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08/24/2004


d20 Future Designer Interview
Interview by Michael Ryan

Christopher Perkins, Rodney Thompson, and JD Wiker

In this month's exclusive interview, the designers of the incredible new d20 Future supplement for the d20 Modern game discuss time dilation, building gadgets in the future, and the difference between hard science fiction and space opera.

Wizards of the Coast: From what sources did you draw inspiration while designing the exceptional wealth of material in the d20 Future book?

JD Wiker: I've been a fan of science fiction since I was old enough to stay up late and watch the classic, black-and-white sci-fi movies on television. Needless to say, I've absorbed quite a bit of the genre over the years, and I've gotten a good handle on the "tropes": the vastness of space, the vagaries of time, the wonders of technology, fear of the unknown, and so forth. So I drew on a wide variety of sources that exemplified those concepts for me, particularly the Alien movies, Blade Runner, I, Robot, John Varley's Titan series, William Gibson's cyberpunk novels and stories, and C.J. Cherryh's Chanur saga. The list just goes on and on.

I also had a lot of useful game material to draw from, including Wizards of the Coast's own Star*Drive setting, Rich Baker's Warships rules for the Alternity Roleplaying Game, and Dave Noonan's mecha rules from Polyhedron #154.

I don't include Star Wars on this list because, strictly speaking, it's not really science fiction -- it's heroic fantasy that just happens to feature spaceships and robots and aliens. (That piece of information is for those of you who wonder why one of the designers of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game would leave it off his list of sci-fi influences.)

Rodney Thompson: I've long been a fan of the classic science-fiction staples, particularly the ones in book form. Dune, Ender's Game, Ringworld, and others of that ilk are among my favorites. I'm also a big fan of the cyberpunk genre, including the works of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Tad Williams, as well as roleplaying games such as Shadowrun, which helped me focus on usefulness in a gaming situation. I also took a good, hard look at all the sci-fi movies in my collection -- a diverse set of sources in itself.

One source that I focused on in particular was the video game industry. Even though the content of such games can't be classified as hard science fiction, the genre thrives in this venue. Thus, I worked very hard to ensure that my sections of the book could cover not only the traditional science fiction books and movies, but also the video games people play every day.

Christopher Perkins: The first science-fiction roleplaying game I ever played was an old TSR game called Star Frontiers. Thus, when I think of science fiction in a gaming context, I think of old Star Frontiers adventures such as Dramune Run, Mutiny on the Eleanor Moraes, Bugs in the System, and Dark Side of the Moon. Needless to say, the game left quite an impression on me and prompted me to include its three "core" nonhuman races (dralasite, vrusk, and yazirian) in the Xenobiology chapter of the d20 Future supplement. I also found inspiration in "cult" science fiction films such as Pitch Black, Lifeforce, and (gulp!) Lost in Space. (I think I'm the only person who liked that film.) I must also give a nod to the movie Fight Club, which inspired me (strangely) to come up with the Space Monkey advanced class.

Wizards: And how much hard science versus space opera did you elect to include in this new book?

JD: I personally included a lot of hard science, especially in the chapters on "traveler science" and time travel. When I discovered that I'd be working on those parts of the book, I pulled out all the old reference books I had used when I was working on Alternity (particularly the Star*Drive book I co-wrote). But at the same time, I tried not to forget that hard science bores some people to death. So for the scientists in the crowd, I explained just how long it would take to travel to, say, Alpha Centauri, and why a human couldn't really do so at any rate approaching the speed of light. For those who want to throw away most of the science and just have fun, I included rules for faster-than-light travel without the negative effects of time dilation. In other words, a hero can call out "FTL factor four, Mister Harden!" in your game, and you don't have to spend the next hour figuring out how much younger the characters will be upon arrival than the people they're going to visit.

Rodney: Having worked on the Star Wars line a couple of times, I knew that certain trappings worked well in space opera, while others worked better in science fiction. That said, I tried to stay clear of blatant space opera elements whenever possible. While I think that fans can certainly use the book to run space opera games, those who prefer harder science fiction should be well pleased. After all, it's easy to convert hard science fiction to space opera, but it's considerably more difficult to go the other direction.

Christopher: We tried to present the rules so that they would appeal to fans of both hard science and space opera. We hope that d20 Future inspires GMs to run all sorts of futuristic campaigns.

Wizards: How did you approach the actual design work here -- did one person design the chapter on Robotics and another the chapter on Xenobiology?

JD: Yeah, for the most part we broke it down by subject. I worked on vehicles, starships, mecha, traveler science, dimensional travel, time travel, robotics, and cybernetics, as well as the Bughunters, Dimension X, and Star*Drive campaign settings. I also worked on quite a few other topics that had to be cut for space reasons.

Rodney: I was lucky enough to be assigned several chapters in which I was particularly interested. The gear chapter was all mine, and I am particularly proud of it. I also worked on half of the sample campaigns, including The Wasteland and From the Dark Heart of Space, as well as large portions of the scientific engineering chapter (particularly those sections dealing with nanotechnology). I wrote the Mutations chapter and contributed to the Environments chapter as well.

Christopher: I did double duty on this project, serving as both design manager and designer. As the design manager, I drafted a preliminary outline for the book (which the writers then modified to suit their own strengths), assigned writers to specific sections, and stitched the book together after all parts were in. I wrote the Characters and Xenobiology chapters, as well as one campaign model (the Star Law setting, inspired by my old Star Frontiers campaign). I also added some "crunchy bits" to the Starships, Mecha, Robotics, Cybernetics, and Mutations chapters once JD and Rodney were done with them.

Wizards: You could have written an entire book, I imagine, on the game effects of time travel -- an intriguing (if somewhat complicated) game twist. How did you determine what approach to take with it, and where did you draw the imaginary line as to how far you'd develop the concept?

JD: Actually, we took both routes -- the book includes rules for dealing with time travel in both a realistic sense and a space opera style.

Realistic time travel involves reaching relativistic speeds, which produces a time dilation effect that causes the journey to pass more quickly for the traveler than for an observer. In this approach, travel into the past and back isn't actually feasible; it's a one-way trip.

For those who consider the realistic explanation little more than scientific gobbledygook, a second set of rules "hand-waves" the science and discusses the effects of traveling into the past. These rules cover what happens if characters muck about with causality -- that is, do something in the past that changes history, potentially with catastrophic consequences.

Wizards: The Starships chapter is both comprehensive and notably detailed. In your playtests and personal campaigns, did you find that players grasped starship combat relatively easily?

JD: This section was heavily developed after I turned it over. My original system was more like the starship rules in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game , but after some discussion, Chris and I felt that approach was too complex for what we wanted to accomplish with this book. So Chris and some of the other designers at Wizards tweaked the rules so they would work more like the D&D Miniatures rules.

Rodney: My playtesters had no problems getting into space combat -- in fact, they embraced it rather quickly. The entire starships chapter was kind of a treat for them, since they are all spaceship junkies, and the detailed descriptions of starship technology (not to mention new concepts such as starship templates) left them salivating for more. I think players and Game Masters alike will be pleased when they see the amount of detail in this chapter.

Christopher: The Starships chapter received a great deal of attention. One of the biggest criticisms about the starship combat system in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game has nothing to do with the quality of the mechanics. It's a great system; unfortunately, very few GMs and players are actually using it. To overcome this barrier, we designed the d20 Future starship combat system to work very much like character combat, which means that anyone who knows the d20 Modern combat rules can figure out the starship combat rules quickly and easily. In this game, starships have more in common with monsters fighting on a one-inch square grid than with the Star Wars system. My only regret is that we couldn't include some cut-out starships and a poster map in the book for production reasons. If the new starship rules prove to be popular, however, we could conceivably include such features in a future product.

Wizards: The future of the cosmos is a huge topic. What did you feel you had to edit down in order to keep the book at a manageable size?

Christopher: Rodney wrote a marvelous chapter on the VRNet (Virtual Reality Network) that wasn't in the original outline, and we had to cut it at the last minute for space reasons. Its excision was painful because there was so much excellent material in it, but we can incorporate into a future product (no pun intended) if there's a demand. Until then, we plan to present the chapter in its entirety on our website, fully formatted and complete with glorious artwork!

We also had to cut several new monsters from the Xenobiology chapter to make the book fit. I wish we had had the space to include the sathar -- those wormlike aliens from the Star Frontiers game. (Fortunately, Darrin Drader included them in his d20 Future web enhancement -- coming soon.) We also sorely underestimated the length of the campaign settings for the Campaigns chapter, so only about half of those we designed actually appear in the book. The rest are locked in the vault until we find another home for them.

Wizards: Are there plans for additional d20 Future supplements?

Christopher: We might write a d20 Future supplement that expands on one or more of the chapters in d20 Future (such as Robotics and/or Cybernetics), but before we do so, we'd like to hear what fans think of the rules set and what they'd like to see in future products.

Wizards: Personally, what's your favorite section of the book?

JD: My personal favorite is probably the Robotics chapter. I wanted to create a comprehensive set of rules for building robots--partly, I admit, so that players of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game could have a more complete system with which to build their droids. But I also really enjoyed writing the section on traveler science; I could really sink my teeth into that topic.

Rodney: I'm very proud of the Gear chapter, primarily because of the new gadget system. When I took a step back and thought about all the technology in the limitless science-fiction worlds, I knew I could never come even close to a comprehensive list in a single chapter. The gadget system was born of a desire to give players and GMs the tools they needed to create equipment specific to their particular campaigns without writing an entire book on various pieces of equipment. After all, most GMs don't need statistics for 200 different laser guns that all have the same net effect; they just need the tools to make the details work for their campaigns. The gadget system allows you to modify basic and generic pieces of equipment, tailoring them to your specific needs according to concrete rules, so you don't have to fudge.

Christopher: I'm pretty pleased with the Characters chapter, which provides options for players of all types. The Nerve Pinch feat makes me giggle, and I would love to play a weren Helix Warrior, an aleerin Technosavant, or a vrusk Xenophile in a d20 Future campaign! I also got a kick out of reading some of JD's new cybernetic items and Rodney's mutations. And the Mecha chapter is simply AWESOME. I like how JD took Dave Noonan's Mecha Crusade rules (originally published in Polyhedron) and integrated them into the d20 Future framework. Finally, the artwork blows me away. Robert Raper really pushed his illustrators, and it shows on page after page.

I think players will enjoy all the chapters written specifically for them, namely the Characters, Gear, Vehicles, Mecha, Robotics, Cybernetics, and Mutations chapters. Each one holds a plethora of options.

Wizards: Which new creature should players be wary of encountering in some dark alley (or on the dark side of some planet)? Some of them seem particularly lethal!

JD: The klick. No doubt in my mind.

Rodney: That's hard to say. Me, I would watch out for any creature that has the Vexing Voice mutation. That siren song has been the doom of many adventurers.

Christopher: The weren dreadnought. He eats klicks for breakfast.

Wizards: And finally, what's in your respective futures? What are each of you working on now?

JD: Well, you should shortly be seeing my contribution to the Star Wars Miniatures Game in the form of Ultimate Missions: Rebel Storm, and my own company (The Game Mechanics) is releasing two of my books this year: Artifacts of the Ages: Rings (a book on saga-scale magic jewelry); and the second part of the City Quarters series: Temple Quarter (a "plug-and-play" sourcebook for urban fantasy roleplaying with more great Chris West maps).

Rodney: Right now, I'm working on a new campaign setting designed to be compatible with d20 Future. It's a space western in the same vein as the TV show Firefly (among others), and I hope it will actually see print. Additionally, I'm doing some writing for Paizo Publishing's Dungeon Magazine, and I'll be continuing work on the Stargate SG-1 Roleplaying Game line from Alderac Entertainment Group in the future.

Christopher: My day job includes managing six designers, six product lines (D&D, Eberron, Forgotten Realms, d20 Modern, Star Wars, and miniatures), and more products than I can count using all my fingers and toes. I could tell you what the future holds at least as far as roleplaying games and miniatures are concerned, but then I'd get canned for spilling the beans. In my copious spare time, I'm wrapping up the final adventure in Dungeon Magazine's Shackled City Adventure Path series and working with a film composer named David Davidson to create a CD soundtrack for the second hardbound book in the Eberron line. I'm also making plans for Gen Con, where I hope to track down some new freelancers to help us write some of the books appearing on our 2006 and 2007 product schedule.

d20 Modernd20 Future, August 2004 Release Date, hardcover, full color, 224 pages, $34.95.

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