Friday, July 29, 2011

Q&A with Freelance Wizards of the Coast Designer and Author Scott Fitzgerald Gray Part 1

About a week ago, to my surprise, I was fortunate enough to receive an email from a reader. It was none other than Scott Fitzgerald Gray, freelance RPG designer and author, thanking me for my contributions to the gaming community through my blog. He was also kind enough to give me a copy of his current novel/short story collection "A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales," which is currently keeping me up past my bedtime turning pages.

Mr. Gray has worked as an editor and RPG game designer for Wizards of the Coast among many others. Most are probably familiar with his work as co-designer of the D&D 4th edition incarnation of the Tomb of Horrors. He was also kind enough to conduct a Q&A with me in which we discuss his work with Wizards, thoughts on the upcoming big announcement about D&D at GenCon, his thoughts on gaming and the OSR, and his new book.

RC:  Give us a little background on yourself and how you first got into D&D, and gaming in general.

SFG: Like many disaffected youth of my high school generation (late 70s/early 80s), I and my core group of friends were heavily into speculative fiction and fantasy. Our lives were comics, sci-fi novels, Star Wars, and all the other escapism we could get our hands on. As I know is less common, we were also into wargaming, whiling away the weekends with Kingmaker, Squad Leader, and the other Avalon Hill classics. However, growing up in a small western-Canadian town of 2,000 people, we were totally off the grid as far as D&D went. I can remember quite clearly seeing the Holmes blue box and the original AD&D manuals in gaming and toy stores, looking them over, and not quite getting it. But then at the end of 10th grade (summer 1980), a friend of mine (Kevin, one of the four friends mentioned here: moved down to Vancouver temporarily with his family, and came back saying "I've been playing this game called Dungeons & Dragons, and you have to try it."

My very first D&D game was down in Vancouver with Kev and Dave (another friend mentioned in the post above). Kev was trying to explain the game without much success, and then (as is so often the case) finally just said "Okay, I'll show you." Except we had no books on hand. No rules, no character sheets. So we cut up paper chits to use for dice, rolled up the most generic 1st-level characters imaginable, played a fast and dirty three-room dungeon (complete with dragon) using the rules as Kev remembered them off the top of his head. By any standard, it should have been a train wreck -- but when we were done, I knew I had just experienced something that would change my life.

I bought the Holmes blue box immediately but never actually played it, going straight to AD&D when Dave discovered a guy (Mitch, soon to become the fourth friend mentioned in the above post) reading a "Players Handbook" in the school library. From there, the last two years of high school were pretty much nothing but gaming for all of us, and I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.

RC: And in the link you give there (which I highly recommend having a look over for the readers here), you speak on your work with Wizards of the Coast on the 4th edition version of Tomb of Horrors, which leads to my next question.  You were able to do what many in our hobby, especially those who tend to GM most of the time, only dream of doing; you managed to make a career in game design.  How did you first become involved in the field professionally?  Tell us a little about the projects you have worked on previously.

SFG: My RPG work was really a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I had just gotten back into D&D (and gaming in general) after a fairly lengthy midlife hiatus, mostly as a result of becoming really enthusiastic about the OGL as the foundation of D&D 3rd Edition. The creative possibilities excited me, and I really found myself getting behind the vision and potential of an "open game". In 2004, I'd already spent most of my life working in publishing and film, so I had solid experience as a writer and editor but had never done any gaming work. (The closest I'd come previously was a couple of articles written for "Dragon" way back in the AD&D days that I never submitted because I couldn't make myself believe they were good enough. In hindsight, I'm sure I was right.)

Totally by happenstance, I saw a note from Sue Cook on the Malhavoc website saying that she'd heard Wizards was looking for freelance editors. I got in touch with them, harassed the most excellent Kim Mohan for a month or two by email, and received back an editing test assignment on a section of the "Frostburn" book. Kim being the evil genius that he is, this test was entirely old-school -- to be printed out, marked up with proofreader's marks, and sent back as hard copy. (One of the advantages of being as aggressively middle-aged as I am is that you actually know forgotten arcana like proof-reader's marks.) I got an email back from Kim a couple of months later with the terrifying subject line "Your Test Results", but it turned out he liked my work and gave me my first assignment -- editing half of "Complete Arcane" under the direction of the most excellent Chris Youngs. Kim liked my work on that book enough that he offered me a second assignment -- "Races of Eberron" -- and things carried on from there.

I've done much more editing work for Wizards than design work (my first design job came in 2006 with "Secrets of Sarlona" for the Eberron campaign setting). I also worked on a half-dozen or so books with the force of nature that is Rob Schwalb when he was with Green Ronin, and a couple of projects for Malhavoc. However, the bulk of my RPG work has been for Wizards.

RC: So, having played through most of the editions of D&D, and having read your experience with the original Tomb of Horrors as a player, I know you must have been quite excited to have the opportunity to help design the 4th edition incarnation.  I understand you did one for the RPGA as well which precedes the events in the 4th edition version, which is more closely like the original module.  How did you get involved with the Tomb of Horrors project?

D&D 4e Tomb of Horrors

SFG: "Excited" is the minimal description of how I felt being asked to work on the Tomb of Horrors, yes. The super-adventure came first, with an email in April 2009 from Andy Collins, who said that he and James Wyatt wanted me to work on it, and was I interested. When I regained consciousness, I replied "Yes, please." The excellent Ari Marmell was already on board as lead designer and was hammering together the outline. I'd edited a few of Ari's projects before, but the chance to work directly with him for the first time was very cool. He and I first touched base on the project toward the end of May, then worked like madmen through to completion in August 2009, with the book released in July 2010. (I assume most people know this, but that year-long lead time between when a designer works on a book for Wizards and when it finally appears is fairly standard.)

The RPGA Tomb of Horrors came about entirely as a reaction to/result of the super-adventure. (Warning: Massive spoiler alert!) Ari's outline for the super-adventure did what I thought was a very cool thing by advancing the timeline to a period long after the events of the original Tomb and Bruce Cordell's amazing "Return to the Tomb of Horrors" box set for 2nd Edition AD&D. In the super-adventure, the original Tomb is an all-but-abandoned ruin drained of its magical power, which gave us the opportunity to do some truly original things with Acererak and his long-term plots, rather than just revisiting the same ideas already covered so well in ToH and RToH. At the same time, however, we were both cognizant that the then-recently released "Open Grave" treated the RToH backstory as "current canon" that would be violated in some way by our adventure, as would Rob Schwalb's excellent 4e updating of RToH's Skull City in "Legacy of Acererak" (Dragon #371). As an editor, trying to find ways to iron out inconsistencies in canon is a kind of unconscious reflex, and so totally out of the blue, I hit upon what i thought was a novel idea. I pitched James Wyatt on the concept of doing a straight 4e update of the original "Tomb of Horrors" module, which i saw as a kind of promotional prequel to the super-adventure, saying:

Within EToH ["Expedition to the Tomb of Horrors", the working title of the super-adventure], we've established a bit of a nominal timeline that places the events of the adventure in the very recent past relative to the timeframe of the PCs' campaign. The destruction of the Tomb of Horrors is set as approximately one year before the adventure kicks off (adjusted according to the DM's needs, of course). Alongside that, we explain what Acererak has been doing, how he survived RToH, et al. That means that for all the time up until the adventure is actually published, we have a canon in which the old Tomb still exists and is thriving -- as described in "Open Grave" (which treats the RToH backstory as current) and Rob Schwalb's piece on Acererak and Skull City in Dragon 371. Within this existing canon, prior to the release of EToH, a group can go to Skull City as it is "now" (from Dragon) and do the Tomb as it is "now" (from Dungeon). The publication of EToH then shatters that canon -- draining the Tomb, razing Skull City, and spinning things off in new directions.

James liked the idea, but wanted it done up as an RPGA rewards adventure instead, which i was totally cool with.

RC: And, as you point out in your post in the link earlier here, you had a unique opportunity to sort of immortalize your old gaming group in the Tomb of Horrors adventure.  Are the characters in that adventure more based on the players and their personalities, or were those the actual characters (i.e. race, class, etc.) the guys ran in the Tomb of Horrors game when you originally ran through it back in the day?

SFG: Mostly the actual players' personalities, but a little of both. Mitch was (and remains) the most studiously "cosmic" one of the bunch, so a deva seemed a fitting homage. Dave has played more than his share of rangers; my best fighter character from back in the day always favored the bastard sword, et al. That fighter of mine was one of the survivors of our original foray into the Tomb of Horrors in the spring of 1982, but I can still remember a few of the other characters as well.

RC: You mentioned earlier that it is not uncommon for a project to take up to a year to complete.  Can you take us through the process Wizards uses from pitch to project completion?  I understand the processes may vary depending on the project, but what about something like Tomb of Horrors, a super-adventure, or module?

SFC: Well, as a freelancer, my insight is limited because the initial decisions regarding Wizards projects are all made in-house. (The RPGA Tomb of Horrors was an exception to that, but it was initially a project intended for Dungeon, and so was pitched very much like I or any writer would pitch a Dungeon adventure or an article for Dragon.) However, the overall process is usually fairly consistent. The chiefs of RPG design and development are the starting point, deciding what books go on the schedule. The lead designer is next up, working with the department heads to create or finalize an outline that becomes the starting point for the other designers, each of whom will take on a specific portion of the book. Sometimes this is assigned by the lead; sometimes the designers get to call certain sections or discuss who would be best to work on a specific topic or area.

During the design phase, there's a lot of back and forth and discussion of ideas, especially where what's happening in one section will impact another designer's section. As a designer, the goal is to turn over the best possible work -- not just the writing, but creating quality maps (for adventures and setting books) and art orders. You have to decide which parts of your section will take an illustration based on the amount of illo space the lead designer has been told is available, then you need to describe that illustration in a way that gives the artist a starting point. Once a designer's work is done, the lead designer pulls everything together and makes sure it all fits properly before turning over to development. The developers do a comprehensive pass  pass through the work, focusing primarily on mechanics and rules issues. The book is then turned over to editing, where the focus is more on clarity, continuity, and making sure everything has the proper amount of punch.

The process obviously differs depending on the book. For something like a Monster Manual, development is obviously hugely important because the vast majority of the book is rules related. For something like the Tomb of Horrors super-adventure, it's a more balanced mix of design, development, and editing all contributing to the quality of the final product.

RC: Going back to the OGL, and how that has impacted the RPG field, we've seen a variety of retro-clones hit the scene of previous editions, such as Swords and Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, and other variations such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which has spawned this so called "old school renaissance" in gaming.  It seems that over the past few years, the OSR has started to gain steam, as people are returning to their table top roots.  Obviously as far as Wizards is concerned, Paizo's recent continued success with the Pathfinder game has created quite the stir.  What are your thoughts on the rise of the OSR and the fact that the movement seems to be gaining a lot of momentum in the gaming community?

SFG: For me, the rise of the retro-clones really underscores the creative freedom promised by the OGL and the vision of Ryan Dancey, Peter Adkison, and the other folks who shaped that core of 3rd Edition. From an even older perspective, though, the many and varied ways in which D&D can be played today (whether by that name or otherwise) seems like an open acknowledgement that D&D has always been about people playing the game any way they wanted to. As I think is true for most gamers of my generation, the D&D that I played as a wayward youth was a chaotic mishmash of AD&D with a ton of house rules (including custom hit points and classes), a bunch of official rules we ignored because they didn't add to the game for us (weapon speed factor, anyone?), and liberal borrowings from Holmes Basic (including the 10-second melee round) and Cook/Moldvay. For us, D&D was always about picking and choosing elements from countless sources in pursuit of shaping the game that felt right to us as players and DMs. Thirty years after I started playing (dear god...), that kind of "My D&D" approach has not only taken the lead in the way the game is played, it's been made unofficially official. For me, this is a good thing.

I can't speak for anyone in the industry but myself, but as far I'm concerned, the more people that are engaged in fantasy role-playing, the better. I've done my level best to avoid the 3e/4e/Pathfinder superiority wars because I've always subscribed to the adage that the best version of D&D is the one you're playing and enjoying right now. My philosophy is that first we get everybody in the world gaming. Then and only then, we can argue over which version of which game they should be playing.

RC: There has been a significant rumor brewing in the online world about an announcement by Wizards at the upcoming GenCon in reference to some big news concerning the D&D product line?  Some are speculating the announcement concerns a possible 5th edition of the game, while others have said Wizards is considering shelving the brand in favor of a move towards board games with the brand name behind it.  I understand you might not be privy to this sort of information as a freelancer, but having worked closely with many of the designers and editors, what is your take on this announcement, and the changes coming down the pipe for the game of D&D?

SFG: As a freelancer, I have absolutely no inside information on what Wizards might or might not be announcing at GenCon. Like any publisher, Wizards needs to be very circumspect with its planning, and I totally understand and appreciate that. Having said that, however, I'd be very surprised if the most extreme rumblings of the rumor mill turn out to be even close to reality. Like any player and fan, I look to the most recent developments of the game to try to get a sense of where it's going. And when I do, I see those developments as indicative of a game that continues to evolve and grow in response to how people are playing it. To me, the process of development that's given rise to D&D Essentials (just to cite one example) is the same sort of process that's given rise to the OSR (though I respect that many OSR people would likely disagree with me). It's about letting people play the game they way they want to. Likewise, things like Mike Mearls' "Legends and Lore" column on the Wizards' website highlight the notion that D&D is a mutable continuum, not a fixed set of "definitive edition" data points. I know that some people read what Mike is saying in his columns and assume that he's specifically foreshadowing new directions for 5th Edition. I can't say they're wrong (if only because I honestly don't know). However, more important to me is the knowledge that the people in charge of Dungeons & Dragons understand that where the game has come from must always remain a big part of its overall direction.

RC: Yes, I think the fact that there are so many variations on the game really allow for a lot of customization.  I run a hybrid mix of 1e and 2e myself, and I try to take what I think are the best elements of both, and incorporate them into my campaign.  I understand much of your time devoted to the hobby is now spent behind the scenes working on projects and the like, but do you currently GM/play in any campaigns?  Do you have a regular group you play with?  What is your take on using technology like Skype in playing/hosting RPG sessions?

SFG: I currently play in two campaigns -- one, a home game with my wife and daughters; the other a play-by-post game on a private forum i run, which also serves as a testbed for some personal RPG design projects. The home game is v3.5 with a fair bit of customization (specifically, the spell points system from "Unearthed Arcana"). The PBP game is using an OGL/3.5-derived totally gestalt classless/level-free system that's been a pet project of mine for years, and which (if I ever get around to finishing it) is meant to be a single system that can encompass pretty much any style of play, from straight-up simple BD&D to a heavily tactics-oriented game like 4e. (When i say that, I'm sure I sound like more of an megalomaniac than I actually am...) My 4e games tend to be one-offs as opposed to long-term campaigns, because i'm usually using them to test projects i'm working on that don't necessarily link together in any useful way.

I'm definitely of the opinion that online play can be a great boon for tabletop gaming. Using my play-by-post game as an example, that campaign presently involves three players from back in the high-school days (including two of the Tomb of Horrors crew) and another friend relatively new to D&D. However, given that we're all several thousand miles apart from each other, being able to play online is the only way this game would ever happen. We've toyed with the idea of using Skype or some other video chat or online play system to play in real-time. However, the play-by-post format lets us work around our time zone differences more effectively.

RC: I'd like to briefly discuss something you touched upon there about 4e seeming like a tactics-oriented game.  There are many in the OSR who compare 4e to a lot of the video games in its approach to the hobby, which differs greatly with previous editions and incarnations of the game.  Do you think the video game and MMORPG culture has had an impact in the design of 4e or was this change in approach simply something more natural for the game?

SFG: I think it's more accurate to say that developments in MMORPG culture have had an effect on the overall culture of gaming, which then feeds into the ongoing evolution of D&D. Every MMORPG in existence is built on the foundations and language that Dungeons & Dragons and the other original RPGs created. Each new generation of RPG designers thus creates new games based on their own experiences of gaming, so it's not surprising that a person can look at 4e and see the overall influence of the three generations of RPG culture that have arisen since 1974. More importantly, though, I think people need to recognize that a focus on tactics is hardly a new development synonymous only with MMORPGs. Looked at completely objectively, 4th Edition probably has less in common with WoW than it does with classic tactical wargames like Squad Leader, which are full of turn-based tactical minutiae, stackable conditions, terrain modifiers, and often-insane number crunching to resolve combat. (I await someone's upcoming scathing blog attack revealing how 4e proves that Hasbro is planning on spinning off D&D under the Avalon Hill brand any day now.)

RC: And ironically enough, OD&D spawned from miniature wargaming anyway, which is in of itself, very tactical in nature. Another big change in later editions was the encouraged focus on storyline play as opposed to "sandbox" play.  Many have debated the merits of both ad nauseam in the blogging world, but what are your thoughts on the adventure path/storyline focus of modern RPG adventures as opposed to the more classic sandbox approach?  What has led to this progression, and do you forsee Wizards or any of the other big fish going back to the sandbox style?

SFG: As said above, I think that many specific trends in RPG design can be explained simply by acknowledging the way that each new generation of gamers reacts to and seeks to "improve upon" what came before. When sandbox play was the norm (as epitomized by the classic AD&D and D&D adventure modules as individual units, connected by only the most rudimentary story), it was easy to get excited by something like Dragonlance with its implicit promise of "This will be different!" But then a generation later, when complex narratives had become the norm because of the success of Dragonlance, it was just easy to get excited by a return to the older, simpler approach.  I personally think that sandbox play and more complex story-based play are equally valid approaches to D&D --  and not to keep harping on the same point, but the beauty of D&D for me has always been that it can encompass both those paradigms with equal ease.

One other important factor, though, is the way that gaming groups have changed over time. Back in the day, groups tended to be large and chaotic. Four players one week, then ten the next, with half playing two or more PCs -- this was the AD&D way, and in that kind of environment, sandbox play is usually the better option. As D&D got more mainstream and it became possible to establish a more consistent expectation of gaming with a core group of players, story-based play often offered a richer ongoing campaign experience. These days, a player's preference might well stem from what kind of group they play with. If it's fast and informal, sandbox style is often best (as is the case for my own 4e games). With a consistent base of players and characters, more detailed story-based narratives have a lot to offer (as they do in my home game and my PBP game).

As far as industry trends, i expect it's always going to be a balance. I think that many designers implicitly like the idea of shaping story within the context of adventure writing (and i'll certainly cop to being one of those designers). But at the same time, we recognize that we're doing a disservice to certain types of players if we force our story ideas on them, so we try to offer options for both styles of play.

Be sure to check back on Monday for Part 2 of our Q&A session in which we talk about more gaming, Scott's new book, and the world building and writing process.

About Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Scott Fitzgerald Gray is a specially constructed biogenetic simulacrum built around an array of experimental consciousness-sharing techniques — a product of the finest minds of Canadian science until the grant money ran out. Accidentally set loose during an unauthorized midnight rave at the lab, the S.F. Gray entity is currently at large amongst an unsuspecting populace, where his work as an author, screenwriter, editor, RPG designer, and story editor for feature film keeps him off the streets.

More info on Scott and his work (some of it even occasionally truthful) can be found by reading between the lines at