Product Spotlight
Rich Baker
Interview by Michael Ryan

"I think the gaming industry is in the best shape I've ever seen it," says Rich Baker, "and it's clear that 3rd Edition and the Open Gaming License are to thank for it. The opportunities for a talented writer to get into this business and show us all a compelling vision are simply better than they've ever been."

Rich Baker knows of what he speaks. Currently the Managing Developer for Roleplaying Games R&D at Wizards of the Coast, Rich began as a game designer with TSR back in 1991. He became a senior designer six years later. After working on the 3rd Edition D&D game, he took over creative direction for Alternity. In late 1999, he became Creative Director for D&D Worlds and oversaw the creation of 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms. Finally, just last spring, he became the managing developer for the entire R&D RPG department. At thirty-six years old, he's also written a number of books on the side, including his sixth and latest novel, due in May: Condemnation, Book 3 of the War of the Spider Queenseries. ("I'd say City of Ravens is my best work so far," Rich says when pressed for a favorite, "but Condemnation will probably dethrone it when it comes out.")

In his nearly 12 years in the RPG business, Rich has watched the industry evolve into something bigger and better than it was before. "Five years ago," he says, "I would have told you that I couldn't imagine the tabletop RPG industry sticking around for ten years except as a niche hobby like wargaming. I was wrong. We might see a continuing evolution of the hobby toward the MMRPG (Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game; e.g., Everquest) and NSMMRPG (Not-So-Massively Multiplayer RPG; e.g., Neverwinter Nights), but gamers are nothing if not adaptable. I can't see why it's got to come to an end, ever."

Perhaps Rich's take on the industry five years ago was tempered, in part, by just how much of it he had seen up-close and personal. His first design assignment back in 1991 was a Spelljammer product, Rock of Bral, followed by a Dark Sun project, Valley of Dust and Fire. "Before TSR moved in 1997," he notes, "I worked on game products in the D&D,Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Planescape,Mystara, and Alternity lines. I'm probably best known for the Birthright Campaign Setting, the Player's Option series of rules expansions for 2nd Edition, and the Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game. The best part of working at TSR in those days was lunch in the games library. We had a couple of small tables in there, and you could go in and scrounge a pickup game of almost anything you wanted, any day of the week."

Then came the historic merger of TSR and Wizards, which has been chronicled elsewhere alternately as smooth and painful. Most of the creative staff was offered the opportunity to move from Wisconsin to Washington state, and Rich was among those who opted to sign on for the cross-country haul. "Any job's got its rough patches, but overall, I think it [the merger] went very well," he recalls. "You have to remember, TSR was on the ropes when WotC bought us, so our situation improved immediately in that we started printing product again. In 1997, WotC was a much more free-spirited place than it's since become, so we had no small amount of culture shock. But the folks at WotC were just great (heck, they're still great), so the transition was a very positive experience, in my opinion.

"And," he adds, "driving across the country was pretty cool, too. If you've never done it, you ought to."

When Rich and the rest of the creative team first arrived at the Wizards office in Renton, he quickly went to work on a couple of Alternity projects (the Star*Drive Campaign Setting and the Last Warhulk), then joined the 3rd Edition design team. As most fans know, the 3E team was, by most gamers' standards, a dream team. "Monte Cook, Skip Williams, and myself started off on the 3rd Edition process, with some help from Peter Adkison. Then Jonathan Tweet joined the team," he remembers. "I stayed on 3E for about eight months."

Now, as managing developer for all roleplaying games, Rich oversees development efforts "across the board," through the design, development, editing, managing editor, and typesetting stages. What is "development" of a RPG product? "It's the point of the process where we conduct a hard evaluation of the design and decide what needs to be done before we can start polishing the manuscript," Rich explains. "We examine rules content pretty rigorously and make sure mechanical things like feats, monsters, spells, and so on are designed correctly. We also take a look at the manuscript as a whole and determine if the design actually does everything we needed it to do."

Where possible, the developer implements necessary changes, although on occasion there's time and opportunity for the original designer to work on a second draft of the project. Such reworking, Rich points out, might involve something as simple as changing a the wording of a spell or the attack bonus of a monster, while at other times it might entail a hard rewrite of a sizable part of the manuscript in order to cover topics that were missed or to fix a jarring problem with tone and content.

"The position of managing developer is still a little new for us, so we're refining the scope of the job as we go along," Rich says. "Most of my time goes into performing the development work for as many products as I can fit on my schedule. The products I can't develop myself, I try to help out with by reviewing development plans and suggesting ways for problems to get fixed. I also do a little design here and there, and also some editing. I'm something of a jack-of-all-trades now."

Consider as an example the development of James Wyatt's excellent City of the Spider Queen.

"James designed -- that is, wrote -- City of the Spider Queen from July through November of 2001," Rich says. "I was scheduled to develop his manuscript from December through January. Naturally, the first thing I did was to carefully read the project from start to finish in order to see what else I needed besides the text itself: map sketches, a map order, an interior art order, and so on. James is a pretty talented writer but can't draw a map to save his life. Yet the components were all there, and the adventure was pretty sound.

"After reading through the manuscript, I thought long and hard about what would make City of the Spider Queen even better. I identified a couple of key areas I wanted to work on, which included making better use of our map booklet and doing a more thorough and evocative description of the city of Maerimydra and Castle Maerimydra, Part III of the adventure. Parts I and II were sound and needed only a little tweaking, while Part IV was so creepy and imaginative that I didn't see what I would do to make it better. I went back to James and explained what I wanted to do and why, and he agreed that what I proposed seemed solid. I also asked him to handle a few details of the development work, like redesigning a couple of NPCs who made use of a prestige class we wound up cutting out of the book. I also had to put together an interior art order, as James simply ran out of time to do one.

"So, I redrew the maps for Maerimydra and the castle, and changed the castle into a true keyed location with eight levels and something like 60 rooms. I used James's stuff anywhere I could, but I wound up adding a fair amount of my own words to Part III of the adventure to make it all work. James was pretty gracious about this, but he's a really nice guy and he probably wouldn't tell me [if] he didn't like what I did to his adventure. I also knocked out the art order, and made smaller changes elsewhere in the manuscript.

"When I finished at the end of January, City of the Spider Queen went over to the editors, Michele Carter and Gwen Kestrel. They worked on it from February through early April, if I recall correctly, and of course they came back to James and me with plenty of questions about the adventure. I saw City of the Spider Queen one more time when it came through our managing editor, Kim Mohan. One of my duties as creative director was to read the typeset galleys and make one last search for anything that needs fixing in order to help out Kim."

Problems can and do come up, of course -- most often when the team is striving for multiple-media coordination "When we're trying to write a game product around a novel, or computer game, or someone else's property, that's tough, especially when you're striving for a simultaneous release," Rich says. But for the most part, the D&D group is a tightly coordinated team, one that Rich is proud to have joined.

Getting to where he is now was an uncharted course for Rich, though he had a definite destination in mind. He first began playing D&D in 1978, when he was in 7th grade. "All through high school, I daydreamed about how cool it would be to write D&D stuff for a living," he admits. In college, he majored in English and participated in NROTC, and upon graduation, received his commission as an officer in the U.S. Navy. After serving three years of active duty, he returned to civilian life in the spring of 1991. "Since I was sending resumes all over the place, I sent one to TSR just for kicks," he recalls. "To my surprise, TSR wrote back and asked me to take a ‘design test.' That consisted of writing a sample encounter. They liked that enough to bring me in for an interview a few months later, and I started at TSR in October of 1991. I'd never even tried to get anything published, not even a magazine article, so I guess I just had good timing. Don't try this at home."

It's not allD&D twenty-four hours a day, of course. Rich and his wife, Kim Rohrbach, married in 1991 and have two little girls: Alex, 7, and Hannah, 4. He plays a little racquetball, runs the Wizards' men's softball team, enjoys the opportunity to take his girls hiking the Pacific Northwest in the summer, and has journeyed all over Washington State since arriving from Wisconsin. As is the case with most of the creative forces behind D&D, he reads voraciously, with a preference for SF, fantasy, history, and military history. And finally, he likes baseball and wargames, and -- as you might expect -- D&D, which he plays regularly. "Currently I'm DMing for a group consisting of Ed Stark, David Noonan, James Wyatt, Warren Wyman, and Tim Rhoades," he explains. "I'm running an adventure I'm writing for Dungeon magazine." Like many others both at Wizards and in the gaming community at large, he's looking forward to the results of the company's campaign setting search. That, he says, should be something to see.

According to most researchers, the average person in the United States changes career paths every seven years. Rich is now headed into his twelfth year working on D&D and its myriad worlds. What keeps him on this same journey after all that time? "I get to write D&D stuff and play games at work," he says. "How in the world can you beat that?"

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