Jeff Tidball is a gaming industry veteran with enough credits to his name to fill up the ending of a movie. One of his most recent titles is Lead Developer for the Dragon Age RPG published by Green Ronin. But, what exactly does that mean? Curious about finding out the answer to that question, and frankly, reveling in any excuse to chat with someone with as much experience in our hobby as Jeff, I fired off a few questions his way.
Not only did Jeff take the time to answer them, he then invited me to barrage him with some follow-up questions as well. The end result is a fantastic interview that sheds some light into the behind-the-scenes process of producing the Dragon Age RPG line by the man who can rightly be called the Wrangler of Dragons.
Dragon Age Oracle: Could you tell us a bit about yourself? What is your background in the gaming industry, what are some of your prior projects? Things like that.
Jeff Tidball: I started out at Atlas Games as a part-timer, working mainly on guerilla-style marketing of On the Edge at the beginning of the (first!) CCG boom. I proved myself there with some solid RPG writing and was promoted to be the line developer for the Ars Magica roleplaying game when Atlas acquired that line from Wizards of the Coast. My first job was to put out the fourth edition core book for that game. Over the next three years, I think we put out a dozen fourth edition expansions.
After that, I left games to go to film school—I got an MFA in Screenwriting from USC in Los Angeles. In those days it was looking like the rise of MMOs was going to completely doom tabletop games and I was worried there’d be no professional future in it. (The jury’s still out on that one…)
Post graduation, in Los Angeles, I worked for a little more than a year as the line developer for Decipher’s The Lord of the Rings RPG, during the time when The Two Towers and The Return of the King were being released. That was an exciting time, but Decipher shut down their roleplaying studio for financial reasons. I wound up back at Atlas for a while, and working on a variety of freelance projects.
In 2006, my older son was one year old and my wife and I decided it was time to move back to Minneapolis to be closer to our extended families. After that move, I wound up at Fantasy Flight Games, where I became its VP of Product Development. Three years later—about two years ago, today—I decided to become a full-time freelancer so I could work on a wider variety of projects, with a wider variety of people.
DAO: How did you become the Dragon Age line developer?
JT: Chris Pramas was just spooling up the Dragon Age line in 2009 when he heard that I had decided to become a freelancer. Both Chris and Nicole Lindroos—two-third of the three-legged Green Ronin stool—had been writers on Ars Magica back in the day, so I had known them for a long time, and they were familiar with my work. Chris invited me on board to stand behind the new line and help push, and I haven’t yet been shown the door!
DAO: What have you worked on so far for Dragon Age? What are you working on now?
JT: I had very little to do with the design of Set 1. I came on board and offered a few thoughts on the near-to-final draft, but the first thing I did of real substance was to write “A Bann Too Many” and work on the design of the GM’s Screen. I was the developer for Blood in Ferelden, so I was responsible for commissioning, developing, and overseeing the assembly of that book.
At the moment, Chris and I are shoving the last bits of Set 2 out the door, working on a Dragon Age quickstart for Free RPG Day, and getting underway on the development of the adventures for the Deep Roads anthology.
DAO: Could you tell me more about the process of putting together Blood in Ferelden? What were your goals for the adventures? How did you find writers? How did you work with them along the ways? What were you not able to do with that book when all was said and done?
JT: I had three chief goals for the Blood in Ferelden adventures. First, I wanted them to be dark and put the moral choices of the Dragon Age world front and center, forcing the players to make real decisions that would dog them. Second, I wanted them to be easy for new Game Masters to pick up and use. Finally, I wanted them to be teaching tools for new GMs—examples of how you’d go about creating your own adventures. The seeds we put in at the end were part of that last leg of the stool.
We had a small group of writers who’d been expressing interested in writing for the line since the word went out that Green Ronin would be publishing the game. Our process was really very simple: I sent out an email asking for pitches, interested writers sent back their ideas, and I chose the ones that met my goals. The pitches were selected by the same process (other than the seed that I wrote, of course). Drafts came in, I developed them, they were playtested, Green Ronin editmaster Evan Sass had his way with them, and they were passed on to the layout ministrations of the GR production department.
Each author tends to have his own working style in terms of how much feedback they want during their writing process. One sent me a big chunk of writing all at once, another sent me a question or two pretty much every day while he was writing. I can work either way, so I let the authors proceed however they want.
There’s not really anything that I had on my agenda that we weren’t able to accomplish—it was a pretty straightforward process.
DAO: What are some of the awesome things about being the Line Developer for Dragon Age? What about the pitfalls?
JT: This gig’s awesomenesses are threefold. The first is working with the Green Ronin crew. Their culture of laid-back insurgency was and continues to be a breath of fresh air. Their communal obsession with good eating doesn’t hurt. Getting to know members of the team I hadn’t worked with before has been a real delight.
The second is the Dragon Age IP, whose attraction for me is best exemplified like this: I’ve long hated Tolkien-style elves, who are flat-out better than regular people, and who live apart from regular people, and who never get any dirt on them. Some people dig the whole detached-and-ethereal thing, and that’s fine, but I’m interested in stories where the oppressed must strive against hardship, and traditional elves are a little too clean for my tastes. One of the things that sold me on Dragon Age—honest to God—was the fact that most elves were an oppressed minority in human lands. Not because I wanted to see elves punished (which would be creepy), but because finally! a setting where a fantastic race was down in the grit with the rest of us! You see this gritty heroic realism repeated all around the Dragon Age IP.
Third, I just plain like the work of RPG line development, and I’m pretty good at it. It requires a mix of administrative sense, organization, and creative sense that’s not all that common, it turns out. There are lots of people with one of those skills, a smaller number with two of them, but a really small handful of people who can do all three well. (And probably fewer still who enjoy it!)
DAO: When customers pick up a finalized book it is easy to see the work of the author, the artist, the cartographer. As Line Developer, your imprint on a product is a bit more ethereal. What do you want people to (not) see of your work when they grab a product you developed?
JT: An RPG developer’s job is a lot like the job of a TV showrunner in that the work they do is best felt when you can’t see it at all. On a multi-author work, it would be possible but undesirable for each individual contributor’s voice to come across as different. So a lot of my job is to sand each contributor’s rough edges in the same direction, to make it all sound like it speaks with one voice.
In the case of Dragon Age, I’m like a showrunner who’s not his show’s creator. The unifying voice of the Dragon Age RPG is ultimately Chris Pramas’s, since he designed and wrote so much of Set 1. I’d like to think I’ve gotten good at writing text, and developing it, as Chris would have written it.
DAO: Dragon Age is a game with two doors: one for the roleplayers (who may or may not know anything about the greater Dragon Age property) and one for the videogamers (who may or may not know anything about tabletop RPGs). How do you balance/juggle the needs of these two groups as you develop the line?
JT: That’s an interesting metaphor. Hopefully it’s pretty clear that we totally welcome both groups to the Dragon Age RPG. Out strategy, though, is to just try to maintain one giant door for both groups, and anyone else who wants to come in. The core of that approach is in a system that’s really simple. That might seem a little bit like an approach calculated to serve video-gamers at the expense of long-time roleplayers, but it’s not—not really. The trend toward complexity in mainstream RPG designs is attractive to some hardcore gamers, but I don’t think that means it’s welcoming to all of them.
The one thing I try to do in the line for people who’re new to tabletop RPGs is to offer good, top-level advice for how to game well. How to get along with other players, what makes an adventure interesting, how to portray an NPC… that kind of thing. A lot of this knowledge has been won at the table over years of play by the old-school hard core, pieced together from dozens of different systems. Newcomers don’t have that body of experience yet. The nice thing, though, is that the old-school hard core don’t object to reading it in a core set or adventure. Even when they disagree, they see it as an interesting discussion rather than a waste of space, or an affront to their intellect.
DAO: What’s on the horizon for the Dragon Age RPG?
JT: Chris’s recent “state of the union” missive laid out as much as I’m allowed to say about that, for the moment. Best for people to go check that out directly.
DAO: As someone so involved with all the moving parts of the Dragon Age RPG, if you had one piece of advice to give out to players new and old that would help ensure their enjoyment of the game, what would that be?
JT: Dragon Age is different from a lot of current mainstream RPGs in that it puts a lot of faith in the Game Master to handle edge cases in the moment and just keep the game moving toward the next interesting decision. My advice would be for both players and GMs to deal with the game’s rule systems in that spirit, as a chassis that promotes a series of interesting and dramatic decisions, rather than as a framework for pushing different kinds of points around a piece of paper.
DAO: What are your other projects aside from Dragon Age Line Developer?
JT: They’re many and varied!
I spent a big chunk of last year writing a mega-campaign called Eternal Lies for Trail of Cthulhu, with Will Hindmarch. With any luck, that will come out this year. It’s still in playtesting. One of the most exciting things about Eternal Lies it that Pelgrane commissioned the creation of an original soundtrack—you’ll be able to buy 75 minutes of music directly cued to the unfolding events. Composer James Semple’s contributions have been phenomenal. [Editor's Note: It has also since been revealed that Wil Wheaton has done voice acting for this campaign as well.]
Speaking of Will, he and I are the co-founders of Gameplaywright, a publisher of non-fiction books about games and stories. We put out two books last year: Hamlet’s Hit Points and The Bones: Us and Our Dice.
At the moment, I’m also developing the production bible and writing dialogue for an Xbox game called Skullgirls, designing two board games I’m not supposed to talk about, and working on a street racing sequel to my card game Cthulhu 500. The latter will eventually be called something like The Fast and the Fhtagn. I have two or three other projects also just spooling up now [Editor's Note: including a newly announced partnership with Evil Hat Productions]. Never a dull moment, and many more years of mortgage left to pay!
DAO: Jeff, thank you so much for your time. We wish you all the best.
Jeff Tidball promotional photograph by Josh Kohanek.