This summer’s Dungeons & Dragons relaunch includes a set of adventures focused on the rise of the dragon goddess Tiamat, designed by Wolfgang Baur and Steve Winter of Kobold Press. In this interview, they told us about adventure design and the joys of writing for a game system while it’s still in development.
io9: Could you describe the nature of your license with Wizards of the Coast? Does it extend beyond these two adventures, and does it affect your future slate of Pathfinder and 13th Age material?
Wolfgang Baur: Wizards of the Coast commissioned Kobold Press to create an adventure set in the Forgotten Realms. We’re the designers, editors and crew on that adventure, which will be published by Wizards of the Coast.
That agreement doesn’t extend beyond these two adventures, and it doesn’t affect our future slate of Pathfinder RPG and 13th Age material. We just shipped our biggest Pathfinder RPG release ever, the 376-page Deep Magic tome of spells and the arcane, and the Midgard Bestiary 13th Age Compatible Edition is just the first book of our 13th Age support. We expect to release many more Pathfinder RPG and 13th Age books in the future.
The Kobold Press slate of fantasy game material will remain weighted toward what people want, and what we can deliver. The dragons are a great start!
io9: What can you tell us about the adventures themselves? Is there a lot of intrigue, a focus on dungeon crawls, or a mystery to solve?
Steve Winter: In an adventure this huge, there’s plenty of room for all three. The next edition of D&D emphasizes the three pillars of tabletop RPGs: combat, exploration/discovery, and interactive roleplaying.
The adventure starts by dropping characters into the middle of a major raid against a town by the Cult of the Dragon. That’s a long night of battling raiders, sneaking through sewers, rescuing hostages, plugging breakthroughs in the defenses, and even squaring off against a dragon—albeit briefly, since the characters are only 1st level.
From there, they go into some espionage and infiltration of the cult, then a dungeon crawl, then a long road trip with all sorts of oddball encounters, more skullduggery, some “Heart of Darkness”-type action in a swamp, negotiations with a traitor, and a huge, dynamic finish that people will remember for a long time. And that’s just Hoard of the Dragon Queen. There’s much more in The Rise of Tiamat with just as much variety.
Wolfgang: If your readers are curious about the Kobold Press style of adventure design, there’s several adventures at half-price right now, including the forest adventures of Tales of the Old Margreve and my own The Raven’s Call and To the Edge of the World. The latter two of those are about $4 each, so you’ll see how the Kobold adventures tick. The focus is on letting players make their own decisions, and opening up a lot of possibilities. The Raven’s Call is a pretty straightforward introduction that works great with new players—and I’ve run it for 10 and 12 year-olds—while To the Edge of the World is fairly over-the-top and epic.
io9: Are these adventures tailored to less experienced DMs and players? Are there elements you created specifically to make these good introductory adventures?
Steve: The action starts out simple, with short, basic fights against raiders in the town. But after that, the adventure becomes pretty free-ranging. There are specific tasks characters should undertake and a sequence in which they happen, but we don’t hand the DM a script.
This adventure lays out what’s going on, then relies on the DM to use that information dynamically while interacting with the players. There’s very little “This is Tuesday, so this must be Belgium” about these adventures. I suppose some people consider running a game that way to be ‘advanced’ DMing, but I don’t. It’s a natural form of play, with lots of give-and-take between players and DM and also between the DM and the adventure itself.
I suppose that’s tougher than reading a script, but it’s also a lot more enjoyable.
Wolfgang: There’s an introductory adventure in the D&D Starter Set, which is out in July, but that’s really geared entirely at new players. Tyranny of Dragons starts out fairly basic, but advances quickly to higher complexity, for both players and Dungeon Masters.
io9: I imagine the rules were still in flux as these were being written. What kinds of challenges did that present?
Steve: We received frequent rules updates from Wizard of the Coast, and my stomach lurched a little bit every time one arrived out of fear that some enormous change would throw a big chunk of our work out the window. Happily, most of the changes were fine-tuning that was easy to incorporate, or adjustments to character classes that had little effect on what we were doing.
The exception to this was changes to monsters. Monster descriptions, monster toughness, and even the list of monsters available changed many times, and some of those changes impacted our work significantly. But this is a process, and we’ve been through it before. You make adjustments and keep going.
There was one incident with the monsters, however, that turned out to be rather funny—to me, anyway. I’m sure some playtesters found it horribly frustrating. We wrote the early encounters using a lot of Human Warriors because they were suitable low-level NPCs for 1st-level characters to tangle with. Before the manuscript was sent to playtesters, Wizards R&D re-statted the Human Warrior as a 5th-level foe, and no one alerted us. Playtesters reported massive TPKs from 1st-level characters being overwhelmed by waves of 5th-level warriors. They must have thought we were the biggest idiots in D&D. But it was just a communication breakdown.
Wolfgang: For the most part, Steve’s right, it was the monster changes that were hardest to deal with. Several times, though, spell changes required section rewrites as well. As with any new edition, it’s dangerous to assume you know how a spell works just because you know how it used to work. That tripped me up two or three times with simple things like alarm and with more complex things like Mordenkainen’s magnificent mansion.
io9: To the extent that it’s possible to describe an entire RPG rule set in a few sentences, how would you describe this new edition of D&D?
Steve: I’d call it streamlined, at least compared to the previous two editions. Every new edition of the game veers toward expanding the rules, formalizing and codifying more and more of the experience. But an enormous part of the magic of D&D is that it’s wide open. That’s what makes it different from any other type of game. Every time you narrow that window, you lose something. The new edition of D&D seems to be veering in the opposite direction, toward more open-endedness and greater freedom for DMs and players.
I think that RPG designers have learned some critical lessons during the last two decades of ever-increasing structure. It’s not that structure is bad, because it isn’t, but there are ways to have structure and still have flexibility. The D&D designers seem to have put a lot of effort into building with flexible material rather than just setting everything in stone.
Wolfgang: I agree entirely that the looser structure makes it easy for the new edition to accommodate some playstyles that we haven’t seen as often recently, focused on player smarts rather than character power. Related to that, the power curve for magic is changing as well. I’m used to thinking of the Forgotten Realms as a very high-magic, high fantasy sort of place, but the new edition of the rules dials things back a bit from the 3rd edition and Pathfinder tradition of “PC Christmas trees”, or the characters with a magic item to fill every slot.
Magic is more wondrous and more difficult to find in the new edition—but I think that makes players value it a little more than the days of “oh, a +1 sword, toss it on the pile.” The emphasis is squarely on what characters can do, not what their items do.
io9: Did the new rules open up some adventure writing possibilities that Pathfinder or 4th edition made difficult?
Steve: Absolutely. Because you’re not overwhelmed by the minutiae of the rules, you can put your energy into devising a complex, fascinating plot and villains whose appeal comes from their motivation (or their psychosis) instead from a menu of intricate combat abilities. We didn’t choreograph any of the major combat encounters of Tyranny of Dragons the way they would have been in 3rd or 4th edition.
Instead, we just laid out the situation, described what the villain hoped to accomplish, probably included some variables or conditions under which he’d run away, and then left it in the DM’s hands to conduct that battle as he or she thinks best. DMs are smart, and they know their players better than we ever could.
Wolfgang: I enjoyed having the extra wordcount that we got back by removing the need for 500-word stat blocks every few pages. Tyranny of Dragons has a lot more encounters per chapter, because the emphasis is on the adventure flow, not on presenting stats.
io9: Can you describe the actual logistical process of writing an RPG adventure? It’s such a strange blend of storytelling and mechanics — how does it all come together?
Steve: That question always reminds me of the conversation in Shakespeare In Love in which the jaded producer tries to calm the nervous financier. “The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. What do we do? Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well. How? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
Once you get past that, there are a few rules. In a project this big, everything revolves around an outline. We spent more than a week pounding out and refining a multi-page outline for the adventures, starting from the story bible provided by Wizards of the Coast. Their document covered an enormous plot with far more going on than we could hope to include. We chose the elements we wanted to focus on, expanded them with many embellishments of our own, and spun it all together into a story.
With a detailed outline in place, it’s just a matter of putting words on the screen. Day after day. More words. Thousands upon thousands of the damned things. Line after line, paragraph after paragraph, with no end in sight.
That’s all there is to it!
Wolfgang: Steve makes it sound easier than it actually is. But I’m happy to say that our toil and suffering have generated something pretty cool. And that one of the instructions we did get from Wizards was one I was incredibly happy to embrace. I remember it as Mike Mearls saying “Make sure to include ALL the dragons.” Oh, they’re in there!