‘This interview originally appeared in Mass Movement 27′
It’s no secret that D&D has been a part of my life for over a quarter of a century, so when, in email conversation, Charles at Esdevium mentioned that there was a possibility of getting an interview with one of the R&D Team (that’s right folks, Dungeons & Dragons has a Research & Development Team – number three on my list of dream jobs), I leapt at the chance, and after a little too and fro in cyberspace, the following interview with Mike Mearls was set up and ready to go. Six weeks later and I’m still smiling…
Interview by Tim Mass Movement
MM: Let’s start at the beginning…Do you want to introduce yourself and tell us how you originally became involved in the world of , and started playing, D&D?
Mike: My name is Mike Mearls and I am lead designer on D&D. I was first exposed to D&D in 1981, when my older brother and his friends discovered it. Perhaps by coincidence, or maybe it was simply a cultural shift, I also had my first taste of Tolkien, Conan, and fantasy literature. D&D was my chance to explore a world of fantasy and magic, and I dove into it head first. I wasn’t allowed to play with D&D with my brother and his friends, but they didn’t remain involved with the game for long. Soon after they gave it up, my brother sold me his Basic D&D rulebook. The rest is history.
MM: For the sake of those poor souls reading this who may not be familiar with D&D, would you like to briefly explain, from an industry insiders perspective, what Dungeons & Dragons is?
Mike: Dungeons & Dragons is a cooperative game where each player creates a character, a sort of in-game avatar, such as a wizard, an elf, or a warrior. The players team up to defeat monsters in a fantasy setting that looks something like the Lord of the Rings. The big difference between D&D and other games is that in D&D one player takes on the role of the Dungeon Master (DM). The DM creates the fantasy world and builds scenarios for the players to tackle. The DM adjudicates the rules like a referee, allowing the players to try almost any action. While the rules cover a lot, the DM’s judgment is the final arbiter. This makes games of D&D interesting because there are no limits aside from common sense and logic to what the characters can do.
For instance, let’s say that a ferocious ogre guards the entrance to a treasure chamber in the ruins of an imperial palace. The players could attack the ogre, but they could also try any number of other plans. They might offer it a keg of ale they found elsewhere in the palace ruins, hoping that it gets drunk and falls asleep. One character could challenge the ogre to a contest of riddles while another one sneaks past it. The characters could pretend to be allied with the ogre’s master and bluster their way past it. The players are free to try anything they can think of. The DM is a big reason why after 36 years D&D is still around. Like a musical instrument, D&D shifts and changes in response to what a DM wants to do with it. Some DMs create vivid, detail fantasy worlds for their players to explore. Others build devious puzzles and traps for the characters to overcome.
MM: How did you make the transition from gamer to becoming part of the Dungeons & Dragons R&D team? Can you tell us a little about role of the R&D team, what it does and what you do within the team?
Mike: The R&D team is broken into three primary components. The designers are responsible for the creative spark that drives the game forward. They come up with new concepts for characters, new worlds to explore, and new ideas for the game. As lead designer, I set some of the big picture goals for the design team. The developers take the designers’ work and ensure that it fits in with the game as it currently stands. They make sure that everything is balanced so that new options don’t make old ones obsolete. At the same time, a new option has to be powerful and interesting enough that it’s worth a player’s time to look at them. The editors take the developed manuscript and work to make sure that the game is clear, easy to understand, and precise in its language. By keeping the phrasing of rules consistent from release to release, they cut down rules confusion.
MM: Do you have to separate and differentiate between being a gamer and a developer when working on new ideas? Does being a gamer help, or is it a hindrance to, working on D&D as a game? Why?
Mike: Obviously, you’d need to have some interest in games to work on D&D. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have enough of the basics under your belt to do interesting work. You’d have to spend a lot of time catching up. The biggest benefit, though, lies in understanding the audience. D&D players like that they can bend and shift the game to fit what they want to do. For DMs, the game is a creative outlet. Having experience playing D&D makes it a lot easier to understand what players want and need. My rule of thumb is that I don’t put anything in a book I’m working on unless I’d personally be interested in it. That’s a good first test to see if an idea is worth pursuing.
MM: I’m assuming that you’re directly responsible for all the minor and major changes within the D&D core system and rules, so I was kind of wondering, what changes, or additional rules were, and are, you directly responsible for? What impact, as an individual, have you had on D&D, and how do you think your changes have affected the game?
Mike: Most of my design work has come out from Player’s Handbook 2 onward. I think my biggest contributions have been the class design in PH 2 and the system of psionic magic we introduced in Player’s Handbook 3. I like taking the core 4th edition system and twisting, turning, and bending it in new directions. It’s fun showing how you can take what looks like a relatively static, predictable system and turn it on its head. I don’t think people expected that.
MM: I guess the change that’s still big news is the move to, and release of the 4th Edition Rules – how long did it take to develop, play test and refine the system before you, and the rest of the team, were happy for it to be released? What were the biggest problems that you guys faced during the development of 4thE, and how did you eventually overcome them? With hindsight, is there anything that you’d change about 4th E if you could?
Mike: The first work on 4e started in 2005, and I was intermittently involved in it from then until 2006. For the final year of the game’s design I worked on it full-time.
The biggest challenge was finding the right balance between making the game appealing to existing players while finding ways to make it more accessible to new players. It’s easy to get lost in catering to your existing fans. They’ve seen all the basics and want to see more detail, more options, just more stuff in general. You have to fight that urge and remember that the game has to provide an easy route for new players. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of creating a rule for every situation. That causes the game to become too complex to play easily. On the other hand, too few rules mean that DMs and players are stuck guessing or arguing over how something works. Finding that balance is an important part of developing a new version of D&D.
There are a few things I’d change, but the one that springs to mind would be alignment. I understand why the alignment system was simplified, but I liked playing lawful evil characters!
MM: Okay, time to put you on the spot – are there any changes to D&D that you wish hadn’t been made, and you think don’t work so well within the overall system, and if so what are they and why, in your personal opinion, don’t they work? On a similar note, what do you think the greatest changes to the game have been, and why do they work so well?
Mike: The biggest change to D&D in 4e was the shift in how characters advance. It used to be that each class had its own progression of advancement in level. A wizard might gain a new spell, a fighter gains better fighting ability, while a druid can shape-change into an animal. 4e changed all that, giving each class the same pace of advancement. Obviously, the classes all gain different types of abilities, but those abilities all look much more alike. The benefit is that it’s easier for new players to learn how all the classes work. The drawback is that classes that used to offer more complexity are simpler, while simpler ones are more complex. There was some value to letting a player choose how complex he wants his character to be. On the other hand, it meant that anyone who wanted to play a wizard had to learn far more rules than the other players.
MM: Slowly winding things up….I don’t suppose that you can tell us what you’re working on at the moment can you? What can we look forward to, and what’s new in the world of D&D…?
Mike: This fall we’re rolling out the D&D Essentials, a set of books and boxed sets that are designed to serve as the ideal starting place for D&D. The Red Box introductory starter set is one of the first Essentials releases. It’s the perfect way to start playing D&D. After that, we’re rolling out player books with new options for the most popular classes in the game. Those books are a good place for new players to go after the Red Box. The content is also a new take on classic character classes, so even D&D veterans should find something interesting there.
D&D UK Community – community.wizards.com/dnduk
D&D Encounters By Charles Ryan
D&D Encounters is a shop-based organized play programme in which your local game shop holds short, one-encounter sessions each week. The programme is organized in “seasons,” with each season lasting around 12 weeks. The full season forms a single lengthy adventure. The idea is for each encounter to be fun and exciting in its own right, but to also have an “I can’t wait to see what happens next week” vibe.
D&D Encounters is intended to be pretty friendly to a drop-in-drop-out style of play—if you show up this week with an appropriate character (or without—there are pre-generated characters available), you can play this week’s encounter even if you missed last week or won’t be available next week. Combined with the shorter format (a single encounter usually takes an hour, maybe an hour and a half), D&D Encounters is really convenient for new players as well as hardcore gamers who want to get in a little more D&D action but can’t commit another entire evening each week.
WotC have been dropping easter eggs and little game-changing tidbits via Facebook, Twitter, and the D&D Community, and encouraging gamers to tweet/blog/FB their experiences. The idea here is to create something of a “shared experience” between players around the world. Kind of like how you can talk to old-school gamers and kick around what happened when you played Against the Giants or Tomb of Horrors. If you’re on Twitter, search #dndenc for the chatter. Or follow @Wizards_DnD for their tweets.
The first season has been running throughout the Spring of this year. Season 2 starts in
June and is set in the Dark Sun setting, which is being re-released for 4th edition this Summer.
You can find a shop running D&D Encounters by going to the D&D web site at http://www.wizards.com/DnD/Default.aspx. Enter “UK” into the little box on the right, and that will bring up a Google map showing participating UK shops. Or touch base with the UK D&D community at community.wizards.com/dnduk.