Designer Interview with Jesse Decker, Michelle Lyons, and David Noonan
In this month's exclusive interview, the designers of Races of Stone discuss the philosophy of gnomes, what the new goliaths have to do with the NBA, and why even dwarves need a holiday.
Wizards of the Coast: Let's start with a basic question: who wants this book, Races of Stone?
David Noonan: Obviously, anyone who's playing a dwarf or a gnome is going to find all kinds of new character options in here. There's everything you expect from a player-friendly book: feats, spells, prestige classes, and magic items. There are some wholly new elements in here as well, including racial substitution levels, dwarvencraft items, exotic armor, new alchemical items, rune circles, and ancestral weapons.
Beyond that, anyone who's thinking about their next character should give Races of Stone a look. It might entice you to try a dwarf or gnome, and there's a new race, the goliath, that should appeal to anyone who wants to go big rather than small.
DMs are going to find a lot of information about dwarf, gnome, and goliath communities -- info that will give them good ideas for setting adventures in and around those places.
Wizards: Maybe the question should be: Who doesn't want this book?
David: Giants. Whether it's the natural bonuses against giants that dwarves and gnomes get, the Titan Fighting feat, or the goliath liberator prestige class, there's a lot in this book that should make a giant very worried.
Wizards: The chapter on dwarves includes discussion on "how to act and talk like a dwarf." Sounds like method acting for D&D. What's at the very core of getting into the mind of a dwarf -- at least as far as the designers of Races of Stone are concerned?
Michelle Lyons: I think the core of playing a dwarf as something more than just a short axe-wielding fighter (which is fine, as far as it goes) is to realize that they live -- and are comfortable in -- an environment that is utterly alien to most humans. They don't need light. They don't need the open air. They're built for living underground for their entire lifespan and doing so in comfort. They're used to working within a limited amount of space and thus necessarily living on top of one another to some extent. They're amazingly resourceful, and societally hold in high regard aspects that reinforce that way of life (order, honor, frugality).
Once you take a moment to think about that, it becomes clear that stereotypes associated with dwarves actually have reasons behind them. Then, once you understand the reasons, suddenly those long-loved dwarven attributes stop being stereotypes and become inspiration for playing your character with a lot of depth. Naturally, the notions listed above won't be the case for every dwarven character everywhere, but setting that baseline and explaining it gives a much stronger foundation for playing with those ideas and deviating from "traditional" dwarves.
David: We tried to sprinkle as much "how you talk and act" information as possible throughout the book. The meat of the book is definitely the new character options, but it's meat with a lot of "spice": the dwarven curses, goliath proverbs, and gnome folklore that give you a hook to hang your character on. I think the phrasebooks are my favorite part of the book, but that's because I'm such a ham at the gaming table.
Wizards: Each chapter on the races -- dwarves, gnomes, and the new goliaths -- opens with a fun, insightful section called "A Day in the Life." Where did this concept come from, and how did you decide who got to outline each day?
David: The first "Day in the Life" section was the goliath one. I wrote it as a brainstorming exercise when I was refining the initial concept of the goliaths -- back when I just had one piece of concept art to guide me. I didn't intend for it to see print, but the section turned out to be a reasonably efficient way to answer the question "Just who are these guys?" I wish all my little brainstorming exercises worked this well.
Michelle: David and Jesse then asked if I could do something similar for the dwarf and gnome chapters I was working on. I thought it was a great idea, and I was happy to incorporate those sections. I think they added a lot to the book, and helped make the idea of what it is like to play a member of that race a lot more immediate in the mind of the reader. Also, writing them was great fun.
Wizards: The philosophical nature of gnomes would seem to demand passing knowledge of Socrates, Voltaire, Kant, or another of the great thinkers. When you've roleplayed gnomes using Races of Stone, how did you approach your character's mindset?
Michelle: Wow, that's very flattering. Personally, I don't think such a knowledge is required by any means, but it's exciting to me that the gnomes have the potential to reasonably make use of such ideas.
I find the dualistic nature of gnomes and their beliefs very attractive, so I tend to incorporate that when I can. It's been refreshing to play a different mindset, and it's led to some interesting in-game ethical choices, sparking a lot of exciting roleplaying.
Jesse Decker: It's very hard, I think, to convey subtle characters in a D&D game. I usually begin a campaign playing any character (whether gnome or half-orc or any other race) just a little bit over the top. I start by firming up an idea of the character that I want to play throughout the campaign. Usually these concepts are relatively complex, and it's too much for the other players and DMs to assimilate amid the early rush of information of a new campaign. The way I get around this is to really concentrate on the character's most overt and obvious traits at the beginning of the campaign and ignore the more subtle habits or complex lines of thinking. Things like catch phrases and easily noticeable personal habits help with this; so do very obvious attitudes on certain elements in the campaign like a type of monster or a particular city. After the first few sessions, these things are ingrained in the other players' minds and have shaped their vision of my character, and then I can start roleplaying the more subtle aspects of the character, perhaps even some that seem to work at odds with the more obvious habits.
Because gnomes, as you say, have such complex outlooks and attitudes, I find this approach particularly helpful. There are so many aspects to a gnome's personality that it's hard to bring them all out in one session or even the first few sessions of the campaign, so I start with those traits that an observer would notice first about the character and just focus on those. Once the other players seem to know the character well enough that they can anticipate some of the character's responses and attitudes, then I worry about the more complex aspects of the character's personality.
Wizards: Goliaths. This new race promises to be quite popular, maybe even more so because goliaths tend toward chaotic alignments! Tell us about the origins of this race, the design elements that went into it, the key things players should know before choosing to play a goliath character.
David: It all started with a piece of concept art that looks very similar to the Races of Stone cover. My job was to write the chapter for "the big guy." It's one of the most satisfying design assignments I've received.
Conceptually, I think the goliaths come from three places. First, they're explicitly designed to provide a counterpoint to gnomes and (especially) dwarves -- think of it as an extension of the "they're big, not small" comparison I started with. They're aboveground, not subterranean. They exile the elderly rather than worship ancestors. They have a nuanced relationship with giants, not a racial hatred. They're wanderers, not fortress-builders.
Second, I wanted to do a hunter-gatherer culture that had some heft to it. At first, these cultures seem really simple to a modern observer, but once you peel back a layer of the onion, you see that there's just as much social complexity -- and just as rich a cultural tapestry -- as you have in a settled, civilized society.
Third, I had a great deal of fun playing with a culture where the dominant ethic wasn't the warrior ethic but the athlete ethic. The goliaths fight just fine, thank you very much. But they view almost everything through a lens of joyous, fierce competition, tempered with a strongly enforced demand for sportsmanship and reasonably fair play. As a matter of fact, the "race of athletes" idea inspired the central rules element for a goliath: the fact that they're Medium size, but they count as Large for weapon wielding, grappling, and most other things. I had just started work on the goliaths when Yao Ming joined the NBA, and we were talking over the cubicle wall how amazing a 7'6", 310 lb. guy was. Jonathan Tweet quipped, "You know, he's still technically Medium size." And click! I had the kernel of a new size rule.
Goliaths are a good choice for any player who likes being big and strong -- obviously. They're also a good choice for players who like the tactical challenge of moving around the battlefield to put your foes at a disadvantage -- especially given their innate advantages when climbing and jumping.
Wizards: Given the highly competitive and foolhardy daring traits of this race, do you see goliath PCs just dropping dead left and right?
David: In general, no. Many will be barbarians, so they'll have scads of hit points. And sometimes the best defense is to make your enemies go away quickly. With their high Strength and oversized weapons, goliaths are damage-dealing machines. Bad guys don't last long toe-to-toe with a goliath.
That said, I'm convinced that the number one cause of PC death is, um, incautious behavior. And like all movement-based abilities, the jumping and climbing that a goliath can do so well often just gets him into trouble faster.
Jesse: What Dave says is certainly true, but you must also remember that Dave is consistently voted as "the meanest DM in R&D." If goliath characters in his campaigns die only as fast as characters of other races do, there's still going to be significant turnover.
Wizards: Of the other races of stone -- chaos gnomes, dream dwarves, feral garguns, stonechildren, and whisper gnomes -- do you have a favorite? What is it about that particular race that you find appealing or engaging? (The fact that stonechildren are "born of a union of mortal and elemental" certainly gets my attention!)
David: Jesse should take a bow for many of these races -- they're his babies. Of them, I like feral garguns as a dark reflection of the essentially noble goliaths. And I like whisper gnomes so much that they might supplant regular gnomes in my home campaign.
Jesse: I'm partial to this whole chapter, because it was the first thing that I worked on after being hired by R&D. My favorite, though, is probably the whisper gnome because I like the way that the racial history and description work with their unique racial abilities.
Wizards: Races of Stone is loaded with interesting new prestige classes. The divine prankster, with its "quest for the perfect educational prank," is a great one. Of the 15 new options, which do you see players most gravitating toward?
Michelle: This is a really hard question. I think that I'm personally fondest of the divine prankster. Additionally, the runemaster and battlesmith are ones I think will see a goodly amount of use.
Jesse: The development team did great stuff with the battlesmith, and I think many players will find the class intriguing. It blends magical power and the racial flavor of dwarves in a very interesting and wholly dwarven fashion. The stonedeath assassin is cool enough that I want my next character to be a bugbear (you must be a goblinoid to qualify for the class), and I think other players will feel the same. I also really like the earth dreamer. They're too strange to appeal to most players, but I think that those who like the idea of playing a mystical, introspective spellcaster will enjoy the idea of the earth as a slumbering, dreaming entity of great power.
Wizards: I'm always curious about where you felt you needed to edit, leaving bits on the cutting room floor or saving them for a future release. What didn't make it into Races of Stone? Where do you feel there's still room for expansion?
David: The fundamental question we have to answer when we outline a book like this is "What's the marginal utility?" In other words, at what point do you offer enough choice without overwhelming readers with a lot of options they'll never use? (For example, the marginal utility of [one] dwarf prestige class in the book is quite high, but the marginal utility of [twelve] dwarf prestige classes is much lower.) So at the beginning of a project, we ask ourselves a lot of questions like, "Would people rather see 1,000 words of spells or 1,000 words of prestige classes?
Then, of course, we all overwrite and give each other good ideas throughout the design process, so we play the marginal utility game again when we're done. In the case of Races of Stone, we trimmed back the various game elements more or less proportionally. At the end, we had to leave some monsters out of the book. I'm confident they'll see print somewhere else, though.
Wizards: You include a section on holidays as they apply to each of the races, The explanation of using holidays in a campaign as a means of conveying a race's culture and beliefs is both logical and long overdue. How did this concept come to be included?
David: In any real-world culture, holidays are positively huge. Look at how a little holiday called Christmas drives entire sectors of the global economy, and that's in our boring, mundane, no-magic world. Imagine a world suffused with magic -- now, those holidays are going to have some real oomph. So Races of Stone describes holidays that have a real, tangible effect on those who celebrate them. Here's an example: Many years ago, three legions of dwarves stood fast against an orc horde. Their valor and sacrifice had a permanent effect on the world. Not only do the dwarves honor the three legions with a holiday called Fellhammer, but they gain a morale bonus when fighting on the holiday because they're so inspired by the valor of the three legions.
Jesse: While running a D&D campaign in college, I was always a little disappointed that nonhuman characters lacked many obvious cultural differences. One of the ways that my group addressed this was to create holidays and traditions that had some sort of mechanical impact on the game. Those early attempts were probably too heavy-handed and relied too much on DM fiat, but in many ways they shaped the implementation of holidays in this book. If in some small way they contribute to the core races feeling a little more different from one another, I think that's very much to the good.
Wizards: What are you working on now? Any future plans for Stonier Races or something similar?
Michelle: I would love to do that, but it all depends on what Wizards ends up needing. I'll happily work on whatever they ask me to do. For myself, Slayers d20 was just released, which I co-authored with my husband, David, and Anthony Ragan. I just finished editing The Red StarRPG for Green Ronin, and I'm working on a new magic sourcebook for BESM d20 for Guardians of Order.
Jesse: I'm just now wrapping up another book in this series and moving on to a big DM-focused product that won't see print until the end of 2005.
David: Of course, we'd be unlikely to describe the dwarves and gnomes, then stop. I don't think it gives too much away to say that I've been working on similar books for future release.