The design team of the next Dungeons & Dragons explains the process.
One of the joys of my job is getting the chance to talk to game designers that I respect and pick at their brain like a mind flayer. At PAX East earlier this month, I sat down with Mike Mearls, head of D&D development at Wizards of the Coast, and his colleague on the design team Jeremy Crawford. We had planned to play a little bit of the new version of Dungeons & Dragons, and I even brought along Marshall Honorof from The Escapist news team to roll some dice with the people making the game.
Instead, we started talking about how the playtest was going and I couldn't help grilling them about decisions they had made in the new version of Dungeons & Dragons. I noticed how the feel of the game seemed to have shifted back to the mercenary adventurer feel of Howard's Conan stories rather than the superheroes of 3rd and 4th edition that felt like something out of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and they offered their thoughts on how gritty fantasy meets heroic.
The process of how new rules are reinvented for a well-known system like D&D has also intrigued me, and I pressed Mike and Jeremy for insights into how the culture of the design team influences the game. There's also the question as to how specific rules impact the game's reception, and they were happy to discuss the pitfalls of an XP system that reaches too far, the danger of "feel bad" abilities and the necessity for a concise core mechanic.
After talking to them for more than hour, I had a book full of notes and a head full of more questions. There wasn't time to actually play D&D Next unfortunately, but I walked away from the table enriched with newfound knowledge on the inner workings of the Dungeons & Dragons design team.
We later exchanged emails on everything we discussed and I've reprinted some of our conversation below.
Greg Tito: Jeremy mentioned that the team is busy working on refining the core game before moving on. Can you talk about the process of accomplishing that feat? How do the rules or text get from where they are now to a more
Jeremy Crawford: The rules go through multiple iterations, which involve in-house playtesting and discussion between the design and development teams. Once the two teams are satisfied that the rules are testable by a broader group of playtesters, the material is sent to editing.
Greg Tito: What has been the overall reaction from people outside the company? How does the playtest affect your decisions?
Mike Mearls: The playtesters have overall been fairly positive. I think we're on the right track in a lot of areas, especially when it comes to complexity. The playtesters have played a huge role in focusing our efforts. Playtest feedback is really the only tool we have to determine if the game hits the feel of D&D.
Greg Tito: Can you talk a little bit more about Conan vs. LOTR and where you want the default feel of D&D to fall?
Jeremy Crawford: Classic D&D features the sort of swashbuckling, tomb raiding, and eldritch evils typical of Howard's Hyborian Age, with an appearance that recalls Tolkien's Middle-earth. We would like to maintain that mixture. In other words, many of our worlds have a visual resemblance to Middle-earth-elves, dwarves, and the like-but what our heroes do on their adventures would often feel perfectly natural to Conan.
Greg Tito: The experience system is unfinished in the current state, and you said that XP is a layer that does not effect the other game systems. I'd like more detail on how you will present XP rules as a modular system.
Mike Mearls: Keeping in mind that the design is nowhere near complete, what we aim to do with systems like XP is make sure that they function within the proper scope. We don't want to make mechanics pull double duty that confuses their role in the game, like using XP to both gain levels and to fuel magic item creation. If we focus a mechanic solely on its job - in this case keeping XP tied only to gaining levels - we make it much easier for DMs to change things without causing unforeseen consequences. In this case, we can present systems for awarding XP based on finding treasure, defeating monsters, achieving personal milestones unique to each character based on a PC's background and goals, and so on. The default rule will typically work as you'd expect in D&D, and then we can look at the most common houserules and give DMs options.