Total Party Kill

The Architects of Dungeons & Dragons

“When my daughter was eight years old, I killed her character in a group of 15 people at a convention. You could have heard a pin drop from a mile away.”

I’m talking to Bill Webb about Dungeons & Dragons. His company, Frog God Games, has been publishing adventures, supplements, and other D&D-related content for more than a decade.

“We have a stock philosophy in our house, and this is the rule: everybody rolls dice in front of everybody, so there’s no cheating. Most people who cheat in D&D aren’t the players; they’re the Dungeon Masters cheating so they don’t have to kill characters,” says Webb. “But if the game’s not hard, it’s not fun, and the rewards are cheapened.”

Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D as it’s known colloquially, is a tabletop role-playing game wherein a group of friends gather around a table with their Dungeon Master. The players assume the roles of fictional avatars — warriors, sorcerers, thieves, bards — with rich backstories and unique skills and abilities. They keep track of these characteristics, as well as their inventories, and, most crucially, their stats (such as health, intelligence, and even charisma) on their character sheets.

The Dungeon Master — also known as the game master, the GM, or the DM — sits at the head of the table, usually hunched behind a cardboard divider, which hides their maps, rulebooks, dice, and notes. The Dungeon Master is cloaked in mystery. It’s their job to insert the players’ characters into a fictional world, usually, though certainly not always, inspired by creations like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, and the Hyborian world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian.

At the beginning of a campaign, the characters are presented with a plot-hook or a quest that will lead them on to bigger and better adventures. The Dungeon Master might initiate the first session by telling the group that they are a band of fortune-seekers and do-gooders, brought together by a desire for adventure. They might then elaborate that for the past three weeks, the party has traveled away from the peace and quiet of the Realm and into the wilderness of the Borderlands to join those who live there in their fight against the forces of chaos.

At the end of this prologue, the Dungeon Master might provide a call to action: “Finally, on the morning of the eighteenth day, you and your companions approach a towering Keep with blue-clad men-at-arms guarding the gate. They call out, ‘State your business.’ Looking around, you can see a number of faces eagerly peering down at you from the walls of the small fortress. What do you do?”

The above is a loose summary of the beginning of the classic D&D module B2 — The Keep on the Borderlands, written by Gary Gygax, the game’s creator. For many who grew up playing D&D in the 1980s, this adventure is the gold standard for what a Dungeons & Dragons adventure should be. In under thirty pages, Gygax provides the Dungeon Master with all the tools necessary to run an adventure that will provide more than twenty hours of play: there are villains, shop keepers, secret plots, a mad hermit, a tribe of lizard men, tips for new DMs, highly detailed maps, and a number of secret treasures and magical items that the players may or may not discover, depending on the choices they make during their adventures.

You can think of D&D as the origin of every video game RPG experience — it’s what Bethesda Softworks, the creators of the Elder Scrolls series, strive for when they build a vast region like Skyrim. In D&D, the modules are the software and the reference material, and the Dungeon Master is the supercomputer that renders the images and scenarios, while enforcing the rules of the game world. The DM also ensures that no matter what the players decide to do, they feel free to explore without ever encountering the flat walls of a Potemkin village, or the flat dialog of a non-player character who only exists so that the world doesn’t seem eerily unpopulated.

The best Dungeon Masters invest years and years into ensuring that the worlds of their D&D games can achieve this dream of total immersion. They’ll write backstories for the lowliest barkeep, and draw detailed continental maps with thousands of points of interest and notes about the local animals, foliage, and weather patterns of the various regions.

For some DMs, pre-written adventures like Gygax’s The Keep on the Borderlands serve as a launching pad into a creative journey that can span decades, as they go on to create fantastic worlds and sprawling stories of their own. This was the case for Vince Howard, a claims analyst in central Missouri who has been playing D&D since 1978, when, at the age of ten, he and a group of schoolyard friends played The Tower of Zenopus. It was shortly after that first foray that he decided to become a Dungeon Master himself.

In the beginning, Howard was running mostly pre-written adventures, but over time, he began to enrich the content of the modules he purchased. As he wistfully recalls, “It was Judges Guild [a third-party publisher of D&D adventures] that got me into game writing. They put out a good product, but it was broad strokes. They gave you a great idea, but then they were very terse. It was ‘here’s the monster, here’s the treasure, here’s the magic item or trap.’ You had to flesh it out yourself. It really pushed you as a DM. You had a kernel of a great idea in front of you, and you were either going to enjoy that kind of product because you were going to make it your own, or you weren’t going to like it because it didn’t make sense. For me it was an opportunity to take somebody else’s work and polish it up.”

Howard spent his time filling in backstories, figuring out why there was a monster hanging out in a dungeon guarding some invaluable treasure. In his eyes, T1 — The Village of Hommlet is the pinnacle of adventure writing, and functions as a yardstick when evaluating his own work. “Everyone had a backstory: the wizard and his warrior buddy, the guy that ran the tavern, the local trader … there were all these stories that your players might never find out about, but it would breathe life into that village, into that adventure, and it made me excited to run it.”

“If all you’re going to do is sit around and referee combat for hours, anybody can do that. You might as well ref little league soccer.”

Howard’s first published adventure, Ryubix Manor, is the manifestation of a twenty-year quest to create material with this level of depth. “The thing that appealed to me as a GM was reading through good modules that told a story to me, and then gave me the opportunity to present that story to the players, and maybe they’d figure it out and maybe they wouldn’t. If the dungeon leaves me cold, then what is that gonna do when I put it on the table for the players?” Howard asks. “I’m writing to the GM. When they read it, I want them to go, ‘Oooh, here’s all the stuff the players aren’t gonna know. Am I gonna give it to them in rumors? Are they gonna figure it out? If all you’re going to do is sit around and referee combat for hours, anybody can do that. You might as well ref little league soccer.”

Artwork courtesy of Vince Howard

In the spring of 2014, after a few rejections from larger publishers, Howard decided to bring his work to Kickstarter. With the support of ninety-nine tabletop gamers who shared his vision, he was able to bring his almost one hundred-page haunted house adventure to print with full color maps and professional illustrations. “Oh, highlight of my life,” he told me of his first successful campaign. “I’ve done a lot of wonderful things, but when Ryubix Manor funded — highlight of my life.” Howard has since published two shorter modules: Wishtaker and City of the Lich. And his wife, inspired by the community that formed around the modules, went on to produce a leather-bound tome of potion recipes, Liber Elixirium (The Essential Guide To Potions and Oils).

Bill Webb — the one who offed his daughter at the beginning of the piece — started playing D&D around the same time as Howard; he can’t quite recall whether it was 1976 or 1977, but he knows it was definitely the first iteration of the game. That version is known to the hardcore “grognards” who played it simply as “White Box,” named for the color of its packaging. Unlike Howard, Webb never used any store-bought materials, preferring to create both his adventures and the world they were set in from scratch.

“I was the Game Master growing up,” he says, explaining how he came to publish Rappan Athuk, a 676-page self-described “mega-dungeon.” “So I had probably 1,500 pages of stuff in notebooks, and during my college years, my friends and I typed up a lot of my handwritten notes when we weren’t chasing girls or drinking beer. So, I had a 400-page, typewritten set of notes about this big dungeon and the original twenty-six levels of it mapped out. It’s grown a lot over the past twenty-five years — it has like fifty-five levels now.”

For Webb, challenge is everything. He prides his work on being some of the most deadly in the business, and points to S1 — Tomb of Horrors, a module that most players scoff at as an impossibly difficult toy for sadist Dungeon Masters, as his gold-standard of adventure design. He believes that the game has softened up over the years, allowing players to survive things that would have resulted in a Total Party Kill (TPK) in earlier editions.

“We’re universally panned as the hardest, most killer dungeon ever written. But I’m actually glad. That makes me happy.”

His second company, Necromancer Games, has the slogan “Third Edition Rules, First Edition Feel,” which points to his driving philosophy. “If the players don’t have to use their brains to be successful, I believe it’s a failure on my part,” he says. “A DM will read my stuff and be like, ‘Oh my god, everybody’s gonna die,’ but usually, if players are careful and they use their noggins, they’re gonna be able to navigate my dungeons. People need brain exercise. They can’t not pay attention. We’re universally panned as the hardest, most killer dungeon ever written. But I’m actually glad. That makes me happy.”

This mentality explains his ambivalence towards dispatching his daughter Jillian’s character at that convention some years ago. Jillian is thirteen now, and her current character, Kit, who she’s played consistently for the past six years, is a level-seven cleric. “I finally have ‘raise dead,’” she says, referring to the spell that can bring deceased adventurers back to life.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Jillian has started to DM games with family, friends, and even strangers at conventions. Webb reports that she’s built up some notoriety in that convention circuit. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone make it out of one of my convention games alive,” Jillian says. “I’m always rooting for the players, but they always head into trouble.” And bringing the conversation back to the real arbiter of every D&D game, she adds, “Everybody just sort of rolls unlucky.”

Of the writers I spoke with, Wolfgang Baur started publishing at the youngest age. When he was just fifteen years old, he sent off his first adventure to Dungeon Magazine; it was published when he was sixteen. “I started writing for publication within three years of picking up the blue box,” he told me. “I was still a minor. I had to have my parents sign waivers so that I could sell rights to the publisher.”

Like Webb, Baur was initially just writing his own material so that he could run his Friday night game, but he quickly decided to write for publication. “It was quite a thrill, but I didn’t necessarily think of it as a career.” It was only after college that he heard that TSR was hiring writers and applied to their magazine department. He was accepted and made a name for himself contributing to Dungeon’s successor, Dragon Magazine, as well as working on a number of official Dungeons & Dragons adventures during the 90s and early 2000s.

“I’ve definitely worked the mainstream route, but for the last nine years now I’ve been publishing independently on Kobold Press,” his own publishing company. [Ed. note: These are kobolds.] Baur still occasionally does work for the biggest names in the industry; he and his collaborator Steve Winters wrote The Tyranny of Dragons adventure path for Wizards of the Coast, which kicked off the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons last year.

Artwork courtesy of Wolfgang Baur

For Baur, a distinct villain is the easiest way to make a campaign memorable, but, he adds, that a truly unique setting is really what can elevate a campaign to the pinnacle of greatness. “I tend to not write dungeon stuff, but instead wilderness adventures, castles, and treks into the outer planes. We’ve all crawled through ten-foot-tall corridors or twenty-foot rooms, and that standard dungeon dressing is all very fine, but” — and here he alludes to the Planescape campaign setting — “if you stick a donut shaped city at the top of an infinite spire, and put a silent goddess in charge with factions running around looking to kill each other all over town, and this city happens to be the hub of the multiverse, then I don’t care what adventure we’re playing. This setting is amazing. I love it.”

Despite their unique preferences and stylistic tendencies, all of the module authors I spoke with agree that there’s a difference between being a good Dungeon Master and writing a great adventure. A Dungeon Master should be concerned with creating a seamless and engaging narrative for their players. An adventure writer, on the other hand, needs to produce modules that will motivate those DMs, capturing their imaginations while leaving them room to embellish, adjust, and alter as desired.

“A player recently told me they’d decided that what my module needed was a James Bond-style ski-chase over the snow with orcs and crossbows, and I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I see that now,’” Baur chuckled. “You know you’re succeeding when people embrace the material and start running with it in directions you could never have imagined.”

Story by: Willis Plummer

Photos by: Michael Stewart