Saturday, February 2, 2013

Interview with Robert S. Conley

I recently talked with Robert S. Conley  about design and the Old School Renaissance. He also discussed his latest project, Scourge of the Demon Wolf. Rob is a game designer, veteran GM, and the man behind Bat in the Attic Games. For more information on his products you can visit his blog or his company website at:

About himself

BD: You just released a new module for Majestic Wilderlands called Scourge of the Demon Wolf. What is it about and how has it been received?
Robert S. Conley  (RC): It is about the village of Kensla supposedly being terrorized by a demon-possessed wolf and his pack. However there are complications and red herrings that the players will have to overcome to find the out the true threat. It represents the type of adventure I typically run.
Initial sales are doing well about 2/3rd of the Majestic Wilderlands at a similar point. About 100 total copies versus 150 copies of Majestic Wilderlands at the same point in time. The reviews have been positive so far, including yours, for which I am thankful. We will see how we are at the end of the year.

BD: What is the Majestic Wilderlands all about?
RC: It is my fantasy campaign of thirty years. I started it around 1982 and ran it for the last thirty years with at least a dozen distinct groups with a major campaign about every two years or so. I also used a variety of systems. The main games being AD&D 1st Edition, Fantasy Hero 1st Edition, GURPS 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and Swords & Wizardry. Right now I am running a weekly GURPS 4th edition campaign and a bi-weekly Swords & Wizardry campaign at the Gold Star Anime in Edinboro.
Initially it was just the Wilderlands of High Fantasy by Judges Guild. What made my campaigns different from other referees in my hometown is my willingness to let my players “trash” the setting. I then used what they did as the background for the next campaign. I liked it and the players seemed to like it so it went on from there.
Around 1988, I redrew the maps by hand as my original JG maps were getting too tattered to use for regular play.  At that point I expanded the scale and wrote some ret-cons about the campaign background but preserved everything that the players did in the previous campaigns. That when my Wilderlands of High Fantasy became the Majestic Wilderlands.
Since then I would say that my campaigns are mostly about the adventure created from the clash of culture, religions and society. The players pretty much get to pick where they want to start at both in locale and in the background of their characters. I work with them to fit what they want to do within the background and off we go with the campaign.

BD: How long have you been involved in table top RPGs?
RC: Since 1978, I was in sixth grade.  Ironically I first learned about Dungeons & Dragons from a jerk my age who teased me for NOT playing Dungeons & Dragons. I had a friend, John, who I played a lot of wargames with. One of us got the Holmes Bluebook and we ran each other through the Portown dungeon.
I was the first to play. I rolled up a magic-user, went down the stairs, took a right, and ran into the skeletons in the room beyond. I fired my one magic-missile, took one of them out and then they hit me leaving me with one hit point. I tried using the parry rule but then realize that I couldn’t attack. I fled and they cut me down. My reaction was “Holy crap that was cool, let’s roll up some more characters and try it again.

BD: How was your first gamemastering experience?
RC: To tell you the truth I can’t remember my first experience refereeing. It was probably with my wargame buddy John. But I do remember a light bulb going off in my head when I realized that I could create my own worlds using this game. I was a huge Tolkien and loved the appendices and the Silmarillion.
My only gaming regret from my initial days of refereeing is that all I have is one crudely drawn map of the original setting I created. My mom had a stack of letter sized graph paper that used 1 inch squares. I used about two dozen sheets to detail each area. I think each square was five miles.

BD: Aside from writing RPGs, what other interests do you have?  
RC: Outside of gaming? My family, and scouting; both of my boys have various activities I participate with them in. I have been a software developer since the mid 80s. Gaming wise, I created simulations of historical spacecraft, notably the Mercury Space capsule. It is accurate and detailed enough to use the original flight plan. The program I wrote them for is Orbiter Space Simulator and I highly recommend it for anybody who wants to get a taste of what real space flight is like. It is free to download and use. Orbiter has fictional spacecraft that are automated enough so that a novice can fly them.
I was involved in live-action roleplaying for over ten years. Mainly boffer LARPs, i.e. D&D in the woods.  From 1999 to 2003 I owned a successful LARP chapter. I made a lot of good friends, and the physical activity was good for me. The limitations and strength of LARPS really helped me with my tabletop refereeing. Being exposed to alternate forms of roleplaying helped me focus on what makes tabletop unique and to craft a better game for my players.

BD: Based on these experiences, what are your conclusions about the strengths and limitations of LARPS and of tabletop roleplaying games?
RC: Tabletop is the most flexible form of roleplaying games due to the ability of the human referee to improvise at need in response to what the players are doing. While a strength, keep in mind that everything at the table is filtered through one person, the referee.  There are limits to how much a single individual can remember and manage.
Live-Action has a limitation in that the event directors are limited in manpower and to what people can do during the day. More than once while running events, I and others have misjudged how much effort was needed and were left with an exhausted crew by the middle of the event.  Also it takes time to physically setup and tear down encounters and modules.   And there can be a suspension of disbelief required because the LARP could have a limited budget for costume and props.  Finally Live-action require coordination of a large group of people, both players and the event staff some with personal issues from time to time.
However boffer Live-Action is highly immersive even for players that are not otherwise into roleplaying.  For non-roleplayers the physical action can be hugely fun. For roleplayers it is easier to slip into character as you are really there talking and interacting with a group of people instead of a single referee.

BD: How did you first get into the RPG industry?
RC: Around 1999, I found Bob Bledsaw Jr. and contacted him. He gave me his father’s email and that led me to becoming involved with the Wilderlands Boxed Set by Necromancer Games. There were a lot of people involved with that product. My main contribution was three maps worth of villages and the overall format. Much of the Rorystone Road PDF (at Necromancergames) was taken from my proposal for how to write up the boxed set.
That project led me to working on some Judges Guild projects with Eostros Games. They worked with Goodman Games on several updates of classic Judges Guild modules. My personal break came shortly afterwards when Dwayne, Tim (two of my oldest friends) and I successfully pitched Points of Light to Joseph Goodman. I developed the overall concept, Dwayne helped with the details including writing 90% of two of the settings.  And Tim helped with the editing and getting the product into shape. Then finally the combination of Print on Demand, a licensing agreement with Bob Bledsaw Jr., and the rise of the OSR allowed me to start up Bat in the Attic Games.
Joseph Goodman and the Goodman Games team are outstanding to work with and I owe my professional start to them. However it is two of my oldest friends, Tim and Dwayne, who I owe the most to. Half the material in the Majestic Wilderlands Supplement comes from me refereeing their antics in the Wilderlands. Dwayne is a top notch rules guy and great at creating details for adventures and settings. Tim has written professionally before in other writing genres and was a great help in getting me to write better and often took the thankless job of editing. He also is killer at creating memorable character and has unique mapping style. And we still play together today thanks to Virtual Tabletops.

BD: What were you primary goals when you started Bat in the Attic Games?
RC: To publish my sandbox/hexcrawl material and to publish the Majestic Wilderlands. The first because I feel I can contribute a lot of original material on the subject, the second because I think people will enjoy what I created for the past thirty years and I would like to present it in as polished form as a I can.

On the Old School Renaissance

BD: What is the Old School Renaissance (OSR)? How do you define old school?
RC: The Old School Renaissance is a group of gamers focused on playing  older edition Dungeons & Dragons and publishing materials for older edition D&D. Because of the work of the group who created OSRIC it became obvious that if you omitted the newer rules from the d20 SRD what was left allowed you to publish for the older edition D&D of your choice. The only limitation is that you can’t cite compatibility with the D&D trademark.
As for old school, it is highly subjective. In 1979, I was more interested in what my players were trying to do to build up power in my setting than any dungeon crawl. I guess the fact I ran, and still run, my campaigns in what now called a sandbox style would count as  Old School.
But honestly just about everything you see today was done back in the day. Sure the term “storytelling” wasn’t in use until White Wolf, but you had the hard core roleplayers who acted as their characters while playing. In my area a lot of Runequest 2 games had those types of players. Fourth Edition (D&D)-style gaming was known as being a munchkin, rule lawyers, or were the gamers who liked crazy-ass complicated games like any of the FGU RPGs.
But I didn’t answer the question. What do I consider Old School? I guess to me Old School is living with the consequences of your dice rolls and your choices. You make a mistake you live with the consequences with no take backs. The reason I feel that way is that when I do succeed I feel like I earned it and victory is all together sweeter. 
Back then there was nothing like a roleplaying game. The closest anybody came was make-believe and by sixth grade all of us knew the problems with that. The old “Bang your dead, no I’m not”- problem. But with tabletop the dice were impartial and to fudge their result was viewed as cheating. We might as well go back outside and try to shoot each other with our fingers. With D&D, we had a way to pretend to be somewhere else or be somebody else but also have it be a challenge, with no idea what was going to happen because of what the referee had planned or what the dice may roll. There was nothing else like it.

BD: What mechanics or kinds of design do you associate with OSR?
RC: The OSR is about the playing of older edition of D&D. Pretty everything from the original 1974 rules to 2nd edition AD&D.
Old School Gaming in contrast is about gamers who figured out that older games work just as well today (or not in the case of some) as they did back in the day. Traveller, Runequest, Tunnels & Trolls, didn’t become obsolete with the passage of time.  Now some of these games or editions could have been better written or presented. And with a few, like OD&D, it is impossible to say definitely that X is the way to play them. With the renewed interest in Old School Gaming, people have figured out how to make the older games work. Now we not only got the new but the old as well as choices for our campaigns.

BD: Some of the OSR material out there has incorporated mechanics associated with newer games or later editions of D&D (ascending AC for instance). Beyond these do you think there is a place for modern approaches to design in the OSR?
RC: Certainly, for me it’s Ascending AC, mathematically it works out the same and it lot easier to use on the fly. However I think Swords & Wizardry did the right thing by including both systems of AC. But it is a personal preference. Gamers should go with what they like.

BD: Switching it around, what can the OSR offer proponents of modern design?
RC: That the human referee is paramount and central to the experience of playing tabletop RPGs. It is the one thing that the other forms of roleplaying do not have and can’t replicate. One of the main design points of a modern system is to minimize the work the referee has to do prepare, and manage a campaign using that system. Note this doesn’t always mean simplicity or abstract is the way to go, especially if the design of the game is meant to be detailed in certain areas.

BD: What has the OSR done for the gaming community? How has the OSR changed the way people view earlier editions of D&D and other games
RC: It proved that older games don’t go obsolete, that the upgrade mentality that treated RPGs like computer software is baloney. While the term OSR got attached to the group playing older edition D&D, older editions of other games benefited as well as people realized that if an older edition of one game is still fun to play then it applies to older editions of other games as well.

BD: In this age of edition wars and online tribalism, there is no shortage of criticism of the OSR. When people accuse the OSR of being too orthodox or reactionary what is your reaction? How do you feel about the term “Grognard”?
RC: Yes there are groups that are reactionary. And they are rightly considered part of the OSR as they play an older edition of D&D. But what gets missed is that they are not gatekeepers. There are no gatekeepers, every single individual that has raised a complaint can go out and publish their own retro-clone, adventure, or supplement.
As of May 2012 there are over 700 products made specifically to work with one of the older editions of D&D. This is not including any of the other very similar old school products like Mutant Future, Stars without Number, or Hackmaster. What it means in the end is that a person’s view of the OSR depends on where they look. Even I can’t keep up with all that is going on.

BD: You recently posted images of your gaming library on the Bat in the Attic Blog. While you do have a large amount of old school material on the shelves, there were also some newer games like D&D 4E. When you game at home, how much of what you do would characterize as old school? What are your feelings toward newer games?
RC: I have run the following in the past five years, Harnmaster, Classic Traveller, Champions (Hero System), Swords & Wizardry w/Majestic Wilderlands, GURPS 4e, D&D Next, and D&D 4e. Right now the only other systems I would seriously consider running is FASA Star Trek. Also I would run Pathfinder, or D&D Next if the circumstances called for it, like a game store event.
How Old School am I? I had some say I am pretty Old School. Mainly I just try to do my own thing. Pretty much everything I do today is refined from two things. Players are free to trash my settings under one condition, they roleplay as if their characters are really there. And everybody, including me, has to live with the consequences of the dice rolls and their choices. Is that Old School? To me it sounds like fun and makes good sense.
As for newer games, I am not as excited about mechanics as I used to be. So I find myself really not caring about the rules unless they bring something new to the table. I will get something like the Dresden Files so I can read about how they interpret the novels into an RPG. Another example is Green Ronin’s Fire and Ice RPG. It has a nice subsystem for generating a noble house for your character and integrating it into play. 
Understand it’s not that I think newer games are bad, it just my thinking at this point is that RPG Design mechanics now largely a matter of taste.  For me this crystallized when my friends and I tried to run Hackmaster 4e. We were doing character creation and we realized that we just didn’t care to do all the fiddly things they were asking us to do. We agreed it well put together for a class and level system but if we are going to go that detailed we might as well be using GURPS.

BD: You recently pointed out that over 350 products have been released for older editions of D&D between 2010 and 2012. Is this good or bad in your opinion?  
RC: It great and exactly how it should be. Seriously does anybody want to be under the thumbs of gatekeepers again, however well meaning? Granted it just a form of entertainment, but what it represents is the difference between being a subject and being a citizen. Being a citizen is more complicated and everything messier. But it beats the alternative.

On Adventure Design

BD: How would you characterize your approach to adventure design?
RC: Setup an initial situation, see how the players deal with it and ad-lib the consequences hopefully picking ones that make sense and are interesting.

BD: In Scourge of the Demon Wolf you place a lot of emphasis on characters and situations. In a module, what are the qualities of good character design?
RC: Believable personality and motivations based on their circumstances.

BD: Do you have a process for writing modules?
RC: For a standalone or commercial module, I figure out an initial situation that can apply to a wide variety of campaigns for that genre/setting. For Demon Wolf, there is a wolf terrorizing a village, why should the player care? Well there we get into multiple choices. The one I focus on is the Baron empowering the players to act as his agent. I emphasize that having the favor of a Baron is very useful. And I give other possibilities.
During a campaign, I look at the setting notes, look at where the players are in the campaign, craft a initial situation that fits the circumstances, figure out which NPCs would be involved, and then detail the needed physical locales.

BD: You are seen as a champion of the sandbox. Do you embrace this label? What is a sandbox adventure to you?
RC: I embrace it. I think it is a neglected technique that got lost in the focus on settings in the travelogue format and tournament style dungeons. However realize Sandbox is just a technique, just one of many that work for tabletop roleplaying games.
One problem with the current perception of the sandbox is that it’s really several techniques that can be used together. First it is a way of presenting a setting (i.e. the Hexcrawl map), second it is a way of managing a campaign (i.e. Sandbox play), and finally it is a particular style of campaign: the Hexcrawl (wandering and exploring the landscape).
To me a sandbox adventure is part of a campaign embracing sandbox play. The adventure itself has an initial situation that the players encounter. The players act or react, the referee judges the consequences, and then repeat the cycle.
The creativity of the referee comes not from writing a preordained set of events but rather in picking which consequences are probable and interesting. To me interesting means that which leads to the possibility of more adventure. I figure that is a fair way of doing it as adventure is the main point of playing tabletop in the first place.
The key thing is to let go of any preconceived notion of how things ought to go. If you judge several consequences to be equally probable then let the dice determine the result if they are all equally interesting. In short you have to be willing to let the players trash your setting.
The sandbox campaign is run the same way but with a larger scope. There are a couple of additional techniques that help with the larger scope but it run pretty much the same way as the sandbox adventure.

BD: There are a lot of different definitions of sandbox being used online. What are some of the major misconceptions about this style of play?
RC: The major one is where the players are placed at starting point and told to “go explore”. This has resulted in a lot of failed sandbox campaigns from reading the blog and forum posts. The problem is that “go explore” without any prior information only appeals to a very limited set of players. The rest feel like they are drawing darts at a board in the dark for all the meaning their choices have. The solution to this is to provide the players with the context needed to make their initial decisions. In the form of rumors or initial background, then they can make a meaningful choice.
Also I think we need to start distinguishing between a sand box campaign and a hexcrawl setting. The hexcrawl is a just a way of presenting a setting. I think it happens to be most useful for a campaign centered on the character wandering the landscape. But it can be easily used for other types of campaign just as a setting written in a travelogue style can be used for a sandbox campaign.
To me a sandbox campaign is simply a campaign where the referee will let the players trash his setting. Being willing to detail what the players want to see rather than what the referee wants the game to be about.

BD: There have been a lot of trends in adventure design over the years. If you had to examine the major periods in RPG history, and identify two adventure design trends from each, one that was good and one that was bad, what would they be?
RC: The 1970s saw the advent of the tournament style module. The good thing is it was a practical and understandable format that resulted in an expansion of published RPG material. The downside? Well  I think it put adventure design in a straight jacket that the industry is still trying to get out from under.
The main problem is that it doesn’t scale. Which is why we never saw original Greyhawk, Blackmoor or El Raja Key published, at best we get tournament style re-writes. The problem isn’t the format. It works great for its original purpose;  presenting an adventure to be run the same way by multiple referees for multiple groups in a fair way at a D&D tournament at a game convention.  It works great for the organized play system we have now. But try to push it to create adventures of a larger scope, or adventures that involve more than the details of physical locales it doesn’t scale or adapt well.
I don’t know what the alternative is. My instinct tells me that at the least it will involve the author teaching the reader how to run the adventure. My theory is that if I can sit down and teach you how to run the adventure, then I can write it down so you could learn how to do it from reading.
The 1980s saw the first adventure paths namely the Dragonlance Chronicles. The good side was that it extended tournament style format to truly epic plots. And unlike the Tournament style modules alone the adventure path scales. The downside is we got the railroad. It takes careful design to create an adventure path where the logical choices allow the subsequent modules to remain useful. Bad design meant the referee is forced to railroad his PCs down the plot.
The 1990s was really more about the settings and the NPCs. Largely because of White Wolf and the World of Darkness. More emphasis was giving to the web of NPCs that made up an adventure than detailed descriptions of locales.  The downside is that it went overboard on the detailing of NPCs at the expense of location details. It also made these adventures less approachable. D&D refereeing adventurers exploring a dungeon maze is far easier to grasp than trying to adventure among the plots of the vampires of Chicago.
The 2000s saw everything and anything tried but mostly what stood out was the refinement of adventure paths by Paizo and the people actually managing to write mega-adventures using the tournament style format. But rather proving that it could done, even the successful mega-adventure showed how difficult it was to scale the format and to affordably publish it.

BD: Where do you tend to get your inspiration from?
RC: Everything, books, films, television, non-fiction is all grist for the mill. I learned to appreciate just about anything.
I do have preferences. For books I love the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a master craftsman in all his works. I love the Deed of Paksenarrion by Elisabeth Moon. It absolutely hands down the best fantasy depiction of a D&D style setting ever. Plus you will never look at Paladins the same way again. Her sequel series is every bit as good and has the virtue of not retreading the same grounds by focusing on the impact of the first series on the original minor characters.
For Film/TV I liked Jackson’s Lord of the Ring Trilogy, Excalibur, Robin of Sherwood, Game of Thrones, Babylon 5, and Firefly.
I am impressed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Series), Angel, Supernatural, and Dresden Files (books).

BD: Modules get a lot of criticism from gamers, particularly online. Many complain about their quality or even state they are unnecessary. Why are modules important? Why do you think people are so quick to criticize them as a category?
RC: A well designed module can give the referee the most precious of things, time, by making prep easier for a session. If a module doesn’t save a referee time then it can be rightly criticized. Look at the shelf of modules you own. Which of them you know saved you time during a campaign, and which didn’t? The ones that did are the good ones.

BD: What are some of the biggest pitfalls you see module writers fall into?
RC: They use too many words. Say what you need and no more. It is something you have to practice at to get good at. I still have much to learn about writing terse prose.

BD: How does having too many words impact the quality of a module in your opinion?
RC: Because what is probably happening is that you are writing about too many details and this makes more work for the referee as he needs to figure out which is important to the adventure and which is not. Sometimes excessive verbiage is written to make the module as flexible as possible and/or because it’s considered professional.
GURPS adventures do this a lot. They are well written and well organized but they come off more as sourcebooks than something I can pick up, study in an evening, and run for my group. Adventure modules are meant to be used. If you want the material to be useful after the adventure then segregate it into its own section and label it as the supplement half. Harn adventures do this a lot.

BD: One of the biggest challenges of designing a module is translating what works at your own table into a written product that anyone can use in their own game. Because every group has its own style and idiosyncrasies, and because most GMs work off of their own system of notes and preparation, this can be especially difficult to do. What types of adventure structures, presentation and organization work in the module format in your opinion (even ones you may not use yourself) and which ones do not?
RC: I will go out on a limb and say flat out that ANY adventure that can be run with a tabletop roleplaying game can be described as a set of locales, a set of NPCs and their motivations, and a plot describing what would happen if the players were not involved.
The problem is how to juggle the details of those three areas to best teach the reader how to run the adventure. It something we are still learning as a hobby. Much of the criticism stems from an over reliance on the tournament style dungeon and the more modern encounter system.

BD: Can you talk a bit about tournament style play? Like a lot of gamers, most of my experience with RPGs was with my friends or with local gaming groups and tournament play is not something I have really tried.
RC: I only participated in two tournaments myself, one in 1984, and another in 1985 when I went to college. AD&D Tournaments basically were setup so that each group was run through the same module and then scored based on a list. The item on the list were stuff easily judged as being completed like solving a puzzle, defeating the monsters in X room, or finding X. The groups with the highest score went on to the next round and ran through another adventure, usually a sequel to the one just concluded. This went one until the final round where the group with the highest score in the final round was judged the winner.
To be fair all the referee had to run the same adventure. So hence the keyed map with all the room fully described and filled with monsters, content, and treasure.
Today it evolved into organized play where the focus is not on the winning of points but rather on continuity of character. Organized play is about starting at 1st level and playing successive adventures over the year (or multiple years) to gain higher levels. You generally get to keep the treasure you find as part of your character. You can go to any convention or store with sponsored events and use that character. This is the way tabletop RPGs gets to use some of what makes MMORPGs and LARPS so compelling to people.
Of course you have to be fair and set standards for the referees of sponsored events to follow. The choices available to the players need to be balanced so there is a mix of character types to keep the events interesting.  
This is fine except when it impacts the design of your rulebooks and supplemental products. If you only listen to the concerns of your organized play customers, the resulting products became bland and unexciting to use for the home campaigns. The solution is to have a special version of your game just to use for organized play. The main line should be expansive as possible to cater to different types and styles of campaigns.