Ptolus Designer Chat

That screenshot alone should tell you its worth a watch.

Ptolus is one of those names that gets spoken of in weird reverence among the RPG crowd that played in the third edition days. Used copies go for hundreds of dollars ($554 on amazon at time of publishing) and the PDFs still go for $50. The main book is a 600+ page campaign setting released when the average was closer to 100, and the names attached are some of the big names of the time, and today.

Go look at the authors of the the bigger 3.0 and 3.5 books, and you’ll see a big list of players from this game. Ultimately, the Ptolus campaign was the game run by one of the guys writing 3.0 as it was being written, played by the folks who wrote the splatbooks for it. Its influence in 3.0, 3.5, D&D and RPGs in general can’t be understated. Ptolus is tied to the big shift in third, moving from the low fantasy near earth, rare magic worlds of Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Greyhawk of 2nd edition with the more high fantasy, magic heavy settings described in the 3.0 books, Eberron, Golarion, and even modern supplements for FR. Not to mention the tone which has echoed down into most modern RPG settings of today.

The chat is hosted by Monte Cook of Monte Cook Games, and Malhavoc press. Monte was the DM at the time, and Senior Designer on 3.0. Participants include

  • Andy Collins: a contributor to 3.0, and lead on 3.5, Andy also took the role of the “Sage” WoTCs regular advice columnist. He was also part of the core team for 4e.
  • Jesse Decker: The editor-in-chief of Dragon, and a guy with his name attached to a laundry list of 3rd edition books. Also a member of the core team for 4e.
  • Bruce Cordell: Bruce is one of those names who constantly floats up in RPG design circles, having written extensively for 2, 3, 4, and 5th edition D&D.
  • Sean K Reynolds: Like Bruce, Sean has been a part of the D&D community for a long time, appearing in all sorts of products from the 2e days to today.

Essentially, if I were told to write 6e D&D and got to pick my dream team, odds are good one of these guys would be on it, and all their names would be on the short list.

The whole chat is packed with gems of DM advice, I won’t call them all out, but it really is a must watch for tips and tricks. Lots of great tips about worldbuilding, Some are really basic things that Day 1 DMs could use help with, but some are more advanced worldbuilding tips for DMs. A lot focused on how to get your players to care about the campaign, which is something a lot of DMs struggle with, and important if you want more than a dungeon crawl. Which is ironic, as Ptolus, is a setting built around the dungeon crawl.

The setting itself was what was played during the design of 3.0. In my opinion, it might actually be the true core 3rd edition campaign setting. If you are looking for insight into how the game was designed, and where their mindset was at when they decided to build a _____, this is the setting to read for your answer.

As for the interview, Jesse and Andy carry most of the thing. They tend to dominate the conversation and be the most excited to talk through the various scenarios. Sean and Bruce hang back a little quieter, ironic considering they now work at Monte Cooke Games. Monte jumps in and moderates the whole thing, and shares some DM level insight into what was going on, and it’s overall a really solid chat. There is a weird production issue at 27 min where Sean’s story gets cut off, and we are jumped into Monte asking a question from a user that’s a little jarring. Otherwise production is smooth.

Some interesting mechanical observations I caught.

  • They talk about Cleric Archers, one of the original power combinations of 3.0, and how one of them basically played one. This ties into a school of game design Monte talked to back in the day called Ivory Tower Game design. He has since come around on the idea, but it gives a lot of context to 3e ideas. In short, it was the idea that you purposefully include trap, and overpowered options in your game. It’s a game, and some players like to win. This gives your min-maxer something to get excited about.
  • Bruce talks about an archer prestige class he played that he wrote for himself, and then, like everyone who wrote their own prestige class, realized it was OP. I thought it was funny they all forgot the name of the book it ended up going into. Later it comes out it was Sword and Fist. The real irony here is that it was reprinted in 3.5, and nerfed. Back in the day, the forums were full of people trying to convince their DM to let them use the 3.0 one. Looking back now, even the 3.0 one is “OK at best” from a power standpoint.
  • Andy has a neat anecdote about realizing he was a min-maxer, and wanted to explore 2 levels of rogue “which everyone did”. The 2 level dip gets you evasion which was awesome in early 3e, but then he talks about dipping into sorcerer for the remainder of his classes. This tells me he probably played an arcane trickster, which ended up being one of the few decent prestige classes.
  • One of the two parties was all elves. Elves were one of the top tier races in 3rd edition from a power perspective, and it’s interesting to see that they all gravitated that way.

I know I said I wouldn’t go into all the DM advice handed out, but there was one that stuck out to me. “If you do something big, like take away magic, make sure you show it screwing the NPCs as much as PCs”. This is huge. To expand on it, it’s one thing to say “yes but the wizards college can’t function either” to your players, and it’s another to show the impact. The example they give is an NPC allied vampire was using magic to be out in the sun. Magic ended for a day, and the guy was caught by surprise. He turned to dust. Any of these big things that happen always feel like a DM taking away toys from the players, right? You built a wizard, having a no magic day just means you can’t participate that day. By showing, not telling, the impact to NPCs, the players are forced to interact with others who are hurt just as much, if not more. Now the player feels lucky that is all that happened, vs attacked.

This is a phenomenal video with some of the top minds in the industry talking about a foundational time when they worked on one of the most groundbreaking games. If you care about RPG design, you owe it to spend an hour and a half listening.

*Corrected for grammar and typos 7/26/2020

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