- Mar 2003 -
2199 Posts

Live Chat with Steve Townshend

On November 30, we hosted a live online chat with Steve Townshend. Steve is a freelance writer and game designer who has contributed to numerous D&D products, most recently Player's Option: Heroes of the Feywild, Madness at Gardmore Abbey, and Beyond the Crystal Cave.

WotC_Huscarl: Welcome to our live chat with Steve Townshend!

Drammattex: I feel like I'm on the Muppet Show.

WotC_Huscarl: This is a moderated chat, which means that any of you can pose questions, but they'll appear in the room only when one of us selects and forwards them. We'll also be pulling select questions from the forum.

Steve has been contributing to D&D in various ways for several years. But we'll let him introduce himself. Take it away.

Drammattex: Hi, I'm Steve. I've been contributing to D&D for several years. I began with Polyhedron back in the '90s. When I was a wee callow youth. Turned in a lot of rejected stories for Dragon. And eventually caved to pressure from a friend (Michael T. Kuciak) who HAD been published in Dragon, to submit some queries.

Got a sale on the death gods of various religions in 2001. And after that did some work for Steve Winter.

Who else? After applying for a few jobs at WotC, I got some freelance work. That begat freelance work.

And that's the basic deal.

I worked on MM3, then Demonomicon, Monster Vault: Nentir Vale, Madness at Gardmore Abbey, Siege of Gardmore Abbey, Heroes of the Feywild, and a bunch of Dragon articles.

WotC_Huscarl: Before we go much further, I'll remind everyone that Steve is a freelance contributor. That means he's heavily involved in the projects he's involved in, but he doesn't have access to the inner workings or long-range plans of R&D, and he can't respond meaningfully to questions along those lines other than to give his opinion.

Drammattex: This is true.

WotC_Huscarl: So there's no point asking him what's coming up in the second half of 2012. Even if he knew, he'd be prohibited from telling.

Drammattex: Plus, I don't know.

[I also worked on] Mordenkainen's ... sort of. Beyond the Crystal Cave, too. The first draft.

WotC_Huscarl: Ready for your first question?

Drammattex: Yessir!

Style75: Gardmore Abbey is my favorite 4E adventure. A large part of its charm is its ability to be replayed differently due to the mechanics of the card distribution throughout the abbey and the NPC's. How did you decide on this mechanism and was their much debate on if you should use such a randomised system?

Drammattex: Great question.

The idea for the card mechanic was James Wyatt's, as he formed the overall structure of the adventure. James assigned the two books of encounters to myself and Creighton Broadhurst, with the mandate that the encounters should include a lot of variety; they shouldn't just be combat slogs.

Since that's generally how I play with my group, I was very much into that idea and created the outer Gardmore encounters as an interconnected ecosystem that told its own story as you adventured through it.

Back to the cards:

I'll admit I was dubious at first. The deck is a classic element of D&D—I was totally cool with that—but I suppose I'm always afraid of relying on a "gimmick."

Similarly, in the initial design phases of Heroes of the Feywild, Rodney Thompson had some ideas about a magic system that came as additional "pieces" with the book. These sorts of things always scare me a little. When done well, they're amazing. When they fall short ... well, then you have a product that relies on extra "fiddly bits" you don't want to use anyway, yet you're reliant upon them to use the product.

Nevertheless, I soon discovered that the deck in Gardmore wasn't a gimmick at all. Rather, it was central to the entire story of the adventure. The way James designed the deck to be used in Gardmore, you get more fun and utility out of that item than has ever been done in any published source that I know of. So I was a quick convert. :-)

Style75: The Deck of Many Things was originally released as a paragon tier artifact through DDI. Was Gardmore Abbey originally intended to be a paragon tier adventure? If you were to write it as a paragon tier adventure, what would you change?

Drammattex: As far as I know, it was never intended as a paragon tier adventure. If I were to write it as a paragon tier adventure, I really wouldn't change much. I'd just level the monsters or choose higher level versions. For instance, I'd swap out the barlguras for higher level demons—that kind of thing. The adventure has everything from beholders to golems to undead to dragons. It has nymphs, owlbears, gargoyles … all the classic monsters I love. I think if I were to make it paragon, I'd just search the Monster Builder for more advanced versions of the same stuff. Or just level them up.

fictionalbeing: Possibility of seeing Seige of Gardmore as a Dungeon release...

Drammattex: I was here a while back when James Wyatt was in a live chat. And he said it was something he'd heard people were interested in. He said he'd look into it, but that's all I know. I hope so. I mean, I really hoped it would end up a home-play adventure. And still do! :-)

WotC_Huscarl: There was discussion at one point of a Gardmore Abbey side trek for Dungeon.

Drammattex: Awesome.

WotC_Huscarl: But I honestly don't know the status of that as a project right now. [Don't look for Siege to be released online, however. We tend to keep such limited specials very limited.]

Vestras: As you toss around ideas for books, do you start general and work to specifics, or do you work cohessively from the ground up?

Drammattex: There were 2 questions like this in the forums. I tried to prepare ahead (I don't normally chat in paragraphs). So hopefully this will kill two birds ...

Ah, scratch that. I'll address this specifically.

We get an outline. The lead designer sends an outline and we talk about it. Most of the lead designers I've worked with at WotC are extremely collaborative. It's not a THIS IS MY DIVINE MASTER PLAN type mandate. This is why we have banderhobbs. Mike Mearls said "give me something new."

For Gardmore, James Wyatt said, "You make a book of encounters. They should be interesting, not just combat slogs."

Rodney and I tossed ideas back and forth about Feywild for a while. He had an outline, but we discussed fairy tale tropes and such.

Demonomicon was the closest-knit team I've yet worked with. Mike Mearls, Brian James, and myself, e-mailing about demons every day of the week. That was fun. :-) They're all fun, really.

So, there are some specifics, but I find that I find the work as I do it. There's a lot of discovery. And things becoming more and more cohesive. Then of course it goes over to development, editing, etc. It's a team effort.

Style75: Heroes of the Feywild contains some elements new to 4E which created countless pages of discussion on the forums (ex. pixie flight, racial gender restrictions). Was there as much debate amongst the design team on these issues?

Drammattex: Aha! My prepared answer!

Rodney Thompson came to me with an outline of stuff he wanted to see in the book. He and I batted ideas around and brainstormed for a bit. Then we got to work.

After a while, Rodney brought in Claudio to take some of the load (Rodney was working on a bunch of other stuff at the time, including Lords of Waterdeep; I don't know how he has time to sleep; it's possible he's a lich, or maybe a robot).

If something comes up that I don't understand, I ask. Hopefully someone explains it to me, and then we move on. I might express a preference for something here or there, but ultimately I'm just a freelancer, so while I'm happy to work with lead designers who respect my opinion, I'll defer to the lead's decision. For instance, on Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, I decided that the Tigerclaw Barbarians should be associated with (and ride!) saber-toothed tigers. I thought that would be pretty badass. Thing is, saber-toothed tiger isn't the name of that animal. It's "smilodon." So I used "smilodon" in every iteration of that term. But Chris Perkins gently discouraged me from that—he said it sounded too scientific, not fantastic. I brought it up again later. "Are you sure?" Chris was sure. So I changed it. But looking back at it, I think he was right. That's the kind of talk we might have about a unified vision. But generally, we all get along famously and love creating together.

Hm, maybe that wasn't the right answer. Perhaps I have fulfilled my destiny and screwed up. But I have an answer to your question....

WotC_Huscarl: Wait! What question was that the answer to?

Drammattex: That is the answer to this question, similar to the last one: Creating a book like Heroes of the Feywild requires a strong unified vision of the world you are describing. How does a group of different designers and writers create a book that appears so unified around that vision?

WotC_Huscarl: OK. Proceed.

Drammattex: OK.

As for pixie flight, design debates, male/female races ... we don't really debate, I don't think. As I was saying before, it's a lot of collaboration. There was practically no debate on the design team about anything. I think that extends to just about every project I've worked on. There were elements I didn't understand—for instance, I didn't quite get the way Rodney wanted the "build your history" part to work in Heroes of the Feywild. And I wasn't sure what kind of crazy new magic system we were going to come up with. But he let me pick the sections of the book I wanted to work on, so I let him tackle the stuff I didn't quite grok.

In the end, Rodney brought in Claudio Pozas to tackle the history-building section, and he handled it with style. I had some pretty big fish to fry at the beginning of that project, so my thoughts were dedicated to those.

As for gender restrictions, it was never in debate. The thing is, in mythology and folklore, a nymph is female by definition. To change that is to meddle with a few thousand years of lore. Also, it's on you to decide what a male nymph, or dryad, is like and why it exists. Same with a female satyr. You have to go back and reexamine those creatures' essential natures and redefine them, and you have to dedicate page space to doing so. OR you could just say, "This is a satyr, like the ones you know about, and here's how they exist in the D&D world." Same with nymphs/dryads. And if anybody wants to play a male dryad or a female satyr, there is absolutely nothing stopping you. No mechanical restriction or balance issue.

In the end, it made more sense to me to ground the hamadryads in what they were and what we know them to be, than use the space allotted to them to make up a different myth. And who am I to change the definition of that creature and say it's something that it's not, and that all of gamerdom must accept it?

Nah, instead it's left up to you to change it if you want and make up a reason you're satisfied with. I only want to monkey around with mythology to enhance the elements that are already there; I don't want to deny what's been in place for a few dozen centuries.

Alphastream1: 4E has really evolved. The bard tales, art, and just sweeping creativity of Heroes of the Feywild is a huge departure from earlier books. As a freelancer, do you see a direct request for a different approach?

Drammattex: Hi Alphastream. And thanks!

For a while I've thought that D&D 4E is the edition I was meant to contribute to. It's hard to describe, but I feel like in the past, mechanics have held center stage. Not the whole past. Just maybe from 2000 on. Doesn't mean it's true ... just the way I felt. I'd submit stuff to the magazines, but it really wasn't crunchy enough.

Then 4E came along and made a very crunchy sort of edition. By this I mean it was full of powers and feats and people kinda complained about flavor. Which is my "thing." I've been running story-oriented games forever. It's what I like about D&D and RPGs in general. It's what I LOVE about them. So I felt a little alienated for a while there. I felt like people didn't care about it much. Whether that's true or not—again, just my feelings on it.

So when I got some freelance work, it was right when people started crying out for the stuff, people claiming 4E didn't have enough flavor. So I'm waiting in the wings saying, "put me in! I've got the flayva!"

More specifically, I started my career as a stage actor. This was my job and how I made my living for a long time. So story was very important to me. Drama. Drammattex. Dramatics. And all that.

I decided at one point to switch over to fiction and leave the stage behind. I was very focused on short fiction when the WotC work and the call for story came around, so I was poised to throw in all I'd been doing, focus on making it cool for D&D.

Whether it's cool or not, well, that's your opinion ... but that's what I'm trying to do. I want people to have an IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE. I want to take you there and let you feel it on your skin. I want you to walk in that skin and experience another world. Smell the smells, taste the tastes, etc. I want you to be moved, not just roll 1d6 for damage.

The end!

Snarls_at_Fleas: Chapter 5 of Heroes of the Feywild seems like a perfect way of introducing a setting to a player. What advice could you give for building such an instrument?

Drammattex: Is Chapter 5 the Build Your Story section? I wrote Chapter 1, which is also an intro.

WotC_Huscarl: Yes, 5 is Build Your Story.

Drammattex: Ah! Heh.

As a designer, I'm slightly, or more than slightly, an idiot. And I really didn't get what Rodney was asking for. So I chose all the other sections of the book and avoided Chapter 5.

Did Rodney know what he was asking for? I think so.

Regardless, he then hired Claudio Pozas to write it! So, I think it's a really neat way to introduce the world, but I confess I haven't had enough time to play around with it yet.

DreadGazeebo: Steve, I've noticed that Heroes of the Feywild is almost completely devoid of glowing magical runes. What gives?

Drammattex: NO! MAGIC! RUNES! Thank you, Jerry.

Here's one about the witch.

LifeVirus: With Heroes of the Feywild, the new witch build allows player to get a familiar at the start of the game as a bonus feat. But I noticed that none of the powers allow the class to use the familiar as a combat helper like some of the older powers from Dragon. What was the reason behind the choice of powers for the witch??

Drammattex: This is a pretty good one, LifeVirus. Challenging to answer, actually.

The witch took up most of my time on Heroes of the Feywild, believe it or not.

At the time I started HotFW, Heroes of the Fallen Lands wasn't out. Well, not all the way.

So ... the thing about freelancing—the really hard part—is that you're navigating by Marco Polo. You have to do your work and turn it in on time and turn it in well, but nobody knows all the answers. You have to find them yourself a lot of the time.

With the witch, I was creating a 30-level Essentials class packed with 30 levels of class features and powers. It took a long, long time for me to do this. If you ever want to challenge yourself, try to create a wizard type class with 30 levels of new powers and class features. It's ... a feat.

Anyway, over time we decided to commit to the original 4E format, not the Essentials digest. So the witch is more like the subclasses of old, rather than being its own standalone type class.

When I designed the witch, it had a lot more shape-changing powers to imitate characters like Morrigan of the Badb and the witches of fairy tales. The familiar was strictly flavor, and of course power swapping.

A lot of changes happen in development. Some things you design come out just the way you made them, and others undergo a transformation. But as Steve Winter said, I don't know much about what lies ahead. Development DOES. So this is often why things are changed, adjusted, etc.

(I hope that answers your question, if meanderingly). :-)

Vestras: Our group loves the new classes from Feywild. Were there other classes that didn't quite make it to print? Or other class ideas you might explore in the future?

Drammattex: Well, all the classes made it. I can tell you stuff that I wrote that didn't make it:

The gnome. This was when it was an Essentials style book. Don't worry, its abilities didn't change. But ...

There wasn't anything much different in the abilities, just a lot of story text and some racial utilities. I think I gave them back the ability to speak with woodland animals a'la 1st ed. Maybe they'll appear in DDI.

Utility powers for eladrin and elves and half-elves. But some of those appeared today. Only they're different and the brilliant Robert Schwalb designed them, so they're probably more balanced. :-)

The tuathan race, which editor Jeremy Crawford had me rewrite as a theme. I like it better as a theme. And if you use it with the witch, it adds back in some of that shapechanging. Morrigan of the Badb was of the Tuatha de Dannan after all.

DreadGazeebo: Silly questions aside. With such tiny creatures like the pixie, how can anyone justify rolling up a pixie barbarian? This riddles my mind, and I would love your take on things like this, both from a narrative and mechanical perspective.

Drammattex: DreadGazeebo and his pixies ...

Ok, here you go.

Pixies have existed in the game for a long time. In 2E, one of our regular players played a pixie. In truth, all mentions of wild pixies in this book are a tribute to him. He called them the durylinea and they were ... some vicious bastards. The GOOD ones played nasty tricks on humans. Tricks that could hurt you. They didn't care, it was funny.

Note: He did NOT do this to the other PCs.

The BAD ones were the ones that would rip out your eyes and tie you to a tree with your own entrails if you walked through their territory. There are fairy tales that portray faeries this way. Unseelie folk.

So, when I was designing the pixie, I wanted there to be maximum playable range for each of these choices. If you want to play Tinkerbell, it's set up for you to do that. If you want to play a mean, nasty sprite, you can do that too, and the flavor encourages it.

As for the physics of it, pixies are magical. And mighty is their magic.

Once at a reading, someone asked George Martin about how something worked in his world—something magic—the system. He said "It's magic."

So with pixies.

WotC_Huscarl: This one always comes up ...

SBenjamin: How did you become a freelance contributor for WotC? Did you have to have an 'in' or can anyone with a great idea contribute?

Drammattex: Anyone can.

I'll hit on that again briefly.

Everyone's path is different. That's what's important to remember. So there is no ONE TRUE WAY.

I submitted contest entries to Polyhedron as a teenager. Got a couple printed. Polyhedron was the RPGA's old magazine. For one entry, I was supposed to get a copy of Polyhedron #1 in the mail. (I'm still waiting, Steve Winter.)

Later, I submitted stories that didn't get accepted by Dragon. Also, they sucked. :-)

And I wasn't taking it very seriously. I think my goal was more "getting published" then than turning in something good.

Eventually Dave Gross, then editor of Dragon, accepted one of my queries. "Four Faces of Death" for Dragon 288. I was acting though, so this was a side thing. Not my focus at the time.

Then I started getting involved in the community here on WotC. I volunteered to cover Gen Con for the boards, in 2005, 2006, around then. I saw Steve Winter post a Reclamation miniatures scenario for DDM online. I submitted two entries, and Steve published both.

So do you see what I'm saying here? These are all very small things, but they begin to snowball. When there was a job application for a position at WotC in 2007, I applied and got an interview. I tried hard and did well, so the next year, Andy Collins let me know about another position. I applied for that. This garnered me freelance work on MM3 with Mike Mearls. And at that point, I knew I had to do my utmost to turn in the absolute best thing I could possibly do. And that's been my goal ever since.

That's the long version.

WotC_Huscarl: This one's a bit of a side trek.

Drammattex: Oh good!

Alphastream1: On DreadGazeebo's site you mentioned Lost Unicorn and Stardust. Can you share other novels you really enjoy and recommend?

Drammattex: I love everything George Martin writes, especially his old stories from the '70s and '80s. I just read Fevre Dream and it blew my mind. Also, Raymond Carver. For some reason I love Raymond Carver. It's sparse and bleak, but ... so is the winter here.

WotC_Huscarl: Huh. That basically was my question. Nice job snaking me, Alphastream!

Drammattex: ha ha  

Style75: You've done a lot of different things when it comes to D&D. What style of D&D product is your favorite to work on? Encounters? Super adventure? Player books?

Drammattex: Aha. I'm ready for this one. Paragraph time!

I prefer to write story-oriented stuff with some mechanics. Monster books, for instance. MM3, Demonomicon, Monster Vault: Nentir Vale. But I've enjoyed everything I've worked on—each has presented its own challenge.

I guess if there's a thru-line to my work in D&D, it's story. That's what matters most to me. I'm happy with a lot of the mechanics I've designed, but for me they were all in service to the story elements I was trying to bring to life in the game. Whether it's the banderhobbs or Oublivae, the desperate characters in Siege of Gardmore Abbey, the world of outer Gardmore, or the florid prose they let me get away with in Heroes of the Feywild, story is the thing for me. My very favorite pieces of work from HotFW are the four bard tales I wrote for it: The Ugly Satyr, The Unruly Girl, The Three Fair Beauties, and The Lady of the Wood. That's the sort of stuff I most enjoy.

The hardest thing I've done is Beyond the Crystal Cave; that was hard because I wanted to do wild, crazy things with the format. On every project I do, I'm trying to push the envelope, but Encounters seasons are pretty grounded in the format. So the season I turned in was more like a campaign that had to be cut down quite a bit. Then it went over to Chris Sims, who fixed it up to make it more Encounters-friendly. Writing within the parameters of the Encounters season was pretty hard for me.

Also ... player books are hard. In some ways, they're the most rewarding because the most people see them. But they're also hard because the most people complain. :-("

WotC_Huscarl: That brings us to the end of our hour.

Drammattex: Excellent. Thank you, everyone. It's been a pleasure.

WotC_Huscarl: As it so happens, I have copies of Heroes of Shadow and Heroes of the Feywild sitting here on my desk. Steve, are you comfortable tossing out a couple of trivia questions to see who wins each one?

Drammattex: Trivia time? Sure.

WotC_Huscarl: Hold on ... Let me unmoderate the room so that everyone can shout their answers at once, and the first correct answer will win.

The first question will be for Heroes of Shadow. Let 'er rip.

Drammattex: Ok, here goes. This one's hard.

Alphastream1: 42

Drammattex: "What 1982 TSR role-playing product was edited by Steve Winter and included a race called a sathar?"

[long, silent pause]

WotC_Huscarl: Wow. I guess it really was hard ...

Drammattex: I can hear the brains.

smerwin29: Star Frontiers

Drammattex: No fair, Shawn Merwin.

smerwin29: Sorry

Alphastream1: Ha!

Drammattex: You're just old.

smerwin29: I am old.

Nai_Calus: lol


WotC_Huscarl: You're also correct.

Drammattex: Ninja'd!

WotC_Huscarl: smerwin29 gets a copy of Heroes of Shadow!* Next up is a copy of Heroes of the Feywild. Typing fingers ready?

Drammattex: Okay, here we go...

Oran the Green Lord and Tiandra the Summer Queen are based on two characters from English literature. Who are they?

Nai_Calus: Oberon and Titania?

Drammattex: Yep. Hooray!

WotC_Huscarl: We have a winner! Nai_Calus and Smerwin29, send your address and phone number to me via PM so I can ship out your books!

Drammattex: Good thinkin'.

Alphastream1: Nicely done, you two!

Nai_Calus: w00t

WotC_Huscarl: Everyone else—thanks for coming. We'll have a transcript of the chat later today or tomorrow.

Drammattex: Questions that weren't answered and you're desperate for: Later on, everybody! Have a great one.

* (WotC_Huscarl) As it happens, smerwin29 contacted me after the chat to point out that he already had a copy of Heroes of Shadow and would be happy to see it go to someone else who needs it. So here's the deal: If you're the first person to put "Mortals fear the Shadowfell" in the comments box below, you'll get Shawn's copy of Heroes of Shadow! How's that for generosity?

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