The time has arrived for a pleasant interview with Bart Carroll, so let’s do this, with relish.
Multiverse: Hi Bart! Did you enjoy a nice summer?
Bart: I did! There was a fair bit of smoke in the air here in Seattle, but I still enjoyed my summer. Work-wise, I was privileged to help livestream D&D’s Stream of Many Eyes as well as Luke Gygax’s inaugural Founders & Legends Day event. Vacation-wise, I made it over to Ireland, to visit some of the old family counties (Offaly and Tipperary). Apparently, the O’Carroll’s used to rule a fair number of castles, some of which are still standing (and haunted)… I wonder how one makes a family claim for one of those places?
Multiverse: You should totally claim one of those haunted castles and host tabletop D&D sessions there. That would be off the chain. Of the many adventure modules that involve a haunted location, which of those adventure modules is your favorite and why?
Bart: One of the first “haunted” adventures I played growing up was the original I6: Ravenloft. Entering any dungeon location always merits caution, but exploring Castle Ravenloft just felt so different that any other adventure I’d played through before. Since my group wasn’t sure where the threats would be coming from, we were on our toes the whole time (not to mention, being creeped out by undead in the first place).
This was made especially fearful, since Strahd knew we were in his home and was actively messing with us. Added to all that, the adventure’s isometric maps seemed to expand the geometries of the place in our minds, and it made for such a memorable haunted house experience for myself and my group.
That experience helped influence me as a DM myself, and there are plenty of lessons that can be applied to dungeon-delving in general. I’ve used them running Tomb of Horrors (which could very well play as a “haunted” adventure), adding further creep dungeon dressing and having Acererak’s minions appearing along the way to mess with parties (and in true villain fashion, loudly lament when the characters bypass their obstacles).
Multiverse: What can you share with us about Extra Life (and the forthcoming adventure for it?)
Bart: This will be the 6th year D&D’s participating, and the 2nd year I’ve been helping run things for our team. For this year, we decided to extend things beyond the traditional 24-hour marathon. We livestreamed games during the official Extra Life Game Day on November 3rd, and we also dedicated more games the following week to the cause, ending at Gamehole Con.
We’re working on an original adventure for the DMs Guild, an “alternate” expedition to the Barrier Peaks. We didn’t want to recreate the original S3 module so much as lean into the sci-fi/fantasy mash-up stylings of the original in order to present some pretty wild encounters. Several Guild Adepts are involved. Jeremy Crawford and I have been livestreaming development of the signature magic item, the suit of powered armor (which we couldn’t leave out). All Wizards of the Coast proceeds from the adventure went towards Extra Life (as well as those from our Extra Life apparel, over at Custom Ink).
All that said, I’d especially like to call out the communal effort involved. There are folks running games, playing games, watching games… and to date this year, the D&D community has already raised over $100k in donations. It’s a tremendous effort to be a part of, and a huge word of thanks to everyone involved in any capacity. Every dollar raised goes towards a truly great cause.
Multiverse: What a marvelous fundraising effort Extra Life is. And, an “alternate” Expedition To The Barrier Peaks adventure sounds like a wild time. Of all the many great sci-fi/fantasy mash-ups in film and/or literature, which have you most enjoyed and why?
Bart: I mentioned on a recent Dragon+ livestream that growing up, my three loves were Star Wars, G.I. Joe, and professional wrestling. With Star Wars, I didn’t even realize at the time that any mashing-up was taking place, but most especially in Episode IV you have a sci-fi world explored by Ben Kenobi the wizard (even called out as such) and his young peasant/squire Luke, both armed with magic swords. I did notice it more with Krull (1983,) which combined things the other way, with its slayers armed with laser weapons invading a largely fantasy world.
For more recent mash-ups, I couldn’t help but love the scene in Reign of Fire (2002,) where post-apocalyptic survivors are play-acting Star Wars to kids. Plus, and most especially (although he’d more properly call it weird fantasy), China Miéville’s New Crobuzon series.
I’m not even sure why mash-ups appeal to me. As a kid, my Star Wars and G.I. Joe action figures were never allowed to interact (although each did a lot of wrestling amongst themselves). But maybe it’s watching other people break storytelling conventions and expectations that’s so appealing. If done well, watching someone build with pieces of different genres can make for very rewarding worldbuilding.
Multiverse : What is it about China Miéville’s New Crobuzon series that really launches your rockets?
Bart: Oh, there’s loads to love in any of these books… Such a rich setting, presented with such pathos. And the RPG-ready elements! In Perdido Street Station, you have a band of mercenaries described as “Thrill-seekers.” They court danger. And they’re quite unscrupulous graverobbers for the most part. Anything for gold and experience.” If that doesn’t describe adventures, what does? In The Scar, you have one of the coolest “magic weapons” with the possibility sword, and one of the most terrifying monster races with the anophelii (mosquito people, I suppose something like stirge-folk.) And in the end of Iron Council, there’s a battle between golems on one side and elementals on the other. What’s not to love!? It also helped to see his material actually transferred into RPG form, back in Dragon Magazine #352!
Multiverse : What tips would you give to young kids who are trying tabletop RPGs for their first time?
Bart: For starters, we just ran a feature in Dragon+ speaking about this (which you can read right here.) I would say to look for games and activities that help serve as entry points (I’m a big fan myself of Munchkin, No Thank You, Evil!, and the Dungeon! board game). That said, also feel free to jump straight into D&D as well; Rob Gruber at Good Times Games has D&D gaming groups with kids as young as 5 and 6 (and I’d also point out his article on the subject here.) In general, when creating characters, let the kids be as wild as they want with their concept. And in play, keep the mechanics light and simple—a single d20 roll to resolve most things. And remember, it’s all about the story. Rolling a 1 can be just as fun and memorable as rolling a 20—so encourage them to keep that in mind, let the dice fall where they may and just see what happens!
Multiverse: Munchkin is great fun. It’s been marvelous to see Steve Jackson Games publish so many versions of it. What’s your Munchkin version of choice?
Bart: My gaming group still gets plenty of mileage out the original card set (which we’ve added to over the years, with Need for Steed and a few more expansions). The races and classes hew close enough to iconic D&D tropes, that it feels comfortable enough to us. That said, I will have to pick up the Tricky Treats expansion.
And, for other fans of Munchkin/D&D-flavored card games, Dungeon Mayhem itself is out this month (November.) Super easy to learn, super quick to play, and pretty darn addictive.
Multiverse: How young were you when you discovered the tabletop RPG hobby?
Bart: I was 6. I remember the older kids in the neighborhood poring through a 1st edition Monster Manual; listening in on them, I thought this mysterious tome sounded like the coolest possible thing ever.
Thankfully, the other kids in my friend group thought so as well, and we attempted to teach ourselves to play with a lot of wild assumption and all the d6s we could borrow from our other board games. At some point, one of those older kids took it upon himself to make us our first “official” characters and walk us through the basics. From then on we were all hooked. That Christmas, I received the famed red box starter set, and really gained an understanding of the rule set!
Multiverse : What did you enjoy most about Frank Mentzer’s Red Box?
Bart: For me, at that age, it worked so marvelously well as an introduction into D&D. It starts with an endless quest-style narrative that not only engaged me as a reader, but very subtly introduced the concept of the game being about choices you make with your character. Essentially, it’s a set of rulebooks for a game that I already desperately wanted to learn; but written in a more narrative style such as it did made it that much easier and enjoyable for a kid like myself to work through.
Multiverse: As a kid, which tabletop RPGs did you enjoy most?
Bart: D&D. That was always the tried-and-true favorite. Later on, moving back to Chicago after a few years in Texas, I joined a gaming group playing loads of Palladium — Robotech, the Fantasy RPG, Rifts and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Later on, we tried our hand at Shadowrun as well. I enjoyed those sessions (especially for the sci-fi elements,) but then I also started up more D&D campaigns with high school friends; some of which continue to this day.
Multiverse: How might you describe Rifts to those who might not have had the opportunity to try that RPG yet?
Bart: Talk about your mash-ups! Imagine if magic ripped into the modern world, where some parts responded by embracing/shifting back more towards the fantastic, while other parts responded by shifting hard into sci-fi/technology. There are influences from some of Palladium’s other works, or at least a world setting where Robotech, the Fantasy RPG, Ninjas & Superspies, even TMNT could all conceivably interact with each other.
Multiverse: The D&D/tabletop livestreaming phenomenon continues to flourish, yes?
Bart: I like to think back to when I was learning to play D&D; we learned in part from the rules but also very much from the older kids in the neighborhood. These days, more and more people are able to learn about the game and how to play (and DM) from livestreaming. But it’s also inherent to the game, that once you start watching, there can be just as much investment in the characters and storyline as in other media. Added to that, a solid community engaging in chat, the opportunity to interact direct with the creators, and the ability (with a relatively inexpensive outlay nowadays) for many groups to create and stream their own campaigns… it’s just a great time to watch livestreams and livestream yourself.
Multiverse: Which other tabletop games (non-RPG) do you enjoy setting time aside for?
Bart: With a 5-year old, we play a ton of kid-friendly games, such as Pengoloo, Headbands, Zingo!, Candy Land, Hungry Hungry Hippos, and the aforementioned Dungeon! board game. After the kiddo goes to bed? These days, a fair bit of Ticket to Ride, Lords of Waterdeep, Superfight, Joking Hazard and the various Betrayal games (House on the Hill and Baldur’s Gate).
Multiverse: What do you enjoy most about Joking Hazard?
Bart: It’s one of those games I can play during the holidays with my in-laws. Whatever we might not have in common, it’s a game we can break out and have everyone laugh around the table.
Multiverse : What was the wildest thing you ever witnessed at a gaming convention?
Bart: Hmm. I don’t know about wild, but the year Wizards of the Coast built a full-scale photo booth off the red box starter set cover was pretty awesome. I still love the photo I took there with my wife.
Multiverse: If you could turn back the hands of time and approach one thing differently in the world of tabletop gaming, what would that be, and what would you do differently?
Bart: I would have never, ever thrown away my old characters or campaign notes. Man, how I wish I had those back, just for personal reference and archive.
Multiverse: Dude! Where do you suppose those old characters and campaign notes went?
Bart: Sadly, I know exactly where they are. A landfill somewhere in Illinois. I could blame my parents–when I went off to college, they threw out a bunch my stuff, including much of my old gaming material. But I can only pretend outrage. My dad has always been a collector of paper and documents (from his careers as an Army Staff Judge Advocate and later as a Guardian Ad Litem), and the type of person who would’ve saved everything I ever brought home for school if we had the space, and would’ve never thrown out anything of mine without asking. The truth is they did ask me first, and I told them to go for it. Fool of a Took!
Multiverse: If you were leaving tomorrow on a Caribbean cruise (and if there was just enough room in your knapsack for you to bring any three (3) books along with you,) which books would you bring?
Bart: I’ll pick three that I know I’ll always enjoy re-reading. The (Annotated) Hobbit. The Etymologicon. And the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Multiverse: With 2019 being the 40th anniversary year of the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, do you have any special plans to help celebrate/commemorate that delightful tome?
Bart: Now that you mention it, I should think of something… At the very least, it merits a discussion/celebration in Dragon+. And maybe a livestream playthrough of its sample dungeon!
Multiverse: Your livestreams on Dragon+ are great fun. How did that come about?
Bart: As far as how we ramped up on the D&D team, the start came from Greg Bilsland; he originally helped put together Dice, Camera, Action! Then as we saw livestreaming growing more broadly, Greg Tito helped drive the increase in programming kicked off at our 2017 Stream of Annihilation event. Since then, it’s been my privilege to work with the D&D livestream community (I’m writing this from TwitchCon, in fact) to help curate and promote some of the outstanding livestream games and shows out there. And that’s really where it all comes about from–gamers are already streaming their games, and doing a hell of an entertaining job of it, and our team is just working to promote their efforts as best we can!
Multiverse : Let’s say you find a Ring of Three Wishes at TwitchCon! What do you wish for?
Bart: Three wishes? Generally, most people go for fortune, fame, and happiness, right?
I’ll do the same, but for fortune, I’ll defer to Extra Life and wish that we achieve our best fundraising year to date in support of the cause.
For fame, I’ll wish that Hollywood decides to shoot my imagined Predator/Aliens/Terminator script.
And for happiness… you know, Greg Tito and Shelly Mazzanoble recently interviewed Robert Warbaugh, who’s been running his same D&D campaign for 30+ years. That sounds awesome. I’d wish to run a campaign that long, with my son as one of the players.