Six Questions: Wolfgang Baur

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

Today I’ve got WOLFGANG BAUR on the spot. You may know Wolfgang as the co-creator of Dark*Matter, the founder of Open Design, the chief kobold at Kobold Quarterly, or for the Midgard Campaign Setting or the host of other RPG material he’s created over the years. This week he released the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, which includes a few essays by your truly… along with a few other folks such as Monte Cook, Jeff Grubb, Chris Pramas. If you want to get the guide, you can pick it up from Amazon, Drivethru RPG, Createspace, or the Kobold Quarterly store. Now on with the questions!

How did you get started with gaming, and how did you end up where you are today?

I started with a blue box and some friends, then found some submission guidelines for Dungeon Magazine. I published a few adventures, just a trickle back in the days when Dungeon was bi-monthly. Then one day a friend told me TSR was hiring. I never had a careful strategy to work in games, but I was very hardworking and very lucky. Both helped.

I left Wizards of the Coast to strike out on my own, but have kept good relationships with Paizo, the WotC old guard, and others because I admire what they do for the hobby. I have found new friends and co-workers both at the big firms, and by working with freelancers for Kobold Press. Gamers have a good community.

Why kobolds?

Because they are the underdog. My whole career in RPG was in working for the big guys, first TSR, then WotC. And they have a lot to offer, in terms of art, editing, distribution, quality, creativity–not to mention the ability to pay the rent.

But when I struck out on my own, I felt like one little guy in a room full of giants, firms with deeper pockets, bigger networks, larger audiences, everything. So, the small-but-fierce credo of the Kobold Press was forged from necessity. Over time, we’ve grown, but in the larger picture, we’re still a small firm that survives by its wits. And a few well-laid ambushes and traps. Small means vulnerable, but also nimble, and that’s kobolds.

Your latest release is the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. Tell me about the guide. If I’m just sitting down to create a world, how will it help me?  

The guide is split out into sections on different topics, covering all the essential elements for building a world.

To provide the best advice, almost a dozen different industry veterans tackle different topics, from mapping to working in an established world to how to design a useful fantasy society or a new pantheon. The authors have been done worldbuilding for Guild Wars, Battletech, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Midgard, Magic: the Gathering, Star Wars, and Westeros. It’s advice built on real experience and real success.

The cartographical advice, for instance, comes from Jonathan Roberts, the cartographer for George Martin’s Game of Thrones setting, Westeros. The pantheon advice comes from pantheon authors for D&D and Pathfinder RPG. The discussion is directed at showing you what your main decision-points are, and where different worlds choose different styles or paths. The examples help make the arguments, in other words, but there’s enough meat here to engage even long-time RPG veterans.

To my mind, some of the most interesting discussion comes from those people whose names you might not know. Scott Hungerford, one of the men responsible for the worldbuilding of Magic: the Gathering and many other major properties, talks about how to keep your world straight with a setting bible. I don’t think it gets any better than advice from people who do this professionally, and written to make your home game better, faster, and more engaging for players.

What’s the Guide got to offer gamemasters who already have a homebrew setting or use an established world?

Absolutely tons of great advice to enrich and expand your setting or an established setting! Who wouldn’t want some worldbuilding advice from Monte Cook or Chris Pramas or Jeff Grubb–or Keith Baker?

The Guide describes how to create a tribal society and how to create a secret society, how to generate adventure and conflict with mystery cults, how to think about the role of technology and how to deploy magic to create a sense of wonder. It tackles the value (or lack of value) of long historical timetables. The Guide to Worldbuilding isn’t just about the basics; it about the trade-offs, and how to expand an existing setting is definitely part of the package.

The Guide to Worldbuilding talks about what to leave out of your setting, and why, in a way that should give any worldbuilder food for thought. Not to mention, the chapter on how a freelancer might approach writing for a licensed setting such as Star Wars or Game of Thrones.

Well before Kickstarter became ubiquitous, you started Open Design as a way to have patrons directly fund RPG projects. In Open Design, senior patrons directly contribute ideas to the projects. What inspired you to create Open Design? What’s an example of a critical idea provided by a patron? 

I founded Open Design (the company) as a self-publishing effort, to put forward my designs and ideas. I quickly discovered that the fans who funded the work had lots of great ideas themselves, and that the conversation with the patrons and backers helped fine-tune, develop, and expand the best ideas. So that method, while time-consuming, has become a key element in creating better, award-winning work.

An example of a critical idea? Sure, a dwarven mines project some time ago was going to be a straight-up Mines of Moria sort of riff until a patron named Brandon Hodge said “Why not give the dwarves a secret society, sort of like Freemasons?” That was a great twist, and the designers and backers of the project played with it, enriched it, and made it concrete, from titles to robes to key plot points. That one suggestion led to lots of interesting plot and setting elements, so we ran with it. That one suggestion reshaped the entire final product in a way that was more exciting, more original, and more playable.

In other words, it might be more work to do it this way, but 50 minds are definitely better than one. The results have been impressive.

Through Open Design, you’ve produced the Midgard campaign setting. Tell me about Midgard. Given the choice of Golarion, Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Greyhawk and more, what makes Midgard unique and interesting?

While there are many fine settings, Midgard stands alone by placing a premium on presenting real myths and legends with a fantasy twist (the ravenfolk, the world trees, the ley lines) and it offers new roleplaying elements such as Status rules and the Deep Magic of shadow roads and ley lines. It’s not a wildly weird setting, but a paean to European fantasy traditions put through a Pathfinder lens.

It’s also the only complete fantasy setting written expressly for Pathfinder RPG—well, other than the Paizo house setting of Golarion. It is the only fantasy setting that gives its fans so many chances to publish their adventures in it. Midgard is a truly shared world, because of its collaborative design approach. That makes it powerful stuff. One reviewer called it “without doubt or hyperbole the very best fantasy RPG campaign setting that I have ever read (and I’ve read many!).”

Sometimes, not being first means that you learn from what other settings did right, or did wrong. Midgard clearly did.