Dan Dillon has taken the baton for Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition and run with it. He’s designed dozens and dozens of monsters for Kobold Press’s upcoming release, Tome of Beasts, and he’s also been producing player-focused materials.
He’s been a key contributor to the association of RPG designers known as the Four Horsemen and an enthusiastic member of many 5E player communities. To celebrate the upcoming anniversary of Kobold Press, he agreed to do this interview for the blog!
Q: You were an early adopter of D&D fifth edition and instrumental in either adapting material or creating new things for that rules set. What is 5E’s appeal to you, first as a player, but then as a designer?
A: Back when third edition D&D came out in 2000, I thought D&D had reached its pinnacle. The clarity of the core mechanical system opposed to the 2E and older rules was something else; we could just glance at the mechanics and understand what they meant, and why something was happening. Couple that with the customization options available in 3.x, and it was playing D&D on whole new dimension. But, after over a decade of playing in the 3E era, certain flaws began to crop up. Chief among these is how magic items no longer felt special. “Shopping” sessions were common, where you’d spend hours with players flipping through sourcebooks, deciding what magic they wanted to buy or create. The bigger problem was in the design of character growth, and the emphasis it placed on ability-score-enhancing items. You needed gloves of dexterity, belt of giant strength, and a belt of health, or you just wouldn’t keep up. Customization and crafting were great, but they came at the expense of the “feel” of 2E magic. It just didn’t feel special or exceptional anymore.
Fifth edition hit a magical balance for me. It kept the tight core system that the 3E d20 philosophy pioneered and sanded the corners down. Stripped to a very basic, simple system, it allows for streamlined play that is still understandable and accessible, but with room for customization if you want to make your game a little more complex. Personally I prefer the simplicity for ease of use at the table, cutting down the constant need to reference complex sub-systems that popped up in previous editions (lookin’ at YOU, grapple). The class design fits the second part of what I absolutely love about fifth edition: Ability score growth is now tied to your intrinsic character progression. The belts of giant strength and amulets of health still exist, but you’re no longer shackled to getting the items required for your class or combat style to work. Magic items feel special again. You might use an item that’s not “optimal for your build,” because it’s something that you found on an adventure, and it’s what you have. You make it work. I’m glad that support for item crafting exists in fifth edition, but I like that the core assumption is that item crafting will be a special endeavor, and not the expected norm to gear up the party.
All of that factors into why I love it as both a player and designer. Having run lots of games, design for me happened as a matter of course. I’d modify monsters, make up magic items, throw in new spells to make a fight interesting, rebuild NPCs or villains who didn’t work for me for whatever reason, customize prestige classes to fit a player’s vision, and so on.
The idea of “bounded accuracy” is a huge one in fifth edition, and that’s one of my absolute favorite system innovations as both a player and designer. Simply put, the bonuses you add to rolls vs. the DC numbers in fifth edition mean that your d20 result always matters. In previous editions you could hit attack bonuses so high that your roll only mattered if you rolled a 1. On the flip side, Armor Class could get so astronomical that you’d only hit on a 20. While that’s theoretically possible in fifth edition, it’s very much an exception when it occurs. It keeps even minor threats like goblins or kobolds viable even at very high levels, and that allows a great deal of freedom in encounter and adventure design. That monster’s 5 CR lower than the party level? No problem, it just needs a couple buddies or a cool environmental twist and they still make for a fun encounter. What’s not to love about that?
Q: Tome of Beasts is coming out this year. What can you share about your contribution? What have been some of the most gratifying parts of the creative process?
A: Oh man, the Tome of Beasts has been an absolute treat to work on. I got to design around 60 or so monsters for the Tome. These critters range from CR 1/4 humanoid-types, to CR-over-20 legendary dragons, demon lords, archdevils, and masters of the fey realms. The sheer range of monsters going into the beast of a book means I had to be flexible in my design palate, flipping from flavorful but relatively weak, to massively deadly in fairly short order. I got to take inspiration from real-world myth and bring them into D&D terms, create original monsters whole-cloth, and also to update monsters that Kobold Press produced for other games and editions and translate them to fifth edition mechanics. A few of the creatures I designed were previewed during the Kickstarter process, including the Queen of Night and Magic, the Void Dragon, and Qorgeth, Demon Lord of Worms. One of my favorite parts of designing monsters for this project has been the artwork. I mean, wow. The artists that KP have brought in to bring these creatures to visual life are nothing less than astounding, and I’m so very excited to have monsters I wrote illustrated by these ridiculously skilled people.
In addition to monster design, I also contributed on the development side of things. I worked on development of over 100 monster conversions from the Southlands Bestiary. I really enjoy seeing other designers’ takes on how to translate mechanics from the Pathfinder to fifth edition ruleset. It’s a great way to learn some new tricks, and it forced me to re-examine some of my own assumptions and preconceptions of how the rules work.
Q: Share how you got involved with producing material for Kobold Press. Beyond Tome of Blood, what have been some noteworthy projects?
A: I got my start writing for Kobold Press as a member of the Four Horsemen freelance writing team. Steve Helt (Famine) had some contact with Wolfgang through his solo freelance career, and he pitched a couple ideas for projects that the Horsemen were interested in writing, or things we knew Kobold was doing that we felt we’d be a good fit for. Our first idea fell flat for a number of reasons, but it got the ball rolling. As a collective, we wrote Advanced Races: Lizardfolk, contributed to the Southlands Campaign Setting and the Southlands Bestiary, as well as two chapters for Advanced Races Compendium (Drow and Trollkin). AR: Lizardfolk is included in the compendium as a chapter, of course, and we also wrote the Serpent Magic section in the compendium. We’ve written a few spots for the Kobold Press blog, most notably a trio of apocalyptic weresheep—servants of Horsemen of the Apocalypse. That was an odd project that arose from a joke on the ARC Kickstarter comments, but it was fun. Those weresheep turned out pretty damn terrifying…
Beyond my collaborative work as Death of the Four Horsemen, I’ve had the privilege to do a fair amount of fifth edition work (The Horsemen are mostly Pathfinder-focused, but we’re branching out). My first fifth edition gig for Kobold Press was an adventure for Gen Con 2015. Titled Last Gasp, the adventure showcases the Southlands campaign setting in a tomb-crawl-gone-wrong. About the same time as I was writing Last Gasp, I also did the fifth edition conversion on The Raven’s Call. It got me started on the conversion gigs I’ve gotten. From there I got to work with designer Rich Howard as developer on Southlands Heroes, a book presenting player race stats for some Southlands-specific races, including a few that are usually NPCs or antagonists, as well as some Southlands-flavored backgrounds. That was a fun project because it let me dig into some of own assumptions about the game and some classes, and work closely with Rich to figure out how to approach a few class variants presented in the book.
Since then I’ve written Midgard Heroes, a player character resource for races and backgrounds in the Midgard Campaign Setting. Midgard is a fun sandbox to play in since it switches up some assumptions, and it was a blast getting to take the themes and ideas of these iconic races and bringing them into fifth edition. Along similar lines, I just recently turned in a manuscript for Unlikely Heroes, another PC race sourcebook. This one focuses on races that you’d rarely think “hero” at first glance. Similarly, some new character backgrounds as well as a few variants for standard backgrounds open up character origins, often fitting into the “unlikely” category. Unlikely Heroes doesn’t cater to Midgard, but for a few of the races that come from Midgard and the Southlands you have some sidebars pointing out where they fit into that world.
Beyond RPG products, I’ve also served as a contest judge for the recent Lethal Lairs competition held on KoboldPress.com, and also for the backer-based monster design competition for the Tome of Beasts Kickstarter backers. Those were both an interesting experience. Much like development work, judging another designer’s work for advancement or recommendation really forces you to understand what you think about game design philosophy. You have to be able to articulate why something works or doesn’t, and be able to offer an alternative.
Q: How did the formation of the Four Horsemen come about? What is the collaboration process like? Tell us about the group and your role in it.
A: The Four Horsemen originated with Steve Helt working with two other designers, Stephen Rowe, and Gillian Fraser, in the wake of his RPG superstar win in 2013. As for how I got involved with them, it started out as an accident on a Facebook discussion. Steve was putting together an idea for a definitive book on golems for Pathfinder, and he was reaching out to several other designers to see who was interested in collaborating. I hadn’t done any professional design work at this time, but I had a few ideas pop up for cool golems, so I kept chiming in on his discussions with these ideas. It got to the point where Steve told me “Either stop talking, or come write those golems for this book. If you don’t, I’m stealing your ideas!” Shortly after that, Steve (Famine), Stephen (Pestilence), and Gillian (War) had been joking referring to themselves as the Horsemen of the Apocalypse because of their design philosophies, and they decided they really needed a fourth. They held a little design contest with a few applicants, and my (blind) submission was chosen. So, now I’m Death. :D
Gillian has since gone a different direction with her designs, and recently Tim Hitchcock joined us to lend his formidable talent in the role of War. As far as working with a design collective, I find it extremely satisfying. One of the best things you can have in a creative endeavor like this is someone to tell you “no.” We can go blind to our own mistakes or idiosyncrasies, sometimes, and occasionally we write things that sound great in our heads but in practice just don’t work. Having partners run an edit and development pass over our work allows us to refine our manuscripts before they ever get handed over to the publisher. That means our turnovers tend to be clean, tight, and (hopefully) only in need of very minor edits and development. It’s worked out extremely well for us. It’s a little odd for some publishers to contract with a team rather than an individual freelancer, but we try to make it as painless as possible, and we’re always up front if a contract is solo with one of us, or if it’s a Four Horsemen design collaborative.
Q: What’s it like living in Indianapolis, the city that is home to the world’s greatest gaming convention. What are the upsides? What are the downsides? Any fun memories you’d like to share?
Indy is pretty much perfect for my taste. I’m not much of a big-city guy, and Indy manages to have a more “small town” feel, while still offering many of the options you find in a sizable city. As far as Gen Con being here, that’s a dream come true. I’m very grateful that I don’t have to fight with the housing situation for the convention (and I feel like that’s on borrowed time come contract renewal in 2021, but we’ll see), and that I can just head home when it’s time to crash.
Q: On an episode of the Tome Show, you explained how your home group is currently exploring the Known World using the fifth edition rules. First, that sounds really cool. What that experience been like—blending the old and the new?
It IS really cool. Our DM is really out-doing himself on this one, and I’ve been playing with him as both a player and DM for over 20 years. Fifth edition is really strong from an edition update standpoint. It’s extremely easy to take old adventures and just drop the current fifth edition monsters in. There’s some work to be done for sure, since traps and treasure need some updating, but it’s been really smooth. The amount of adventure material stacked up for D&D is astounding, and the fact that 95 percent of it is easily useful again is a huge boon to the game.
Don’t get me wrong, you could update stuff to 3.x as well, but it was a lot more work. Things like treasure balance were crucial to get right because of the way treasure tied into a character’s power level growth. That’s not an issue anymore, so treasure becomes more of a storytelling tool. Since fifth edition doesn’t have any updated setting material (well, a little, but only a little since the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) it’s really great to be able to pull our old settings out and just go. All of that material is still 100 percent viable, and I like using settings other than the Forgotten Realms, personally.
Q: How important is your social media presence in D&D and fifth edition play groups? How do the interactions you receive there inform your design work? Are there styles of play that have become more prevalent under fifth edition?
Social media has become the go-to for community building in D&D following the shutdown of the WotC forums. I wasn’t personally active on the forum, so I can’t say how much a shift that is. I can say, though, that I love being active on the “Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition” Facebook group I’m a part of. It’s a great way to get different perspectives on rules, play style, and odd mechanical interactions. Fifth edition puts a lot of that power back in the hands of the players as opposed to spelling every possible thing out in the rulebook, so there is a ton of discussion potential. I really enjoy discussing game rules. It’s a great way to hone your knowledge of the game, and to get your assumptions checked every now and then.
As far as play styles, that’s still very much a cornucopia. I run into all kinds of perspectives during these discussions and debates, and I like getting to see those other points of view.
Q: So far, many of your Kobold Press works have been player-focused. There really is a thirst for game material that supports players, maybe more than might have been anticipated. When you look top design material for that segment, what questions do you ask yourself? What kinds of things to fulfill a player’s desire?
A: Yeah, player-centric material is definitely in high demand. WotC’s official release schedule is very slow compared to their previous model, and most of those releases are targeted at DMs. The little bit of player material that’s come out has barely scratched the surface of the potential fifth edition has, but with the launch of the DM’s Guild and OGL I think we’re going to have more than we know what to do with.
As far as figuring out what to design, I usually have at least a broad topic from the publisher to guide my thinking. Within that framework, though, I’m looking for what’s cool. What will make a player go, “Oh man, I have GOT to see one of these in action!” Ideas are easy at this point, because there’s so much open space. Currently some work on the horizon is going to focus on taking old favorites and making them viable for fifth edition, and that’s an easy place to start.
This is another place where social media is helpful, because you get to see a lot of what people miss and what they want to see. It’s useful to get information on what kind of material might be well-received.
Q: What activities outside of gaming do you enjoy? What keeps you busy?
A: Well, gaming is a pretty intrinsic part of my life. Outside RPGs, I enjoy video games, usually something with a collaborative or team focus. MMOs (SWTOR, EQ2) have been a lot of fun for me in the past. Star Wars Battlefront is my current go to, but I play a little League of Legends these days as well. Solo games are great too, if I need a little unwind-time, and I tend toward action/adventure type games.
Outside of that, I’m a stay-at-home dad of two kids, who keep me pretty damn busy, writing contracts or no. Looking forward to spring so we can get outdoors a bit more easily; one of my wife’s and my favorite things to do is have friends over for bonfires in the backyard.
Q: To conclude each interview, I’m asking each person to think about something fantastic or wonderful or scary from all the KP products that would make an awesome gift for Wolfgang. Basically, let’s fill up Wolfgang’s garage with weird and wonderful stuff. What gift would you choose and why?
A: I would choose a ramag monolith from the Southlands. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of ley lines, earth energy, and geomancy, and the ramag are neck-deep in all of that. The monoliths anchor and direct the ley lines, keeping them stable to avoid any further magical disasters. The fact that the monoliths are also soul-bound to a ramag whose bones are eventually interred within just ups the creepy-cool ante.