We had a live chat with Chris Perkins and Logan bonner on January 18th, focusing on the design and development of D&D Lair Assault: Talon of Umberlee, as well as some general R&D topics and breaking into the business. Below is the transcript of that chat.
WotC_Trevor: Alright! Moderation is working which means we can get started. Let me explain a couple things first.
WotC_Trevor: Moderated chat means that only moderators and our guests can talk.
WotC_Trevor: For you lovely people in the crowd, when you type something up and send it, we get it on a little side bar here.
christopher_perkins: Can I get drinks at the side bar?
WotC_Trevor: I'll be choosing questions from the side and posting them to the room, along with other questions we've collected from our community.
WotC_Trevor: I think technically you're working, and that's against company policy. Logan however, is free to check it out.
Logan_Bonner: Is there a button to trigger a hook that will pull Chris offstage if he makes another joke like that?
WotC_Trevor: Logan and Chris will be the one's answering and providing you with today's entertainment (as you can see).
WotC_Trevor: I could do that, but I'm worried it will hurt my chances to be in a future campaign of his.
christopher_perkins: The party's been lost ever since their moral compass moved to Iowa.
WotC_Trevor: This chat will focus on the Lair Assault that Logan and Chris both worked on - Talon of Umberlee. There's also space for general design, development, DM, freelance, and basic D&D questions.
WotC_Trevor: We won't be talking about D&D Next, but hopefully you'll see some of that in a future chat session.
WotC_Trevor: Well, at least Rhasgar was good for something
WotC_Trevor: And on that note, I'll leave it to these two fine gentleman to introduce themselves.
WotC_Trevor: Why don't you introduce yourself first Chris.
christopher_perkins: I'm Chris Perkins. Canadian with the half-shark template. My job is to make D&D stuff and keep the magazines from running around the office naked.
Logan_Bonner: And I'm Logan Bonner. Edited late 3.5, became a designer during 4E, currently a freelancer.
WotC_Trevor: Alright. First question.
WotC_Trevor: From Alphastream1: In designing Lair Assault, what is the hardest part of assessing the challenge level? How much do you rely upon feel, upon playtesting, or upon math to feel good about your final version?
WotC_Trevor: Let's just keep the same format of Chris going first and Logan following with his info.
christopher_perkins: We do a lot of playtesting, since Lair Assaults are not just about fighting monsters but also dealing with the perils of the location.
Logan_Bonner: For the initial design, it was mostly feel rather than just looking at levels/math. The fine-tuning WotC does uses the playtesting.
christopher_perkins: Lair Assaults are supposed to be deadly, but not so deadly that players think there’s no hope of success. That’s a tricky balancing act that requires lots of playtesting and rewrites.
Logan_Bonner: There are certain things you look for to make sure the challenge is still fun, but hard.
Logan_Bonner: Most of that is intuitive, at least for me.
WotC_Trevor: From SlyFlourish: For a guy about to run this latest Lair Assault. What three top tactical tips do you have for me to make the players cry?
christopher_perkins: Try to hit one player as often as possible, rather than spread the damage around. And my "player," I mean "character." Most of the time.
christopher_perkins: Take 'em out one at a time, like they do in the movies.
Logan_Bonner: Play the monsters as total bastards. Really just be utterly brutal. Focus fire, like Chris said.
christopher_perkins: Coup de grace! Coup de grace!
Logan_Bonner: Go after the cleric or wizard or whoever looks weakest first.
christopher_perkins: Ah, yes, the cleric MUST die first.
Logan_Bonner: Try to sense what your players want their characters to do, and don't let them.
christopher_perkins: When they're on a ship, throw in a swarm of bloodsucking seagulls.
Logan_Bonner: Or let them fall in the water and drown. Great fun.
christopher_perkins: Next question!
WotC_Trevor: Before we go too much further I want to point out a little bit about the process. Logan did an initial design for Talon of Umberlee, and then it got into Chris's hands and he changed everything! :P
WotC_Trevor: Well, not exactly.
christopher_perkins: No, that's EXACTLY what happened. :-)
Logan_Bonner: Pretty much.
WotC_Trevor: Hehe. In seriousness what gets designed and how it changes when developed often look somewhat if not very different. So Logan and Chris will definitely have different takes on things and will be able to talk about different parts of the process.
Logan_Bonner: Basically, I got the task to do a Neverwinter-themed Lair Assault, and a really rough version of the first LA.
WotC_Trevor: Which leads in nicely to our next question...
WotC_Trevor: When a freelancer submits something, how often and how much of it is changed before the final release? How involved is the freelancer in those changes?
Logan_Bonner: It varies from project to project.
christopher_perkins: Depends. Short articles tend to change very little. If we think a freelancer can make the changes we're asking for, we send the work back for revisions. If the work just needs editorial tweaks, we take care of that.
Logan_Bonner: For this one...
Logan_Bonner: ...and for many projects where the format hasn't really been settled yet, there will be bigger changes.
Logan_Bonner: A lot of the changes in Talon were due to the style of Lair Assaults getting nailed down and morphing during the product's development. Or fixing things that arose from me not understanding the finer points of the format.
christopher_perkins: In the case of Talon of Umberlee, we were up against a wall timing-wise, and there had been a lot of internal playtesting notes that were easier for me to integrate than kick back to Logan. I think Logan did one revision before I dove in.
christopher_perkins: They’re short but compact. You have to pack a lot of stuff in a tight amount of space, including plot and monster tactics. That’s hard. You would think that Lair Assaults are “cookie cutter” adventures, but they’re not. Every one is different, with it’s own situational rules. It’s like designing a new board game each time.
Logan_Bonner: Yeah, and I think I had some other big projects on my plate at the time. It was much smoother for someone in-house to handle it.
WotC_Trevor: From mbeacom: How does pacing effect the design? In my admittedly limited experience with Lair Assault, I find that people really spend a lot of time to make decisions, because its' so deadly. How do you take this into account when designing the encounters, if at all?
christopher_perkins: Lair Assault isn't a timed event, so I didn't concern myself too much with the time it took to complete the challenge. Playtesting gave me a fair idea.
christopher_perkins: It's hard to predict because every group is different. One slow player can really have an impact.
Logan_Bonner: For a tactics-oriented event, I didn't worry too much about the time the players were spending. The only thing I put in to mitigate that was giving them clear goals. You really don't want people to spend time during a Lair Assault wondering what to do—just figuring out how to execute will take long enough.
Logan_Bonner: I do try to use monsters that aren't too fiddly. They get in there and smash guys. Make the DM's turn run quickly, but leave a big mess for the PCs to clean up on their turns.
christopher_perkins: With Talon of Umberlee, I noticed some groups spent a lot of up-front time figuring out how to explore the pirate base without triggering a fight. Other groups just stormed the place.
WotC_Trevor: Switching gears a little here...
WotC_Trevor: From Reasonableguy: I have one question: How would one with a passion for D&D become involved with its development, testing, playing, or writing, in a professional capacity?
christopher_perkins: If Bilsland was here, I'd ask him where he finds playtest groups these days. (Most of the groups we use are folks in Organized Play). With regard to writing for D&D, anyone can pitch a magazine article (as per our submission guidelines). My best advice for writers is to be patient and professional. If you are easy to work with, eager to improve, and mindful of deadlines, we’ll remember you as something we want to work with again.
christopher_perkins: A lot of folks in R&D got their start writing for the magazines.
christopher_perkins: Myself included.
Logan_Bonner: My biggest advice is to not do it alone. Get involved with the community first. See what other people are saying about D&D design and game design. Share what you're working on, start a blog. Follow game designers on Twitter.
Logan_Bonner: Do things nobody's seen before.
christopher_perkins: Like type an RPG supplement while standing on your head.
Logan_Bonner: As Chris says, being a pro to work with will really help. Hit those deadlines (something I'm still not the best at).
Logan_Bonner: And above all, recognize that you'll need to improve. Don't be a prima donna or have a big ego. Take criticism to heart and be willing to change and practice.
christopher_perkins: Next question . . .
WotC_Trevor: From Style75: What have you learned from the two Lair Assault offerings? Will future versions be different as a result?
christopher_perkins: We've learned that variety is good. We want each Lair Assault to be its own wild animal. Next one is set on the Isle of Dread, co-written by Matt James. We have another one in the works featuring drow.
christopher_perkins: We never run out of fiendish ways to kill PCs.
WotC_Trevor: From Seeker95: Have you ever designed a Lair Assault that *you* couldn't defeat in playtesting?
Logan_Bonner: The way my dice roll, I don't think I could create one I *could* defeat and not have it be a cakewalk for everybody else.
Logan_Bonner: "Does an 8 hit? Still no, huh?"
christopher_perkins: The only Lair Assault I've co-designed so far is Talon of Umberlee, which I DMed many times but never played. I never had a group succeed. I died many times playtesting the first one, however.
christopher_perkins: I got eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the next one . . .
WotC_Trevor: Since I know you're both good DMs and good story tellers, this one seems like a good chioce..
WotC_Trevor: From SwampDog: I'm looking for ideas for the middle of a combat encounter, when it's been going on for 30+ minutes and it starts to get bogged down. My players generally don't like it when I have the mobs retreat, so I'm seeking suggestions for mid-encounter spice.
christopher_perkins: The bad guys could turn on each other or surrender. You could also try a "battle montage" (describe in words the next couple rounds of combat, take away a healing surge from everyone, and kill off a bunch of monsters that were probably going to die anyway). You could also have the monsters take extra damage from every hit, again if they're gonna die anyway.
christopher_perkins: Have something in the environment change. Earthquakes are great.
Logan_Bonner: Yeah, retreat's not the only monster option. Have them offer up a devil's bargain, or switch sides to fight alongside you.
Logan_Bonner: Have the monsters do something that could only make sense for a monster, and will make the players puzzled.
Logan_Bonner: Panic's always an option, too. Monsters running screaming, provoking opportunity attacks.
WotC_Trevor: Back to some Lair Assault questions...
WotC_Trevor: How important is story to you guys when making these one off encounters?
christopher_perkins: We’re always looking for a fun situation or setting to put the heroes in, where wacky hijinks are likely to ensue, but the party’s objective is one of the first things we think about.
christopher_perkins: If the story itself is simple ("retrieve the artifact"), we try to add layers to it ("retrieve the artifact from a bunch of drunken pirates without waking all of them").
Logan_Bonner: My turnover was pretty light on story. Chris added in quite a bit, especially in the first encounter. Lair Assault doesn't demand story as strongly as a normal adventure or an Encounters season.
WotC_Trevor: From SlyFlourish: If Captain Bloodbath and her pirate cronies happened to be sitting around playing #dndnext, what races would they select?
WotC_Trevor: Okay, so we can't actually answer that one, but it was fun.
christopher_perkins: Dwarves . . . It's the rum.
WotC_Trevor: How about, what characters do you think they would play from any edition of the game instead?
christopher_perkins: Dwarves . . . it's the rum.
WotC_Trevor: Can't argue with that.
Logan_Bonner: There's a lot of duplicity within this crowd.
Logan_Bonner: So I think they'd play very straightforward classes so as not to arouse suspicion.
Logan_Bonner: "I am a dwarf fighter, and there is nothing more to it than that."
christopher_perkins: Darla Deadeye's already a changeling, so any choice she'd make would probably be a disappointment.
WotC_Trevor: From Hzurr: Are there any plans to publish the Lair Assault adventures, or make them available in DDI?
christopher_perkins: Not at this time. We created them to get folks into their neighborhood gaming stores.
WotC_Trevor: Since that one was mostly for Chris, here's one for Logan
WotC_Trevor: From Alphastream1: Logan, you have been involved in so many projects with so many game systems (Fiasco, Mistborn by Crafty Games, etc., etc., etc.). What keeps you going back to freelancing with Wizards on D&D? How did you get your start in the industry?
christopher_perkins: We have his cat.
Logan_Bonner: I got my start on D&D as an editor, then became a designer later.
Logan_Bonner: So I branched out into other games post-Wizards.
Logan_Bonner: I go back because 1. D&D is pretty great. You might have noticed. 2. I'm very comfortable with the system, process, and folks working on it. 3. The money's really good for the games industry.
Logan_Bonner: And 4. There's plenty of ground D&D hasn't covered.
Logan_Bonner: Working on other games also gives me new tech to fold back into D&D.
WotC_Trevor: Alright, time's almost up so we'll end on a light question and then I'll un-moderate the chat so everyone can say goodbye.
WotC_Trevor: From Matt_James: Favorite type of food?
christopher_perkins: Eggs. Potatoes. Tuna sushi. Children.
christopher_perkins: Not in that order.
Logan_Bonner: Sauteed Realms fan, served over pasta.
Logan_Bonner: (I'm still trying to fatten up your brother.)
WotC_Trevor: Alright then! Thanks everyone for coming out and giving us such great questions. I'm going to turn the moderation off so everybody can say their goodbyes.
christopher_perkins: Thanks y'all. I look forward to doing this again soon!
Logan_Bonner: Thanks, everybody!