What do you get when you cross a lawful game designer with a chaotic one? The new D&D accessory Monster Compendium: Monsters of Faerūn. This month, authors James Wyatt and Rob Heinsoo talk about the process of designing monsters for the Forgotten Realms and beyond. . . .
Wizards of the Coast: Okay, we've read the advertising for Monster Compendium: Monsters of Faerūn. Now tell us in your own words: What's cool about this book?
James Wyatt: More monsters! What could be cooler than that? Some of my personal favorites: the draegloth (half-fiend), the Tyrantfog zombie, and the yuan-ti tainted one. And those are just from the ones I made up.
Rob Heinsoo: Funny you should use the word cool. I've found that when you're really, really enjoying a book, one of the best things you can do with it is keep it in the refrigerator. When you take it out of the refrigerator, the pages are all cold and crisp in your hands. It truly enhances your reading pleasure. Hopefully, Monsters of Faerūn is a refrigerator-worthy read.
Wizards: When you began the design process, what were your goals for the product? Did those goals change as the book took shape?
Rob: James started the design process before me. Luckily he's a splendid human and saved me some of the cool monsters. I'm fond of monsters that surprise the DM and reader as much as they surprise the players. I tried to put new (but in-character) spin on familiar creatures (leucrottas, perytons, stingers) . . . and I also wanted to come up with creatures that exploited new world ideas from D&D Third Edition (sivs) or fun wrinkles on Third Edition game mechanics (tall mouthers).
James: I set out selecting monsters for this book with a huge long list of all the monsters that had been published in Forgotten Realms sources over the years, and tried to select from that list monsters that had a particular Faerūnian flavor to them. It's hard to put a finger on what that means -- but the Realms is a setting of high magic and nasty evil, and you'll see a lot of both in this book. As the product developed, I learned that it was going to be a Core D&D product -- not a Forgotten Realms product -- and we had some debates on whether some core monsters should go in the book or not (like the aarakocra). But the essential vision of the book, I think, did not change very much.
Wizards: What would you say are your strengths as a designer? Your partner's? Did you divide the design work on Monsters of Faerūn to take advantage of these strengths?
James: When I began work on the book, my co-designer was "Designer A." That remained true long after the point when I needed to decide what monsters I was writing and what monsters I would leave for "the other guy." So Rob's particular strengths were not a factor in that decision at all! My instructions were to divide the monsters into those I thought were tremendously cool and those I thought were just moderately cool, and assign myself two-thirds of each category.
Rob: Speaking purely of our work styles, not our personalities . . . James is lawful and I'm chaotic. James is a lot more organized than me. I signed on at Wizards when he was already nearly done with his two-thirds of the book, so the good news is that the book benefitted from James's organizational initiative instead of mine.
James: Where Rob shone on this project was in his willingness to depart, sometimes radically, from previous lore about a monster. I tended to be too conservative in my conversions, where Rob was much more willing to throw out things that didn't work and add really neat new things. I may be more organized, but he's more daring.
Wizards: In creating new monsters, from what sources did you draw inspiration?
Rob: Life as a twelve year old, the Celtic Wild Hunt, What-If Alternate Faerūnian History musings, anthropology, and the original edition of Blackmoor.
James: The spectral panther is almost straight out of some old Wormy cartoons in Dragon, though I took its wings off. The Tyrantfog zombie was inspired by an event described in Cloak & Dagger, which was an unedited manuscript while I was working on this book. The draegloth was inspired by my reading Salvatore's Dark Elf Trilogy. The Phaerlin giants were inspired by Drizzt Do'Urden's Guide to the Underdark. The Dekanter goblins were inspired by some obscure reference to the mines of Dekanter somewhere . . . The tainted ones of the yuan-ti came out of my home campaign, where I wanted yuan-ti agents who could move undetected amongst humanity. . . . And so on. All over the place.
Wizards: Each monster description offers the option of using the monster as a player character -- tell us a little more about this facet of the book.
Rob: Third Edition D&D makes that an option, since monsters now play by the same rules as PCs. It's a particularly good thing for Faerūn, a world with a reputation for freewheeling magic craziness that it will be good to have players live up to . . . even if the world has become somewhat more serious with the release of the new edition.
Wizards: What did you most enjoy about working on this product?
James: It was my first project after joining Wizards, and I quickly assumed the title of "FR Monster Boy." It was really a crash course on monster design, and for a while I really felt like an expert on that very arcane topic. It was quite an immersion in the real nuts and bolts of the new D&D, which appealed strongly to my mathematical side.
Rob: Making James say, "You are a sick and disgusting human being," by telling him what I was doing with my monsters.
Wizards: Can you share a humorous or quirky anecdote that occurred during the writing or playtesting of the book?
Rob: See above, and repeat as necessary.
James: During the concept meeting, we decided it was important to make a distinction between monsters we simply weren't going to include in this book, on the one hand, and monsters we never ever wanted to see again anywhere, on the other. The only one I can remember from the latter list is the wingless wonder. . . . I also cut faerie dragons from the book because I couldn't bring myself to write about how much they love apple tarts.
Wizards: Is there anything in your background that you think especially prepared you to write Monsters of Faerūn?
Rob: This is where I get to say that I started playing D&D in the fifth grade, back in 1974, with the original three books in a brown box, back before I knew there was such a thing as polyhedral dice and generated numbers by drawing pieces of paper out of a cup. That doesn't answer your question, but suffice to say my life has orbited gaming ever since.
James: What Rob said -- playing D&D for the last 20 years. Heck, before this I was an ordained minister, a tech writer, and a web designer. (Well, okay, writing monsters is a bit like writing software documentation.)
Wizards: What's the most challenging part of a game designer's job?
Rob: In general? Designing fun mechanics that both function properly and that evoke the sense of wonder/sense of alternate reality that you're trying to get the players to experience. This particular product? Creating monsters at the same time as the Monster Manual itself was still in production!
James: Finding the balance between creative and technical writing. Obviously the job requires a tremendous amount of creativity, but we're not writing novels or short stories here, we're writing game material, and in large part that means rules -- rules that need to be clearly explained. It's interesting to me that in the last several years (since fleeing ministry) I've selected a number of jobs/careers that really do use both sides of the brain. That was always my favorite thing about doing web and multimedia work -- in order to produce an artistic result, you're behind the screen mucking with numbers and code. I like that mental balance.
Wizards: What would you be doing if you weren't a game designer?
Rob: Being such a different person that I don't know who I would be.
James: If I hadn't landed this job last year, I'd probably still be in Berkeley doing web design for nonprofits and doing game design at night.
Wizards: What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
James:Defenders of the Faith: A Guidebook for Clerics and Paladins. I wrote half of that book, which is due out in May. And then nothing for about five months, except for articles in Dragon.
Rob: I was one of the designers on the upcoming Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. It's big. It's beautiful. To borrow a term from an old candy ad, it's "thickerer." And after that, the stuff you'll be seeing from me will be coming from Wizards' card game side, which I just transferred to. I'm having a blast helping develop a D&D skirmish miniatures game. And I'm working on two new sports card games that will be published later this fall, one of which is my childhood dream project.
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James Wyatt wrote articles for DragonMagazineand DungeonAdventures before joining the Wizards of the Coast staff in January 2000. Game design is career No. Five, after stints as a childcare worker, ordained minister, technical writer, and web designer. He currently resides in Washington State.
Rob Heinsoo has been working in the adventure gaming industry as a writer and game designer since 1994. He worked on the Shadowfist trading card game and the Feng Shui RPG at Daedalus Entertainment, helped direct the world of Glorantha at Chaosium, and helped put together the King of Dragon Pass computer game at A-Sharp. Rob joined Wizards early in 1999.
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