I mention Dan Dillon reasonably often in my column, but if you haven’t already heard of him, he’s a game designer who has written for a ton of different companies, including Wizards of the Coast in the upcoming Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. He has graciously taken the time to answer my questions, and has new details to share about Dungeon of the Mad Mage. He’s also the DM of the excellent new D&D 5e livestream, The World Tree Burns, set in Kobold Press’s Midgard setting. (Seriously, it’s amazing; Dan’s description in the narrative is incredibly good. Check out the first episode here.)
Brandes: How did you get your start in roleplaying?
Dan: I was originally introduced by a family friend who was clearing his bookshelf of games he wasn’t going to use anymore, so pretty much by happenstance. He handed me the three AD&D core book, Unearthed Arcana, and Oriental Adventures, along with a Shadowrun core rulebook. This was in 1987 or 88,just as I was heading into 3rd grade. I spent several years reading those books, dreaming about what all those charts really meant, and drawing dungeons based on the sample in the DMG. I populated them with monsters, and my favorites were without a doubt the devils and archdevils in the Monster Manual. Dispater was probably my favorite.
It wasn’t until 2nd edition AD&D, and I was in about 6th grade at the time, that I started really, seriously playing with friends. I was hooked, and I’ve been here ever since.
B: What strange madness drew you into the world of game writing? What kind of advice can you offer fellow travelers?
D: It’s a good excuse to justify all the time and money I’ve poured into this hobby since I was a kid! Though again, what really drew me into game design was a bit of happenstance and luck. A good friend of mine from my high school gaming days, Steven Helt, entered and won Paizo Publishing’s RPG Superstar contest in 2013. Following his success there he started pulling together an idea for a third party book all about golems and constructs, and he was ruminating about it with some potential collaborators over Facebook. This was in the fall of 2013.
I butted in, in a good-natured trolly way, and started throwing around my ridiculous, and oddly body-horror filled, ideas. Golems made of eyeballs that blind you and suck your eyeballs out. Tooth golems made by tooth faeries that grab you and chew with their entire body. Fun stuff like that. After three or four of these Steve messaged me and offered a choice: Either accept that he was going to steal and write up my ideas, or I could come and join the project and do it myself. I opted for the latter. I’d been DMing a long time, so I’d done a ton of monster design for my own games, and I had plenty of ideas to pull from.
During this time when we were setting down the manuscript for what would eventually become the Construct Companion, Steve was putting together a freelance writing collective nicknamed “The Four Horsemen.” Thing was, along with Stephen Rowe and Gillian Fraser, there were only three of them at the time. That would not do. So, they held a little design contest of their own, to which I and a handful of aspiring designers applied. The writing sample submission had guidelines on word count and subject matter, and it was a blind submission. Mine was chosen, and I became the fourth Horseman. (I had the great honor of filling the robes of Death.)
This was all Pathfinder RPG work, and it was an immense amount of fun. I had very little idea what I was doing, and I learned a ton as a member of the Four Horsemen. We worked together for a number of fantastic publishers including Rogue Genius Games, Legendary Games, Kobold Press, and when the OGL for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons seemed to be on the horizon, Wolfgang Baur of Kobold Press approached me to do an adventure conversion. Bringing The Raven’s Call from Pathfinder to D&D was my first 5e gig. That led to more and more 5e work once the OGL dropped, and I haven’t looked back.
I’ve had the pleasure of working for a slew of great third party publishers, as well as first party companies like Paizo on the Villain Codex and Ultimate Wilderness, and now Wizards of the Coast for the Adventurer’s League and on Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.
As far as advice goes, my path to game design isn’t one that can be easily followed, but I’ve seen how other people have done it. The biggest thing I’ve seen is getting your name out there attached to game design. This can be with a blog that you maintain and update regularly, and now it can be in the Dungeon Master’s Guild, where you’re allowed to play with WotC intellectual property in your designs! We’ve heard since the beginning that WotC would use the DMs Guild to source new writing talent, and nowadays with the Guild Adept program, and people like James Introcaso and James Haeck working on Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, and the pack of great designers who also worked on Mad Mage, we’re really seeing WotC deliver on their promise.
So if you have an idea for D&D material, get it out there.
Other avenues are the third party publishers. Sometimes they have design contests (that’s how James Haeck got his first Kobold Press work), or even have a process for submitting ideas for possible publishing in some form.
Game design communities such as Facebook groups and subreddits can also be a way to get your stuff out there.
Above all else, keep designing and writing, keep reading and playing games, and put your stuff out into the world for publishers to see.
B: What is the best character class in D&D 5e, and why is it the ranger?
D: Ha! One of my favorite parts about 5e is that I don’t think there is a “best” class. They all bring value and fun to the table. The design team really knocked that aspect of the game out of the park. Tastes will vary, of course, and not every class is for every player and we all have our favorites. Tempest cleric was my first 5e character (and a re-imagining of my defining 2e character, which was particularly fun), that and the warlock have a special place in my heart for sure.
But as you’ve so beautifully set up, my favorite is probably the ranger, specifically the PHB Beast Master. Yes, really, and I’m pretty vocal about it if you catch me in my corner of the Internet. I initially had a hard time wrapping my head around how the Ranger’s Companion works when I first read it, but I had a great concept and went for it. Once I played my first Beast Master that was it, I’d seen the light.
5e’s take on Favored Enemy as being an exploration/social interaction pillar ability rather than a combat ability really sold me.
Ranger gets access to some of the most powerful and fun spells in the game, and blends them with their own martial prowess and if a Beast Master, your companion, in a way I find very compelling.
Our games featured heavy exploration elements, so Natural Explorer was a godsend. Before I started my Beast Master, “Man, I wish we had a ranger!” was a common refrain while we painstakingly tried to blaze a trail through the dense Dymrak Forest.
And the companion? Man. My flying snake was amazing, even in fights that were 100% immune to its poison, the vast majority of its damage. Combining flyby with Exceptional Training allowed my companion to extend my combat reach for the Help action (as a bonus action) across the entire battlefield while I dealt damage from long range with my bow.
It has its issues, I don’t deny that, but I can both live with them as they’re written, and patch them to great satisfaction without too much trouble. Love the ranger.
B: Of all the thousand young you spawned in the Tome of Beasts, which one is the most unsettling?
D: Did you just call me a goat (of the woods)? I’m strangely comfortable with it.
Man. For unsettling in the Tome of Beasts I’d have to go with Qorgeth, Demon Lord of the Devouring Worm. Nothing like a gargantuan worm demon with a writhing nest of tentacles and faces in its maw, chewing its way from the Abyss to crush your castles and shriek away your sanity! Qorgeth is terribly alien and horrific, and draws some inspiration from Ugudenk, the obyrith demon lord of previous editions of D&D. Man I love creepy demon worms.
Rumors that I’ve written a worm-demon-swarm servant of Qorgeth for the Creature Codex can neither be confirmed nor denied.
B: I’m incredibly excited for Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage – I’ve always liked Undermountain in principle, but was too daunted to consider running it. What does the upcoming adventure do to help the vastness of Undermountain be more approachable?
D: I’m so pumped to see this thing hit game stores! The skill and creativity behind the design team on Mad Mage is immense, starting with the heavy hitters on the WotC design team, but also a who’s who of freelance talent.
Undermountain, and really the Forgotten Realms in general, have traditionally been tricky for me to get into in my own D&D games. There was such an incredible amount of stuff for it, between adventures, video games, novels upon novels, and massive boxed sets, that I was often overwhelmed. 5e’s focus on the Realms has really brought my attention to rest on it for now, and I couldn’t be more grateful. There is so much wonderful material here.
When you say Undermountain is daunting, I’m right there with you. Mega dungeons can definitely be scary because of that sheer weight of material, but Mad Mage knows that full well going in, and it’s going to help us get through that. First and foremost, arriving in the wake of Dragon Heist, you’re going to have a solid foundation of a setting, history, and NPCs to start from, and to use as a touchstone to return to throughout a campaign. Even if you’re going all the way to 20th level. Mad Mage is set up less like the adventure books we’ve seen so far for 5e, and is more modular in its construction.
It’s going to give us maps and details of every level of Undermountain, and it does it in such a way that each level pulls you in. Kate Welch said it best, each level is essentially a character unto itself. There are vastly different feels and tones, themes and imagery being created in each level. That gives you some meat to sink your teeth into as a DM right off the bat. NPC motivations and factions are present so there’s opportunity for all three pillars of play, and easy adjustment to fit any style of campaign. Not to mention that the Xanathar guild spooks around in nearby Skullport, and since they feature in Dragon Heist, you’ve got an easy natural connection to bring the action into Undermountain.
Undermountain is also set up to be easily expandable by the DM. You have a cool dungeon level you drew up yourself that you’re dying to use? Undermountain is dying to connect to it by a variety of methods, some mundane, others quite fantastic. There’s guidance built in to the writing, and even the level design to make it easy for you to make Undermountain your own. You can use it either a level at a time here and there, or as a serious long-term delve into the depths, the challenges and rewards increasing ever further as you dive.
One of my favorite bits of this take on Undermountain is, as I mentioned earlier, that every level of Undermountain gets a full treatment this time around. In previous editions what was merely a blurb, is now a thriving ecology or society just waiting for your players to add the final spark to bring that level to life. I’m reminded of one of Wolfgang Baur’s signatures of world building: Leave “piles of gun powder” everywhere, that the players can decide when and how to ignite. Undermountain is chock full of gun powder (or smoke powder, as the setting dictates).
And above and throughout it all? Halaster Blackcloak, the Mad Mage himself. His presence is felt in myriad ways from the very first steps you take out of the Yawning Portal into the dark, throughout your journey in his domain.
B: What can you tell us about your dungeon level in Undermountain? We want just about anything you’re allowed to say – how deep down is it? What sources of inspiration did you draw on in creating it? What’s the most awful trap, monster, or unspeakable eldritch thing players are likely to meet there?
D: I can tell you a little about it! I had the pleasure to work on level 22, Shadowdusk Hold. It’s a strange level, almost a castle or palatial manor house built into the rock deep beneath Waterdeep. Its namesake is the Shadowdusk family, a former noble house of Waterdhavian society that fell upon hard times and turned to dark powers out of desperation. In the city above little is remembered about the Shadowdusks, as they were thought wiped out when their corruption was revealed.
They’re still here. The family persists in the depths, and over the years their devotion to the strange forces that spelled their doom have warped them in mind, body, and soul. The Hold is a decrepit place now, where that corruption and gloom shows itself in every corridor and alcove, and whispers from the very darkness. The family’s influence has drawn alien creatures into their fold, and the heads of the family bide their time and scheme, dreaming of one day returning their house to greatness. Perhaps Halaster has plans for them as well.
Designing this level was an absolute treat. I got to pull inspiration from some of my favorite horror movies and stories to set the mood, and to build it as you explore the level fully (it has multiple “castle” floors that all count as the same level of Undermountain). Ultimately I got to touch on some aspects of the D&D multiverse that haven’t seen much play in 5e yet, and that was right up my alley. There are traps deadly both directly and in conjunction with the Hold’s defenders, dread foes and unlikely allies (depending on how open-minded the players and characters choose to be).
The design was also a challenge. It was an interesting mix of wild creative freedom within a set of strict boundaries that was sometimes a difficult line to ride. I’m really proud of how it turned out, and I can’t wait for players to bring their high level characters into the depths of Shadowdusk Hold to risk their lives, sanity, and souls in revealing its secrets.
B: You’ve also just started a new livestreamed Midgard campaign, The World Tree Burns. How did this get started?
D: This game has been a blast. Some Kobold Pres fans expressed interest in some recorded or live streamed lore and information about the Midgard campaign setting, and when word made its way to Wolfgang, he set the wheels in motion. Not long after Will from Encounter Roleplay contacted me, asking if I wanted to be in a live stream Midgard campaign, to which I answered an enthusiastic “Hell yeah!”
The he asked if I wanted to run said campaign, to which I answered a slightly more tepid “Uh, y-yeah, I can do that.”
The prospect of running a live game like that had me a bit out of my element, and I was quite frankly intimidated by the likes of live games I watch and enjoy helmed by fantastic storytellers and even better people like Chris Perkins and Matt Mercer. Any anxiety I had about running the game evaporated quick, though, when Will built the cast of players and we got to talking. The enthusiasm from these people is infections and very easy to feed on. Our group chat quickly turned into a whirlwind of character ideas and favorite lore bits from people’s setting research, and that was it.
We’re two sessions in now, running live on Tuesdays at 8pm eastern on twitch.tv/encounterroleplay, and I can’t wait to dive into session 3!
B: Can you offer any dark hints as to the exciting and dangerous futures you have in store for your players?
D: As a world of dark roads and deep magic, Midgard has no shortage of dark secrets and danger. The players have made it easy by creating a group of characters who diverse in their own darkness and goals. So far we have death and blood in our heroes’ past, dark shadows in their present, and doom in their future.
I mean, with a name like The World Tree Burns, you know it’s going to get rough. The characters are currently on the trail of a lost notebook containing forbidden knowledge from a member of the Stross family, a name synonymous with diabolism, dark magic, and tyranny. We’ve also seen a glimpse of the future though the dreams of one character, of a figure steeped in evil magics carving the heart out of a colossal abomination known as a Dread Walker—Cthulhu-esque remnants of a devastating mage war that sleepwalk through the barren wastelands in the west of Midgard.
What could the heart of an undying, eldritch horror near godlike power do? Nothing good, I’d wager.
B: Thank you so much for your time, your creative voice, and your positive influence within the broader D&D community!
D: It’s my pleasure for sure. I get to work with some of the best people in the industry, and to contribute to the hobby I’ve loved since I was a kid. I couldn’t ask for more, and adding what joy I can to the awesome collective that is D&D and gaming in general is the least I can do. I want to see the industry and the hobby thrive, and get better for everyone in the community at every step.