Wolfgang Baur has been writing RPG material since the early 1990s, originally with TSR and later as a freelancer. During his years as an Associate Editor at Dungeon Magazine, he edited dozens of adventures — and he’s written more than a few himself.

Since going freelance, Wolfgang has embarked on the Open Design project, which relies on patronage (in the sense that Renaissance artists had patrons) to provide funding for the writing of custom-designed scenarios.

I interviewed Wolfgang via email, where we got a chance to discuss writing and editing adventures, the Open Design project and his approach to GMing.

Treasure Tables (TT): Welcome to Treasure Tables, Wolfgang! It’s great to have you here.

Let’s start by reaching back a little ways. You were an editor for Dungeon Magazine in the early and mid ’90s — what was that like? How did editing adventures impact your GMing, and how you write adventures?

Wolfgang Baur (Wolfgang): It was an honor to learn from Roger Moore and Barbara Young: the two people who defined the magazines in that era. Kim Mohan, the founding editor of Dragon was just down the hall. It was an amazing time to work at TSR, as the company was full of creative people isolated in a small Wisconsin tourist town.

The work was well-structured, and I learned a lot just from seeing what Roger and Barbara accepted or rejected, and why. Getting through the slush pile was one of the main chores for an editorial flunky like me. It was also an eye-opener: Sturgeon’s Law definitely applied. My own weakness at the time was trying to accept manuscripts that had great ideas but terrible execution. They would have required complete rewrites, and that’s not the sort of manuscript that authors get paid for. Not to mention, there was no time for that amount of work by the editorial staff.

Honestly, I learned that I was a pretty good writer, and that the competition wasn’t as steep as I once thought. I developed confidence in what I was doing, and learned some tricks about what makes a great query from an editor’s perspective. The main thing is that editors are overwhelmed, so you can’t afford to be boring. Queries need to be entertaining to the editor, and informative can come second.

I still write adventures in the 2E style: story and characters first, stats later. I think it’s a successful approach, because editors and DMs will only run adventures that have a great villain or plot. If you don’t have that, the greatest mechanics and stats in the world won’t save you. No one buys an adventure just for the crunch.

TT: It’s interesting to me that you refer to that approach as the “2E style” — what sets that apart from the 3e or 3.5e style, if you see a unified style in more recent adventures?

Wolfgang: The strength of 2E was its creativity in matters of characters and settings and plots. Planescape and Birthright and Al Qadim and Dark Sun were all fantastic new settings with great villains and story arcs. The Ravenloft line did wonderful things with character and horror, and 2E was just an incredibly rich time to be an adventure writer. So while mechanically it was not as strong as 3e or 3.5, there’s a reason that gamers still have happy memories of the period, and for most of them it’s the adventures and the characters and setting.

3E has its own strengths, mostly mechanical, and it deservedly has attracted lots of people to the game for that reason. But I think that until quite recently, 3E has not had a great range of new WotC adventures, with a few exceptions. The creativity in 3E has gone into mechanics and systems, rather than story and setting.

I don’t think either approach is necessarily superior or preferred, by the way. They attract different audiences, I suspect, but there’s much to love in both the story-driven approach and in the rules-driven approach to the game. If they weren’t different, there would have been no reason to do a new edition.

TT: While you worked at TSR, did you game with other staff members? What kinds of campaigns did you play in and run?

Wolfgang: Definitely! I played in a wide variety of games and campaigns. I was surprised by how many board games were run over lunch hours, honestly, everything from “Empires of the Middle Ages” to Axis and Allies to grognard wargames.

For RPGs, there were lots of Call of Cthulhu campaigns (my DM was Zeb Cook), World of Darkness games (DMed by Lester Smith), and naturally D&D, though those were usually playtests rather than campaigns. I ran games set in Al-Qadim, Planescape, and my homebrew setting.

The one I remember most vividly was the adventure set in the Yerkes Observatory (just a few miles away from Lake Geneva itself). We toured the building, learned some of its history, and then played the adventure. It was one hell of a great prop, and the history of the blind director of the observatory was too good to believe (but true!).

TT: What are your strengths as a GM?

Wolfgang: I’m good at prepping for every session, often including quick stats, plot notes, and bits of description. Probably not enough for anyone else to run from, but enough that I’m not winging it.

I love giving players options, rather than railroading. Players who go “off the rails” make me happy; it used to frustrate me, but honestly the game is about having fun, and as long as everyone enjoys the new direction, why not?

I’ve been told I do dark and macabre pretty well. I tend to get a few “ewwws” every game session. Oddly enough, I don’t think I’m running horror games.

I love having NPCs acknowledge the heroes as big shots. This always seems to be a hit with players, even if it doesn’t come with monetary rewards.

TT: On the flipside, along the lines of the Treasure Tables post Write Your Own Naughty List, what are your weak points as a GM?

I don’t always prod the party in the right direction. Often this is because I’m playtesting, but I have the same problem in home games. I’d rather have the players sort it out themselves, but it’s important to step in if the group is too frustrated.

I lack the ruthlessness every GM needs occasionally, especially for Call of Cthulhu and for D&D finales. Honestly, CoC benefits tremendously when there’s only one survivor at the end of a campaign. I can’t always pull the trigger to do that.

If players don’t step up to the spotlight, they can drop off my radar entirely. This is why I try to avoid running tables larger than 5 or so. I can’t handle the big groups the way I’d like, with enough time for everyone to have a star moment.

I’m a cheapskate. I’ve gotten better about handing out treasure, but my campaigns are not usually heaped with phat loot. Which is odd, because sometimes when I design, I overcompensate and go all Monty Haul on the treasure tables.

TT: How do you spot the “prod point” — the point when you, as the GM, need to step in to provide extra direction?

Wolfgang: Oh, that’s a tough one. For my group, it’s when the record keeper starts flipping through his notes and can’t figure out an answer or even a lead for the mystery they are investigating. Or when anyone says “Why are we here?” or “Do we really want to do this?”. But I think the best signal to me is whether the group is cruising along or sputtering. If there’s a lot of head-scratching, it’s time for a henchman to speak up or for me to remind someone about the treasure map or whatever.

TT: Your Open Design project sounds intriguing — can you tell me a bit more about it?

Wolfgang: It was an experiment at first, but by now it has lurched off the table and it’s running amok! I really just wanted to try designing adventurers that were more tailored to what gamers want, instead of some corporate product extruded by a brand manager and approved by a marketing committee.

The adventures are reviewed by gamers as they are being written. These gamers support the design financially as patrons of the work, and they get their money’s worth and then some. I show the design choices and tradeoffs, I write essays on adventure design, and I share sections of the manuscript as it is written, for immediate feedback.

The results have been very, very fine adventures, which almost no one knows about or has access to. The audience for the first one was 80 patrons; the second one is slightly smaller. I get a huge kick out of that sort of handcrafted design.

TT: Have you considered offering an Open Design adventure on a micropatronage basis, say $5 a person?

Wolfgang: Yes! I offered “apprentice” level membership for students and the military at $10. At a certain point, though, I had to stop taking those apprentice memberships for the second project, because I had enough patrons to cover the costs. And honestly, fine-tuning adventures to suit requests is something deliberately aimed at a gaming elite.

I’ll probably offer the apprentice memberships again in March or April. Some great people have signed up that way, but the patron model requires that most people sign up as standard members. That enables me to write longer adventures (which people tell me they want) and it allows the project to pay a professional cartographer as well.

Patronage is a strange way to run a business.

TT: Have you heard about the brand-new Worldwide Adventure Writing Month project? Given the parameters — a 32-page adventure, with peer review available, and playtesting recommended but optional — do you have any pointers that you can share with participants?

Wolfgang: Sounds fantastic! More adventures is always better.

The pointer I’d share would be to avoid the great sin that all writers should fear: Don’t be boring. If you tell a story of an insane evil wizard, or a demonic invasion, or a flesh golem in a mad scientist’s lab… Well, we’ve heard those stories before. Adventure writers can do better, and I don’t necessarily mean more over the top. Give us NPCs who have distinctive motivations, or a secret that they must share with the PCs, or who plot to use standard magic in a new way.

The best tip I can offer to avoid a dull story is to create a great villain and push him as far as you can. Get in touch with your dark side, and you’ll motivate the players every time. If the players hate the villain’s guts, your job as an adventure writer is already half done.

TT: How does writing Open Design adventures compare to writing adventures for Dungeon, or for your home games?

Wolfgang: There’s three main differences: 1) length, 2) quality, and 3) subject matter.

1) They are longer adventures than Dungeon can print, just because of the nature of magazines. The typical Open Design adventure is as long as all the adventures in an issue combined, or more, with open plotlines, sideplots, more characters. They usually take a party of characters up at least one level.

Obviously, the Open Design adventures are much more involved to write than my home games; I create a lot of new monsters, spells, and so on for each Open Design. It’s richer and better than anything else out there in adventure publishing.

2) Quality has to be higher. There’s no way to slip anything shoddy or any shortcuts past the audience, because they see how it comes together and shape the final work with their comments and suggestions.

3) Subject matter tends to be wider ranging, with a bit of steampunk, or Gothic, or theology. Because the audience is smaller, tastes don’t have to be toned down to a common denominator.

The material is also more grown-up, as the audience of patrons isn’t people in high school (which is still the default assumption at WotC). For example, the first adventure involved a pact with a devil, lust for power, and lots of treacherous rat-bastard NPCs. The second adventure involves a deeply scarred child who grows up into a villain; it’s about redeeming a family from a curse. Neither one of those passes the bar for what WotC or Paizo allows in their content, but it does expand the range of options for gamers.

Another adventure that got a lot of Open Design discussion was about the nature of angels, and how they might act when they visit a city en masse. I was especially happy that a Catholic priest participated in that discussion, even though the adventure was ultimately not commissioned.

There’s room to write for a sophisticated, older group of gamers who want plenty of combat action, but also want more mysteries or horror or what have you.

It’s been great to push the limits with both mechanics and story elements. The experiment has been quite a success, but I don’t think it’ll ever reach the sort of mass audience of mainline Hasbro products. And that’s okay.

TT: Thank you for doing this interview for TT, Wolfgang! Is there anything you’d like to add, or say to TT readers?

Wolfgang: I’m always happy to hear from fellow gamers. Drop me a line at the Open Design site or say hi on the messageboards!

I hope you enjoyed this interview! If you’d like to pick Wolfgang’s brain for more adventure tips, take a peek at Writing Adventures the Wolfgang Baur Way.