In this month's exclusive interview, the designers of the new Song and SilenceD&D sourcebook for bards and rogues break their silence to discuss musical instruments, poisons, traps, and the inevitable challenge of using a garotte.
Wizards of the Coast: How did Song and Silence: A Guidebook to Bards and Rogues come to be?
John Rateliff: This is the fourth of five "class books" that serve the same function in the new D&D that the old PHBR series did in 2nd Edition: providing new goodies for a particular character class. (Editor's note: The previous books in the series are Sword and Fist,Defenders of the Faith, and Tome and Blood. The fifth book, Masters of the Wild, is scheduled for release in February.)
Wizards: And how did each of you come to be involved?
John: Dave and I were picked for the project because we were both part of the core D&D group and had been deeply involved the whole 3rd Edition project for well over a year already. He'd generated a lot of stat blocks for characters for the Dungeon Master's Guide and playtesting, and I'd co-edited the Player's Handbookand Dungeon Master's Guide with Julia Martin. So between us we were very familiar with the new D&D and full of ideas about new things rogues and bards would like.
Wizards: How did you decide who would work on each section?
John: Dave and I had already worked together on the Hero Builder's Guide, so we simply got together, created an outline, and then divvied up the work. He'd choose a chapter he wanted to work on, then I'd choose one, then he'd choose another, and so forth until all the pieces were accounted for.
Dave Noonan: We collaborated on that outline after looking at the structure of the previous books in the series. Then we picked sections until our word counts were more or less equal. It was kind of like picking baseball teams as kids: "I get organizations. You pick equipment. I want the thief-acrobat. You take the outlaw."
John: Some chapters we simply split down the middle: prestige classes, skills, feats, and spells, for example, and then combined the results; that got us more variety and a better range of ideas. (Two heads are better than one.)
Wizards:Where does the research begin for this sort of book? Did you return to older D&D material?
John: We started out by having a concept meeting where we invited various members of the RPG R&D department to come and swap ideas. We described various things we wanted to include in the book, they threw in more ideas, and we boiled the results down into the final outline we used. Of course, since it's the fourth book in an ongoing series, there were some things we knew we'd need to include, as fans of the preceding books would expect them.
The main research, however, came from being gamers. I've played D&D for over twenty years now, and I have a lot of experience to draw on when it comes to what bards and rogues like and dislike, most recently through year-long campaigns I ran of Night Below and Return to the Tomb of Horrors, both of which included bard and rogue player characters. I'd also created an alternative bard class and new spells for it back in the mid-80s with a friend in my gaming group at the time. These materials made it easy to come up with a "wants list" of things we should include if possible. I've also been playing the new D&D from a very early stage in its development and could draw on the experience of what my fellow players with rogue or bard characters found enjoyable or frustrating, and I used that as a yardstick of what to include and what to avoid.
Dave: For my part, I certainly grabbed a copy of Unearthed Arcana to take a peek at the thief-acrobat and some of the magic instruments, but mostly I looked forward rather than back. A lot of the initial brainstorming is putting yourself in the DM's or the player's head and asking, "What do I want to see?" Another big inspiration for me -- especially in the organizations chapter -- were my own Wednesday night and Thursday night campaigns. A lot of the thieves' guilds and bardic colleges grew from seeds in those weekly adventures.
Wizards: The prestige classes are extremely popular, and Song and Silence has ten prestige classes to choose from. The Fang of Lolth class looks particularly intriguing, but I'd like to know which prestige classes you, the designers, think will become fan favorites?
Dave: The Fang of Lolth is my favorite. It started simply: "Use Magic Device is an exclusive skill for rogues . . .What if a prestige class had that as a requirement?" But obviously it took on a life of its own. And I like the thief-acrobat because maneuverability is so tactically strong. However, I remember running the first high-level thief-acrobat playtest. It took place in the Temple of Elemental Evil. My thief-acrobat took something like a 60-foot leap, landed on the side of a wall, and proceeded to run along the walls and ceiling Matrix-style. Then I glanced at an altar, failed my Will save, and died. So sometimes maneuverability just gets you in trouble faster.
John: In general it's simple: You just think of what would be fun to play and try to create that class. It has to be different enough from an existing class; it's not worth the bother of creating a new rule when an old one already covers the territory -- as Ezra Pound would say, "Make it new." Then, once you've gotten it roughed out, you have to make sure it's not too good, generally by playtesting. If it's fun, different, and well-balanced then it goes in the book.
Wizards: The idea of creating new Craft skills for poisonmaking and trapmaking is well detailed. What's new here that players will have never seen before?
Dave: There are two new elements with regard to poisons: We set Challenge Rating adjustments so you can figure out how tough a poison trap is, and we give you a Difficulty Class for the skill check. The two numbers are related -- deadlier poisons are harder to make (and make safely, I suppose).
Wizards: How much do you have to know about poisons to put together a table like this?
Dave: With a couple of obvious exceptions, the poisons are completely made up. They don't function like real world poisons; they work like the fakey poisons you see in fantasy books and movies. Iocaine powder, anyone?
John: Exactly. It's less a matter of knowing about real-world poisons and more about having a good feel for what would be an interesting game effect. Poe said much the same about story writing, and I agree with him: It's the effect that counts.
Wizards: The traps were even more specific than the poisons, including the 90 sample traps. In fact, traps get about 10 pages of coverage. Is it fair to say that you believe traps are a significant part of the D&D world? Where did you decide to draw the line at the level of complexity for the traps you included?
John: This section was entirely Dave's, and I think he did a great job of it. There have been too many adventures in the past where dungeons had traps that simply couldn't be explained in terms of the game mechanics. My rule of thumb is that the villains always have to abide by the same set of rules as the PCs. Not only does Dave's traps section provide a welcome look behind the curtain, but it should spark a lot of ideas for DMs. And it's immanently lootable: Since the traps are fully stat'd out they can be dropped into any dungeon in almost no time at all.
Dave:D&D has always had traps, and getting past them is a major part of the typical rogue's shtick. Craft (trapmaking) turns the tables a bit, giving the characters a chance to booby-trap their own bases if they like.
As far as complexity goes, I operated on two tracks. I wanted a way for DMs to figure out the Challenge Rating on their dream trap, and I wanted DMs in a hurry to be able to grab an appropriate trap quickly. I hope the trap-building system accomplishes the first, and the sample traps accomplish the second.
Wizards: The new spells are fantastic. (I'm pretty sure I've been on the receiving end of insidious rhythm.) Which ones are your personal favorites?
John: I admit to a fondness for getaway, follow the leader, sympathetic vibration, and especially insidious rhythm, which was inspired by the old Homer Price story which, in turn, had been inspired by a great Mark Twain story. In terms of game mechanics I think joyful noise and protégé; enable you to do some interesting things you couldn't do before. (The same is true of some of the feats, which are specifically designed to extend bard abilities or counteract some bardic shortcomings.) I'd say that while all the spells are useful, they have a certain flair that makes them fun to use, which fits in well with the bard.
Dave: I like sniper's eye (assassin 4), which broadens the repertoire of an assassin by augmenting ranged attacks. Crescendo (bard 2) gives your whole party a bonus that increases by one each round. It builds to a climax just as the action does.
Wizards: What was the most difficult section of the book to develop?
John: Definitely the equipment section, especially the bardic instruments. The research alone took a good bit of time, and I tried very hard to convey something of what the instrument is like to someone who may never have seen or heard one. We came down to a choice between listing a lot of instruments which were identical in terms of game mechanics, so that what a bard played was just a bit of roleplaying color without game effect, or giving each instrument a different ability, inviting the player to comparison shop for the perfect instrument to fit his or her character. I initially tried the first option but we wound up going with the second, partly to give bards a power-up and partly because having lots of options, all attractive, and choosing among them is part of what the game's about. And it was great fun writing up the racial preferences regarding each instrument.
The thieving gear, by contrast, was easy to come up with: Just think of handy gadgets you'd want your character to have and then work out how to achieve that in terms of the new D&D.
Dave: The trap rules are mechanically and mathematically robust, and the devil was definitely in the details. Not only did we want to create a functional system, but we wanted to make it backward-compatible. If you reverse-engineer the traps in the Dungeon Master Guide, you'll see that they obey these rules (even though this trap-making system didn't exist when we created the Dungeon Master Guide). I had some terrific help from Rich Redman and Penny Williams, who had the laborious, thankless task of checking the math on each of those 90 traps. Also, our playtest groups constantly told me about their favorite traps, and every time I heard of one the system couldn't handle, it was back to the drawing board for me.
John: But hardest of all was the garrote, which I was determined to get in the book but which was very tricky, rules-wise, to work out. I've had PCs who were on the receiving end of a locking garrote in past campaigns, and it's a pretty scary and effective tool in the DM's arsenal. I'm happy that this didn't get cut in the review or editing process.
Wizards: Since you mention it, what did end up on the cutting room floor? Were there things you'd once thought to include that you later decided to hold for other releases or to abandon altogether?
Dave: We used almost everything, and in fact were blessed with some late additions. Many of the traps that appear in Song and Silence also appear in future adventures, and the trap-building system inspired some of the work on the forthcoming Stronghold Builder's Guidebook.
John: Chapter Five originally had an extended example of a bard using his abilities to resolve a scenario that I was pretty happy with, as it shared the same setting with one of my favorite 1st Edition modules (L1. The Secret of Bone Hill). It also showed how a bard can use interactions and Charisma-based skills to achieve many of a scenario's goals. Also, I'd used an actual song (The Smithereens' "Hand of Glory") for the fragments and snatches that bardic knowledge could dredge up. The whole section got cut when the chapter ran long, but I'm glad to say it's been revamped, combined with some material of Dave's, and expanded into a short adventure by Penny Williams, our editor; the results are available right here on Wizards' website as a web enhancement.
Wizards: What are each of you working on now?
Dave: I just finished editing Deities and Demigods, and I'm starting an as-yet-unannounced project. It involves high-level characters.
John: I'm actually no longer at TSR/Wizards, but I'm still in the industry. Currently, I'm working on a chapter of the forthcoming Lord of the Rings game for Decipher, a Call of Cthulhu project for Chaosium, and an anime guide for Guardians of Order. Plus, I'm still working on a long-term project, an edition of the original manuscript of The Hobbit, which I hope to finish up next year.