Jeremy Crawford has been on the Dungeons & Dragons R&D team at Wizards of the Coast for a while now. He has always been a bastion of stability for his primary working partner and D&D co-designer Mike Mearls. “Mike has lots of Jobs,” Crawford told me over a Skype call, “he’s often spitballing big picture ideas which is how he and I have worked together for the past seven years. Mike will often come up with a great, zany idea and then he’ll come to me.”
“And I’m the guy who has to say: We have this idea, here’s how we make the idea work.”
See, Crawford isn’t the team member whose only job is to invent game mechanics: His job is to make them work. He’s the one who decides what gets to stick in the game and what doesn’t. He was the Rules Manager for 4th Edition D&D, making sure the game stayed internally consistent, but for 5th Edition his role was a wholly new one: He was Co-Lead Designer, Lead Rules Developer, and Managing Editor. In the past, said Crawford, “my roles would have been three different people. This was a first for us, having one person at the head of the project in three very different roles.” As you can imagine, that’s a lot of work.
“There was a dark side where it was kind of crushing,” he said, “the upside is it allowed us to have a throughline for the whole project. So I was the person who decided if what we had decided was important two years prior was still being executed two years later.” See, Crawford was in on the foundational level of 5th Edition. Entertainingly, the way he puts it, being in on that level sounds like it was almost happenstance. “While we were working on the Essentials books for 4th Edition in 2010, Mike Mearls started pondering what a fifth edition might look like.” Crawford said, so in a quick session “He grabbed me and Rodney Thompson, and the three of us dreamt up what later became some of the principles for our work on the new edition.”
Development on the edition started the next year, in 2011. As the designers went into deciding the pillars of the game, there were what Crawford called ‘heated discussions’ about choices. “Any time you get a group of talented, opinionated designers in one place there are going to be disagreements,” he said. That’s very clear, as the era of 5th Edition development Crawford was talking about is the one where designer Monte Cook left Wizards of the Coast – though Crawford didn’t explicitly make the connection, and Cook himself has been very clear he didn’t have any specific conflicts with the design team. In the end it was clear that Mearls was the person charting the course, but Crawford was the one steering the ship. “We had to have someone who at the end of the day made the decision about precisely what was going to be in the game and that was me.” When asked to sum up his role, he said very succinctly: “I turn strategic ideas into a reality that people can play and enjoy at the table.”
Crawford was, though, very reductionist about his purpose on the team. You could tell as he spoke that he put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the game. Early in the interview he mentioned “the dark side where it was kind of crushing” to have three roles, and that’s a theme that – though he was very positive about it – came up again and again. Likewise, an offhanded example of what his daily schedule looked like in 2013 included meetings with thirteen individuals, feedback on five different topics, two editing sessions, and cramming in time for writing of his own.
5th Edition had one of the largest – if not the largest – public playtest for a roleplaying game ever. But according to Crawford “even having that many playtesters there are leaps of faith we make as designers. Ultimately, a playtester can only tell us what works and what doesn’t work, but it’s not the same as designing something. When we design we’re not only coming up with a core idea but also how that idea connects with everything else in the game. Playtesters are impeccable at saying what they hate or love, but not at knowing what’s causing them to feel that way.” To fix that, Crawford and his team spent hours combing through playtest feedback.
“People would tell us they hate a rule, but then we look at the rule and it’s giving them something they say they want somewhere else in their feedback. So we know from sleuthing that it’s not what they truly want. Much like a physician we have to figure out what’s actually causing the pain, not just the symptoms.”
That meant a lot of work and some pain, too, Crawford noted. “We were willing to toss anything. Sometimes things we had worked very hard on.” Like D&D 5th’s foundational Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. “When we created that it was an experiment,” said Crawford, “we thought it was going to be too weird for the community and we expected playtesters to reject it.” So they put it into the wild, and playtesters liked it. Sometimes it didn’t go that well, though. Crawford described the original versions of the Warlock and Sorcerer classes, which the team loved a lot. “But playtesters didn’t like them,” he said. So they killed the design – even though they loved the work and had spent hours designing and playtesting them. That kind of decision is what Crawford had to make weekly – the choice to undo hours of his colleagues’ work.
I asked him if that felt like being the fun police sometimes, having to shoot down or veto his creative coworkers. Laughing, he said that he liked to think of his job “as being the fun preserver – making sure as much fun made it into the game as possible.” Prompted, he explained further. “D&D has many kinds of fun. Some kinds of fun in D&D work against other kinds of fun or remove them altogether.”
Much of that fun preservation work for Crawford was in the editing of the rules text itself, trying to ensure as much clarity, continuity, and intuitiveness as possible. “I was in charge of setting the guide that steered how we did all of our writing. Any new direction with rules design went through me,” he said. I noted that I noticed some similarity between how 4th Edition and 5th Edition rules were presented. Crawford smiled. “We were able to build on a lot of the work we did in 4th Edition when it came to rules clarity. One of the reasons we were able to do that was because, remember, I was the rules manager for 4th Edition. So if you see continuity there that’s why.”
However, it was clear that some of 4th Edition’s style was too rigid for Crawford. “We wanted this game to feel like our Dungeon Master’s game,” he clarified, “this is a game run by Dungeon Masters, not by Wizards of the Coast’s R&D department. This game is a set of tools for DMs to use. When someone else is running a game it’s theirs. We view rules as servants. They are the servants of fun. The less clear a rule is the more it intrudes on fun.”
Crawford’s desire for inclusivity made one of the game’s pillars, and part of his style guide, that it must be as broad as Dungeons & Dragons‘ diverse player base. “Fifth needed to be a big tent that had room for all of D&D,” he explained, then continued with the direct and practiced tone only an editor explaining his own style guide can use. “It’s a wonderfully diverse game with many types of players with many playstyles.” So 5th had to adapt to its players, not the other way around. “It’s a love letter to the game’s past, and it lays a groundwork for where the game’s future can go by simplifying its core. I hope the edition is long thought of as a wonderful, timeless expression of Dungeons & Dragons-not of a particular way of playing the game or of a business plan. Just D&D, glorious warts and all. And I want it to be remembered as the edition that was designed as a big tent, with a place for many different playstyles and for players of every race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”
Similarly, Crawford placed importance on D&D‘s many worlds as one of its pillars. “There are many roleplaying games on the market, but few of them are as broad in their aesthetic reach as D&D is expected to be. D&D has this multiverse where many worlds are part of one setting and that has been around for a long time. Over time though that connection was eroded, so rather than being all D&D in different worlds they were almost different games: Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Ravenloft… but we wanted to undo that.”
As to whether he thought he truly succeeded, well, he wouldn’t quite commit to his own success over the game’s success as a whole. He did say that they had made the best version of D&D they could, and he was very thrilled with the fan response. “Mike [Mearls] argued very eloquently to the executives for the time to make the best version of D&D and the best books possible. We gave very frequent reports. The whole company took a gamble on whether the idealistic version of D&D could succeed. It was a risk, and it’s possible that it wouldn’t pan out, but we are very happy that it actually worked.
He, on the other hand, wasn’t much in the public or company face during development. “I felt like a gnome working in a cave for several years, and when I emerged it was like ‘oh, good, people like what I was killing myself doing.'” That, he said, was “largely a division of labor” due to himself overseeing the core books while Mearls was the face of the edition to the public. Now, he says, some of the team is moving on to more for the game – from work on video games to board games, novels, and other licensed products. Though he’s definitely still working on the next D&D book and wouldn’t tell us what it was.
That said, he’s emerged a little from his warren, and you can find him on twitter @jeremyecrawford.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously implied that Jeremy Crawford was working on material other than the Roleplaying Game, this has since been corrected.