Eberron creator on the joy of creation, and why the Monster Manual is “the best coloring book”
Keith Baker’s official title is often “game designer,” but he’s really more of a “world builder.” Baker has had his hand in designing several games over the past decade, such as Gloom, The Doom That Came To Atlantic City, and Cthulhu Fluxx. But the world Baker keeps coming back to, the one he’s known for, is Eberron.
Although Baker had worked on several smaller projects, including eight years of work in the video game industry under developer Magnet, he pointed to Eberron as the “big break” in his career. While working with Magnet, Baker was surrounded by talented individuals – Ken Rolston of Paranoia and David “Zeb” Cook of Planescape – but none of his work saw commercial release. It was Eberron, drafted in response to the Wizards of the Coast Fantasy Setting Search, that finally allowed him to do what he’d been dreaming of since he was little.
“When I was 9 or 10, I picked up D&D books for the first time and that was fascinating to me, because I loved mythology,” Baker told the Penny Arcade Report. “And when you’re 9 years old, the original monster manual I like to say is the best coloring book ever. It’s just full of monsters and they have all these little stats and stories and you can actually say what happens when you take a unicorn and a minotaur and you actually make them fight?” Baker waved his hands in the air as though he were playing with action figures.
“I ended up being the primary gamemaster for my circle of friends, and I sort of realized, well this is what I want to do.”
When nerds experiment in college
Baker told me that during his years as primary GM, he often took two concepts he enjoyed separately and attempted to mash them together in an attempt to create something new and fun. In college, he crafted rules for a multi-layer, meta-heavy LARP/chess game hybrid.
“It was a four hour game in which the players are the black side of a chess board. It’s essentially a political struggle between the queen’s court and the king’s court, waiting to see at the end of the game who had the most power,” Baker said. “At the same time this is going on, there’s an actual game of chess being played.”
“One of the gamemasters is playing white, and every 10 minutes, black has to make a move and by default that’s the king. Through various other ways, other people could supersede and get the ability to make a move, and the only combat system in the game was knights got to duel with boffer weapons. Every hour they could duel, and whoever won would get the point. So like the king’s knight or the queen’s knight get points for dueling, the bishops debate religion, etcetera. The only combat system is if your piece is taken, you’re out of the game.”
“What made it interesting was you have the king, who is running the game overall, but every piece is a player in the game. So if you sacrifice a pawn, well that’s Ben. Also, if you take a piece using a piece, that player gains reputation and power. So it’s this thing of you don’t want to use your queen too much because you don’t want her getting too much power, and in fact you could just try and eliminate the queen, but can you actually win the game of chess without her? It was very interesting as this multiple level thing, where one hand you’re dealing with politics, and the other you have this game of chess which affects everything.”
This was the sort of thing Baker did with his spare time. It’s almost mad scientist levels of experimentation, and Baker loves fiddling with the expectations players have of a system. He doesn’t like things to stay the same. “I’ll say that often in D&D, magic feels very much static. There’s nothing to suggest wizards were any different a thousand years ago than they are today. In fact the existence of elves suggests that they weren’t, because your elf may be a thousand years old,” he said. “I like fantasy to feel real in the sense of it may be fantastic, but it still feels if magic existed, society would develop.”
Likewise, Baker enjoys turning the expected on its ear. “If a paladin existed in the world and can detect evil, why is there still evil?” Baker asked. “If there are paladins that are recognized for what they can do and they can detect evil, why have we not eradicated evil?” Baker laughed and put his thumb toward me. “You know? I have a magic thermometer that just says ‘You’re bad!’ I want a world that feels like it makes sense. If we have that magic thermometer, either we have a way of explaining why it isn’t used, or we say ‘Fine, there is an inquisition that hunts down evil people.’”
In the case of Eberron, Baker said the alignment scheme was more an indication of personality, not actions. An evil person could be a productive member of society, while a good person may end up performing unspeakable deeds. Magic had meanwhile been translated to a sort of technological advancement that allowed for airships, light rails, and magic light bulbs. Baker said he enjoyed how Eberron explored those themes, but he wasn’t done yet.
The next Eberron
“I’m working on a new setting right now that’ll be coming out over the next year,” Baker said. “It’s still something that’s continuing to develop, and there will come a point at which we will do something on Kickstarter for that, but we’re waiting until we have things in a concrete state. Part of the thing is there’s different levels of where we can go with it, and we want to have a very concrete sense of, ‘If we reach this funding, we can add this in.’ We just don’t want to reach out to people too far ahead of when we’re going to be able to produce it. Creating a world is something that takes time.”
Baker said that while the new setting will be a fantasy setting, it is not intended as a replacement for Eberron. In fact, right now Baker hasn’t even decided what system the base rules will be drawn from. Baker listed GURPS, Spirit of the Century, D&D Next, and Pathfinder among his possible candidates, but made it clear no decision had been reached. Whatever he picks, he wants it to remain accessible and customizable for his audience.
“One of the themes with Eberron that I’ve always tried to promote is the idea that we are giving you material, but it’s also your world. Everything in the books should be seen as inspiration, but you should be able to change it; change what you want, add what you want,” Baker said. “There are places in Eberron – Khyber, Xendrik, the Mournland – that are intentionally flexible, and it makes it easy for you to say, ‘I want to add the tarrasque in, and it’s never been said where it is, I’m gonna say it was created by the Mourning and it’s coming out of the Mournlands.’”
“With my new setting, it’s certainly something where I want to have that same sort of flexibility.” Baker shuffled excitedly in his seat. His voice took on the tone of an assembly speaker, trying to inspire. “To me, I’m creating the foundation and the framework, but… creativity is part of what makes roleplaying such a great thing, and people don’t often have time to create an entire world, but you can still make a piece of it.”
A deist philosophy to game design
That’s what’s so remarkable about the games and worlds Baker has created: he creates, and then leaves, off to another adventure. I expected him to be bitter that Wizards owns Eberron, and that they can change it as they see fit. Baker told the Penny Arcade Report that although fans ask him if he can give approval to an adventure, he legally can’t. Wizards doesn’t even notify him when a new book comes out, he said. “But that was the deal.” His voice didn’t have a trace of regret.
When Baker was tapped to create the rules for The Doom That Came To Atlantic City, the same thing happened: Baker created, and once his work was complete, he moved on. He remains interested his past work, but he’s more interested in seeing what other people do with his creations.
“I love making worlds,” Baker said. It was as simple as that.