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The recent interview The Escapist conducted with Mike Mearls, D&D Manager for Wizards of the Coast, has provoked a remarkable amount of controversy, with threads on Penny Arcade’s forums and a monstrous 34-page thread on RPG.net. I’m not sure if I’m pleased or bothered by the volume of response, but I have read them all and noticed a few recurring items. Among the concerns raised repeatedly have been:

  1. that we “have an axe to grind” against Wizards
  2. that we are taking for granted that D&D is in a “death spiral”
  3. that we have editorialized to slant Mike Mearls’ views
  4. that we don’t understand that the “Mike Mearls ruined everything” thread is a joke.

Considering all of the outcry, it seems a worthwhile exercise to provide some explanation, lest someone start an “Alexander Macris ruined everything” thread.

Let’s start with point (d): The “Mike Mearls ruined everything” thread on Enworld. Yes, it’s a joke! I got it. But why is there a joke about Mike Mearls ruining things? There is, after all, no thread that says “Chris Pramas (designer of the Dragon Age RPG) ruined everything.” The joke only exists because there are lots of people who do believe Mike Mearls (or others associated with D&D 4th Edition) ruined everything. The posters on Enworld are making light of this fact, and therein is the humor – they’ve co-opted the attack on Mearls and made it into a joke. But that doesn’t disguise the fact that there’s an underlying attack. I apologize to everyone who was confused by this, especially the actual Mike Mearls fans in that thread. As I said on the thread itself yesterday, I thought I was engaging in dry wit, seeing as I linked the post directly for our readers. But my subtlety failed on the high tension wires of the Internet.

Moving on to point (c): When we run interviews in The Escapist magazine issues, they are always conversational pieces similar to what you will read in Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair. I have to wonder if much of the criticism of the interview format is simply because so few outlets write this sort of journalism about the gaming industry. In any event, at the end of this foreword, we’ve published the entire recorded conversation with Mearls for anyone who is interested. I’ll be interested in learning what people conclude after reading the full transcript.

With regard to point (b), whether or not D&D is in a “death spiral”; the words are Ryan Dancey’s, not mine. You can find the discussion on this point here. I wanted to give Mearls an opportunity to rebut Dancey on the record, as I believe that the entirety of 4E Red Box and D&D Essentials is a rebuttal of Dancey.

I certainly have no vested interest in seeing RPGs die. I haven’t written an entire column on the how to be a gamemaster because I want RPGs to fail. But I do have serious concerns about the future of this hobby that I love. I have not seen evidence – in the form of press releases, announced sales figures, or retail shelf space – that D&D 4th Edition is doing as well as 3rd Edition or Magic: The Gathering once did. And what I have heard from friends and colleagues who work at games retail or in game design has indicated that they do not see Fourth Edition selling as well as they’d like. That concerns me because D&D is the flagship for the entire tabletop RPG industry. If it sinks, it’s likely everything will sink. So, when faced with an opportunity to sit down with the mastermind in charge of the game, of course I asked “Is it true the ship sinking? What are you doing to prevent it sinking?” Not because I want it to sink, but because I’m worried it will sink. Nothing would make me happier than for Wizards to announce that Fourth Edition is breaking all prior sales records.

And, finally, on to (a): My grinding axe. Let’s have no confusion here. If you believe that the fact I’m a “grognard” who has played D&D for 29 years disqualifies me from having a valid opinion about the future of D&D, then you shouldn’t read my work. I do have opinions, and in my editorial writing, I share them.

What was my opinion here? Well, the context of this interview is that Wizards of the Coast is releasing a new D&D Red Box. The release of that Red Box led us to publish an entire issue of The Escapist about the importance of the Red Box phenomenon. And that new Red Box is using the same brand name, logo design, box design, and artwork of a 1983 game. It’s hard to look at the new Red Box and not conclude that it is aimed at people who liked the 1983 Red Box, telling them they’ll like this too. Now, if it looks like the D&D Red Box, but isn’t in any way similar to the old D&D Red Box, that would be pretty foul marketing, wouldn’t it? Therefore, the central question of our interview was: “Will people who liked how the 1983 Red Box played also like this game?” Mearls’ answer was affirmative: Yes, they will. In fact he seemed very happy to share how he had recaptured that classic D&D feel within the new mechanics. Which led me to ask how they had responded to criticisms that 4E was lacking characteristics of classic D&D, such as the core races being emphasized, or the different classes playing differently. And that was the majority of what we talked about. I personally found Mearls’ answers uplifting. The interview led me to consider whether I should try running a Red Box campaign – that is, Mearls persuaded me. The parts of the interview I found most persuasive were the parts I included in the article. I can’t write from someone else’s point of view – I wrote from my own.

How much of the upset caused by this interview has been generated among people who hate classic D&D, I don’t know, but certainly, if you hate classic D&D, I can see being upset at Wizards wanting to bring back some classic D&D flavor. This is why I empathize with Mike Mearls. He’s in a tough situation, as the audience he needs to please is diverse and antagonistic.

And that’s enough of my point of view. Here’s the full interview. Go read it now. Don’t make me roll for initiative …

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The Escapist: We are now being recorded. Thanks so much for agreeing to the interview. It’s exciting to talk to you, Mike.

Mike Mearls: Thanks for having me …

The Escapist: We’re doing an entire issue of The Escapist, four feature articles, all about Red Box. One article is an overview of the history of Red Boxes and Starter Sets. We’ve got some other pieces that are approaching it from different angles, and then my piece is going to be an interview with you. I’m probably the most avid D&D guy here at the office. I’ve been playing since the original Red Box and running tons of games and I write a column called Check for Traps on the site. I’m also the publisher! Anyway, let’s start the interview.

What’s your motivation for doing a Red Box for fourth edition?

Mike Mearls: The basic gist of it is to create an easy entry point into D&D. If you look back at the launch of 4th Edition, the game is really aimed at existing D&D players. There is a level of complexity in the game that is – if you don’t know a lot of the assumptions of D&D that the game makes, such as making adventures or creating plots, creating your campaign world – D&D covers a lot of that stuff, but it requires a fair amount of work to get through it.

What we wanted to do with the Red Box is just make something that is very pick up and go. In the Red Box, there is a solo adventure you play through to create your character, a lot like the original Frank Mentzer version. The idea is really just to cut down the time between “Hey, I bought this game” and “I’m playing it.”

I went to PAX this weekend, I played a demo called Shank, I went home that night, downloaded it and I’ve already beaten it. That’s something that – especially within the past 5 or 10 years – with games being downloadable flash games and stuff – gaming culture is much more focused on when you first interact with a game and you’re playing it – that’s getting shorter and shorter and shorter. The Red Box all about saying “you buy this box, you take it home, you unwrap it, you’re playing within two minutes. You’re not reading through 50 pages of combat rules, trying to figure out how it works. There’s an immediate entry point.

The Escapist: I can see that from the corporate point of view, but as a designer it seems like you have you been influenced by the old school movement. I read your blog a lot, and you talk about your first edition AD&D campaign and you’ll often design 4th Edition modules in OD&D and convert them over. Do you personally feel that you’ve been influenced by that? If I like Frank Mentzer Red Box, is this a good entry point for me to return to the hobby. Is it going to feel the same, does it have a classic feel? So, less from a business objective, but from a design point of view, how should we be thinking about this game?

Mike Mearls: That’s definitely part of it. In any area, you’re influenced by what you’ve done before and I definitely started with the J. Eric Holmes box set.

The Escapist: The old light blue book.

Mike Mearls: It really influenced how I look at the game, because that set was really all about the pastiche quality of D&D. There’s one passage where he talks about how your hero might say things in character like “by Crom to Great Cthulhu”, just some of the ideas you’ve always had of this fantasy mash-up, everything from Lord of the Rings to H.P. Lovecraft to Robert Howard to more modern influences as they come in. That’s always been part of D&D.

From my personal design aesthetic, I really think it’s important to have the core of D&D as the foundation that people walk into. That’s why in the Red Box there’s elves, dwarves, halflings, it’s the classic classes, the classic races. In some ways, there’s a definite influence there that says “what is the core of D&D and why did people like it in the original?” – when you first encountered it, whether it was five years ago or 20 years ago.

I think you have to keep that in mind when you’re moving forward, because it’s easy to look at your own personal interactions with D&D – because obviously the way I play now has changed over the years – you always have to remember why people got into the game in the first place. You can’t get so caught up in everything that has happened over the past 30 something years. Let that drive the entry point into the front end of the game. You can do the weirder stuff, but I think you need to do that for the experienced players, especially for beginning players, or players who just like that core D&D. If you look at the Fighter and the way he works in Essentials, we removed the Daily power skills to get more of a sense that “look, fighters and wizards should look really different,” because that’s how D&D originally approached it. I remember playing the Wizard way back in basic D&D, you had one spell and you had four hit points if you were lucky and you needed the Fighter to protect you. That’s a much different playing experience than when you are playing the Fighter, where you’re in the front line, you’re taking all the risks, you’re charging into combat. The game you played was different. You were playing the same game, but within that game, you had a much different experience.

The way I like to design things – especially in RPGs – is all about that feeling of – I kind of want to say it’s like the interface. When you approach the game, you’re approaching it the way your character would. You’re thinking like a Fighter, you’re thinking like a Wizard. There’s subtle differences there, but they’re very important for a game to come to life in someone’s mind. It’s an analog game, it’s a tabletop game. If you just feel like “well, this just feels like I’m pushing a figure around a battle mat,” you missed a very important element of D&D, that immersive quality of feeling like “I am in the Temple of Elemental Evil,” on some level, I understand the environment, I understand what’s going on, I’m immersed in this world. It’s like going through the wardrobe to Narnia. Even if it’s just in your mind, you’re still there.

The Escapist: That’s a really interesting point, and it seems a little bit different from the design philosophy from last time when I chatted with Andy Collins, just prior to the release of – maybe a year ago – so it was prior to the time you guys started working on the Red Box. At the time, I was like “Why the focus on Tiefling and Dragonborn and why do all the character classes play the same?” As an old school player, that was one of the biggest shocks to me, I felt like when I played a Fighter and I played a Wizard in 4E, they felt much more similar than they used to. Is Red Box going to be – is that the beginning of a change and trend – is Essentials going to follow through with that and it’s going to be more of a focus on the Classic feel, or is it just because it’s focused on new players and once you get more into the Essentials line, the classes will start to feel more similar and it will have that more esoteric feel.

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Mike Mearls: It’s interesting. In some ways, bringing in new players leads you to a path where then you end up with classes that feel very different. One of the things, when you’re dealing with new players, sit someone down to play D&D, and let’s say you’re going to play Essentials, you’re going to play 4th Edition, or you have Red Box, stuff like that – you can just tell somebody, hey do you want to play a guy with heavy armor with a big weapon, kind of describing a fighter and he’ll say “Yeah, that sounds fun.” And then you say “Look, do you want to carry a shield and be more defensive or do you want to carry the biggest axe you can find and be really good at hacking guys in two?” When you have that very visceral choice point for a beginner, it’s something they can understand – they don’t know the rules, but they understand the difference between being more defensive and being more offensive.

At the same time, when you play the game, you want that to feel different. If you’re playing a fighter, whether you’re playing The Slayer, which is a striker in role terms, or the knight, which is the defender, that feels different. When you’re playing the game as a Striker and you run across the room and abandon the rest of the party to fight the ogre and chop it up to pieces. If you’re playing the Knight, you’re the defensive guy; you’re supposed to be staying back near the rest of the party, protecting the wizard, protecting the cleric.

Then you extend that to other classes, where it’s really important to have that different feel because otherwise, especially for beginners, it’s easy to lose track of “well, you’re giving me all these choices, but what’s really different?” If you want to sell me on this, and say what’s interesting about this class and why should I pick it, you need those very visceral, big differences. That just flows into the rest of the design where you just look at it and say “if that’s good for beginners,” and if you look at advanced players – I mean, if you look the 4th Edition handbook and you look at those players – you have to be well versed in D&D to understand the difference between the classes. It’s the old – I see this comment a lot online – “It doesn’t read very well, but it plays very well.”

I think what we were looking for in Essentials, especially for beginners, because there’s plenty of people out there who have stopped playing D&D – you want them to go “This reads well too,” because you’re dealing with an audience that isn’t already playing your game. So if you have an audience that’s established, you can be more technical in how you approach them – because they speak the jargon, they get it. But with the new audience, or returning audience, they want big-picture ideas they can latch onto.

Just going forward from a design standpoint, when you have more visceral design like that, I think it just leads to more interesting challenges for designers. You’re looking at things in more of a world point of view – “What is this guy doing in the world of D&D and how do we express this mechanically,” rather than vice versa.

The Escapist: There’s a guy named Justin Alexander who’s a really smart blogger about D&D and one of his criticisms when he reviewed 4th Edition was that so many of the game mechanics have been disassociated from the world. That is to say, had been designed not considering what the person is doing in the world. When I read Red Box, it actually seemed like some of those concerns had been addressed. Reading Red Box, it basically felt like “Oh this is D&D, I get it, and this is simulating this fantasy swords and sorcery reality.” It’s interesting that that was intentional.

Mike Mearls: It’s funny you brought that up because I’d read that blog entry. It’s definitely something we thought of because if you’re an experienced player and if you’re willing to give some allowances to how the game works vs. how you think reality should work, you’re probably in a narrative mode. It’s especially easy for experienced roleplayers. If you’re more into the narrative side of gaming, you’re used to taking mechanics and interpreting them to say “well this is what just happened.” But I don’t think that’s a mode of people who haven’t played RPGs before, who don’t necessarily think in a narrative fashion are used to. Because it happens after the action.

If you’re playing the game and you attack an ogre and something happens, unless your mind is attuned that way, it’s really hard to go “okay, I need to stop the action, pause, something just happened and now I have to explain it after the fact.” I’m not in the flow of the game of saying “I’m going to use the ability that will let me charge and attack three guys.” So I run forward and I know that as I run forward and I leap in the air and swing my axe in a broad arc and attack three guys. There’s much more flow there in the action of moving your figure using the miniatures, you’re rolling the dice to do the attack. It matches up very nicely to what is happening in the game. You’re not doing it and saying “oh, this is what happened.” Because it pulls everyone out of the action.

The Escapist: I have that experience whenever I play narrative games that in a sense I almost feel like there is less of a feel of a story because I do have to get pulled out and reinterpret what just happened abstractly and explain it as compared to a game where the mechanic or interface is explaining it as it goes.

Mike Mearls: Exactly. It’s interesting because if you look at roleplaying games in general, I think you can see narrative games spring up more in what I think of as high-end users, people who have been playing for awhile or have really thought a lot about gaming, and I almost think of narrative games are almost a different hobby, where it really is group world building or literal group storytelling. Not in the sense of “this is the action that is happening and we’re going to form a story as we go,” but more “let’s sit down and when we’re done, we’re going to have a narrative, we’re going to have a story we built together.” It’s almost like at the end you look back and say “this is what we built,” where in a more traditional roleplaying game like D&D, you build it as you go and it’s almost like a game of football or some sport where the action arises as you go.

The Escapist: Definitely, it’s a sport. I just had this very long discussion with folks about that in my Check for Traps column because I said this focus on story is detracting from the actual challenge of play, which caused a lot of the narrative type guys to declare me public enemy number 2.

Mike Mearls: Who’s the number 1?

The Escapist: I think you are.

Mike Mearls: Fair enough, I’ll take it.

The Escapist: I was a big fan of your Iron Heroes work that you did with Monte Cook and how you were basically able to take “this guy’s a fighter, and this guy’s a fighter and this guy’s a fighter”, but they all played really differently. I had a couple questions there. Do you think there’s – down the road – do you think there will be an Iron Heroes-style swords and sorcery Conan-focused update for 4th Edition?

Mike Mearls: It’s tricky because whenever you do a new world – if we were going to do something like that, we’d probably look at in terms of setting. The nice thing about Iron Heroes was – for it to really aim at what could be a narrow audience. When I was working on the game, originally it wasn’t going to have a spellcaster dude – and Monte just said “look, people are going to want to play Wizards” – as soon as you say Fantasy, someone wants to play the spellcaster. Monte’s a sharp guy, so if he’s saying this to you – well, first he’s my boss, so I have to take him seriously anyways. But he knows gaming really well.

There’s such a link between fantasy and magic. Even looking back at the literature, it’s so rare – well it happens, but a lot of the iconic characters – fantasy figures – are not wizards or spellcasters. Conan being a great example, or the Lankhmar stories, where magic is an untrustworthy and mysterious power where, if you dabble in it, it’s usually a bad sign as far as your moral character goes. But people like the power. From a gaming standpoint, it’s like the classic Lord of the Rings thing where those adventurers – of course they would use the ring – that’s the first thing you would do – of course you would use the ring. So it’s tricky – it’s something I always want to do, it’s just a matter of finding the right place to do it.

The Escapist: Makes sense. Do you and Monte still collaborate at all? Is he involved at all with Wizards?

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Mike Mearls: No, he was running Dungeonaday.com. I know he’s been wanting to break into novels and I think that’s been taking up his time. He’s the kind of guy where if he emails me and said “I want to work on a book,” I’d be like “Great, I’ll make room for you.” He’s a really good guy to work with, too. Very sharp guy. He really knows RPGs, he almost has this intuitive instinct for them and figuring out what D&D players like.

The Escapist: Sort of an RPG Yoda. Let’s say I’m an experienced RPGer and I want to start playing 4th edition like Christmas time. Experienced guy, I’m coming from 3rd or I’m coming from other games – Shadowrun, I don’t know what. Should I start buying the old 4th edition game material or does it make more sense for me to start with the 4th edition Essentials material?

Mike Mearls: At this point, if you’re just getting into it, the Essentials is a better bet, even just for the price point. One of the things we’re doing, since it’s a smaller format, is a 6×9 soft-cover book. I just got my copy of Heroes of the Fallen Lands. It retails for $20, has levels 1-30 of the classic four classes, Fighter, Wizard, Rogue, Cleric. It’s got the classic races. That will be a good place to start from the player’s end. The Red Box is really aimed at new players. If you had kids or someone new that you’re going to be bringing into the hobby, it might be something good to pick up for them. It also comes with counters and maps. With Essentials, if you started with Heroes of the Fallen Lands and then, as far as adventures, if you are DM material, if you want to just get up and get playing immediately, if you grabbed the Rules Compendium and an adventure like The Slaying Stone that just came out a couple months back, I’m assuming you’re a veteran, you already know what you’re doing. That should be enough with the basic rules to get you going.

The Escapist: Is Fallen Lands going to be the new setting?

Mike Mearls: That’s just one of the things we’re doing going forward. It isn’t a setting, per se, we just wanted to come up with a title that wasn’t just – that was something you could say to someone that didn’t know D&D and it would kind of make sense of what they were getting into. A model we’re using going forward – I always mess these dates up – because I worked with this much earlier this year. One of the first expansions that we’re releasing – “Player Expansion 2011” is Heroes of Shadow. So what we’re doing with our title is, instead of something abstract like Player’s Handbook 2 or Player’s Handbook 3, which doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s in it, we’re moving towards titles that are more descriptive.

Heroes of Fallen Lands is more a generic fantasy term. It does have the subtitle on the cover that does tells you “Create, play clerics, fighters, rogues and wizards.” And that’s what you’ll get with the Essentials books; it’ll basically tell you on the cover, here are the character classes you’re getting. It’s just a more flavorful title. Something more interesting than Player’s Handbook 4.

The Escapist: Sure, like what was done with Book of Nine Swords and stuff like that. Tell me a bit about the setting that appears in Red Box. I liked the Chaos Scar.

Mike Mearls: That’s something new. It’s basically a micro-setting called the Nentir Vale. For 4th Edition, one of the things we did was create this sketchy background world where we could just set elements of D&D in and use that for a backbone and drop in things like a pantheon. It comes in with a payload of a few other gods as a starting point.

It’s really meant to be just a very basic – hitting the standard notes of a classic D&D setting. The Nentir Vale has a few villages, a couple iconic dungeon sites. I can’t remember in the Red Box, how much description it goes into, but in the DMG for 4th Edition, it had basic descriptions of the town, a few pages of the starting area. It’s just a way to tie together adventures in a setting, especially for a new player, it gives you a map. It’s almost like Karameikos from the old B series of the modules, where it’s the context in which everything else takes place.

The Escapist: This is where I was going with by asking if Fallen Lands is going to be a setting, because they later expanded Karameikos into the Mystara Known World campaign setting. I was wondering if you guys were going to start building on the Nentir Vale and turn it into its own world. I really like the notion of an implied setting that you can plug and play anywhere.

Mike Mearls: There’s a board game we have coming out next year – it’s sort of an Axis & Allies wargame that’s set in that world. With that world, we’ll keep using it as a background world and we’ll judge if there’s interest there and if people want to see more. It’s like how Mystara involved from Karameikos, where we saw people were asking us about this world and we could probably expand it out more.

The Escapist: Let’s say I’m a third party and I want to work with Wizards to support Essentials. From what I’ve talked to, there’ve been some challenges because so much of the game has had this online technology element to it of creating characters and things that it is hard to integrate with. Reaching out to the game developers, because we have a lot that read The Escapist, how could they best support 4th Edition Essentials?

Mike Mearls: If I was thinking “well, what do I want to do as a third party publisher?” I think I’d look at adventures. Right now, with the online tools, it’s very hard to get traction with a new Feat or a new character class because the tools are so easy, they’re so convenient, it just becomes the default for the hardcore player. The trick is – if you’re a third party trying to sell at a game store, you’re really looking for a hardcore player, someone who’s a little bit more invested. One thing you see is, with Adventures, I think there’s space out there for people to start doing really interesting things.

The advice I’d give is to really look a different type of experience. If you look at some of the classic D&D adventures – an adventure like Ravenloft had this very different atmosphere and a very different feel to it. Or even just something with the scope of the old DG series and Against the Giants, which is this really grand campaign and it was epic.

One of the things I like is what Paizo does with Pathfinder, is they have these adventures about Path that are very identifiable. You can say “Okay, this is the adventure path where….” and it’s almost like a Hollywood pitch, you get it right off the top of the bat, you immediately know what is interesting about this adventure series. I think that’s something that we had early on in 3rd Edition with d20 when you look back at the Freeport series with Green Ronin. That had a very distinct feel to it, like pirates and this Cthulhu feel – it had a very distinctive feel that people latched onto and even today people still play in that setting. That’s really the challenge.

If you look at what happened with d20 as time went on – I was talking about this just a couple days ago with Monte – when he did Arcana Unearthed, he basically took the core D&D rules and added a new set of races and a new set of classes and a setting that went along with it. That really took off. I worked with Monte, so I knew the sales, though I can’t say them directly, but that proved really popular. I kept waiting for other people to step in and do something like that and it never happened. You never really saw someone try to copy that formula. Obviously, like you said, with the character builder, it’s a hard sell to make new characters, new races and new powers, but I still think you could build a really interesting setting, like the Iron Kingdoms that Privateer Press had, that had a very distinct feel. It was very vivid. That’s what the third party area is missing right now. You don’t see that distinct, new, exciting setting.

The Escapist: If someone did come to you guys with something like that, would you open up some of the online tools for third parties to interface with?

Mike Mearls: It’s really tricky. I can’t say for sure. There’s a digital division. I think the issue is just once you bring someone from outside, I’m sure there’s all sorts of complications for how it’s coded and how long does it take. One of the things we do internally – if we have a book that has new feats in it, they just have to make sure the programming side, that it’s all interacting correctly with everything else. It’s a case where there is overhead there, so it isn’t just as simple as saying “hey, here’s our book. Scan it and sell it as a pdf.” It would have to be an investment on our end, and that’s where things get tricky. And we already have a backlog of work that we’re doing just integrating our own material.

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The Escapist: Obviously, 4th Edition came under a lot of hate from a lot of people who said you betrayed everything that D&D has ever stood for and are the roleplaying game Antichrist. But anyone can go and read your blog and it’s pretty clear you love D&D. You eat, breathe, sleep D&D – you’re familiar with everything classic that was ever created and that comes through while talking to you. If you had the assembled masses of people who thought you betrayed D&D standing before you, what would you say to them to explain what’s going on, why was this done, why was it necessary, why was it a good thing?

Mike Mearls: As far as 4th?

The Escapist: As far as 4th, Essentials, the whole design philosophy you’re bringing in. What’s the method behind it all?

Mike Mearls: The key is that when you look back at how D&D has gone forward; no one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said “Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them,” that was never the intent. With 4th Edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say “hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.” Even if you’re unhappy with 4th Edition, I say take a look at Essentials and see where we’re moving because one thing – I think you can accuse us of gutting D&D and doing all this stuff to it, that’s fine – but one thing you can’t accuse us of is: we listen. It is one thing that we definitely do in R&D – like you mentioned Justin Alexander’s blog – I read that blog. I read those messages and I read those threads. I go to sites where people are crucifying me on the internet, and I’m not logged in, people don’t know I’m there, and I still read all those posts. I think that’s something that we, as an R&D department, are very cognizant of.

We are D&D fans. We want D&D to be the best roleplaying game it can be. We’re always open to change, to reacting to what people say. The past is in the past, there’s nothing we can say or do. If you are a disgruntled D&D fan, there’s nothing I can say to you that undoes whatever happened 2 years ago or a year ago that made you disgruntled – but what I can do, what’s within my power is going forward, I can make products, I can design game material, I can listen to what you’re saying, and I can do what I can do with design to make you happy again. To get back to that core of what makes D&D D&D, what made people fall in love with it the first time, whether it was the Red Box in 83, the original three booklets back in 74 or 75 or even 3rd edition in 2004. Whenever that happened, to get back to what drew you into D&D in the first place and give that back to you.

The Escapist: Can we talk a little bit about the changes you are making to items? I understand that there’s a new supplement coming out that’s going to make items a bit more old school.

Mike Mearls: One of the concepts we had originally in 4th Edition – it really carried over from 3rd – was this idea that players can buy any magic item in the game – short of artifacts. If it had a gold piece value attached to it, you could buy it.

The Escapist: Which was a horrible idea, by the way, and I eliminated that from my 3.5 campaign.

Mike Mearls: It’s interesting, because it’s one of those things where – to segue a bit into my own personal gaming – when 3rd Edition came out, I didn’t even notice that rule. We played for two years, I like to say I had the most fun with 3rd Edition when I played it as if I was running 2nd Edition, where we weren’t buying magic items, and no one thought “I’m going to take things to make my character powerful,” they just think “I want to take things that express what my character is.” The most fun I have with D&D is when people are in that mode of “I’m in character, I’m going to interact with this world.”

Anyways, moving along. One of the things we found is that in 4th, 4th really exacerbated it, but it was an existing problem in 3rd, if players can buy anything, it really limits the design space that you can put out there. You can come up with this really interesting design for a flaming sword and eventually every player in the group will be able to buy them. Then you get back to this thing which you first saw in 3rd, where everyone in the party can fly, everyone in the party can teleport, skill checks become irrelevant because everyone has the Climb feat, everyone has slippers of spider climbing, things like that. It turns the game into almost a superhero game. Which is fine, if that’s your style, but it’s not necessarily the default.

What we can do with magic items is we can portion them out and say Here’s a subset of magic items that players can buy, and those are the common items. The uncommon items are the ones which they need to find, and those have this basic range of power within them. And then there’s rare items, which are even more powerful, and like uncommon ones, you can’t just go out and buy them, you can only find them. The great thing about that is, it lets us do things like here are boots of flying, here’s a pair of boots, they just let you fly. Because we know that it’s not possible for everyone in the group to get those, unless the DM wants that to happen, then that’s fine. The default is that maybe one person in the group can fly places. Having played a campaign where I was a dwarf warrior who had wings of flying, if the entire party can fly, it’s much easier to dominate encounters or dungeons or adventures. If one character can fly, it’s more likely that if you play that character, you’re more likely to get in more trouble that you can’t get out of when you can fly ahead of the rest of the party and get surrounded by ogres or something.

The Escapist: That character always gets killed.

Mike Mearls: Somehow, in a campaign I played six or seven years ago, I actually survived doing that. My character’s tagline was “The luckiest dwarf in Faerûn.” It makes it more of a “OK, it’s a useful tool, but it’s not overpowering.” It’s something where you have to be creative to figure out how to use it. I played a game where everyone could just fly around and it puts so much pressure on the DM – you go from thinking, I am building this fantasy world, and creating these locations and this entire campaign to just thinking how do I deal with this group of five people who can fly around? It distorts the game to the extent that unless the DM wants to do that, we don’t want to force it on a DM.

The Escapist: If you look at 3.0 to 3.5, there were a huge number of small mechanical changes to the game, but the fundamental philosophy of the two games is really similar. It sounds like with Essentials, the mechanical changes are much less. When I read Red Box, I couldn’t really find any major mechanical changes that would in any way say ‘oh, this is not 4th Edition.’ It does seem like, in seizing the helm of the ship, you’ve changed philosophy. Would that be accurate to say?

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Mike Mearls: I think it gets back to what we were talking about before. In terms of giving people more different options, a great axe vs. a sword and shield. You have beginning players, they need that level of differentiation and that just naturally leads to something that is more grounded in the setting, more grounded in the fantasy world where you’re talking to people without using a hint of jargon. With Attacks, reflex and AC, how do you say that to someone who doesn’t play D&D? They have absolutely no idea what that means. They don’t know what AC is, they don’t know what Reflex is, and they can’t make a value judgment of exactly why one is better than the other. That just naturally leads to more focus on the setting first, and then move outward. How would a fighter act in this world of fantasy? It’s really about getting that experience so it’s more visceral.

The Escapist: Ryan Dancey, who was the former OGL Wizards of the Coast guru, was recently on the record on some blogs I read saying tabletop RPG’s business model is over. The business model of selling books is dead. What is Wizards answer to that? What is your answer to that? How does 4th edition keep this hobby that we all love alive? On a certain level, we all have to cheer for Wizards, you guys are the flag bearers in the fight to keep the flame burning.

Mike Mearls: It gets back to what I talked about before. The time from buying a game to playing a game has dropped dramatically. Even looking at console games, if you play Halo, you put the game in and basically under the guise of “Let’s test your armor,” you’re learning the basic moves of the game and immediately playing. When you boil it down to – as far as books or whatever delivery mechanism you’re using – I think it really comes down to this idea of – I think gamers nowadays – I’ve used this analogy before, but it’s like they’re a swarm of piranha. They know exactly what they want, they’re gonna go out and get it, if it’s not what they want, they’re just going to move on and strip the next thing to the bone. You see this with MMOs; the company releases some new content, it should take a month to play through it and within three days, someone has cleared through it. There’s just this conflict. Gamers are more connected nowadays.

I remember when I was 12, I bought Car Wars. Great game. In the box set, it’s got the big long rulebook and I remember I went home and was like “this is my new game for the next 2-6 weeks.” I have to read through all the rules and digest them slowly, cut apart all my counters and play some games by myself to learn the rules and design some using paper and pencil. Back in the 80s and early 90s, before the net really rose, that’s kind of how people approached tabletop games. Even with digital games. PC gaming has taken a lot of hits over the years.

In some ways, PC gaming and tabletop gaming are similar in that for PC games, you have the casual market but I’m not going to touch that because that’s a different animal. You have games with a lot of depth to them, like people bought StarCraft 12 years ago and they’re still playing it today. Whereas console games and the new generation of gaming, there’s always this sense of chasing the next thing. You play though Halo, you burn through it, you play online for awhile and then you move on to Gears of War, you burn through that and you play online for a bit and you move onto the next title. There’s this constant churn.

I think, in tabletop gaming and PC gaming, you saw the opposite where it’s more “Here’s the game I really like, I love playing Counter-Strike, I’m just going to play Counter-Strike, that’s my game.” Or D&D. Or StarCraft. Or whatever game. And you have the modding community to keep the game going. The challenge is now you have this generation of gamers and they are always looking for the new thing, they always to be wowed, they’re wired, they’re connected, they don’t put up with bad games. They don’t put up with experiences that are getting in the way of fun.

Even going back – to draw a bigger picture thing. Kids today – kids and adults – I think the divide is bogus when it comes to games. It’s all one market. It’s all one group. People have less free time. They work more hours, they have lives, soccer practice, or Homeowner’s association meeting or whatever you’re dealing with. So for a lot of gamers, when they sit down, they want to be in the action as quickly as possible. If you were to give someone a 300 page book, before you can play, you need to read this, there’s an entire segment of people that are like forget it, I’m just going to pop in Gears of War 3 and play that because I can start playing that immediately.

If you look at roleplaying games, the challenge is to get an experience – and this is something that we really aimed at with the Red Box – get people into it immediately, give them a taste of that, and during the introductory experience, speak to them in a way similar to the other games they play. Get them into the action quickly, hook them on it, and then pull them into it. It’s like attacking people from different angles.

You look at the Castle Whiterock game we just came out with – that had a very similar design goal of look you can open this box, unwrap it, punch out the pieces, but you can start playing within minutes. You don’t even have to build the pieces to start playing. As a designer, you poke people, you give them a taste of it, and now they’re willing to take the time to learn the game and get immersed in it. The challenge is just, there are so many options for good games you can just dive into immediately like that game Shank I mentioned before. I played the demo at PAX and two hours later I went home, downloaded it to my Xbox and I beat it last night. I played it a few hours a night on Labor Day and Tuesday and Wednesday, and I beat it and now I’m ready to go onto the next game.

I have a list of games from PAX that I want to play. And I’m churning through those games far faster at 35 then I ever did at 15 where maybe once a month if I was lucky and did all my chores my parents would buy me a Nintendo game or a board game or a D&D book.

The Escapist: I didn’t realize, you’re exactly the same age as I am, no wonder we knew all the same gaming cultural references.

Mike Mearls: That’s very funny. It’s all Wizardry, Bard’s Tale.

The Escapist: I totally see the challenge you’re facing. D&D is a game that gets more fun the more you play. The more immersed you get, the more fun it becomes where, with so many games you play today, the more you play them, the less fun they become. If you can speed up the velocity at which the game starts becoming fun and get them hooked with the initial play experience, but then it gets more fun from there rather than less fun, then that’s a real win. My biggest challenge in getting people to play in campaigns is literally just getting them to come to the very first session.

Mike Mearls: Exactly. The problem you face there is the challenge we face but on a bigger business scale.

The Escapist: So that’s the idea of dropping the price point, more books, smaller books, it all ties together.

Mike Mearls: With the box set, the Red Box set, there’s a DM kit in the box, the Monster Vault, it has a book in there, but it also tokens and a map. The D&D encounters program, where it’s basically just show up at your local game store, if you never played D&D before, great here’s a character, sit down and play. And in an hour, you’re going to get through an entire scene as part of this adventure and hopefully get you hooked to come back next week. I think that’s what’s telling when you look at Encounters, it’s been a real success for us. In a lot of ways, I think there’s a lot of untapped interest for D&D out there, it’s just a matter of meeting it. It’s a matter of delivering it to people in a way that they can integrate it into their lives. As you said, once they get hooked, once they see what’s interesting about it, then they go onto what we think of as a traditional D&D experience, the 300 page book and all that stuff.

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Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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