Sunday, 20th May, 2012, 09:59 PM #1
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EN World Interview With Mike Mearls, Lead Designer of D&D Next
In December I attended the D&D Summit and was made aware that Wizards of the Coast were working on a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Mike Mearls, the D&D Next design team lead, ran a session of the game and then spent an hour talking with me, answering my questions, and allowing me to pick his brain on D&D Next and role-playing games in general. It was a great experience, and I shared it with the readers in January, when the announcement of the next iteration of D&D was finally made to the public.
Well now, six months later I was given the opportunity to interview Mike Mearls again, this time without NDA restrictions. I have had six months of personal play experience with the playtest materials and would be allowed to ask pretty much anything I wanted. I am a hardcore gamer, so of course I took this opportunity to talk about the one area that the NDA had prevented anybody from talking about specifically: mechanics! I would like to thank Wizards of the Coast and Mike Mearls for allowing this to happen and taking time out of their insane schedules with the open playtest just three days away.
I only have one question about the Monte Cook departure - and I am sure you are exhausted of being asked about it, so I thank you in advance. On which areas of D&D Next will the departure of Monte from the design team have the most immediate effect?
The core concept and direction remains the same, so really nothing has changed in terms of our big picture ideas. As we’ve come down to the final stretch of prepping for the public playtest, we’ve been working short one person, but our team has done an incredible job of making sure that we have materials ready to go out the door. We wish Monte well in his endeavors but right now we are just looking forward to seeing what kind of feedback fans have for the open playtest.
I know the game has evolved a lot already. The game I played in December differed greatly to the game I played last week. I have heard rumors of multiple rule sets being used during the "Friends and Family" playtest. Were there different sets of rules sent to playtesters, and was the feedback from the different playtest rules narrowed down to the rule set that will be released in the open playtest on May 24th?
Yes, we’ve already gone through a number of iterations. The next wave represents some of the biggest changes. In most cases, we’re streamlining things and making sure that the classes have the basic functions and match what people want from them.
The fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric and the human, elf, dwarf, and halfling have already been announced as the classes and races of the first open playtest. What classes and races do you think you will focus on after those core classes and races have been polished?
I think almost every class has undergone at least a basic concept pass. The next wave of material will depend on how the first one goes. For instance, if people think that the fighter is in good shape, that means we can move on to the ranger or paladin. Classes that share a similar place in the game will likely rely on feedback for earlier classes to help shape their initial form.
I am glad to see themes being integrated into D&D Next in the core of the new edition. Are there plans to perhaps collapse some of the older classes into themes that would just expand the powers and tone of another class? For example what if the warlock was a theme that would allow any class to sell their soul?
We’ve actually talked about it, but haven’t yet made any final decisions on things. The key will be keeping an eye on how themes play out and what people like about them. If people like themes as bundles of big, interesting abilities, then that paves the way for some classes to migrate into themes. The key is that we need to accept that if something becomes a theme, we’re OK with almost any class entering it.
The fighter in D&D Next feels like a fighter of old, but with more tricks up his sleeve than before. In my opinion the fighter feels like the one class that seamlessly melds the feeling of all editions into one class (surge power from 4E, hit point dominance from 1E, specialization from 2E and 3E). Is thought put into the classes so that each class has aspects which represent it in each edition, or was it just a perfect storm in the case of the fighter?
I think that you’ve captured the basics of our approach though, interestingly enough, the fighter changed a bit from that initial draft. I’ll explain some of the mechanics for folks:
The surge mechanic was a fighter-only ability that let fighters heal. Based on closed playtest feedback, we added a mechanic that lets all characters heal by resting.
Like the basic D&D and AD&D fighter, the current fighter design has the best hit points, weapons, and armor class.
Weapon specialization has moved into themes. Again, based on feedback, we moved the fighter away from picking one type of weapon to be good at.
In any case, I think that every class has drawn from each edition. The interesting part to me is how much 2nd edition has influenced things, primarily from the idea that characters can be customized primarily according to how they fit into the world. Rogues pick a scheme, inspired in part by the 2e mechanic that let thieves allocate points to their skills so that they could focus on one ability or another. Our new take on domains moves a little closer to spheres in intent, while our focus on themes as bundles of feats that are tied to organizations, training, or some other element expressed in the setting is another nod to keeping characters grounded in the campaign world, rather than only in the mechanics.
I really love what you did with the familiar in 4E, and again so far in D&D Next. One of my players played a wizard with a witch theme and had a pair of ravens - which were useful, but not overwhelming. There is also no reason to attack the familiar and ignore the wizard to metagame an advantage (like CON loss or XP loss). Do you think we will see this sort of mechanic used for other companions such as a ranger beast companion, druid animal companion, or the paladin’s warhorse?
It’s a tricky line to walk. A familiar has a clear tie to arcane magic, so we have some flexibility in how we present them. I think we’ll look at how people react to the familiar mechanic to get a sense of how much flexibility we have here. Some people really like the feeling that a companion animal is a flesh and blood creature, but there are a lot of advantages to presenting it as a spirit companion or something similar.
I saw some elements of 4E represented in some of the defensive spells - such as mirror image being set as interrupts (works well by the way). One of the complaints that I and lots of fans have with 4E is that the proliferation of interrupts for offense slowed the pace of each turn to a crawl. I know in December we spoke about the pace of the game being very important to you. With that in mind will we be seeing the interrupt mechanic more in an offensive way or just defensively?
I’d like interrupts to serve either two purposes. First, I think quick, simple interrupts that boost a defense are OK. For instance, an interrupt that boosts your AC or reduces damage you take. You resolve it quickly and it doesn’t slow the pace too much.
For more complex interrupts, like those that require die rolls or decisions, I’d prefer the interrupt to take away part of your next turn. That way, the total time it takes to go around the table remains relatively constant. In essence, you’re taking your action ahead of time rather than getting two actions during a round.
Wizards have long been considered by some to dominate the game, especially as they begin to climb in level. You recently mentioned this in your Legends & Lore article. You definitely did a great job with fixing this by having spells memorized at higher levels (as far as combat spells are concerned). In regards to utility magic, as you move forward with the game will this be something that you give extra special attention to with the open playtest feedback?
Yes, definitely. Ideally, the wizard feels like a good fit in any campaign, regardless of the focus on combat, exploration, or interaction. The trickiest thing with the wizard is that since that class has to expend spells, it makes sense for those spells to be really good. You need to make sure that the class that is a steady contributor, like a fighter, isn’t constantly overshadowed by the wizard. Ideally, in a party of the four core classes each one has the same amount of spotlight time and the same chance to play a big role in the adventure.
Domains were mentioned in the playtest material I had. There were no rules yet establishing what those domains were going to be or how they would look. What do you have in mind for domains and will they be included with the base cleric class, or something modular added to the core rules?
We decided to include them in the base cleric, of course playtest feedback will help determine the final form. We really like the idea of clerics looking really different based on the gods they worship. The key is to let clerics embrace a lot of different abilities based on the various gods in D&D without letting them become overpowered.
Lots of themes in the playtest material had feats that were much more related to the other two pillars that we have heard mentioned besides combat: exploration and role-playing (the friendship feat of the diplomat and the Explorer’s Explore Guild Member feat for example). Is this by design? If so, is it a design element that you plan to use on a majority of the themes?
When we looked at race, class, theme, and background, we decided to make background 100% focused on exploration and interaction. That means that every class has something to contribute in those situations. It also freed us up to focus on using a more organic approach to designing classes and races.
The key is that classes provide you with all the baseline combat abilities you need, so if you take a class and a background you’re covered in the three pillars. Classes can also have non-combat abilities as needed.
Themes are a place where people can find their own specialization. Most themes offer a mix of abilities, but you can choose to focus on one part of the game if you want to. Still, a guy who takes a combat-based is only marginally better than a character who takes a theme that focuses elsewhere.
While themes are by no means complete, I’d love it if you could play the game without them and need only minimal or no modifications by the DM. That would be a good option for groups that want a slimmed down experience or who simply don’t want feat-style abilities in the game. For instance, our assumption for now is that if you want to build NPCs using classes, you don’t have to give the NPC a theme or background. That speeds things up considerably, while pointing us in a direction where PCs could also do that.
The design of having each one of the abilities represent a potential defense for something in the game gives each ability arguably equal importance. I noticed a henchman chart next to the Charisma score and a player in my group loves the idea of henchman. Is this something we will see supported right out of the gate? If so would you look at building henchman with some sort of minion mechanic, swarm mechanic, something closer to the henchman of earlier editions, or something else?
We decided to remove the henchmen rule from the game for the time being, primarily because we felt it wasn’t something that we could assume all groups would need in the core. I anticipate it will be a rules module, and we’ll likely take an approach similar to AD&D where followers were divided between servants, men-at-arms, and one or a small number of adventurer-quality henchmen.
Specialization has done a lot for spreading out the weapons that a player would choose to use, especially since multiple classes offer specialization. Did you think it important that one weapon have a different feel from another weapon, especially in the hands of an expert? Do you think we will see something for weapon speed, perhaps in a modular addition? (I miss it and always enjoyed this little bit of simulation).
Weapon speed is definitely the kind of thing we could address in a module, though we’d have to get a sense of how many people want to use it.
I think that weapons should feel different if that’s what a player is interested in exploring. Right now, we’re planning on moving weapon specialization into a theme so that any class can take it. People like building unique characters, and having a signature weapon or fighting style is definitely one way that you can make a character different. That provides a good template for our philosophy. For instance, we might have very simple rules for weapons in the core game, and then themes open up much more complex options. A DM running an encounter with orcs armed with spears, axes, and swords doesn’t need to know more than the damage those weapons do. A player who wants more detail can opt into that. We can keep the system simple for the DM and players who don’t care, and create more layers for the player who wants that sort of thing.
I’d be remised if I didn’t throw out one last thing: We’re really looking forward to having people try out the playtest materials and we’d encourage you to start on May 24th and see how player feedback starts shaping the different updates to the playtest. This is your chance to play a role in the development of the rules.
Last edited by Gaming Tonic; Thursday, 13th September, 2012 at 03:59 PM.
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