A Chat With Keith Baker At PAX Unplugged

I was fortunate enough to catch up with Keith Baker at PAX Unplugged 2019, and was doubly so that he was able and willing to take the time to sit down with me for an interview! What follows is our conversation as Baker talks about the Eberron setting, Rising from the Last War, exploring things further, the DM’s Guild, telling stories in The Adventure Zone with Twogether Studios, his favorite among a wide variety of hats, and what he finds most compelling about the roleplaying game experience.

SC: Alright, so my first question for you Mr. Baker is . . . Eberron is one of the youngest D&D settings as these things are reckoned but curiously, unlike a lot of the old timers, it’s shown up now – with Rising from the Last War –  in every edition that’s come out since it was created. Did you ever think that was going to be the case? When you won the contest and you got into the 3.5 era?

KB: I mean, it’s one of those things . . .  I started playing D&D when I was in junior high, and I knew early on that I wanted to make games. I knew, like, I had this book in my hands, someone had the job of making that book, and I always knew this is what I wanted to do. But I never actually expected, you know, and one day . . . there would be thousands of people across the world playing in my setting! So frankly it was amazing then, and the funny thing is it’s one of the younger settings, but it’s fifteen years old!

SC: Right, yeah. In gaming terms that’s ancient.

KB: Yeah! And it’s amazing to me because I’ve had a lot of people recently coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, I started playing D&D in high school, and it was Eberron, and I’m so excited that it’s back out!” And it’s funny to me because I’m like ‘Well I started playing D&D in high school and it was Greyhawk!’ So that’s the weird thought, oh there is someone, who this was their first D&D, and that’s definitely a kind of mind-blowing experience.

SC: So, speaking of Rising from the Last War, it’s the hardcover front-liner for Eberron in this edition, you also have the Wayfinder’s Guide, what was the development process like for Rising? Because you have a setting that already exists, you need to do some mechanical work to transfer it over, what was it like on the narrative side? There have been some changes, the dwarves of the Mror Holds stick out the most…

KB: I’m writing a little more about them in the book I’m working on for the DM’s Guild – we’ll come back to that later – but that’s part of the point. That particular change is a change I was really happy about and excited about, and I want to actually dig a little deeper into it than what we had room to go into with Rising. Because one of the points of Rising is that it’s 320 pages, that’s more than was planned as it was, and there were things that had to get trimmed down. It could’ve been bigger if Wizards made bigger books, but it already is one of the biggest books.

SC: Pretty beefy, as 5th Edition books are reckoned.

KB: It is. So, the Wayfinder’s Guide I largely just did at home by myself. Rising is just a bigger thing, you know, it’s a Wizards product, so there was a lot of people working on it, and over a long period I was working mostly in Portland, and the rest of the team was all at Wizards in Seattle. One of the things I will say is at the beginning, there was definitely an extended period where James Wyatt, Jeremy Crawford, and I were talking about sort of laying out the groundwork, what’s going to be the structure of the book, and also what are the things that we are changing.

So the dwarves were a perfect example, we said well this is a piece that stuck out, that people have generally felt that dwarves don’t have a compelling enough story. How can we add something that makes them more interesting, but without completely rewriting history or changing things? So that’s the point, is what we’ve done with them isn’t changing everything, it is just twisting a little of their previous history. We always said there was an ancient ruined empire down below them, we just said oh it’s just kind of empty and dead. And now we’re like, but what if it’s full of stuff!? It’s essentially you take Lord of the Rings with Moria, and, well, when they first start poking around it’s just a big dusty empty place full of bones, and then when they throw the stone down the well and suddenly it comes to life! And we’re like, I’d like to have that happen!

SC: Yeah, let’s go with that! It’s funny, really, because in home games of Eberron that I would play in or run, the daelkyr and all the aberrations and whatnot would often be the thing that people would slot into that blank space anyways. So it was kind of cool to see it become ‘canon’.

KB: And again, it was always there! What we always said that the previous dwarven empire had been destroyed by the daelkyr, but we just hadn’t left the ‘and they’re still there and they don’t like you.’ Particularly symbionts, the living tools created by the daelkyr, again were in the original book, we just didn’t do much with them. So what I liked here was the idea of one of those core principles of Eberron: anything can be a tool. If we have magic we use it as a tool, if we’re in Droaam we’ve got monsters . . . here it’s that idea of saying if you’re dwarves and you find these things, you could decide they’re horrific and want nothing to do with them but you could also say ‘this is a tool. What can we do with it?’ That’s what I want to explore when I’m doing a little more depth, that point of what does it look like in the places . . . where they really have said why not use this? Why not see what we can make?

SC: So to go back to the DM’s Guild. You have Exploring Eberron coming out in December-

KB: We’re hoping January at this point. Holidays, life, you know, many things have interfered, so it’s more going to be mid-to-late January. [The latest update, which came after this interview, puts the due date in February.]

SC: Right! So it’s going to be in PDF and it’s going to be in Print-On-Demand.

KB: At this point I‘m going to guess it’s going to be at 200 pages, I mean it is a big book. And yes, it’s going to be on the DM’s Guild and it’s going to be PoD.

SC: So that’s the thing that fascinates me. When Eberron was submitted for the contest, if I recall correctly, it was the usual thing where you’ve submitted to the contest, you don’t have ownership rights over it  anymore.

KB: The way the Fantasy Setting Search worked – we often call it a contest but it wasn’t actually a contest, it was an open call, and the big distinction is that they could have decided no one would win. You know it was just a ‘send in your ideas, we’re going to pick the ones we like and narrow it down’. Everyone sent in one page, and they got 12,000 entries. They picked 10 of those. You then had to expand it to ten pages, they picked 3 of those. And those three, they bought. They bought the rights, you expanded it to a hundred pages, and then they picked Eberron from that. But that’s the issue, that some of the other 10 have been published by other publishers, the [other two of the] final three have not, because Wizards bought the rights to them. Wizards owns Eberron, and it owns the other two which even I know nothing about.

SC: They’ve got them under lock and key in a vault somewhere.

KB: Yeah, exactly.

SC: What’s fascinating to me about the DM’s Guild thing is once Wayfinder’s Guide is published, Eberron is open to [anyone to write with in the Guild] . . . how does that change things for you? Because now you just create an Eberron product and publish it yourself as long as it’s through the DM’s Guild. How does that change the plan, if there was a plan?

KB: Oh it’s amazing! That’s just the point, is that for 5 or 6 years I’ve wanted to write stuff for Eberron, but I couldn’t. One of the reasons I have created Phoenix: Dawn Command is that, well, I couldn’t write more Eberron! So part of it is all about time. As I said Exploring Eberron is going to be like a 200 page book. Depending how things go . . . I certainly have lots of ideas, I could write all the giant books in the world, but, you know, I also have to keep food on the table and such. So I may try and write a few smaller products just because writing a 200 page book . .

SC: It’s a lot to do.

KB: It’s a lot to do, it’s the work of many months. Part of it is, I’m really excited about Exploring Eberron, but I’ve been working on it for like six months. It’s just that sort of, I’d rather say hey, maybe I can put something out once a month, every two months. I’ll also be doing more with my website, and that’s going to depend a little on what people want to see and what seems useful. But the main point is that I can do more with it now then I could do before, because you couldn’t legally…

SC: Do anything unless it was explicitly through Wizards of the Coast.

KB: Right. So Exploring Eberron, part of the whole point of it is that it’s covering a lot of topics that I’ve always wanted to write about, but that never ended up being the focus of any of the official books, and that meant I couldn’t write about! So I’m very excited about that.

SC: That’s cool! So, to switch tacks a little bit, obviously you’re very well known for Eberron but then you have Twogether Studios and all the various things that have come out of that.

KB: And the card game Gloom!

SC: Oh yeah!

KB: A lot of people don’t realize I did both Gloom and Eberron.

SC: Yeah, Gloom gets, not forgotten, just disconnected I think…

KB: I just find that people who know me for Gloom don’t realize I did Eberron and people who know me for Eberron don’t realize I did Gloom. So every now and then, people just go ‘Wha!?’ And the reason I call that out in particular is because Phoenix: Dawn Command, the roleplaying game I made with Twogether Studios, to me, is the bridge between Eberron and Gloom. Because it is a fantasy roleplaying game, but it is also story-driven and ultimately you want your character to die.

SC: More than once, even, but death is the end goal!

KB: So, yeah, with Twogether Studios we’ve done a lot of things. Phoenix: Dawn Command, which I’m hoping to get back to a little bit soon, ‘cause I’m very proud of it. Then . . . Illimat, Action Cats, and now we’re working on the Adventure Zone.

SC: So what is going on with this Adventure Zone game?

KB: So The Adventure Zone is a podcast by the McElroy family. And part of the thing of it is, a lot of people have said TAZ is where the McElroy family plays D&D, or other games, the first arc which is sort of what we’re addressing was D&D. And a lot of people were like, ‘I don’t get it, is the Adventure Zone game D&D?’ For us, what we’re saying is, ‘well, yes, but really it is about this family – part of it is people who’ve never played D&D – and they’re sitting down and it’s about an hour long and it’s people having fun together creating a story.’ What we really wanted was to make a game that is that: this is something you can play with your friends who’ve never played D&D, who might be intimidated or thrown off by it, who have never necessarily heard of The Adventure Zone, but who want to work together to have an adventure in about an hour, with a focus on fun storytelling.

So it draws a little bit also on Gloom, it’s the same thing of it’s a card game, and there is a foundation. You have decks of cards that make the dungeon that you are going through. And as you are going through it you are going to face things, determine numbers, roll dice to see if you beat the challenge, but all of that is this foundation on which what we’re trying to do is create a framework for you to tell a really fun story. The comparison to Gloom is, you don’t have to. If you’re just a shy person, if you just don’t like being on the spot, you can just roll your dice and that’s fine! But it is a game which really encourages you: tell us a detail, we’ll give you a +1! What’s so pretentious about this pretentious vampire. It’s up to you, you can add as much as you want. So again, to me, what I like the most about roleplaying is the collaborative storytelling aspect. We’re all making a story together, and so in a large way you can say with the Adventure Zone that it is a lot of what I like about D&D, just saying well let’s drop three quarters of the rules, and let’s just focus on building the story together.

SC: So what’s the actual status of the Adventure Zone game?

KB: It is in-process, and we have been working closely with the McElroys on it. It is going to be open up for pre-order on December 11th, I think the plan is for the pre-order to run six weeks. There will be some special things for people who pre-order it. Then the game itself would probably come out I’d say mid-2020. But I’m very excited about it, people are having a great time playing it at PAX Unplugged, and I’m really looking forward to getting it done!

SC: Awesome! So, this is more of a personal question I suppose. You’ve worn a lot of hats since the Eberron thing-

KB: It’s true!

SC: There’s D&D, there are board games, there are card games-

KB: And yet at the same time I only wear one hat!

SC: It’s a very nice hat, I have to say!

KB: Well thank you!

SC: Anyhow, many hats. Which one’s your favorite?

KB: So, the common theme that links everything I’ve done – you’re right, I’ve done novels, I’ve done comics, I used to occasionally and still on the side worked with MMORPG computer games, and that was what I did before Eberron. So I’ve worked on games for 10,000 people to play at once, I’ve worked on games for 4 people to play at once. To me what I love most of all just is collaborative storytelling, and that’s sort of the theme that runs through all of those. In an MMO, it’s trying to find a way to feel like you’re making a story, even if there’s 10,000 other people in the world. With D&D, what I love is how this particular group of friends deals with something. In 2009 I traveled around the world running a particular adventure, and I ran this one adventure 59 times. And the main thing is, I could run that adventure with you right now and I would still be interested to do it, because I’d want to see what you’d come up with. After 59 times, still every session people would do something I’d never seen before.

That’s what I love, whether I’m a game master or a player, I love that experience of ‘I can watch the same ‘TV show’ and have it be completely different’, and be like ‘wow, I’ve never seen that before!’  So honestly, it’s the same experience whether it’s DMing a round of Eberron or whether it’s just demoing The Adventure Zone for people, I just love seeing people engage and create stories together. So that’s my favorite part.

SC: So I suppose my last question, I always offer this when I do an interview, do you have any final words you’d like to pass on to our readers?

KB: Well the big thing that I just say – building on what I said before – is what I think is the most compelling part of roleplaying is that collaborative part of it. And it can be easy to think of this as ‘this is the DM’s story, and the DM is telling this to the players.’ But to me it’s always stronger and a more compelling experience for everyone, the more you can draw players into creating pieces of it.

A very minor example, but it’s still a thing I always like to do, is if the group is to run into, say, a mob of zombies. I might give a basic scene, they’re in a village, there’s clearly a bunch of farmers here, you see an old woman with a broken leg dragging herself forward. But then I’m going to ask each player, ‘describe a zombie to me.’ And someone’s like, oh there’s a little kid carrying a bloody teddy bear, and someone else is like oh it’s the butcher and he’s missing an arm, you know, whatever it is, and then when I continue to work through the combat, I’m going to work those figures in. And the point of it is because it’s players creating that, now they have a stronger image in their heads of the scene. They’re invested in a way that if I just tell them what they see, it’s different than if I say ‘you tell me what you see.’ And what I love about roleplaying is that it gives us that chance for everyone to be integrated and make the story theirs, in a way that we don’t get when we watch a movie or read a book.

SC: So, that’s it, that’s all I’ve got for you! Mr. Baker, thank you very much for talking with me, this was awesome.

KB: Thank you so much for having me!

Thanks to Jenn Ellis of Twogether Studios for putting out the original call to arrange meeting up, and to Keith again for taking the time out of a busy con to talk with me!

4 thoughts on “A Chat With Keith Baker At PAX Unplugged”

  1. I can only imagine what it was like to interview Keith Baker, but it’s illuminating to see what he sees in Eberron and TTG in general. His vision and worldbuilding skills are something to be admired.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m proud to say I didn’t do a little dance of joy until AFTER the interview was over and we’d said our goodbyes. And highly agreed. ‘Heart’, for lack of a better term, really shines through with some of the people I talk to about their games, and it certainly did so with Baker.

      Like

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