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John D. Rateliff
By Robert Holzmeier

Recently I talked with John D. Rateliff, author of The Standing Stone , the latest adventure release for the Dungeons & Dragons game. John, an accomplished designer and editor, renowned Tolkien scholar, and avid reader (about 100 books a year), discussed his latest module and his opinions on what constitutes good writing (both of fiction and game material). John also took time to talk about Wizards of the Coast’s forthcoming Call of Cthulhu and The Wheel of Time roleplaying games, both of which use the d20 system.

Wizards of the Coast: So, John, I’ve read The Standing Stone -- a great adventure! We can’t say much about the plot without giving away key elements, but what can you say about the design behind the story?

John R. Rateliff: I really hate linear adventures. It has always annoyed me when there’s only one action to take or the adventure stops. In my opinion, you should include as many options as you can and still keep the adventure on track.

Wizards: How does this philosophy apply to The Standing Stone?

John: There’s a whole web of clues that the player characters can uncover in whatever direction they choose. Whatever the characters decide to do, the adventure should work.

Wizards: Was there any single idea or inspiration behind The Standing Stone’s tale?

John: Usually when I write something, I like to work from a specific idea. This one is all about exploding clichés. I wanted to point out that it’s sometimes very dangerous to assume something is what it appears to be.

Wizards: How does the title relate to the adventure within?

John: Obviously, there’s a standing stone of some sort. Sometimes in fantasy adventures you have these elements -- constructs like a standing stone, megalithic circles, hill forts -- appear randomly and singularly. But in our world, a half dozen of the most famous megalithic structures ever created are all found within a single English county. I wrote an adventure that combines a number of interesting structures together in a more realistic environment while still building a rich fantasy adventure.

Wizards: How do the villains contribute to the overarching mystery?

John: That’s something I can’t say without revealing too much. But I can say that I like smart, complex villains. Frankly, I find monolithic, unfocused evil boring. Villains are characters that require purpose and motivation. A designer should be pretty clear about why villains do what they do and what steps they’ll take to accomplish their goals. This allows a DM to react more convincingly when something goes afield.

Wizards: So the bad guys aren’t strictly about rushing out to kill the PCs and end the adventure?

John: No, not every villain requires a battle. Sometimes, it’s possible to strike a bargain with the opposing forces. This is a possibility that I enjoyed in the Night Below boxed set, which I edited.

Wizards: The Standing Stone introduces a monster I hadn’t heard of before. Was it imagined specifically for this adventure or is there some basis for it in our world?

John: Oh, there’s definitely reference to the creatures in our literary history. I first came across them in a 19th-century book by Joseph Jacobs, a collector of English folktales. The creatures aren't crucial to the adventure, but they do add more flavor to it.

Wizards: The names and sites in The Standing Stone seem pretty familiar.

John: That’s because the story is set in Greyhawk, as are all of our core adventures. But, like the rest of our adventures, it’s entirely portable to any world. I love Greyhawk, but I run my own campaign and this is what I do: I ask, "Where does this fit into my world?" A lot of people do this, and it works well.

Wizards: So, if I have the Living Greyhawk Gazetteer will I be able to find out more about the area described in The Standing Stone?

John: The adventure doesn't actually mention where in Greyhawk it's set. This tale focuses on an area that’s defined to a lesser extent -- a bit of Greyhawk history akin to the tales of King Arthur. I worked very hard to make it fit in with the established setting, actually revealing some previously hidden bits of Greyhawk history in the process, but also wanted it to fit smoothly into any DM's home campaign. So the Greyhawk bits are hidden. If you know Greyhawk history, you'll see where it fits in; if you don't, you'll just work it into your own setting.

Wizards: You actually completed The Standing Stone a while ago. What have you been working on since then?

John: I’ve been working with Dave Noonan on the new sourcebook Song and Silence.

Wizards: This is part of a series of sourcebooks (including Sword and Fist, Tome and Blood and Defenders of the Faith that provide a wealth of new information and possibilities for the character classes of D&D. What can you tell me about Song and Silence and your contributions to it?

John: This one focuses on the bard and the rogue classes. I created some new feats, new spells and new prestige classes. I also wrote an entire section providing an array of bardic instruments while Dave focused on writing the section about traps.

Wizards: What else are you working on?

John: Well, there’s both the Call of Cthulhu d20 campaign and The Wheel of Time d20 campaign.

Wizards: These are both special projects. Will Wizards be doing extensive support materials for either of these games?

John: We’ll be doing the core rulebook and one adventure for The Wheel of Time and the core rulebook for Call of Cthulhu. Since these are d20 games, they’ll both be compatible with other d20 systems to an extent. For example, The Wheel of Time is portable to D&D rather easily and the conversion guide for Call of Cthulhu means that GMs of that game can run any Call of Cthulhu adventure for the d20 system.

Wizards: Working on Cthulhu must be a thrill -- I understand you’re a fan of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos?

John: It is and I am. It may actually be a little heretical, but I think that the game material has really enhanced the Cthulhu mythos. The Cthulhu stories are undergoing a huge revival since the game has been doing so well.

Wizards: One of my favorite elements of Call of Cthulhu was that ever-present sense of lethal danger and the threat of madness. How is this presented in the d20 version?

John: Oh, it’s still a game that’s very hazardous to its PCs. In the d20 system you’re perhaps not quite as quick to die, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Wizards: And the increasing possibility that your PC can go right over the edge of sanity?

John: There’s definitely still insanity and it’s essentially the same. Your characters continually encounter things that threaten their sanity -- you’re exposed to something, you roll and if you fail, you move closer to complete madness.

Wizards: Do you have a favorite among the Great Old Ones?

John: Nyarlathotep, the Outer God, who comes directly from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, not an add-on from later authors. He actually shows up in one of Lovecraft’s stories in a way that works really well in terms of a game or adventure setting.

Wizards: Hollywood has turned out a number of films based on Lovecraft’s tales. Which one was the worst you’ve seen?

John: I don’t think I’ve seen the worst Lovecraft movie made yet, but I haven’t seen every one.

Wizards: Which tale would you like to see that hasn’t yet made it to film?

John: I’d like to see "The Whisperer in Darkness." No, change that to "The Thing on the Doorstep." That was a pretty horrific story, which has an excellent female protagonist, something rare in Lovecraft’s works.

Wizards: Beyond Lovecraft, I understand that you’re very fond of J. R. R. Tolkien.

John: Tolkien, yes. My favorite author of them all.

Wizards: What is it about Tolkien?

John: For me, it’s the trees. It’s one of those things where you think you’re the only one thinking about a thing in a certain way and then you find an author who's put to paper exactly the same thoughts and feelings.

Wizards: You’re working on a Tolkien book currently, right?

John: Yes, I’m editing the original rough manuscript of The Hobbit under invitation by the Tolkien estate. It will be an annotated edition addressing the differences between the first manuscript and the later printing, similar to The History of Middle Earth by Tolkien’s son Christopher.

Wizards: Besides being a writer and editor, you’re also an avid reader. You even started book clubs at TSR back in Wisconsin and then here in Washington.

John: I did form the original book club back in Milwaukee in 1984, and I’m happy to say it’s still meeting to this day. The Wizards book club has been meeting for several years now as well. I read a lot of books and I want to hear what other people’s thoughts on them are, so I enjoy the club very much. It also introduces me to books I might not have found on my own.

Wizards: What are you reading now?

John: We’re reading Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs. It has an absolutely brilliant concept at its core, but it’s one of those books that you can’t discuss with anyone who hasn’t read it without ruining the secret. A perfect example of what the book club is all about.

Wizards: What’s your philosophy when it comes to game design and writing?

John: I don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way to do most things. There are many different ways to write a book, craft an adventure or to play a game. It bothers me when people think that we all have agree on everything.

Wizards: What sort of training do you think is necessary to accomplish good game design?

John: I don’t think it matters what your background is because when you become excited about a pursuit, you tend to delve into in greater depth. I’d say a background in technical accuracy isn’t nearly as important to things feeling right.

Want to know more about The Standing Stone? Read an excerpt!


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