And we went to Gen Con! I should write more about that, but haven’t had any time, due to the next point.
We’re moving! To British Columbia! And need to find a gaming group in Kamloops! Any suggestions/offers?
Back to Gen Con, however. Just before we went, I was contacted by my good friend Phil, the Chatty DM. He said that he was scheduled for an interview with Bill Slavicsek and Andy Collins on Sunday, and asked if I wanted to come.
What the hell kind of gamer would I be if I passed that up, right?? (I am a particular fan of Andy’s work… my players still hate me for using that one.)
Unfortunately, Bill wasn’t able to make it, but we had a good chat with Andy, so all is well. Phil has part one up over at ChattyDM.net, where he rambles in overtired Québecois with Andy about DMing in general. Read that first.
For my part, I got a number questions from the community members over at the forums of Andy Collins’ personal site. (Small forum, but a great group of people there. Thanks, guys.) This was my first chance to actually be more than the general public, so I really wanted a chance to let the fans of the game ask their own questions.
So read part 1, and then continue here!
GRAHAM: I’m going to start off with some questions actually from some community members. Now, you actually ended up mostly answering the first one on the subject of complexity. But to follow up on that, is this something that you guys are looking at adding more of in the future? Psionics with power points, things like that?
ANDY: We want to continue to add options where they’re appropriate. One of the big challenges we had, even in designing Fourth Edition, was determining where to spend what we call around the office our “complexity capital.” We think a game has a certain amount of complexity that it can afford to use, and one of the real tests of design is deciding where to spend it. And there are some places where Fourth Edition got simpler than Third, because we didn’t think that was the right area for complexity. It wasn’t really pulling its weight. And there are other places where it got more complex. Certainly, playing a Fighter is a little more intricate now than it used to be. We thought that was a really good place to spend complexity, to give that person a more fun experience at the table. So there are times where, particularly in development, we will look at a new class, new monster, new power, what have you, and say “This is more complex than it needs to be.” If we can get across 90% of the effect for 25% of the work on the DM or the player’s part, we’ll make that call pretty much every time. The key there is making sure that it still feels robust enough that it’s not just a couple of numbers.
PHIL: Dispel Magic is a good example, I think.
(Agreement from all.)
ANDY: Yeah. There are a lot of spells in Third Edition that just had way too much going on in them. Again, particularly for character powers, designing something to do… to carry out its intended purpose, and little else, drastically helps the game be playable at the table, reduces arguments, reduces debate about what certain effects can or can’t do. So to design for a purpose, and have it carry out that purpose, is pretty important.
GRAHAM: Okay. So, there have been a number of comments that the PHB2 and PHB3 classes seem to be better from a design perspective than their PHB1 counterparts. In particular the comments seem centered around the controllers, the Invoker being a better designed controller than the Wizard, for instance.
PHIL: The actual power source of the Invoker is awesome.
GRAHAM: Oh, yeah. Would you say this is a fair assessment, due to you getting a better handle on the system?
ANDY: Absolutely! I think we learn about our own design all the time. Fourth Edition went through nearly three years or design and development, but the day it left the building, by the next morning it had been played by more people than played it throughout the entire three years. And that’s going to lead to observations that, maybe, we hadn’t made. Sometimes just designing a game, you can be so close to it that you might miss something. There were also places where we were a little conservative, in the Player’s Handbook. We weren’t quite sure how it would play out. Controllers are a good example. I think we were a little conservative on the Wizard, I think we have broadened him in Arcane Power, and then certainly the Invoker I think is a better-designed controller. That’s sort of a natural part of the game. We try to avoid that becoming just outright power creep, but on the other hand I think every book we do, we’re going to be designing a little bit better, whether that’s classes, monsters, magic items or what have you.
GRAHAM: I think that in general, the Invoker isn’t yet seen as power creep, so much as bringing the controller up to par, but is there any chance that, due to this, we would actually see updated versions of the PH1 classes, whether in a future book, or dragon article?
ANDY: It’s something that we talk about. My general preference is, rather than updating existing material to provide new options that might look a little bit better than the options you had, that it’s often easier to let bad choices atrophy than try to replace them all.
PHIL: Like you could have Arcane Power, let’s say, add new class features, a new part of the Wizard that might…
ANDY: …that might be a little bit better, some new spells that might be a bit better. That said, the idea of tweaking a very important class feature, maybe an at-will power, to be a little more effective, is something I feel is very much within the bounds of reasonable for the game. We don’t want to do it all over the place, but if we said “You know what, this iconic power for this class needs to be a little better in order to keep up, we would certainly consider that.
GRAHAM: And that actually leads into my next question, on errata, updates, FAQs, that sort of thing. Now, there was a huge flood of this at the beginning, of course, as you realized things after launch. And the member in particular who is saying this is applauding you for rebalancing powers like Rain of Blows. But is there a plan to step this sort of thing up, at this point, as it’s slowed down since then. Dragon, for instance, is getting pretty much no treatment in this department, and there are commonly confusing items that have yet to be addressed.
ANDY: I have, actually, a small stack of items, literally on my desk back in the office. If not for Gen Con, they would be going up in about a week or two, but obviously preparations for this con dominate a lot of time. We have a weekly meeting with the team of R&D folks, customer service, and organized play, that go over potential errata and update items. They provide their reports to me on a regular basis. I go through them, review them, vet them, talk with my editors, talk with my developers, before making a call on that. We’re working to standardize our update release schedule, but until we’ve got that stabilized I don’t want to make any promises. That said, I think we’ve been better in the last year than we had in the waning years of Third Edition about addressing items with speed and efficiency. We want to take our time; the last thing we want to do is update an update, so we’d rather spend a few more weeks going over it and processing, than rush something out. And the next book has to take precedence over updating the last one, unfortunately. I wish we had that unlimited time. But we’re very committed to keeping our game playable and fun for everyone, and it’s certainly one of my personal priorities to make sure that the update process is effective and efficient at accomplishing that.
GRAHAM: I think that what would help a lot is, not necessarily errata, but more frequent clarifications/FAQs.
ANDY: Well that’s what we use the Knowledge Base for, through customer service. We try to keep all the current questions in there refreshed, and the customer service folks meet with us, like I say, regularly to talk about these things, so they’re very much in the loop as far as making those calls.
GRAHAM: Okay, so, player feedback. Can you clarify just what sort of impact the players are having on the D&D game, and both the errata team and the team responsible for handling playtest material? Do you get ideas for changes from the forums, from emails, focus groups, etc?
ANDY: Absolutely. I think that’s another thing that Gen Con is really good for, is the sort of massive face to face interaction with folks, whether it’s chats in the booth of the hallway, or questions at a seminar. I mean, I always bring a notepad to Gen Con, because I know if I try to remember it all I never will.
PHIL: You didn’t note my rust monster idea.
ANDY: A seminar doesn’t go by without somebody saying “Have you thought about…” and one of us going “You know, we haven’t thought about that yet! *Jot jot jot…*” So yeah, we try to do our best to listen to our players, whether that feedback is coming through customer service questions, or forums, or emails to us or what have you. Inevitably, those things seep into the game, some of them through outright submissions to Dragon and Dungeon magazine. We rely on freelancers for that, and a lot of them are brand new authors who just happened to have a really good idea.
GRAHAM: On a related note, does the feedback of 100 players outweigh the opinion of one professional developer?
ANDY: Not necessarily, but it will cause us to rethink things. We think highly of our design, development, and editing skills, but we recognize that there is theory and there is reality. So there are times when I’ve thought “Yeah, this power, or this class feature, this looks really good. I think this is dead on, I think it’s the right power level.” Feedback comes back and, well, gosh, every fighter is taking that power. And that causes us to rethink “Okay, wait a minute, why is that? What did we miss? What did we underestimate, what did we overestimate?” And so, we try to always be balancing that theory and reality, and that’s something we’ve learned particularly from the other side of R&D, the card side, because the Magic folks are constantly going through that review, as they see which deck types are rising to prominence on the tournament scene, and it happens. Sometimes folks just come up with some combination or idea we did not see coming, and we have to go “Oh, alright… didn’t see that, but now we’re going to adapt.”
PHIL: And that is the perfect setup. And we can go off the record if you want, but I’ve been a huge Magic buff, I’ve been reading all the rules, and I’ve played in tournaments for a long time, and I can’t help but see a parallel in the way the game was developed. I think that someone from Wizards, from Magic the Gathering, worked on things for D&D4e, because the rules… the powers work like cards, your characters work like decks, and you see those combos appear now, and you want them to exist. And you can’t check all of them in time, you’ll see that some will break the game, so you’ll errata them. So how close, from a design perspective, are D&D and Magic? Was there cross-pollination?
ANDY: There certainly are folks who have worked on both sides. Mike Donais is on my development team, he’s also worked on card products. We had a few of the Magic folks helping us out in the development of 4e, giving feedback. And just working near each other, you can’t help but cross-pollinate ideas. I read the Magic R&D internal forum every day, because I want to learn how they’re approaching things. They have, from really day one, they’ve had a more scientific approach to design than D&D and other roleplaying games have tended to exhibit. But D&D is, at its heart, an exceptions-based game, just like Magic. Everything a character does is breaking the rules in some little way, and we’re really working to apply that same rigor that’s required of that to our character powers, to our monsters, to our magic items.
GRAHAM: And final question from the communities, late in 3.5, the article on Proud Nails came out. Minor issues that some of the Wizards staff have with 3.5 rules that were never fixed to their satisfaction. Do you feel like there are any proud nails in 4e?
ANDY: Yeah, I’m sure there are. The things that nag me with Fourth Edition now are really the places where I think we felt we had to be a little more conservative, maybe, than we had to. That if we could have taken all of the players of the game, and teleported them two or three years into the future, and shown them how comfortable they would be with changes, they would have said “Oh yeah, no problem.” But Fourth Edition was sort of a drop in cold water for a player who hasn’t been in on the design for the last three years of their life, like some of us had. So there are places where we said “Y’know what? We probably shouldn’t do that. Maybe we explore that later in the game’s life, maybe we save that for ten years down the road for some future edition of the game. But for right now, this is a place where we’re going to leave it be, or not go as far as we might.” I think that, for instance, opportunity attacks are still a challenging part of the game for many players. I think we made them much simpler, and I actually think the most trouble people have now is because they finally learned how they should interact with them in third edition, and now they’re trying to unlearn some of those things. But looking back on it, I go “Oh, man, if I could go back in time, I would find a week to have a really, really solid conversation about, should we completely eliminate these from the game, or should we even more restrict who can use them.” It wasn’t a high enough priority at the time, compared to other things, so we didn’t, but there are things like that where I go “Oh, man, if I could go back two or three years AND know that the players would all be able to be on board with it, I might have repeated those things.
GRAHAM: Okay, and just to finish up with a couple of questions of my own. As it has been since the ‘70s, as it always will be, nobody plays D&D the exact same way as anyone else. Everyone has their own little house rules, table rules, whatever you want. I assume you do not play 100% by the book. What sort of house rules do you use?
PHIL: It’s probably the equivalent of Future Future D&D!
ANDY: I’m going to segue a little bit and then come back. I think that house rules are a great element of the game, and I like to think that the framework we’ve provided, particularly for dungeon masters, allow them more liberty to do those house rules because they can see why the game works the way it does. I think one of the things that commonly trips people up with house rules is not fully understanding the ramifications, the ripple effect, of what they’ve added. And I really like the fact that we’re showing you “Look, these are the expected numbers that all monsters should have. So if you want to play around creating your own monsters, for instance, follow this formula and you’ll be pretty close.” Same with character building and such, opening that curtain, I think, helps DMs make those house rules.
One of the sections I’m playing around with the most is treasure dispersal. This is something the DMG sort of touches on and talks a little bit about, but I’m continuing to play around with, y’know, how do characters get magic items? Because on the one hand, I want the players to feel like their characters can accomplish the things they set out to do. There’s nothing more frustrating, in older editions of the game, than being a mace-wielding fighter and only finding magic battleaxes. It’s a drag, right? I don’t want to wield a battleaxe, I want to wield a mace, that’s my image of my guy. So I think the wish list idea in the Fourth Edition DMG is a pretty cool one, but I’ve continued to play with, okay, can I mix in a few random things with that? I recently asked one of my parties that I DM for to give me, in addition to the character wishlist, a party wishlist, because I don’t want anybody to have to use up a spot on their list for a Bag of Holding or what have you, but there might be some things that the group wants to own together, so I intermingle some of those.
I think, probably my biggest house rule, though, is just really trying to instill in the players the idea to not be constrained by what’s on their character sheet. I ran some skill challenges just a week or so ago, and when I started out I said “Look, this is a skill challenge, but don’t tell me what skill you want to use, tell me what your character is doing in the world, and then we’ll play on that. It was a struggle at first, it was a “they’re trying to get across town without being spotted by their enemies” challenge. It started like “I use stealth.” “You need to tell me… how, what are you doing?” “Well, okay, we’re going to slip in the back alleys and keep an eye out for passing patrols and make sure that we move from building to building.” “Great, okay, so let’s all make some stealth checks, and why don’t you roll me a perception check to assist that…” And by the end of that twenty minutes or so, the players were like “Okay, what do I know about the background of the city, I’ve lived here my whole life, so I want to figure out, are there some old abandoned buildings we can slip through, or maybe a good way to get up to the rooftops?” They had completely moved away from thinking of it as “what skill do I use?” to “what is my character doing?” and that freedom of the rules, using them as a guide but not a constraint… they’re signposts, not fences, and I think that approach, more than any individual house rule, has really helped my game.
PHIL: And from the echo I got from Gen Con and seminars, we need either bloggers or Wizards to be posting all over the place “You don’t have to play the rules as written.” And I can hear it “Why don’t you make the rules fit the way I want to play?” No no! YOU do that!
<Editor’s note: this little statement from Phil doesn’t have nearly the effect in text as it did at the time. When he said it, the conviction in his voice just had me cheering silently “Fuck yeah!” Oh, for want of a podcast, right?>
ANDY: And that’s, again, why we’ve gone with a more stripped-down version of the rules. We took out a lot of the attempts at simulation of reality. If a Dungeon Master wants to add more simulation to their game, they can do it, and we hope that the tools we provide can help them understand sort of how broadly to turn those knobs and dials, but we don’t want the DM constrained by “Oh, because it’s raining, and it’s raining because I rolled on the weather table and it told me it had to be raining, because it’s raining we have these penalties and modifiers, and now I can’t run the encounter the way I wanted to, because the rules tell me I have to run it differently.” That’s no fun.
GRAHAM: And I have to say, I actually had some trouble with skill challenges, just the format of them, at the beginning, until I tried one pretty much how you just described there, and that was the first one that I would consider a full-on success.
ANDY: That’s another area where the game is going to go through massive evolution. I fully believe that, five years from now, we’re going to look at the skill challenge system and the many different ways that folks have invented to interact with it, and we’re going to be just dumbfounded. When we were writing the skill challenge rules for the DMG, I kept saying “Look, we’ve got to keep in our minds, this is one way to do them. Let’s present one way that we think is functional, but in the future, let’s never stop from imagining other ways that you can structure that skill challenge, that might look totally different, but still allows you to do those sort of interesting things. That’s why I really like Mike Mearls’ Ruling Skill Challenges column on D&D Insider, because he started with the basics, and now he’s starting to explore some other interesting ways. DMG2 also gives a lot more advice on building and running skill challenges.
PHIL: I’ve got my own piece in the next Kobold Quarterly about skill challenges in combat.
GRAHAM: Awesome. And just the final two quick questions: One, I know everyone at Wizards is a gamer in general, not just D&D. What other sorts of games are you playing these days?
ANDY: Oh, what are the games that I’m playing right now? I’m playing a lot of Duels of the Planeswalkers. It’s really gotten me back into Magic. In fact, so much that my wife and I just recently cracked open a display box of the Magic 2010…
(Phil, excited by this, jumps up and runs around his chair in a circle. No, seriously. It was hilarious!)
ANDY: …and started opening those boosters. That smell just brought back, like, 1996 to me. So we’re building our own decks again, and playing a lot more Magic. In fact she was pestering me, “Make sure you come home with a life counter for me from Gen Con.” I couldn’t find one, so I’m bringing back this giant foam 20-sided die instead. So that one’s good.
We play a fair amount of computer games right now. We’re big with the Xbox. We’re really enjoying Xbox Live Arcade. I love the ease of getting games with that. Left 4 Dead is probably our favourite Xbox game right now. Shootin’ zombies, there’s just no excuse to not do that.
We played some MMOs, but we’re currently taking a break. We recently finished up a City of Heroes campaign, got to level 50, taking a break from that for a while, but I’m interested to see some of the new games that are coming out, like Champions Online, I want to give that a look.
Board games. Looove board games! Dominion, fabulous, fabulous game. As soon as we played that we were hooked. I love cooperative board games: Battlestar Galactica, Shadows over Camelot. I think the Lord of the Rings cooperative game was like this huge breakthrough into this area of “Hey, playing against a game is kinda fun.” Sort of like D&D without a Dungeon Master, and I think that’s a really interesting area. I look forward to OUR foray into board games, coming next year with the Castle Ravenloft cooperative board game.
I mean, if it’s a game, I’ll try it, and that’s true of pretty much everybody in the building. And that keeps us good game designers, too.
GRAHAM: And the final question: 4e d20 Modern?
ANDY: 4e d20 Modern. We are very interested in exploring some other areas where the Fourth Edition rules can go. We wanted to make sure we had a good solid foundation for Fourth and for D&D first, but we fully recognize that this ruleset can be applied to other genres very easily. Personally, I’d love to do a superhero game. I also think a 4e Gamma World kind of game would be really cool, but that said I think you can go less fantastic, too. I think that just the idea that you can heal yourself without magic spells or high tech equipment makes pulp action, spy games, all those sorts of things, much much more playable. So I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be exploring other genres in the future.
We would like to thank Andy for taking the time to talk to us. Phil and I are just huge fans of the game, and it’s great to see WotC taking a significant interest in talking to the fans.