If you’ve been following role-playing game news, you know that the fate of Dungeons & Dragons is somewhat in peril. Many younger gamers flock to video games, not table-top games. Some old school gamers have abandoned the hobby entirely, or else they play outdated (but perfectly playable) versions of the rules. Others prefer Pathfinder and other fantasy RPGs. Factions squabble over what edition of D&D is the best.
Getting fans of the various rules — Original D&D, Basic D&D, AD&D, 2nd Edition, 3rd, 3,5 and 4.0 — to all agree on how to run a run-of-the-mill combat with a band of hobgoblins, how magic is used, or how much authority the Dungeon Master has to improvise when your character want to do something not explicitly covered in the rules … well, good luck with that.
Against this complex backdrop and into an uncertain future, Wizards of the Coast, which makes D&D, has embarked on an effort to redraw the rules once again. As was widely reported in January, Wizards is giving D&D a makeover, its first overhaul since 2008, when 4.0 was released and, some say, further fractured the fan base.
The project to create D&D 5.0 — or what Wizards is calling “D&D Next” — has been a cause for both bickering and hope. But the company has promised to listen to players. They hired game designers from previous editions, such as Monte Cook, Bruce Cordell and Rob Schwalb, in an effort “give a voice to the different generations of D&D.” They initiated a multi-phase playtest. Some months ago, I had a chance to play an early version of D&D Next, Dungeon Mastered by none other than the man heading up the revamp, Mike Mearls, senior manager of Dungeons & Dragons research and development. Then came a “Friends and Family” play test phase this winter and spring for a select group of D&D players.
Now, this week, the general public playtest will kick off, beginning Thursday, May 24th. You can sign up to play here. On the eve of this new phase, I had a chance to ask Mearls some questions about the state of D&D‘s evolution, if he could reveal any sneak peeks into D&D Next and what challenges remain.
Gilsdorf: Please bring readers up to date (especially any newbies reading this) on the process to date — the previous “Friends and Family” playtest, the overall schedule, and where in the process the game design revision stands now.
Mearls: The first concepts for the game arose about a year ago in a series of limited tests and proofs of concept. We also played through each edition of D&D to get a sense for how the game has changed. In the fall, we started to do more work in earnest, with that material making up a closed playtest that began around the start of 2012. We used feedback from that test, along with games run at the D&D Experience convention and PAX East, to shape the next round of design. The game right now is functional within a limited array of levels. There are a few things we know that will change in short order. For instance, monsters still need some work, and the starting character hit points are a bit inflated to account for that. At this point, we’ve created a few different scenarios we can follow for new content based on player reaction to the first round. Depending on how that goes, we can figure out if we should debut new content or go back and revise classes and races that have been tested before. The big thing is that we’re ready to take as much time as needed to get this right.
Gilsdorf: Can you characterize the general sense of where the game in progress stands now? Is it more like classic D&D, more like 4.0? How have the rules and philosophy changed?
Mearls: In general, we’re pushing more power into the DM’s hands to run the sort of campaign that he or she prefers. For instance, we just talked today about a rule that lets DMs hand out bonus hit points at first level. The DM gets to determine if adventurers in the campaign are lucky, blessed by the gods, or otherwise destined for greatness. I’d say that in general, the game has the open-ended nature of AD&D, the character flexibility of 3e, and the clarity and ease of DMing of 4e.
Gilsdorf: I imagine you did a lot of reading into D&D‘s history to think big picture stuff. How far back did you delve to get good ideas/best practices?
Mearls: We started at the very beginning, looking back at the original version of the game and even what information we could find on the games that inspired D&D. When we played each edition, starting with the original, we had a chance to see how the game evolved. The most interesting thing we learned was that the original game held up very well, and the best parts of D&D — creativity at the table, the DM’s ability to create a unique game — were consistent in all editions.
Gilsdorf: Can you talk about which older editions were most inspirational and what about them did you like or try to incorporate into D&D Next?
Mearls: Basic D&D, the version released in 1981 and assembled by Tom Moldvay, is a big inspiration. It’s a complete game in 64 pages and covers the essence of D&D in a compact package. The original game has the basic concept of an RPG, with the idea of the DM as a combination world builder, storyteller, and umpire. AD&D added more flexibility to characters, 3e created a logical framework of rules, and 4e created a math framework for the game. All of those things are steps forward for D&D and every edition has contributed to this new iteration.
Gilsdorf: I think a lot of older gamers expressed concern about the direction 4.0 was headed vis-a-vis the balance of combat vs. storytelling and role playing. Do the new rules dictate how much role playing should be incorporated into the game? How much storytelling? How much combat?
Mearls: We’re very hands off with that stuff, instead leaving it up to the DM. We tend to give characters a mix of combat, exploration, and interaction abilities so that players feel that all of those areas of the game are important. The big thing I want to do for DMs is create a flexible core of rules that they can apply and modify as they wish.
Gilsdorf: In the new rules, will there be any fresh instructions on how to role play and tell stories, to help inexperienced players who might come to D&D from video games understand how to play a character, or how to DM? Or at this point is it just the rules framework you are focusing on?
Mearls: That’s the kind of thing we’ll tackle as we start thinking about final products. For now, we assume that players and DMs are at least familiar with the basics of the game.
Gilsdorf: So you have this feedback from the “Friends and Family” playtest. How did you tabulate and incorporate all of it? It sounds like a monumental task.
Mearls: We have a great team of people at Wizards who have tabulated everything, making it much easier for us to zero in on issues. We also rely on surveys to collect information, so we can take a look at the raw numbers. There are two ways we’ve looked at feedback so far. Sometimes, specific issues leap to the top of the to-do list because we see less than stellar feedback. In other cases, we use the results to help shape our discussions for revisions. For instance, if we have an idea for a new way to handle magic items we can check on the playtest data and see what players had to say about the current rules, then use that information to help us make our revisions.
Gilsdorf: How much feedback did you get? In the thousands of responses?
Mearls: That’s hard to tabulate. We kept our closed playtest small, with a little over a thousand people participating. They were given survey questions but also submitted written feedback. The real test will come when we begin to receive feedback from the public playtest.
Gilsdorf: My understanding is the next phase is the public open playtest. So really anyone will be able to play?
Mearls: That’s right, though as in the case of any public beta there is a play test agreement you have to agree to.
Gilsdorf: How is this handled? Do folks download materials from the D&D site?
Mearls: The materials will be available online via the D&D web site at www.dndnext.com. All you need to do is create an account on the site – if you already have one you can skip that step – and agree to the playtest terms. Once you do that, you can download the files and start playing.
Gilsdorf: How will you solicit feedback and what form will it take — surveys? Open comments on forums?
Mearls: We’re are focusing on surveys as the primary method but also hosting Live Chats, continuing playtests at key events, panels, and also paying close attention to the conversations that are coming out of our weekly articles. Surveys make it as easy as possible for people to contribute. A survey also lets us focus in on the key issues we want to examine, though of course people will have a chance to write out their thoughts and impressions. We want to give players as many outlets as we can to give us feedback.
Gilsdorf: There’s been a lot of talk about the the departure of Monte Cook from the team working on this project. I’m sure you’re restricted on what you can say, but I wonder if you care to comment or respond to some of the internet chatter about what this might mean for where D&D Next is headed. What did Monte bring to the team and has he been replaced?
Mearls: Nothing has changed in terms of big picture ideas. The core concept behind the game was in place about a year ago, so our direction remains the same. Monte has a good sense for what makes for a fun RPG, and his big role was providing his experience on third edition. We’ve also been relying on other team members to provide the same kind of expertise in all editions so that we can put together the kind of game that all D&D players will enjoy and appreciate.
Gilsdorf: Can you tease some of the major changes for D&D Next? (e.g. Is combat super complex with feats and super powers, or is the system more streamlined? Class? Races? Spells?)
Mearls: Here’s something people might like — we’ve created a new mechanic for rogues called schemes. Schemes tell you what sort of rogue you’re playing. You might want to be a thief, the classic D&D rogue who can sneak, steal treasure, and disarm traps. Or, you might want to play a charlatan who excels at deceit and, through trial, error, and practice, learns how to use scrolls, wands, and other magic items.
Gilsdorf: Biggest challenge thus far?
Mearls: The biggest hurdle has been trying to make sure that we can encourage more creativity, immersion, and flexibility in DMs and players. We want to have a solid set of rules, but at the same time I think D&D is at its best when the game is about the DM’s rulings rather than the actual rules. The rules are a tool that a DM uses to keep the game moving and inform decisions. The rules don’t make decisions for the DM, unless that’s how the DM wants the game to work.
Gilsdorf: Any other cool surprises in the new rules you can share now?
Mearls: I mentioned the rogue schemes earlier, but here’s another tidbit. Character backgrounds dictate the skills you receive, rather than your character class. Right now in the rules you could play a fighter who is also a thief, a wizard who is also an explorer, or any other combination you want.
Gilsdorf: When I contacted you last fall, you and your colleagues at Wizards spoke about how the major goal for this rules revamp was big picture, brand and relevance stuff — how to unite all the warring tribes; end the editions wars; get older, lapsed players to play again; and get younger generations excited about D&D. The changes you’re talking about here seem a little smaller-scale. Can you point to some bigger-picture ways you are addressing these issues?
Mearls: The really big questions are, in some ways, still up in the air. Right now, we’re sort of heads down, focusing on small details for the playtest. We have some fairly big ideas we’re working on in terms of RPGs as a whole, but that stuff is still fairly far off on the horizon. Right now, we really are down in the weeds in terms of details, and you’re right that the stuff we’re talking about right now is fairly small in terms of the big picture. However, that big picture still isn’t in focus. I think a mistake we made in the past was to try to make these big, grandiose statements, but in doing that we lost track of the core elements of what people enjoy about RPGs. We also ended up touting things that we couldn’t actually execute on, and no one wants that to happen again.With all that said, we’re definitely thinking big picture. That work is taking place, but it’s not ready for prime time.
Gilsdorf: How are you holding up, personally? Leading this rules revision for D&D Next must be exhausting and stressful. Lots of folks wanting this to go right. I can only imagine.
Mearls: It’s definitely stressful, but it helps to have a great team of designers and editors. Plus, my wife and our menagerie of pets – two dogs and three cats – help to keep me grounded. The best thing, though, is actually playing the game. It feels good to play through a new iteration and have a good time, or spot issues that we know we can fix. In some ways, there’s some security in having a public test. If people hate it, we are listening and make changes along the way. The biggest thing I have comes down to my attitude toward whatever my current project might be. I’m sort of like a parent who pushes a kid way too hard and expects straight As every term. I just want the game to be absolutely awesome!
Gilsdorf: Anything else you’d like to add?
Mearls: We’re really looking forward to having people try out the playtest materials and give us their feedback. People have asked why they should care about this version of D&D when there are other versions out there. This is your chance to play a role in the development of the rules. If there has ever been anything about D&D that bugged you or some new thing you wanted in the game, now is the time to be heard!
The D&D Next general public playtest begins Thursday, May 24th. Sign up to play here.