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Earlier this year, I was looking forward to D&D’s Fourth Edition. I was preparing game designs and a publishing plan for a new solo design venture. I had budgets, I had outlines, I had a timeline, I had drive and ambition. When I finally saw D&D 4E, I was intrigued and delighted. Some of it was new in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. Some of it was new in ways that made me think its designers had eavesdropped on my third-edition D&D sessions. It was great.

Soon after, Wizards of the Coast’s legal language and publication terms for third-party designers surfaced on the Internet. It’s called the Game System License (GSL), and it killed my publishing plans dead. It is rife with legal pitfalls deep enough to swallow a publisher whole, and lots of smarter people than me fled the thing. So I did, too.

Later this past summer, Wizards announced that they would be revising the GSL to some degree, apparently in response to feedback (and, uh, outcry) from publishers and fans. Until then, my publishing plans for D&D are in a holding pattern.

Imagine my surprise, then, when RPG designer and publisher Fred Hicks, who I already knew was smarter than me, proved to be bolder than so many of us and ran towards the supposedly ticking bomb. Fred Hicks, he of Evil Hat Productions, is now also a part of One Bad Egg, a new outfit bent on braving the tangled territory at the periphery of D&D’s lonely mountain. The first One Bad Egg publication, the playable PC race and monster called the Apelord, just went on sale.

What the hell is Fred thinking? Let’s find out. I asked him a few questions about One Bad Egg and designing for D&D 4E from the outside, and it sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.

Q: What was your initial reaction to the GSL?

FRED HICKS: Initially, crushing disappointment. After years of the OGL — especially working as a non-d20-derived OGL publisher with Evil Hat’s Fate system — it didn’t come off like a door being shut, it came off like a door being slammed in our face. The poison pill clauses in the GSL were particularly troubling (and in fact, that’s one of several ideas that combined to inspire the name “One Bad Egg” — a bad egg is a poisonous seed, so we’re kind of winking at the license with our name). I’ll get into that more in a bit.

What do you think about the reaction of game publishers at large to the GSL?

They’ve been wholly understandable. I get why the ronins — Green Ronin and Ronin Arts — and other publishers have decided to stay well away from 4th edition, at least on the licensing side. It’s scary, and they have some fat assets they want (and should want) to protect.

My confusion with the reaction, if any, comes from the stuff that the actual consumers of 4e are going to care about: the system itself. Chris Pramas has publicly talked about the system not feeling like D&D to him, and I suppose for what he’s looking for that has to be true. But that’s not the case for me — and beyond even its essential D&D-ness, I (and my partners at One Bad Egg) find it to be a vastly superior system design to many of the previous editions. The system’s so good, in fact, that it made us look at the GSL over and over again and ask ourselves, “Is it really all that bad?”

But at the end of the day, the publishers who have turned away from 4th Edition and run away at speed have done something particularly important for One Bad Egg. They’ve created a vacuum. The ronins in particular are among the best of the d20-supporting set. So when we Eggheads decided we wanted to charge ahead despite the GSL, we knew what standard we were going to shoot for.

That’s not to say the folks who’ve stayed in the 4e supporting game aren’t excellent publishers as well, but the guys who’ve looked at the GSL and said “no thanks” set a standard in their day, and it’s one we’d like to keep in our sights.

How much have you had to restrict your vision for One Bad Egg products and designs based on the terms of the GSL? Do you find yourself holding back or shying away from particular ideas? Are you designing specifically to fill spaces defined or revealed by the GSL?

Well, there’s always the stuff that doesn’t make it into the SRD, and this is no different between the OGL and the GSL. There are no Gith in the SRD. None of the gods of the Player’s Handbook are in the SRD. But has our vision for content been compromised by the GSL? Not one bit.

Instead, the changes and adaptations are all about implementation rather than content, if that makes any sense.

We knew we couldn’t do 4e support as Evil Hat Productions, because the GSL has a few poison pill clauses in it that would mean — if Wizards of the Coast decided to get into a legal fight with us — that we could lose everything we’ve developed at EHP to the costs we’d be liable for. By spinning off a legally separate entity — One Bad Egg, LLC (“limited liability” was never truer) — we’ve limited the potential damage a lawsuit could do to us.

This is especially true in terms of our publication strategy. We’re focusing on the PDF market first, doing lightweight small-pagecount products, for a number of reasons. First is that it’s really easy to close up shop without taking any losses when you don’t have any inventory. If we do take some of our stuff into print, we’ll be focusing on small print runs made possible by the successful advent of print-on-demand short-run technology. No huge print runs to flood the market means no huge print runs that will have to be pulped if we find ourselves saddled with a cease-and-desist.

And on that last note, the fact that we’re doing lots of tiny products means it’s easier for us to respond reasonably and quickly to a cease-and-desist note from WOTC without shutting down our entire operation. Let’s say we’ve got 8 products out there, and it comes back to us that we’ve goofed and allowed some sort of GSL violation into the Apelord PDF that we put out at the beginning of October. Retracting the Apelord PDF means we lose, what, 10 pages of content and a $2 item from our catalog, right? That’s an easy burden to bear.

But at the end of the day, that’s all implementation. Has it constrained our ideas for content in any way that’s been negative? Hell no. And that’s because 4th Edition is like an idea factory for us. I don’t think we’ve ever been as excited about a system as we are about this one. Sure, the shine will come off the penny eventually, but it’s not likely anytime soon.

How is this different from the impact commercial issues normally have on your designs?

Mainly in the “producing large stuff” arena. We might have considered doing the Shroud — our first Worldseed(TM) product — as a single monolithic setting book, without the poisons inherent in the GSL. We have had to adjust our publication — and thus format — strategies to pay heed to the possibility that at some point in the future, WOTC is going to get a bug up its legal butt and start firing salvos of paperwork at the heart of our operation. But honestly I think it’s simply pushing us in a stronger, more resilient direction. Our current strategy is very low-risk when it comes down to it. It’s also much better suited to a short attention span — which is better suited to us as creators and better suited to one kind of customer that may well be our base: the guy or gal who doesn’t have a lot of time for her gaming, and is looking for something small that she can read fast and run with that evening. When it comes down to it, that’s real focus, and focus means positive pressure for producing product. Hell, I can barely keep up with the ideas for 3 to 12 page products coming out of my brain, let alone the ones coming out of the many other brains we have in the incubator over at the Egg.

Do you find yourself starting your D&D 4E-based designs with thematic or narrative elements or with mechanical elements?

Both, to slightly dodge the question. It is, if you’ll pardon me, very much a chicken and egg situation. For me personally, the two are very strongly interlinked in my brain, so it’s hard for me to hit upon a theme without thinking of a system element, and vice-versa. Maybe that’s different for the other guys I’m working with at the Egg, but that’s how it is for me. System is setting when it comes down to it, because the things system allows you to do — and prevents you from doing — necessarily create and restrict the setting possibilities. D&D is high magic because that’s where the system wants to take you. If you want to do low magic setting with D&D, you have to change the system. (If you look at my wee little indie game, Don’t Rest Your Head, you’ll see another instance of system and setting living in nearly indistinguishable proximity to one another).

Does something like the Ape-lord happen because you want intelligent apes in your D&D campaign or because you want to publish a new race early in the One Bad Egg oeuvre?

I love monkeys.

Okay, not entirely true. The Apelord happened in part because we knew we were starting a new venture — and thus a new brand — from what we’d done at Evil Hat Productions (and Blue Devil Games, to bring in Justin D. Jacobson’s side of things). But the EHP brands were reasonably strong — Spirit of the Century (SOTC) in particular. SOTC has talking apes in it, so I figured, doing a talking ape player race would be a nice way to create a little crossover from one brand to the other. Sure, there are folks who will follow the authors rather than the companies, but we figured we could give a little extra lift this way. Folks can also look to see an element or two of Don’t Rest Your Head to show up in the lands of the Shroud as well.

That said, I do have intelligent apes in my D&D campaign (that I’m running right now). One of my players has helped test out the Apelord, and is playing Ulu, the ape fighter. It’s been a lot of fun to see in action.

From an implementation standpoint, I find player races and monsters to be the easiest things to design for 4e, so system-wise it was also one of the fastest and easiest things for me, personally, to produce for our One Bad Egg launch. So you’ll see a few more races coming out over the next few months. And to tap into an earlier point, since system is setting, I find races and monsters are probably some of the best tools we’ll have for implicitly establishing what half-setting of The Shroud is all about.

You’ve gone ahead with publishing One Bad Egg products even though a revision of the GSL is currently in the works. Is that fearless or foolhardy?

Yes, that is fearless or foolhardy.

[Will’s Note: I don’t think I implied any villainy on the part of Wizards or the D&D team with my question. I know Mearls too well for that. My question wasn’t about backlash or treachery but about playing in territory defined by legal language we know is about to change one way or another.]

But in either case, it’s optimistic. Because at the end of the day, the guys working on the 4th edition are not dicks. Their company might be embroiled in the occasional Dilbertesque escapade as regards the legal department, but when it comes down to it, man… Scott’s been amazingly accessible as a brand manager for D&D despite the internet monkeys flinging buckets of poo at him, and Mike Mearls stopped on the street at GenCon this year to have an hour-long conversation with us (just as we were on the cusp of deciding to create One Bad Egg) which mostly consisted of us doing fan-boy gushing about how good of a system 4th edition is. And then he sat down to swap stories with us later in the convention, so I suspect he actually was every bit the mensch he appeared to be. I sent Mearls a copy of the Apelord right after we published it with a thank you for all he’d done for us, and of course, the son of a bitch replied with some very nice things to say. And Rob Donoghue’s been developing a positive relationship with Wizards of the Coast as well, thanks to Mearls pointing out his excellent 4th edition blogging to some other folks there.

There are good people there at the “evil empire”. A lot of good people, in fact. It gives us hope, and we’d rather act on hope than fear.

Did you anticipate doing D&D 4E-based designs early on or is this a reaction to actual play of the new game? Not to be crass, but what came first: the chicken of commercial appeal or the egg of an enticing design challenge?

We love 4th edition in play. It’s a more dynamic, more alive battlefield than ever before (forced movement! living, dangerous environments!), and the Dungeon Master’s Guide shows every sign of being written by people who have been paying attention for the last ten years. Flip to “the bible” — page 42 of the DMG — to see some of what I’m talking about. You can improvise most of D&D off of one single page (two, if you count having the page from the PHB listing various conditions). Add in Skill Challenges — which look a lot like something Rob and I were doing in the 2.0 version of Fate — and you’ve got a system for D&D that, to us, feels like coming home.

For me personally I am first and foremost a systems geek. Settings are nice and all, and I certainly like working with others to create them from a vision, but at the end of the day, my heart beats to the drum of system. I love elegant fiddly bits with interlocking parts that are, contemplated individually, very simple, but can be put together to create exciting — but understandable! — complexity. D&D is that for me. I cannot say enough good things about the design of the system which — while certainly not perfect — is just incredibly well-built in its first-released form. They got it right. (And us at the Egg aren’t alone in thinking that — one of the biggest places I saw 4e first catch fire was, of all places, the Story-Games community. Talk about surprises!)

What’s the long-term plan for One Bad Egg? What, ideally, will One Bad Egg be up to a year from now?

In a year I hope we’ll have at least one other Worldseed line out and pushing more product ideas into the marketplace. With luck, we’ll see some real continuing success with the stuff we do with the Shroud and with Poisoncraft and will be able to transition those materials into one or two collected print on demand releases. Right now our sales goals are oriented on breaking even on each product we put out there, so that each product pays for a similarly-sized next product. With luck (both of the “random chance” and “hard work” variety), we turn a modest profit and make ourselves happier with it. I’d love to see One Bad Egg grow into the next Ronin Arts or Green Ronin or Adamant Entertainment or whatever. I think it can, but from where we are starting there are many kinds of success we could call our destination. It’s an open road.

What if the new GSL turns out to be a monkeywrench?

Well, that’s where the hope comes in. We strongly doubt that the new GSL will be worse. But if it is, I think our publication strategy is such that we’ll be highly adaptable to such a possibility. We’ll change. Old gears will stop moving, jammed up by whatever; we’ll design new ones. That’s why you stay lean and nimble; not because you want to keep doing the same thing for a long time, but because you know change is coming and you want to be ready for it.

Honestly if anything I’m worried that the new GSL will cause a few companies that have opted out to come back in and thus put a little bit of a market squeeze on One Bad Egg. But with luck, since we’re getting into the game early, we’ll be able to make the most of our head start.

But if not, hey, who cares, really. We’ll still be making stuff. And we’ll be loving every minute of it.