Hello gamers, Abstruse here with a long-overdue column. The original idea of how to cover the massive amount of news coming through during the heavy con season got shot to shit thanks to various technological and biological attacks against this column (Nordling had computer problems and I was sick as death), so here’s the Part 1 of our coverage of Space City Con, an interview with Bruce Cordell (ex-R&D for Wizards of the Coast and designer of 4 of the top 20 rated D&D modules of all time) and Robert J. Schwalb (current R&D for Wizards of the Coast and all-around awesome guy).
Abstruse: So how far along are you on Next?
Robert J. Schwalb: I’d probably say we’re about halfway.
Robert J. Schwalb: But that number is a moving number, right? The core of the game’s done.
Bruce Cordell: The core of the game’s done, it’s just the writing’s about halfway.
Abstruse: So how did you guys get into the industry?
Robert J. Schwalb: Actually, it was by total accident. I was out of college and thinking about doing fiction and there was an open call for a D20 book. I pitched a book and they bought the book and it’s been a snowball effect ever since. So I kind of wound up in the game industry and it turned out I really liked it. It’s worked out well for me.Bruce Cordell: What was that book?Robert J. Schwalb: QUINTESSENTIAL WITCH. It was not a very good book, but it was a great learning experience. It was an 80,000 words and I’d never written anything that size before. It was good. So I moved onto Green Ronin Publishing where I worked on UNHOLY WARRIOR’S HANDBOOK, BOOK OF FIENDS. The GRIMM roleplaying game came out sort of around the same time. Then I became Line Developer for Green Ronin and worked on WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAYING, and then I jumped ship and started working on D&D at Wizards of the Coast. I’ve been there ever since.
Abstruse: And you came in around 3.5?
Robert J. Schwalb: Toward the end of 3.5. My first book was TOME OF MAGIC.Bruce Cordell: Back when I was working at Wizards and Rob started freelancing, I had in my head a list of A, B, C, and D freelancers I wanted to work with. There was really only one A freelancer and that was Rob Schwalb.Robert J. Schwalb: D’awww!Bruce Cordell: He was always the best writer. It was wonderful to put him on full time.Robert J. Schwalb: You’re so sweet.Bruce Cordell: I’m just saying.Robert J. Schwalb: And very gentle.
Bruce Cordell: I got into the industry...I had a couple of freelance assignments and, to be honest, it was my friend Monte Cook who said “You should try and write some stuff.” [This is important later. –Abs] He said this for several years. Finally, I put in a couple of things for Iron Crown Enterprises for the SPACE MASTER VOL 2. But then I was also doing multi-user MUDs and MUSHes in the early 90s. I was working at a biotech institute and we had all these computers, so I was able to teach myself to teach myself how to program these MUDs and MUSHes, Multi-User Dungeons and Multi-User Shared Hallucinations [basically text-based MMOs for you youngsters out there – Abs] TSR said, “Hey, we want to produce a D&D MUD!”
I put in my name, went out for an interview, and they hired me to write a Multi-User Dungeon. But then when I got out there, they said, “Naw, we’re not going to do that.” I said, “I just fucking quit my job in biotech!” So they said “We’ll put you in print.” So first thing they put me on was GATES OF FIRESTORM PEAK.
Abstruse: And you went through the transition to Wizards of the Coast onto 3rd Edition and so on?
Bruce Cordell: Yep. Second Edition, Third Edition...
[At this point, author Elizabeth Bear interrupted us for a moment to talk to Bruce and Rob to get their con schedules straight, which is why conventions are awesome because Elizabeth Bear might randomly appear at any moment. - Abs]
Abstruse: So modularity has been a big part of the entire concept behind it, but it’s not something we’ve seen in the way it’s been presented in the playtest. Is that something we’re going to see in the future?
Bruce Cordell: I would say a lot of the modularity comes from the idea that you can evoke any previous edition with the right set of rules combinations. If you want to use feats, if you don’t want to use feats, if you want to use skills, if you don’t want to use skills. And the plan is for the Dungeon Master’s Guide to have more explicit modules and those things end up presented to the playtest community.Robert J. Schwalb: And largely I think that’s due to the fact that our focus up until this point has been to really nail down the core. Get the core engine so it sings and works exactly the way we want it to work and make sure that all the numbers are right. Once we have a solid foundation, we can then build whatever pieces we want. And we’ll be rigorous about the approach we take about evolving those mechanisms, but it’s not something we need to throw out the public through playtest because we know once we have the foundation, we know what dials to turn and what buttons to push to make sure those pieces all work together. And we’re starting to see how those module units will come into play with the direction that feats have taken and our ability check resolution and how skills are going to start feeding back in.
Abstruse: That’s one thing that, the moment I heard about it, it was one of those...”Why the hell haven’t we been doing this forever?!” is the way you’re doing skills through abilities and saving throws through abilities. It was the same to me as AC flipping to be the to-hit number back in 3rd Edition with no tables or anything. That’s so simple and elegant, why the hell haven’t we been doing that for twenty years?
Robert J. Schwalb: D&D is a game that’s steeped in tradition and the methods by which we understand how to play the game kind of feed back into the language game we’re playing when we talk about D&D. So any kind of radical departures from those mechanisms changes the way we talk about that game. Now obviously something like getting rid of THAC0, for example, was probably the best thing to happen to D&D. Now if you say THAC0 to someone who comes into D&D post 3rd Edition, they don’t know what you’re talking about. And that causes a sort of language fuzz. Certainly you can get someone to come in and say “I have a brilliant vision for how D&D should play and will radically overhaul this game.” So what happens is they blow up D&D. We saw – as much as I love 4th Edition – 4e did just that. “We’re going to radically redesign D&D” and it blew it up and now we have a language problem. Because what I think about D&D is no longer true to these people who play D&D.
Abstruse: Like even some of the words change. Like “Powers”. If you’re old-school, you think like SKILLS & POWERS but in 4th Edition, you think Daily, Encounter, At-Will.
Robert J. Schwalb: The deeper you delve into D&D lore, you find a lot of those terms appear in the game. People say, “I can’t believe ‘at-will’ is a term.” Well actually, ‘at-will’ has been in the game since the beginning. “So and so can cast Pyrotechnics at-will”. It says in the 1st Edition Monster Manual. That kind of terminology was always there, but I think the difference is how it was formalized into jargon. It was the only way to communicate through the tech-speak of the game rather than talking about, like, “I just want to open the door.”
Abstruse: Kind of like, a couple of weeks ago I think, Steve Winters was on the D&D Podcast talking about 2nd Edition leading up to that re-release and he said something like, when 3rd Edition came out, “Don’t you think we thought about flipping AC? If we had done something that radical, we would’ve had people screaming, ‘This isn’t D&D anymore!’”
Robert J. Schwalb: And that’s very true. I play the “This is D&D” card. You can only play it so many times before it loses its thing. It hits a really good point. I think a lot of people saw with 4e, for me, I’m going to pull the “This is D&D” card and that’s what happened. I think it’s been one of the goals from the very start to try to reconcile and bridge that gulf between people who like the 4e style tactical gameplay and people who want the more narrative-based system and to try to make everyone happy and use the same language again.
Abstruse: There’s one thing I’ve seen in the playtest, as far as that narrative structure, is that this feels like 1st Ed in that very...exploration style...very narrative...having a big map would even be a detriment to the game in some ways because it’s about exploring a cave or dungeon instead of “You move so many spaces in a round.”
Bruce Cordell: It’s trying to bring the narrative story back into the D&D experience. It’s what made D&D the game it was. The edition [4th Edition – Abs], for all its wonder tactical options, that very tactical concentration robbed the play experience but honestly the design side as well – because we were locked into that two-page spread for adventure design. It kind of pushed out that narrative that 5th Edition is going to recapture. We’re going to bring, like you said, all those wonderful options for fun little story and fun little exploration and getting away from that fighting everything... Because the moment you put minis down on the grid and say, “Here’s your position, what do you do?” “Well, I guess I’m fighting.” Want to get away from that.
Abstruse: I do have to say I really did – really do love 4th Edition, and I’m itching to run a 4th Edition game. But because of the way the rules are, you do have to approach it with a bit of a different mindset than say 1st or 2nd or Pathfinder or whatever. And you can tell some great stories that way, but trying to port over some of those classic 1st Edition modules to that system just doesn’t work because you can have an encounter with just two kobolds. And it’s just like, “Encounter Power, Encounter Power, done.” Was that something you had in mind when designing Next, to move away from that sort of...?
Bruce Cordell: Certainly set-pieces...there will be set-pieces in 5th Edition. There’s certainly no reason you can’t have the two-page spread, but that shouldn’t be the rule. In 4th Edition, that sort of became the rule for whatever reason because the character powers kind of leant itself to that. All the powers were combat-oriented. For the most part. There were Utility Powers, but even the Utility Powers had a combat application.
Abstruse: At least...probably about a third of them.
Robert J. Schwalb: I think what 4th Edition does really well is it simulates that really cool combat encounter that you had in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Edition where all sorts of things are going on. It does that really well. It doesn’t do a fight with three or four kobolds well at all. And you want that level of detail when you’re doing the big set-piece fight with the villain riding the Dracolich and the army of undead and the terrain can be an obstacle that’s actually attacking you and doing all sorts of cool stuff. And those kinds of fights, you want them to go on for an hour. You want to dig your nails in and you’re terrified. You have no idea what’s going to happen. But then, the other part of D&D is that I just want to murder a bunch of goblins and move onto the next area. So, I think what happened, because it treats every fight with that level of importance, it became a poor choice to choose non-combat utility powers. So there became certain powers that were just guaranteed. Tumble, for example, is a power that I think every Rogue on the planet has because it lets you move without any opportunity attack. But if you took something like you get to re-roll your Thievery check if you fail, no one’s going to take that because you never really use that in a fight. Because powers translate into success-fail in a combat encounter, all these RP-type powers fell out of the game and became clutter.In the D&D Next design, we’ve try to move away from putting those same things in the same bucket. So class design will speak to different styles of gameplay – exploration, roleplay, and combat – but they’re not going to choose between, “I want to take this roleplay option” and then screw my buddies because I chose a poor-mechanical option. So I think a lot of the design direction we’ve gone so far is to try to isolate those things. You might have a benefit that pops in at some level that gives you an exploration benefit and a combat benefit.
Abstruse: How often do you guys go back to the drawing board with stuff after getting feedback from the playtest? Like “We thought we had this, but we don’t”?
Bruce Cordell: I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve retooled the wizard, the warlock. I mean, I can’t. Over the last two years, twenty times? I don’t know. We each have certain classes we tend to come back and work on. We do a lot of different iterations on many different fronts. Spells, classes, feats, you name it.Robert J. Schwalb: I think that right now, the direction we’ve been going has been hitting the numbers we’ve been looking for. So we’re in a period of refinement rather than system design. I think the core engine is pretty much where the Powers That Be want it. Like Bruce said, I’ve got like 30 versions of Fighter on my desktop.
Abstruse: So I’ve got to ask you this question, Bruce, and I probably know how you’re going to answer. But if I don’t ask, the readers will tear me apart. You’re leaving Wizards of the Coast.
Bruce Cordell: That’s right.
Abstruse: Why are you leaving and what are you doing next?
Bruce Cordell: I’m leaving Wizards because there are a lot of opportunities, a lot of possibilities that I’d like to explore. I really couldn’t do that at Wizards for a variety of reasons. And by leaving Wizards after eighteen years, even more opportunities have opened up out of the blue and I’m going to pursue those. I guess by next month this time or earlier, people will probably know what I’ll be doing. But until those things are solidified, I don’t want to say anything about it.
It wasn’t until almost two weeks later at GenCon that I we learned exactly what that was. Remember Bruce talking about his “old friend Monte Cook”? Well Monte’s been working on a game called NUMENERA that was successfully Kickstarted a few months ago and started shipping. If you were worried about future content for the system, I wouldn’t be, because it was announced at GenCon that Bruce Cordell has joined Monte Cook Games as Senior Game Designer for NUMENERA. Congratulations to Bruce and I think I speak for a lot of the gaming community that we’re looking forward to seeing what new things you can come up with.
Back to D&D Next news, I’ll have more coverage and speculation when I fully cover all the news from GenCon, but I did want to let you know that the next playtest packet due out in mid-September will be the LAST public playtest packet, as Wizards of the Coast is moving to closed playtests from this point forward. The last playtest packet will include rules updates (most likely including rules for multiclassing, but that has yet to be announced officially) as well as one new class - Bard – and two new races – Kender and Warforged.
This last bit I’d like to talk about for a moment. A rumor has been going around that WotC is approaching the various creators of their most iconic game worlds to bring them back in some capacity as the worlds are re-created or re-imagined for the next edition of D&D. Ed Greenwood’s firmly on board, as he’s writing a monthly column on Forgotten Realms. In a Q&A on the #RPGnet IRC chatroom, Margaret Weis has stated she would be willing to work with Wizards of the Coast again (Kender are a subrace of Halfling that only exist in the Dragonlance world), while Keith Baker (creator of Eberron) has stated that he has been in talks with WotC but “they haven't decided what form setting support is going to take yet”.
So there’s nothing official yet, but based on what’s been going on and how some of the designers have been talking on Twitter, it looks like Wizards of the Coast are doubling-down on the retro/nostalgia pull for DUNGEONS & DRAGONS in this edition as well as trying to bring in new players more easily with their streamlined rules.
Of course, at a convention this large in an area that doesn’t get a lot of big conventions, there were as many independent companies trying to make a name for themselves as there were big names giving panels. One of the games I found most interesting was MANA PUNK, a sort of fantasy steampunk/magitech game with a familiar set of rules mechanics. I’ve mentioned many...MANY...times before on this column how big of a fan I am of SHADOWRUN, and MANA PUNK is basically the fantasy version of that style of system. A lot of the elements from the mechanics feel very familiar as a fan of 3rd Edition SHADOWRUN, with similar attributes, skill mechanics, and character creation. The system sets itself apart in its detailed world and abundance of playable races. The softcover version of the core book is available on Amazon and the PDF is available on DriveThruRPG, both for very reasonable prices. I’ve only gotten a chance to skim over the books at this point (I’ll give them a full review after I’ve finished with all the convention coverage), but if you don’t mind a system that’s a little rough around the edges from a first-time game designer, you’ll definitely be interested in this.
Two persona l facts about me: 1) I cream myself over 3D terrain 2) I love sci-fi roleplaying games. So Creative Gamescape’s SPACESHIP X project tickles me in all the right places. The terrain is ABS plastic molds that are customizable for your game. And from the pictures on the Kickstarter page, they look AMAZING. The rewards levels are a bit awkward, but from what I can gather, $29 gets you four of the sci-fi character miniatures and $35 gets you a set of the terrain itself. This Kickstarter is funded and runs until September 8.
Sure you’re used to running to the blacksmith to get a new awesome sword or armor, but what about playing as the blacksmith himself? KING’S FORGE is a strategic dice rolling game where the 2-4 players compete to become the master craftsman to the King. This is accomplished by forging items drawing from different colored d6s representing Metal, Wood, Gems, and Magic. If the concept alone isn’t enough to convince you, how about the fact that the game comes with almost 100d6?! As a Shadowrun player, this a major bonus because I’m always dying for more d6s. You get the core game for just a $39 pledge, and the Kickstarter is fully funded and runs until September 3.
Finally, I’d like to talk about an IndieGoGo campaign from Chris Pramas, founder and president of Green Ronin Publishing. Pramas was diagnosed with a pinched nerve in his neck which requires spinal surgery. In order to get the money for the procedure, he has put together a fiction anthology called CADAVER BONE. In addition to a story he wrote, the anthology features short stories from names you’ll definitely recognized: Ed Greenwood, Steven Kenson, John Rogers, John Kovalic, Cecil Castellucci, Richard Dansky, Matt Forbeck, David Gaidner, Robin D. Laws, Jess Lebow, Colin McComb, Lucien Soulban, Melinda Thielbar, John Scott Tynes, James Wallis, and creator of the original Ain’t It Cool Tabletop column, C. Robert Cargill aka Massawyrm. A $3 donation gets you an electronic thank you in the final book, $5 gets you a PDF copy of a new MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS villain named Cadaver Bone, and $15 gets you PDF/epub/mobi copies of the final book. It’s running until September 30 and has already raised over $3,000 as of writing. Note that there is a goal of $10,000 for this campaign, but unlike Kickstarter, donations on IndieGoGo WILL go through even if the goal isn’t met, so don’t bank on being able to opt out at the last minute. Show the world what good the gaming community can do!
That’s it for this week! Ummm...yeah...there was a LOT of shit that went on recently. Remember when I talked about the biological and technological difficulties? I’ll be getting to everything else soon, as well as the other three interviews from Space City Con plus two reviews of games I got to see there and full coverage of everything that went down at GenCon...as soon as I can get this shit down. Follow me on Twitter at @Abstruse for day-to-day updates on the gaming world as well as my drunken rantings on Superman/Batman casting rumors and their (lack of) relevance to our daily lives, and you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with all your tabletop gaming news!