Interview with WoTC’s Greg Bilsland

It all started some time last week when Greg mentioned that he uses Obsidian Portal for his Everdusk 4e DnD campaign on his twitter account. One thing lead to another, and Greg was willing to let us interview him and ask all sorts of fanboyish questions about his work at Wizards of the Coast and his campaign. Let’s get right into it!

Obsidian Portal: So you work for Wizards of the Coast as an editor for Dungeons & Dragons. Can you tell us more about it?

Greg Bilsland: I’ve been working as an editor at Wizards for about two-and-a-half years, and I really enjoy it. Editing for RPG R&D is definitely a multifunctional job, though. As an editor, I’m responsible for making sure that the Is are dotted and the Ts are crossed, but that’s only a small part of the job. A game editor isn’t the same as a copy editor. We help organize a book, fit it together, and re-write pieces of it. An editor at Wizards must be intimately familiar with the game so that he or she can recognize anomalies in the mechanics as well as in the writing. I spend a significant amount of time during each project querying the book’s lead developer to make sure that what is on the page is what we intend. The mechanics don’t stop changing in development. An editor is the last line of defense against problematic mechanics as well as problematic writing.

Obsidian Portal: What are your responsibilities as an editor?

Greg Bilsland: In addition to checking the mechanics and writing, I also wrangle any freelance editors on a project. Depending on the project and the people, this can be hard or easy. A variety of skills and editing styles exists among our freelancers, so it’s important to make sure that when the book goes from being in pieces to being a whole book, it is cohesive and uniform in style and presentation. As lead editor on a project, I also run editing workshops to help freelancers improve.

I’m also the rules update guy. I spend a portion of each week combing the forums and reviewing rules concerns from the fans and from Customer Service. It’s not always the most glorious job, but it’s really satisfying when I feel like I help make someone’s game better.

Lastly, I do a bit of design work when my schedule allows. I was a designer on the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide, Monster Manual 2, and Divine Power, and my upcoming credits include Monster Manual 3 and Vor Rukoth: An Ancient Ruins Adventure Site. I really enjoy having the opportunity to do design work; it’s a change of pace from my editorial responsibilities. Unfortunately, scheduling that extra time can be a bit of a challenge.

Obsidian Portal: What cool stuff are you working on now?

Greg Bilsland: I just finished as lead editor on Monster Manual 3, and I really enjoyed my role in that book, because I worked on it through design, development, and editing. You can look forward to some interesting changes in Monster Manual 3.

The other project is Dark Sun! I’ve sort of become the “monster guy” on my team, so I’m the lead editor on the Dark Sun Creature Catalog. I’m also editing the feats and powers appearing in the Dark Sun Player’s Guide. After that, I’m working on an unannounced project for late 2010.

Obsidian Portal: If you could change any aspect of the current edition of D&D, what would it be?

Greg Bilsland: Probably the magic item system. Now that the character builder supports inherent enhancement bonuses, my issues with the magic item system have become moot. I prefer to detach attack and defense bonuses from weapons and armor. I’m also not overly fond of the magic item daily use rules, but I still use them. Regardless of these reservations, I think the systems works.

Obsidian Portal: Where do you get your inspiration for your games?

Greg Bilsland: Often, I get inspiration from whatever D&D book I happen to be reading or editing at the time. Working on Monster Manual 2 and Monster Manual 3, as well as the Eberron Player’s Guide and Dark Sun Player’s Guide, has provided a wealth of ideas. I also get a lot of inspiration from watching other people’s games. One of the great benefits of working at Wizards is the abundance of D&D games. At one point, I was in four games, though I’ve had to cut back to two. I took a lot of inspiration from Chris Perkins’s Iomandra Campaign. I also draw ideas from video games and anime.

Obsidian Portal: How much time per week do you spend getting ready for a game session?

Greg Bilsland: Oh, good question. It depends on whether the source material is completely original or whether I’m piggybacking off an existing adventure. Generally, for each 8-hour Sunday game session, I dedicate about four hours to developing the plot and intrigue of my game. I figure out what the campaign’s antagonists are doing and how to link together characters, backgrounds, and the PCs’ past experiences with the events in an upcoming session. Then, I’ll try to find an existing adventure that works for the next game. If I can find one from Dragon, I’ll spend about 2 hours adapting it, in which I find appropriate magic items, adjust monsters, etc. Otherwise, I spend about 4-6 hours if the source material is original. My games are on Sunday, so you can guess how I spend a lot of my Saturday afternoons…

Obsidian Portal: So your campaign is called Everdusk. Can you tell us about its world, its inhabitants, the PCs, and the overall story?

Greg Bilsland: Everdusk is a fractured world still reeling from the Dawn War, which happened about 4500 years ago. When I first started working on 4th edition at Wizards, I wanted to integrate the 4E cosmology into an older campaign setting. Everdusk was the result. Everdusk has all the core 4E gods, but it also has entities, history, and locations that are not part of 4E cosmology. Early in the campaign, I had this idea for a vision the characters would receive. Borrowing from Final Fantasy VIII, I wanted to give the PCs a glimpse of heroic counterparts that lived 3,000 years ago, many of whom were exarchs or epic heroes—embodiments of what the PCs could become. The vision of these six heroes who died fighting a primordial has shaped the PCs’ experiences throughout the game, especially because some of the figures are still alive.

One of the requisites for my campaign setting is that rarely are characters or events as they initially appear. Heroes become villains, and villains become heroes. I keep many plot lines running, though there are two main threads right now—one involving a conspiracy between Vecna and a group of fey led by the Prince of Frost to slay the Raven Queen (the prince wants the Raven Queen’s winter domain, and Vecna wants her death domain). The other thread involves a Cult of the Chained God that is trying to unleash Tharizdun from his prison in the Far Realm. It’s crucial that the heroes stop both plots, but they’re forced to pick their priorities—I like for the players to feel like they have some choice in how they solve the problems the campaign presents. Ultimately, I hope to play at level 30 for many sessions until they face off with all the gods and primordials in questions, or die trying.

Obsidian Portal: Where does your game group typically play? Do you all get together in person, or over the internet?

Greg Bilsland: We play at my place. I used to play games at Wizards, but I prefer a game’s feel when it is at the home of the Dungeon Master. It feels more casual. Similarly, I actually sought out players who were not part of Wizards. We, R&D employees, tend to scrutinize the mechanics and encounters. Thus, for a story-driven campaign, I wanted to have the game feel more homebrew and less like play testing.

Obsidian Portal: How much of the campaign world is original content developed by you and your players?

Greg Bilsland: In developing the campaign, I relied heavily on the character backgrounds. I want the players to feel like their characters are central to the campaign and that the world revolves around them. The way I see it, that’s part of being a hero. Although I had a few core concepts, most of the events were determined by what the player’s said or wrote. I even made a point of developing the paragon paths into the campaign’s story arc.

Obsidian Portal: Where do you get your inspiration for your story?

Greg Bilsland: Almost anywhere. I pull a lot of the inspiration for the intrigue in my campaign from books and movies. As far as books go, I draw a lot of inspiration from the Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice. Not surprisingly, prophecy and the shackles of fate are pivotal to the world and story. Also, as I mentioned before, I draw a lot of inspiration from anime, video games, and other people’s D&D games.

Obsidian Portal: How well do you know your players?

Greg Bilsland: To varying degrees. One of them is my roommate, for example, so I know him pretty well. Many were acquaintances in the beginning—folks I knew but with whom I didn’t spend much time. I think gaming is a great way to get to know people better, and since I was already in a game with a lot of my close friends, I wanted to look for players beyond my usual circle of friends. Plus, I’m a big proponent of having a group balanced by play style, so I looked for people I thought were compatible. I also think it helps to have an equal balance of men and women in a game, so that was another requirement when picking players.

Obsidian Portal: What kinds of challenges are you faced with in your campaign?

Greg Bilsland: Keeping track of everything. To that effect, Obsidian Portal has been great. It gives my note-taker a great place to store records of each session. Time is really one of my biggest limitations—making sure I’m prepared with sufficient encounters and sufficient story.

As the characters have reached mid-paragon, I’ve found it has become harder to challenge the characters. To solve this problem, I often add an extra die of damage to a monster’s damage expression or else add an additional creature to an encounter. I frequently adjust numbers on the fly. I don’t run things too closely to the numbers; I rarely plan out encounter level, experience points, or treasure parcels. I like to just eyeball the numbers, and so far, it has worked out.

In terms of story, one of the biggest challenges has been adjusting to several players leaving the group. Because I spend a lot of time integrating a PC’s story into the campaign arc, when one leaves, it requires a lot of adjustments. Similarly, it can be difficult to incorporate a new player to make him or her feel equally involved in the story as those who were present at the start of the campaign.

Obsidian Portal: What aspects of your campaign are you really proud of?

Greg Bilsland: If it was already evident—the depth of the story. I like the characters to feel involved in the world and like they’re making a difference. They’re heroes, and I want them to feel heroic. When I can sit back for twenty minutes while the players role-play with each other or talk about the plot, then I feel like I’m achieving the effect I intended. I aim for my campaign to feel like a novel that the players are writing. Few things in the story are pre-determined, and if a player has a good idea, I do my best to integrate it.

Oh, and one final thing. Here is my shameless plug. If you want to follow me or my campaign, you can find me on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gregbilsland or check out me obsidian portal site at http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/everdusk.

Our thanks go out to Greg for answering our questions, and to his awesome Communications Manager who helped us set up this interview!

Award Winning!

Gold ENnie for Best Website 09'-11'

Silver ENnie for Best Website, Best Podcast 2012-2013
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