Interview with Rob Heinsoo
The DDM Guild had a chance to do an Interview with Rob Heinsoo. (D&D Minis designer and presently lead designer at his own company, Fire Opal Media).
DDMG: Hi Rob. I know that things are busy for you right now, thanks for spending some time with us.
Rob: I was happy to hear from you.
DDMG: You’ve enjoyed some success with game design over the last 10 years. Does it seem like a long time ago that you set out to create the D&D minis game?
Rob: Yes. My first reaction was surprise it was that long. My second was to realize that I’ve done an awful lot and learned a lot since then. My third was to realize that you really love the game to have kept the flame burning.
DDMG: Where did the original idea for the game come from? Was it originally yours, (was it an adaptation of a game mechanic you were using at home?) or was it part of a larger plan to complement the RPG?
Rob: It was part of a larger plan to complement the RPG. Chainmail was the first stab in that direction and established a lot of the mechanics that DDM worked off of. D&D Miniatures was a better supported second stab with a more broadly accessible pre-painted product.
DDMG: Was there a long term plan for the game? Ian Richards was involved early on to establish an organized play environment.
Rob: All competitive games published by WotC lived under the shadow of M:tG, if only in the sense that the Organized Play formats that worked for M:tG were translated outward/downward to other projects. Yes, there were always short and medium term plans and I guess you could say they were long term plans. Chris Toepker was the first brand manager, Stephen Radney-MacFarland and Ian Richards were involved on the OP side.
DDMG: The game replaced (the second iteration of) Chainmail. This was more of a classic, free-movement game in which you painted your own miniatures. Where did the prepainted miniatures come in? Was the prepainted concept always part of the plan for game design, or were the minis developed to support the game? At that time, prepainted miniatures may have seemed a bit heretical to the old school gamers.
Rob: There are a lot of facets to that question. The first is that before the Clix games showed up, WotC R&D had wanted to publish prepainted plastic miniatures, they knew the tech was there. But at the time WotC had a serious metal miniatures studio running the minis show and they wouldn’t hear of it.
So when the Mage Clix hit so big and Chainmail was clearly not getting through to the majority of D&D players, those R&D voices finally got their way. And yes, it was harsh shutting down Chainmail.
DDMG: Yes, it still has many fans. We’ve done what we can to keep many of those minis legal. So which came first, the minis or the game?
Rob: The miniatures came before the game. We knew that we were producing minis that would get at least as much use playing the D&D rpg. The goal was to try and make a minis game that would also gain players.
I don’t think I want to get into the back and forth fortunes of the rpg and the minis game. The short version is that we sold a lot of minis to rpgers, but the biggest customers were D&D Miniatures players. There was a fascinating interplay between the two groups that the corporation had great difficulty understanding and ultimately fumbled.
DDMG: But the Clix series of games had established its own hold on the gaming market and a grid seemed to work for them. Did that sort of break ground for a grid system instead of a free movement system?
Rob: I don’t know that it was relevant. The grid system had been accepted as the way to play D&D 3e. It wasn’t Clix that brought in the grid, it was 3e and the awareness that most people didn’t want to have to measure exact finicky distances when playing games. You could counter-argue that counting squares might get old too, but it’s clearer than measuring distances, which is (also) important when dealing with WotC-style Organized Play.
DDMG: D&D has a convenient level-based mechanic, but the relative power level of creatures at the same level can be quite different. How long did it take to work out a system to assign points to the miniatures to come up with a play balance solution?
Rob: We’d worked out the first versions of that on Chainmail. Oddly, I did the first big costing pass before I was officially on the Chainmail team, I’d just been playing it at lunch, realized that we were playing games without ever assessing what the value of the units were, and did the first pass. Which is what landed me on the Chainmail team from what I had been working on more, Forgotten Realms.
But remember that this is Wizards, with the best game development team in the business working on Magic the Gathering. Everyone knew were going to handle a costing system, it was just that no one had taken the plunge.
The question of how long it took to develop the system is an odd one. Probably a couple days work the first time, but then it got processed by everyone on the team, Jonathan Tweet and Chris Pramas were the main players at that point, along with Skaff Elias and Robert Gutschera.
DDMG: One core mechanic of the early game was placing tiles on the battle map. For those that may not remember those days, each warband would select three tiles to place in addition to a start tile. Did you ever experiment with putting a VP cost on the tiles, or were they always simply put in another category, with the idea that players would figure them out?
Rob: My recollection is that attempts to do innovative things with the tiles were frustrated by two factors. The less important factor was that placing tiles is a holdover from wargame-style placement of terrain. There were issues inside WotC with the fact that tile placement slowed the game down. Worse, when combined with particular styles of play, cunning tile placement could result in games that weren’t much fun. The fact that tile placement was a mini-game-before-the-game and that the best players mastered it, while normal players just wanted to play the game, was a danger signal. So we slowly developed the realization that tiles might not work out that well for us in the long run.
DDMG: There were other issues as well?
Rob: The bigger problem was probably tile distribution. If we made a wonderful new tile that did unique things and got to be part of warband building, then it needed to be available to most all players to be fair. And the distribution system we could count on wasn’t there for all kinds of reasons, mostly connected to the fact that distributing essentially free add-on components isn’t something the gaming industry is set up to handle.
Later, I think people had started realizing that most players could get access to on-line PDFs of new tiles: witness the plan of providing stat cards for old minis. But that was never the best solution for art components given that a lot of people didn’t have good color printers.
DDMG: That led to maps. A new product that was more … artistically satisfying.
DDMG: As you know, the game was revised and the morale rules were lost. There are still pockets of players that love those mechanics. Certainly, they are always part of military style skirmish games. If you wrote another fantasy miniatures skirmish game, do you think including morale rules would be an important aspect?
Rob: I think it’s more important that every game design fits the action it’s portraying. Morale rules of some type are definitely at home when a game is about real people who fear for their own lives whose spirits can be broken. Fantasy skirmishes can evoke that sense or not; I think there are a number of fantasy/science fiction games that have morale rules only because that’s what’s expected for the genre, not because it’s what had to be done. Mechanically speaking, the issue is whether there are good ways to drive the game to a conclusion that feel correct for the battles that are being portrayed.
DDMG: Morale is a bit of an abstract concept. It can be challenging to model in a game.
Rob: For a very interesting way of handling morale in a Dark Ages skirmish game, without ever using the term morale, see the SAGA system from Studio Tomahawk. I love it, and fantasy skirmish gamers would naturally understand the way it gives each faction its own battleboard and exceptions-based ways of using its Action Dice.
Dungeon Command, the WotC game that’s a successor to D&D Miniatures only in that it serves as a distribution system for minis, has its own clever method of simulating morale, you basically get X chances to avoid damage from an opponent’s attack, but those chances are referred to as cowering, so that when you’ve used them up your morale is broken: lose a mini or lose some morale.
Huh. And now that I think of it, I did help design another fantasy game that plays like a skirmish miniatures game recently. It’s called Heralds of Chaos, you can find it on Facebook and on Gaia Online. I never pushed the game hard because I was waiting for them to solve their financial riddles. I don’t think those riddles got solved. The game would probably appeal to DDM players, it’s about world colliding and warriors from those worlds fighting over Victory Portals as the map cataclysms into a smaller and smaller battlefield around them, forcing the battle to a conclusion. I was on the design team rather than being the lead designer, though I did all the flavor and most of the names. And no, the game wasn’t right for what you were calling a morale system!
DDMG: One of the things I’ve always respected you for is your involvement with the people who play your games. I remember you being actively involved in a number of events at cons, including a ‘reverse constructed’ tournament at GenCon Socal in 2005. (Note to readers: In reverse constructed you build the worst legal warband you can come up with, and make your opponent play it.) As I recall, you were pretty horrified by how bad a warband could be built.
Rob: I had forgotten that was the format. I like it. Thanks for reminding me.
DDMG: You also spoiled the Teleport Temple map at that con. Is it fun to pre-reveal?
Rob: Well obviously the answer is yes, so long as people enjoy the peeks instead of being irritated by them. It’s also a bit childish and indulgent. I think working at WotC was a bit weird and we tried to find our fun where we could, so a harmless ‘revelation’ of things that would be public soon anyway was safe-fun.
DDMG: Anecdotally, it was also you that personally taught many people to play Three Dragon Ante, as you wandered around late one night at Gencon Socal. Connecting with the people that play your games has remained important to you.
Rob: I like people, I like games. So it’s fun to play games I’ve designed with people. It’s important to try and read between the laughter to see what they like most and what they hate.
DDMG: That’s a fun way to do research. Jumping to current projects - Maybe we could catch up a bit with where you are right now. How are things with the 13th Age project? (To readers that may not be aware, 13th Age is an OGL product now available from Pelgrane Press.)
Rob: 13th Age is the indie-style d20-rolling fantasy game Jonathan Tweet (lead designer of 3e) and I have designed now that we’re free to design the rpg we want to keep playing together. Characters have One Unique Thing and backgrounds they invent themselves and the world is only half-designed so that each campaign is a collaboration between the GM and players. This ties in to the question about connecting with people who play our games: I loved reading the 13th Age playtest feedback and all the wonderful things people invented for their games. And I love running two-hour demos at conventions and being surprised every time by how much people bring to the table. The 13th Age project is an attempt to let that freewheeling creative spirit loose around the familiar core of a d20-rolling system. Jonathan and I wanted to design a game where we would always be happy to hear about people’s campaigns.
DDMG: I have the preview pdf. It must be exciting to finally have hard copies going out.
Rob: They’re printing now, I think they’ll be going to out to people who pre-order the book at PelgranePress.com in July. So I’m going to GenCon to have fun playing the game and selling the book. I’ll stop by your zone.
DDMG: Thanks, Rob.
Rob: I had fun answering new questions. Thanks, Dwayne.