Wolfgang: Well, I started with Dungeon and I moved over to Dragon later, and I was hired on there, as, like, junior, shoe-polishing flunky around 1990. Before TSR went under.
Lou: Right. Ok, that’s what I thought. You were the editor in my late college days.
Wolfgang: Well I was editor of Dragon for about 3 minutes, right? There was a rough patch there after Roger Moore left, and it was a tiny staff. Three people plus a graphic designer and some back office support from the TSR folks. Really it was Barb Young and Roger Moore, and me, and Dale Donovan was there for a while.
Lou: I remember that, going back into the 80s, right?
Wolfgang: Oh yeah. Roger had been there before, throughout the 80s. Barbara had been there several years by the time I showed up. Roger, of course, was the madman who said, ‘Hey man, let's launch Dungeon!” And if you go back to issue one, you realize, “Gosh, you know, Roger, rewrote every entry here.” He politely put other people’s names on modules, but really, he took whatever he could get then rewrote it from the ground up…and that’s how he launched Dungeon. At some point he realized, “this is crazy, I can’t do two magazines on a staff of two.”
Lou: Right. So you’ve been with Dragon magazine all the way back into my high school days.
Wolfgang: Well, I didn’t get there till ’91, but Roger was there.
Lou: Right. So…
Wolfgang: So we’ve established I’m old as the hills [laughter].
Lou: [laughter] Well, we’ve got to start this interview off right, you know? In addition [to the magazines], you’ve been all over the Alternity stuff. I mean, hell, everyone goes, “Wolfgang Baur! Wolfgang Baur!” You’re a name in the industry. You know that, right?
Wolfgang: Well, it’s just ‘cause I’ve toughed it out longer than most people do, right? [laughter] Most of the TSR guys have moved to greener pastures. Where is Zeb Cook? The answer is, he’s off designing computer games, right? Or where did Bruce Nesmith wind up? He’s at Bethesda Software.
Lou: Right. So you had assassins take out all your rivals. That’s what you’re saying.
Wolfgang: I did. Or make them better offers. Get out of tabletop games! [laughter]
Lou: You’ve done amazing work, and you’ve done lots of it – and you know that. But the question I have is, of all the things you’ve created, what’s the stuff that still gives you the most pride when you look back? What do you look back at and go, “Wow! I made that!”
Wolfgang: Well, there’s a lot of them that I’m proud of. Certainly the Planescape, Planes of Law, Planes of Chaos boxes are right up near the top, because that was such a special time and that was a special team. A lot of people just worked their butts off to make those great. I have a certain fondness for the first big standalone, freelance thing I ever did, which, looking back on it, is horribly flawed. Still, Assassin Mountain for Al-Qadim was the first thing that wasn’t in a magazine. It was its own piece.
Lou: I remember that!
Wolfgang: The maps are by Dave Sutherland, right, so it’s hard to argue. I got to wander over to the map rooms and watch him draw these things. I’m like, “Oh, Dave, if I’d known that you were going to do this beautiful thing, I would have worked so much harder on my map turn-over.“ He turned it into gold.
Lou: Yeah, yeah. I always wind up handing in shit doodles, and somehow they come out like maps when the [laughter] artists get done with it.
Wolfgang: They’re good with it, but, you know, those sorts of early pieces, when there still was a TSR, I’m very happy with. Like Dark Matter, from the time I spent at Wizards on the Coast. I mean, Dark Matter was my last project there, but I still think it was the best.
Lou: Hot. It’s shit hot.
Wolfgang: Yes, it did quite well despite being science fiction and conspiracy genre before…
Lou: Yeah, before that was popular. And also before it had any real backing…
Wolfgang: Well, there was the X-Files, but that was about it. They pushed pretty hard for it, and I think the series of supplements that came out for it are still excellent for modern role playing.
Lou: I’m looking at them right now. I’ve got them all on my shelf.
Wolfgang: And then more recently, I’m really, really proud of what Open Design has done. I mean, it’s picked up some Ennie nominations for a good reason: it’s doing something different. And winning the Diana Jones award, ok, I’m going to mention that as often as possible [laughter].
Lou: As you should! As you should!
Wolfgang: I mean it’s a really nice nod from the industry… I wandered off out on a limb, and I wasn’t sure anybody was going to follow me. And then people sort of turned around a cheered!
Lou: You should introduce yourself that way. Say, “Hi. My name’s Wolfgang-Diana-Jones-Award-Winning-Baur.”
Wolfgang: [laughter] Yes, I’ve been saying that a lot. It’s on my business card.
Lou: Let’s talk about Open Design a little. Was there a specific inspiration? How did that brainchild come about? Were you in the shower? On the toilet? Talking with friends?
Wolfgang: Late at night, my daughter was an infant. I was not getting a lot of sleep, and I thought to myself, “Eh, I’ve been blogging about stuff. I’ve been thinking about electronic outreach, building a community of gamers, and experimental design. I want to write some stuff that no one in their right minds at WotC would pay for, right?”
Wolfgang: Something crazy, and I’ll just put it out there. I’ll say I’ll collaborate with the people who fund it. And, great! I put it out there as a midnight post on the Open Design blog, and said [to myself]: you know, if nobody’s answered in the next couple of days, if nobody steps forward and says, “Here’s a few bucks to pay an artist, to pay you…” I’ll just fold it up quietly, right, and slink away. And I woke up and, it’s like, wow! Look at this! A dozen people said, “I’ll put a little money down on that. Sure I’ll take a chance.” And then a few dozen more showed up. And before long, that first project was kicking along.
I mean, I designed discussions, voting, polls, working the outlines, reworking them, critiques, play test… And the first project came together in about three or four months. Still got some rough edges, but it was successful enough and exciting enough, creatively, that I said, “Wow, working directly with the audience is...”
Lou: Pretty intense?
Wolfgang: Yes. Very intense, and I loved it. I said let’s do it again, and it’s gotten better every time.
Lou: So, how many people now? Do you have a cap on the number of patrons you accept for a specific project? Does it fill up all the time?
Wolfgang: I haven’t had to cap it yet, although we’re reaching that point where I’m either going to have to cap it, or I’m going to have to raise the price…
Lou: Which would effectively be the same thing.
Wolfgang: Effectively the same thing, right.
Lou: So numerically, how many people is that? How many people jump aboard a project now?
Wolfgang: The most popular projects have had about two hundred patrons.
Lou: Wow, that’s big.
Wolfgang: Other projects have been very successful with 100 patrons. So it’s not like it needs to be huge. 100 people is enough, and half of them only lurk while half are all over it.
Lou: So at what kind of numbers would you put a potential cap at? Where does it become unwieldy to have too many cooks?
Wolfgang: It’s already close to that. I don’t know if it’s because…I could speculate, but there’s just a certain point where you’re getting a lot of good ideas, and the brain storming threads are really cooking along, but it’s like, wow – that’s 160 posts to read.
Lou: It just becomes too much to go through, to integrate?
Wolfgang: It’s not that it’s bad material, or that some of those patrons aren’t really contributing and having a good time. It’s just, I think the sheer volume of discussion then becomes too big. So it has to stay small.
Lou: Could start splitting it off? Multiple projects at once?
Wolfgang: Yes. I did get Nicolas Logue, and he did a fantastic job. I got to stand back and just watch him work.
Lou: Except that Logue guy, he’s kind of crazy? [laughter]
Wolfgang: The initial brainstorms were so twisted that I had a few patrons email me privately.
"Wolfgang, this Logue guy?”
[high, panicked-publisher voice] “No, no. He’s just putting it out there. We can dial him back.”
“We need to, this is probably illegal in Sweden…”
Wolfgang: [laughter] He really took it out there, and that’s what’s great about Open Design. There’s not a big corporate code sitting around saying it’s got to be PG-13...
Lou: …and we can’t do this…
Wolfgang: Right. No, “it has to fit into the Barnes and Noble rack, and the buyer there says, if there’s too much blood…” or whatever. None of that applies. So, Nick went right there.
Lou: Of course he did. [laughter]. Now Zobeck is an Open Design project also, right?
Wolfgang: Well, sort of. They’re all Open Design projects, really. For the very first one I needed a city; so I said, fine, we’ll call it Zobeck. It’ll be sort of an Eastern European place with some clockwork, and a ghetto full of Kobolds, and huge arcane collegiums where all the forms of magic are taught, and it will be a free city, right? It won’t have nobles and princes. It will be all merchants ruling it, and the people, kind of, have their independence. It’s a free city like Greyhawk.
Lou: So, Prague meets Venice meets Greyhawk?
Wolfgang: Yes. Yes, that’s very much it, and it has shown up again and again in later Open Designs. It’s sort of the default setting, right? Put the adventure somewhere.
Lou: It represents the background world where, even if it’s not highlighted or brought to the fore, somebody might be from Zobeck?
Wolfgang: Right. And if somebody wants to…there’s a whole Zobeck Gazetteer full of clockwork magic. New spells there. A new clockwork PC race. A bit on the gods and this whole thing on how to build a Kobold ghetto.
Lou: [laughter] That’s easy. I’ve got one of those in my backyard. So what about the name Zobeck? Is there any history to that? Was that something that just came down from the muse?
Wolfgang: [laughter] It sounded a little like German Hanse city from back when; only, putting an umlaut in an American product was not going to work, right? So, Lubec? No. Zobeck? Yeah. It was meant to sound like a vaguely Germanic, Eastern-Central-European trade city that could have been a Hanseatic trade city. Really it’s just, “Hey, I like this…”
Lou: Absolutely… I firmly believe, especially in fiction, in using phonetics to capture an emotional sensibility and convey it. That’s clearly what you did with Zobeck, because I instantly think Eastern European. And the moment you say clockwork, oh yeah, that fits! All purely at a non-conscious level.
Lou: Definitely works. Now, the desire to have no nobles or no massive established ruling group, does that tie into the decision to do cults [for Zobeck] instead of established religions?
Wolfgang: Well, there are cults and established religions. It ties into the second Open Design, called Castle Shadowcrag, where I needed to have an old ruined fortress hanging around. I said, “Well, what if the noble family that lived there were all slaughtered off in the revolt? That’ll work.” Presto! Back-story. Now I have to live with the back-story, where all the nobles got offed in the revolt.
Lou: Right, right.
Wolfgang: It ties neatly into the sort of the avarice and treasure-grubbing of your typical D&D group. I think that’s sort of a weak spot, or a blind spot, in the moral compass of many D&D gamers. So I said, eh, we’ll make that [Cult of Mammon]… you know?
Lou: Wait. You’re telling me you have gamers with a moral compass? [laughter] The characters, I mean. I’m sure the gamers do. [laughter]
Wolfgang: There’s a paladin in every group, and he’s the one I’m trying to annoy. [laughter]
Every city has like its own character, right? And its own things it aspires to, and those are the five [cult] gods. We don’t need a lot of gods in Zobeck. Let’s keep it down to five. Then it [a city] has its weak side, and one of them is about sex. One of them is about money, and one of them is about, mmmmmm, maybe immortality is the way to think about it. And one of them is just about power. So, those are all things that are appealing. I figure cults should offer people something beyond, we-are-crazy-people-from-beyond-the-stars, right?
Wolfgang: The Lovecraft angle has been overplayed lately so…
Lou: I wouldn’t know anything about that. [whistles innocently]
Wolfgang: [laughter] I love call of Cthulu, but I guess I’ve been playing so much of it, I don’t want to make my cults exactly like those cults.
Lou: Ok, so we’ve got money, we’ve got power, we’ve got sex, we’ve got…
Wolfgang: Immortality, sort of…
Lou: Life extension?
Lou: So which one of them appeals to Wolfgang the most?
Lou: [laughter] Ohhhkay. I see. Just stick that piggish snout in there, go brrthbrrthnrrth.
Lou: Fine, I’ll work on that.
Wolfgang: I hate cults that don’t make any sense, right? We used to see this all the time in Dungeon. Someone would send us a query, and we would say, “Well, why is this villain doing this?” And the answer was, “Because he’s evil.” Ok. We get that, but even evil people have a motive. Right?
Lou: Sure. Something that, if nothing else, is the reason why their particular form of evil jazzes them.
Wolfgang: Right, right. I mean, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Lou: Except for Logue. [laughter] I have a Zobeck question that’s sort of unrelated to the content of the city. The first time I saw Zobeck, it was some of your preliminary stuff. Advertising that said the Zobeck Gazetteer is coming, and the artwork you chose for the cover was just gorgeous! And…
Wolfgang: We got lucky.
Lou: I knew there had to be a story to that. What was that? What is that? Who is that?
Wolfgang: One of the things about Open Design I love is that patrons sometimes tell me, “Hey, there’s this artist over here. We probably can’t afford him, but could you go ask him if he’ll do some art?” And Malcolm McClinton is the artist behind that piece you’re talking about, and, I mean, he’s just jaw-droppingly good.
Lou: Yeah, I mean, I saw that and I thought, “Oh, that has to be one of the Renaissance masters or something, and Wolfgang just grabbed it because it’s in the public domain. Wow, what a fantastic design choice.” So you’re telling me, no, that’s not the case. It’s this guy…
Wolfgang: That’s not the case. Yeah. He did a really great job. And he’s done a few others. He’s done some for the fourth edition adventure, Wrath of the River King, and I think if all goes well, we may even see him… Well, he’s on the most recent cover of Kobold Quarterly…and if all goes well, we’ll see him in Halls of the Mountain King as well.
Lou: The current cover of Kobold Quarterly, by the way, drags me back to classic Dragon Magazine. That’s just a fantastic cover.
Wolfgang: Yes. Yes, that was a piece he had floating around, and he hadn’t found a home for it. And I’m, like, uh, over here, please! It struck me as exactly the sort of thing Dragon used to nail.
Lou: Exactly. The kind of thing that led to Elmore.
Wolfgang: Yes. Yes. So it’s a fantastic piece. I think he sells prints of it. And yet, we’re lucky to be getting the cover we’re getting. Also, William O’Connor. Did you see William O’Connor’s piece on issue 7?
Lou: Yes. Nice. That’s one of the things that’s been really, really, exciting watching you develop KQ. The direction of the art that you’re attracting. Not that the first cover wasn’t fun and fantastic, or didn’t communicate what you needed to communicate…but now you’re getting things that just drop jaws.
Wolfgang: Issue 1 got our mascot, and I can’t complain, but it was very much, let’s rattle together something. Now we’re actually commissioning pieces and picking up pieces from names you’re average gamer is going to recognize, like William O’Connor.
Lou: Let’s talk about Kobold Quarterly for a second, because I was canvassing people, you know, trying to get some inside dirt on Wolfgang, and well…we’ll get to that. [laughter] We’ll get to that.
Lou: You’re a little bit of a cipher to your fans out there, Wolfgang, did you know that? Asking around about KQ, I picked up a couple of rumors about you starting KQ. I heard Wolfgang has a master plan: he’s seen the unfortunate gap created by the lack of a magazine, and he’s launching KQ with the express objective of taking over the gaming publishing industry in X number of years. But then there was a counter rumor, and the counter rumor claims you’re wife came to you and said, “Wolfgang, make some more fucking money!” [laughter]
Wolfgang: I told her about… [laughter] Well, I’m afraid that the reality is ‘none of the above’ because I’m not clever enough to take over the gaming industry. But I did see an opportunity there. Where it was clear that Wizards was not interested in playing in the print space.
Wolfgang: They were just going to charge you for your website access and give you a PDF. That’s fine. I mean, that works for the Wall Street Journal and, um, some non-family sites.
Lou: No comment.
Wolfgang: Right. That’s them. I wish them a lot of luck with it. I think it will work, but that’s not what I want. I wanted a print magazine, and I wanted something more fanzine-style.
Lou: And there are many people… clearly there are many who agree.
Wolfgang: Yeah. And many people have stepped forward and said, “We support that. Here’s my subscription.” So it really isn’t a clever way to take over, but it is a clever way to say, “Hey…here’s a piece that’s [in print and] of more of interest to the crowd, written by freelance names you know. With something to inspire your gaming every time you pick up a copy.”
Lou: So it wasn’t your wife, riding you like a show pony?
Wolfgang: No, no, no.
Wolfgang: She knows magazines are a labor of love. If I were in it for the money, I probably would have said, magazine? No. No way in hell. Because you may have noticed, Paizo has not launched a new magazine.
Lou: I did notice that, but I did hear another rumor about KQ – that you have a large military constituency. Is that right?
Wolfgang: Oh, absolutely, yes. We distribute onto military bases, and we also have a program called the Adopt a Soldier Program, where anyone can chip a few bucks our way and we’ll match a portion of it. The end result is a free subscription for someone in the armed forces.
Lou: Oh, that’s great!
Wolfgang: Yeah, people write to us. They say, “Hey, I’m stationed wherever.” And we just say, send it from your ‘.mil’ account, letting us know you’re legit, and we’ll put you on the list. I was worried about that program at first because, are enough civilians to step forward and sponsor these free subscriptions? Absolutely!
Lou: And where would people go if they want to do that?
Wolfgang: We…have that on the Kobold Quarterly.com store. It’s not hard. It’s $27, I think.
Lou: Ok, great. So, I brushed up there against an aspect of your personal life; so now I’m going to delve in a little more. [laughter] But I promise…
Wolfgang: Sure, go for it.
Lou: I promise to leave your wife alone so you don’t kill me at Gencon.
Lou: But I heard a rumor that you have some Hessian in your ancestry?
Wolfgang: Yes. Northern Germany, Western Germany, ah, Switzerland, Poland, Dresden, um, East Prussia—
Lou: Trenton on Christmas Day? Drinking too much? [laughter]
Wolfgang: [laughter] I don’t think any… Well, not to my knowledge were any of them actually press-ganged by the Hessian king and sent to the States. They stayed in the Hesse, until quite recently. My family emigrated to the States in the ‘50s. Still fairly close to a lot of cousins, aunts and uncles in Germany.
Lou: Any famous Hessians in the background?
Wolfgang: Well, there’s an artist, but he’s not a Hessian. You know, they’re mostly not so famous. I have an uncle who was a city planner for Hamburg. That doesn’t count either. [laughter]
Lou: It almost seems like a very short leap to think your interest in genealogy and your Hessian ancestry, an almost vaguely Eastern European, Germanic sort of background, might have influenced Zobeck. Has that interest in family background influenced your other writing?
Lou: Fair enough. So, let me wind down here, then. I’ve collected a couple of fan questions that I want to hit you with, and you’re going to know some of these fans.
Lou: One of the interesting things about you being, the Wolfgang I-won-a-Diana-award Baur [laughter] is you don’t just have fans. You have fans who are also industry people. So first question comes from Lilith, pretty famous on the Paizo boards for handing out cookies. And she would like to know [rustles papers]
“You’ve got a rather unhealthy obsession with ghouls…where does it come
Lou: It wasn’t that time you got arrested sneaking out of the morgue?
Wolfgang: [laughter] But you know, hey! Charges were never pressed.
Lou: Oh, right, right. Never convicted. Never convicted. [laughter]
Wolfgang: So, innocent until proven g… uh…alleged! You know, it’s just, I think memento mori are really cool. I think those cellars, the crypts under Paris, are insanely awesome. I don’t know if I quite have a James Dean-like obsession with death, but, you know, you’ve only got a few primal powers out there, so necromancers and death cults and ghouls, um, yeah, those are my favorite villains. Dragons are all very nice, but give me something to creep people out.
Lou: Did you just become, The Wolfgang I’ve-won-a-Diana-Jones-award-not-unfair-to-compare-me-to-James-Dean Baur? Is that what I just heard? [laughter]
Wolfgang: Wow. I have to get myself a new [business card]…I have to say, if you want to put that out there, Lou, I won’t say you’re wrong.
Lou: Fair enough. The creepy factor, it makes sense you’d hook up with Logue. That makes a lot of sense. Our next question comes from another pretty popular writer, actually, who’s shown up in Dragon Magazine a lot (or had shown up in Dragon Magazine a lot), Hal Maclean. Hal thinks that you know your Steampunk pretty tight, and he’s flat out interested in where you think that genre’s going, either in fiction, RPG…anything.
Wolfgang: I think it’s finally crossing over into, not mainstream acceptance, or mainstream anything, but mainstream awareness. Steampunk used to be this tiny, little niche, right? You had, oh, I don’t know, Blaylock and a couple of people writing…
Lou: I love Blaylock.
Wolfgang: I love him, too; but I mean, it was pretty much him for awhile there. And then Gibson and Sterling did one book.
Lou: The Difference Engine, right?
Wolfgang: Exactly. And then there’s been a few more, but it’s not exactly picking up steam. [laughter] So to speak. I can go down to the bookstore now and see that there’s, you know, five or six, or even eight titles in the genre. And I can say, Wow! That’s great! Maybe Castle Falkenstein was the last great, even vaguely Steampunk hurrah in gaming, but there are a few smaller press titles as well, so it’s growing. I think it’s a wonderful field. I think it’s a wonderful subgenre, but I’m afraid it’s always going to be sort of a subgenre, right? It’s never going to be huge.
Lou: I would think that you could interest the Call of Cthulu folks…with a love for the ‘20s and ‘30s and even the Victoriana. I would think that there would be a way to tap that.
Wolfgang: I think there is, but I think it’s sort of a flavor or a spice that people like in small doses, right? It, maybe it’s just a little too…
Wolfgang: Narrow. It is. I would give you that.
Lou: There seems to be a real, Anglophilic thread in the rope, you know? If you don’t like Sherlock Holmes mysteries and don’t dig with that Anglophile thing, it may not be your cup of tea.
Wolfgang: But I don’t think it has to be that way, right? I mean Zobeck takes some of those clockpunk, steampunk…and puts them in the setting, right?
Lou: That’s true, that’s true.
Wolfgang: To go from the astronomical clock in Prague to something along those lines. It doesn’t have to be Anglophilic. But yeah, you’re right. Most of it is. Most of it is set in London. Most of it is gaslight, and that narrows it. What I think needs to happen, if the field is really going to take off, is somebody needs to do a complete bastardized version of it, like a Dan Brown or Michael Crichton type thing –d which all of us purists will hate forever! But it would bring it to a mass audience, right? And everyone would say, “Yeah, yeah, that Steampunk book. That’s awesome. What else is out there?”
Lou: Or maybe even by focusing on the run up to, say, the Crimean or WWI, where you’re doing a lot of multinational skullduggery?
Wolfgang: Yes. I mean, its [Steampunk] got everything right? Its got tech. Its got that, sort of, tech optimism. Its got romantic elements. Its got mystery generally…
Lou: Its got James Bond-ish, Indiana Jones kind of stuff. You can do top hats. Canes…
Wolfgang: Exactly. Snazzy clothes, cool characters doing great stuff with tech.
Lou: Famous cities, awesome wardrobes, wild corners of the globe, and the number one way you know you’re in a fantasy world – dirigibles.
Wolfgang: [laughter] Yes. There are dirigibles. So I hope that Hollywood or a novelist takes it far, but I’m worried that it will never really leave our little beautiful ghetto.
Lou: Well, our last two fan questions come from a fan who has recently written a Pathfinder, and that’s Paizo author Tim Hitchcock.
Wolfgang: Ah, yes.
Lou: And Tim’s first question is [rustles paper]…He would like to know
“Why is your last name spelled without a fucking ‘E’ ?”
Wolfgang: [laughter] Because the people from MY valley spelled it without an ‘E’. One valley over spelled it WITH and ‘E’ and they’re wrong!
Lou: [laughter] And Tim gave us our last and final fan question. He would like to know,
“What it’s like to sleep with Ed Healy?”
Wolfgang: [laughter] I managed to finally find that out at Gencon. I thought it would never happen.
Lou: Oh, sneaky! You said you went to Gencon. You didn’t tell what it was like!
Wolfgang: Oh, I don’t kiss and tell.
Lou: [laughter] I’m sure Ed will be relieved. [laughter] Alright Wolfgang, I think that about give me everything I need to make you look like this necrophiliac… I mean, it’ll be a great interview! [laughter] You’ll be SO glad you did it! [laughter] Thanks again.
Wolfgang: [laughter] Thanks for having me.
Want to learn more about Kobold Quarterly Issue 8? Read on...
- KQ8 Editorial: New Voices
- Game Cryer: Review by Bill Bodden
- Kore Dice: Interview with Cartographer Sean Macdonald
- Core Mechanic: Review of KQ8
- Atomic Array: Episode 015: Kobold Quarterly 008
Drop by Kobold Quarterly.com to pick up your copy today!