Monday, November 24, 2008

Interview with Wolfgang Baur (Open Design) Part I

Welcome to the first part of my interview with Wolfgang Baur as we talk about his ground breaking work with Open Design his fey gone wild 4e paronage project Wrath of the River King and my favorite clockwork 3.5 patronage project Tales of Zobeck

1. Please provide a brief bio about yourself, your gaming habits, and your professional work.
I'm a D&D from the age of 12 and a Cthulhu gamer from the age of 21, and I've been writing adventures professionally since high school. I entered the RPG industry as an editor

I still play weekly or close to it, usually as a DM for D&D, and an investigator for Cthulhu.

2. Could you please sum up Open Design in a sentence or three?

Patrons choose from among a handful of possible projects, and vote for their favorite with a donation that funds the writing, maps, and art. They are, essentially, the Popes of the Open Design world, and the mapper, artists, and I jump to their whims.

Well, okay, there's a stage in the middle there where patrons critique an outline and we agree on the broad parameters of the project. Then I write chunks of it, and the patrons critique those encounters, monsters, or setting materials. The constant feedback keeps me on my toes, and makes Open Design adventure much better-written and more playtested than the typical adventure.

Which is why we have so many ENnie nominations to our name. The fact that the adventures are limited editions probably explains why we've never won an ENnie. Not that many people have heard of us.

3. What do you say to a perspective patron who has never experienced it before, but "feels" it is too expensive?

They're probably right, if they think of it as buying an adventure off the shelf. But really, you're getting design essays and back-and-forth with a designer who knows the field and the issues. It's a 6-month course in game design; if you get involved and ask questions, you'll get a lot out of it. And most gamers like seeing their suggestions incorporated in the work. By the time 100 patrons have critiqued it, there's no room for junk text.

If you just want to buy an adventure, well there's lots of places you can do that.

4. How did you first become interested in creating the OpenDesign Project rather than the standard rpg production model?

I was just messing around on my blog, and posted to see if anyone would fund me as a patron. I had this dream that someone would drop $1,000 and I'd be working with a tiny handful of patrons. It didn't quite work out like that, but it is a small community of people who are shaping outlines, contributing suggestions for story, monsters, and mechanics, and playtesting heavily. I wanted a way to connect directly to the audience without a lot of editors, publishers, and other intermediaries, and I got that, both good and bad.

What I really wanted was the freedom to work on projects outside the mainstream, and that has been wonderful and nicely acknowledged by the ENnie nominations and Diana Jones Award. What I didn't realize at the time was just how much more collaborative and demanding patron work can be. I would really like to meet some of the patrons of the olden days, and see how they compare to the folks commissioning these adventures and sourcebooks today.

6. How do you feel, when you first discover someone has signed up for an Open Design Project? When you met goal for the first time?

I was thrilled! And that early enthusiasm helped a lot, because I didn't know what I was doing, really. I wanted to see if the idea would attract some of the hard-core gamers who enjoy design and writing for their own sake, and it certainly did. I didn't expect to see a lot of power-gamers show up, and they didn't.

And hitting the first commission goal was a huge high. I think I overwrote that first project by about 50% based sheerly on joy and adrenaline.

7. What does Open Design need more of?

Playtesters and statisticians, at the moment. There's a huge demand for people to test just one or two encounters each, because much as I like to discuss the theoretical pros and cons of (say) a monster or encounter design, the real test is at the table.

I think that the discussion of points in theory is often useful, but the most compelling arguments of all are the ones based on playtest results or on mathematical models of the rules results and probabilities. The editor and I are doing most of the statistical review, and that's fine. That's why it's paying gig; everyone loves the creative side, not everyone loves the number-crunching.

8. What role do you think Open Design and Patronage Products play in the future of the gaming community?

I think we're a small but important niche, a bit of an incubator for innovation and experiment. You see things from indie/small-press games getting picked up by Wizards of the coast all the time. To take just one example, after Open Design released Empire of the Ghouls, WotC's Bruce Cordell is now working on a new version of Kingdom of the Ghouls.

Sometimes the small PDF press can be more nimble than the bigger outfits; sometimes we're really just chasing after scraps and figments. I leave it to other people to figure out which projects are which.

Overall, though, it's a good thing for the hobby to have someplace to experiment like this, and try things that no marketing department in its right mind would every approve.

9. Describe your best moment working on an Open Design Project?

When I first realized that the gloves were really off, and the marketeers were not going to be allowed in the room. I got a real sense of that with the first few projects, knowing that the patrons were behind taking some chances creatively.

But really, the best moment on every project is often the same moment: it's the moment when I'm most frustrated and not making progress on some mechanic or plot point or encounter setup. If it were a standard project for another publisher, I'd either tough it out or bounce an idea off the editor.

In Open Design, I don't do that: I open up the question to brainstorming by the patrons. And as you might expect, having 50 or 100 smart gamers look at a problem means that more solutions and better solutions are suggested. I still wind up doing the work of writing it, mapping it out, doing the math on it. But having immediate feedback from the audience that the adventure is intended for means that they get what they want, not what I want or what I *think* they want.

I makes a huge difference, and it brings a smile to my face every time.

10. What do you feel was the most ingenious part of an Open Design project that you devised?

The patron feedback has been crucial. I could have just said "Fund this project, and I'll go write it and give it to you when it's good and ready." And that would have been boring. Patron feedback makes a big difference, because they surprise you.

For instance, the patrons really, really surprised me when they voted for Six Arabian Nights to be Open Design #4. I was shocked. Al-Qadim was 10 years out of print, and Arabian culture hasn't exactly gotten good press lately.

But people wanted it, and I got two of the original Al-Qadim authors (David "Zeb" Cook and Jeff Grubb) to contribute adventures to it. It was a huge success creatively, and a joy to work on. I keep getting reports from patrons who have run the adventure, as well, and it seems to have struck a chord.

It's one of those projects that would NEVER have come from Wizards. And I don't think Open Design can claim more than tangential credit, but after the success of Six Arabian Nights from Open Design, we see Paizo doing the Legacy of Fire adventure path.

There's a sense that Open Design is trailblazing some creative ground, and revisiting importnat bits of gaming history. And that's important to me.

Part II continues HERE


Louis Porter Jr. said...

Good interview!

Jonathan said...

informative. glad I stumbled this -- I'll link it from TCM in a few days no doubt.