Interview with Wolfgang Baur

Wolfgang Baur is one of the most respected game designers and writers out there. I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his work, influences, and future - here's what he said.

Your most recent major project was the conversion of China Miéville's world of Bas Lag to D&D for Dragon Magazine. How did you come to be working on that? And what's China like to work with?

It's all Flycatcher's fault really. He's a character based pretty obviously on Miéville's weaver who I dropped into "A Gathering of Winds", which was an installment in the Age of Worms adventure path. Erik Mona read my turnover and asked me if I was a Miéville fan, and we were off to the races. A matter of just working for the magazines for many years, and then wearing my fandom on my sleeve.

China's a delight to work with; he understands gaming, so he understands the compromises that come with translating fiction into game material. He also complimented my writing, especially the bits that mirrored his style and the feel of his setting. Getting those emails certainly made my week.

How much unpublished material about Bas Lag does China have stowed away, and how much did you have acccess to?

He seems to have quite a bit stowed away, but a lot of it is in his head. I worked with the public material first, building the articles out of information gleaned or extrapolated from the three books. Then I added my own elements, to see if I could build the missing elements of China's world -- he either approved or corrected those, as appropriate.

So, like most authors, he doesn't have a filing cabinet of "spare" Bas Lag material lying around, though he clearly has cities, characters, and continents that he's working with for the next book. My access consisted mostly of passing drafts back and forth and asking him questions. It worked quite well.

In your own projects, you've been working on two Open Design adventures, Steam & Brass and Shadowcrag, with more to come. What brought you to the idea, and how do you feel the projects went? Do you think other writers will follow the same model?

Sheer hubris brought me to it: I figured that someone might pay for the chance to tell me what to write, or tell me to write it better, and it turns out I was right. If I'd thought it through, I probably would have ditched it as a bad idea, unworkable, to have 50 or more people critiquing an adventure design. But it turns out that it works brilliantly, with little bits of feedback from lots of patrons adding up to a much stronger design (and a lot more work, but that's the price of success). None of the patrons have to do the drudgery of actually writing the adventure; they just have to point out its flaws. It should be no surprise that the internet is brilliant at getting people to point at the flaws of just about anything.

The other explanation is that it was in the month after my daughter was born, so I was getting little sleep. I figured I'd try to build her a college fund. The fund is working fine, as long as she doesn't enter university until 2035.

Anyway, the first project was a complete experiment: I threw stuff at the patrons and asked what they liked. Some of it worked, some didn't. Everyone loved the design essays, for example, where I spill the beans on issues of game design craft.

The "Steam & Brass" adventure turned out to be much more ambitious than planned, and triple the expected length. Parts of it were spectacular, inventive, and fun. Other parts were a bit half-baked (there was only a copyedit, alas, and the layout was only fair). I give it a B-.

The "Shadowcrag" adventure is a much tighter and more finely tuned adventure, with a special type of Plane of Shadow scene, Gothic overtones, and better production values. I'm very pleased with it, rate it an A, and I wouldn't be surprised if it became one of the adventures that people remember fondly 10 years from now. But that's not for me to decide, really.

I very much doubt other writers will follow the model. I do all the writing work PLUS all the work usually done by an art director and publisher for rather modest pay. The independence and creative freedom are worth it, though.

How difficult did the non-writer - the art director and publisher bits - turn out to be? Just part of the job, or something you dread in future projects?

It's just part of the job, my (rather mild) unhappiness with it usually comes from the knowledge that I'm not very GOOD at it yet. But I'm learning quickly, and it's certainly taught me to respect art directors and publishers!

The Open Design projects could probably not have happened without the internet, and I know you spend a fair bit of time online. How has the 'net affected your work, and how do you think it may do so in the future?

The net is crucial to my work these days: I've never met any of my collaborators for Open Design (the cartographer, for instance, is in Berlin, the d20 monster wrangler is in Canada, and so on). I hope that the Open Design community continues to grow, and that some of the patrons take what they've learned there and apply it in the paper or MMO worlds.

Mostly, I expect to continue to get more direct feedback from gamers about what they want in a campaign setting or an adventure. The direct discussion at Open Design has led to measurably better adventures, with an emphasis on the way the game is really played, rather than being based on corporate marketing needs. Talking with your customers everyday encourages a much more honest method of design; the net has made a very isolating process (writing/design) much more of a conversation.

Apart from your own work, do you discuss design anywhere else on the net? Do you read the theory threads on, or indeed, read at all? ENWorld, or any other discussion boards?

I used to read all sorts of stuff for theory and discuss bits, but I gave up on various venues for that. I've got a system and a theory that demonstrably works for me (though it may not work for everyone). Other people have their own ways of thinking about these things. I tend to read off the net for theory now, like Raph Koster's "A Theory of Fun for Game Design" and the like.

And I read ENWorld to see what the hardcore gamers think.

You were involved in the 2nd Edition AD&D Planescape product line, and also in Malhavoc's Beyond Countless Doorways. Do multi-dimensional, multi-planar settings hold some particular appeal for you?

I read lots of Moorcock, Lieber, and Zelazny as young gamer, so the idea of many worlds and many planes has always appealed tremendously. I suspect it's just that I grow bored with standard fantasy fairly quickly: I love Tolkien, the Brothers Grimm, Howard, and so on. I just don't want to play in their worlds all the time.

My favorite Dragon magazine article of all time may be "Sturmgeschutz and Sorcery", about a tabletop game between OD&D and WW2 minis gamers, so genre mashups have always resonated with me. The whole "fish out of water" storyline for adventurers is a wonderful one for sheer entertainment value. Planar adventures are one of the best ways to generate that sort of narrative.

Ever since D&D 3.5 hit the streets, there've been rumours about a 4th Edition. How do you feel about that? Do you think there's much in the D&D game that could change for the better?

I think it's inevitable, and yes, there's always room for improvement. In the case of 3.5, I think the overemphasis on mechanics at the expense of story should be fixed, and the problems with mass combat, speed of play, grapples, touch spells, and attacks of opportunity are pretty well known. I'd also like to see less emphasis on D&D's wargaming/miniatures roots, but I suspect I'm in the minority on these points.

I'm as curious as everyone else about what they'll do with it. Worst case,it goes in a direction I dislike and I keep running the current game.

Actually - how much game-running do you get to do? What games are you currently running - or going to be running soon? Or playing in, for that matter.

Not as much as I'd like: I run one or two 6-session arcs per year, plus some number of playtests. I play a fair bit, usually Call of Cthulhu, sometimes a one-off D&D or hybrid system. I just got my hands on the d20 DarkMatter, so I'll be running that very soon.

Are you playing any MMOs? Do you see MMO play having effects on table-top games?

I tried a couple a few years ago, but they struck me as dull. I like WoW but don't have the time for it; I'm dabbling with Guild Wars at the moment, because of the lower grind requirements. I suspect we'll see more of an effect in the formal rules in 4E, but for now, certain terms from MMOs are bound to seep into the gaming vocabulary. "Buff" seems a popular new term for an old concept.

And finally, what are you doing next?

Oh, that's easy:

  • A campaign setting or mid-to-high-level adventure for Open Design 3.
  • "Enemies of my Enemy" for the Savage Tide adventure path.
  • An installment of the Burning Sky campaign series for ENWorld.
  • The Dungeoncraft columns for Dungeon magazine.
  • Another series of articles for the WotC web site.

I think that's all I've promised at the moment. There's a second novel as well, and some projects in negotiation, but those are the official, signed projects for this year that aren't already written.

Posted by Drew Shiel at January 30, 2007 5:10 PM

AddThis Social Bookmark Button