Interview mit Wolfgang Baur

Hello and welcome to a special installment of our irregular feature interview. This time we have a very special guest, former TSR employee and one of the first from the AD&D staff to work at WoTC, famed adventure designer, editor and author:

Wolfgang Baur!

Dear Wolfgang,

I’m very glad that you take the time to let more German fans know about you and your innovative project. Sadly, not all readers in Germany might know you by name, so how about telling us about the first, the best and the weirdest RPG product you have been involved in so far?

(Readers who want to know your whole line of work may find out here:

I’ve been writing professionally for almost 20 years (!), since I was in high school, so it has added up.

First: I actually have two firsts. Smiley

My first professional sale was “The Glass House”, to Barbara Young at Dungeon magazine, a 1E FR adventure for levels 4-6. It was about a revenant returning to destroy his own murderers. Not a great module, especially compared to “The Elephant’s Graveyard” by David Howery in the same issue. But you gotta start somewhere.

My first standalone TSR book was “Assassin Mountain” for Al-Qadim. I wrote my heart out, three or four drafts, and it wasn’t bad. The art and maps still make it look amazing; I was fortunate enough to watch David Sutherland as he drew the maps for it in AQ style, and we chatted late at night in the TSR cartographer’s den.

Best: Hard to say what other people like, and in a certain real sense I love all my projects (else, why do them?). But for me, it’s the adventures and the monsters that I love designing, both for TSR and for Paizo, and I think it shows.

I have a number of favorites, including “Slow Boat to China” (for Call of Cthulhu, shipping in fall), and “Kingdom of the Ghouls” in Dungeon #70, and maybe “A Rose for Talakara” in Dungeon #25, written with my old friend Steve Kurtz. They are both horror modules as much as fantasy.

In terms of classic fantasy, though, I think a small press piece called “The Gryphon’s Legacy” is my best. I wrote it for Gaslight Press and their Sun & Scale line, and it was perfect. Sadly, I think the print run was in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Everyone who has run it has raved about it to me, so I think that’s good sign.

There’s a WotC mega-adventure I wrote that’s coming in April 2007 that might knock all of those off the perch, depending on what happens in the next few months of development and playtest.

If you ask about favorite sourcebooks, it’s a whole different discussion.

Weirdest: There’s lots of contenders for this title, but the king of weirdness was Dark*Matter campaign setting. I loved writing it, and it turned out well. but it was a very strange project. First of all, reading all that conspiracy theory research made me just a little paranoid. Second, I was leaving WotC for a better job at the time, so it was a farewell, a sort of goodbye kiss to the game industry. Bittersweet. But I think it turned out well; they are reviving the setting for d20 Modern.

You are working on a very innovative project right now, which interestingly takes a page out of Renaissance history right now. Tell our readers more about it. What is the objective, what’s special about it, and how did you get this idea?

The Open Design project is an attempt to bring the Renassance patron model of creative work into the modern age. Writers and artists of that period didn’t have mass audiences as we understand them today; they had niche audiences of nobles, bishops, who-ever could commission a work.

I decided it would be interesting to see if that would work with a D&D design project: to write something that pleases the members of a small audience, who pay for the tailored work and who are the only ones to see it. Just like the patrons of old times: it’s a special work, meant to appeal to the buyer, not just to everyone. So the objective is twofold:

1) Find enough people who support D&D design work
2) Create an adventure to suit their tastes

Making this work is quite a challenge, but I enjoy it.

What was your main motivation in starting this project?

Well, I wanted to write an adventure that was off the map, unusual, and (quite frankly) not salable anywhere. While I admire and respect the adventure design at Dungeon magazine, it’s meant to appeal to a mainstream audience.

With a smaller group of people as an audience, I figured I could take a few more creative risks. So I listed topics that I thought either needed an update (such as “The Lost City” or “The Black Forest”) or that could be quirky. And by quirky, I mean things from urban fantasy (“Steam & Brass”) to even Sumerian-influenced slaver stories (“The Flying Fortress”).

That’s my rationalization after the fact. I was also a brand-new father at the time, and not getting much sleep. If I had thought more clearly, I might have realized it was madness, madness to attempt it! Wink

This is interesting. Are there spoken or written limitations on what is supposed to be ok for Dungeon Magazine?

There are some formal limitations spelled out in the magazine guidelines (about things like depictions of rape, drug use, etc) but that’s not really the limits I mean here.

What I mean is that the patron project can take risks or appeal to narrow audiences, such as, for instance, “Lost World” dinosaur fans or even more narrowly, stories that appeal to the fans of Celtic mythology or even Native American myths. Most of the time, Dungeon avoids these sorts of subgenres because, while they have strong support from a minority, it always upsets the majority of the readers.

At the moment, lots of the Patrons have expressed interest in some Cthulhoid elements, and that’s definitely influencing the design work.

Is there a real mainstream audience, which Dungeon Magazine is aware off? How is found out what the average gamer supposedly wants?

The magazine used to do surveys on this. I know from my time editing that the most popular setting was always “any high fantasy”, followed by Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. Even story-based settings like Ravenloft, Oriental Adventures, and Al-Qadim were not popular with the majority. Most gamers want the classic pseudo-medieval setting and the classic European-based mythology.

Is this also a problem with Eberron? It truly has a different style and tone, think only of the warforged. It could qualify as just falling into the category of “narrow audience” settings you described.

It could qualify, but that’s only one aspect of Eberron. I mean, it’s got every possible fantasy element in it, from undead to powerful druids, and humanoid nations, and halflings with dinosaurs. The warforged are the most distinctive part, but the setting is a mishmash of classic things with an overlay of a newer fantasy style that takes magic as foundational for the society. Anyone who wants to play traditional wilderness or quest adventures in Eberron won’t have a problem doing that; it’s just that when they go to the city, it might not look much like a traditional medieval city.

In which particular areas are you now free to venture with the Patron model? Any adult content planned?

The first one is sticking near traditional fantasy: there are pulp, steampunk, celtic influences in the adventures so far. But the model frees me to explore subgenres that have small audiences, such as Oriental, planar adventures, Roman or Persian mythos, even a Native American adventure if I can find the right patrons for it. (answer was ommitted at first through error on my side – Settembrini)
Adult content, probably not a major theme, although one title, Steam & Brass, has a Faustian bargain at its core, and talks about selling one’s soul to the Devil. That’s about as adult as is planned right now; certainly the Lost City adventure is much more pulp adventure and Indiana Jones escapes than it is about adult themes. So it depends.

Moving back to your project: How has the Patron feedback influenced your motivation sofar?

It’s been remarkably good feedback, in some ways better than what I get from WotC playtesters. The biggest influencers so far are those Patrons who have selected monsters for the scenarios. For instance, one has chosen a naga. I’ve outlined that naga into three of the four possible adventures, and tried to make it appealing against quite different backgrounds.

Another patron suggested the lammasu for “The Flying Fortress”. That became a central NPC for the adventure.

By now, some readers definitely are bound to be intrigued by the idea of gaining such insights into adventure design and have an adventure only a very small number of people will own. How did you arrive at the prices you set for the different levels of patron-dom?

I set the lowest price at the cost of a module: $5. But that price buys you no influence on the design, just a copy when it is ready. It’s for people who just want to treat the Open Design module like any other.

I wanted to make it possible for the bigger patrons to have more influence than that. So, for $10, anyone can help choose the level and (more importantly) the name/concept of the adventure. In addition, they see all the outlines and design steps behind the scenes as the project moves ahead.

The $20 and $50 levels are for people who want even more influence as the design continues. The $20 patrons choose monsters to go into the design. The $50 patrons do that and critique the draft text, and they are written into the dedication. These patrons even choose titles for the next project in the series. I still do the writing and design work, but they are directors or critics, so they shape the project as well. For people who want to see how design decisions happen, it’s a great opportunity to visit behind the scenes.

I understand it’s not a real business model, but more of an experiment, still some criticize the prices being too high for just one module. Do you think this is valid criticism?

No, that’s nonsense, for two reasons.

First, anyone can get the module for just $5 if they like. Second, the standard membership prices have to be fairly high, or a small number of people will never be enough to commission a work. A company like WotC or Paizo pays hundreds or thousands of dollars for a complete adventure. They earn that back by selling it to tens of thousands of gamers, and taking advertisements. The patron project saves some money by avoiding publishers, printers, and retailers entirely, but even so, to create something for a small audience means that it costs more per person than creating something for a mass audience. And that small audience is part of the appeal.

Where is your model different from the ransom model?

The ransom model offers a completed work and asks for cash to free it to the public. Patron publishing is different in that it takes feedback from the patrons and tailors the work openly, to suit the patrons. The other difference is that the patron project is made for a small audience, unlike the mass audience ransom.

While talking about adventure design: I myself am a very harsh critic of published adventures. Oftentimes I find they don’t give me, what I would want, if I was a player in that very adventure. So I’m writing adventures for my gaming groups, that I would like to be an adventurer in. What do you think, do your pesonal preferences in regards to the adventures you would like to play influence your writing? Do you write from a pronounced designer standpoint?

As a designer, I defnitely prefer to multiple paths to success, not just for the adventure as a whole, but even for particular encounter. Those multiple paths should be addressed in the text. So, each combat encounter should also have options to avoid it by taking a different route, by stealth, by bribery, or some other means. Each roleplaying encounter should offer some idea of what to do if it becomes a combat encounter. The dullest adventures to play in are those that assume there’s only one “right” way to solve a particular encounter.

In a small way, I try to make this possible in many designs just by naming the monsters. A DM is more likely to have a beast speak (if only to boast or challenge the party) if it has a name. A party is more likely to parley with intelligent monsters. This is why I find oozes and unintelligent undead so annoying: from a design perspective, they might as well by traps.

How much do your own tastes as a player shine through in your works?

More than I’d like to admit, probably. It’s inevitable that adventures address some of the interests of their creator.

Is there a difference in the modules you liked as a DM compared to the ones you thought were a blast as a player?

As a player, what matters is the interaction with the DM and other players on a particular night. A great DM can elevate even so-so design, and a weak DM can fail to entertain even with good material.

As a DM, what I’m looking for is quick reference, clear text, and a well-marked path through the action. How does clue A connect to encounter F? Why are two NPCs enemies? I don’t care about the contents of a kitchen or the appearance of the tavern roof — I can about the trigger events and the turning points in the adventure. Make those big and obvious for me, so I can make them clear to the players. Oh, and a few decent maps and handouts wouldn’t hurt.

As a designer, what I want to do is provide the DM with the right tools needed to provide that seamless, fun experience to the player. Anything that supports that is worthwhile.

Please tell us about your influences as a module designer in particular, especially where they are different from your literary influences.

Most of my module influences aren’t literary (Clark Ashton Smith is the exception), but are the result of working relationships. It’s a long list.

I was hugely influenced by Roger Moore’s sense of fun and experimentation in design. I was a very serious and fairly pompous young man when I joined TSR, and Roger reminded me that games are meant to be entertainment before they are art. Giant space hamsters might be silly, but they make people laugh. I can’t design anything that wacky (I still err on the side of serious), but he showed me it’s ok to relax a little in design.

I was also very influenced by Barbara Young’s sense of what appeals to people who read. As the editor in chief of Dungeon magazine, she knew that adventures had to have quick appeal, tight text, concrete physical descriptions, and so on. She taught me writing as a craft.

Finally, I was hugely influenced by both Zeb Cook and Jeff Grubb, the star designers at TSR during my tenure there. Zeb taught me to appreciate (and plunder) history and literature when designing, and introduced me to Call of Cthulhu as an alternative to D&D. He made me think about reward/fail cycles, puzzles and creativity in new ways, mostly through his own experiments. I’d say he taught me that it’s ok to fail sometimes.

Jeff Grubb taught me mostly that worldbuilding is a matter of letting go. Build the campaign setting, then set it free. If it’s any good, other designers will work it into their own material. And I consider myself very lucky to have done just that, and to find that my work has been woven into the shared worlds, and comes back to visit me from time to time in new products.

As a published writer, is it hard to write Adventures “just for fun” anymore? Do you run the modules you wrote for your regular group, apart from playtesting? What do you think seperates a good DM from a good module author?

I don’t write complete adventures for casual games anymore; I write a set of notes and work up whatever oddball stats I can’t get from the MM. I’m pretty confident that’s enough, and it’s much faster than designing all the details. I run those casual sessions for my regular group, but I also do a fair bit of playtesting on them.

A good DM and a good author — they can be completely different skills. The DM must be an entertainer, able to draw everyone in, create mood and tension, and ensure that the game doesn’t derail into arguments or pointless encounters. A master of pacing, timing, tone of voice, memorized rules knowledge, and a sense of drama or acting ability are all helpful to the DM, less to the writer. A great DM can make almost any module entertaining.

A skilled author might be a good DM, but the requirements are different. Half of it is the craft of writing: making text sing, writng clear descriptions, making the reader want to run the adventure. The other half is design, which for adventures is a matter of choosing original hooks, sequencing encounters, picking the right cast of monsters/NPCs, avoiding design pitfalls — I talk about some suggestions and the skills required in the Patron essays, but there’s one skill that maybe can’t be taught. Really engaging storytelling is tough to teach; the techniques resemble fiction to a degree, but if you try that approach too hard, it’s just railroading.

During the design work so far, you shared a lot of interesting information about the craft and art of adventure writing. Some of the patrons are authors themselves. Is this a boon or a bane?

I miss Al-Qadim sometimes; it was a very story-based setting, with short fiction at the start of chapters, and that great 1001 Nights feel. But it was always designed to have a limited run of 10 products or so (I think it did well enough to be extended to 12 or 13); it was never meant to last. I can still play in the setting whenever I like. Occasionally I drop bits of AQ flavor into other products, just to see who notices.

Planescape remains a high point of my creative work, and so much of it has been brought into the core game: Zeb Cook’s Sigil, the demons I expanded or revived in Planes of Chaos and Law, entire worlds. Heck, I even named the tieflings race, and they remain quite popular. I’m happy to see that so many of these things have migrated into the game world as a whole. They don’t need official support to thrive, as they have joined the D&D mythology. I’ll also mention that both Paizo and WotC are doing planar adventures next year that are heavily Planescape influenced.

Likewise, Dark*Matter was ham-strung mostly by the Alternity rules set, which never did as well as we hoped it might. The setting itself is still active and will ship as a d20 Modern book later this year. So, I consider that a creative success; very, very few campaign settings ever get a second chance.

Now for some personal questions: Tell us about your current character(s)!

In Call of Cthulhu, I’m playing a butler character named Winston Carmichael (or just “Carmichael” to the boss). We’re running through the new King in Tatters adventure, and that campaign starts early June.

Other than that, I’m usually the DM.

You mentioned the Kingdom of the Ghouls earlier, which brings a recent memory of some True Ghoul called Moreto, with which I had a very interesting Encounter in the “Age of Worms” Adventure Path. Where does your fascination for undead in general and ghouls in particular come from?

It’s a good question, but my best answer is probably “blame Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith”. I’ve always loved the undead and ghouls, and stories like “Pickman’s Model” by Lovecraft and the Zothique stories by Smith made a big impression on me.

Adding a true ghoul (Moreto) was a request from the Paizo staff. He turned out pretty well.

[As to my surprise Mr. Baur actually speaks and writes a very decent German, he agreed to answering some questions in our very language.]
Deine Familie ist aus Sachsen in die Vereinigten Staaten ausgewandert. Verbindet Dich noch etwas mit Deutschland? Warst Du schon einmal hier?

Ich war viele male in Deutschland, um Freunde und Familie zu besuchen: meine Onkel und Tanten usw. Aber das letzte Mahl war schon… 10 Jahre her, oder mehr? Ich muss wieder zurück.

In Deutschland hat D&D bei vielen Spielern einen relativ schlechten Ruf als dumpfes Prügelspiel. Was würdest Du diesen Lesern sagen?

In den Vereinigten Staaten, hatte 2E D&D einen relativ schlechten Ruf als ein Spiel das sich zuviel um Welt, Erzählungen, und Geschichte kümmerte. Al-Qadim, Ravenloft, Spelljammer Planescape — sogar Dark Sun — waren sehr gute Spielplätze für Fantasie, und Rollenspiel. Aber sie waren nicht als Prügelspiel gesehen; ganz das gegensatz. Heute werden diese Campaign Settings als “too story-based” beneidigt.

Die neue ausgabe, 3rd Edition, zieht etwas in der Richtung der Ursprünge der Rollenspiele: nämlich, die Kriegspiele wie “Chainmail”, die sich nur um ihre zinnfiguren kümmerten. Die 3E gibt mehr seiten im Regelbuch für Figuren, Tactic, und Kampfmöglichkeiten — aber es ist noch lange nicht ein Prügelspiel. Die neue Atmosphaere von “Iron Kingdoms” or die “Age of Winds” serie bringen viel Rollenspiel und wenig dungeons vom altem Stil. Andere sachen wie z.B. “Iron Heroes” oder “Conan” sind viel blutiger und weniger über das Rollenspiel. Es kann man in beide Arten spielen.

Jedes spiel reflectiert die Spieler etwas; ein D&D spiel hat mehr abenteurliche Kämpfe als, z.B, Vampire oder CoC, aber es ist immernoch ein spiel erste klasse Weltbau (?), Person, und Erzählungen.

Is there any closing remarks, with which you might want to address the german audience?

Deutschland ist meine [ursprüngliche Anm. d. R.] Heimat, und es hat mich schwer beeinflusst. Als Kind reisten Wir durch alle deutschsprachigen Länder, von die Kyburg in der Schweiz bis nach Bonn und Berlin. Als junger Mann, kam ich nach Aachen, Frankfurt, Dresden, Salzburg, Nordlingen, Berlin — und immer sah ich etwas vom Altertum oder vom Mittelalter, Römische ruinen am Limes, die Fachwerkhäuser, und die konkrete Idee, was man nicht in den Vereinigten Staaten wirklich schätzt, dass die Welt mehr als 100 oder 200 Jahre alt ist. Für eine Deutscher bürger ist das völlig normal, aber eine Stadt wie Seattle oder Chicago ist ja nur 150 Jahre alt.

Viel zu viele Amerikanische designers sind nie im Ausland gewesen, und gar nie nach Europa. Ich lernte in Deutschland dass Rollenspiele nicht nur von Fantasie sondern auch von der Geschichte etwas erbt. In falle Deutschlands denke ich, man sieht täglich immernoch den Schattenriss des Mittelalters. Von Seattle aus gesehen, ist das ein kleines Wunder, und ich bin etwas neidisch auf die Deutsche Spieler, die so was nah zu Hand haben.

Mr. Baur, thank you for your thorough and interesting answers!


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