I’ve planned for this column to feature some of the shorter sorts of articles found in Designers & Dragons: mini-histories of companies, settings, and magazines. However, when I started collecting data for a mini-history of Open Design, I quickly discovered that I had enough for a longer article. So, over this month and next, I’ll be offering up full history #61, featuring Wolfgang Baur’s Open Design.

If I were placing this article in the actual Designers & Dragons book, it’d be the first article in “part seven”, as it most clearly shows the transition from the d20 period, which was largely ended by 2006, to the more independent era that has followed. —SA, 9/3/11

This article was originally published as Designers & Dragons: The Column #2-3 on RPGnet. Its publication followed the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011) and preceded the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014). A more up to date version of this history can be found in Designers & Dragons: The 00s.

Open Design is a d20 company that rather remarkably rose up following the d20 bust–in large part thanks to owner Wolfgang Baur’s unique business model.

Days Gone By: 1989-2006

Wolfgang Baur is a game designer with a very long history in the RPG industry before he started his own company. It began in high school when a young Baur submitted “The Glass House”, a Forgotten Realms adventure, to Dungeon magazine; it was published in issue #15 (January/February, 1989).

Baur was in good company, as Dungeon at the time was a proving ground for the next generation of game designers. That same issue featured contributions from: Carl Sargent, future architect of Greyhawk; Thomas M. Kane, a frequent Atlas Games contributor in the ’90s; and others.

Over the next few years, as Baur moved on to Cornell University, he would contribute to both Dungeon and Dragon. He also took the next step into the RPG field by producing an original supplement,Treasures of Middle Earth (1989) for ICE’s MERP.

By May of 1991, Baur was studying biochemistry as a grad student. Then everything changed for him when freelancer Steve Kurtz alerted him to a new opportunity: TSR periodicals was hiring. Baur decided to apply, figuring that if he was hired, he would just play around in the hobby for a year or two. Because of his experience with the TSR magazines, TSR quickly snapped Baur up. The result would be a decade of full-time employment for Baur in the gaming industry.

Baur started out as a “junior flunky” working for the TSR periodicals division, but in time he’d come to edit both Dungeon and Dragon, following in the footsteps of those magazines’ most illustrious editors: Barbara Young and Roger E. Moore. He also quickly came to write supplements for TSR. Baur’s first TSR box was Assassin Mountain (1993) for Jeff Grubb’s Al-Qadim setting, but he’s probably better known for his Planescape supplements: Planes of Chaos (1994), Planes of Law (1995), and In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil (1995)–the latter notable for being the book where AD&D second edition’s tanar’ri became demons once more, reversing James Ward’s 1990 decision to appease allegedly “angry” mothers.

It was an honor to learn from Roger Moore and Barbara Young: the two people who defined the magazines in that era. Kim Mohan, the founding editor of Dragon, was just down the hall. It was an amazing time to work at TSR, as the company was full of creative people isolated in a small Wisconsin tourist town.

Wolfgang Baur, Interview, www.treasuretables.org (December, 2006)

After four years working on TSR’s periodicals, Baur decided to try something new. He joined newcomer Wizards of the Coast’s RPG division under Jonathan Tweet, moving to Seattle as a result. Though Wizards’ roleplaying division was shut down at the end of the year, Baur stayed on board. Much to his surprise, just a year and a half later, he was acting as an advance scout for TSR employees–now moving out to Seattle themselves to join Wizards of the Coast. Baur thus showed off the town to old friends, helped them find apartments, and explained the mysteries of Wizards of the Coast R&D.

Soon Baur was creating RPGs again at Wizards of the Coast, most notably the Dark•Matter Campaign Setting (1999) for Alternity. Unfortunately, he found the constant layoffs that were occurring at Wizards uncomfortable, and as a result ended his four-year tenure at the company in 1999. Since, he has worked gigs at Microsoft (2000-2010) and Pokemon USA (2010-Present) that have taken him outside the RPG industry–at least for his full-time work.

However, Baur wasn’t entirely done with roleplaying games. He freelanced throughout the d20 era, writing supplements for new publishers such as Green Ronin Publishing, Malhavoc Press, Paradigm Concepts, Paizo Publishing, and Privateer Press. He ever authored Frostburn (2004), an environmental book for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e, and would later co-author a pair of late 3.5e supplements: Expedition to the Demonweb Pits (2007) and The Forge of War (2007).

By the time the latter two book were published, Baur was onto a totally new roleplaying project: a company named Open Design.

Steam, Brass & Sleepless Beginnings: 2006

In March of 2006 Wolfgang Baur was sleep deprived due to the recent birth of his daughter. He was also vaguely thinking about setting up a college fund. It was some combination of these two elements that led him to make a March 20th posting to his new “Open Design” Live Journal blog. Therein he stated, “Designing an adventure with input from fans and fellow gamers is a great chance to experiment with open design. Will it work? That depends on the game-buying public.”

Over the following days, Baur expanded on the idea, stating that he was looking for “patrons” to contribute to the creation of new gaming material. It was an idea that was in the air. That same year, Arc Dream Publishing posted their first “ransom”, for Wild Talents (2006). However, Baur offered a unique take on the idea. His concept of patronage were came from the Renaissance, where individuals would commission authors and artists to create work.

As he detailed his model, Baur revealed that he would be offering “exclusive access” to an adventure that would be “written to order” for his group of patrons. The patrons would get to learn about game design and to see the project slowly come together, all the while contributing ideas and comments of their own to the project.

However, Baur was offering more than just an innovative funding model and exclusive access: he also felt that Open Design could produce adventures of a different type than those published by larger companies. He’d later outline three differences between his adventures and others: length; quality; and subject matter.

Most of these comparisons were in relation to what Baur had known at Dungeon magazine. His adventures could be longer than the relatively short pieces in Dungeon, and without the grind to produce a magazine full of adventures, he could pay more careful attention to the individual piece that he was working on. However, it was the question of subject matter that came closest to the heart of the patronage model. Baur didn’t need many people at all to make it worth his while to produce an adventure. As a result, he could create adventures that appealed to much smaller groups. This could also allow for more adult material, if desired.

In his first cut of the patronage model, Baur aimed low. People could join for as little as $5–as subscribers–or as much as $50–as patrons that would get the opportunity to add content to the adventure. History would eventually show that gamers would be willing to contribute much more to projects of this type. Open Design’s most recent patronage project, The World of Midgard, has patronage packages running from $29.95 to $599. The highest level, for the Exarch of the Magocracy, allows the patron to both submit material from their own campaign and to play a private Midgard game with the designers at an upcoming convention.

As part of the patronage process, Baur also allowed his supporters to select what adventure he’d be writing. He offered up a list of seven possible d20-based adventures: “The Black Forest”, “Empire of Ghouls”, “The Flying Fortress”, “Steam & Brass”, “The Lost City”, “The Tenth Hell”, and “Tomb of the Dragon”. Patrons voted and eventually decided on “Steam & Brass”, which Baur had described as “A city-based adventure involving a clockwork mage, the Mouse King, and a contract with a devil. Sort of an Iron Kingdoms or Warhammer Fantasy tone.” On July 4, 2006, Baur officially announced that the project was funded, thanks to 49 patrons.

What’s impressive about Baur’s initial listing of adventures is how many have since been made. Two of the ideas became Open Design products that we’ll meet down the road: Empire of the Ghouls (2008) and “The Black Forest”, the latter of which became (in a fashion) Tales of the Old Margreve (2010). Baur would also turn The Lost City” into Crucible of Chaos (2009) for Paizo Publishing (2008).

For now, though, Baur was working on Steam & Brass. Over the next months, he would see it double then triple in size–not even including the game design articles he wrote to describe the process. By the end of September, the project was drawing to a close, and Baur made his last call for patrons. He officially closed the project to new participants on September 30. The final list of patrons included a who’s who of the gaming industry, inculding Matt Forbeck, Jeff Grubb, Chris Pramas, Phil Reed, and Steven Schend. Steam & Brass (2006) was published on October 5th as a 115-page PDF. It was also available as a print-on-demand (POD) book to patrons for a limited time only.

I still write adventures in the 2E style: story and characters first, stats later. I think it’s a successful approach, because editors and DMs will only run adventures that have a great villain or plot. If you don’t have that, the greatest mechanics and stats in the world won’t save you. No one buys an adventure just for the crunch.

Wolfgang Baur, Interview, treasuretables.org (December, 2006)

The book, written in what Baur called a “2e style”, was well-received–which would quickly lead Open Design to increasing success, as we’ll see. However, Baur was still learning about the patron process and how it could interrelate with the mass market, and this brought Open Design its first controversy. When Baur had conceived of patronage, he decided to produce limited editions, just as “patron projects of long ago were kept in private hands and never shown to the public.” However, as soon as Steam & Brass was created, there was wider interest in the book. Seeing this, Baur asked his patrons if they’d be willing to open up Open Design’s premiere adventure to a wider audience. Four patrons–led by Steven Schend and Troy Luginbill–refused this permission, with the approving vote of 70 others. As a result, Steam & Brass is now the most limited of limited editions, only (legally) available to those who signed up by September 30, 2006.

Steam & Brass was notable for one other reason: it was set in the Free City of Zobeck, an original steampunk setting setting mixing fantasy and clockwork. It would be the basis of most of Open Design’s later products and is now evolving into a world with the upcoming production of the Midgard Campaign Setting book. This shows how much the history of a roleplaying company can depend on a decision made in its earliest days. If patrons had instead decided to have Baur produce “The Lost City” or “The Black Forest”–both projects that were preferred over Steam & Brass at some points in the voting–then Open Design would probably be working on a totally different world book today. Or, alternatively, they might not have succeeded at all.

As it happens, the first Open Design patrons were quite canny in their decision making, for Steam & Brass ended up being only the beginning.

The Later Limited Editions: 2006-2009

The success of Open Design was proven by the very rapid development of its next project. Wolfgang Baur posted the first poll about a new design on September 1, 2006, while still working on Steam & Brass. He offered up a set of three possibilities on October 14 and patrons picked Castle Shadowcrag as the winner on October 31st. Baur described the new adventure as taking place in “a Gothic castle entangled with the plane of Shadow”. It was set in the same world as Steam & Brass, though distant. The adventure was quickly funded and released near the start of the next year.

Castle Shadowcrag (2007) continued in the footsteps of Steam & Brass with one exception: though the book was still a limited edition, it wasn’t be limited to just its patrons. Instead, patrons of future projects would also be able to purchase Castle Shadowcrag, until the printing ran out. Though certainly more open than Baur’s first take on patronage, this new exclusivity has also caused controversy, as it has resulted in Open Design projects published through the first part of 2009 slowly dropping out of print–presumably forever.

Over the next three years, Baur used his patronage model to produce six more projects: Empire of the Ghouls (2007), Six Arabian Nights (2008), Blood of the Gorgon (2008), Wrath of the River King (2008), Tales of Zobeck (2009), and Halls of the Mountain King (2009).

These later limited-edition products brought a few new firsts for Open Design. Though Wolfgang Baur was still the heart of the company, he began bringing in other luminaries from TSR and Wizards of the Coast to help him produce the books. Prime among them was Nicolas Logue, who got his start with Blood of the Gorgon. Simultaneously, Baur decided to move his company beyond the shrinking d20 industry. As a result, Wrath of the River King appeared as a fourth-edition adventure, based on the requests of patrons.

Surprisingly, this did not result in an abandonment of 3.5e. Beginning in 2008, Open Design was perhaps the only RPG company around supporting both 4e and d20, though their support for d20 has since evolved into support for Paizo’s Pathfinder system.

In the end, Open Design’s production of limited-edition and exclusive adventures marked just one phase in the company’s development. Starting in 2007, Open Design was also working on projects that received mass-market attention–and that would soon change the way they were producing adventures as well.

The Coming of the Kobold: 2007-Present

On April 19, 2007, Paizo Publishing announced that they’d lost the license to publish the two longest-running professional magazines in the RPG industry: Dragon and Dungeon. Perhaps more surprising was Wizards of the Coast’s decision to discontinue the print magazines entirely, moving them online. This alone would probably have left a magazine-sized hole in the RPG industry, but when Wizards started publishing the magazines themselves, that October, their initial efforts were very limited. Much of the “magazines” were spent hyping the then-upcoming fourth edition of D&D and even with those marketing articles in hand, Wizads was unable to offer up much regular content for Dragon or (to a greater degree) Dungeon for almost a year.

This offered a great opportunity for someone in the industry and Open Design stepped up to the plate. On May 21st, well before Paizo’s publication of their final magaazine–Dragon #359 (September, 2007)–Wolfgang Baur announced that he was working on a new magazine for gamers. The result was Kobold Quarterly #1 (Summer, 2007). As Baur wrote in his first editorial, Kobold Quarterly #1 wasn’t the lavish full-color production that Dragon had been, but it had attitude. He was too humble to say it, but it also had terrific experience, since Baur himself had been the head honcho at Dragon just over a decade previous.

My guiding principle is that Kobold Quarterly should not only offer something valuable to the D&D gaming world, it should do it with attitude. That’s the meaning behind the ‘small but fierce’ credo: kobolds may not have the big marketing dollars or the massive staff of a multinational corporation, but we’re also free to do as we please.

Wolfgang Baur, “Editorial: Small but Fierce”, Kobold Quarterly #1 (Summer, 2007)

Beyond that, Kobold Quarterly had the support of the vibrant community of designers that had arisen within the d20 market. Though Baur wrote much of the first issue of Kobold Quarterly himself, he also included an interview with Erik Mona of Paizo Publishing. It was the beginning of a constant relationship with designers and publishers from the rest of the post-d20 industry. The second issue alone included articles by: Ed Greenwood, designer of the Forgotten Realms; Jeff Grubb, one of Baur’s inspirations at TSR and the creator of many notable products including Marvel Super Heroes (1984) and The Manual of the Planes (1987); Nicolas Logue, who we’ve already met as an Open Design contributor, and who was just then getting his start with books for Paizo and Wizards; Robert J. Schwalb, a d20 author for Goodman Games, Green Ronin, Mongoose, and others; and Skip Williams, one of the co-designers of D&D 3e.

When Open Design published Kobold Quarterly #1 it didn’t do so as a patronage project, but it did follow the same model for distribution: the magazine was sold primarily as a PDF, but a limited number of POD books were also produced. The small print run of Kobold Quarterly #1 sold out in September. Thanks to its success, Kobold Quarterly #2 (Fall, 2007) was printed in larger quantities and was made available in game stores–unlike any other Open Design product to that date.

By January, 2008, the magazine had 1000 subscribers. Later that year Baur was given a Diana Jones Award for excellence in gaming, in part for his innovative patronage system and in part for his creation of a new print RPG magazine in a market that seemed hostile to such an endeavor.

Ever since, the story of Kobold Quarterly has been one of confident success. It’s managed at least four issues every year and its full-color interior today looks a lot like that of Dragon in its waning days. A bit of controversy arose for the magazine with issue #7 (Fall, 2008), when Kobold Quarterly supplemented its d20 coverage with a single Dungeons & Dragons 4e article, “Ecology of the Centaur”–by Baur himself. Where much of the mainstream RPG industry still wars between d20 and 4e, Open Design has managed to walk a fine line between them. Just as with Open Design’s adventures, today’s Kobold Quarterly supports both 4e and d20’s modern successor, Paizo’s Pathfinder. Articles for Green Ronin’s Dragon AGE show up in Kobold Quarterly as well, mainly because Baur likes the system.

Though Open Design’s patronage projects were all well-received, Kobold Quarterly gave the company much more attention thanks to its appearance in game stores. It’s no surprise that this would soon affect everything else that Open Design was doing.

Moving Away from Exclusivity: 2008-2010

The success of Kobold Quarterly was soon followed by a second move toward the mass-market. In the earliest days of Open Design, Baur wrote a series of game design articles–mainly to keep his first patrons entertained while waiting to see if he could garner enough support to make the company viable. Following the success of Kobold Quarterly, Baur collected many of these articles as The Kobold Guide to Game Design Volume 1: Adventures (2008). It was first published as a PDF, but it quickly achieved a high level of success. A print book was thus created just a few week’s after the PDF’s appearance. The PDF and the book would soon become Open Design’s first “unlimited” release.

Open Design continued this trend of opening up its publications with Tales of Zobeck (2009), its sixth patronage project. The book of six adventures was a limited edition–as all the patronage projects were to that point–but the 48-page Zobeck Gazetteer (2008) which was produced as part of the project was created non-exclusively. When it was released in December of 2008, Baur loudly lauded it as “the first public Open Design”.

“The piracy of some Open Design work was a hugely depressing blow at a time I really didn’t need more bad news. The ongoing piracy is an argument in favor of quitting as a designer of patron projects, because the whole point of a patron system was some form of mutual trust.”
–Wolfgang Baur, www.koboldquarterly.com forums (December, 2008)

Meanwhile, discontent continued to bubble among fans over the exclusivity of the rest of Open Design’s adventures. Online piracy was one of the results–something which nearly drove Baur to give up, since it went against the core of trust that Baur expected in the patronage relationship. By the end of 2008, Baur was polling supporters to see what they thought of exclusivity. Most of them said that they wanted projects to remain private–only available to Open Design patrons, not to the general public. Thus Open Design continued on with Wrath of the River King (2008), and Halls of the Mountain King (2009), but those would be Open Design’s final exclusive releases.

Having set a precedent with the first Zobeck Gazetteer, Open Design dramatically opened up its production in 2009. It did so by developing and publishing additional volumes of the Zobeck Gazetteer–though patrons still received private editions with some unique material. Dwarves of the Ironcrags (2009) was the second book made publicly available in this way. More gazetteers would follow.

Shortly afterward, Open Design announced an even more mass-market product: From Shore to Sea (2010), a patronage product being produced for Paizo as part of their “Pathfinder module line”. From Shore to Sea was written by Brandon Hodge, who had originally been an Open Design patron and who had contributed to earlier projects such as Halls of the Mountain King. This marked another change at Open Design, which in 2009 ceased being just Wolfgang Baur’s design house and instead became something larger.

Following the release of Halls of the Mountain King, exclusivity’s other shoe finally dropped. For three years, Open Design had been moving toward more open content–from Kobold Quarterly through the Kobold Guides to Game Design and into the Zobeck Gazetteers. Beginning with the 4e adventure Courts of the Shadow Fey (2010), all patronage projects were made widely available on the mass market following their creation–bringing the patronage products into better sync with the modern reality of Open Design.

Opening Up the Future: 2010-Present

Today, Open Design is in a phase of considerable expansion. Patronage products are being initiated by a variety of designers for a variety of systems. Siegfried Trent was one of the new authors who led the way with a series of “Advanced Feats” PDFs for Pathfinder (2010-Present). Eileen Connors, Tim Connors, and Richard Pett were among the first authors other than Baur to produce a print patronage adventure with their Tales of the Old Margreve (2010). At the same time as these other expansions, Kobold Quarterly rented its first booth at GenCon in 2010.

Even more books by even more authors seems to be the trend in 2011 while Wolfgang Baur, Jeff Grubb, and Brandon Hodge are working on what may be Open Design’s biggest patronage product to date, the Midgard Campaign Setting (2011?), which will present the World of Zobeck–a setting built on Slavic and Germanic roots, rather than the Celtic and British roots more common in FRPGs.

The project was never meant to happen: I tried very hard to keep the Open Design default setting for our adventures–the Free City of Zobeck–totally self-contained. It was meant to be droppable into any campaign, from Greyhawk to Golarion and Eberron to your homebrew. That worked for a while, but each adventure by Open Design added a bit more about the world, and fans kept asking about what was over the next hill.

Wolfgang Baur, Interview, dragonageoracle.com (January, 2011)

With a strong and unique campaign setting, a collection of talented designers eager to write for that world, and a unique way for those designers to interact with their customers and fans, Open Design looks to be headed upward into the future.

Links of Note

The following links will provide you with more info on Open Design:

What to Read Next

The following histories (found in Designers & Dragons) contain more information on some of the topics in this article:

  • For the company that got Wolfgang Baur his start in gaming, read TSR (pages 6-32) and for his second employer, read Wizards of the Coast (pages 276-303). The story of how Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR is found in both of those articles and also notably in the history of AEG (pages 262-267).
  • For Arc Dream’s ransom model, read their mini-history (page 250) under Pagan Publishing (pages 244-251).
  • For another attempt to take advantage of the magazine-sized hole in the RPG industry, read about Level Up in Goodman Games (pages 386-391). Sadly for them, Open Design got there two years earlier.
  • For two companies receiving good support through Kobold Quarterly, read Green Ronin Publishing (pages 369-377) and Paizo Publishing (pages 412-418).

Or continue onward to the other companies that began publication in 2006, Evil Hat Productions (pages 421-426) and Cubicle 7 Entertainment (pages 427-432).

Special Thanks

Thanks to Wolfgang Baur for his comments on this article.

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