Bios: Ryan Dancey | David Noonan
Game designer/editor David Noonan and D&D's recent brand manager Ryan Dancey enjoy some time in the Product Spotlight this month as we feature their newly-released Hero Builder's Guidebook. Creating this accessory, which helps players shape truly unique characters, was a unique experience for the team as well, with designer/editor John D. Rateliff assisting Ryan and Dave on this "all for one and one for all" writing project. But, let's start at the beginning
Wizards of the Coast: How did the idea for The Hero Builder's Guidebook originate?
Ryan Dancey: I wanted to work on a product in R&D so I could get a feel for how the whole system worked, beyond the boundaries of the business management team. I asked [Roleplaying Research & Development Vice President] Bill Slavicsek if he had any projects on tap that involved a relative minimum of game rule design. After talking about the issue for a couple of weeks, we settled on the concept of the Hero Builder's Guidebook and I was assigned to write 32 pages.
David Noonan: John [Rateliff] and I looked at the outline Ryan came up with and divvied up the rest of it.
Wizards: It's rare to see three designers all working on a 64-page product. How did you decide who wrote what?
Dave: I tackled the Personal History and the Alignment test; John handled Career Planning and the Names appendix.
Ryan: The portions which contain most of my original content are the ability score tips and the class/race combo section. Luckily, the modular nature of the book made it relatively easy to have multiple designers work on the project.
Wizards: So, what does this book do for players that the Player's Handbook does not already cover?
Ryan: This book is all about the fundamental aspects of your character that make the character different from the other people in the D&D world. By definition, D&D characters are heroes, and the book sets out to help you create a heroic vision for who your character is.
It's also a help in getting started. Sometimes, adding the first few words to a blank sheet of paper are the hardest part of telling a great story. The Hero Builder's Guidebook is packed with character ideas, tips, starting points, new ways of looking at old classes and races, etc. Basically food for the imagination.
Dave: It's clear that the Player's Handbook is crammed full of useful rules bits, so we wanted to explore a bit of the other side of the coin -- the story experience. Experienced DMs, of course, crank out story elements that are terrific for the players they know best, and every D&D player I've ever met will happily tell tales of their characters' history and adventures. What we wanted to do was come up with a book that's useful for the DM or player who's in a hurry -- or who is looking for the "spark" for their next character.
Wizards: What specific elements of the character creation process did you set out to elaborate on in this book? The character's history, you mentioned
Ryan: There are four main parts of the book: A detailed set of ideas for the various class/race combinations; a section on alignment and your character's personal philosophy; a section on your character's personal history -- family, friends, enemies, important things that happened earlier in life, etc.; and a section about how to establish a strong foundation to grow the character over time into one of a number of heroic archetypes.
You'll also find a short section on making strategic choices about assigning ability scores, and a short section on naming your character, which make great bookends to the overall text.
Dave: In short, what we really wanted to do was come up with more elaborate answers to the question "What did your characters learn/do/believe before they set out on their very first adventure?"
Wizards: Can using this book help maximize a character's game potential?
Ryan: This is not a book targeted at power gamers. Because the focus of the book is on developing your characters prior to earning their first point of experience, there are no detailed analyses of feat combos, or weapon techniques, or spell enhancements, or even how to use and exploit the higher-level class abilities.
It's a "role" player's book, not a "roll" player's book.
Wizards: Dave mentioned that it's valuable for DMs as well as players
Ryan: Absolutely. DMs create more characters than the players do, and the Hero Builder's Guidebook can help DMs make those characters different and interesting.
There's a more fascinating potential buried in the Hero Builder's Guidebook as well. There are lots of places in the process of using the book's materials where something "falls out" for the DM to use. A romantic rival, a history of conflict, a lost magic item, etc. In other words, if the players and the DM create their characters as a joint exercise, the DM is going to end up with a page of notes of interesting things from the character's background that can be woven in to the story to enrich the experience and depth for all the participants.
Dave: I think Ryan's hit on the key here. One of the core beliefs woven into the new edition of the D&D game is that "if it's good for the PCs, it's good for the NPCs." (That's why monsters have ability scores and skills just like characters, for example.) So if a DM has 30 seconds to pull off a family history for the Duke, the Hero Builder's Guidebook gives the DM the toolbox to pull it off.
And if your players have characters with rich histories, weird backgrounds, and big plans for the future, it's your sacred duty as a DM to use that info to mess with them (within the bounds of fun play, of course). Maybe a character's brother gains title to a castle on the frontier, or the monastery where a character was trained is having a martial arts competition. Every bit of info a player comes up with using the Hero Builder's Guidebook is info you don't have to create yourself.
Wizards: What do each of you consider the coolest element of this book?
Ryan: The suggestion of the existence of a secret order of gnomish sorcerers dedicated to fighting the incursions of evil Outsiders in the otherwise peaceful and content gnomish lands in the class/race combo section.
Dave: John's appendix of names is pound-for-pound the most useful thing in the book -- for me, anyway.
Wizards: Any fond memories of the development process you'd like to share?
Ryan: I really enjoyed getting a personal look at how the design process works from the inside out.
Dave: When I designed a first draft of the Cosmo-style "What Alignment Are You?" alignment test, I sent it to the R&D staff members, asking them to take it as if they were the characters in their home campaigns. I received a deluge of emails that basically said, "Unfair! My character might be somewhat, um, mercenary, but he's not evil! Yet this test makes him out to be a real scoundrel!" People came to my cubicle all day trying to justify their characters' worldviews. I felt like a priest in a confessional.
That alignment test went through more iterations than anything else in the book. And it's still not perfect -- it describes a character no better than a 36-question test would describe the real-life you. But it is a useful thought exercise, because it makes you think like your character, and that's the very essence of roleplaying.
Wizards: You must have developed some really interesting characters during the playtesting of The Hero Builder's Guidebook. Any memorable ones spring to mind?
Dave: One of the characters you'll see throughout the book in examples and in illustrations is Lucinda, the half-orc paladin. We deliberately wanted to showcase how the new edition of the game lets you play against type -- you're not constrained in the character you want to create. Lucinda started life with two strikes against her: She's an orphan and a half-orc in a society that treats half-orcs poorly. But rather than respond to that racial hatred, she's chosen the humble, pious life of a paladin, forgiving (at least to a degree) the very people who killed her family. Instead, she's a tireless force for justice in her world, driven by a key event in her past (the mob attack that left her orphaned) to make sure that future children don't grow up in such a world.
Wizards: Was The Hero Builder's Guidebook developed alongside the three D&D core rulebooks or were you writing it after they were completed?
Ryan: I wrote my portion of the material in the first part of the year, when the final touches were being put on the core books. Since I had drafts of that material across my desk on a regular basis, you could say that the Hero Builder's Guidebook was designed in tandem with the core rules.
Wizards: How did the idea for the career "road maps" come about?
Ryan: This was actually one of designer Steven Schend's original ideas. He wanted to show people a way to get to the various archetypes in fantasy fiction and myth that are so popular with our players. Because D&D is an evolutionary game, you don't start out with a Merlin, or a Robin Hood -- you have to build those abilities into the character over time through level advancement.
Dave: One of the things that excites D&D players most is the idea of working toward something. That's why D&D's level system works, and why prestige classes are so sought-after. But moreso than before, the choices you make at each level have real impact on decisions you'll make in the future. So we wanted players to be mindful of the future when they create their characters. Just as we wanted players to explore their characters' paths, so too we wanted them to keep an eye on the future.
Wizards: The dedication of the book reads "All for one! One for all!" Can you clue us in on what that's all about?
Ryan: That is "the official motto of the Wizards of the Coast Tabletop Roleplaying Game business." It reflects the fact that we are a large, diverse group, and that we represent constituencies beyond the physical boundaries of the Wizards office building, including the fans, all of our own old gaming groups, and the many, many people who have worked on the D&D game down through the years and who have all given something of themselves to enrich the game.
Dave: "All for one! One for all!" also speaks to one of the things that makes D&D (and roleplaying in general) special. Unlike almost every other kind of game out there, when you sit down with your friends to play D&D, you're all on the same team. Even the DM isn't really the adversary -- he or she just pretends to be. The cooperative nature of the game gives D&D its spark. When your character is guarding Lucinda's back while she heals another friend of yours, that's an "all for one -- one for all" situation.
Ryan: I am also a believer in the transformative power of personal heroism. I think all people have the potential to be heroes, and that not all heroism is epic in scope and world-shaking in effect. Great societies are built by people who are "little heroes." People who help others, who protect the weak, who refuse to accept the work of those who would do evil. The motto speaks to that great part of human nature -- the desire to give of oneself, and the knowledge that others stand ready to return that stalwart support.
David is an editor for the Core D&D team at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing and editing the D&D Adventure Game and parts of the new Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual. His wife lets him out once a year, so excuse his wild-eyed, frantic behavior.
Ryan Scott Dancey
Ryan is a vice president at Wizards of the Coast. He oversees the tabletop RPG business and is the brand manager for Dungeons & Dragons. Ryan has overseen the development of several popular and award-winning games, including Legend of the Five Rings, Deadlands: Doomtown, Legend of the Burning Sands, the Commander's Edition of the Battletech TCG, Dune, and the relaunch of the Rage TCG. He cofounded Five Rings Publishing Group and ISOMEDIA, created RPG International, has developed enterprise solutions for mass document management, created the international sales department for Multiple Zones International, and is a noted commentator and strategist in the adventure gaming industry. He is married and has one child, a daughter.