Designer Interview with Keith Baker, Bill Slavicsek, and James Wyatt
In this month's exclusive interview, the creator and designers of the incredible new Eberron campaign setting for the D&D game discuss the original submission process, the lengthy brainstorming sessions, and the astonishing amount of work that went into building a whole new world and cosmology from scratch.
Wizards of the Coast: Keith, when you answered the 2002 open call for submissions to design a new D&D campaign setting, what was your background as a gamer and as a game designer?
Keith Baker: I've been playing D&D since the boxed set came out in the '70s, even though I was in grade school at the time. Coming out of college, I wanted to get into game writing but had no idea where to begin; by a strange twist of fate I ended up designing computer games, and kept at that for seven years. During that time I managed to make a few freelance RPG connections and did a little writing for Atlas Games and Goodman Games. I finally quit my day job to become a full-time freelancer two months before the setting search was announced--needless to say, I had no idea what sort of year was in store for me!
Wizards: What were your inspirations for the Eberron setting, and what made you think it was worth submitting?
Keith: To be honest, [I submitted Eberron] just because it was a fun idea. I really didn't expect anything to come of it, but I enjoyed writing the proposal. I love both pulp and film noir, and I tried to instill the flavor of both genres into the one-pager. As for specific inspirations, well, the one-sentence description was "Indiana Jones and The Maltese Falcon meets Lord of the Rings," and that holds true today. There aren't bullwhips and revolvers, but there is the same potential for conspiracy, mystery, and intrigue combined with high action and adventure, all set in a familiar fantasy world.
Wizards: Bill and James, more than 11,000 submissions came in. What was the atmosphere like at Wizards as these began to roll in? Did the volume seem daunting or overwhelming? Who weeded through those submissions?
James Wyatt: I remember there being a lot of excitement company-wide about the process. I turned in seven submissions myself, so I was naturally interested in the process! There was just a lot of buzz about it--within Wizards as well as in the fan community.
Bill Slavicsek: We were thrilled and overwhelmed by the number of submissions. At one point, Christina Matthews, who was given the task of collecting all of the submissions and keeping the names of the authors secret, wheeled the huge stacks into a meeting just to show us what she was dealing with. It was enormous.
To review the proposals, we put together a panel of people from various parts of the company. It included people from R&D, Brand, Sales, Novels, and Marketing. Chris Perkins and I represented RPG R&D. Originally, I was hoping to be able to review all of the submissions personally, but the sheer numbers and the timeframe we were working under didn't make that possible. So we divided the submissions among subteams of the panel, and each subteam was tasked with reducing their pile of 3,000 or so submissions down to their favorite 30. We had four subteams, which means we initially reduced the 11,000 down to about 120. The panel came back together to review these 120, with the goal of agreeing on ten submissions to move on to the next stage of the process. By the end of this stage, we actually wound up with eleven proposals.
At this point, still unaware of [the authors' identities], I prepared an outline for a ten-page treatment into which each of the eleven proposalists would need to expand their one-pagers. Christina continued to deal with the proposalists directly, while I funneled all of my directions and formatting issues to them through her.
The ten-pagers arrived a few weeks later, and the panel devoured them, each hoping to see something that leaped out and proclaimed "I'm the one! Publish me!" The panel debated the merits of each person's favorite, and we settled on three to take to the next level. At this point, we learned the names of the authors and we flew each of them to Wizards of the Coast's offices to meet with them. During those meetings, I began to direct each project in earnest, just as I would direct any product published through the efforts of my R&D team. It was great meeting Keith Baker, Rich Burlew, and Nathan Toomey in person, getting to talk about their worlds with them, and getting to help them each make their vision come alive. We gave them an outline form to follow so they could create 125-page world bibles, and we discussed things they needed to do to their initial ideas to make them ready for Wizards to publish.
All three [proposals] were great, but we had to select the one we were going to put our efforts behind. That one was Keith Baker's world, the world that became Eberron.
James: My involvement with the whole thing began a little later. I asked to work on the new setting before the committee had gotten very far in wading through the submissions. So, once the pool was down to three, I got invited to meetings with each designer as they came to Wizards to discuss their ideas in preparation for writing the 125-page setting bibles.
Wizards: As the submissions were trimmed down to eleven, then three, then one, what criteria determined which settings made the cut? And what was at the core of Eberron that helped it hold on until the end?
Bill: With a panel of 12 or so people, I'm sure that each person had his or her own criteria. As a group, we tried to look for proposals that met with the Brand directive of "the same, but different," as well as for those that would easily translate across a number of categories, including roleplaying games, novels, miniatures, and computer games. Personally, and as Director of RPG R&D, I was looking for something that would allow us to use all of the 3rd edition D&D rules and build those into the setting from the ground up. I looked for something that made me excited, and that I felt would translate into excitement for the majority of our audience. From the beginning, the one that did that for me was Eberron. Not necessarily for what it contained or the way Keith wrote it, but because of the promise I saw there. From the kernel of Keith's idea, I knew we could grow a powerful franchise that could proudly take its place beside Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and the rest of D&D's amazing campaign worlds.
To me, the core of Keith's idea was the fresh approach to familiar topics. Whether Keith said it this way or not, I saw in his proposal the heart of the Brand directive. Eberron was D&D, and at the same time it was new and different. It made me excited. It made the panel excited. And, we hope, it will make the audience excited, as well.
Wizards: Keith, at each stage, you were asked to provide a little more of the world. What were your thoughts as you fleshed out the setting for further consideration by the selection committee? Were you confident that it would continue to be well received?
Keith: As I said earlier, I had no expectations with the one-pager. Once it made the jump from the ten-pager to the 125-pager, I got to meet with the people at Wizards to hear what they actually liked and didn't like about the idea, so the world went through some major changes at that point, and it was at that stage that many ideas that are now central to the world--things like the warforged and the shifters--came into existence. I was never especially confident, because I had no idea what the other settings were like and because the whole possibility of making the final cut seemed too good to be true!
Wizards: Of course, people are going to want to know: What did you do with the money?
Keith: I went to Hawaii, bought some exciting new furniture (after ten years of sleeping on a futon, I finally have a bed!) and sent a very large check to my good friends at the IRS.
Wizards: Once Eberron was chosen, what came next? How did Keith work with the in-house designers at this point?
Bill: Well before we selected the proposal that we would take to publication, I established a schedule so that we could actually get the product to market when we wanted it to release--for the 30th anniversary of D&D. I made Chris Perkins the design manager, who would ride herd over the project until it released and manage the line thereafter. I assigned James Wyatt to the project, and had James sit through the meetings with each of the three final proposalists so that he'd be ready to go when we made the final selection. And I assigned myself to the project, knowing that I wanted to direct the design and add my own touches to make sure the final product did everything I wanted it to do.
Keith met with us for two days prior to preparing the 125-page world bible. These were intense and extremely creative meetings that helped shape the basics of the world. Then, after we selected Eberron, we had Keith come to the offices again to work with James and me on preparing the outline and hammering out the various issues that still needed to be dealt with before anyone began writing.
James: [Keith's second visit] turned out to be my favorite part of the process. We had daily meetings with Keith, Bill, Chris, Peter Archer, Mark Sehestedt, Christina Matthews, and myself. (I hope I'm not forgetting anybody.) It was the most extended period of dedicated brainstorming I've ever been through, and it was exhilarating. I love being around smart and creative people! We were just bouncing fabulous ideas around for hours on end, trying to shape them all into a coherent whole, riffing off themes in Keith's submission and adding new ones pulled out of that charged air. It was great.
Bill: After our initial design meetings with Keith, I wrote a portrait of the world that served as my director's notes. It brought together Keith's original ideas, the ideas that came out of our subsequent discussions, and my own story and world-building sensibilities to create the pre-design guide we would all work from. James and Keith began design work almost immediately after that. I spent a lot of the initial months making comments, offering suggestions, and throwing in ideas here and there, as well as working on simplifying the map of the world.
James: We were in constant email contact and had weekly telephone calls where Chris, Bill, and I would sit in Bill's office with Keith on speakerphone, so we were always sure we were heading in the same directions.
Bill: We also brought in three wonderful concept artists in these early stages. Mark Tedin, Dana Knutson, and Steve Prescott worked from the pre-design guide, the product outline, and our brainstorming sessions to put a face to the world.
Wizards: What makes the Eberron campaign setting stand apart from all others?
Keith: D&D has come a long way over the decades--new monsters, new spells, expanded psionics, and so on. Eberron has the advantage of being able to incorporate these things from the beginning instead of trying to squeeze them into an already-defined world. Take psionics as an example: They are not so integrated into the world that you must have the Expanded Psionics Handbook to play in Eberron, but if you do, there is a culture that has evolved around psionics and an explanation for the origin and source of psionic power in the world. It's not just a random "Oh, there's some guys out there with big brains"--it has a logical place in the cosmology. It is also a setting that supports a wide variety of play styles: over-the-top action, gritty urban mystery, political intrigue, and even outright war. And all of these elements can be drawn into the same adventure! Even dungeon-crawling has a defined place in the world. There are good reasons that mysterious ruins and places of power wait to be explored!
James: What makes it different? In some ways, nothing at all. Any D&D adventure you want to run, you can run it in Eberron. There are flavor bits that are new and different, but it's still D&D. On the other hand, the setting lends itself to a style of play that is different from what I've done in other settings before. For me, that difference is all about tone, feel, and the kinds of stories I feel drawn to create in the world. I find myself turning the action up a notch--something that is mechanically supported with the action point rules--and drawing inspiration from movies more than I have in the past. I find that there are lots of stories I want to tell in this world.
Wizards: I assume Keith has campaigned in the world. Bill and James, have you?
Bill: Yes, I've played in some Eberron sessions, I've run playtests, and I'm currently running a weekly Eberron campaign just for fun. To me, Eberron doesn't so much stand apart. It's D&D, but it's D&D with some new attitude thrown in. For the first time, we've created a D&D setting that takes full advantage of the 3rd Edition rules and mindset. No retrofitting required. To me, Eberron is an action-packed D&D movie, and I try to approach every game session with that tone and attitude in mind.
That said, there are new things introduced for the first time in Eberron. I love the new races, especially the warforged and the shifters. I love the backstory and the history of the world. I love the concept of monsters without set alignments. I love the idea that adventures can take place across large areas of the world, not just in a single place. I love the intrigue and the mystery and the power. We've created a great place to play in, with a lot of cool parts, but what makes it work for me is when all the parts come together. There's a place for everything, and everything in D&D has its place.
James: Bill ran a lunchtime game in the office for several weeks, where I got to play a kalashtar monk for a while. I'm running a monthly Eberron campaign now with a really fabulous group of players, and having a great time with that.
Wizards: Dragonmarked houses, the Sovereign Host, weretouched masters, deathless creatures, manifest zones, the draconic Prophecy, the Dreaming Dark . . . Eberron is loaded with evocative names that suggest a campaign of high adventure and classic fantasy. What are some of your favorite concepts of this new world that you think will resonate with players?
James: Man, I'm glad you like those names. We agonized over names!
Keith: The Inspired and the Dreaming Dark have always been two of my favorite parts of the world. The idea of a force reaching out from the world of dreams and nightmares to manipulate the waking world is something I find intriguing, and the idea of the Inspired--a race bred to serve as the vessels of outsider spirits--is just creepy. In addition, I like subtle villains, and the Inspired are all about sly manipulation. This comes back to the merging of mystery and action: Even if you defeat the physical challenges, can you expose the true plans of the Dreaming Dark?
The Last War offers a great deal of potential for character background and adventure hooks. The war has been over for only two years, so there's a good chance that it had a significant impact on the life of your character. Did you fight in the war? If so, for whom? Did you lose a loved one? Make a deadly enemy? In addition to your personal issues, it has shaken up the balance of power between the nations, which makes this an excellent time for political intrigue and the schemes of secret societies.
As a player, I especially love the warforged and shifters, because both have a lot of interesting options for character development. I really like what we've done with druids, who finally get more individuality and a strong tie to the history of the world. All in all, I could probably write 125 pages on what I like about the setting--in fact, I have--but I'll stop here.
Bill: I think it's all cool, and I hope that all of it resonates. That said, each player and gamemaster is going to find something that really works for them. For me, I really like the concepts surrounding the Last War and the collapse of the ancient kingdom that led to the troubles in the world today. The dragonmarks and how they work add a new mechanical dimension to the world, as well as a wonderful story hook to hang portions of campaigns on. For me, a lot of these ideas spring to mind in action-oriented scenes: a courier with the Mark of Passage carrying a mysterious package for an unknown patron . . . the skyscraping towers of Sharn rising high into the rain-filled night . . . the ancient cyclopean ruins of Xen'drik, full of traps and treasures and monsters. . . .
James: Okay, my favorite touches: The cosmology (including the manifest zones), which has the potential to influence any adventure, no matter how confined to the Material Plane. The dinosaur-riding halflings of the Talenta Plains, though they are a pretty marginal part of the world. (I have a seven-year-old son who is past the height of his dinosaur obsession, but I haven't quite recovered from it yet.) The shifter race, including the weretouched master prestige class, with its interesting history and really cool game mechanics. Yeah, the warforged, especially the Huge miniature sitting on the shelf right above my monitor as I type this! The Church of the Silver Flame, with its high ideals and corrupt leaders and twelve-year-old head. And Xen'drik, the lost continent of dungeons and ruins and ancient artifacts and lost valleys.
Wizards: Action points and dragonmarks are new twists on the rules. How do these rules, and any other new ones you feel worth mentioning, impact the overall game?
Bill: The only rules change from D&D is the addition of action points. Action points developed from rules created for d20 Modernand the Star Wars Roleplaying Gameto help make those games more cinematic in feel. We took it a step further and refined it somewhat for Eberron. We think the use of action points adds an exciting new element to D&D.
Keith: A fundamental part of the pulp genre is the ability of the hero to beat the odds--either because of remarkable skill and ability, or just dumb luck. I wanted some way to simulate this in Eberron, to make PCs stand out as heroes. With the advent of d20 Modern, action points seemed to fit the bill. Action points allow the player to modify certain die rolls, getting that little bit of extra luck when it's required. In Eberron, they also allow a character to push herself beyond her usual limits--granting a paladin the extra smite evil she needs to turn the tide of battle, letting the artificer speed up her usually slow casting time, and so on. They let the party get that edge it needs to beat the odds, and they lets the DM make the odds just a little more challenging.
James: I think action points support a style of play where the action is more intense and fantastic than normal. That's a mechanic we introduced specifically for that wide-ranging effect--it's a mechanical way to undergird the tone of the setting. There are some definite things to keep your eye on when you're using action points, though! For example, in the first session of my Eberron game I decided I wanted to use the "players roll all the dice" variant rule from Unearthed Arcana, which meant my players were making defense rolls instead of having a static AC number. They never got hit! Between generally rolling really well and being able to spend action points to effectively increase their AC, they rarely took any damage from the monsters at all. I scrapped that variant for the second session--it just doesn't mix well with action points.
Bill: Action points can be left out without any major impact on the setting. So, if you're not comfortable with the concept, you can leave it out. The same goes for psionics. These rules have their place in Eberron, but the setting isn't unduly hindered if they aren't for you. Other new rules, however, are integral to the setting. Dragonmarks and the powers they provide, for example, have been built into the foundation of the setting and work with D&D's normal feat mechanics.
Keith: Dragonmarks evolved from the idea that Eberron is a magical world. The original thought was that if a displacer beast or blink dog could be a result of "natural" evolution, couldn't a humanoid develop an innate magical talent? From this starting point, dragonmarks were honed down to have a tighter fit into the cosmology of the world. The next step was to consider the impact of dragonmarks on the culture and economy of Eberron--if you have a family with a natural talent for prestidigitation, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that they would end up dominating the inn and hostelry trade!
James: The dragonmark rules are in there to support a specific aspect of the setting--the way that the pervasiveness of magic has a real impact on the economy and technology of the world--but not really to have wide-ranging effects. The existence of dragonmarks doesn't change the way the game plays; they work solidly within the framework of the existing rules (feats and prestige classes) as additional options that characters might choose. Just about every Eberron game I've seen has one character with a dragonmark in the party (usually the Mark of Healing), while the other party members have decided it's not an option that really interests them. I think that's perfect. It emphasizes a certain element of the setting without intruding into the gameplay too much.
Bill: All of the new races have new rules associated with them, and we worked very hard to make each race an ECL 0 so that there would be no barriers to immediately using them in a game. The great thing about the rules and other new elements introduced in Eberron is that they can easily be ported to whatever D&D campaign you are playing. Not ready to leap into the pulp/fantasy spirit of Eberron but really psyched to play a warforged? No problem!
Wizards: Keith, did Eberron come together the way you imagined it would when you first submitted your design? Describe the experience of working with some of D&D's long-time designers.
Keith: Eberron has come a long way since the one pager. I think the heart of the idea--the tone of the world--remains the same. But some elements have been cast aside, and new ideas--the warforged, the shifters, and even dragonmarks--have been added over time. Getting to work with Bill, James, and Chris (Perkins) was a fantastic experience; many of my favorite elements of the setting evolved in the brainstorming sessions we had both before and after I wrote the 125-page setting bible.
Wizards: Bill and James, what challenges did you find inherent in working with a new designer coming in with an entire world to develop?
Bill: Keith is a consummate professional. It was a pleasure to work with him and help develop and flesh out his idea. Keith's familiarity with the d20 System helped tremendously, and we quickly became a real team devoted to making Eberron the best it could be. Sure, there were challenges. There always are when you're creating something brand new that has to lay the foundation for, hopefully, a decade or two of products. These kind of challenges are fun and exciting, and we had a great premise from which to work. From the beginning, I was confident that we made the right choice, and that confidence grew as each new chapter or piece of art was finished.
James: I agree with Bill: Keith was great to work with. He was always willing to step back from his ideas if the rest of us wanted to go in another direction, very willing to make it a group effort. I could see someone else in the same position feeling very protective of his precious world and not wanting us to muck with it, but Keith wasn't like that at all. Of course, he was never afraid to state his opinion or share his ideas, either. The biggest challenges, I think, simply had to do with the amount of work we had to do and the fact that Keith was in a different state when we were doing it. It was a huge task, trying to coordinate our individual visions of what Eberron should be. In the end, it was really Bill who pulled the final manuscript together into a coherent whole, tweaking what Keith and I wrote here and there and making sure that a single, unified vision came through.
Wizards: Keith, what do you want to do now? Do you have future thoughts about the growth and development of Eberron?
Keith: I'm going to Disneyland!
Well, maybe not. But as far as Eberron goes, there's a lot of room for development. We crammed as much as we could into the campaign setting book, but there are dozens of things I'd like to explore further. I've already finished working on one sourcebook with James Wyatt, and I certainly hope that I'll have the opportunity to do more in the future.
Wizards: Bill and James, what future releases are planned for expanding the Eberron setting?
Bill: In RPGs, we have a full slate of Eberron products scheduled to the end of our master release schedule, which currently goes out as far as 2006. We talk about only the current calendar year, however. In that time frame, we've got the Eberron Campaign Setting in June, theShadows of the Last War adventure in July, theWhispers of the Vampire's Blade adventure in September, and theSharn: City of Towers sourcebook in November. In 2005, we've got--oh, wait, I can't talk about titles that far in advance. Let's just say we've got a host of products that expand the world and the game mechanics for Eberron slated to release throughout 2005 and 2006 and beyond.
We're also working closely with the miniatures designers, the novel department, and our licensing partners to make sure that non-RPG Eberron products hit the mark. This is really a major release of a major world, with lots of support. I'm really looking forward to the warforged miniatures, the online computer game, and the real-time strategy game set in Eberron.
James: Keith and I wrote the first Eberron sourcebook, Sharn: City of Towers, together, and it promises to be a very exciting book. I will continue to have my hand in the line for the foreseeable future, even when it's just reviewing other designers' work and checking it for continuity issues.
Dungeons & DragonsEberron Campaign Setting, June 2004 release date, hardcover, full-color, 320 pages, $39.95.