Sean K. Reynolds is a sharp, opinionated and prolific game designer and RPG freelancer, with a list of D&D credits that stretches back to 1997. He also has his own publishing company, Sean K Reynolds Games, and offers a metric ton of nifty freebies on his website — from GMing tools to D&D rules variants and clarifications (my personal favorite).

I caught up with Sean via email, now (hopefully!) recovered from his harrowing move to Las Vegas, and chatted with him about writing Forgotten Realms material, his GMing style and the ins and outs of prepping for d20 System games.

Treasure Tables (TT): Welcome to Treasure Tables, Sean, and thank you for being here!

You’re obviously passionate about the d20 System — what appeals to you most about it? And where do you see room for improvement?

Sean K. Reynolds (Sean): d20 has an easy-to-understand “universal mechanic” — roll d20, higher is better. The fact that it is based on a d20 helps…you can get nice even percentage values (in increments of 5%), the number spread is large enough to give significant variance in results without resorting to a bell curve, yet not so large that a typical roll requires you to add two-digit numbers to each other (which is much harder for most people than adding a one-digit number to a one- or two-digit number).

In terms of improvement, the standard d20 system still has some baggage from earlier editions of D&D, and modifying or dropping those elements would be an improvement. I’d also like to see fewer absolutes in the game (like absolute immunity to fire). And while the introduction of feats is a great mechanic, not all feats are created equal and a method to price feats differently (for example, with “feat points”) based on their power and utility.

TT: Do you find D&D to be a prep-heavy game? What tricks do you use to cut down on prep time that might apply equally well to other RPGs?

Sean: D&D is definitely prep-heavy. The vast numbers of monsters, spells, and magic items in the game can have dramatic effects on an encounter; a simple buffing spell like Cat’s Grace affects a creature’s AC, Reflex save, and several skills. A combat can grind to a halt when a PC unexpectedly summons a monster. A magic item that has variable effects, or affects multiple creatures, likewise causes a big slowdown. A GM has to have an excellent memory, have copious prepared notes, or be a wiz at modifying things on the fly.

My best advice on cutting down prep time is learning an “average” value for a creature. In D&D terms, if your PC party is 10th level, you should have an idea of the average attack value, damage, saves, and hit points of a CR 10 creature. This lets you “fake it”…should something unexpected come up, you can rely on this estimated value. The DMG talks about the “DM’s best friend rule,” where rather than calculating an exact value of the effect of a new situation, just estimate a +2 or -2 as appropriate — it takes only a moment (compared to several minutes of game time to calculate and agree on the situation’s effect) and usually is pretty close to what you’d get from doing it the long way anyway.

Really it comes down to knowing the game system and finding a comfortable level of “fudge factor” when running the game. I know d20 really, really well, and I can run a pick-up D&D game without any books or monster stats because while I have much of it memorized, the stuff I haven’t memorized has left enough of an impression that I know an encounter of type A should be of X difficulty, last about Y rounds, and expend Z of the PCs’ resources. You can do the same with any game system if you know it well enough.

TT: What’s it like to write canon material for one of the largest and most popular fantasy RPG settings out there, the Forgotten Realms? How much are you constrained by what’s come before, and how do you approach fitting in ideas from your own games?

Sean: Honestly, it’s pretty awesome and daunting at the same time. Awesome because there is so much there for you to work with and build on, daunting because it’s easy to miss some obscure mention in an old product and you have a bunch of angry fans.

When I was working on the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, we wanted to be true to the existing material as much as possible, except where it (1) wasn’t fun, or (2) was ridiculous. We wanted not only to update the setting to the 3E rules, but to create a baseline for all 3E FR campaigns so new players and GMs wouldn’t have to buy 15 years of out-of-print product, some of which was designed with little supervision to to fit obsolete campaign and design paradigms.

Examples in the “wasn’t fun” category were things like dwarves traditionally not being able to cast arcane spells (now allowed in 3E, which we explained with Moradin’s Thunder Blessing), limited ability to create or buy common magic items like potions (now allowed in 3E, which we facilitated by creating the Thayan enclaves, which also allowed us to use the Thayans as a local threat in any part of the world, as well as fixing the problem of the supposedly-intelligent Thayan wizards mindlessly throwing themselves at Aglarond and Rashemen for centuries rather than coming up with a smarter way to take over the world), and the overuse of major campaign fiction NPCs taking direct action in adventures and sourcebooks (which we took care of by emphasizing that Elminster & Co. can’t do everything themselves and don’t have time to find lost caravans or route orc bandits).

Some examples in the “ridiculous” category range are very mundane things like a lack of oversight or consensus on how big a”big city” is, with one product saying that City X is big because it has 10,000 people and a different product saying City Y is big because it has 3,000,000 people (the FRCS is the first time there was a comprehensive look at world, country, and city population based on climate, terrain, population density, and area resources).

Others are silly (like a festhall that has a magical room that takes off all your clothes for you) or just plain stupid (like an inn in the middle of nowhere that is multi-story and contains a magical elevator to take you up to the 2nd floor, when it would be far more practical — especially considering the almost-negligible number of visitors and income they get — to just build outward or build a staircase). Less “whimsy,” basically — stuff that made people look down on the Realms because you couldn’t take it seriously.

It’s a little different for me working on the Realms now — it’s been several years since I worked at WotC and they’ve moved on with their plotlines and design goals, beyond stuff we discussed when I was working there. Now as a freelancer they give me an outline to follow (as agreed upon by their staff) and a general set of instructions as to what I can and can’t change. Sometimes the allowed changes are significant, sometimes they’re very strict. Certainly if we’re doing a book based in a certain area, any previous source material set in that area is normally considered as a resource, but the newer material (especially if there is 3E material on the area) takes precedence.

When it comes to fitting in ideas from my own games, it’s always a matter of whether or not an idea is appropriate for the book in question. If something comes up relating to deserts or jungles in a home campaign, I’m not going to force that idea into a book set in a wintry land like Rashemen. With those constraints, home games are always a source of inspiration, as they’re sort of like the equivalent of a musician’s “jam sessions” where there’s a lot of spontaneity and input from multiple people and you can take a spark of an idea and build on it.

TT: What’s your favorite thing from a home game that you’ve introduced into the Realms?

Sean: Honestly there have been so many games I’ve played in and so many projects I’ve worked on that I couldn’t single out any one element as my favorite or pinpoint its origin as something in a home game. 😛

TT: Are your home games usually set in the Realms, or do you use a homebrewed setting?

Sean: I normally run homebrew games; outside of running playtests, running an ongoing campaign in any world I’m working on is sort of like taking my work home with me and can lead to burnout. Even playing in the Realms puts me in an odd position where some involved may expect me to know more about the setting than the DM, and that can get awkward. Though I do have a funny anecdote about one FR game I was playing in while I was working for Black Isle Studios/Interplay.

Josh Sawyer was DM and Chris Marleau was a fellow player; it was the first time I had met Chris and he only knew that I was a designer at the company, not that I had worked on FR. Chris asked Josh a character-generation question, Josh looked to me, I answered, and Josh said “there you go.” Chris asked, “Why did you accept his answer without him looking it up?” I answered (jokingly) “because my name’s on the book.” Chris looked at the cover and said, “Oh my god you DID write the book!” Okay, maybe you had to be there. 😛

TT: What are the five things you do best as a GM?

Sean: Come up with encounters that test and complement the abilities of my PCs.

Let the PCs be the stars instead of the NPCs.

Allow a comfortable level of humor without letting it detract from the game.

Allow the PCs to improvise actions and plot elements (rather than forcing them to follow my script).

Remember that it’s just a game and if we’re not having fun we should change what we’re doing.

TT: On the humor front, how did you find that comfortable level with your group? This can be a tough balance to strike — is there a better way than just seeing it get out of hand a couple of times and then dialing things back?

Sean: I’ve been fortunate that in the past ten years everyone I’ve gamed with is someone I’ve gotten to know through work (whether TSR, Wizards, or Interplay) and we know each other well enough to have a good idea of how much humor we have in a typical get-together and therefore can adjust that up or down for a game. After all, we can get together to goof off any time, but it’s hard to advance the campaign if the game is just an excuse to get together.

Certainly it’s different for each group — my ten-week Alternity super heroes game had much less joking around because the tone of the campaign (based on the Strikeforce: Morturi comic book series) was more serious, while my New Argonauts campaign had many times where we simply couldn’t stop laughing, perhaps because the company was collapsing around us.

TT: You mentioned that you let your players improvise plot elements — can you elaborate on that?

Sean: Well when I start a game I plan ahead for campaign elements A, B, and C, but if during the course of the game the players focus on a secondary character relevant to A, it may steer the campaign toward a new theme involving that character, let’s say D. The presence or absence of a particular PC will amplify or diminish planned elements relating to that character, for example if one PC is a paladin and I have paladin-related stuff planned, if that player is absent a lot or decides to play another character, those plot elements aren’t going to be as important to the other PCs so I don’t force the issue, I let them define what is important for them.

I’m sure most DMs do this; a great example I can think of are Monte Cook’s two concurrent Ptolus campaigns — one went down the road to saving the world, the other got involved in a major crime family and dealing with elf issues.

TT: Conversely, in the vein of the TT post Write Your Own Naughty List, what are your GMing weaknesses?

Sean: I’m a goob for game mechanics and sometimes build a creature or encounter around a new mechanic rather than more important elements.

I try to make characters memorable with speech patterns or accents and later lose track of who has which.

I step in too early to mediate inter-PC conflicts. I’m too quick to throw in obvious hints at the first sign of the PCs being lost.

I spend a lot of time at the start of the campaign planning for endgame stuff that may never happen because the PCs may steer it in another direction (when if I spent more of this time planning on the next session it would make for a better game).

TT: How does writing RPG material play into your strengths and weaknesses as a GM? Or into your GMing style in general?

Sean: Because of my familiarity with the rules (and what the 3E team intended by those rules) there are fewer arguments about interpretations of those rules. Certainly having practiced the rules as long as I have, I’m comfortable with them and I can spend more energy on planning and running the campaign, rather than getting bogged down in rules-based details.

TT: What’s on your plate at the moment, either for Sean K Reynolds Games or for other publishers?

Sean: Well there’s a secret project I’m working on right now, and my involvement in it should be announced soon. Once that book is done I’m going to finally get crackin’ on my book How To Build Spells and its companion book How To Craft Magic Items and all the other things I’ve been planning to do for SKRG that have been pushed back by all the craziness of my life in the past two years.

I just finished working on Expedition to Undermountain for FR with Ed Greenwood, Eric Boyd, and Chris Lindsay, as well as continuing a pair of Eberron article series for the WotC website and an ongoing article series on the Core D&D (Greyhawk) deities in Dragon Magazine.

TT:Do you have a ballpark release date for How To Build Spells and How To Craft Magic Items, or is it too soon to ask?

Sean: Unfortunately I am very lackadaisical about release dates for my own books because I let freelance work and real-life things mess with my schedule. Right now my “free time” projects are to finish working on a freelance book, finish checking some stat blocks for a The Game Mechanics project, and write a Dragon article, after which I’m going to work on HTBS. I probably won’t finish writing it until the end of February, which probably means an April or May release date depending on the schedule of the editor and typesetter.

TT: Is there anything you’d like to add, or share with TT readers?

Sean: Don’t stop playing games! It’s easy to get out of the habit of gaming, and hard to re-prioritize your life once you get used to your new habits.

Take care of your body! Lose weight, eat better, stop smoking. You’ll live longer — and that means more gaming in the long run (I plan to still be playing games when I’m 80).

TT: Thank you very much for doing this interview, Sean. It’s been great to chat with you. 🙂

What did you think of this interview? Were there any questions I should have asked, but didn’t?