Jonathan Tweet has been a professional game designer for over 25 years. He designed or co-designed Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Ed, Ars Magica, Over the Edge, Everway, 13th Age, and other tabletop games. He’s in the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame. A lifelong fan of evolution and a father, he has been working for 15 years on a book that teaches evolution to preschoolers. The book, “Grandmother Fish,” was funded on Kickstarter last year and is now published.

Comments: 1040 • Responses: 70  • Date: 

john_stuart_kill277 karma

What are your thoughts about the way things have spawned out of 3E? Specifically, do you have feelings about the "Edition Wars" and the split between Pathfinder and 4E?

grandmotherfish375 karma

That's a big question, and I'll probably be able to answer several follow up questions on this topic.

I'm proud of 3E, and I'm glad that Paizo rescued it when Wizards ditched it. I like a lot of the improvements that 4E made, but I was not happy with the overall package. With 3E, we tried hard to make the game feel more like D&D than 2E did, but 4E made the game feel less like D&D, actually less than 2E. A problem with 3E was too many player options and not enough balance. A problem with 4E was too few player options and too much balance.

It's hard for me to play 3E these days because the balance issues are too clear to me. I'm not really interested in playing 4E, either, because it's too boardgamey. 5E has some surprisingly nice bits, but it doesn't seemed tuned for the serious play that my group engages in. That's why Rob Heinsoo and I wrote 13th Age.

grandmotherfish226 karma

Looking back on 3E, it seems really clunky and picky. We were trying to make the system more rational than what had come before, and we may have overshot it. 4E did a good job of bringing the game mechanics back to the service of game play. For example, a 4E monster starts with its level, which is a really useful approach. In 3E, you start with size and type, then Hit Dice and abilities, and then once you've figured out that monster stats you assign it a challenge rating. That's fine when it works, but it often doesn't, such as when a 1/2 CR orc dishes out big damage with a two-handed ax.

williamimm106 karma

A problem with 4E was too few player options and too much balance.

As someone who played and otherwise loved that system, that hit the nail right on the head. I felt that to get what I want in the system, I had to pick from a fixed list of best options and justify them for my character with lots and lots of reflavoring. A nice tool, but it's quite overwhelming to use for nearly every single feature.

It was really only when I went on to other systems that I really felt comfortable knowing and playing what I want, instead of a character whose gameplay and story was extremely segregated.

grandmotherfish176 karma

Yes, 4E kept you from making stupid decisions in character design because it kept you from making substantial decisions in character design.

Tremodian31 karma

Yes, 4E kept you from making stupid decisions in character design because it kept you from making substantial decisions in character design.

That is a really cogent take on it. I feel that 5th has the same problem. It feels like I'm playing a video game character.

grandmotherfish71 karma

Tabletop RPGs used to be the only way to play a wizard and kill a dragon. Now you can do that in full color on a computer screen. Tabletop RPGs are still the only way to make up all your own stuff with your friends without any preset limits to your experience. That's what I think RPGs should emphasize, and that's what Rob and I emphasize in 13th Age.

albob18 karma

Im currently starting up a new 3E campaign (been using it for years). Are there are any tweaks I could make to help it be less "clunky"?

grandmotherfish61 karma

Honestly, buy a copy of 13th Age and take whatever works from it and port it into your game. 3E monsters can be difficult, especially spellcasters and what have you. Take a look at the action-focuses way that Rob and I do monsters in 13th Age. PCs are clunky, but a lot of players are OK with that. Making monsters easier for the GM to run would be a big step forward.

YouPeopleAreJudgey24 karma

As an old guy that grew up on 1st and 2nd... I am curious as to what ways you felt 2e didn't "feel" like D&D and what ways you felt 3e improved on it?

Also... what are your feelings on the "rogue" as opposed to the old school "thief". This has always been one of my largest gripes about later editions of RPGs is that they focus too much on combat.

grandmotherfish52 karma

Compared to 1E, 2E was pretty generic, at least the core books. Diabolic imagery, runes, assassins, half-orcs, nipples and other edgy elements were removed. The Player's Handbook referenced real world history rather than immersing the player in the world.

The problem I had with the class name "thief" is that it encouraged players to take time away from what the party wanted to do and the steal the spotlight for distracting thieving mission. D&D works better when the party works together, and the thief was likely to work independently. We focuses on combat because that's something that the entire table can join in on and do together. Every table is different, but that was our thinking.

FailedTech15 karma

This AMA is fantastic, thank you for answering so many questions and engaging in actual conversation.

grandmotherfish20 karma

My pleasure

Popsickel7132 karma

Permission to x-post this to r/DnD?

grandmotherfish94 karma

Yes, please!

VikingCoder94 karma

I have a thousand questions. First, let me say that I love your work. I especially loved Ars Magica - thanks for that!

I think I'll limit myself to my single most important question... Sorry, it's verbose...

Roughly, Linux is an open source kernel for an Operating System. Many people have created their own full Operating Systems on top of Linux. Linux uses a licensing model where you are free to sell what you make, but you must also release the source code to other people, under the same license. And you can also make programs that run on top of a Linux OS, but that don't need to be Open Source. Why have we not seen this same model flourish in Role Playing Games? Meaning, if you, Jonathan Tweet, released TweetRPG, I could make VikingCoderRPG based off of it - some tweaks to level progression, skills, etc. Or I could make an Adventure in the TweetRPG system, but keep it "closed source," and sell it. Or, I could make another Adventure in the TweetRPG system, and open source it. Would you be amenable to helping design a new, from scratch, RPG that was open source like this? Possibly as a Kickstarter? If not you, can you recommend some game system designers who might? As an example, I bought the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. And then I bought it a second time, so I could unbind it, pull each page out separately, and scan them in to my computer. I made a wiki on my laptop, and used Photoshop to pull out the columns of text, and place them together into a separate wiki page for each Room, for each NPC, for each concept. I then made wiki pages out of the maps, and each room was clickable and took you to the wiki page for the room. This was all for my own personal use, as the DM. If RttToEE were open source, I could share my work, so other DMs could use it to aid in their own running of this massive campaign. But legally, I can't share my work. Why do you think Open Source Gaming has never taken off? And are you willing to help start it?

EDIT: /u/happylittlelark pointed out to me that Fate has dual-licensing, including Creative Commons Attribution, which frankly is as close to my wish as I'm likely to see in my lifetime! Yay! I think I just found my rule system I'll be using for the rest of infinity.

grandmotherfish97 karma

Great question. D&D 3E has the Open Gaming License, and 13th Age was written using that license. Plenty of people are writing 13th supplements, so that's close. But you're talking about being able to rework someone's for-sale adventure (RttToEE, for example) and reshare it?

If the right publisher had a plan for an open source game, I could see creating one, but it's not likely. Creating a new RPG is a massive investment of time and effort from a lot of people. It requires a huge amount of playtesting to get right, especially an RPG that will be general purpose enough to serve lots of needs. Sorry, but it seems like a long-shot.

VikingCoder28 karma

Thanks for the response! OGL was pretty close to what I want, and allowed the creation of Pathfinder, which is pretty amazing.

With RttToEE, I'd even be glad if there had been a "paid members" forum somewhere. When I buy a Disney movie that has Disney Digital, I get a code that I can enter online. Well, if RttToEE had a unique code inside, which allowed me to join the online RttToEE forum, that would be awesome. Allow me to ask questions of other DMs. "What would you have this NPC say, if the party asks him this question?" Yes, those forums exist. But those forums do not allow me to digitally slice up RttToEE content, and share a ZIP file that re-packages it for easy use. A license / forum that did allow this would be so empowering to DMs.

Hell, picture if I made a web program that was a dialog tree for NPCs. I pick an Adventure, I pick some NPC, and I see all of the dialog text from the original adventure laid out for me. There are a bunch of links for different questions from NPCs, and then if I click on one, I see all of the various responses that other DMs have come up with for that NPC to say. I upvote my favorites. I can scan the dialog tree in preparation for the encounter, and pick my favorite answers ahead of time. And if I don't like I any, I can write my own right there. Hell, picture a voice actor willing to upload to Soundcloud dramatic readings of the top-voted answers for an NPC! Copyright law prohibits these derivative works right now. At least, using the canonical speech from the Adventure. Someone could potentially re-phrase the responses... But what if they mention Mind Flayers, or some other Wizards of the Coast TM term? I dunno...

I mean, people on discussion forums do a pretty damn good job of sharing NPC image sets / icon sets, etc. But they're flirting with the law, or sometimes crossing right over the law, based on the lack of licenses which allow re-mixing. An RPG designed with re-mixing built right into its DNA might solve a bunch of these problems... Enabling DMs to help other DMs.

I appreciate that creating a new RPG is a massive effort... But it seems exactly like the kind of challenge that Patreon or Kickstarter might rise to.

So, here's my questions...

Could you legally create a new RPG like this, or are you bound in non-competes?

Are you interested in creating a new RPG like this?

Are you willing to share a ballpark estimate, maybe even a very high-end estimate, for how much it would cost me to commission you to make a new RPG like this (or at least the parts of it that you're used to creating [not art, layout, etc.])? If not you, can you estimate (again, feel free to high-ball) how much it would cost to pay one of your peers to make one?

grandmotherfish62 karma

Money aside, the real question is whether the game would be a success. Even for pay, I'm not that interested in working on a game that wouldn't succeed. You're talking about game infrastructure on a massive scale, something that works if the game is big but that fails if the game's results are modest. That said, you've gotten me thinking. You're right that there are already communities where GMs share information. Interesting concept. Maybe contact me in a month or so after I've had some time to mull it over.

flightofthenochords87 karma

What type of pushback did you get, if any, regarding "Grandmother Fish?"

grandmotherfish146 karma

We got a scathing "review" on the Answers in Genesis blog, and someone did a long You Tube hit piece. Occasionally creationists post mean things on Facebook threads. They really recoil at the idea of teaching evolution to preschoolers. I try to be civil to them. For me, if we didn't get this sort of pushback, I would think we weren't doing things right.

More seriously, we were in negotiations to have a publisher pick up the book, but they chose not to because a Montessori teacher told them that preschool is too young for kids to learn about evolution. Montessori schools teach evolution, but starting in grade school. For ages 6 and under, they focus on learning through the senses rather than through abstract concepts. To me, that sounds like old-fashioned psychology. Today we know that even pre-verbal kids have some sophisticated intuitions. It was disappointing to hear that even though Montessori schools teach evolution, this teacher said that they wouldn't take the book. As near as I can tell, preschool kids are getting the message from Grandmother Fish just fine.

There are occasionally some people who take a hard line against what they call "indoctrination," and they say that parents shouldn't teach their kids evolution until the kids are old enough to evaluate the evidence themselves. Grandmother Fish doesn't teach evolution by rote as if it's a tenet in a belief system. It shows children how they can see their connection to other animals in their own bodies and behavior.

There was also a biology professor who got the idea that I had a PC agenda because the book is about "Grandmother" Fish. He said it should be called "Ancestor Fish" or else it's not real science.

Tintunabulo71 karma

Ancestor Fish sounds like an RPG I would play. Just saying.

grandmotherfish65 karma

I'll put it on my list of potential new games. It could be an evolution/RPG crossover product.

flightofthenochords49 karma

It was the "Grandmother" in the title that resonated with me. It made our link to other life more...familial. And I think at the preschool age, children can relate to the word "grandmother" more than "ancestor."

I was really excited to discover your book. Introducing the concept of evolution is definitely something that should happen at a young age. I think the biggest obstacle for creationists is not that they're so convinced of their beliefs (for the most part), but their inability to comprehend the basics of evolution.

I can't wait to give a copy to my niece.

Thank you!

grandmotherfish38 karma

The guy who said the book should be Ancestor Fish was out to lunch, but it's a long story. You're right that it's the family angle that's important. Little kids respond very well to family, and as Karen and I worked on the book we built up the "family" aspect. Kids love it.

You're right that lots of people don't get the basics of evolution. I'm hoping that making the idea accessible to little kids will make it harder to discount. And I hope your niece loves the book!

And here's a link to the book for people who are following along:

peace-monger23 karma

How ironic that religious people are afraid that children could be "indoctrinated" with science at an early age.

The problem with Montessori is that it varies so greatly and it sounds like one teacher's opinion spoiled your publisher. My son goes to a wonderful Montessori pre-school that does in fact introduce evolution to 3 yr. olds.

grandmotherfish20 karma

Good to know about your Montessori experience. Thanks.

Actually I get the "indoctrination" complaint from atheists who say that kids shouldn't be taught anything until they have the wherewithal to question it and decide for themselves. I'm sure those people aren't parents.

Alarmed_Ferret10 karma

It feels rather ironic that people don't want their kids indoctrinated at a young age with Evolution yet those same people are probably taking them to church every Sunday.

grandmotherfish30 karma

To be fair, the people who accuse me of indoctrinating kids include atheists and skeptic who oppose all sorts of "indoctrination." They say that you shouldn't explain something to a kid until the kid is old enough to evaluate the evidence themselves and reach their own conclusion. My impression is that they are disagreeable idealists who don't have kids themselves and are totally out to lunch. But the Internet is full of people saying crazy things. Should we not explain to kids that the earth goes around the sun? It's nuts.

AGallonOfCat39 karma

Hi. It's a bit intimidating trying to start playing D&D for a first timer like myself. Any good tips/reccomendations on what a beginner should purchase to get started?

grandmotherfish48 karma

Great question. There are beginner sets out there that make it easy to get started. The best thing, however, is to find a group to join or to get into some games at a convention. Because the game works through conversation, it's easy to pick up live at a table but intimidating, as you say, when being picked up cold from a rulebook.

When my friends and I started playing D&D, we played wrong for a long time before we got things straight, but it was still fun.

tortiousinterference38 karma

In an age with amazing, quickly evolving video game technology, what do you think it is about tabletop games generally that has made them withstand the test of time and will it continue?

grandmotherfish91 karma

The social element is the blessing and curse of tabletop games. It's a blessing because being the same room with your friends is better than being in front of a screen. It's a curse because it's easier to sit in front of a screen than to gather with friends. It's people that make tabletop games compelling. We are social animals.

DaneLimmish37 karma

Did you ever meet Gary Gygax? If you did, is he as nerdy as I picture him?

grandmotherfish63 karma

Yes, I met him, and he was nerdy, but in a grand way. He criticized my treatment of alignment in 3E without reading the whole bit or appreciating the joke, so that's what I remember.

ChuckEye36 karma

Do you think there would be enough interest for Over the Edge to be developed into a video game, similar to the recent Shadowrun Returns and its sequels?

How about an On the Edge iOS game?

grandmotherfish55 karma

Video games are really hard to do right, and Over the Edge doesn't seem like a great fit. People love Over the Edge because you can dream up just about anything and put it into the game. With video games, you just can't offer that sort of freedom.

On the Edge is a pretty good TCG, but again it's really hard to make a profitable game on iOS. Too many games are free, and there's a ton of competition. More likely would be a new version of the card game with some of the balance issues fixed. I know a lot more about designed TCGs now than I did 20 years ago.

YouAllMeetInATavern6 karma

On the topic of Over the Edge...hypothetically speaking, would you have any interest in revisiting the property should the market express an interest?

(You've done plenty of other great work, and I think the game is pretty complete and even stands the test of time pretty well, really, but it's one of my favorite games, and this is a question I've often wondered.)

grandmotherfish4 karma

Yes indeed!

Mises2Peaces32 karma

What do you think of the trend towards narrative based, rules light systems. Most notably seen in the success of Dungeon World. It seems D&D 5e took a couple design notes from DW.

Do you think battle maps and minis is the future of D&D? To many people, including myself, it felt like a cash grab. The minis actually served to limit the imagination process for my group.

We love D&D. It has great design elements. It has the top tier properties. But the system feels like playing a video game by hand. Thoughts?

grandmotherfish40 karma

I love the trend toward narrative games, and 13th Age has big doses of narrative content. It's also playable without minis, and if you do use minis, there's no grid.

I do think that minis on a map are here to stay for D&D. Free-form gaming works for players who know roleplaying well, but minis help newer players focus. D&D needs to be accessible to new players.

As for the minis, not everyone likes them, but a lot of D&D fans love them. When I looked at my first ever RPG session in progress, it was the plastic monsters that really got me excited.

Geshman8 karma

I love the minis, but it's never the focus on our campaigns. We generally do a lot of roleplaying, but when it comes to combat we pull out the minis. It makes it easier to run a combat and is a lot easier to strategise. Although I have been in a group that was 95% combat using minis with very little creativity and even less roleplay. It was the most boring game ever. Might as well have been playing video games together.

grandmotherfish6 karma


memnoch343426 karma

Hi Jon! I wanted to thank you for your work on 3rd edition, as It was my edition of choice since I was 12! We actually used 3 and 3.5 so much that we ended up taking it across multiple timelines instead of switching systems. A few questions for you: 1. What advice do you have on worldbuilding and Running a game as a GM/DM/Keeper? 2. Are there any pen and paper rpg systems that you love/wish you would have created? 3. When find that you created a rule/feature that is used in a way that you hadn't intended, is that a moment of pride or a real bummer? 4. Do you find you still have time for Pen and Papers as a parent? How do you make time?

Edit: Added question

grandmotherfish37 karma

Thanks for your kind words. 3E gave me the best D&D campaign I even ran, so I share your affection for it.

  1. Worldbuilding: make things matter to the players. Lots of GMs create their worlds for their own amusement, but an RPG world is best when it showcases the player-characters. Focus on details that engage the players on an emotional level, not on abstractions such as history or philosophy.

  2. Apocalypse World is amazing, but I don't think I ever could have invented it. I'm proud that my work years ago has inspired game designers to do all sorts of new and wonderful things, and in fact these new designers have taught me a lot about RPG design.

  3. What comes to mind is multiclassing in 3E, where the Barbarian/Ranger/Fighter was too good and not that flavorful. Generally if players find a new way to exploit a rule, it hurts game balance. What I love is when gamers use a setting or system in a new way.

NanotechNinja25 karma

Hey, bit of a dumb question but: I really enjoy hanging out with my 8 year old cousin; how young is too young, do you think, for D&D in particular, RPGs in general, and what game or system would you start an 8yo on?

grandmotherfish35 karma

8 is not too young to play D&D with someone who knows the system. I would recommend 13th Age, which has the good parts of D&D plus a lot more creative freedom for the player. Show this kid that in a tabletop game your imagination rules, and you can invent the character you want to play.

MidSolo24 karma

What tips would you give an aspiring RPG designer?

grandmotherfish43 karma

Produce stuff. Don't just talk about it. Publish something. Make something. You learn a lot by getting material published and in others' hands. And if you want to get paid, then having a line of products to your credit is proof that you can do it. The Internet makes it easy to find an audience and share your work.

Skimblecat19 karma

How is 13th Age in Glorantha progressing? I've heard you and Rob talk about it on a few panels and podcasts and I'm looking forward to reading it.

grandmotherfish20 karma

Rob and I both love the classic game world Glorantha, and we're having a great time working on it. We just released a third playlets packet, and we're close to completing the manuscript. We're not quite at the "clean up" phase, but we have the big stuff mostly handled. As for the publishing schedule, that will also depend on what happens after the manuscript is done.

ailee4317 karma

Hi. I miss THAC0. Are you the guy i can blame for that ?

grandmotherfish24 karma

Yes and no. It was already gone before I joined the 3E team, but I made no effort to preserve it.

withscissors17 karma

Do you feel the market is becoming over saturated with new tabletop RPGs especially now that crowdfunding is possible?

grandmotherfish28 karma

Yes. People have been talking about a crunch coming when gamers realize how much they've committed to spending on Kickstarter, but we haven't seen it yet. Kickstarter seems to drive up interest and generate more sales rather than just taking more from a static pool of revenue. Tabletop games are growing, and that's keeping ahead of market saturation. But RPGs demand a lot of time to play, so I figure they will hit a saturation point before board games.

TheSweetestKill17 karma

What's your opinion on the Planescape campaign setting?

Do you think WoTC should return to it? Personally I hate how it's been snubbed out and I don't really understand why.

grandmotherfish29 karma

I admire Planescape because is has factions for players to be involved with. That was a big step forward in the 1990s, with lots of RPGs featuring factions. That started with Ars Magica and was popularized with Vampire. Also, the Planescape art was cool, and the concept is neat.

As a product, though, it looks different. A bitter lesson I have had to learn as a game designer is that people respond to what they know. A cool new idea is great, but honestly people generally prefer what's familiar. D&D banks on that with its countless familiar tropes. Planescape is cool, but it's not familiar. I wish that audiences were more excited by what's new, but it's just not the case. In terms of business decisions, it's hard for me to fault Wizards of letting Planescape lie. That's business.

TheSweetestKill3 karma

Thanks for the response!

grandmotherfish7 karma

You're welcome. The difference between "cool game" and "game that sells" can be a big one.

Captain_MoFaux16 karma

So your team is responsible for the arms and equipment guide? Just wanted to say thanks for that great supplement. We still use it in our 3.5 games.

grandmotherfish17 karma

Thanks. I didn't work on that directly, but we created a rational game system that allowed for good supplements like the Arms & Equipment Guide.

racialghoul13 karma

I love you and I want to be like you when I grow up. I mean, I'm in my twenties and still haven't grown up, but there's still time.


What are your top 3 favorite RPGs, excluding those you had a hand in making?

grandmotherfish27 karma

Thanks kindly.

  1. Call of Cthulhu. Can't really play it as written but it taught me a ton about RPG design.
  2. Apocalypse World. Really smart, cuts to the chase, efficient resolution system.
  3. Hillfolk/Drama System. I've only played it once, so I can't be sure, but it looks like a great system, and it taught me that your character's main personality trait should be on a "pole" (e.g., honorable versus pragmatic) rather than on the end of a pole (e.g., just honorable).

jon_stout8 karma

Call of Cthulhu. Can't really play it as written but it taught me a ton about RPG design.

Are you talking about the original system, or the d20 version?

grandmotherfish7 karma


DarkSide8212 karma

Sitting down for a last meal, what is your request? Food, drink and dessert.

grandmotherfish27 karma

A really good steak (boring, I know), Manny's beer, and sweetened condensed milk for dessert. If I'm going to be executed, a lot of beer.

Fuzzyfrap12 karma

Which of your creations/projects are you most proud of?

grandmotherfish20 karma

I'm massively proud of Grandmother Fish. It's the first book to teach evolution to preschoolers, and the art and approach are both pretty amazing. With this book, I've gotten endorsements from Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, David Sloan Wilson, Jonathan Haidt, and others. That's been very gratifying to me. It's a concept that I've been working on for 15 years, and the final product reflects years of hard work that make the book look easy. I appreciate all the goodwill I get from fans of my games, but it's hard to beat seeing little kids love Grandmother Fish.

For games, Over the Edge is the one I'm most proud of because it was such a fresh take on RPGs. It inspired Jason Morningstar, Ron Edwards, Vincent Baker and other great game designers whose innovations surpass my own. It's also the game that I designed for myself instead of for a buying audience, to it's special to me.

With Over the Edge, I helped advance the craft of creating RPGs, and I'm proud of that. With Grandmother Fish, I'm doing something new for the cause of scientific fluency, and that means a lot to me. The response has been truly gratifying.

Here's a link to Grandmother Fish for the folks who don't know about it:

WaffleSandwhiches12 karma

I'm not much for Role Playing Games, but I loved the hell out of those 3rd edition books. There was just some crazy alchemy of logic, art, and lore all mashed up together that my brain loved.

I just started designing a custom Magic The Gathering set with people from my local game store. I'm basically project manager, but I haven't really coordinated 6 other people before. Do you have any tips? For our first meeting I've

  • Setup a facebook group for discussion

  • Created a Github page to track the card changes

  • Bought Pizza

Mainly I'm worried that everyone else will flake out pretty quickly, and something as ambitious as an mtg custom set can't be done alone.

grandmotherfish16 karma

Getting people to design a Magic set is hard when they're professionals being paid a salary, so you're right to expect people to flake out. In addition to all the regular group-work psychology, I'd advise you to break the set down into handleable chunks so that the group can experience little successes early on.

castereedlin11 karma

What's your favorite Slurpee flavor?

grandmotherfish21 karma

I don't eat sweets, not even artificially sweetened sweets.

cmv_lawyer11 karma

Did the relative strengths of classes come up during playtesting? Any stories that someone like myself who loves building characters might appreciate? Like, did anyone think that monks were too strong, and needed to be changed to protect the balance of the game?

grandmotherfish20 karma

Are you talking about any system in particular? In 13th Age, we took class balance really seriously, and we put massive detailed work into hand balancing every class-class combination for multiclassing. If class balance is off, the whole game is off.

That's the big reason that 3E is hard for me to play. The classes aren't balanced. The way the cleric provides the party's healing means that they are the most powerful class by a good margin. That's bad. The way per-day spells work means that balance always depends on whether the party can camp out for a day, and that's bad. 3E multiclassing is a one-size-fits-all system with no eye toward balance. A few combinations are way too good. Many combinations are OK. Most combinations just suck.

Here's my 3E class-balance story. I had a barbarian in the RPGA, and at 2nd level I picked up a level of cleric. You got random parties in the RPGA Living Greyhawk events, and if I had 1 level of cleric, then at least there would always be some healing in the party. At 3rd level, I was going to go back to my character's "real" class, barbarian. But why? Cleric levels are way better than barbarian levels. There's no comparison, and as a spell caster rises in level, the levels just get better and better. So in spirit my character was primarily a barbarian, but mechanically it was more a cleric.

Wakasaki_Rocky3 karma

Did I read in the title that you were the lead designer on 3E? Are you bashing your own work?

grandmotherfish10 karma

Yes and yes. If 3E were someone else's work, I wouldn't bash it so freely. I'm proud of 3E because it made the D&D system rational. But once it was clear how the system worked, it was also clear that it's fundamentally unbalanced and in fact not balance-able. Per-day spells make balancing classes or encounters impossible. Cleric healing is balanced only if you don't actually look at it.

Kingsley__Zissou10 karma

Obviously people line up out the door to play test your games, but for an unknown like myself without a ton of gaming friends what is your advice on finding play testers that will take the experience seriously and offer valid feedback? (This is for a board/card strategy game, if that matters). Thanks for taking the time to do this AMA and keep up the great work.

grandmotherfish14 karma

Thank you. Here in Seattle there are lots of game stores where one can find players. There's even a playtest organization. If your components look good, that's a plus. Get out into the community and find where people are gathering to play, and you should be able to find people.

PermTrouble10 karma

Do you support gun control on Mars?

grandmotherfish27 karma

There and everywhere.

grandmotherfish38 karma

Everybody is for gun control. In the States, even the Republicans don't want to repeal the 1934 National Firearms Act and let civilians tote machine guns again. The only question is what sort of gun control is best.

williamimm9 karma

Have any advice for someone who's working on his own tabletop RPG with a friend? It was a labor of love over the past few years. Much like 13th Age, we've decided to base our system on D&D 4e and 3e, but in our case extending and refining the tactical combat system 4e used and worked from there to create a system fit for storytelling. Different direction, but hopefully a similar fun result for a system we hope to put on Kickstarter.

And I have to say, I'm glad that we both managed to play the system you and Heinsoo made. I've first heard about it from RPG Crossing, an online site for playing tabletop RPGs via forum posts. Other members there touted it as a spiritual successor to 4e, and I have to say that playing it resulted in my absolute favorite game on that site, realizing a character I loved in the best way possible. Here's the game in question.

See you and Heinsoo at Gameholecon! I'm attending your panel there. And sorry if my response is rather long, there's a lot I wanted to say when I had the chance.

EDIT: Also, do I have permission to x-post this to r/13thAge?

grandmotherfish20 karma

Yes, x-post.

If you want your game to be one that others love and not just you and your group, then you need to do a lot of blind playtesting, and you need to listen to all the feedback you get, including the feedback you don't want to hear. Playtesting is a lot of work, and many designers slip up by not doing enough.

If you want to put something on Kickstarter, then you should try to have some sort of online following first, even if it's just on Facebook or something. Your online network will make or break your Kickstarter campaign. And start the Kickstarter campaign with something concrete to show people to prove that you're serious and that you can really finish the work that you start.

IrishBandit8 karma

Have you played much 5e? What do you think of it?

How did you go from RPG designer to evolution book writer?

grandmotherfish11 karma

I've played the first session of a 5E campaign and dropped out because there was nothing there for me. It was a canned adventure, which doesn't help. 5E is a great product. It nicely manages to appeal to old players with its clean style and great D&D feel. It's also streamlined and accessible for new players. I didn't know how Wizards was ever going to launch an edition after the disastrous 4E and against competition from Pathfinder. They did a good job.

As for Grandmother Fish, it's been a pet project of mine for 15 years. I started on it when my daughter was little. I've always been a big fan of evolution, which I think is central to an understanding of what it means to be human. Two years ago I finally figured out how to make the book really work, and now it's published and on Amazon.

It's not too much of a stretch to see some connection between my work as a game designer and as the author of Grandmother Fish. I have spent a lot of time in games trying to make complicated games simple and engaging so that new players, especially young players, can get into them. Grandmother Fish is my shot at making evolution simple and engaging. In fact, the child listening to the book acts out the roles of our ancestors: early fish, amniotes, mammals, apes, and humans. Have you seen it? There's a touch of "roleplaying" in it.

Free PDF edition:

stubbazubba8 karma

1) What do you feel is the biggest missed opportunity in RPG history?

2) Over the course of your career, what has changed most about the process of making an RPG? What do you see changing in the future?

grandmotherfish18 karma

  1. The US missed out on LARPing. LARPs are big in northern Europe, and there's great stuff coming from there. But in the US there was official resistance from TSR to doing anything like LARPing. TSR was addressing the fear that players who acted in character would lose their minds. Big missed opportunity.

  2. RPGs used to simulate worlds. Now they enable experiences. RPG design used to be about figuring out how to model magic or combat or experience. Now it's about how to draw certain creative and emotional experiences from the players. See Sorcerer, Apocalypse World, Polaris, My Life With Master, etc.

StandingByToStandBy8 karma

What's it like working for WOTC, and why is 5e the best E?

grandmotherfish12 karma

Some years at Wizards were really good and others very challenging. It's hard to work on D&D at Wizards because Magic overshadows it. That was true when I was there, and now 4E set D&D back while Magic has continued to grow. Overall, though, it's great to work at a big game company and work on serious games.

5E is good because it feels like D&D and it's streamlined compared to 3E. It has a nice focus one some good concepts. For me, though, it doesn't seem built to be great in the long run. There's just not enough going on, especially with the monsters. The players have nice traits for their characters, but the monsters are so simple that there's not much for the DM to do.

13th Age also has a streamlined system, but it ramps up the action with interesting monsters, and players have creative freedom over their characters like never before.

checkii8 karma

Extremely random, but I have never met anyone with the same last name as me. You wouldn't happen to have family from McGreggor Iowa would you?

grandmotherfish8 karma

Nope. There are other Tweets, but my little family tree is from southern Minnesota.

PghDrake7 karma

Where do you stand with D&D 5e and whatever direction they may take toward or away from an open license? Personally I'd like to see them open it a bit, but not as much as they did previously. I know I'm against the grain here with most folks when I say I was and am not a fan of Pathfinder.

grandmotherfish13 karma

I love the Open Game License for 3E, and I benefitted from it with 13th Age, but as you suggest it's probably not the right move to 5E. It's hard to know where to draw the line in terms of openness, and D&D has to be more protective of its brand that other RPGs. Personally I'd like to see more openness because as a game designer I want my fellow game designers to have more options.

iguanamarina6 karma

First thing, thank you for being here answering our questions. I'm a fan of D&D so I owe you many hours of entretainment.

What I wanted to ask you is how did you start in RPG industry? I did my own games and now I'm trying to do one new mixing card games (like magic the gathering, i guess) and neuroscience but, when I finish, I don't know what to do to show the world what I think some people would find as an intresting game.

Sorry for my bad english, also congratulations about your book, as a Biologist I think that's a great idea!

grandmotherfish11 karma

I'm glad you enjoyed my work, and thanks for supporting my career.

I started in the RPG business by self-publishing, and that's what I recommend today. Publish something, make something happen, prove that you have what it takes to make something. That's what my best friend and I did right out of college. With the Internet, it's easier than ever to find an audience, supporters, platesetters, etc.

I'm glad you like the idea for Grandmother Fish. Honestly, I was surprised to find out that it's the first book on evolution for preschoolers. Other people also assume that there are books like that already, but I can't find any.

in-magitek-armor6 karma

Hi Jonathan. I have thought a lot about designing a PC RPG. What comes first for you when you design? Lore, mechanical systems and interactions, or what? Give me a broad overview of the process you go through when designing.

grandmotherfish6 karma

Great question! I tend to start my projects with a core idea. What is the point of this game or book? Why would anyone play it or read it? What does it do that isn't already being done? What will the world be missing if you don't create your game? Think about the players. They're going to spend their precious time playing your game and not someone else's. Why?

writermonk6 karma

Do you remember Talislanta? Talislanta remembers you.

We've got a new "edition" coming out soon. Hit up SMS if you've still got his contact information (or drop me a PM if you need it, I guess).

grandmotherfish6 karma

I remember it fondly.

Vaudvillian5 karma

What are you feelings on the industry springing up around the industry? Specifically things like podcasts and video streams of play? There are many folks who experience RPGs these days exclusively by watching other people play them.

Obligatory plug for my podcast: ONE SHOT

grandmotherfish9 karma

I love it. The Internet used to be made of text, and that's extremely limiting. Will Wheaton's Tabletop has been an amazing boon to board games, and recently in Brazil I ran into someone who had heard about 13th Age from a session that was being streamed. Historically, it was hard to learn any complicated games except from other people that you met in person. Now you can learn them from attractive videos on the Internet. Podcasts are another excellent addition to geek culture.

alkonium5 karma

Out of the games you've designed, which was your favourite? Same question again, but with games you haven't been involved with.

grandmotherfish10 karma

Everway is a favorite of mine because it's so beautiful and approachable. It's the only RPG that my late wife ever played, and the only one I've played with my best friend's wife. Its focus on imagery and symbols is inspiring, and I ran a couple good campaigns with it. It's also readily available cheap on the Internet because we overprinted, so it's a great value, with over a hundred full color cards in it with art by talented artists.

Call of Cthulhu is monumental and hugely influential, although I wouldn't run it as written any more, and lots of the adventures were pretty ineffective. For current games, I'm really impressed with Hillfolk as a game that focuses on drama instead of battling.

Fruhmann5 karma

What is your go-to crock pot recipe?

grandmotherfish4 karma

Veggie chili.

agnesmarsala5 karma

What can I say to my friend who insists that because we've not found any "transitional fossils" evolution is wrong?

grandmotherfish6 karma

"People believe different things about the history of the earth, but what really matters is how people treat each other."

Swordwraith5 karma

You've made a couple comments about the release of 4E being 'disastrous' and 'setting D&D' back, yet it can be readily argued that many design elements of 13th Age are analogous to/crib heavily from ideas present in 4E. Are you referring entirely to 4e setting the D&D brand back (and thus I apologize if I misconstrued the above comments) or are you genuinely not fond of 4e, which seems incongruous with the tenants upon which you built 13th Age?

grandmotherfish7 karma

I love a lot of the innovations in 4E, which is why you see them in 13th Age. I'm disappointed that these great innovations were in a package with the wrong overall vision. As much as I like some of 4E, it was a disaster for the D&D brand.

drFink2224 karma

How did grappling get so complicated?

grandmotherfish10 karma

Nobody told me No.

katiecrimespree4 karma

Hi Jonathan! Thanks for doing this.

I'm an illustrator, though most of my work has been in comic books. I would love to illustrate tabletop projects-- would you have any advice/direction for working my way in?

grandmotherfish8 karma

You're welcome.

What I advise folks who are ambitious about getting into the field is to get something published. Self-publish, or work with someone. If you have comic books published, that puts you ahead of a lot of would-be game artists. A good next step might be finding a creative partner, someone who's doing tabletop work and needs art. Making face-to-face contacts at game conventions is a good way to make a connection. It's a competitive area, but people who work at it can break in.

LordStormbringer4 karma

You write D&D books and you're trying to teach evolution to preschoolers? To a small town Baptist Sunday School teacher, you are literally the devil!

(I'm not a small town Baptist Sunday School teacher, but I've known a few who would share this sentiment)

grandmotherfish8 karma

But wait, there's more. I'm also a big geeky fan of the historical Jesus, the exorcist who never claimed to be God and who didn't start a new religion.

jillrabbit4 karma

Where can I buy your book? It looks like it's sold out on amazon and I would love it for my 5 year old!

grandmotherfish5 karma

Thanks. Age 5 is a great age for Grandmother Fish. Are you on Amazon US? Unless there was just a big run, it should be in stock. And I just shipped another shipment in, so they'll have it soon if not now.

I take special orders on Backerkit, but not single books:

When I go to this page, it looks like it's in stock

Iconoclast6744 karma

What do you think of the Dark Sun campaign setting?

Ps, Where is the evolution based table top game?

grandmotherfish6 karma

Dark Sun is a neat idea, but sadly people generally prefer what they're used to.

Evolution is a hard theme for a game because games are about choices and evolution happens without anyone choosing.

In January, I’ll launch a Kickstarter for “Clades,” an evolution-themed card game for kids and adults. In biology, a clade is all the organisms that are descended from an ancestral population. “Mammal,” for example, is the clade of all animals descended from the first mammals. To write Grandmother Fish, I had to learn about clades, and the concept excited me so much that I’ve created a game based on it. For years I’ve tried to figure out how I could do a game that gets evolution right, and in August an answer finally came to me. “Clades” is a smart card with a proven play style, and it’s easy to adjust for children or beginners.

zedbra3 karma

Our group has never moved past 3.5. We love the system and we own every book that has been published in that edition. We also tried 4E, but were so turned off how it felt so focused on combat and not enough on characterization. 5E isn't even in the cards to be honest.

  • If we moved to 13th Age what are some of the major changes we should expect?

  • How easy is it to learn compared to 3.5?

  • Why did you make it? What did you want from it that wasn't in Pathfinder or 3.5?

I just want to thank you as well, I have been playing DnD with my closest friends for the past 24 years and 3.5E has made up the greater portions of my Friday nights. Thank you!

grandmotherfish4 karma

13th Age is easy to learn, and it has lots of great ideas that you can port into your D&D campaign. Rob and I made 13th Age because we wanted to share with the world our version of how to play D&D. Instead of making a game for the corporation, we made it for us and for players like us.

Major changes: lots more creative freedom and storytelling, streamlined rules, dynamic combat.

essidus3 karma

Thank you for making 3rd Ed. It was my first TTRPG, and I have many fond memories. I have a small pile of questions!

  • Are you in on any tabletop games right now?

  • Aside from 3rd Ed, is there a system you enjoy or respect above the others?

  • Finally, what do you think of the attempts to translate the 3rd ed system into computer games?

grandmotherfish8 karma

13th Age is my current RPG. It takes the core of D&D and improves it in two directions at once. Combat is faster and more dynamic, and players have much more creative freedom over their characters. It fixes balance issues that are baked into 3E, and it releases the creativity of players and GMs.

Neverwinter Nights was a really good rendition of 3E in computer gaming. Unfortunately, their content sharing infrastructure seems to have come too late.

Personally, I like RPGs because everyone can make stuff up. Computer games restrict what you can make up, so I prefer tabletop.

Implausibilibuddy3 karma

Were you annoyed when your name became a popular internet verb?

grandmotherfish5 karma


Typelouderplz3 karma

What were you thinking when you let Haste give two standard actions to casters?

grandmotherfish6 karma

"That seems logical." That's a bad way to design a game.

tha_dood-2 karma

Do you agree or disagree that DnD 3.5 is awesome and DnD 4.0 is garbage?

grandmotherfish1 karma

As a game designer, I see it as a lot more complicated than that. 3E is great, but it has fundamental balance problems that make it mostly unplayable for me. The healing system means clerics are grossly overpowered, and the per-day spell system means that it's basically impossible to balance classes or encounters. 4E fixed that.

4E, on the other hand, improved balance by severely limiting player options, and it doesn't feel like D&D.

That's why Rob Heinsoo and I did 13th Age. It feels like a ramped-up D&D campaign, its balance is better than 4E's, combat is faster than in both previous systems, and players get a great big helping for creative freedom.

13th Age: