Saturday, February 19, 2011

Interview with the Man Behind the King (of Dragon Pass)

Today we have a special treat, an interview with David Dunham, the leading light behind the Glorantha -based computer game King of Dragon Pass

Released in 1999 the award-winning game continues to be highly regarded by many rpgers for its immersive gameplay and gorgeous hand-painted scenes. I myself believe it to be the single, best introduction to Glorantha for newcomers.

Look for a follow-up post here analyzing some of the game's strengths and what we can take away from it in our tabletop game.

Hill Cantons: Let's start with introductions. How would we best introduce you? As the owner of A Sharp and lead programmer of King of Dragon Pass?

David Dunham: I was producer, lead designer, and a programmer for King of Dragon Pass. That meant I was responsible for finding a team of very talented people to help design, create, and test the game.

It turned out that A Sharp published the game as well, which meant I got to make packaging decisions and do the marketing. Sadly, marketing is not something I'd call a strength.

HC: You have some background as a fan of Glorantha. Your related PenDragon Pass variant rules I found personally very interesting. What was your connection to that setting?

DD: My first exposure to Glorantha was actually in the late 1970s, with the board game White Bear & Red Moon. I didn't really appreciate it as a setting until I began playing a RuneQuest game in 1980.

One of the advantages of the tabletop RPG hobby is that it's very easy to get involved as a creator. I wrote for various magazines, which I think is how I first ended up corresponding with Greg Stafford, the creator of Glorantha. Greg also created Pendragon, an elegant RPG that featured saga-style play: a campaign was intended to span many game years, and involve the children of the original player characters. PenDragon Pass was my attempt to bring that style of game to Glorantha. The multi-year nature of the game seemed to fit well with the resettlement of Dragon Pass.

My original campaign was cut short before the multi-generation nature came into play. Years later I got to play in Jeff Richard's “Taming of Dragon Pass” campaign, which used the PenDragon Pass rules. It lasted long enough for many of the characters to die heroically so that their children could live, and we continued as children of the heroes.

After KoDP, I was asked to do art direction for the Hero Wars and HeroQuest product lines (those being the Robin Laws game rules designed for Glorantha).

I haven't played continuously in Glorantha, but it's such a deep setting that I keep coming back to it. Usually I explore time periods or geographies that aren't the core setting. (My notes for a Second Age game were passed on and used as part of the background for Mongoose's RuneQuest.)

Original artwork from the game 
HC: How did KoDP come into being? Who was driving it and what were the goals? And how did all that beautiful artwork take shape?

Greg Stafford and I were corresponding, and both of us seemed to be on the same page as far as what we'd like to see in a computer game. He was amenable to licensing, and realized the different needs of a computer game, compared to an rpg. A number of things then fell together, and I was able to get Robin Laws as writer and Elise Bowditch as Associate Producer and multimedia developer.

There were three main goals. The first was to do a storytelling game--this seemed like a relatively unexplored area of computer games. I'd really liked what Scott Bennie did in Castles, but I thought it hadn't gone nearly far enough. Second, I wanted to create a game that, like an Icelandic saga, spanned generations. And third, set it in the amazingly rich world of Glorantha. Which again suggested the resettlement of Dragon Pass.

As I said, I was driving the vision. In particular, I need to create a shared vision, since Elise and I were working out of our house, and planned to hire contractors. I made mockups of some of the game screens, and found an artist to do better renditions of them. As we found additional artists, one of the first projects was to create a style guide. What did the Orlanthi look like? Would we be able to distinguish them from Orlanthi from elsewhere?

One of the consequences of using Glorantha was that I wanted to include heroquesting, which is not only cool but a distinctive feature. So I wanted an art style that made it obvious you were in the word of myth. We ended up picking Mike Raabe, whose portfolio included Magic: The Gathering cards that had the right look.

The bulk of the game was planned for a graphic novel style of art--high quality, but something that could be produced relatively quickly (since so much art was involved). We ended up going with Stefano Gaudiano, who'd worked in that business, and who also knew a team of pencillers and colorists.

Finally, the game also portrayed the distant past, as well as the future. For that third art style we used Damon Brown. His woodcut style art was obviously different from the other two.

Basic art direction ("a guy on a horse threatens two thralls") usually came from Robin Laws, sometimes from me. I'd polish it, and turn it over to Stefano Gaudiano, who would come back with a quick thumbnail (often using an artist who was really good at layout). Elise Bowditch and I would review these.

Rarely we'd send one back, but usually they only needed minor changes, and Stefano or one of his artists could make a pencil sketch. Elise and I again reviewed these, then Stefano would ink them and give them to a colorist. He'd then add additional detail, and scanned them and made minor tweaks in Photoshop. The process was similar with Mike Raabe and Damon Brown, though Mike did his own colors.

HC: Why did you want to revive KoDP as a smart phone game? Where is that project at currently?

DD: King of Dragon Pass came out in 1999, and while it's still possible to play it today, the Windows and Mac machines of today can have a harder time running it than when it was new. I was also looking for an iPhone project I could do for a reasonable budget. That beautiful artwork was the biggest cost for the original game, but it was already paid for. And 2/3 of the game code could be reused with only minimal modification.

All I'd need to do was rewrite the user interface code...

That took longer than expected, which in retrospect shouldn't be surprising since it was the bulk of what Elise did for nearly three years. On the one hand, it was easier, since there was already a working model. On the other, a lot of it needed to be reworked for the small screen. I worked with Jani Lintunen on this.

I also wanted to make some improvements to the game, since I've learned both from KoDP and eight years at GameHouse. And selling in today's market pretty much requires some sort of social connection (Twitter, Facebook, Game Center).

At the moment, the UI work is complete (other than adding a list to the in-event raid dialog). I'm still finishing up the new work. Once that's done, the game will need testing before it can be released. I'm afraid I can't give a specific timetable, but you can watch the progress at our development blog or follow @KingDragonPass on Twitter or ASharpLLC on Facebook (did I mention the social connection?).


  1. Bravo. Inspiring interview for one of the greatest CRPG ever done. I'm gonna go fire up the harddrive.

  2. I agree this is pretty cool. I loved that game, didn't know you could actually buy the og artwork too.