30 Minutes With D&D 5E's Mike Mearls: Playtests, OSR, Piracy, PDFS, & Settings
  • 30 Minutes With D&D 5E's Mike Mearls: Playtests, OSR, Piracy, PDFs, & Settings

    This interview was conducted by EN World reviewer Michael Evans, who you may know as Neuroglyph. Check out his many reviews here, including the D&D 5E Starter Set, the new Player's Handbook, and Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

    Neuroglyph: At GENCON 2014, I had a great opportunity to sit down with Mike Mearls to chat about the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. As co-Lead Designer on the project and the head of the R&D Department, Mr. Mearls has a unique perspective in the process of bringing this new D&D edition through its long playtest process to a finished product released just this month.

    Here’s my whole interview with Mike Mearls, where we cover a range of topics from designing the game, its mechanics, and the playtest process to the new Tyranny of Dragons campaign, working with Kobold Press, and even Dragonlance

    Neuroglyph: As one of the main Lead Designers for the new edition of D&D, how did you find your experience with the whole design process, and what was it like to work on the project?

    Mike Mearls: I think the biggest difference… I mean obviously there’s the playtest… and I think what the biggest difference, say, between 2005 and 2011… 2012… was that when we started this game in ‘05, we had to guess, right? Gaming was changing… World of Warcraft had come out, obviously consoles like the Xbox Live and Playstation III and online multi-player had become the mainstream. And people still liked first person shooters and stuff, where people would set up a LAN party and stuff like that. And now there were services coming into to play where you could play head-to-head on the internet with other people - so gaming was definitely changing. And I think what 4th Edition, looking back, what we were trying to do was to start predicting for D&D where we thought the game was heading… so that was a big part of it. So what we think, when people are coming to role-playing games, they’re going to have that MMO background or a video game background.

    And if you think back to the Red Box in ‘83, when we had that choose your own adventure text… that heavy reading, right, so like a person that wants to play a role-playing game, they probably read a choose-your-own-adventure book. And that’s why when we thought about the 5th [Edition] Starter Set, should have a choose your own kinda adventure thing? Where for 90% of the people this like the first time they encounter a choose-you-own-adventure style play, they’ve never seen this before. But they’ve probably played a role-playing game… they’ve played Skyrim or [World of] Warcraft or any of those game, so they probably actually know what a role-playing game is. We can probably just assume they know what a role-playing game is and they know they just need to make a character, and let’s just start explaining how this game works. So what I think, as opposed to what happened before was, we were trying to predict the future, and then trying to get a sense of the audience, ok?

    And I think of D&D as a conversation, in terms of game design, between the designers and the audience. And I think what 3rd and 4th Edition was, the conversation made sense… the transition to 4th made sense… if you say, played 3.5, bought Player’s Handbook 2, the Complete Arcane, and I think it was the Complete Mage with all those feats that had that at-will magic, Book of Nine Swords. So if you were following along, the conversation made total sense. You can say hey, here’s 4th Edition, you can see a lot of the things [mechanics] that had come out. But what we found though when we went back and looked at responses to the playtest from the audience, most people view D&D as a role-playing game and the conversation there is Player’s HandbookPlayer’s HandbookPlayer’s Handbook. And I think at the end of the day what happened before was if you got a 3.5 Player’s Handbook [and] that’s the only D&D book you have and the only one you read… and then you got the 4th Edition Player’s Handbook… there was a gap. You did not understand… how did we end up here? If you had been part of the changing game, then yeah, you say, I get it I understand where we are now. Which I think some people kinda felt like, essentially, like this [4E] is a backwards product. But if you had been there all along, it’d have been like doing updates, and you’d be like, oh yeah, this makes sense, going from 3.5 to 4.0 would have felt like from 3.6… 7… and 8, instead of this huge disconnect. So a lot of what how the playtest process was to say, look, we have to look in the mirror and say we don’t understand our audience and we have lost track of the core D&D audience. We probably had a pretty good handle on the people that were posting online, and the people who were hardcore Organized Play players, but for that person that just buys the Players Handbook… we lost them.

    So a lot of what [we did]with the playtest was get a good sense of the player base, starting there first, then creating the game. Rather than starting more like let’s try and get ahead of the curve, and try and think where we are going to be and then designing to that, and then having the audience catch up to us. And I think both approaches made sense because actually, when you run a game, there are a lot of games which have managed to be ahead of their time or have defined genres, right? Like World of Warcraft is a great example, or first-person shooters like Halo for the console. There are people who are on consoles today because of Halo in 2001 being so cutting edge. So I think there is always a risk when you take something that you think you understand and try to really change it that you can then have that discontinuity. I think looking back, we could have looked at 4th Edition and said instead, hey its 4th Edition and it’s a new way to play D&D it’s like we had done a miniatures rules… it’s like a new game. And here’s still 3.5 going… I think we would have seen a much different reaction. It could have been couched in new terms.

    And you look at the success of Ravenloft the Board Game, it’s based upon the 4E engine boiled down, and that did really well. And I was doing an interview in here earlier today and someone was asking about that, will the adventure system games change in the next five years. And well no, they don’t need to, because for the purpose of that style of game, the rules as they work now, they work great. We don’t need to start changing things, like put in spell slots or other kinds of stuff. So I think in some ways it was trying to predict things.

    There’s a reason why like Hollywood movie studios or a lot of game companies kinda use a volume strategy when they try to predict the future, you place as many bets as you can, and when one comes in, it’s great. It’s harder when this is the only bet you get to place, and you don’t have five or six other games. And so I think that a game with the history of D&D, there’s a culture that grows up around it. So much of it is making sure that culture has contimuity. You know? And what I think you’ll see us doing with experimental stuff or formative stuff, we’ll do it around D&D, rather that changing [the audience’s] relationship to the RPG.

    How much do you feel that polling the player base then affected your overall design process?

    Huge, just huge! I mean really what those surveys let us do is let us establish what does the audience look like, you know, like who are the people playing D&D, what do they want out of the game. You know, because for us, it looks like the Sabermetrics in baseball… in a lot of ways, it was us just catching up to the curve in that sense. Look, this is kinda my speil to the designers... I said look you guys, you’re designers, you have the easiest job in the world… you’re making a game that everyone already loves, so you just have to make the game they love. I mean I know that’s kinda being blasé about it… it’s harder than that. But we really have a target audience in mind, if we weren’t trying to create something completely new, we really don’t know who the target audience is anymore. So having those surveys was huge, and they really clarify what people actually wanted from D&D.

    Do you feel the OSR Movement influenced you in a way as you designed this new edition?

    I don’t really think it was a direct influence as in that’s what people are doing with that, so let’s follow that [OSR Movement]. I think it’s more, from my own experience, I think a lot of the Old School Gaming has arisen in a very similar way to how Indie RPGs arose. Because Indie RPGs are like we have an RPG rules and a setting, and your setting is about this and that, but your mechanics aren’t backing that up. So I’ll make up an example, because I don’t want to name a game that some people might really be into. So let’s take a cyberpunk game, and it’s all about the tension between humanity and technology, and you can have a lot of fun writing about it, but then your game mechanics are like a generic system. So on one hand you say your game is about this [cyberpunk], but I don’t see any rules for actually bringing that into play.

    And so I think that was what happened in the early 2000s, and I think that the OSR was a similar reaction, for role-playing games… traditional role-playing games as opposed to Indie… have become these giant rules and three or four or five hundred page system, you know. And people see it and say, do you really need all these rules to play? And I think that it [OSR] was a reaction to it.

    So like we have the Inspiration rule in D&D… for the Three Pillars. So you can say, what’s D&D about – it’s about Exploration, it’s about Interaction, and it’s about Combat. So you have rules to cover those Three Pillars, and it’s a role-playing game so the Inspiration [rules] encourages roleplaying. And I think it’s the same kinda thing where people are like, do we really need all these rules to game, or can we lean more on the Dungeon Master or the Game Master who is in charge of the game. Why can’t we let that person make more judgment calls, right? Make rulings not rules, right?

    And so I think where some of that philosophy [OSR Movement] definitely played a role, because I think in tabletop roleplaying games, a lot of these movements arise because I think it’s a reaction to the way things [games] evolve. It’s like here’s where gaming is, and here’s where it could be. But when gaming goes too far to an extreme, I think there’s a natural tendency to want the opposite. Because you can start pushing people out and making them frustrated.

    So with the new Player’s Handbook I noticed that your production values are incredibly high and it’s just gorgeous stuff....


    ...but when you’re investing as much as you did in designing a book like this, what then become your concerns about theft and piracy?

    So there is something very important about how we approached the [D&D] product line. So we knew, obviously, that there would always be individuals that would want to pirate and make a PDF, so that’s part of why we have the free rules, and make the game for free, so that there is really nothing to pirate. And then there’s a lot of people who still say, look, a book has value to me. So what can we [WotC] do to make this as a physical artifact so that it is something that is compelling and really interesting, so that you can say, yeah, I can go online and get a PDF and that’d be kind of useful… but I really want to get a hold of this book because I really like it and I like having it. I like the heft of it, and it’s got a great spine and looks like it’ll never fall apart, and it just looks great.

    I think it’s kind of funny, I think I picked up on that idea you had, and I think I said as much in my review, about this book being a bibliophile’s dream. In fact I think I described this book in what might amount to nearly pornographic detail in my review.

    [Mike laughs.] Yes exactly. That’s what we want the owner to feel. And yes, I read your review, and it was great to see you had all that, because we know that gamers love books… and we’re gamers too, we love books! And then it’s not just a game manual, it’s an artifact Because if you like D&D enough that you want to spend money, we’re are going to give you reasons to spend your money. But if you weren’t going to spend money and just pirate it, that’s easy, there’s already a free PDF out there.

    I suppose I’m kind of editorialize this… there are plenty of people out there who can justify the economical necessity of piracy, and just as many who say here’s the solution to piracy and I’m going to sell it to you. I mean I look at it that when I was a kid and I pirated software, it’s because I only had 50 dollars a month I could spend on games, so all that would mean is I’d skip stuff, I’d never play Ultima V because I could never buy Ultima III. But instead, I played a pirated version of Ultima III, and then when Ultima V was announced my 50 bucks went right to Lord British. But really, if there was no piracy to play the earlier game, I wouldn’t have spent money on the later game when I had it. And I think it’s easy as a creator to say, oh this piracy it’s killing me! Instead, I see it, and I think you have to approach it because it’s a challenge, how can I make you say, you know what I want this [book]. I gotta have it. But there is still a market for the PDFs…

    Yea I was going to ask about that [PDF sales]…

    You know we haven’t announced anything official yet, but I’d be surprised if we released the PDF to be exactly as the book. Because I think that we’ll sit down and look at a PDF format of the book and say well what’s the best format that could take? It really does make good sense to have it sort of stripped down and in a utilitarian layout.

    Because you know what? I’m actually just using this because I just want to get some rules at the table. Maybe I just want to be on a plane or just sitting around and want a quick reference that’s a quick read and just the information I want. So what does that do to the [PDF] design? We strip out a lot of the art and make it utilitarian. Or we break it up and actually the ebook version is actually three books, we’ve broken it up into three parts, and each topic is now a separate book. So maybe I’m playing a Wizard, and I’m just using the Basic D&D, but I want more spells… so I’m just wanting the spell chapters, so maybe I spend 5 bucks or 2 bucks just so I have that indexed or bookmarked and can quickly reference my spells. You know, what is the usefulness of that? Just as a bibliophile wants the whole book as a physical artifact, the digital only user, well, what is the best way for them to get access to the game.

    So there is nothing concrete yet, but those are just some of the possibilities being discussed?

    Yea exactly. Especially with the Dungeonscape Tool that Trapdoor [Technologies] is working on, and how they are going to approach things and what features they are going to have, could that kinda feed that need? Because we asked that it be iOS, Android, PC, so maybe you can just download the app and then buy the say Fighter packet and however we’re breaking it down, so are we really going to need to sell a separate PDF because actually the best way is to buy the tool, and the tool is also populating my database and I can make characters, then maybe I just don’t necessarily need the PDF. So a lot of it is just trying to figure out where things are with what they’re [Trapdoor Technologies] is doing, and we just don’t want to rush into something and then you’re like but I just bought the PDF and then the tools came out, and now I’m paying twice for the same content, that would make you upset. So it’s really just figuring out what is the best thing for the gaming audience at this point.

    [Interviewer’s Note: You can read about Dungeonscape Tools on the official website here. http://www.dnddungeonscape.com/ ]

    So with regards to the new magic system in D&D – it looks like you took the classic Vancian magic system and melded it with the At Will magic from 4E.

    Oh yes.

    Me: Was that a conscious choice, or was that a response to the reaction from the fans, or kind of a combination of the two?

    Yea, it was definitely a combination. We knew that At Will magic did really well with the initial playtests, and we had playtests where we looked at types of fantasy magic. We wanted to say hey, here’s different types of magic, what feels the best to play? And then we saw… and it’s funny I can’t even remember which version of the playtest it was there were so many… that people were really asking for flexibility. You know, what I think that we saw was the magic of D&D has always been a point of contention.

    So we got to what it was about Vancian… because some people just don’t like it at all. But for people who were mostly happy with the system, where are those kind of pain points… and so that’s where it can get a lot more flexible. You don’t have to decide to memorize three Magic Missiles and two Fireballs, but you just have one list of spells that you just use in your slots from that list. I think a lot of that came from that sort of act of playing in the playtest, where they [the players] said it still feels like D&D magic but you’re kinda smoothing out some of those rough edges that made it irritating, you know. And what adds to the flexibility is like being able to cast Fireball as a higher level spell; Cure Wounds is now just one spell, so you only need cast it at that higher level version to get a better effect.

    So going in to this knowing At Will magic, I would have been surprised if people didn’t like it. It was popular in 4th Edition, and it just kind of makes sense. That’s the kind of thing too, coming from a computer game background, people who play Skyrim and [World of] Warcraft, well of course you have At Will magic, right? D&D’s kind of a weird outlier where you stick a Wizard with a crossbow once he’s out of spells. Those games have Firebolt or something the Wizard can always throw, so I think that people are just used to that. So it’s not weird that D&D is going that way [too].

    You’ve obviously got a lot of dragon and Tiamat themes going on now in the new edition, as well as the direction that the new Encounters campaign will be taking on dragons. So um, I know you probably can’t really confirm or deny this this, but I’m going to ask anyways. The Dragonlance fans have been really longing for some attention and love from a new D&D edition for a while now – is this the edition the setting finally gets the spotlight again?

    Hmm… We’ll see. [Mike laughs.] I mean we did mention a lot of settings in the Core rules…

    You sure did…

    Yup, yup. And we are really embracing a lot of D&D’s heritage, and we know the settings that the fans really like. And that’s something that makes D&D really stand out. And a lot of it is that in the early 80s, D&D was the only game in town. If you wanted to play a fantasy game… it was D&D. There’s a bajillion different computer roleplaying games – Final Fantasy, King’s Crown, Wizardry - but you know those came out only once every three or four years. So D&D was like the fantasy franchise you could attach yourself to. But nowadays, there’s a bajillion tabletop fantasy games, there are fantasy games everywhere – well, what makes us [D&D] unique. What makes us unique is Darksun and Greyhawk, Ravenloft and the Realms obviously.

    It’s iconic you mean…

    So yeah… exactly, those are icons for a reason! So it’s up to us to kinda say what can we do to get you excited about the new edition. But without falling into the trap of trying to put out so many settings that we have so many additional ones that don’t get supported the way they should. So it’s definitely a riddle that we are very interested in solving. So we’ll see…

    Ok, fair enough. So what was it like working with Kobold Press on the new campaign arc? I just got done with the When the Kobolds Meet Tiamat panel with Wolfgang Baur and Steve Winter. So how was that working again with those guys, and actually “farming” out a product to be designed for the new edition?

    It was great. What it was that when you’re working on a new edition, all your energy is focused on that. But by working with Wolfgang and Steve, it let them focus all their attention on just creating a campaign and an adventure. And I think that they brought a certain level of authenticity to it that we really wanted to bring to the table. I mean, we’re now launching a new edition of D&D, where the first adventure [product] is a campaign, and you’re going to fight Tiamat! Right? It’s not just, oh it’s a dungeon and there’s a few kobolds in it, right? Or here’s some haunted keep where you’re going to fight some monsters in it and that’s that. It’s really a big undertaking. And I… this always blows my mind. The first issue of Dungeon Magazine I bought, there was this adventure in it called A Rose for Talakara written by Wolfgang Baur. And it’s about this Death Knight, and he’s trying to betray his Mistress…

    Oh yes, I remember that one!

    And it was just like, Wolfgang can definitely bring a big story to the table. And that’s what we wanted, we wanted something big and bold. And then Steve is a veteran of TSR from the early 80s, he knows fantasy inside and out, he gets… they both really get the union of a good story and a roleplaying game. What I love about Tyranny of Dragons, is that it’s an adventure path… it’s a path so you’re going to go from point A to point Z. And what they do is that within each chapter… did you have a chance to read the adventure?

    I did.

    I really love how each chapter has a ton of quests in it. Right? There’s just a ton of places you can go!


    Yeah, right! It’s like seven or eight different sandboxes you get to play in, and I love that! And I really think that players like that and DMs like that… and so there’s enough guidance to get you into a campaign, but each party has a very different experience as they move through it. Like in Greenest, when the attack comes, or at the trading outpost, I mean how do you figure out what is going on and do you just run in and attack or do you sneak in… you just don’t know! So it was just fun reading it, and if you read it, it will just make you want to run it… and I think that’s because of how they [Wolfgang and Steve] write it, it just draws you in… and I think that’s great.

    And one of the things, and this is something we learned as part of the playtest, as our audience knows, there are really a lot of great creators out there, and when we get the opportunity to work with them, they bring their talents to D&D and that helps people play games as a whole. So now we [WotC] can just focus on the Core Rules, on the product line, and on the digital tools, and make sure that they all work together. But then we can rely on those outside studios to bring their own real specialty to the table. You can just give them the core idea of a storyline, and just let them go crazy with it, you know. And I think that we’re in a much stronger position as an edition because of that and we’re launching with a really, really good D&D.

    And I think it’s the kinda thing where people are going to just take it and they are going to run it [Tyranny of Dragons] for six to twelve months… they’re set! And I think when they come back, we can have something else to be sure that they have more to do, and they’re still set. Personally, I’m going to be running… I’ve actually playtested parts of the campaign [Tyranny of Dragons] and I’m going to start running it with a group of people at Wizards that haven’t played D&D before. And every Friday afternoon we’re going to play, and it’s the kind of thing that just gets me really excited. So yea… they’re really creative guys [Wolfgang and Steve], and we’ll be working with them again.

    So you think that there’s the possibility that you’ll be working with other smaller presses and designers with other projects coming up?

    Oh yea, sure. Definitely.

    Well that’s all the questions I can get into 30 minutes. And I really appreciate your time… oh and I’ll be reviewing Hoard of the Dragon Queen next week… I’ll be sure you all get a link to that. Thank you again for the chance to interview with you today!

    I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this interview… and I really want to thank Mike Mearls for taking the time to sit down with me at GENCON 2014! I think that there’s a lot of interesting insights here about the design history of this and the previous editions of D&D, and there’s going to be some good times ahead for the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.