5E EN World Interview With Mike Mearls, Lead Designer of D&D Next

Gaming Tonic

Visitor
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.
 

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am181d

Visitor
Great interview. Looking forward to the playtest! You should include a byline at the top of articles so people know who's writing what.
 

howandwhy99

Visitor
I think there is another question by Gaming Tonic that's gone unhighlighted within the second response. I could be wrong.

>>"What classes and races do you think you will focus on after those core classes and races have been polished?"
 

Mark CMG

Creative Mountain Games
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.

I'm not sure what to make of this. The separation of the pillars into nonintegrated areas seems problematic. Class seems to be tied to combat role still, which is something I've not liked in the past. The assumption that the game is combat focused seems to pervade the design such that in the area of theme he talks of "a guy who takes a combat-based [theme] is only marginally better than a character who takes a theme that focuses elsewhere" which suggests the design belief that characters geared toward non-combat themes are less the focus of the game by default. Between the lauding of 4E mechanics which are being carried over into the initial design and the continued assertions that somehow spellcasting classes need to be restricted in overall power but given piecemeal combat abilities so they can be useful in combat while not overshadowing noncasting classes seems to be an approach that leads to homgenization of classes that has been tried and not found full support in the wider player-base WotC states they wish to draw on board for fifth edition.
 

Kzach

Visitor
I'm not sure what to make of this. The separation of the pillars into nonintegrated areas seems problematic. Class seems to be tied to combat role still, which is something I've not liked in the past. The assumption that the game is combat focused seems to pervade the design such that in the area of theme he talks of "a guy who takes a combat-based [theme] is only marginally better than a character who takes a theme that focuses elsewhere" which suggests the design belief that characters geared toward non-combat themes are less the focus of the game by default.
Umm... how are you getting that out of that?

All he's saying is that things are more balanced between the pillars, not less. If things are more equal then there ISN'T a focus bias.
 

habaal

Visitor
Now we ARE talking mechanics now, right?
So my question to ENWorld is this: Do high level games play fluently and as fast- paced as low level ones? We were promised short and fast combat turns and general task resolution, and I wanted to know if this premise still holds at the higher levels of the game. Almost all feedback we will give will be of the game portions they provide, and to my understanding, most of it will be for Heroic (low) level games. How much of the open playtest will be for post- 10th level characters?
I do like what I've read so far, and an answer to sooth my concerns would be very much obliged.
 

Gaming Tonic

Visitor
Habaal if you are around this evening after six p.m. est I will answer a few of those questions for you. I would love to share the actual playtest feel with gamers. I have to go do the whole real world thing but if a thread is on the forums I will hop in and answer everything I can. My NDA has been lifted so that I can share my experience with you. I think that says a lot about how WotC wants to include the fans in the process. They did not have to release my NDA. Those who are around this evening I would love to talk. Thanks for the feedback.
 

DerekSTheRed

Explorer
Now we ARE talking mechanics now, right?
So my question to ENWorld is this: Do high level games play fluently and as fast- paced as low level ones? We were promised short and fast combat turns and general task resolution, and I wanted to know if this premise still holds at the higher levels of the game. Almost all feedback we will give will be of the game portions they provide, and to my understanding, most of it will be for Heroic (low) level games. How much of the open playtest will be for post- 10th level characters?
I do like what I've read so far, and an answer to sooth my concerns would be very much obliged.
I don't think they've looked at high level play much. I'm concerned that hit point dominance of fighters won't scale well. High level play that involves monsters capable of killing non-fighters in one hit while the fighter shrugs off the same hit? No bueno.
 

ColonelHardisson

What? Me Worry?
Umm... how are you getting that out of that?

All he's saying is that things are more balanced between the pillars, not less. If things are more equal then there ISN'T a focus bias.
I understand the confusion, and I think what Mearls said isn't as clear as it could have been. What I took it to mean (and I could be wrong in my interpretation) when he said "till, a guy who takes a combat-based is only marginally better than a character who takes a theme that focuses elsewhere" is that someone who takes a combat-based theme is only marginally better at combat than someone who takes a non-combat-based theme, not better in general.
 
I understand the confusion, and I think what Mearls said isn't as clear as it could have been. What I took it to mean (and I could be wrong in my interpretation) when he said "till, a guy who takes a combat-based is only marginally better than a character who takes a theme that focuses elsewhere" is that someone who takes a combat-based theme is only marginally better at combat than someone who takes a non-combat-based theme, not better in general.


I think the issue is that Mike answers the questions like the person having a conversation with another person, as opposed to a political press announcement that will be dissected line by line and quote mined for issues. I think your interpretation matches what we know so far.

What he seems to be saying is that someone who makes ALL their character creation choices combat focused, will only have a marginal advantage in combat effectiveness over someone who made choices for interaction and exploration. This is the correction of 3E and 4E, where you can have someone who min-maxed his character into a combat machine having a huge advantage in combat over another character. This imbalance can ruin the fun for everyone at the table when an actual combat encounter happens.

So ideally I'd like to see the combat focus guy only have a +1 damage or maybe a different attack than a melee basic. This means he's got a bonus, but it's not SO great that you feel bad for skipping it. Like the +1 to hit feats in 4E. The combat mechanical feats are more attractive than History or another language. Ideally I'd like to see the combat feats give less of a bonus, and the noncombat ones give something extra.
 

dkyle

Visitor
Themes should be the 100% Combat pillar counterpart to Backgrounds, if Themes are simply packages of feats. Feats should be 100% combat. Trying to balance combat vs. non-combat feats has never worked well.

Now, I've mentioned before that I'd like Themes to be more than the sum of their component parts (or else custom Themes are virtually guaranteed to overpower the named ones, making them newbie traps). Adding Exploration/Interaction bonuses to Themes, on top of the feats, could be a decent way to do this.

Could even make these bonuses available to custom Themes as well, if they take certain sets of feats.
 

ColonelHardisson

What? Me Worry?
I think the issue is that Mike answers the questions like the person having a conversation with another person, as opposed to a political press announcement that will be dissected line by line and quote mined for issues.
Yep, I think you articulated it well. Still, one would think they'd have learned by now to be a bit more precise in what they say in interviews like that. I'm put in mind of the early assertion that they were working on an edition that would allow all editions to be played, and we saw people coming up with elaborate theories on a system that would allow people to literally play all editions in the same game. :erm:
 

Orryn Emrys

Explorer
I understand the confusion, and I think what Mearls said isn't as clear as it could have been. What I took it to mean (and I could be wrong in my interpretation) when he said "till, a guy who takes a combat-based is only marginally better than a character who takes a theme that focuses elsewhere" is that someone who takes a combat-based theme is only marginally better at combat than someone who takes a non-combat-based theme, not better in general.


I agree. Mark's perception is very understandable, however, if you read Mike's comments through the lens of 4E-design-philosophy expectations. This has also been a fear of mine, as the focus on combat in 4E was a serious enough detraction to keep me from indulging.

That being said, it is possible that comments which suggest a focus on combat are intended to mollify any fears that characters who are built with emphasis on other pillars will become superfluous in combat encounters. My group has always been interested in characterization and role-playing, so combat abilities are often a secondary interest (if that), but we have noted during campaign play that some characters can easily begin to feel outclassed and useless when faced with any given combat scenario, because they have a stunted ability to contribute alongside their fellows.

Often, of course, these same characters outshine their allies in other areas, but combat is always a relevant portion of any game that includes it because it is so very time-consuming at the table. It's one thing for the fighter to feel out-of-place in a social engagement that takes 20 or 30 minutes to resolve, quite another for the noncombative player to feel useless for a couple hours of real time while a combat encounter is resolved.

Naturally, I tend to limit combats in my game, but many of my players enjoy them and like to build capable PCs. But they also tend to focus on character personalities and motives, so they are typically just as engaged as everyone else when their PC is out of his/her depth. After all, poor social skills still lend themselves to entertaining roleplaying opportunities.

Poor combat skills, on the other hand, often lead to a slightly less enjoyable experience.

I continue to be cautiously optimistic, and I am looking forward to the playtest.
 

am181d

Visitor
Now, I've mentioned before that I'd like Themes to be more than the sum of their component parts (or else custom Themes are virtually guaranteed to overpower the named ones, making them newbie traps). Adding Exploration/Interaction bonuses to Themes, on top of the feats, could be a decent way to do this.
Here's why I don't like this:

Imagine a scenario in which a DM is creating custom Themes for his campaign. Per your preference, he's creating a "topper" ability for each Theme. Now imagine that one of his players come to him with a concept for a new Theme. Does he get a topper ability or not? What if his Theme idea is *based* around the topper? Suddenly you've got this whole other type of ability that you need to consider in character creation, and you haven't solved the original problem.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Yep, I think you articulated it well. Still, one would think they'd have learned by now to be a bit more precise in what they say in interviews like that.
That, I'm sure, is why 99% of anything we hear outside DDI articles is officially sanctioned stuff through press agencies, rather than direct communication from the designers. One wrong word... you can't blame them, really.

Though I definitely feel that the designers are interacting with the fans directly a hell of a lot more this year than they had been in the years preceding it. I like it!

That said, I'm sure they'd rather we were pouring over every word than ignoring it - when people care enough about your game to discuss it endlessly 18 months before release, that can only be a good thing.
 
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ColonelHardisson

What? Me Worry?
That, I'm sure, is why 99% of anything we hear outside DDI articles is officially sanctioned stuff through press agencies, rather than direct communication from the designers. One wrong word... you can't blame them, really.

Though I definitely feel that the designers are interacting with the fans directly a hell of a lot more this year than they had been in the years preceding it. I like it!

That said, I'm sure they'd rather we were pouring over every word than ignoring it - when people care enough about your game to discuss it endlessly 18 months before release, that can only be a good thing.
I'm sure they do see it as a positive that we're all examining what they say like it was the Tetragrammaton. As a gamer and their intended audience, I've definitely noticed and appreciated their coming out of their shell and engaging the audience directly. Reminds me of the early days of 3e, which is a good thing.
 

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