John D. Rateliff
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 Coasts
forthcoming Call of Cthulhu
and The Wheel of Time
roleplaying games, both of which use the d20 system.
Wizards of the
Coast: So, John, Ive read The Standing Stone -- a great adventure!
We cant say much about the plot without giving away key elements,
but what can you say about the design behind the story?
R. Rateliff: I really hate linear adventures. It has always annoyed
me when theres 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?
Theres 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 Stones
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 its
sometimes very dangerous to assume something is what it appears to be.
Wizards: How does
the title relate to the adventure within?
Obviously, theres 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?
Thats something I cant 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 theyll take to accomplish their goals. This
allows a DM to react more convincingly when something goes afield.
Wizards: So the
bad guys arent strictly about rushing out to kill the PCs and end
No, not every villain requires a battle. Sometimes, its 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.
Standing Stone introduces a monster I hadnt heard of before.
Was it imagined specifically for this adventure or is there some basis
for it in our world?
Oh, theres 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.
Thats because the story is set in Greyhawk, as are all of
our core adventures. But, like the rest of our adventures, its 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
I be able to find out more about the area described in The Standing
The adventure doesn't actually mention where in Greyhawk it's set.
This tale focuses on an area thats 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
Wizards: You actually
completed The Standing Stone a while ago. What have you been working
on since then?
Ive been working with Dave
Noonan on the new sourcebook Song
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?
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?
Well, theres both the Call of Cthulhu d20 campaign
and The Wheel of Time d20 campaign.
are both special projects. Will Wizards be doing extensive support materials
for either of these games?
Well 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, theyll 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.
on Cthulhu must be a thrill -- I understand youre a fan of
Lovecrafts Cthulhu mythos?
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
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
Oh, its still a game thats very hazardous to its PCs. In the
d20 system youre perhaps not quite as quick to die, but thats
not necessarily a good thing.
Wizards: And the
increasing possibility that your PC can go right over the edge of sanity?
Theres definitely still insanity and its essentially the same.
Your characters continually encounter things that threaten their sanity
-- youre 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?
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 Lovecrafts stories in a way that works really well in terms of
a game or adventure setting.
has turned out a number of films based on Lovecrafts tales. Which
one was the worst youve seen?
I dont think Ive seen the worst Lovecraft movie made yet,
but I havent seen every one.
tale would you like to see that hasnt yet made it to film?
Id 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 Lovecrafts
Lovecraft, I understand that youre very fond of J. R. R. Tolkien.
Tolkien, yes. My favorite author of them all.
Wizards: What is
it about Tolkien?
For me, its the trees. Its one of those things where you think
youre 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.
working on a Tolkien book currently, right?
Yes, Im 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 Tolkiens
being a writer and editor, youre also an avid reader. You even started
book clubs at TSR back in Wisconsin and then here in Washington.
I did form the original book club back in Milwaukee in 1984, and Im
happy to say its 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 peoples 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?
Were reading Jonathan Carrolls The Land of Laughs.
It has an absolutely brilliant concept at its core, but its one
of those books that you cant discuss with anyone who hasnt
read it without ruining the secret. A perfect example of what the book
club is all about.
your philosophy when it comes to game design and writing?
I dont think theres 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
Wizards: What sort
of training do you think is necessary to accomplish good game design?
I dont think it matters what your background is because when you
become excited about a pursuit, you tend to delve into in greater depth.
Id say a background in technical accuracy isnt nearly as important
to things feeling right.
to know more about The Standing Stone? Read an excerpt!