Interview: Mike Mearls Talks About D&D Next
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: 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.