Monday, June 23, 2008

Interview: Rob Heinsoo, lead designer of D&D Fourth Edition

Rob Heinsoo has been lucky enough to take his passion growing up and turn it into his career. This demigod of gaming has worked on everything from trading-card games to board games to miniatures games, as a freelance designer and now working for Wizards of the Coast. Most recently, he led the team behind Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition--a new installment of the game with a faster, more fun play-style that's likely to pull in new players. Rob talked to us at Guys Lit Wire about the new D&D, how he got involved in gaming, and what books got him inspired as a teen.

What was your first experience with role-playing games?

In 1974 I was 10 years old, living in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I’d just read the Lord of the Rings. I was already interested in wargames, and I read in a military miniatures magazine that there was a game that was about elves and orcs and dwarves. I ordered D&D from a wargames catalog and received the original three booklets in the brown box.

The system went way over my head, but I loved everything about D&D’s feel. I couldn’t understand most of the rules and didn’t realize that polyhedral dice existed, so I put together my own system adapting the melee rules from a Napoleonic miniatures wargame book my father had bought for me earlier, basically rolling six-sided dice and adding bonuses for things like magic weapons.

I drew three levels of a dungeon and ran games for my friends. I know I ticked everyone off pulling a cheap stunt with a werewolf that changed shape and ambushed the characters. And I killed a few other characters in a room that was based on the Lord of the Rings scene outside the gates of Moria, with a tentacled Watcher in the Water. My friends hadn’t read the Lord of the Rings and the monster in the water came as a surprise.

Those first games in Kansas ended when my friends found the most interesting part of the dungeon, something I’d labeled as a School for Dragons. I loved the idea, probably because I was reading Anne McAffrey’s Pern books by then, with humans and dragons cooperating to preserve their planet’s ecology. But my imagination wasn’t up to actually envisioning what would be going on in a school for dragons, much less what would happen when my friends’ characters went there. About the same time, I realized that we weren’t actually playing by anything like the real rules. So we went back to playing the Napoleonic wargame and took turns telling each other fantastic adventure stories that were similar to what we thought we might be able to play using D&D if we could actually understand the rules.

So did you keep on trying to play D&D and eventually get it right?

Yeah, by 1977 in Oregon, when I was 13, I’d figured the rules out, and put a sign up in an actual game store saying that I had a dungeon ready and would be happy to run a game for players. I had two grown-ups answer the ad, graduate students at the University of Oregon. When the gargoyles in my dungeon attacked and I started drawing slips of paper out of a blue plastic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cup, these guys said, “Wait, what are you doing? Let’s just use dice,” and brought out twenty-siders, which I’d mentally filed as mythological objects.

What else were you into at that age? Were you a big reader in your teens?

I got into soccer because we had been in Germany during the 1974 World Cup, so when we moved back to the States I started to play organized soccer and loved it. My brother and I played a lot of other sports just for fun, and a couple of neighborhood ball-combat games that I’d invented the rules for and managed to get everyone else to play. I had a good voice and sang in choirs and musicals. The other 60% of the time I was into reading and gaming.

Who were your favorite authors?

If we’re still talking 1974 through 1975, I was into Edgar Rice Burroughs, all the Tarzan books and all the John Carter of Mars books. I even made a board for the Martian chess game that was in one of the books, it was called Jetan, on an orange and black board, and it wasn’t terrible. I read a lot of Andre Norton then too, my favorite of hers was called Star Guard. But my favorite book at that time, along with the Lord of the Rings, was Watership Down.

I transitioned steadily toward authors I’m still fond of today. Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories were huge for me, I read them a long time before I read Moorcock’s Elric. My favorite author was Roger Zelazny (Nine Princes in Amber, Lord of Light, Jack of Shadows).

And it’s no accident that a lot of these books had some echo or wandering splinters in gaming. I’d read Watership Down before I started playing the game it inspired, Bunnies and Burrows. But Monsters! Monsters!, an RPG in which the monsters attacked human villages and cities, was the first place I’d seen Roger Zelazny’s name, since they’d borrowed his "shadow jack" concept for a monster, so I started reading Zelazny because of the monster-RPG based on Tunnels & Trolls, one of the early D&D alternatives.

The list goes on. Andre Norton’s Star Guard led me to a science fiction miniatures game of the same name by McEwan Miniatures. The game had no relation to Norton’s book, instead it owed a debt to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which turned out to be a much better book, and got me reading Heinlein.

The other strand in my reading was military history. My dad had a huge military library and I read shelves of it before I was in junior high.

So gaming had a big influence on you growing up? Even in just shaping how you thought about things?

Yeah, a huge influence. Especially when I discovered Greg Stafford’s brilliant Glorantha, the world for the game Runequest. Glorantha simultaneously led me away from D&D and more or less away from my family’s religion, because it got me reading anthropology and comparative religion and starting to question reality, which I hadn’t managed on my own before then. I ended up majoring in social anthropology in college as a direct consequence of attitudes shaped by reacting to Glorantha and the strands of the real world woven into it.

Working on Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, has that fulfilled any dreams you had about what a game should be—especially a role-playing game?

I’m really happy with Fourth Edition because it ends up being a lot closer to those crazy stories my friends and I were telling each other as kids, back before we understood how the rules were actually supposed to work! I think there have been a LOT of people over the years who wanted to like D&D, and tried to play it once or twice, but bounced off it because the rules were too picky and esoteric or the groups they tried to play with had been taught to value simulation of a potentially slightly tedious fantasy reality over having fun.

One mission of Fourth Edition is to make it easier for players to find out what’s fun about role-playing immediately without taking away the Dungeon Master’s ability to invent new worlds and adventures with their own creative vision. For experienced players, Fourth Edition is designed to stay fun over all its levels, so characters you love and enjoy playing won’t have to drop out of your gaming life when because they’ve risen to levels where the system breaks down. This is the D&D I’ve dreamt of playing.

How does the new D&D stack up as an experience against other games—whether a trading card game, World of Warcraft, or a multiplayer console game?

Playing any tabletop role-playing game is a lot more like doing a blend of cops ’n’ robbers and improvisational theater than the other gaming styles you mentioned. You get to make your D&D character, then you role-play to try and see the world through their eyes, speak their words, and choose actions that make sense for what they’re experiencing.

The pacing of the tabletop game gives you time to let the scene unfold in your imagination and to react to the interesting elements that the other players and the DM are adding to the mix. The interaction between multiple imaginative people is why I say it’s a bit like improv theater, not that most other people involved in gaming think of it that way.

Compared to earlier editions, Fourth Edition will seem a bit more familiar to people who know trading card games. In a sense, Fourth Edition is an exceptions-based game like most TCGs. The actual key rules required to play Fourth Edition occupy around 20 pages in Chapter 9 of the Player’s Handbook. The rest of the stuff in that book are all the cool exceptions that you get to choose from as a player to build your character, the powers that make your character different from other characters, that control what you can do in the world against enemies who are trying to put the hurt on you. TCG players are used to sorting through cards to see what they want to use, Fourth Edition players sort through powers and feats. And in Fourth Edition, Dungeon Masters can also choose to sort through monsters and encounter ideas, so DMing may have a bit more in common with skills you can learn in TCGs than it did in the past.

World of Warcraft doesn’t let you change the world you’re interacting with, nor does it let your DM craft their own game world and set stories in motion. D&D characters always seem much more like real people than WoW characters, and you’re likely to remember them as such. WoW players coming to Fourth Edition will probably be comfortable with the idea that Fourth Edition player characters get to make an interesting choice of a new power or ability every time they go up a level. That was missing from earlier editions of D&D.

Any words of advice for someone growing up, hoping to become a game designer?

The culture is changing, gaming is changing. So I won’t try to address future social trends I don’t have a handle on, nor can I fully account for the intersection of game design and computer gaming. Instead, I’ll paraphrase the best writing advice I ever read, from Stephen King. He said something like, “Anyone who spends three hours a day writing for ten years will be a good writer when the ten years are up.”

Game design compares well with writing. Anyone can be some sort of writer by writing. If you want to be a game designer, you need to design games.

Your best bet is to design the games you want to play but can’t, because no one else has designed the game yet. Think about the type of experience you want players to have. Think about which players you want for the game. Then aim at ways to give those players that experience. Check your work by playing to find out if the game is fun. If it isn’t fun, few people will play it, no matter how elegant or clever it is, so you shouldn’t hesitate to muck up an elegant design that’s no fun.

Don’t get stuck on your first good idea. Writers who get stuck on a good idea can end up with dead end stories, dead manuscripts, because they can’t scrap a good idea and look for something better that would enable the entire piece to work out. Game designers who don’t scrap an ultimately fruitless good idea may be in worse shape than writers in the same position, because one fruitless game mechanic can screw up everything about a game. The good news is that changing one fruitless idea might be enough to turn such a design around. In this sense, game designs are more like mathematical proofs than short stories.

Which brings up math. You don’t need to be a math wizard to design games, but you (or a friend or three) should have some grasp of probability, or you may not be able to balance your designs well enough to know whether their problems are due to bad design or terrible balance.

Play games from all sources and all genres. It’s fine to spend most of your time playing good games you really enjoy, but you’ll learn a lot by trying things you wouldn’t experiment with if you weren’t interested in improving your art. If you have wider experiences than other game designers, you’ll find that ideas you take for granted may not be understood by everyone else, allowing you to come up with surprising systems or insights.

And finally, use your opportunities to learn and practice other creative skills. Game design is a bit of a chimera and talented designers come from all over. If you love drawing, writing, painting, mapping, sculpting miniatures, DMing, designing levels, designing web sites, or doing graphic design, don’t hold back. Confidence gained from any creative work you love and do well can serve you well when you’re wrestling with other creative work.

The Fourth Edition Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual were released earlier this month.

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