Interview with Goodman Games – Part 1: About the DCCs

First part of our Inter­view with Joseph Good­man and Harley Stroh. Sec­ond part and Ger­man ver­sion will fol­low shortly.

Arga­mae: Was there a spe­cific rea­son for mak­ing the Dun­geon Crawl Clas­sics line? You count among the fore­run­ners of the OSR (old school renais­sance) or would you disagree?

Harley: This is one for Joseph. He began the orig­i­nal DCC line before my hir­ing with the company.)

Joseph: When I pub­lished Dun­geon Crawl Clas­sics #1: Idylls of the Rat King in 2003, it was one of the only prod­ucts avail­able – whether com­mer­cial or ama­teur – that could be described as “old school.” As sales took off for the DCC line, it became clear to me that there was a mar­ket for a sub­ject I am inter­ested in, which was a spe­cific sort of nos­tal­gic dun­geon crawl expe­ri­ence. Five years later, Grog­nar­dia first came online, and the OSR began to build solid momen­tum just as 4E was also being launched. I’m sure I wasn’t the only renais­sance gamer excited to find like-minded com­pa­tri­ots in the OSR blo­gos­phere. As I tran­si­tioned Good­man Games to pub­lish more 4E mod­ules, I found myself con­tin­u­ally inter­ested by projects related to a sim­pler, faster game expe­ri­ence than what 4E offers. I was also div­ing deep into Appen­dix N, and had decided to read every book in the bib­li­og­ra­phy. Along­side all of these events was my con­tin­u­ing inter­est in the aes­thet­ics of early DD and the books of Appen­dix N – not just the great artists of TSR, who we’re all famil­iar with, but the gen­er­a­tions before them, such as the cov­ers for Weird Tales, the art of Frank R. Paul and Vir­gil Fin­lay, and the look of the 1970′s mag­a­zines and comics that many of us asso­ciate (con­sciously or not) with our ear­li­est DD expe­ri­ences. DCC RPG is a con­flu­ence of all these events: the suc­cess of the DCC line, the bur­geon­ing mar­ket for retro-style prod­ucts, the gath­er­ing momen­tum of the OSR, my per­sonal inter­est in a sim­pler form of DD, my desire to cre­ate a gam­ing expe­ri­ence that expresses the spirit of adven­ture that I find in Appen­dix N, and my inter­est in a visual expe­ri­ence that con­jures up the purest form of DD rem­i­nis­cences. In many ways, DCC RPG is the cul­mi­na­tion of a jour­ney that began for me nine years ago with the pub­li­ca­tion of DCC #1. I really feel like every­thing I have gone through over the last nine years has led me here, at least from a gam­ing per­spec­tive. DCC RPG is the game I’ve always wanted to play – and, in many ways, is the game I always have played, just under dif­fer­ent names.

Arga­mae: What is your favourite DCC module?

Joseph: DCC #71: The 13th Skull, which I wrote for DCC RPG. I’m cheat­ing a lit­tle bit by pick­ing one of my own mod­ules here! That way I don’t have to pick which of the many fine DCC authors I like the most. The 13th Skull is a mod­ule I wrote and ran dur­ing DCC RPG playtests. I’ve run the adven­ture many times and it both reads and plays very well. I also really like how the cover art turned out; my friend Doug Kovacs has been doing the cover illus­tra­tions for DCC RPG mod­ules and he did an inspir­ing job on this one. Thir­teen gen­er­a­tions ago, the ambi­tious first Duke of Mag­nussen made a fell pact with an unknown power, who asked for but one thing in return: the thir­teenth daugh­ter born to a Mag­nussen duke. Now, gen­er­a­tions hence, the daugh­ter of Duke Mag­nussen XIII is stolen away by a hooded exe­cu­tioner rid­ing a leath­ery beast. As it wings back across the city walls to drop behind the Duke’s mountain-top keep, all who watch know it alights in the Mag­nussen fam­ily crypts, where the dev­il­ish secrets of thir­teen gen­er­a­tions have been buried and for­got­ten – until now…

Harley: With over fifty adven­tures, it is hard to choose a favorite. How­ever, DCC 17, Legacy of the Sav­age Kings remains very close to my heart. It was the first DCC I wrote for Good­man Games, and in many ways it remains the best.

Arga­mae: Did you ever encounter unex­pected prob­lems when bring­ing the DCCs from 3e to 4E? Such as?

Harley: The biggest sur­prise was the suc­cess and util­ity of the char­ac­ter builder and the dig­i­tal tools. The inabil­ity of third party pub­lish­ers to con­tribute to the dig­i­tal con­tent of 4e proved to be a great chal­lenge. Prod­ucts that were hugely suc­cess­ful in 3e and 3.5 were sud­denly obso­lete under 4e. While WotC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tive has encoun­tered a num­ber of hur­dles in its roll out, it also proved to be a game changer for third party publishers.

Joseph: Yes, quite a few. As I’m sure many fans recall, Wiz­ards of the Coast offered a 4E license, known as the GSL, and there were many twists and turns in that process. I gained a lot of pub­lisher XP dur­ing that time.

Arga­mae: What for­mats for the DCC line do you plan for the future? For exam­ple, will there be more 2$ mod­ules or another DCC with a sound­track CD?

Joseph: Lately I find myself grav­i­tat­ing toward short adven­tures that can be read by the GM in a cou­ple hours, and then pro­vide a cou­ple ses­sions’ worth of play expe­ri­ence. Call it my per­sonal pref­er­ence if you’d like, or per­haps the hall­mark of being an older gamer with fam­ily, but that’s the style of game I per­son­ally find eas­i­est to run, and I think it’s a style of pub­lish­ing that offers the low­est bar­ri­ers to entry. Based on that, I’m steer­ing the DCC line toward shorter adven­ture mod­ules – in the 16 to 24 page range. Iron­i­cally, because DCC RPG uses such a con­cise stats for­mat, a 16 page mod­ule under DCC RPG rules gives about as much play time as a much longer mod­ule under other edi­tions of the rules. The Free RPG Day adven­tures will con­tinue to grow more inter­est­ing, as this year’s Free RPG Day adven­ture will launch an adven­ture design con­test that will reward read­ers both finan­cially and cre­atively – and give a lucky fan the chance to put his adven­ture in front of sev­eral thou­sand gamers as the next year’s Free RPG Day module.

Arga­mae: What is your tar­get audi­ence for the upcom­ing DCC role­play­ing game?

Joseph: Joseph Good­man is my tar­get audi­ence. I have said this before and I’ll say this again: I’m writ­ing this game for me. It’s the game I’ve always wanted to play. Hope­fully a few other folks will like it as well.

Arga­mae: What’s your recipe for an orig­i­nal and enter­tain­ing dun­geon design? How do you get about?

Harley: Ide­ally, I want the play­ers (and their char­ac­ters) to over­come impos­si­ble odds, and to have an epic adven­ture that they will remem­ber for years to come. To often, as DM and judges, we dial back our expec­ta­tions, run­ning triv­ial adven­tures early on and sav­ing the epic adven­tures for the end of a cam­paign. But Beowulf didn’t have any “triv­ial” adven­tures. Whether level 1 or level 20, every adven­ture should be breath tak­ing and memorable.

Joseph: Every writer has a dif­fer­ent process, so I can only describe what works for me. And I must be clear that the process for pub­lish­ing an enter­tain­ing mod­ule is very dif­fer­ent from the process of writ­ing one. Now, that said, my own writ­ing process is a mix of strong visu­als, lots of inspi­ra­tion, and per­co­la­tion time. I read exten­sively, includ­ing fic­tion (lots of Appen­dix N lately), comics, and art books. Typ­i­cally I am “hit” with cool ideas for scenes or encoun­ters, and I jot them in a note­book that has lots of ran­dom scrib­bles in it. Over time some of the scenes seem to con­nect to each other, and then I come up with a plot that con­nects them. Once I have an idea for the basic plot, I usu­ally spend a long time get­ting the title right. Then and only then do I sit down to write it. After that comes the most impor­tant part: play test­ing. Many well-written mod­ules don’t play that well, and vice versa; play test­ing is a require­ment to really learn if a mod­ule gives not just a good read­ing expe­ri­ence but also a good play­ing expe­ri­ence. It’s easy for writ­ers to for­get that the play­ers never see any­thing in the mod­ule – all the play­ers know about the writer’s words are how the GM para­phrases them. You as the adven­ture writer have to give the GM strong, sim­ple visual descrip­tions that can bring your scenes to life in his descrip­tions to the play­ers. Playtest­ing is key to under­stand­ing if these scenes come across right, and to gauge the flow of the adventure’s encoun­ters. I guess that’s a long-winded expla­na­tion but hope­fully it makes sense.

Arga­mae: Are there any inquiries for for­eign lan­guage edi­tions of the DCC RPG yet? Is it rea­son­able to expect another Ger­man edition?

Joseph: There have been some inquiries. I would say that something’s def­i­nitely pos­si­ble. If there are par­ties out there inter­ested in a for­eign lan­guage edi­tion – either as a fan or as a pub­lisher – they should get in con­tact with me.

Arga­mae: Did you ever receive direct feed­back from a Ger­man DCC?

Harley: I haven’t been for­tu­nate enough to receive feed­back from a Ger­man lan­guage DCC, but I would love to hear some! We can always stand to improve our games

Joseph: Only in English!

Arga­mae: Did you approach Monte Cook for DCC #50 or did he approach you?

Harley: Joseph lined this one up. He can tell the tale. Although, I’m proud to share that Monte played in our DCC tour­na­ment the very next GenCon!

Joseph: Hmm, I’m try­ing to rec­ol­lect. I think I approached him. But as I recall he was already a fan of the series and was inter­ested in work­ing on it. DCC #50 is still one of my favorite mod­ules — the rotat­ing map is awesome.

Arga­mae: Are there any plans to re-issue older DCCs (from 3e/4e) for the new DCC RPG?

Joseph: I have no plans to re-issue older DCC mod­ules for DCC RPG. DCC RPG has many core con­cepts related to main­tain­ing a dis­tinc­tive spirit of adven­ture in the game, and ear­lier DCC mod­ules did not fol­low those rules. One of my biggest goals with the game is to give play­ers the same expe­ri­ence they had when they were young and dis­cov­er­ing DD for the first time. One of the best ways to do this is to cre­ate a sense of mys­tery and sur­prise – to leave the play­ers con­stantly unsure of their oppo­nents. Remem­ber when a beholder was a mys­te­ri­ous oppo­nent that you had no idea how to beat? DCC RPG has an extremely sim­ple stat sys­tem for mon­sters, and encour­ages new mon­sters in every encounter. It also relies heav­ily on an Appen­dix N style of adven­ture, which is present in some 3E/4E mod­ules but not all. I think that gamers who enjoyed our DCC mod­ules in prior edi­tions will enjoy the DCC RPG mod­ules even more. There are very few pub­lish­ers who can say they’ve pub­lished nearly 100 adven­ture mod­ules and learned the lessons from that. I have the lux­ury to make such a claim, and I believe the new line of DCC RPG adven­tures will rep­re­sent a style of adven­ture – and an ease of use and a beauty of pre­sen­ta­tion – that really is the best I’ve pub­lished in more than ten years of publishing.

Arga­mae: With the 2$ mod­ules, the com­pi­la­tion “The Adven­ture Begins” and the 0-level-DCCs did you intend to reach new­com­ers to the hobby?

Harley: The hope is always to lower the hur­dle for new gamers. Gamers that might not oth­er­wise buy a DCC might find it hard to turn away a $2 DCC. And if it hap­pens to bring in new gamers, all the better!

Joseph: Yes. All of those efforts helped tremen­dously, as did Free RPG Day, which was my idea; I co-created Free RPG Day with Aldo Ghiozzi of Impres­sions Mar­ket­ing, which runs the event now. There’s a time and place for every oppor­tu­nity, and those were all good ini­tia­tives at the right time and place to help expand the reach of the DCC line to both new­com­ers and estab­lished gamers.

Arga­mae: Could you explain briefly the process of mak­ing a DCC mod­ule (from the ini­tial con­cept to the final ver­sion)? Can you remem­ber a spe­cific DCC mod­ule where this was espe­cially tricky?

Harley: Any adven­ture begins with a pitch: a short syn­op­sis that high­lights the strengths of an adven­ture. Once an adven­ture receives the green light, the author designs the adven­ture and sketches any of the maps. Once the first draft is com­plete, we send it off to be playtested, either by the author, or – ide­ally – by strangers. The feed­back from the playtests inform any revi­sions and cor­rec­tions. Once the final draft is sub­mit­ted the adven­ture is edited, and then sent off to lay­out and car­tog­ra­phy. At the same time, we are com­mis­sion­ing art­work. Once the art and final maps are com­plete, the entire pack­age is reviewed by proof­read­ers and edi­tors for accu­racy, before being sent off to print.

Joseph: DCC mod­ules get made in one of two ways: either I pitch one to a writer, or they pitch an idea to me. When I first con­cepted the DCC line, I wrote down a list of every adven­ture I wanted to pub­lish: “pirate adven­ture,” “dragon adven­ture,” “Egypt adven­ture,” etc. Over the course of sev­eral years I com­mis­sioned every adven­ture con­cept on this list from dif­fer­ent writ­ers. Of course they take it beyond the basic con­cept and turn it into some­thing both good to read and fun to play. Right now I have a sim­i­lar list of mod­ule ideas for DCC RPG, which is more inspired by Appen­dix N and its antecedents. My friend Harley Stroh, adven­ture writer extra­or­di­naire, is writ­ing the “giant brain” adven­ture right now — the “giant brain” image is a sta­ple of pulp sci-fi (and some­times hor­ror and fan­tasy as well), and it would make an awe­some cover image and a ter­ri­fy­ing oppo­nent if done right. Of course it has to be done in a way that makes sense for a fan­tasy RPG, and Harley can do that. On the other hand, some authors pitch me on ideas for their mod­ules, and some­times these make it to print. Once the author and I have agreed on a con­cept, the author turns in a map and encounter out­line. We dis­cuss the out­line, then he goes into writ­ing and play test­ing. As for where it gets tricky, well, writ­ers are cre­ative folks and some­times they like to push the enve­lope. DCC #51: Cas­tle White­rock was actu­ally com­mis­sioned as a much shorter mod­ule — 96 pages, if I remem­ber cor­rectly. The writ­ers really got into it, and it ended up being 761 pages…

Harley: All in all, it is a very involved process, where any one step can hold up the entire release. The trick­i­est DCC, in terms of process, had to be our epic megadun­geon, White­rock Cas­tle. While the adven­ture was in devel­op­ment for years, it fell to Joseph to kick­start the adven­ture into real­ity. A group of authors and edi­tors met in Las Vegas, we were lined out the plan for White­rock over the course of the week­end. Each mem­ber of the team was given spe­cific dead­lines, tasks and assign­ments, and each per­son was essen­tial to ensur­ing that the box set be com­pleted on time. By the end of the week­end we were all jok­ing that if any sin­gle per­son got hurt or sick, we would miss our due date. It was a joke, but the joke was founded in real­ity: if any one per­son missed their goals, White­rock would have missed its dead­line and not made it to GenCon.

Arga­mae: How are the playtests con­ducted? Do you have fixed test groups or could any­one approach you for becom­ing a playtester?

Harley: While we do have playtest groups that we rely upon, the best playtesters are always strangers. We always wel­come new playtesters, although it can be hard for groups to make time to try out DCCs when they are also run­ning home cam­paigns. This is why so many of our DCCs are playtested at conventions.

Joseph: Any­one can approach me. For DCC RPG, I ran many games myself to make sure every­thing went smoothly. I wrote 3 of the first 8 DCC RPG mod­ules, and I’ve played each of them at least a half-dozen times, if not more. Run­ning the same adven­ture so many times is interesting…eventually I get bored and start chang­ing stuff on the fly. But some­times the play­ers make inter­est­ing in-game deci­sions and it sud­denly seems fresh again. Any­way, back on topic, other par­ties also ran play tests of the first-generation DCC RPG mod­ules, includ­ing some of the out­side play test­ing groups that helped me make sure every­thing was bal­anced. And of course all mod­ules writ­ten by an out­side author have to be play tested by that author and his own group.

Arga­mae: Did you read all of the DCCs yourself?

Harley: I pride myself in read­ing every DCC that comes out.

Joseph: Yes. There have been times when I’ve had ded­i­cated line edi­tors who do more of the, shall we say, “nar­row­ing of the can­di­dates” for me. Over the years I’ve gone back and forth between how much I’ve relied on line edi­tors ver­sus my own engage­ment. For DCC RPG to be “right” I knew I had to be per­son­ally engaged very heav­ily, so I have been per­son­ally involved in all aspects of the DCC RPG modules.

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