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Interview: Mike Mearls Talks About D&D Next

Interview: Mike Mearls Talks About D&D Next

D&D Next (courtesy of Wizards of the Coast)

Wolfgang: D&D Next provides a lot of support for “theatre of the mind,” also known as running your game without minis. I’ve found this extremely enjoyable in online games using Google Hangouts. Is that form of online play a design goal?

Mike: I’m not sure if it started as a design goal, but since many of our playtests took place using Hangouts it helped evolve it that way. When you don’t have minis and grids to represent things, it forces you to make sure that your rules don’t require them. So I think a good way to think of it is that if playing via Hangout works, then the game should also work fine if you and your players want to sit on couches in your TV room without a table, or while driving to GenCon, or wherever.

Wolfgang: With D&D Next, the sense of D&D traditions does roll off the page, sometimes. For instance, the magic items include some clear throwbacks to 1st Edition AD&D—things like the scrolls of protection by creature type. Are you aiming at older gamers or Old School types with D&D Next?

Mike: There are definitely elements that we want to make sure are preserved in the game, like the scrolls you mentioned. In some cases, we’re simply using the text to describe magic items and such as it appeared in AD&D because there’s no good reason to change it. One of our goals is to make sure that regardless of where you started with D&D, you’ll recognize the game and feel welcome. I like to think that rather than pick one style over the other, we’re simply rolling out the welcome mat for a style of play and segment of D&D fans who haven’t been included in the past.

Wolfgang: This ruleset feels much more like it’s refining the D&D tradition rather than exploring new territory. Was that intentional, to create a sense of familiarity for long-time players? And will we see new mechanics in future playtests?

Mike: There will definitely be new mechanics, but to start with we’re trying to get the basics right. For instance, we’ve talked about some new approaches to classes and such, but we feel that innovation should start at the edge of the system and work its way to the middle as people accept it.

In my experience, the process should look similar to how things like githyanki and drow grew to become big parts of D&D. They weren’t in the original game, but after they were introduced they spread among gamers and became part of D&D. I think an organic approach like that is better for the game.

Wolfgang: The D&D Next themes feel a lot like 2E kits or 4E themes: thin layers of character elements with a small rules hook. They’re neat, but they’re fairly thin stuff — will themes grow into deeper sets of mechanics or bonuses at higher levels? Can you level up in a theme?

Mike Mearls (image courtesy of Wizards of the Coast)Mike: Yes, as you level up you gain more theme benefits. Originally they were fairly flat, but that proved unsatisfying at higher level play. In the playtest, people will see that their theme gives them a feat at 1st and 3rd level.

Wolfgang: The kobold playtesters found that D&D Next fighters kick a lot of ass. No, really, massive damage with that two-handed great flail, to the point where the 1st-level fighter is sort of scary on a charge, taking down minotaurs. Are you worried the fighter is (for once) overpowered?

Mike: That’s a great question, because it points to a big part of the playtest process. The fighter leans on the basic math of the game a fair bit—how hard should a strong guy with a big weapon hit, stuff like that. The math is still a bit up in the air, and I suspect that we’ll drop both hit point and damage numbers down to keep things easy to work with at the table.

With all that in mind, getting the feel right is a big part of the playtest. We want to see if a fighter unleashing big damage numbers feels right, or should fighters be more durable, and so on. With the fighter, we’re erring on the side of powerful out of the gate.

Wolfgang: Our wizard playtester loves always having an at-will spell no matter what, and he has been fairly effective with it. But it doesn’t feel like a fighter’s “at-will” sword. Have you gotten a lot of pushback on the fusion of Vancian casting with at-will casting?

Mike: It’s actually been really fascinating looking at the feedback. I know there are people out there who hate adding at-will spells to the game, and other people who hate spell slots and preparation. In the playtest surveys I’ve read through, people seem to like at-will spells regardless of edition. 4E fans generally say, “Thanks for keeping this,” while fans of older editions mostly like the idea that they don’t run out of spells.

This response goes back to what I said about githyanki and drow. It’s something that looks like it has made the rounds among gamers regardless of edition, and people like the idea of it remaining a core part of D&D.

Wolfgang: The playtest adventure in the Caves of Chaos has waves and waves of humanoids and monsters, but it doesn’t use anything like the 4E D&D minion rules. Will we see minions return, or is the D&D Next solution just to bring back monsters with pitiful hit points?

Mike: Rather than use an explicit minion rule, we’ll simply scale monsters by XP value so that they essentially become minions. For instance, to an AD&D fighter with gauntlets of ogre power, and a +1 sword, everything with 8 or fewer hit points is a minion. We’re consciously keeping that part of the game without adding the complexity of a specific rule.

Wolfgang: What is really unique about D&D Next that sets it apart from other RPGs? Where is the sizzle, so to speak? (Modularity is neat, but doesn’t count as sizzle in my book.)

Mike: I think the playtest is pretty interesting in that it gives people a chance to guide D&D to where they want it to be. The big idea, to me, is bringing RPGs back to their roots. If you look at card games, board games, even video games, the trend is to get people playing as quickly as possible. With our Lords of Waterdeep and Castle Ravenloft board games, we wanted people playing within 15 minutes of opening the box.

My attitude is the same toward D&D. Open the game, and start playing. I think that RPGs have grown more and more complex over the years, and we’ve lost sight that the real fun of RPGs lies in experiencing a make-believe world through the eyes of a character who isn’t you. The first RPGs fit into 64 pages or less of text, with tons of that space given over to monsters and spells.

I think for too long, people have sort of thrown their hands up and given in to the idea that RPGs are this niche thing that few people want to play. That’s crazy. Tons and tons of people want to play RPGs. It’s time we let them!

Wolfgang: I found it easy to convert my regular Midgard game to the D&D Next playtest rules, because they aren’t super complex—and because the group started over at 1st level. Do you have any advice for converting existing characters? Any advice for people converting their homebrew settings generally?

Mike: I actually converted a basic D&D game (1981 Moldvay set) to Next, and it went fairly smoothly. In most cases, you can keep all your stats the same unless any are above 18. After that, convert your race and class. The big setback right now is that we have a limited list of spells and themes.

Wolfgang: 4th Edition D&D didn’t require players to have a dedicated healer class to get at least some healing in. We’ve only seen the cleric so far—will D&D Next offer other types of healing, from other classes?

Mike: Yes, definitely. We’ve seen that people who don’t want to play clerics might still want to play other types of healers. Of course, that stuff is down the road, but it’s definitely on our radar.

Wolfgang: The core playtest races of human, dwarf, elf, and halfling are fine, but how many races will D&D Next have when it ships? Just those four to start?

Mike: Those four races are part of the playtest materials, but the total number we end up rolling out with is still up in the air.

Wolfgang: Why should a Pathfinder RPG player pick up the D&D Next playtest rules and give them a spin? What about them do you think will convince players who have moved on to return to the D&D well? And isn’t there some danger that D&D Next will fracture the gaming community further?

Mike: One of the advantages we’re facing with D&D Next is that we’re taking a very broad approach to the game. We’re looking at all of the editions at once so that we can take the best parts of each and work those elements into a solid system void of any of the excesses or difficulties that past editions may have brought to the table.

If people who enjoy 3E are looking for deeper solutions to some of the issues that crop up in their games and are looking for something that stays true to what makes D&D intrinsically D&D, then they should definitely take a look at D&D Next.

There’s always a danger of fracturing the audience, but the playtest, combined with our goal to bridge the gap between where D&D started and where it has gone, will help give everyone who likes D&D, and tabletop RPG play in general, something they can enjoy.

15 thoughts on “Interview: Mike Mearls Talks About D&D Next”

  1. Awesome interview Wolfgang. The closer we get to Gencon the more jazzed I’m getting about D&DNext news.

  2. Excellent work, Wolfgang. I’ve been following all the pre-playtest interviews, and this one is on a whole different level than the others. You really know what you’re doing. Thanks.

  3. Charles Carrier

    Your last question, about fracturing the gaming community… That’s a good question, and it gnaws at my worry-spot. It seems (to me) that the FRPG community reached its maximum size back in the days of 1E, and that it hasn’t really grown much since then. I worry that splitting the community might not leave enough customers for either D&D or Pathfinder to thrive.

    Still, I worry about a lot of stuff that never comes to pass. Hopefully this will fall into that category too.

  4. Good interview, and like Mr. Carrier here, my concern is with the (further) fracturing of the fan base. As one who jumped ship and embraced Pathfinder completely, my concern is different: I hope the fan base DOES shrink. I want my beloved designers to be able to do what they do as a career, but honestly, the number of products released under 4e? I hope Pathfinder lives 20 years without ever producing that much glut, and the more money we throw into the hobby, the more glut there shall be.

    I’ve already told my players that my Pathfinder library is near to complete: the Advanced Races Guide has got slim to no chance of making its way into my collection.

  5. Not to nitpick too much, but Pathfinder has released a much higher volume of material than 4E D&D did, either by pagecount or by number of releases.

    I think that is part of the appeal.

  6. Morgan Boehringer

    I find this an interesting comment from Mike Mearls:

    “If people who enjoy 3E are looking for deeper solutions to some of the issues that crop up in their games and are looking for something that stays true to what makes D&D intrinsically D&D, then they should definitely take a look at D&D Next.”

    I wonder why he targets 3E specifically here – was it the reference to Pathfinder in the question and/or the perceived exodus from DnD after the release of 4e? What about 1e,2e and 4e?

    Mostly I find Mearls and WOTC in general to be equivocative, vague and very general in their comments. I know it’s still early days but I’m not seeing the overview that actually tells me how/if they plan to tie all the editions together… I remain hopeful but still unimpressed.

    Oh, but I would be very happy with ass-kicking fighters!!! ;p

  7. Good interview. I love what I hear in general about the feel, etc. of D&D next, however, whenever I start to hear specifics they make me worried that a new re-engineering of D&D is about to take place. I await the playtest.

  8. I expect people will have a chance to make up their own minds in the coming weeks and months. I am happy it’s in the public eye, and we’ll largely leave the realm of pure speculation. Though as with any playtest, things will inevitably change between now and the publication of the final rules.

  9. It would be a real shame if gamers never moved forward. While we should always expect a few gamers to stay behind and play older editions, there is so much terrific fun in new innovation. Going from AD&D and Basic to later Basic versions and to 2E, going from 2E to 3E, from 3E to 4E (and even from 3E to “3.75”)… each has really provided gamers with excellent changes and experiences, while looking both at inward and outward influences. Sure, nothing is ever perfect, but that is true of the past as well. Diversity, change, new… I welcome that.

    I’m sure I’ll play OD&D again when I’m in my 60’s, but I truly hope I’m primarily playing D&D version (insert a really large number here) that has advanced the science of tabletop RPGs over the course of the years. At the same time, I hope to see a bunch of other RPGs that provide varied experiences and create a vibrant industry.

    Thanks for the great interview. I’m always so pleased that the major RPG companies have such tremendous people – intelligent, creative, kind, fun. It is so clear how much Mike Mearls and Erik Mona love the game and want to make it great for the fans. We can only win in the long run, especially if we manage to work together as a community.

  10. I’m a little disappointed that he didn’t really answer your last question. Nothing there really tells us why a Pathfinder Player would want to look at DDnext.

    I agree that there is a LOT of material for Pathfinder (and I’m not trying to start an edition wars thing here, 4E and PF both appeal to different kinds of gaming, and that’s OK). However, a LOT of the material for Pathfinder is less Rules and more roleplaying/ culture and Adventures.

    That’s what I’d like to see for DDnext. Less rules and mini-boosts to buy and more background, adventures, and roleplaying.

  11. I’m prepping for my playtest of Caves of Chaos tomorrow…& the thing that is killing me is that I AM a mini user– I run a roleplaying heavy, rules light game but minis are COOL & help everyone engage in combat, I find– & the rules call for like 18 rats (for real!) & other rather outrageous clumps of monsters. All those rats could be a swarm! I like swarms! That, & too many of the humanoids are basically the same “theme”– I like goblinoids of all stripes, but I’m reskinning a bunch of them to be other monster races.

  12. I have run the playtest both with and without minis (and then back to with).
    The rules work fine either way. (I personally had difficulty running the game without, but that is because I have used minis in my games for 30 years, so I am used to that “crutch.” I found myself reaching for the figs to help describe each battle situation, even though they weren’t neccessary. Old habits and all that!)
    And I agree with mordicai. MINIS ARE COOL!

  13. @Wolfgang and Jason Thigpen:

    Pathfinder probably has released more material than 4e (or possibly even 3.5) if you count all the adventures and setting material. However, there have been relatively few rules supplements beyond core (the two extra bestiaries, the Advanced Player’s Guide, and the two Ultimate books so far). That’s one of the reasons I like Pathfinder: it’s easier to houserule the game when your potential ruleset is smaller.

  14. I believe the designers expect the game to be playable with minis, just not to require them. So, if you like minis, use them! The speed rules etc look like they should coexist fine with minis to me, though I have not run the play test yet (planning to do so tonight).

    For those that want to use minis, you might be interested in these high-def Caves of Chaos fan maps. It might be possible to print out battle maps with them.


  15. I like your interview Wolfgang, nice work.

    I often find myself getting excited about a new edition of D&D. I’m a 3.5 player, and I own Pathfinder, but not 4E. It always seems when I’m reading about D&D Next, that my enthusiasm quickly wanes. Is a mixture of several editions of D&D really a better game?

    It’s obvious to me that WOTC (or maybe Hasbro) only realized the horrifically bad mistake they made with 4E when their sales numbers slowed unexpectedly due to the unexpected fracturing the community. Fourth edition created a rift in the FRPG community like nothing else before, and it hurt not only Hasbro sales numbers but also the gaming community. As an entity, we have never really healed from the wound inflicted upon us by the release of 4E. And I’m not saying anywhere here that 4th edition was not a good game – that’s sort of the point – while 4E might have been a great game, it still caused a huge, permanant fracture of the FRPG community.

    This all leads me to think that the business that supports the RPG industry might have a flawed idea of what kind of growth model they should be using. Have executives looked at RPG sales and decided that they need to sell more product? We all know that RPGs are not a growth industry. Lots of extra books are published continuously, and it’s both a blessing and a curse for the players. Is this more to support the hobby, or to support the publishers?

    I guess when you put all this together what I see is a solution that keeps a thing what it is, and introduces the new content as a compatible but stand alone product. Why call the new edition D&D? There is only one answer: cashflow. And that’s the WRONG answer! Why did WOTC not anticipate the rise of Pathfinder? It’s because of that same line of thinking. That a new edition must be “D&D” or people won’t play it. Hogwash!

    So we as a community may never heal the wound of 4E. The wound could have been avoided if WOTC had imagined that a new edition could be called something other than D&D and still be successful, as Pathfinder proves. To go back to the beginning of my post, I think “What if it wasn’t called D&D?” and most of my fears evaporate. That may not be strictly logical, but it’s a fact. Imagine that 5E was not being called D&D at all. Now ask yourself if the mechanics, miniatures, maps or monsters still matter as much to you. If WOTC “got it right”, or if maybe the only thing that matters is if it’s a fun game?


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