In this month's exclusive interview, the designer of Bastion of Broken Souls discusses a demon prince, playtesting challenges, and the metaphysics of the D&D designer's universe.
Wizards of the Coast: Bastion of Broken Souls centers around one of D&D's all-time great villains: Demogorgon. What inspired you to use the demon prince in your design?
Bruce Cordell: He's my favorite demon prince. When we were young, my friends and I often played late into the night. One night my friend Bret DMed, [and] we faced off against Demogorgon, each arrayed with our artifacts. It was the first time we had ever played the whole night through. The feeling of dread that passed through me as Demogorgon answered the summons of one of his lesser demons is a memory that still remains sharp in my mind.
Wizards: What's the process like for playtesting an adventure?
Bruce: Play it! We have regular playtesting groups, and each group is assigned projects on a rotating basis. The groups are made up of Wizards' staff. This adventure received two full sessions, from which a lot of great data was culled, much to the benefit of the adventure. Also, certain competent third parties received copies for playtest and review. When all the comments are in, we go through a second design phase to incorporate everything. All this has been done for Bastion of Broken Souls, and it is now ready for prime time.
Wizards: How can you tell if an encounter in an adventure is too powerful for players versus the playtesters simply making mistakes?
Bruce: Well, the nature of the comments often reveals mistakes on the players' part. However, I sat in on at least one of the playtests, and I personally know that both the in-house playtest DMs are top-notch designers. I don't expect mistakes from them. Besides, if a comment is valid, I can look at the stat or rule in question and immediately see the truth of it.
Wizards: Without revealing too much for those players who might experience this adventure firsthand, have most of your playtest groups succeeded in reaching the Bastion and overcoming the villains there?
Bruce: One group failed utterly and perished far from hope. A few tweaks later, the second group succeeded, having lost only some of their number to the terrible final encounter.
Wizards: Sounds intimidating. Do you find, after a few times DMing an adventure that you've created, that certain sections of the overall tale have consistently greater excitement or depth than others?
Bruce: Sure -- in any adventure I write, I have my favorite parts. But we need the mundane with the spectacular, so that by comparison, the spectacular is that much more impressive!
Wizards: Bastion of Broken Souls addresses some extremely philosophical questions when the adventure begins to outline the specifics of how souls come to be. What are the challenges in developing an adventure that engages such metaphysical concepts as the soul and the cycle of birth? Does it give you as a designer more freedom or more restrictions?
Bruce: Well, there was the potential restriction of: The rules so far do not define where PC souls come from, so should this adventure be allowed to do so? Turns out, yes! With that concept tightly clutched in my hand, I was off. So, yes, when working in area not covered by previous cosmology, the freedom felt great.
Wizards: As the designer of a self-contained adventure, do you find it difficult to account for all the possible paths players might choose to take in reaching the climax of the plot?
Bruce: Yes, and it is all the more difficult when writing at such rarified high levels. The players can pretty much do whatever they want at this level. The challenge is to make the task seem worth doing. Then, as Monte Cook has been known to say, the designer must provide an adventure that doesn't forbid the use of the characters' highest-level powers but actively requires their usage for success.
Wizards: You have some very interesting new monsters, spells, and magic items. Do you have a favorite from amongst the new additions?
Bruce: My favorite new monster is the trio of spiritovore energons. [Interviewer's note: Soulsippers, soulmarauders, and soulscapers -- collectively known as the spiritovore energons -- roam the Postive Energy Plane.]
Wizards: How has the new edition of D&D changed the rules for designing?
Bruce: In every way. The whole mindset is different. Now, any time the PCs might attempt a particular action, there is a good chance a rule covers that action. It is the designer's job to anticipate that action, that rule, and to provide the appropriate Difficulty Class and direction to the DM. It is the job of the designer to do the DM's dirty work in this area, allowing the DM the freedom to deliver an adventure with that much more verisimilitude.
Wizards: Finally, what plans do you have for future designs?
Bruce: I've worked on a lot of stuff since I put aside Bastion of Broken Souls. Andy Collins and I (and others) worked on the big hardback Epic Level Handbook. I worked on a d20 psionics product for Malhavoc Press called If Thoughts Could Kill. I have started work on a project not due out until 2003, so I can't even talk about that one yet. Plus, I've been part of the Chainmail skirmish game team for the last few months -- I play Chainmail every single day for at least two hours. Finally, I'm writing a novel for the book department, but again, I can't say too much more about that for now!