my stuff, it’s super cool” approach doesn’t really work on the internet. You have to offer free products or services that will exhibit your skills and earn the trust of your target customer. At Limitless Adventures we offer a free product on the first of each month, no strings attached. We display the last three months of free products, so there are always at least three freebies someone visiting the site can download. We stand by our work and let people get a feel for our writing and style before they commit any money.
I imagine many creators are wrestling with the best strategy to push their products in our social media, crowd-funding world. Your approach seems to be reasonable and fair. How did Limitless Adventures originate and how has it evolved?
My business partner and I have an annual D&D campout with some good friends. Last year we began discussing all the pain and preparation time that goes into the average game. We thought that we reduce some of the stress of being a DM, while also providing some inspiration to expand any campaign world with our adventure hooks. Limitless Adventures is still very much in its infancy; while we started working on the business last October, the website, lovingly coded by Mike, has only been live since April. The site continues to grow, and will eventually branch off into original board, card and RPG games.
I really wanted to dive into the approach of Limitless Adventures, and I think this relates to your comments about “all the pain and preparation time” that is a standard aspect of the DM experience. What contributes to that “pain and preparation time” before sitting down for a session?
Our issues with preparation time are not unique. Mike and I both work full-time jobs, and have busy family lives. There are days when we simply don’t have the time to write an engaging, and balanced gaming session. The rules for monster creation and encounter building as written in the DM’s Guide, are solid and useful, but they do take time and some experience to do well. We write products that the harried DM can download and use with no prep time.
Limitless Adventures boasts that it offers “random encounters, 3-act story arcs, towns, NPCs, and loot packs” that can be incorporated into an existing D&D campaign. How is your product different from the officially licensed materials? Or in other words, what are DMs missing that are not in the materials published by Wizards of the Coast?
Limitless Adventure products are different from other published materials because they augment a DM’s existing game world. The majority of our customers use our encounters, locations, and side quests to flesh out their own game world. We make a conscious effort to make our content as unobtrusive as possible. If our quest were to detail an epic empire with ten-thousand years of back story, it would be harder for a DM to work into their established world, or the Forgotten Realms, etc. Our products are grab-and-go, and highly editable. Additionally, every Limitless Adventure product contains Further Adventure hooks that help DM’s create follow-up quests, and a novelty, something completely new and as-yet unpublished. Past novelties have included new monsters, spells, optional rules, gods, weapons, and magic items.
Unobtrusive is an interesting word to use. You sent me an example of some of the products you’ve created for Limitless Adventures, including the Urban Encounters pack, which features “10 random encounters in a city environment.” In theory, these encounters could be dropped into any gaming session taking place in a city environment. Some of the encounters (The Shakedown, Drunken Knights) are fleshed out with monster statistics and treasure, while other encounters (The Kindness of Strangers, Mistaken Identity) are briefer and feature a NPC along with possible adventure hooks for additional questing. The interesting thing is that the encounters are not connected; they do not relate in any way. Why was it important to create a series of encounters that are not linked together?
When we write a pack, we try to add seven encounters that will likely end in combat, and three that could be resolved with skills or role-play. In the future, we intend to try a line of noncombat products, but until then the 7-to-3 ratio seems to work well. We intentionally leave the encounters unconnected for maximum DM use and replay. If the encounters were connected, the DM would be committed to a 10-scene arc, but by leaving the encounters unconnected, the DM can use as many as she likes, in any town or city in the campaign world.
What are the key elements for a combat encounter? In other words, what makes a GOOD combat encounter?
A good combat encounter needs to be challenging and make the players feel heroic. The encounter should have multiple solutions, and they shouldn’t all be scaled. The DM needs to be a champion for the characters and write adventures that allow them to shine. Sometimes we as DMs write encounters and draft dungeons to show how clever we are, and forget that our chief responsibility is to entertain the players.
I’ve written some extended thoughts on how the DM is primarily an entertainer, so I agree with you on that point. How do you balance being a champion for the player characters with trying to present difficult obstacles to overcome? How do you accomplish both goals?
The short answer: I fudge it. I never let dice or rules get in the way an interesting game. I’ll keep a baddy on his feet for a few extra rounds until the player, whose dice luck has been poor all night, can land the killing blow. For me, a good encounter is tense, and the players barely succeed. When I lay the antagonist’s miniature on its side and a collective sigh goes up around the table . . . well, that is the reason I play!
Fudging rolls and outcomes can be a bit of a hot topic. Overall, I agree with your position that the DM is there to entertain, and I sometimes keep a monster around for another round for selfish reasons such as, “I really want to hit the party with this cool attack!” I have also changed hit points to spread the kills around the players characters, as you described above. However, I realize this sort of behavior on my part as the DM is a slippery slope because one could make the argument that dice become irrelevant if the outcomes are ignored for the sake of telling a good story where “the players barely succeed.” How much fudging is too much? And what would it be like for you to run a game where results are strictly decided by dice rolls?
I make my rolls in front of my players – always have. But sometimes I fudge the results of their rolls to make them feel heroic. I’m a big proponent of a concept my great grandmother called, “cheating fair.” If a player misses the final attack by a point, I’ll fudge it. If I make a critical save by one point, but the story would be furthered by the monster failing it, I’ll fudge it. If the party haven’t broken a sweat on the climatic final battle, I’ll fudge HPs a bit to make it more exciting and satisfying for the party. Fifth Edition monsters and NPCs have a lot of HPs, so if the fight becomes a grind, and I see that I’m losing my players, the next hit on the monster might be a kill shot, regardless of remaining HP. What I won’t do, is fudge a roll to kill or embarrass a PC. These techniques may not work for all tables, but they seem to fit mine. My players want to feel like heroes, but they don’t want it come too easily.
Cheating Fair sounds like a great title for a book – or a band! I typically roll behind a screen though I’ve experimented with rolling in the open. I try to do a little of both; it can help add to the tension when an important roll is made in the open. The players tend to lean in to see the result. Could you imagine if DMs allowed players to roll behind a screen and report results!? What’s your gut reaction to that?
If players roll in private bad things would probably happen at some (if not, most) tables. I have backup plans for when the dice go badly for my players. I try to let them fail forward. They still get to their goal but have fewer resources, the CR for the encounter may go up a point, they may lose an item or a NPC contact. Never let the game come to halt. The same goes for traps and puzzles, there should always be alternative solutions. Keeping the game’s momentum is key, and also one of the hardest things to do as a DM.
Being experienced with many iterations of rules and editions, what does 5th Edition offer to DMs that is more useful for encounter building when compared to earlier editions or other systems? And on the flip side, what design elements in 5th Edition make it more cumbersome to create satisfying encounters?
I think 5th Edition is a great system, but I also know that some DMs find encounter building and creating new monsters to be a bit daunting, and often time consuming. That was one of the biggest factors for starting Limitless Adventures. Mike and I wanted to create grab-and-go products that could ease some of the burden of DMing. Our motto is, “Prep less, game more”.
I’m most familiar with building encounters in 4th Edition, which was a fairly straightforward procedure with the XP Budget system. Why is 5th Edition so daunting? What could be done to remedy that going forward?
I think some of the confusion comes from the terminology used. There are experience points awarded for the monsters defeated , 25 for a kobold for example. There is also an XP value assigned to encounter building that uses multiplier to compensate for the added difficulty of fighting multiple opponents. To continue our kobold example, defeating two kobolds is 50 XP, but those two kobolds cost the DM 75 XP towards their encounter threshold (the XP pool you draw from to create encounters for a day of game time), 25 XP + 25 XP x 1.5 (the modifier for two monsters) = 75. DMs have to keep two separate XP amounts. You also need to decide the ratio of encounter difficulties to ensure that your party has a range easy, medium, hard and deadly encounters. It isn’t difficult, but it can be time consuming.
I’ve relied on published materials in 5th Edition so far because of things like that. Going forward, it seems like the DM Guild will provide a wealth of supplemental material for DMs running games. What do you make of the DM Guild so far? And how does it affect your plans to publish and promote products through Limitless Adventures?
We love the DM’s Guild. There is a lot of great content on the site and since it is maintained by Wizards of the Coast you can use their intellectual property (i.e., mind flayers, displacer beasts). Currently we only have one product for sale on the site, our Ravenloft Encounters, but we intend to add a product each month. Now in August we posted Underdark Encounters.
The majority of our products will still reside on Limitless Adventures, but we love having a venue where we can use iconic monsters, NPCs, and settings that would otherwise be off limits to us as a third party publisher.