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.[page]
Greg Tito: The idea of encouraging DM rulings instead of writing specific rules to cover every possible situation is a refreshing shift for the next D&D. How will the text of the DMG for D&D Next teach new players to DM through improvised decisions as opposed to the by-the-book feel of 4th edition and even the Encounters?
Mike Mearls: The key comes down to having a robust, easy to understand, and easy to use core mechanic. That’s 90% of the battle there. The staggering majority of tasks can be accomplished with ability score checks – perhaps with a bonus based on a character’s special abilities – against a target number (Difficulty Class) picked by the DM. We want to make sure that target numbers aren’t forced to rise with level, meaning that a DM needs to learn one scale of measures and uses that for the rest of his or her D&D career.
By relying on the ability scores and creating an easy to use band of DCs, a DM can boil anything down into a check. So, let’s say that a character wants to hide near a goblin patrol and make spooky noises to scare them off. The DM can look at the situation, pick a DC, and let the player roll. The DM might even give automatic success or failure, based on the situation.
The key is to give the DM a robust task resolution system, and then funnel everything through that. Rather than give specific rules for mimicking a creature or tricking someone, we can teach DMs how to match actions to the ability scores, then give a scale of DCs to match the difficulty as judged by the DM.
On top of that, we can give DMs examples for things like damage from improvised actions or typical bonuses and match those up to a good set of examples. If a player wants to roll a boulder down a hill to crush an ogre, the DM can figure out the Strength check DC, then determine the damage or the effect. The key is we want to focus on letting the DM start with his sense of how things should work in reality, then give rules that make it easy to go from there to how things work in the game.
Basically, we replace a comprehensive set of rules that try to model reality with a set of mechanics that DMs can use to model reality as they wish.
Greg Tito: What are “feel-bad” abilities and how are you making racial abilities avoid them?
Jeremy Crawford: A perfect example of a feel-bad ability is the 4th Edition eladrin’s bonus to saving throws against charm effects. A DM rarely bothers to call out the keywords of a monster’s attacks, so players are unlikely to know when an eladrin is charmed, unless the charm is obvious. Occasionally, the players do discover that the eladrin was charmed, but the discovery comes too late to use the bonus. All the bonus did, in that case, is make the eladrin’s player feel bad.
The racial abilities in the latest draft of the rules are akin to the eladrin’s fey step: evocative, no problem to remember, and simple to use.
Greg Tito: What are your current thoughts on the lethality of the current rules?
Jeremy Crawford: The lethality feels about right, considering the fact that half of our playtesters like it and the other half are scared by it. That said, we are exploring new healing and defense options so that players feel they have an adequate number of tools for fending off death.
Greg Tito: How has the culture of the D&D team shifted since 4th edition? How does playing the game more affect the design of current 4th edition products and D&D next?
Jeremy Crawford: The main cultural shift that has occurred in our department over the past few years has been an increased focus on the essence of D&D, the beloved aspects of the game that have glimmered in every edition. We aren’t interested in producing a version of the game that presents only one version of the D&D play experience. We are interested in creating products that speak to the game’s tremendous diversity and appeal.
Greg Tito: How far away is the release of D&D Next?
Mike Mearls: I think a better question would be, “How long will it take to make the playtesters happy?” We don’t have a date in place yet, primarily because so much of our work will be dependent on how people react in the playtest. We’re definitely not making any assumptions on how things will work out.