Chris Perkins gave a seminar at GameHole 2015 about Wizards’ future plans for D&D adventures and products. The Gaming and BS Podcast recorded the seminar and posted it. I’m very grateful to them!
There were a lot of interesting topics covered in the seminar. I’ve written a summary of some of the key points below, although I may have misinterpreted some of what he said. So, if you have time, listen to the seminar (it runs at about 90 minutes).
However, for those of you who prefer reading this sort of material, here’s the summary!
Story First and Product Plans
- Wizards has no interest in releasing product unless it has a story to tell. Gone are the days where it were bound by the requirement to release a book (or more) a month.
- This is partly driven by business realities; partly driven by knowledge of facts gained through surveys and face-to-face discussion at conventions. They’ve found there is a limit to how much material people can absorb. After a while, the material they release has no value and is no longer serving anybody. A lot of 3rd and 4th edition products were bought and never used or used very little.
- “We don’t sell products so that 5% of our audience can use 5% of it. We’re now trying to sell products that 100% of our audience might use and they’ll use all of it.”
- This improves the perceived value of D&D, and creates more shared experiences, the way that everyone knows Tomb of Horrors.
- The goal is to create stories that (hopefully) years from now people can remember.
- The first story was “Tyranny of Dragons”, which Wizards partnered with Kobold Press for the TRPG product and also partnered with Gale Force Nine, Cryptic and WizKids for related products – computer games, board games and accessories.
- The second story was “Elemental Evil”, which revisited a classic Greyhawk storyline and attempted to show off things that weren’t in the original adventure, such as the Princes of Elemental Evil.
- The third story was (is) “Rage of Demons”. Although nominally set in the Forgotten Realms, Rage is largely set in the Underdark and can be run in any campaign world which has an Underdark.
- Rage’s story originated when Wizards learnt that R.A.Salvatore was planning a pair of Drizzt books set in the Underdark and which could be used as bookends for the entire stories. Wizards also wanted to use nostalgic elements from early D&D; thus it took the demon lords that they liked from AD&D’s Monster Manual & MM2 and designed the story about them being summoned into the Underdark.
- How would the Demons react? Well, Juiblex and Zuggtmoy wouldn’t mind that much. Demogorgon and Orcus wouldn’t be that happy, so what would they do? It’s a very big and ambitious story.
Where do Wizards stories go next?
- The core rulebooks are very multiversal in their approach, with material from many of the D&D worlds.
Three major things:
- Future stories are not limited to one world. Wizards will be looking at other worlds. Some stories will return to the Realms, or will use multiple worlds. One goal is to go beyond the Forgotten Realms.
- Wizards want to continue to draw upon the past; bringing to light past elements of the game, especially ones that were neglected, partly to introduce new players to some old concepts.
- Wizards also want each new story to feel different from the ones that precede and follow it. To balance the mood and feel so that they feel distinct.
- Tyranny was all about Dragons, with Tiamat as the key returning element from the past.
- (Incidentally, Wizards do not own the characters from the D&D cartoon and so can’t use them).
- The story that follows Rage of Demons will not be anywhere near the Underdark.
- The story that follows that will also be quite different.
- Elemental Evil was very dungeon-dependent.
- In the future, Wizards might want to do intrigue. Would it be city-based? Planar-based?
- The story after that could be horror or something more light-hearted or flaky, or steam-punk and pulpy (like Eberron).
Size of the Wizards Team
- The Wizards team is fairly small at the moment. Chris was actually hired to work at TSR, but never got to work there as it was going bankrupt, and then was bought by Wizards.
- When TSR merged with Wizards, the D&D team was just under 50 people, with teams dedicated to supporting individual campaign settings.
- The team is currently 15 (and has no teams for settings), and works not only on TRPG material, but also work with the novelists and with their other partners (miniatures, computer games, game accessories, etc.) And they’re also thinking of and other ways of increasing the range of the games, such as Loot Crate and plush owlbears. (Apparently the owlbears were a thing at this convention).
- The Story Team consists of Chris Perkins, Richard Whitters (art director, stolen from the Magic Team and loves D&D more than Magic) and a story writer called Adam Lee (worked on Ravnica and Innistrad). The Story Team is also hiring a new concept artist. The rest of the D&D team also pitch in with story ideas, and the team also pay attention to ideas suggested by the larger playing community.
- From talking with a convention attendee, Chris began thinking about historical-based adventures.
- At present, they’re working on four stories – two for next year, and two more in fairly developed states.
- Shorter, modular adventures are being released through the D&D Adventurers League.
- Short adventures present a number of problems. They’re too fleeting to really gain much traction with players, and thus don’t give the big shared experiences that Wizards is currently aiming for. They also give retailers a lot of problems – their presence on the shelf is a problem (no spine to display). Stores and distributors get a lot more excited about the bigger books and boxed sets.
- Wizards do consider short adventures important, but for now the main support for short adventures will be through the D&D Adventurers League.
- There’s a “World of Warcraft” model Wizards is using: Blizzard want to release a mammoth, not a bunch of mice, and would rather wait for a year or two for each big release. This allows time for people to experience it and give feedback on it for future releases.
- Wizards is also experimenting with their digital partners for “D&D-light” experiences. Their partners find it easier and better to tie their releases and marketing efforts to these big storyline releases. They want a bigger story they can sink their teeth into.
- There is an upcoming story that goes back to a past adventure (which doesn’t feature dragons and thus isn’t Dragonlance). Vampires might feature in an upcoming story. Given Adam Lee worked on Innistrad, a Gothic story may come up. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the August (October/Halloween) release is a Ravenloft story – Merric)
- Chris was talking to Matt Sernett about Githyanki and the creches they have on the Material Plane to have & raise their children.
- The release plan has changed so that Wizards don’t tell people what they’re making until quite soon before a release. 3-4 months is the perfect window to build excitement, but telling a people a year in advance is just too long. The excitement dissipates.
- Giants are a great opponent to use, but they do provide problems to their digital partners due to scale. (Tiamat proved troublesome!)
- Chris has always wanted to revisit the A series (Slave Lords), but hasn’t got a good story for it yet. Likewise, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is a great adventure, but how do you create a 4-6 month campaign about it? (Chris then realised a method. Possibly including dinosaurs).
- Two upcoming storylines are codenamed “Cloak” and “Dagger”
- Codenames are unfortunately necessary, mainly because all titles need to go through trademark search. It’s a lot harder to find non-trademarked names these days, so until Wizards won’t use a name that they know will be on the final product. It helps them not become attached to a name they can’t use.
- A recent playtest for “Cloak” featured the PCs going up into the icy mountains to find a temple under a mountain that is now the repository of evil. A sect of good-aligned wizards and temples were keeping the evil trapped, but that was 400-500 years ago. What now? It’s a fragment of a story that will come in the future.
- In “Dagger” you are going around plundering the ancestral tombs of barbarians – but that doesn’t tell you much about what the overall story is like.
Homebrew and Campaign Settings
- A great bulk of D&D players (55%) play homebrew, but about 50% of those homebrewers pillage from other settings for their own world. About 35% play in the Forgotten Realms, and then everything else takes up 10%. Very few people are running Dark Sun, Hollow World or Mystara campaigns. Greyhawk may be 5%.
- Chris used Dungeon Magazine as a bellwether to determine how popular campaign worlds were. This explains why there was only one Birthright adventure. It just wasn’t popular enough.
- Chris wrote more this year than ever before. In one of the adventures he wrote, he had a big section on how to adapt it to other worlds, and the adventure was very easy to drop in anywhere (as the names of the locations are new).
- The new adventures tend to be very modular – you can break off bits and run them in your campaign, and are designed to be very home-brew friendly.
Sword Coast Legends
- The Wizards team is trying to help N-Space in coming up with ideas for content going forward.
- Chris Perkins will be running a campaign open for the public on Sword Coast Legends in the next few months.
- Wizards will be trying to tease a few things about upcoming storylines in SCL and in the live games at PAX. (Acquisitions Incorporated!)
Consultants and Expanding the Audience
- Wizards now bring in outside designers to consult and help develop stories. (Hasbro have been very good in providing support with this).
- The designer comes in for a week with Wizards to talk about possible stories. These might not go anywhere, but perhaps they’ll work.
- Pendleton Ward was very successful as a consultant.
- R.A.Salvatore was brought in as a consultant on Out of the Abyss.
- They’re looking at a wide range of people: not just people from the D&D design community. (He’d resurrect Gary Gygax if he could…)
- Unfortunately, this wasn’t in place for Elemental Evil, because otherwise Chris would have wanted Frank Mentzer to consult on that storyline.
- We won’t see most of the results of these collaborations until next year.
- Wizards hope this will keep D&D fresh, will create stories that appeal to more than just middle America, and that show D&D to people in a whole new light.
- Chris doesn’t want anyone feeling discriminated against by their D&D products. He wants to dispel as much of the prejudices against D&D as possible. D&D should be safe and fun and smart and friendship-inducing.
- If a story with dinosaurs expands the D&D audience, they want to do it.
- D&D is broader than just the RPG, though. A boy and his tarrasque might not be appropriate for the RPG, but perhaps for a Penguin book? (I’ll call him “Stampy”!)
D&D with Laser Guns
- “Plants in Space!”
- Using vegepygmies is troublesome. They’re not the most serious monster. So do use them in a really dark story as creeping threats, or in a wild-wacky adventure? Very easy to split the audience, which is a problem.
- (There’s a lot more in the podcast. About 50 minutes in).
- Wizards need to pay attention to the mood of the adventure.
- Dungeonland adapts Alice in a whimsical but deadly way that you take seriously, but you can’t take WG7 Castle Greyhawk seriously.
Length of Adventures
- The three adventures so far have been levels 1-15.
- This model will be changing up in the future. Some may be strictly low-level, others mid-level, some high-levels. Others may allow you to choose the levels they run at.
This is being changed for a few reasons.
- Wizards don’t want to be predictable (and boring) with their releases.
- People take longer than 4-6 months to play most adventures released so far. The next adventure released will be shorter, the one beyond that will be even shorter. (It’s hard to have a shared experience when you can’t play all of the adventure! – Merric)
- One upcoming adventure will be very short, but is very, very replayable: it can be played 200 times and you would never play the same adventure twice. The adventure can be played two or three times in 6 months, and it really changes up the model for adventure design.
- They’ve talked about slower progression as well, and would like to experiment with a 6-month adventure where you only go from 1st to 5th level. (Much easier to deal with as a DM and with players who don’t want to grapple with the rules).
- This really relies on the story being right for it; that’s the big challenge for Wizards in creating it. Could the story be about politics?
Intrigue and Politics
- Intrigue stories are tough as you always have a player who wants to play the barbarian who kill people. Political intrigue stories are a hallmark of Chris’s own home games. He loves players not knowing who the good guy is, and solving things without combat.
- To deal with this, you need to overlap stories, so the barbarian also has things to do while the political intrigue is also ongoing.
- If you can gain a political ally by doing a dungeon adventure, it helps both styles of player.
- Dungeons are easy. Cities are terrifying for a Dungeon Master to run as they offer so many options.
- The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide was designed to give more information about the Forgotten Realms. It was born out of feedback that DMs wanted some introduction to the Realms so they could better run the published adventures, but not so much that they drowned in the details – an ongoing problem the Realms has had.
- The character options were there to acknowledge some of the wacky options that were prominent in the Realms, such as half-drow.
- They’re not sure if the SCAG will succeed – they’ll pay a lot of attention to feedback on the book, but it hadn’t been out long enough (as of the date of the seminar) for that yet.
- More world books will likely appear in the future. Wizards want to surprise and delight, and if they only did big adventure books, that wouldn’t be surprising.
- The next book will depend on what people ask for, what Wizards thinks they need and if it’s different enough to stand on its own merit.
- All of the existing Greyhawk information is still out there and perfectly useable.
- If Wizards do a Greyhawk adventure, do you split the Greyhawk material into a separate world book or can you put it in the adventure?
- What timeline of Greyhawk would we use? The original (576) timeline of the boxed set? Would they use the later timeline (591)? Chris doesn’t have the answer – it would be dependent on feedback from the D&D community.
The big challenge facing Wizards with Greyhawk is that it’s D&D at its most core, but for most people don’t understand what that means. What makes Greyhawk, Greyhawk?
- It’s not low-magic, but magic is more exclusive.
- There are a lot of barbarians.
- There are the Scarlet Brotherhood, which are a pulpy organisation (Aryan monks!)
- Mike Mearls describes it as being like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books.
- A rather interesting feature about Greyhawk which makes it unique is that Greyhawk has Iuz, a half-demon tyrant. It also has strong kingdoms, which the Forgotten Realms doesn’t. (The Realms has a few small kingdoms, but is mostly city-states and wilderness).
- Wizards might do a story focused on Iuz. Chris wouldn’t give us the Greyhawk campaign setting, but rather a story about Iuz and all the stuff he is doing, with Iuz being the glue that holds the story together. The Great Kingdom wouldn’t be there – you can get the old sourcebook about it – instead the focus would be on Iuz, and perhaps a war story with Iuz as its heart, and not feeling like the Realms or Dragonlance. (Chris got actually quite excited about it. I hope it becomes a product!)
The Living Forgotten Realms
- Wizards considers the Forgotten Realms an ongoing world, and the adventures will have an effect on it.
- The three published adventures aren’t actually sequential: Out of the Abyss overlaps the other two adventures.
- Wizards will be dealing with the consequences of the adventures in future stories. There’s an upcoming adventure that uses survey data from previous adventures. (Tiamat wasn’t actually killed by most tables…)
- However, Wizards don’t want to do it too soon when people are still playing the adventures.
- The idea is to create it as a tapestry with stories hooking into other stories.
- The Wizards team recently drew up a list of Forgotten Realms characters and worked out how they were affected by the events of the recent stories.
- To some extent, it doesn’t matter what is official to your home game, because your canon is what you create yourself for your group, not what Wizards do. However, they do consider events for the official world.
- If the events of Elemental Evil affect a future story, Wizards will tell you.
- An upcoming dragon (in “Dagger”) has been affected by the events of Tyranny of Dragons, and his mindset has somewhat changed. His actions will surprise us!
- It was suggested to do an adventure where the DM didn’t know where it would end up – a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style, and with elements you could break off to run with smaller groups. Different tracks that close off when players make a choice…
- “Cloak”, the next adventure, has switches that allows DM to change its nature somewhat.
- Wizards is getting a lot more feedback through social media, especially because there are so few products. So the Unearthed Arcana column gets a lot of feedback because it’s the only thing to talk about… this is proving very useful. (Although they still get bombarded with questions about the older D&D material. There’s a LOT of D&D material out there now, and Chris has trouble keeping it all straight).
- Giving DMs ideas in adventures that they can spin off into their own adventures is something they want to do. (Chris gave the example of the mind-flayer running an insane asylum, which they suggested in Out of the Abyss but couldn’t fit as a fleshed-out encounter in the book. Chris hopes some DMs do and he hears stories about it!)