Inside the Launch of the New Dungeons & Dragons With Designer Mike Mearls


As we get closer to the launch of the new Dungeons & Dragons next month, there’s been much talk of not only how the game will be released, but what precisely will be in it when it does. To look deeper into what’s going on, I caught up with Wizards of the Coast’s head of D&D Development, Mike Mearls, to talk about what’s in store for D&D.

Jon Bolding: I wanted to talk to you up front about the decision to stagger the release schedule, which some people have been critical of. I know that you, Mike, were really interested in making sure that every book was as high a quality as possible. And I know that you had based that decision on the 4th edition release. What is the thought process there?

Mike Mearls: I can use what we’re working on right now as an example. Right now we’re working on the Player’s Handbook. There are two things that drive me here. First there’s the practicality of the schedule. By working on each book one at a time, we can focus everyone on it. Which means we have more eyeballs going over the book. More people working on the rules, more people editing it, more people playtesting it. So there’s a simple focus question. And this is also what has hurt us in the past and which we wanted to correct: Not only is everyone on the team looking at the book at one time, but they’re all also learning that book at the same time. What had happened in the past when you had separate teams working on each book, building all that stuff, all that knowledge – the game as a whole together – is already a really difficult task. What this means now, is, that once the team shifts its attention to the Dungeon Master’s Guide or the Monster Manual, everyone is very familiar with all the details of the Player’s Handbook so we’re all much more intimately familiar, much more informed about the game and everything can work together much better.

As an example, the spell invisibility in the Player’s Handbook says that when you attack someone the spell ends. Well, that phrasing, knowing that’s there, is important to the DMG or the Monster Manual when that shows up again everyone knows this is how that spell works. They don’t have to go ask someone “Hey I’m not that familiar with the depths of the Player’s Handbook, is this how that works?” So if we had a magic item that let you [be invisible] and attack someone, or if we had a monster that had that ability, they can refer to the actual, final text of the Player’s Handbook as a resource rather than “Well here’s the current draft of that” and they don’t have to continually refer to the people working on that other part. So it’s about the ability to focus, and the ability to put one part set in stone and then move on to the next.

Bolding: So you guys probably have one of the largest development teams in roleplaying games, how many members is that right now?


Mearls: The team as a whole has about fifteen people. About half that are actually working on the RPG right now. The other half are working on other D&D stuff like Neverwinter, iOS games, licensing, or board games.

Bolding: Do you think that the slowness of keeping everyone informed and on the same page is a cost of having that large of a team making the quality of product you want to make? That having more people doesn’t make you more agile?

Mearls: I think that’s definitely part of it. If we were working on something other than D&D. If we were launching a completely new roleplaying game there’s a different expectation for the amount of content people expect at launch. When you’re working with D&D where people will say that “I expect to have a couple hundred monsters when the game comes out,” or “I expect to have a DMG that lets me create my own world.” With our team we’re trading some of that ability to be agile and present a small amount of content for the ability to be comprehensive. In the development process early on we did have a small team because we were focused on iterating on a small number of ideas. Now we have changed from the developmental side of things to actually trying to make a product. Now we have more people on board, now there’s more work, and separate lanes of work to converge in a way that keeps everything organized.

Bolding: When you launch, are you planning on launching digital at the same time?

Mearls: We don’t have anything to share on that side yet. Like everything we’ve done so far, we want to make sure when we have an announcement we’ve got everything fleshed out, we’ve got something meaty to talk about.

Bolding: That approach – when you wait to release information, because when you release information you want to release a comprehensive amount of information. That decision seems to have produced a lot of controversy. It has frustrated some and others seem happy about it. What do you guys have to say about that?

Mearls: I think for us it’s about being able to have a conversation. Especially with like, the product release dates. Like last year at Gen Con we said the game will release in 2014. Then we gave more details this year when we had them. I think what we’ve learned from the past is that until we know everything is lined up and is ready to go we don’t want to start talking about it. I know people will get frustrated because they want to know stuff earlier, and I think we’re willing to accept that we might have some unhappiness because we can’t give details yet – and we’d rather have that unhappiness than people unhappy because we announced something and when we release it a year later it doesn’t look anything like what we announced. We might have some people unhappy because we didn’t say more, but that’s better than everyone unhappy because we didn’t make something we announced. We do, once we have a timeline in place, try to share that. We try to give people the heads up and when they can expect to hear more. But we have a lot of projects in place and we don’t want to have to rush things [to make dates.] You can have the best Monster Manual ever printed but if the Player’s Handbook is terrible then it doesn’t matter.

Bolding: Because of the staggered release schedule there have been some concerns over both home and organized play, and whether or not people will have enough material to start playing their weekly campaign right off in the new edition and carry them all the way through release. What would you say to people concerned about that?

Mearls: I would say that’s definitely where Basic D&D comes in. When the Starter Set launches it’s going to cover character creation. Once the Player’s Handbook launches we’ll update it. [Basic D&D] is going to be a updated a few times when it first launches. With basic D&D you’ll have the core monsters, magic items, all the rules for creating adventures, for Dungeon Master guidelines, for balancing encounters, for treasure, treasure tables, encounter tables. This is literally the process I used to outline it: I took the old basic set from 1981 and just the rules in there, the magic items, if it’s in there it’s in the basic set – except a few things that people don’t see as iconic anymore. For monsters, we just went through and said “What are the typical fantasy monsters like Orc, or Ogre?” with a few adjustments for power level in there so there’s a nice curve. In theory, with basic D&D, you could run an entire campaign. The core rulebooks could be expansions to that. The core rulebooks are like Advanced D&D.

Bolding: Is there any plan to put Basic D&D into print?

Mearls: Not right now. We know that a number of people have asked about that, either as print on demand or as a print book. I think what we’ll most likely do is go through the launch and see where we are and how much demand there is. If we’re seeing demand then we’ll go ahead and do it. I’m a little nervous about that because it is a free product and I don’t want people to go to the game store and want to get into D&D, and get that book, and find out the book is free online. So there’s a balancing act. The key would be letting people know if they’re buying it that they could get it for free. I don’t want the first thing people to feel about the new D&D is that they got tricked into buying it.

Bolding: So do you see that being where the Starter Set comes in?

Mearls: Yeah, exactly, because the difference between basic D&D and the starter set is that basic goes from levels 1-5, and it’s almost like a board game. You read a few rules, pass out the characters, and you start playing. You think of a game like Settlers [of Catan] or Ticket to Ride: You open it up and within an hour you could be playing it. There’s also an element there too with the characters, the pre-gens, a guide into the story of the adventure. Your flaws, your bonds, your traits, are all tied into the story of the adventure. We built those characters so that they have ties that link into the adventure. So there’s one character whose backstory is that they were refugees from this town that was overrun by monsters and now they want to go back and reclaim it, and that’s a town that shows up in the adventure as a place you go explore. So when the DM says here’s this NPC the characters can say “Oh, I know that person” or that’s an enemy, or a friend, or an old mentor, to really get people moving with the adventure. So when the players sit down they really have their roles in mind. It shows players it’s not just about learning the rules or fighting monsters and stuff, there’s the whole roleplaying element of it.

tyranny of dragons - campaign art - tiamat

Bolding: I think that’s a stark departure from previous D&D starter sets.

Mearls: Yeah. Very much so. We looked at this, and with the starter set we kinda asked ourselves: When people play this and they’ve never played D&D before what’s the thing we can do that shows them what makes a roleplaying game unique? They’ve played board games, miniatures games, video games, so if we can show them “Oh, okay, it’s like acting. there’s a person I’m assuming the role of” and show them the implications for gaming. And also a way hopefully with a new DM they can see “Oh I get it, I want to run an interesting campaign and get peoples attention so here are the characters they’ve created and the campaign I’ve created and here’s the intersection between the two.” It’s not just here’s the campaign, a story that has nothing to do with the players, or here are these blank featureless characters to be attached to the story. It’s about the interplay.

Bolding: Are you planning on trying to do similar story hooks in further published modules after that?

Mearls: That’s definitely the plan. What we’d like to do is that whenever we have an adventure – and this is something new to the game and we’ll get better at it as we go along – give the DM and players the important NPCs and organizations for this location. Give people a sense of when they’re creating the characters, here are the hooks. Adventure hooks are usually things like “The players are looking for a potion to cure their friend’s disease.” Well these are more like “Well you probably already know this guy” that make it feel more organic.

Bolding: Do you think that push to emphasize those elements in D&D is part of what you’re trying to do with big storylines like Tyranny of Dragons?

Mearls: Yeah, 100%. That’s a big part of it. They really play out the idea of what makes a roleplaying game unique and gets people excited about playing through. Every campaign I’ve played in that has been successful has had those recurring villains, those recurring story elements that make the game feel unique. When we look at Tyranny we think of the events and what makes people feel involved in them. Having those things gets people invested in the same way they can feel about, say, a homebrew campaign.

Player's Handbook

Bolding: Will that first adventure book be intended to teach everyone how to play the new game, and how a campaign should be structured? Or will that be more for the basic set?

Mearls: I think it’s more in the basic set and the DMG. One of the challenges we had with Tyranny of Dragons – and this is why it was great to work with Kobold Press – is that there were areas where we leaned on their [Kobold Press’] ability to build the adventures for the system as we were designing it. Tyranny has a structure that I think is great. It doesn’t quite have the same level of tie-in content as, say, the starter set. It’ll be for slightly more advanced players. They’re buying this adventure to kick off their campaign, they’re a little more experienced and don’t need as much hand-holding.

Bolding: We know that the four core classes and four core races will be in Basic D&D, what else will end up being in the Player’s Handbook?

Mearls: For classes, I think everything that showed up in the public playtest at one point or another. We’ve got the four core [Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, and Wizard], the Monk, Ranger, Paladin, Barbarian, then we have Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, and the… now I’m forgetting one, and I always forget one. Oh, the Druid!

For races, it’s basically 3rd Edition plus 4th Edition. Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling from the basic set. Then Half-Orc, Half-Elf, Gnome, Tiefling, and Dragonborn. And for Elves, since in the game when you pick a race you also pick a subtype, there’s also Drow in the Player’s Handbook.

Bolding: How many variants on each of those is presented in the Player’s Handbook?

Mearls: I think most of the races have two choices, and then the classes it’s a bigger range. We designed ones that felt like the most iconic characters, but say Cleric and Wizard have a lot more. Wizard for example is driven by the schools of magic. Fighter is a funny one because there are three or four options, but one opens up a huge set of maneuvers you can choose from, so it’s only one fighter option but from within it you can build lots of different fighters.

Bolding: So in that way building a fighter is going to feel a lot like 3rd Edition where you’re looking at being able to expand in a lot of directions?

Mearls: That’s driven by the option you take, because there’s also each class with a fairly simple track designed for Basic D&D.

Bolding: Will the core classes from Basic D&D be present exactly the same in the Player’s Handbook?

Mearls: Yes.

Bolding: So those are very approachable for new players?

Mearls: Exactly. They’re the ones where if you’ve heard about D&D or played another fantasy game they fit the stereotype of the class. The cleric is the healer archetype, the wizard is the blasting wizard, stuff like that.

Monster Manual

Bolding: Let’s talk about the Monster Manual. I know it’s not necessarily in final development right now because it’s the second of the three. We know what you’re looking at doing in the basic set, but what range of monsters can we expect in the Monster Manual? Are you looking at a low to mid range like in Third and Fourth [Edition] and then presenting more higher level monsters in later books?

Mearls: The spread probably looks a lot like what we had in the past during the 3rd or 4th Edition Monster Manuals. One of the nice things we tried to design the game around is that you don’t have to use only monsters that are comparable in power to the characters. So things like Orcs and Ogres are still viable threats at higher levels: You just fight more of them. So we didn’t have to go and invent higher level monsters. We just had to go and provide the iconic list. And most people play D&D at low levels, and there aren’t as many iconic D&D monsters at higher levels. The real focus was also on getting the classic critters – the Beholder, the Mind Flayer. So it’s focused on the low levels, but the higher level monsters are the classic critters.

Bolding: Is it going to be purely a monster book, or will there be sets of rules in it? For example, in 3rd Edition there were lots of rules in the Monster Manual that simply didn’t ever apply to players. Is more of that information going to be naturally incorporated into stat blocks?

Mearls: It’s a mix. So you have things like legendary monsters, which are a special category of creature that is very powerful – their rules show up in the Monster Manual. The idea was that we wanted to make sure that if you didn’t own the DMG you could use everything in the Monster Manual. Because with Basic D&D we kind expect you might not own all three core rulebooks.

So in the [Monster Manual] there aren’t too many hard and fast general rules. There’s stuff like legendary monsters that are general concepts that creatures use, and we wouldn’t want to add that to every stat block because it’s either big or once you’ve learned it once you’re just using it again and again. We tried whenever possible that within the stat block we give you everything you need to run the monster. So when you’re referring to it you don’t have to do much flipping back and forth. There are some spells for monsters, but we tried to make those fairly straightforward spells like fireball that you wouldn’t necessarily have to check the Player’s Handbook or basic D&D to use.

Whenever possible though we tried to give creatures unique abilities. When you look back at 3rd Edition it tried to default to spells. I don’t want to say we’re doing the opposite, but when it’s a unique ability it’s faster for us to say “This creature can hurl an area attack that is a burst of fire” instead of saying “This creature can cast fireball.” So for instance the Beholder has eye rays, and it says “Here’s what happens when when it zots you with its eye rays now make a save” instead of referring to a spell. We tried to use spells only when it’s clear that the monster is a spellcaster – like here’s an NPC Wizard. There’s an appendix on quick-building NPCs. Those creatures will typically use spells. There’s a sample acolyte – a divine spellcaster – with a few quick spells.

Bolding: That feels like more of an 80s Basic D&D approach, with each creature having its own special abilities.

Mearls: Yeah. We also want to make sure that we’re not using spells as something abstract. If something is casting fireball we want to be clear that it’s actually casting the spell fireball.

Bolding: But if it throws blasts of hellfire that’s going to be something different?

Mearls: Yeah.

Bolding: Of the three books, most people seem confused about what the Dungeon Master’s Guide is going to do for them. Can you give us a basic overview?

Mearls: The DMG is, well – going back to Basic D&D as a starting point – if you think of the Player’s Handbook as for the player who is looking at character classes and played a couple of them and wants more options or wants to fine-tune what their character is, or who says “I want to play a paladin.” The DMG serves the same role for the DM. Basic D&D hits core fantasy, it’s stereotypical fantasy adventuring. If you’re the DM and you want to do something more exotic, you say “I want to add technology to my game” or “I want to have more detailed rules for a grim and grittier game, more of a horror game.” That’s where the DMG comes in, it’s for really fine-tuning your campaign, and creating a different type of experience than your standard fantasy campaign. It’s also for expanding the scope of the game. So we’ve talked about things like ruling a domain or things like that. The more detailed rules for that would be in the DMG. We’ve talked about having some basic rules for things like that in Basic D&D but we’re not 100% into it either way – is it confusing to new players or is it nice that it gives them a clear progression? We’re still not quite decided on that yet. It’s for if you want more depth on specific topics.

The DMG also has a lot of utilities in it, like for dungeon creation, adventure creation, creating monsters, creating spells, even if you wanted to create a character class. It’s not quite the point-buy system from 2nd Edition, but it does say things like “Well if you want to create a class for your campaign then here’s a good way to approach it.”

So it’s really for getting under the hood of how the system works and building up your campaign.

Bolding: So really, besides maybe Unearthed Arcana, there’s never really been a hacker’s guide, as it were, for D&D.

Mearls: No, exactly. And that’s what we were inspired by. People like to tinker with their campaigns, and especially if you’ve been DMing for a while and you kind of want to do something different. Really going into in-depth [changes]. And now, it’s not going to be deconstructing everything, but it’s giving you the tools you need to make your own changes. And there’s always going to be art to it, like monster creation, we can’t give you a formula that’s perfect. What do you do with a monster that has one hit point, one AC, and can cast harm once per day? How do you balance that? There’s no simple answer, but even just telling DMs that helps.

Dungeon Master's Guide Cover Spread

Bolding: So it sounds like you’re almost doing some heading off at the pass. You’re answering the first common questions people take to a forum because they’re confused about. Is that true?

Mearls: Yeah, exactly. That’s a good way to think of it. We have a lot of information to draw from. Its been fourteen years since 3rd Edition came out. You get a sense of what people are doing with the system with the open playtest. Before its a problem we’ve already given you a solution. Trying to make it as easy as possible for people to run their campaigns.

I’ve been working at Wizards since 2005, looking at questions that come into customer service or the forums. When we’re working at D&D it’s a lot like a service organization, we are providing support for people who are playing a tabletop roleplaying game. Even when you buy Tyranny of Dragons and run it, the players are going to make some weird decision, you’re going to change things, you’re going to rearrange some stuff. Even when you’re providing people with an entire campaign there’s going to be an element of creation.

Bolding: You released information about what an open game license or licensing for D&D may look like, and you’re looking at releasing that fully next year?

Mearls: From our timeline we’re looking at early next year.

Bolding: What’s the kernel of an idea on what an OGL or licensing may look like?

Mearls: I don’t want to go into too much detail because a lot of things are up in the air, but I will say that when 3rd Edition launched in 2000 there was this land rush mentality, and I think it makes sense from a business perspective. If you’re a third party publisher you want to make sure you’re the first to the market. Well, in their rush, you end up with people designing their adventure without the DMG. I was one of those guys. We want all the resources available, we want all the materials available, we want people to have been playing the game. We also want the audience to be informed.

I’ll use the magic as an example – we want the audience to be informed and know that if anyone does anything that lets you have two concentration spells at once they’ve broken the game. You can’t have cloudkill and hold person at the same time. Now, in your home game, you can do whatever you want. We just want everyone to know how the game works and want everyone to know what’s out there in the system and what we learned from playtests before we turn everything loose.

Bolding: I don’t think anyone expected news on licensing so early. I don’t think anyone expected Basic D&D either.

Mearls: It’s fun surprising people. We have more pleasant surprises.

Bolding: Any hints on those?

Mearls: Nope!

Bolding: How concerned are you with making this first set of adventures feed into not just Tyranny of Dragons and the system, but in helping people re-learn the game, get back into the game? Its been quite a while since D&D was at the forefront of everyone’s minds and players have lapsed at D&D or stopped playing entirely. What steps are you taking to recapture those players?

Mearls: At Gen Con one of the events we’re running is a one hour dungeon delve. It gets people playing a quick mission even if they didn’t playtest, and that feeds into organized play so they can keep that character, XP, and treasure. We’ll have character creation at Gen Con and at PAX, so you can walk up and see how to make a character. Those will run six times a day. That’s half of it.

The other half of it is introducing to organized play the concept of factions. If you think of the starter set, those characters will be tied into the adventure. Factions will do something similar but for organized play. When you make a character you choose a faction to join, and that gives you a basic outline about what the faction is at and wants to do – so you might not know the other players but you know what their faction is about and how your faction relates to them. We don’t want to make it overwhelming, but there will be some adventures where since you’re a faction you’ll want to be in on them because they tie into your faction’s goals.

We want to avoid a freeze-dried D&D experience where stuff that happened before the session and stuff that happened after the session didn’t really matter. We’re trying instead to make it the biggest ongoing campaign in the world – and rather than having each of the 10,000 people playing have their own individual storyline, the factions are the virtual character for people to attach themselves to. They see how their faction progresses and what their goals are. We want to create the sense that the organized play campaign is a campaign. We want them to be able to tell stories the same way they do about their home campaign. “Well last year we beat this dragon, and now we need to drive out the giants we allied with to defeat it…” Leaning on the idea of a shared story instead of letting each session of organized play stand on its own.

Bolding: Are there any plans right now to tie in people’s home games to the organized play experience, or is that purely at game stores and conventions?

Mearls: Well right now the two Tyranny of Dragons adventures will be entirely OP legal, so if we use the OP guidelines to play Tyranny we can take our characters and go to our game store and play D&D expeditions. The encounters is a little trickier because encounters is like the first few adventures of Tyranny, so you might decide to start a home game after completing that season of encounters.

When we’re talking about organized play, home play is a big question mark for us. We’re not exactly sure the best way to intertwine it with everything else. That’s somewhere we’ll be watching to see how it’s playing out in relation to everything else and how much content people want. We want to make sure that conventions and stores have a lot to offer. We’ll reevaluate at six months to a year.

Player's Handbook Cover Spread

Bolding: Forgotten Realms is the new setting. It’s D&D now. How are you finding the reaction to making it the prime D&D?

Mearls: It’s funny. When I was working on third and fourth there was this dialogue of “Should we just embrace The Realms as the core setting?” And we were always very wary of a big backlash. Honestly people have complained, but I think when you look at how we handled the playtest, and they’ll see as we roll out the core rulebooks and Tyranny of Dragons that The Realms elements are strong enough that if you like The Realms or if you don’t have a setting they kind of fill in the blanks and really bring the adventure to life, but one of the strengths of The Realms is that it’s so diverse that we’re not really cancelling anything out but get access to things like the Cult of the Dragon. Using The Realms lets us have a very flavorful villain group with an ongoing story that we can use in the future. If you look at like Red Hand of Doom, one of the big 3rd Edition adventures that went over very well, now that adventure’s published we can’t really use that adventure again because it didn’t have a home in D&D. It doesn’t really fit into a larger world. Using The Realms let us have that.

On the other hand, if you’re running your own campaign I think it’s not much more work than if the game were set in Greyhawk or what have you. And actually it will be easier for conversion in the long run. Every time you pick up an adventure it won’t be a completely new D&D, a completely new group, a completely new villain. Instead we can go back to these touchpoints, like the Zhentarim or the Red Wizards.

I remember writing adventures for Dungeon back in 3rd Edition, and I had to invent a new demon lord to serve as a driver for a story. Using The Realms let us know we don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, it makes it easier for players, and it makes it easier for conversion because you always have the same important groups.

Bolding: : That’s really interesting to hear. As far as published setting material, is there a Forgotten Realms campaign setting on the table in the future?

Mearls: We can’t say anything there yet. But I will say that whenever there’s an example in the DMG we used The Realms, and there’s enough information there if people want to get started with a Realms campaign.

For more on the new D&D, check out our features on the new edition’s art and the launch adventures.

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