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Critical-Hits.com
Spotlight Interview
Bart Carroll

Who doesn't love rolling a critical hit—whether in game or when experiencing the hits of games, books, and movies?

Dave Chalker serves as editor-in-chief of Critical-Hits.com, dedicated journal of gamer culture; in an effort to better showcase D&D's community of sites and blogs, we quizzed Dave (winner of the recent DM Challenge) about his bloggers, movie preferences, and the inner workings of the Klangrion Empire.


Wizards of the Coast: Can you tell us the genesis for Critical-Hits.com—what drove you to create the website: as a blog to house D&D musings at first, or always as a larger site to also include thoughts on geek culture, movie reviews, and the like? Do you feel the two (RPGs and geek culture) necessarily go hand-in-hand (would you ever have wanted to cover one without the other)?

Dave Chalker: It was kind of a weird time when we started Critical Hits. Many of us were graduating college, starting to move on to real jobs, get married, and so on. Our gaming group was pretty split up at the time, and so we'd have long conversations about "nerd stuff" through email and IMs… everything from comics, to movies, to (of course) D&D. I wanted a way to bring more people into the conversation. Meanwhile, one of those friends (who posts as TheMainEvent on our site) started his own Wordpress blog based on a similar idea, focusing on humor and politics. I combined those concepts and started Critical Hits. At the time, I wasn't in a D&D campaign, and the early posts reflect what I was into when we started. However, once I started running regularly again (and more so with the announcement that 4E was coming out), we shifted focus to covering D&D and other roleplaying games, and that's been our primary attention ever since.

But not our only attention of course! I do think that RPGs and geek culture go strongly hand-in-hand. Not only do we need something to do between D&D sessions, all those movies, comics, novels, TV shows, and video games influence the games we run. My first DM had a habit of mixing Robotech characters into his games, and my first campaign featured parodies of Star Wars characters in the divine pantheon. When I had the privilege to play in an adventure run by Gary Gygax himself, we started out in a small town drawn by hand on a sheet of graph paper. The names of the various NPCs and buildings featured all kinds of puns and science fiction/fantasy references. If that's not enough to convince someone that the two go together, I don't know what is!

I've been running Critical Hits for over 4½ years now, and am consistently happy with how much we've grown and continue to grow. We still are trying to figure out what the proper balance of subjects is, and what people want to read about, and that's both the challenge and the fun.

Wizards of the Coast: When and how did you start working along with (Managing Editor) Bartoneus and The Chatty DM—not to mention the other regular and guest columnists (including, we'd love to point out, the mighty Chris Sims!)—in this endeavor?

Dave: Bartoneus is a longtime friend—I DMed the first D&D campaign he was ever in. He's been there since almost the very beginning and is one of the site's most vocal supporters. As we started to get going, it was clear that he "got" what I was trying to do and has been a huge contributor to the success of the site, as well as the first to tell me if he thought I was doing something wrong (and he's often right).

Once we started to invite more writers, it just made sense to make him the Number 1 to my Picard. Part of the advantage in running an online publication is that I can make up whatever titles I want for people.

For a long time, the only writers were friends of ours, and there have been plenty of times that it was pretty much exclusively Bartoneus and I putting out content week after week, holding ourselves to pretty rigorous schedules even when there was no one to force us to. Since the beginning, I wanted to include a wide range of writers for Critical Hits. I finally decided I needed to make a big change if we were going to sustain the amount of content, especially the kind that readers were asking for.

I sent out an email to people I knew and trusted asking if they had any ideas, and I got one response I didn't expect. The Chatty DM had been a reader for a while (and listed us as an inspiration for him starting his own blog) as well as a good friend. He told me that he was tired of dealing with a lot of the technical pieces of running a blog by himself—dealing with hackers, making backups, and so on. Plus, he was looking for an editor. It just suddenly seemed obvious that we should merge.

Once that arrangement was announced, I noted publicly that I was still looking for more writers. Almost immediately, I started to get responses from talented people who wanted to write for us, some of whom saw what Chatty DM was doing with us and said, "Hey, that sounds like fun." From that, we picked up Vanir, Scott Wallace, Dixon Trimline, and a few occasional guest writers like Mike Shea of Sly Flourish and Matt James of Loremaster.

Chatty DM had been talking to Chris Sims via email about other projects, being the chatty guy he is. When Chatty found out that Chris was looking into blogging, he made the introduction and the offer. So far, response to Chris's articles has been great, and the addition of an industry professional to the site has brought answers to much requested advice to wannabe D&D writers (including myself!).

Wizards of the Coast: How do you tend to collaborate with your fellow contributors? Do you each have favorite areas to cover?

Dave: One of the big parts about adding so many writers has been setting up a schedule. Most of the new writers I settled into their own regular columns, each with their own areas of expertise. Bartoneus and I trade off on a regular feature that asks a poll question and is our greatest source of reader feedback. Vanir writes about general geek culture (and is one of the funniest writers I know.) Bartoneus writes most of our product reviews, and occasionally does a webcomic. Chris does a regular mailbag column where he encourages anyone to send him questions (from anything to working on D&D to how to improve your game) as well as editorials. Scott Wallace does detailed pieces about all kinds of inspirational flavour (with a "u" because he's Australian) that can be dropped into any campaign. The Main Event does advice about campaign planning. I write an irregular column about game design in the board game world and beyond. I'm also the "newshound" of Critical Hits, which is what first brought wider attention to us—I try very hard to be the site with the scoop in the world of D&D and gaming.

Even though I'm the editor-in-chief, I like to think of myself as pretty easy going when collaborating. I try never to kill an article—at worst, I got back to the author and suggest changes to better organize it or make it more interesting for the audience. Even on subjects I don't agree with I try to get them posted, then disagree in the comments.

I've written over 800 posts, so it's hard to choose a single favorite. My writeup of the game I talked about earlier where I got to play with Gary Gygax ranks high up there for fond memories, our guide to skill challenges is arguably our most useful and most popular post, and my personal account of attending a wedding with a friend and having my luggage lost by the airline written up as an adventure module was probably the most fun to write.

Wizards of the Coast: In your bio, you describe yourself as a lifelong gamer—how did you first get started gaming in the world of Dungeons & Dragons?

Dave: My dad was a science fiction and fantasy author, so we'd travel to conventions all the time, where he'd do signings, perform readings, moderate panels, etc. Of course, as a young kid, those things didn't appeal to me much. One time when I was bored and looking for things to do, I happened upon the gaming room. There was a group there playing what was probably 1st Edition AD&D. I asked my mom if I could see what they were doing—I was used to playing board games with friends and family, but this clearly was something different and intriguing. She asked the group if I could watch, and they said it was fine, so I sat there quietly for a while before making my way back to the hotel room.

I was a regular in the gaming room at cons after that, and I made up my own RPG systems to play with my friends for years. It wasn't until middle school that I'd seriously get into D&D (AD&D 2nd Edition at the time). I attended a summer "computer camp" at Carroll County Community College and spotted someone using a scanner (when the technology was still new) to copy pages out of a 2E DMG. I approached him, we got to talking, and he invited me to attend his big brother's D&D group hosted at the local library. At the time I only owned one D&D book: The Complete Psionics Handbook, a book I still own to this day.

I showed up to my first session with an Elven Psionicist named "Spock" who used only the portions I could reverse engineer from the handbook (since I didn't yet own a PHB) and was doomed to only ever advance to level 7 thanks to demi-human level limits. Fortunately, my new gaming group didn't laugh at me too much and I rolled up a new character: a Dwarven Fighter named "Smasher".

I played in that campaign for a while, and started buying the books. It wasn't too long until I started my own campaign, which combined the D&D world with the world of the (then fresh and new!) computer game Doom. That campaign lasted 2 sessions before collapsing. My next campaign, however, was more classically D&D, and went on for years and spawned several sequel campaigns. It featured parodies of geek culture (in addition to the Star Wars pantheon, a major enemy was the spacefaring "Klangrion Empire") but told a sold story, and we still have fond memories of that campaign today.

Many of the people that I played those early campaigns with remain some of my closest friends to this day—in addition to many other friends I've met through D&D.

Wizards of the Coast: At this year's PAX East, you won the DM Challenge—can you give us a quick rundown on what this event entailed? Your prime competitor may well have been The Chatty DM; did having a Moriarty to your DM Holmes help push you along in this challenge to victory?

Dave: Sure—a few months back, the event was announced as a way for DMs to show off their skills and craft an awesome adventure, and be rated against other DMs. The event provided some rough guidelines about what the adventure should contain: it had to use elements from the Underdark book, use 6 pregen characters from PHB3, fit in 5 hours, and so on. Since I knew Chatty DM would be there as well, and I'm naturally competitive (the whole "lifelong gamer" thing), I challenged him to compete against me.

I was worried the event wouldn't have enough participants for both of our tables to run—boy, was I wrong. I think there were 10 DMs competing in all, each with a full table, including fellow blogger SarahDarkmagic, and while Chatty DM was my most obvious competition, here were DMs from all over who were probably also awesome... the pressure was seriously on.

Competing against Chatty DM did push me a bit—we had several trash talking sessions beforehand over IM, and he regularly helps me plan my adventures so I knew what he would come up would be great. Ultimately the biggest help was how awesome my group of players was, though. Still, I know Chatty DM is looking for a rematch, and now there are other DM bloggers who would like to take the title from me.

I wrote about the process of planning my winning adventure on my site and would like to publish the winning adventure in some fashion eventually. I've even been asked to run that adventure at subsequent conventions since.

Wizards of the Coast: Critical Hits just aired the first episode of the Dungeon Master Guys podcast—what motivated you to take your views to the internet airwaves, and what are your goals with this podcast as opposed to written site content?

Dave: I've done an on-and-off podcast for Critical Hits for about two years, mainly focusing on our convention coverage for times it made more sense to have audio... and where it was a lot less work to post. Plus, I've been a guest on The Tome Show podcast a few times, as well as being on a few seminars about DMing, so I knew I had something to contribute to a podcast.

However, it wasn't until talking over Twitter with Chatty DM and Newbie DM that we discovered that there was an unmet demand in a podcast that just dealt with DM advice. I personally have trouble listening to podcasts that just ramble on whatever tangents come to mind. That's fine for the people that enjoy those, but I was insistent that we make a podcast that I myself would want to listen to. The three of us were in agreement about this, and decided to do a shorter (half hour) podcast that featured multiple segments from each of us, and dealt with listener questions. Once the format was decided on, everything shook out from there.

Podcast listeners are a different audience than site readers—you can't yet safely read Critical Hits while driving to work. However, if you're someone like myself and enjoy both podcasts and blogs, you don't want duplicated content. There doesn't seem to be any end to topics about DMing, and it's safe to say the three of us have unique ideas, so hopefully we can keep bringing new, useful information to the listeners. We also plan to have on many of our blogging friends that have great advice, interview a few famous DMs about their styles, and most importantly, answer any burning questions that come up with your game.

Wizards of the Coast: You've been at PAX East, D&D Experience, Gen Con… while you've covered these conventions for Critical Hits, these days you're also able to field questions coming in through Facebook, Twitter, etc. How do you envision the future of conventions—both in terms of their offerings and their coverage—now that folks do not necessarily need to attend to have their questions asked?

Dave: Being a lifelong con-goer myself, I don't ever envision a time when I'll sit at home on a computer to attend conventions. It is important for both con-goers and convention organizers that there is a bigger expectation of the con experience not being fully limited to actually being there at the time. Questions coming from online to be asked in seminars is only one manifestation of this. Those seminars also are going to reach a wider audience, which to me, is entirely positive. If con events are podcasted, broadcasted, live blogged, what have you, they're going to reach all the people who couldn't be there, and make them want to be there next year. Even if you are at the convention, you can't make everything that goes on, and being able to view it later is a huge advantage. At Pax East, I couldn't get into see Wil Wheaton's keynote address, but I was able to watch it later on YouTube. It's great that knowing the right people isn't the only way to find out about a convention anymore.

I'm also happy to see convention organizers and convention attendees embrace social media. This helps me plan my convention before I attend, and also helps me to know what's going. It's always easy to miss an event—especially if that event is spontaneous—and something like Twitter lets me hear about it as it's happening. In fact, I started a twitter account (@criticalhits) just to do Gen Con coverage, and it's slowly expanded to become something I use all the time.

Wizards of the Coast: Finally, a current Inquisition of the Week asked what summer movies we'll be watching. How would you rate the following, in terms of what you're looking forward to:

  • Kick-Ass
  • The Losers
  • Iron Man 2
  • Robin Hood
  • Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time
  • The A-Team
  • Jonah Hex
  • Toy Story 3
  • The Last Airbender
  • Predators
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Dave: I'm a huge Scott Pilgrim fan, and especially after seeing the trailer, that's at the top of my list. Iron Man 2 is also going to be a must-see since I enjoyed the first one and it's going to be interesting to see how this fits into the larger Marvel Universe film plan that will lead to the Avengers movie. I have a soft spot for well-done westerns (and it's based on a good comic) so I have high hopes for Jonah Hex. The rest sound like fun and I wouldn't mind seeing them, with the only exception being The A-Team movie. All my 80's nostalgia is tied to cartoons, and even Mr. T couldn't make that movie look good to me.

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