Game Designers Are People Too! Interview with Rob Schwalb (Part 1)

Not So Long Ago, At A Con Very Nearby…

Game designers often get treated like punching bags, punching bags full of answers to all of our innermost questions about our favorite games. “Why don’t you fix grapple?” “Have you ever considered ClassX?” “I really wasn’t a big fan of this thing you did, why was it so different from your other stuff?” Are all things passerby’s and interviewers bombard them with all of the time, but what about just asking your favorite game industry folks what their favorite band is, or what they eat for breakfast? Well that’s what I’m aiming to do with this short interview series from Winter Fantasy.

This year I got a chance to sit down and talk to some of my favorite people, one of them being author/game designer Rob Schwalb. For those of you who may not know of him, he’s an enigma wrapped in metal, covered in mayonnaise, stowed away in a hobo’s front pocket. He’s probably most well known throughout the gaming community for all of his work with D&D 4e and also being one of the guys behind D&D Next.

So…let’s sit down and bore into Rob’s brain in part 1 of this interview, we’ll only ask him a few questions about gaming, and we won’t even pester him about D&D Next! Tune in next week for the follow up too!

Rob, where do you live, and who else inhabits your home: family, pets, hobos, and all!

I live in Murfreesboro, a small city about a half hour or so southeast of Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve lived here for 25 years or so? This fact is making it hard to type with both hands as I’m sliding a pistol into my mouth in horror. Yeah. Anyway, I live with the Lady (aka Stacee), the savages (Ebb, Sausage, Hot Pie, and Devil Cat), and a veritable Disney movie of yard critters that I feed despite the fact that A) the animals don’t give two shits about me and B) the animals would do just fine without the expensive bags of bird crap and squirrel crap fertilizer (aka nuts and berries) I throw at them. I frequently talk about the Hobo who lives in my yard. He’s sometimes accompanied by a Tramp and a Clown. They’re all friends and they throw canned vegetables at passing cars, the occasional citizen concerned for my soul, and the mailman, Steve, who’s a nice guy and deft at dodging cans.

Before you were in the gaming industry, what did you do? What did you plan on doing as a living when you were younger?

I did lots of stuff before I was a game designer. Way, way back, I worked a bit for my Dad. He ran a small publishing/advertising studio called Schwalb Creative Communications. I didn’t do much, but I liked office supplies and designed my third RPG on his Mac. My first real job was at McDonalds. I worked there forever. It seemed like forever. I dropped out of college and became a manager and planned to do that for a while. I met my wife to be, who had a degree, felt a little inferior, quit McDonalds, ran a game store for a bit, went back to college (where I kicked ass), then sold men’s clothes, electronics, appliances, liquor, and eventually flooring.


I wanted to be a professional illustrator. For a while, it seemed like I had the chops to do it and had grand plans to go to the School of Visual Arts in New York. I lost interest for one reason or another—probably the discovery of ladies and booze, and went down another road.

What kind of music are you into?

Metal. Black metal, death metal, doom, goth, shoe gaze, industrial, whatever. I love it. Metal culture, and such a thing exists, embraces everyone. It takes in the skinny kids, the fat kids, the straight ones and the gay ones, anyone and everyone is welcome. Sure, there are dude-bros and douchebags aplenty, but the core of it is friendly and protective of its beloved noise. It reminds me a lot of gaming culture. At least before gaming got all mucked up with the whole edition wars b.s. Of all the various types of metal, I have little use for hardcore, nu-metal, fantasy/power crap, or hair metal. But everything else? Count me in. Especially black metal. Corpse paint, Satan, cookie monster vocals… yeah.

Aside from tabletop games, what do you do for fun?

  • I drink beer, usually the low-calorie stuff these days. I’m getting old enough that binge drinking on high octane beers ends in sad evenings and mornings.
  • I read a lot. Most fantasy and science fiction, but I sometimes dip into politics and religion when I need to get angry.
  • I play Guild Wars 2 (MMO) along with a few industry folks. It’s a good way to shut off the brain after crunching numbers and creating awesome story content all day.
  • I have one professional sports vice: NFL Football. I pull for teams from places I have lived. I follow the NY Jets closely, and support the Lions and Titans. I spent enough time in Seattle now, that I kind of count it as mine, so I also follow the Seahawks.
  • When not futzing with all that stuff, I’ll do the usual Netflix fun. I am a dirty slut for British mysteries. It’s shameful.

What is your favorite food dish? What do you snack on?

That’s tough. I’m a big fan of Indian, Thai, and vegetarian junk food. Snacks? Not much anymore. I usually eat a granola bar in the afternoons. MmmmMMmMmMmm.

Who are the people who have influenced you the most throughout your life?

I have several, but I’m only going to name the positive influences and I’m not at all exhaustive with this list.


#1: The Lady. She showed me my potential and has encouraged me all these years to reach it.


#2: Larry Simpson. He was my old boss back at McDonalds. He taught me to have a strong work ethic. He taught me to bust ass even when I was drunk, hungover, tired, starving.  He also taught me to never cut corners and never procrastinate. He also taught me to do it right the first time. He could be a real ass, but he was good man and a solid friend by the end.


#3: Dr. Ron Bombardi. Chair of the Philosophy Department at MTSU. Brilliant, weird, and knowledgable about everything and anything, he taught me to think.


#4: Dr. Mike Principe. Another Philosophy professor. He taught me to give a damn about the world I live in.


#5: Chris Pramas. I had written a couple of things in the gaming business, but Chris took a chance on me and opened the door for me. Chris taught me to be a professional. He put all my pieces together and made me the designer I am today. And he’s one of my best friends, so that’s cool too.


#6: Stephen Radney-Macfarland. Another one of my best friends and drinking buddies, he taught me to stop taking the business so seriously. He probably kept me from working myself to death.


#7+: Bruce Cordell for inspiring me to be a better writer, Monte Cook for waking me up about so many things, Kim Mohan for helping me review my work fro a different perspective, Chis Perkins for his persistent support, Jeremy Crawford for his patient guidance on improving my design and writing, Rodney Thompson for encouraging me to get off my ass and lose the beer gut, Nicole, Hal, Kate, Marco, Evan, Stan!, and so many, many others.

What would you say you draw inspiration from most on a regular basis? Not just for game design necessarily, but just in general.

Novels. No doubt. Story telling, writing style, cool ideas, all that stuff shapes how I work, what I think about, and what I invent. Reading is key.

If you could live anywhere in the world (obviously without any consequence regarding job, family, etc.) where would it be and why?

Burlington Vermont. It matches by political and social views, it’s beautiful and pristine, and the people are nice. It’s my ideal America. Outside of the country: Iceland, or anywhere in Scandinavia (for the metal).

What is your favorite published D&D adventure and why?

I have two.

Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. While the adventure has some strange spots, overall it’s really slick and sexy. Chock full of new monsters, all of which would wind up in MM2 if I remember right. The adventure is rooted in Greyhawk and reveals something about the world. And the structure is loose enough and filled with great exploration and RP possibilities, it provides for a very memorable experience.


The Return to the Tomb of Horrors. Not only did we get the original, but it fit inside one of the most challenging and terrifying (for PCs) adventures I have ever run. Some of Bruce Cordell’s very best work.

Who is the most metal NPC/God from D&D throughout the years and why?

The easy answer is Orcus. Horns? Death? Yeah. He’s pretty metal. The most black metal, for me, is Geryon. He was betrayed by Asmodeus and cast down in the Nine Hells. He is the fallen and he rails against authority. I want Geryon to have his day in D&D.

What is a thing you’d like to see more of overall in the gaming industry? Something you’d like to see less?

I’d like to see RPGs you can play right out of the box. I want to see games with 10 minute prep times or less, but offer the same sorts of grand, sweeping stories D&D has always offered. As for less? I’d like to see less rancor and division. I miss the old days when we all just played RPGs, when there weren’t sides and stakes and wars to win. We have enough of that shit in real life. We really all just want to have fun, play cool games, and tell great stories. Let’s get back to doing that.

If someone wanted to get into the industry, what would you say your best piece of advice would be?

The fast answer is don’t. Publishing is in a really weird place. All the old ways of getting started—solicit articles to a magazine, land a gig, take a job in a company, design stuff, get laid off, and cry—is pretty much over. I think self-publishing is where the business is going. Crowd-sourcing makes even unlikely games possible now. But, I think there is value in seeing if you can even do it. Maybe sit down and write a simple game in 1k words or less. Play test it, rebuild it, monkey with it, throw it out. Do that a few times and see what works and what doesn’t. I dunno. It’s a tough business.

Yikes, a tough note to leave on? Tune in soon for the rest of our interview when you can finally know what Rob Schwalb eats for breakfast, and many other things!

Award Winning!

Gold ENnie for Best Website 09'-11'

Silver ENnie for Best Website, Best Podcast 2012-2013
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