Interview: Autophagia, Crunch, & an Evil Little Chuckle
Aeryn “Blackdirge” Rudel used to be known mostly for creating gruesome and challenging RPG monsters. And some folks might think of him as the editor-in-chief of Goodman Games’ new 4E-only RPG magazine, Level Up, our worthy competition.
Not me, though. For I have faced one of his half-dragon turtles and lived—barely—to tell about it.
The author of more than 50 RPG products, Rudel is also the founder of Blackdirge Publishing and a staff writer at Goodman Games, primarily developing 4E products.
Rudel is author or developer of Blackdirge’s Dungeon Denizens 4E, Tomb of the Blind God, Critter Cache, and the V is for Vermin article (in Kobold Quarterly #5). He contributed two entries in the Hero’s Handbook line and contributed to Dragora’s Dungeon. As a crunch and conversion editor, he’s put his mark on just about everything in the Goodman Games’ catalog.
But for anyone who has gone up against Isked Doomtongue knows, Aeryn “Blackdirge” Rudel will forever be that guy who comes up with those hellaciously challenging monsters.
Rudel and I spoke recently about his work at Goodman Games, Level Up’s 2009 launch, and about monster creation.
Jones: What sort of work do you do at Goodman Games? [More…]
Rudel: Even though my official title is “Staff Writer,” I do a little bit of everything. That means writing, editing, proofing, project management, acting as Joseph’s bodyguard at cons; you know, the usual stuff. In addition to that, I’m the editor-in-chief of Goodman Games’ new 4E magazine, Level Up.
One of the big projects I’m tackling now is editing and compiling the submissions from our 4E Book of Rituals open call into a single book. We received hundreds of great 4E ritual submissions, and Harley Stroh and I have had a blast whittling them down to the best and brightest. (KQ interviewed Mr. Stroh recently).
Other projects I’m working on include three more entries for the Hero’s Handbook series (warlock, fighter, and half-orc); future installments of Critter Cache, a series of 4E monster PDFs; and the next two issues of Level Up.
Harley and I work very well together. I’m definitely more of a details guy, and Harley is great with big, epic stories, and that’s always a good combo. Right now, I’m the crunch guy, so a lot of my recent collaborations with Harley have been filling in the mechanical details for some of the DCCs and other products. It’s always easy to do that for Harley since he has such great ideas. I had a frickin’ blast with Dragora’s Dungeon, working up the stats and background for the ape-like zain-kin, along with some of the other nasty critters Harley came up with for that adventure.
Jeff [LaSala] is a great writer, too, and he is one of the most detailed authors I’ve worked with. His knowledge of Aereth (the world where the Dungeon Crawl Classics are set) borders on the supernatural, and he helped me quite a bit in Hero’s Handbook: Dragonborn. In addition, Jeff has his own series of articles in Level Up called Deities of Aereth, where he can put that encyclopedic knowledge to work.
Like Harley, Jeff is easy to work with. We’ve gotten together over the phone a number of times to hammer out the details on a project we’ve both been working on, and we always seem to be on the same page, or pretty close to it.
The biggest change for me in going from an amateur writer to a professional writer was learning to be productive when I’m not feeling creative. Deadlines don’t change just because you have writer’s block; and writers that don’t meet deadlines don’t stay writers for long. When I was writing and creating game material for my home game or to put up on EN World, I wrote when I felt like it. Now that it’s my job, I have to be productive no matter how I’m feeling.
Staying productive, for me, involves following a routine, and setting daily goals for myself. Ridiculous amounts of coffee and listening to death metal also seem to get the creative juices flowing.
As for the actual process of writing, the thing I enjoy most is the simple act of creation, making something out of nothing. It’s really satisfying to start with an idea, and then sit down and turn that idea into something that other people read, enjoy (hopefully), and use in their own games.
Jones: How did it go converting Denizens to 4E?
Rudel: Converting material from 3.0/3.5E to 4E is an imperfect process at best. The differences in the two systems are large enough that most things simply don’t translate. It’s not so much converting, as it is taking the general idea for a 3.5 monster, prestige class, template, or whatever, and then building a 4E framework around it. There are only a few basic mechanics that translate directly from 3.5 to 4E; the rest has to be completely retooled.
The biggest issue I ran into when converting Dungeon Denizens was that unlike 3.5, monster entries in 4E rarely feature only a single monster. The design philosophy behind much of the 4E Monster Manual seems to offer DMs a large number of prepackaged monsters; this is especially true for humanoids and dragons. Now, I think this is a wonderful idea, but it did present some challenges.
For instance, one of the monsters in the book is a race of plant-like fey called thornbloods. In 3.5, thornbloods are a single, 1 Hit Die humanoid stat block that could be augmented with class levels for more powerful examples of the race. In 4E, it has to be something much different; you have to offer prepackaged versions of monsters that cover multiple roles. The one stat block became three; and instead of a single generic thornblood entry, you have a thornblood warrior, a thornblood peltast, and thornblood lifeshaper. The entire book is filled with examples like that, and in fact, over 50% of the book is completely new.
Jones: Your Master of Arms series seems to address a few of the shortcomings of 3.5.
Rudel: My love of ancient and medieval military history was the biggest force behind Master at Arms. It also gave me an excuse to research a subject that fascinates me, and address a few issues I had with the way certain weapons were treated in the 3.5 system. It was also about bringing a bit of realism, however small, to the game, and letting some of history’s finest warriors and weapons shine.
Master at Arms was kind of an afterthought. I was focusing on the None so Vile series at the time, and I wanted to add a shorter product line that would allow me to release more product on a monthly basis. I had a couple of prestige classes that I’d created years ago just sitting on my hard drive that I thought might be good enough for a small product. One of those was the arbalestier, which eventually became the first Master at Arms product.
As it turns out, Master at Arms is by far my best-selling 3.5 product line. I guess afterthoughts are sometimes better than, er, forethoughts…
Jones: So, overall, you like 4E then?
Rudel: I think 4E is a great system. Seriously. I say that with no reservation, and I’m generally pleased with the way the designers put it together. For me, the best aspect of 4E is monster creation. Gone are the confining rules of 3.5 monsters, where I’m forced to allot skill points to monsters in skills that will never see use in actual play, or load stat blocks down with player-centric mechanics like feats. Now I’m free to be more creative; rules are more of a guideline than an absolute, and it has allowed me to approach monster design in ways I never could in 3.5.
Not to say that 4E doesn’t have its flaws. It certainly does. My biggest pet peeve with 4E is how narrowly defined the character classes are. You are forced to assume a very specific role when you choose your character class. For instance, if I want to play a rogue that fights with two weapons, I must play a ranger or the new tempest fighter. The other classes don’t feature any powers – the heart and soul of 4E – that deal with two weapons. Or what if I want to play a fighter that specializes in ranged weapons? Again, I can’t. I must play a ranger or a rogue because the fighter has no ranged attack powers.
As for preferring rules from earlier editions, I liked the prestige class mechanic better than the current paragon path/epic destiny mechanic. I think paragon paths are a smart way to use the 4E rule set, but I just don’t think they go far enough in adding depth to a character. I think the 3.5 prestige classes did a much better job of that.
Jones: You mentioned doing the crunch for Hero’s Handbook. Do you prefer doing crunch to do other stuff?
Rudel: I enjoy doing both crunch and fluff. I mean, good crunch is made even better with good fluff, and visa versa. Right now the market is short on folks who can work with the 4E rule set, and since I kind of have an affinity for the crunchy stuff, I’ve been tasked with a lot of the heavy lifting in that area for Goodman projects.
What do I like about crunch? It’s quite gratifying to come up with a mechanic that uses the rule system in a way that’s not in the core books. Even the greatest background and fluff text can’t change the game the same way a single, well-placed new rule can. Great crunch can expand the game and take it in new directions, opening up whole new options for players and DMs. It’s about giving more choices, and I generally think the game is improved with more options for players.
Jones: All right, so which one of you guys pitched the idea of a magazine to Joseph Goodman?
Rudel: Actually, it wasn’t a pitch; Level Up is an idea that Joseph has had for a while. Right before I started working at Goodman Games full time, he asked me if I would like to head up this new 4E magazine he was thinking about doing. Naturally, I was like, “Hell yeah!” Once I accepted the full-time position with Goodman, the position of editor-in-chief for Level Up just became part of my everyday workload.
Jones: Isn’t it a risky time to be starting a magazine?
Rudel: I think it’s always a risky time to start a magazine. However, since Level Up is a quarterly magazine, it does cut down on our costs quite a bit (Editor: That sounds oddly familiar. Imitation is the sincerest form of publishing.).
At this point it isn’t much more expensive than producing a new 16-page adventure, which typically comes in at about the same word count as Level Up. In addition, we can defray some of the cost of the magazine by selling advertisements.
Jones: How’s Level Up going to compare to other gaming magazines?
Rudel: Well, Level Up is currently the only print magazine licensed under the GSL solely focused on 4E content, which makes it unique for the time being.
However, our magazine certainly invites comparisons to the poster child for great 3rd-party magazines, Kobold Quarterly. I like to think that we offer our readers what Wolfgang offers his readers: interesting, useful articles written by talented amateurs and industry professionals, good art, slick presentation, and a great value for the money. (Editor: Which reminds me, Kobold Quarterly also gives you FREE dice. Ok, ok, I’ll stop horning in on Rudel’s time, and I know Level Up is great for Goodman fans…)
Jones: Are you going to be writing as well as editing? Any sections you’re particularly excited about?
Rudel: Absolutely. I have two ongoing series of articles in Level Up. The first is Blackdirge’s Bestiary, which presents new monsters for the 4E game… Blackdirge style. The second is called Azagar’s Advice for Adventurers, a humorous player-focused series told from the perspective of an aging hobgoblin warrior, who dispenses his own brand of hoary wisdom in the form of advice and new 4E crunch.
Jones: Lastly, let’s talk about monsters. What makes for a good RPG monster?
Rudel: It’s hard to quantify what makes a monster “good.” However, I always have a goal when I design a new monster; I want it to evoke a reaction from players that end up facing it. If a player experiences fear for his character’s life, or just plain old disgust, I think I’ve done my job. No one remembers a bad monster; they’re just ambulatory piles of XP. But a good monster should have your players talking for weeks or even years after an encounter.
Personally, I like monsters that are really evil. I don’t mean the Saturday morning cartoon, mustache-twisting cliché; I mean evil with a capital E. Great villains and monsters should fill you with disgust and outrage; they should motivate you as a player to send your character out to kick some serious bad guy ass.
In my own games, I’ve always found the viler the monster, the more galvanized my players are to kill it. That was really the impetus behind the None so Vile line, and I explored some pretty nasty stuff in those products… and had a hell of time doing it.
Jones: Can you walk me through the creation of two or three of you most compelling monsters?
Rudel: I’ve created so many monsters and NPCs over the years both professionally and for my own games that they all kind of bleed together. It would be hard to say which ones are the most compelling. However, I can tell you about one of my favorites, one that still brings a grin and an evil little chuckle when I think it about it.
The monster that really sticks with me is not technically a monster, but an example NPC for a prestige class. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a big fan of death metal, and one day, about four years ago, I was perusing the metal section of my local music store when I happened across the most vile and disgusting band and album I had ever seen. The band was called Lord Gore, and the album was The Autophagous Orgy. Pretty sick, right?
Well, I couldn’t bring myself to buy something so horrific, but the word autophagous stuck with me (it means eating yourself, by the way), and I thought, man, that would make for one really gross prestige class. So that’s what I did. I created a prestige class based around cannibalism and autophagia, where a character or NPC could gain power by eating other sentient creatures, or even pieces of himself. That disgusting little prestige class eventually became The Ravenous of Agramogg, and the example NPC, a cannibalistic duergar with all 10 levels of said prestige class, is still one of my favorite creations.
Jones: How are monsters written for games different than monsters written for fiction?
Rudel: The biggest difference in writing monsters for fiction and writing monsters for game material is how exact you have to be. Monsters written for a game have to work within the rules system. I can’t say a monster breathes fire in the description, and then not have a mechanic for that in the stat block. On the other end, a monster for fiction can be much more vague; I can describe what it does without worrying about whether or not it’s consistent with the rules.
I ran into this issue while writing the Metamorphosis trilogy of novels for EN Publishing. I created stats for most of the characters except the protagonist. I kept putting off creating stats for Hazergal, the central character in the novels, simply because I didn’t want to box myself in on what he could do within the story. In fact, he ended up doing quite a bit that would be hard to quantify within the framework of D&D, and if I had tried to force his character into the narrow confines of a stat block, I think it would have hurt the story.
Jones: If you had to fight to the death with any monster from any of the products you’ve worked on, who would you most like to take on?
Rudel: Well, I don’t think I would like to take on any of the monsters I’ve created, but the one I would certainly not want anything to do with is Isked Doomtongue. He’s a gigantic, bloated, cannibalistic duergar with a penchant for eating his enemies alive. Slowly. Isked is the high priest of Agramogg, a vile god of gluttony and cannibalism that’s detailed in Disciples of Darkness I: The Ravenous of Agramogg.
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