When Teos, Chad and I had this talk, the news that smashed through the internet about 5e. The 5e news, prevented me from posting this... Still, the rest of this interview is fun and vastly informative.
JP: Why do you think a complete newcomer to organized play should join Ashes of Athas?
TA/CB: Our campaign allows you to create one PC and then have your experience be a single story. We provide periodic level bumps so you won't fall behind if you play casually. Each adventure has a different Death Certificate that helps you rejoin the campaign if your PC dies without feeling like you lost everything you had previously learned and earned. Limited PC options mean it isn't so hard to create a character. Limited magic and the style of play means the game doesn't revolve around extremely optimized PCs.
JP: Why should an old grumpy player - yes... think of me as that grumpy old troll - what is the biggest strength of Ashes of Athas?
TA: The Dark Sun setting is really fun and we try to highlight what Athas is about in ways that are fun for players new or accustomed to OP. AoA story awards are full of flavor and shape future play. There is a ton of story and RP.
JP: How did you become a campaign administrator? Why?
TA: I swore I would never be an admin, but I do really love organized play. I wanted to do my part to contribute the same way so many others have done. It is a job with far too few "thank you"s and incredible amounts of free work, but I could not say "no" to helping other people love Dark Sun.
CB: I served as an LG Triad member happily until I moved away from my region, so I perhaps had some better idea of what I was getting myself into. As I mentioned before, I had explored the idea of trying to start a `Campaigns'-style Dark Sun campaign on my own, which is probably how I got hooked into AoA. At the time, I was looking for a way to spread the truly great experiences that 4e D&D and LFR could offer to a group - judge and players - that was willing and able to play the adventure, rather than complete the module.
If we stopped AoA right now, I'd be happy with what we've done, just in showing people that the same great D&D I played since 2nd Edition still works great in 4e (and now it's doesn't have to kill the DM!).
JP: What are you main duties as part of the campaign?
TA/CB: We all work together to create the story. We then identify authors and each admin works with one to assist them with the authoring process. We edit and develop the adventures. We promote the campaign and work to keep in touch with fans on the forums.
JP: In an average week, roughly how much time do you devote to campaign-related duties?
TA: It varies greatly from just a couple of hours in a week to more than 20/week during crunch time. We work really hard on adventure quality.
JP: A difficult one: I give you a magic wand and you can only use it to make your campaign better... What do you do?
TA: I make myself more efficient and smarter at design. I would like to do a better job of providing information to DMs and players on the setting. I would like to see more Wizards of the Coast employees playing the campaign so they understand OP well (several played at D&DXP). I would like to find ways to have the campaign revolve around players even more (coming up with new ideas and refining them takes time).
CB: If Teos is smarter and more efficient, that gives us even more time and ability to break down the boundaries that so often lead to the typical "organized play as lowest common denominator D&D" experience. If you can't tell, I think this is actually our biggest contribution to organized play (just ahead of `give people a chance to play Dark Sun').
The most nagging lack I typically see in the version of AoA without the magic wand is "How do we give the PCs important choices, and make them matter?".
JP: Play, GM or write? Which do you enjoy best?
TA: I love to contribute in whatever form is needed. If I play, I hope my play helps other players have a great time. If I DM, I hope I really bring them a great experience. If I write, I hope what I do furthers the cause of crafting good adventures and honors those from whom I stole.
CB: I really like, want, and need all three, so I try to adjust things so that all three are satisfied. In practice, GMing for me is usually mostly part of Playing or Writing (this is probably the main thing I like about 4e - DMing can be more about playing, even above 12th level).
JP: Any known people associated with the campaign?
TA: Having Chris Sims as an admin is great. He has a really amazing understanding of RPGs, story, and editing. Chad has great living campaign experience and is an excellent author. We are of common mind on many things. Derek has great ideas and tremendous experience in other types of RPGs and games. Shawn Merwin is a mentor to me and I often come to him with questions about organized play, editing, etc. I also have to thank the people that have volunteered, authored, and playtested. We have a Yahoo list where people can volunteer and I hope they know how vital they have been to the campaign. Small things are really big when you are short on time. Death Certificates and Story Awards are the types of things that happened because volunteers gave us enough time to create them back in Chapter One. One guy making a map for us can have a really big effect.
JP: Do you have any links to websites where people might learn more about the campaign?
The guys provided me with three links:
- Main Campaign Web site
- Campaign Downloads where you can get the Campaign Guidelines, pregens, and more
- Campaign Forums
JP: Can we hope to see an "Ashes Of Athas" published book, either by WotC or by a 3PP under license?
TA: Unlikely. WotC prefers to really have organized play be special and not available in other means. I don't really disagree with that.
JP: When I first read about AoA, it was to be a "big con only" event, something that would run at DDXP, Gencon and Origins. This changed pretty quickly after the campaign’s kickoff. Why did you do so?
TA: I think it had to do with Dave Christ hearing many people desiring to have a home play option coupled with Wizards being open to the idea of a limited window when each chapter could be requested and played.
CB: We're still mostly a "big con event" campaign, but no longer exclusive. That's been driven by player demand and Wizard's willingness, both of which are gratifying.
JP: How many adventures does the campaign produce per year?
TA/CB: 9 (three chapters per year, with each chapter having three adventures. Chapters are released at D&DXP, Origins, and Gen Con). We periodically consider other opportunities that could extend the play experience.
JP: Are you looking for authors?
TA: Always! They should contact us and provide their level of experience with writing, their knowledge of Dark Sun, their expertise with 4E, and any organized play experience. You don't need all or any of those necessarily, but we do want to understand that you can create a quality adventure and understand the commitment involved. There is no pay, but you reach thousands, tell your story, and get to improve organized play! My own AoA work has opened doors to writing articles for both Dragon and Dungeon.
JP: What is the campaign’s link to WotC and/or the RPGA? Did you have talks with them about using their IP?
TA: Baldman Games is contracted to provide content at the three large D&D conventions. Ashes of Athas is part of the content that Baldman Games provides and thus can use official IP (using OGL would mean we could not use the Dark Sun setting, as setting is part of their non-open IP). We are careful around distribution (adventures can only be distributed through the web site in a controlled fashion during a limited window). None of this has been a negative for us. Wizards has been great to work with and we continue to have an open dialogue around how best to coordinate and support organized play. The legal side of things can be confusing for those that don't understand these issues, but we feel really good about what this all means for us creatively and for gamers in general.
CB: On the content side, we haven't been asked to avoid or include anything; we've basically been given free rein.
JP: When writing an adventure or plotting a storyline, how do you go about doing it?
TA: I'm really story driven. I tend to envision a story and then begin hanging fun bits on that story. Whether a combat or a skill scene, I want encounters to feel like part of the narrative. Any part of an adventure, when summarized to one paragraph, should be a cool tale and stimulate the imagination.
JP: Why 4e instead of a 3.5 or Pathfinder adaptation?
TA: Because Pathfinder fans are a bunch of... ha, ha! Totally kidding. I truly despise the edition wars. We are all gamers and we all love RPGs. Fighting x edition is really destructive to our hobby's growth. Pathfinder is really good. I love what Paizo does and I admire much of what the company does. At the same time, I played 3E for a long time and I'm worn out on it. I play a hybrid 4E/3E home game called Enlightened Grognard (www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/299297-introducing-enlightened-grognard.html) and while I love the system, I still find the "attack it with my axe again" to be a step back and a bit boring (EG works to mitigate that with a cool token system). Ashes of Athas uses 4E because Wizards wants content that is based in 4E for their conventions (no surprise there!). I have run AoA for players that have played only 1E, only 3E, only Pathfinder, and others who are sworn off of 4E... and they all had a fantastic time. Edition wars shackle the gaming community, as does any form of hatred.
CB: I have a pet theory about the RPG community, based on 20+ years of observation, which I'll summarize by saying: The RPG Community needs to have at least two games at any one time. Because so much of our efforts and discussion are driven by comparing and creating differences (i.e. Game Alpha is Game Beta, but with X and Y and without Z). The `Edition Wars' are still `hot' because the two games that exist right now are Dungeons and Dragons and... Dungeons and Dragons.
There are certainly games that will be easier, and likely better, in one system or the other, but those differences in the game are, in my experience, far less meaningful than the differences that we fabricate, just to create the sense of contrast we require.
JP: What will happen to AoA when 5e came out?
TA: There are no plans here. It would really depend on what Baldman Games wanted to do, what the differences in the edition would be, what Wizards would prefer, what OP would look like, what we wanted to do, how the campaign was being received... too many variables for any of us to worry.
JP: At the risk of starting another edition war thread... Do you think Essentials is a 4.5 edition?
TA: It clearly isn't the same as 3.5 was to 3.0. Those editions changed many fundamental aspects that really forced you to "upgrade". Can you count the number of people that kept using their PHB 3.0 once they had the 3.5 version? For a while I had no idea when I was judging a player with an Essentials PC or a "classic" one. That doesn't sound like a new version of the game. The numbers of people still using content from the 4E PH are countless! That said, I do think all of 4E has suffered from poor marketing communications. Essentials is some of the best work WotC has done writing-wise (great flavor!) and products like Monster Vault and Neverwinter Campaign Setting (which could easily have been bloat) are amongst the best D&D has _ever_ seen. I've heard many say that the reception to Essentials would have been better if it had actually been the initial offering for 4E, because it is a bit closer in design to 3E. I can see that, even while liking the original 4E design.
CB: The term `4.5' really has two possible meanings: either it's an analogy to 3.0/3.5 - in which case the answer is "nope" - or it's a reference to software versions, - in which case the answer is "kinda, although 4.4 is more accurate". Even the term `Essentials' is far from well understood at this point, having been smeared well beyond its original "These specific 10 products".
Monster Manual 3 kicked off a clear change in design ethos for the game, aimed primarily at diminishing the `boring grind' that could - and did! - happen. This design change continued through several products (including the Dark Sun Campaign Setting and Dark Sun Creature Catalog), but really hit home with the players in the two `Heroes of the...' books. In terms of changing the game, though? Essentials is less of a change than 3.5 was to 3rd edition. It's less of a change than the Complete foo Handbooks were to 2e AD&D, and *waaay* less of a change than the "Player's Option" series.
JP: I made predictions of doom about 5e at Gencon 2012 (5e or "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons). Do you have any insight on that? Any thoughts? Any secret knowledge you can share?
CB: I don't expect 5e to come out in 2012, but I would love to see it announced there, if not sooner. I think that WotC took several large risks in 4e, and have learned a tremendous amount since the launch, and I'd love to see a new edition.
TA: (To be clear, all of my answers are my own, not secret, and not those of any other person or organization.) I have also in the past told my friends I thought it could be 2012, though I wasn't sure if it would be announced or released at Gen Con. That was before Essentials was released, though, which could extend the time frame. What makes prediction so hard is that we don't know the financials. Encounters seem to be doing really well. RPGA play at Gen Con and at PAX was huge in 2011. DDI memberships seem likely to be really lucrative. While there has been some exhaustion of the design space (the guessable sourcebooks have been released), the latest offerings are great... Gardmore Abbey is a fantastic super-adventure with lots of innovation. There is a mix of those that want to see 5E and those that want to see 4E go longer. My bottom line is that I really like what WotC has been doing in 2011. I suspect I will really like 5E whenever it comes out. If I had to make a prediction, it would be that the game will allow players to consume content differently so that more players are buying things more often. I know players criticize things like Fortune Cards, but it is important to understand that there is no clearly profitable RPG company in the history of our hobby. Some of the ones that were heralded for fiscal intelligence (like FASA) have fallen by the wayside. No one has truly conquered the problem of one DM that owns lots of stuff and most players not owning more than one book. Compare what most players pay for WoW to what they spend on D&D. Paizo's subscriptions and WotC's DDI are a step in that direction. We will surely see more. What I love is that both Paizo and WotC clearly love the game. They aren't willing to sell out the game we all love for profit.
TA: Let me turn the tables on you, JP. What is next for Pathfinder? It has been a few years and they show good growth, but third edition is 11 years old. While Paizo made some revisions, can they continue to retain the old guard that has played such a similar game for so long? Can they continue to bring in enough new players? With some of the released material looking like the basic story of Golarion is told and obvious sourcebooks already written, will Paizo need to consider something along the lines of a new edition? How can that be done under the current license?
JP: Turn the tables! Preposterous!
But fair enough... That is a valid question! I cannot speak for Paizo any more than you guy speak for WotC. One element that Paizo has done very well so far is to release fewer core elements, and really focus on their adventure line through their adventure paths and their modules series. So while there are a LOT of products for Pathfinder, most of it is adventure, and we all know, there are never enough adventures.
About their setting, yes, I believe they may reach a point where everything has been said and done, and at that point, they will either come up with a new completely new setting, OR bring out Pathfinder 2e. But the way they have their release set up I don’t expect this until a number of years down the road... Yes folk, I did say Pathfinder 2e. But it’s like 5e, you know it’ll come. Though I expect PF2 MUCH later than 5e (or dare I say it, 6e?)
But Paizo has different lines: core rules, adventure paths, modules, Pathfinder Society people and fiction. Each has different people running them and they are pretty good at what they do. This creates a MUCH larger pool of people working and thinking for the same game world. The way Golarion is set, I’d be surprised to see them running out of ideas.
When I started working on NeoExodus with LPJ Design, that was one of the big issues: how to make it different from Golarion? (I have a big blog post series on it) Erik Mona has stated publicly that Golarion is pretty much "frozen in time" that it will not get a "five years later" update. Which has a lot of good things going for it, but as you say, does limit certain things.
To answer the question, this year, we will see the coming of the Tian Xia, their Asian setting come out. I can see a book on the planes (Ultimate Planes), more monster books, a "north American" continent (like Maztica) being discovered (or re-discovered), with supporting adventure path and sourcebooks. With their current release schedule... That could last them quite a few years. And with the PRD behind them, Third-Party Publishers can continue to produce material for the game (adventures, settings) that will keep their core line in business for a while.
That a fair answer?
TA: A big wish for me: What if for 5E Paizo and WotC could combine forces once more? It may sound nuts to fans, but the designers for each game are all in each other's home campaigns...
JP thinks about it a while...
JP: I doubt that will happen, but it is a nice idea... I would love to see Pathfinder adaptation of some of WotC’s OP (Dark Sun comes to mind), though that’s little more than a pipe dream... Home game maybe?
JP dreams for a second...
JP: Talking Dark Sun... what do you think makes 4e a good choice for that campaign setting?
TA: Dark Sun is filled with larger-than life Conan and Barsoom-style combat. This works really well in 4E. You don't just hit things with your axe. You break it on their head, pick up their weapon, then call to the elements before charging the next guy with a special power. I'm immensely happy with how Dark Sun plays in 4E. As a deep fan of the old material, this is better. Come play some Ashes of Athas with us!
(Please let your friend know he can't legally do that unless for personal use. You can't distribute setting under the OGL!
CB: I'll add that the role structure in 4e has proved to be even better than 2e for Dark Sun in a bunch of ways. The addition of several healers that aren't divine is awesome! There's no more need for the wonky `elemental vortexes'! The psionics system is usable without being hand-hacked by every individual DM! We don't need a 50-page Open/Closed/Banned list! 4e is great for Dark Sun. As Teos says, come give it a try!
JP: That was great! Thanks for taking the time to do this... I learned more and am quite intrigued by the product...
PS: For the first time, Ashes of Athas is going to be on the program at Genghis Con