In this month's exclusive interview, the designers of the new Unapproachable East accessory for the Forgotten Realms setting prove themselves very approachable as they discuss the growth of Thay, hagspawn, and lots of other "crunchy bits."
Wizards of the Coast: Obviously, a great deal of research has to go into preparing a book that details part of a world already so well developed. Was it confining or liberating, having so much previously published material to draw from?
Matt Forbeck: Liberating. We had all this great past material to work with, but Rich gave us the green light to play with it as much as we liked. He didn't want the years of history to weigh the book down. We could keep what worked, throw out what didn't, and add all sorts of cool new stuff to the mix.
Sean K. Reynolds: And several of us made it known that we weren't totally happy with how the 2nd edition Spellbound boxed set presented Thay (as a place Western adventurers would visit and never return to); we wanted it to be a place where you could run a native Thayan campaign rather than a one-shot. The same goes for other regions in the book (such as Rashemen, which I wrote).
Richard Baker: Handling older material is something of a balancing act. First and foremost, we want to present the material that the audience expects to see about Rashemen, or Thay, or any of those countries. But alongside that priority, we need to present material that will make for a great D&D game -- usually by introducing source material and "mechanical" material that offers lots of potential for play. After all, if we didn't do anything except detail Thay or Rashemen again, the consumers could rightly ask why in the world we expect them to buy the product. In addition to the mechanical information, I also like to make sure that we tell you about plenty of new source material, too, so that a book like Unapproachable East does not completely overlap previous products. I think we struck a pretty good balance for Unapproachable East.
Wizards: What new information can players who've campaigned in the Forgotten Realms for a long time expect to find in Unapproachable East? What from the past has been updated for inclusion?
Matt: There's a lot of new stuff, but most of what's there is based upon the old Spellbound boxed set. It was a great launch pad for the book. From there, we added a lot of depth. There are six new races, a dozen new prestige classes, and fistfuls of new feats, spells, magic items, and monsters.
Sean: We tried to give these regions the same sort of "let's run a game here" detail that Waterdeep and the Dalelands got in the older books. From the get-go we had some ideas for country-themed prestige classes based on what we knew of the region and what we wanted to do with it, such as the Durthan prestige class (evil counterparts of the hathrans) and the Shou Disciple prestige class (for Theskan fighter-types who have learned some elements of Kara-Turan unarmed fighting styles without actually taking levels in the monk class).
Rich: I'm particularly proud of the "mechanical" material. It's strongly rooted in Unapproachable East, but it's good stuff all on its own. For example, the book introduces the race of hagspawns-- the sons of hags. Hags take human males for mates, and their female children become the next generation of hags. Their male children are hagspawns, strong and hardy loners who make good fighters and wizards.
In terms of source material, there's a lot more here on the Great Dale and Thesk than we've ever presented before. And there's some nice weaving of old threads that help to pull together things like Aglarond's history, the continuing sinister influence of ancient Narfell and Raumauthar, and a better picture of the geography of Thay than we've previously published.
Wizards: What was the creative process like?
Matt: As the developer, Rich came up with an outline for the book, lined up the writers, and then parceled out the work. As I recall, Sean turned in his chapter on Rashemen first, which was a great model for me to follow. I wrote a big chunk of the book after that. Then Rich took what we'd turned in, added a ton of his own material, and polished the whole thing to a mirror finish.
Sean: Rich had to shoulder a big load for this book, as about two-thirds of the way through the design process we were told that the book was going to be made bigger and needed more "crunchy" game material. So Rich sat down to create 32 more pages of rules in addition to cleaning up the material the other designers turned over. I gave him a few suggestions based on stuff I was going to recommend for a web enhancement, so the book should satisfy both sides of the gaming spectrum (fans of rules and fans of source material).
Rich: I wore three hats for this book: designer, developer, and creative director. In terms of design, my chief contribution was in the early "crunchy" chapters, which turned out to be closer to 80 pages. As developer, I went over Sean and Matt's material and made sure it all hung together and was as good as it could be. And as creative director, I oversaw the process of outlining, coordinating with our art director and cartographers, and getting the material playtested.
Wizards: The new prestige classes are quite impressive, the new monsters are awesome, and the detail about the various realms is amazing. What parts of the book excite you? What are you most proud of?
Rich: Well, I mentioned the hagspawns already. I'm generally happy with the whole book. I suppose my favorite prestige class would be the Nar demonbinder, a spellcaster who specializes in calling and binding evil outsiders.
Sean: The Forgotten Realms setting is great for making prestige classes because there is so much culture to help define and color them. The same goes for regional feats, too, and it was fun (if tough) to make a berserker feat for each of the Rashemen berserker lodges. I also enjoyed converting some of the 2nd edition Spellbound monsters to 3rd edition monsters and templates.
Matt: I really got a kick out of digging into the various nations and building the personalities behind them. Detailing some of the Red Wizards of Thay was fun, and working on the Simbul and her homeland of Aglarond was a kick, too.
Wizards: How do you playtest this sort of material?
Matt: It's impossible to playtest the background material. It either works with the rest of the background or it doesn't. Wizards used a team of in-house playtesters to fiddle with the crunchier bits to get them just right.
Sean: One of the concerns raised by the in-house playtesters was balancing the PCs appropriately against the monsters, so I provided a "standard" Forgotten RealmsUnapproachable East adventuring party, which included a couple of barbarians instead of fighters, and a more monk-like fighter (from Thesk) that also served as a rogue, to reflect how a party centered in the Unapproachable East would have a different class balance than a standard party.
Rich: We playtest as much as we can. In the case of Unapproachable East, we conducted some character-creation playtests to check out the new races and options, and some monster-bashes to check the Challenge Ratings of our new monsters. We had an opportunity to do something special in the playtesting of this product: A few months back we entertained a guest from the Make-a-Wish Foundation and gave him a chance to run a character in our Unapproachable East playtests.
Oh -- one more thing I need to mention: I just peeked at the credits page, and realized that we seem to have left Penny Williams and Jon Pickens off the list of playtesters. D'oh! Sorry about that.
Wizards: What are you working on now?
Matt: I just took a job as the director of the new adventure games division at Human Head Studios, link to where I'm working on our first project due out this summer. I'm also penning one novel for Wizards and another for my friends at IDW Publishing.
Sean: Working on a computer game for Black Isle Studios (a division of Interplay), and finishing up a couple of books for Malhavoc Press and Reaper Miniatures.
Rich: I just finished working on the next Forgotten Realms sourcebook to follow Unapproachable East. Unfortunately, it's a third trimester product of this year, which means I can't say too much about it yet . . . but it's pretty cool.
Richard Baker has worked as a game designer, creative director, and managing developer for TSR and Wizards of the Coast since 1991. Some of his most noted design work includes the Origin Award-winning Birthright Campaign Setting, the Alternity Science Fiction Roleplaying Game, and 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons. He served as the creative director for all 3rd edition Forgotten Realms game products. Rich is also the author of six fantasy and science fiction novels. He resides in Seattle, Washington, with his wife, Kim, and daughters Alex and Hannah.
Matt Forbeck is a 14-year veteran of the adventure gaming industry. He has been nominated for over a dozen Origins Awards and has taken home three. He is the director of Human Head Studios new adventure game division, but he still freelances in his spare time. Stop by www.fullmoonent.com for more details.
Sean K. Reynolds lives in San Diego, California, and designs computer games for Black Isle Studios. In his spare time he paints miniatures, plays games, and rides his bike. Visit his site.