Interview with a Chaotic Henchman
Continuing our celebration of 10 years of DDM, we move on to greet an old friend and proponent of the Game. His contributions are the stuff of DDM legend, to both rules development and the development of the community as a whole. He's helped to make this game the friendly monster it is today, and we owe him a lot. So buy him a drink if you see him.
(Chatting with Guy Fullerton, Proprietor, Chaotic Henchman Productions)
DDMG: Hi Guy.
Guy: Hi Tried, it’s great to talk to you again! Even though we haven’t played DDM against one another in years, I enjoy that we still cross paths every so often.
DDMG: Thanks for taking time to talk with us as DDM turns 10. But in fact, the roots of DDM go back further than 10 years. Back to the (second iteration of) Chainmail, right? Was there competitive play in those days? What was that scene like?
Guy: Yeah, it’s certainly fair to say some of DDM’s roots stretch back to the version of Chainmail from 2001. Both games share some mechanics, are close in scale (skirmish instead of wargame), and have a handful of identical minis.
There was competitive play at the local level; two stores in my neck of the woods ran sanctioned events, and prizes included unique competition-only minis and bases. (A few of us ran non-sanctioned Chainmail “game nights” too – one of those was where I first met Michael Derry, eventual DDM Constructed Champion in 2006.) But Chainmail’s organized play wasn’t big on the regional or national levels; to my knowledge, there was never a major Chainmail tournament at Gen Con or Origins, nor regional qualifiers, for example. (I did find a reference on a defunct web site to a big Chainmail tournament at Gen Con 2002, which would have taken place after Chainmail was discontinued, so I don’t know whether that tournament actually occurred.)
DDMG: That was before I started (which was with the release of Harbinger and the plastic miniatures). What did you like best about Chainmail?
Guy: Initially I liked Chainmail because it scratched my gaming itch without being as preparation intensive as the various 3e D&D campaigns I was running at the time.
Looking back now, I have a big appreciation for some of the things Chainmail featured that DDM didn’t have: Factions based entirely on themes (instead of alignments), and campaign-style scenario packs.
The campaign scenario books really enhanced play variety, with both strategic and tactical considerations, commander advancement, a drive toward long-term campaign resolution, and an openness that inspired you to make (and break!) alliances with other players. The scenarios supported a mode of play that harkened back to pre-1970’s wargaming, or Diplomacy.
In a campaign, you still generally wanted to win skirmishes, but your actual objective in any single skirmish might be based more on your overall campaign objectives and/or any alliances you might have made with other players. Even though a skirmish description might give no victory condition for killing an enemy commander, your opponent’s #1 priority might be an assassination, because it would give him the best long-term chances of campaign success. In turn, your objective suddenly becomes fleeing from the battle map to survive for the next battle or strategic decision.
Chainmail and DDM league play tried to inject some elements of play dynamism, but fell short by shoe-horning in the desired outcome (e.g., adding a “Kill the Leader” skirmish flavor) instead of harnessing the impetus (using more of a free-form campaign format).
I also liked the smaller groups of minis released in each set for Chainmail: About 21 per Chainmail expansion vs. 60 per DDM expansion. I got to use and experiment with all of the minis in one Chainmail set before the next set was released.
And each set’s accompanying scenario book incorporated world-building information (e.g., why the Drow appeared and what their objectives are), optional rules, new skirmish types, new campaign suggestions, etc. Chainmail felt more freewheeling, open, and imaginative than DDM – quite possibly because Chainmail put more support toward home play.
DDMG: Was it an issue for players to have to paint their own miniatures? There was probably a wide variety of painting skill levels.
Guy: I don’t believe the Chainmail organized play rules ever required miniatures to be painted – just assembled. Most of my group (some of whom participated in organized play) felt comfortable using unpainted minis.
But yes, there was a huge variety of painting skill. Some owners got no further than spraying minis with primer. Other owners sent their minis to professional painters-for-hire. My early attempts were pretty poor, but my later painting attempts were something I was proud of. Despite selling my most of Chainmail minis long ago, I still have the three or four with my best paint jobs.
DDMG: By the time DDM eventually evolved, you had established an uncanny ability to both interpret, and word, rules to permit their use in competitive play. That garnered you a new official position, ‘Net Rep.’ As far as I can tell, it was a new kind of position at WoTC that partly recognized your talent with the rules, and partly had you as a public face on the game. So, it changed from something you simpley did for fun, to something you were asked to do on a daily basis. Did it change the way you saw the game?
Guy: I believe the Net Rep idea had already been in use at WotC for Magic: the Gathering. Given the introduction of national DDM tournaments, and the quick growth of the DDM FAQ/Errata, it was only natural to have a DDM Net Rep too. Eventually there were also Net Reps for Star Wars Minis (me initially, and later Jason Tanner) and Dreamblade (Jeff Vondruska).
A couple years prior to becoming the DDM Net Rep, I was fortunate to have worked a little bit on the Chainmail clarifications document with Jonathan Tweet (WotC designer) and Alex Weitz (WotC customer service – he would later be among the top DDM players). And the Wizards folks had already noticed me helping other Chainmail players learn the rules, either on the WotC forums of that time, or on ENWorld before they had the forum crash in ~2002.
So when DDM game came out, I started helping folks on the forums again, in a totally unofficial way, sometimes contacting the DDM designers for more detailed info. At some point in late 2003, before Dragoneye was released, the WotC folks said something like, “since you’re doing all this work already, let’s make it more official, and give you improved communication channels with the DDM designers.” I couldn’t refuse. I officially started in the role some time after Gen Con So Cal 2003.
The Net Rep role wasn’t significantly different than what I was already doing. I was already on the forums a ton, thinking about the rules in a very nuts & bolts kind of way, writing up detailed explanations of the cover and reach rules, and posting way more than I should have been, LOL! The main change was that I got early access to miniature stats & rules, and was therefore no longer eligible for prerelease tournaments.
DDMG: Sometimes you would have to deal with difficult players. Some probably insisted their interpretation of the rules was better. How did you deal with those kind of challenges?
Guy: For me, the key to sanity was letting go of ego. I tried not to get personally invested in a rules interpretation, and I tried to have a good understanding of which audiences the “official” rules interpretations were (and were not) designed to support.
Sometimes I disliked the rulings too. “Better” is subjective, so those players who felt their interpretation were better are right, based on their needs & desires. Sometimes a ruling is made with an eye toward competitive play, or simplicity, or interacting smoothly with some future commander effect in an upcoming set. For players who only play non-competitively at home, or for players that don’t mind a complex rule – they might dislike the ruling, and that’s understandable.
When people were curious or upset about a ruling, I tried to briefly explain why the rules were interpreted in a given way, listen to their thoughts, and – if necessary – take that back to the WotC designers for consideration. Sometimes rules interpretations were changed ... and sometimes they weren’t. But the feedback was always appreciated, and occasionally changed the way future minis’ stats were designed.
DDMG: Sometimes, when an answer could have different equally possible outcomes, you didn’t answer right away. I believe you would consult the designers (for interpretation of intent) or Organized Play (for perceived impact) and then come back with a ruling. Did you ever get one you just knew was going to be trouble going forward?
Guy: Yeah, you’re right; when I sensed a troublesome problem, I only answered after there was an answer I felt comfortable with. (To be clear, even though I was often the voice that communicated a ruling, they weren’t necessarily “my” rulings; any given ruling might have had input from a variety of sources, like the WotC designers or organized play, as you mentioned, and also the various smart players who chimed in on the various DDM forums.)
As far as remembering a specific troublesome case ... that’s harder for me to do. It’s been a long time, and I have forgotten many of the rules & details. Offhand, I think the Mount rules and Rooftop/Climbing rules were two situations that immediately set off the warning lights in my head. Maybe Doors too ... I think there was a map with doors, right? In one of those cases (perhaps the Rooftop/Climbing rules, which may have come out as part of a map) I had no advanced knowledge of the mechanic, so I hadn’t already pre-asked the WotC designers a bunch of questions; suddenly all the players had this new tournament-legal situation with (in my opinion) a clunky, incomplete rule, and I went into scramble mode.
DDMG: There was a common term used in those days - “Tier 1.” It referred to a warband that could be competitive in a tournament environment. You were head judge at gencon several times. In your view, how limited was the metagame back then? How many warbands were ‘Tier 1” at a given time?
Guy: That’s hard to answer – partly because I don’t remember what warbands everybody was playing at different times, and partly because I wasn’t a top player, so I’m not really the best to judge what is or isn’t Tier 1. To hazard a guess, based on my recollections of the later tournaments (and some still vivid memories of the first Constructed Championship in 2004), there were maybe 4-6 different warbands that would show up in the top-8 of a major constructed event. Warbands that were represented more than once in the top-8 would often have a minor difference here or there – Rob might use a dwarf artificer, but Mike might use Aramil.
Even though there might be some repeated warbands in the top-8 of a major tournament, I didn’t hear many complaints (while playing or judging) about the lack of diversity. I don’t recall playing against the same warband more than twice in a constructed tournament. But then again, I never made top-8 in a major tournament, so take that with a grain of salt.
The 2006 Constructed Championship at Gen Con might have been one place where diversity was at a low. I remember an awful lot of CoDA + Aspect of Kord + Warforged Bodyguard warbands, and just as many Young Master + Githzerai Monk warbands.
Most of the top players communicated with and played against one another, thanks to forums and the DDM module on Vassal. And they’d share ideas and try one another’s warbands. The experimentation might have helped expand the metagame, but at the same time, the echo chamber effect might have artificially constrained the metagame. It’s hard to know for sure.
From the practical perspective of “what actually showed up in the big events,” some of the big tournament reports are still out there on the internet, so an enterprising individual (not me!) could probably gather up hard numbers on metagame diversity, and whether it varied locally vs. nationally, or in the top-8 vs. top-64.
DDMG: You saw the coming and going of tiles (which were a holdover from Chainmail) and the implementation of maps. They were implemented in part to speed the game up. Do you think that they expanded play options?
Guy: Yeah, overall, I think maps expanded play options. Tile size, along with initial freedom of placement, limited the kinds of things designers could do with terrain. It’s impractical to make a tile that puts smoke over half the play area, or that lowers the elevation of a bunch of the board, for example.
In retrospect, even though maps themselves were great, having a map be part of your warband was a mistake, at least from the perspective of expanding play options. It may have been better for maps to have been randomly chosen from among 4+ options picked by a neutral party, or cycled-through in the rounds of a tournament (which I think happened in at least one of the major tournaments).
DDMG: In 2008 you stepped back from the game. It was time to prioritize family, and the timing of a new game and new rules made that choice easier. Those rules were eventually revised by WotC and then by the DDM Guild. Have you ever managed to come back and play DDM in any of the versions? (or the new Dungeon Command card-driven game?)
Guy: Not really. I played a number of solo games with a pre-release (near final?) version of the DDM 2.0 rules set, to get a feel for what those rules were like. I also peeked at what the DDM Guild was doing (maybe in 2009 or so), and I did take notice of Peter Lee’s design work on both Dungeon Command and the various D&D board games, but I haven’t played any of them.
DDMG: We have a couple things in common. We both play ice hockey, and we both have a soft spot for what is now called first edition (and was called AD&D). In fact, you’ve been a champion of revitalizing the genre. How did that start?
Guy: You give me too much credit in revitalizing the genre, LOL! There are many other folks that have contributed lots more toward revitalizing early editions of D&D.
In any event, the announcement of 4th edition D&D piqued my interest in roleplaying again, but that game ended up being really dissonant with the play experience I was looking for. I flirted briefly with MERP and Rolemaster in 2008 (which I played and enjoyed back-in-the-day), and started to obsessively catalogue and categorize the products. While looking for help constructing my burgeoning MERP product history web site, I stumbled onto The Acaeum ( http://www.acaeum.com ), and then onto sites like Dragonsfoot ( http://www.dragonsfoot.org ), Knights & Knaves Alehouse ( http://http://www.knights-n-knaves.com ), and a variety of other places that discussed the early versions of D&D: Original D&D, Basic/Expert D&D, and 1st edition Advanced D&D.
It all struck a deep chord: The organic nature of those earlier games; the wonderful variation in the mechanics; the way they are designed to reflect out-of-game concepts, instead of being designed self-referentially, or in a mechanics-first sort of way (“design space,” bah!); and the way those games better facilitate playing in your imagination, instead of on a board and through scads of mechanics on a character sheet. If you intentionally push aside any assumptions about “how to play D&D” based on your experience with later editions, and if you cope with the not-so-great organization of the early editions, then you are well-equipped to discover how wonderfully coherent the early editions actually are.
More concretely, three modules filled me with huge amounts of inspiration when I learned about them in late 2008, and gave me a pretty powerful push toward re-discovering 1st edition AD&D:
- The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom (by Matt Finch; pub. 2006 by Expeditious Retreat Press)
- Cairn of the Skeleton King (by Robert J. Kuntz; pub. 2006 by Pied Piper Publishing)
- Dark Chateau (by Robert J. Kuntz; pub. 2005 by Troll Lord Games)
DDMG: The modules you publish out with your company, Chaotic Henchman Productions, have garnered praise from reviewers. Putting together a module requires some analysis, but it's a pretty different process relative to DDM. A big part of it is thinking with that other, ‘creative’ side of your brain. Where do those ideas come from?
Guy: Two things work well for me:
Whenever I have an idea that’s potentially game-related, I write it down. If necessary, I make voice memos while driving, or get out of bed in the middle of the night to get the ideas down. Any way you slice it, I try not to lose ideas; I have a very long text document containing all manner of ideas about module concepts, campaign environments, situations, and what-not.
I avoid thinking about play content (i.e., the bits and pieces that might compose a module) in an initially-mechanical way, because preexisting mechanics can artificially limit creativity. Instead, I design by putting the concept-first; thoroughly imagining the place/situation/creature/item/etc. in a free-form and naturalistic way, with an eye toward making the adventuring environment as mentally engaging as possible – and only choosing mechanics for it after the creative parts are fully realized.
DDMG: Thanks for spending some time with us, Guy.
Guy: You’re welcome!