Imagine, for a moment, that you have just inherited control over Dungeons & Dragons, the most popular roleplaying game in the world. At first, you might think that you’ve been given a dream job. But then you realize that the entire roleplaying game industry is fighting a war for market share against the unyielding competition from videogames and collectible card games, and that everyone from your CEO to your fanbase is clamoring for you to find a strategy to win the fight. And then you realize that the most recent edition of D&D, in its attempt to find a winning strategy, was accused of betraying the very D&D legacy it sought to uphold. And then you remember that not only is your immediate predecessor “pursuing new opportunities,” so is your predecessor’s predecessor, and his predecessor’s predecessor, and that if you don’t do something really spectacular, you’ll probably have to start “pursuing new opportunities,” too.

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You’ve now roleplayed being Mike Mearls. Mearls is the man overseeing the launch of the new Red Box and the forthcoming D&D Essentials line. Before joining Wizards of the Coast in 2005, Mearls was mostly known for designing the Iron Heroes supplement for D&D 3.5 in collaboration with the legendary Monte Cook. At Wizards, he became a lead developer for Dungeons & Dragons working on 4th Edition (4E.) At Wizards, a “developer” is not a “designer;” but is responsible for taking systems created by a designer and revising them into a coherent whole. It’s akin to being the colorist in a comic book – you’re working within the lines drawn by someone else. But Mearls didn’t stay a developer for long. By the time 4E had shipped, Mearls was a Lead Designer on the game, and with the departure of 4th Edition’s original Lead Designer Rob Heinsoo in December 2009 and its Design & Development Director Andy Collins in May 2010, he was promoted again. Mearls is now the overall D&D Manager (full title: Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game R&D Group Manager) for Wizards of the Coast, and it is his vision that will now shape the future of D&D, the seminal roleplaying game.

Unfortunately for him, 4th Edition has been the subject of withering criticism from many fans of previous editions. Some of those fans say that Mearls betrayed everything that D&D has ever stood for. A popular thread at the ENWorld RPG community called “Mike Mearls Ruined Everything” is up to seven pages. That’s a heavy cross to bear, especially for a man who clearly, if his blog is any evidence, eats, breathes, and sleeps classic D&D. The Escapist sat down with Mearls recently to get his sense of what had gone wrong, and what he was going to do about it going forward.

“Look, no one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said ‘Let’s get rid of all of our fans and replace them.’ That was never the intent,” Mearls said. “With 4th Edition, there were good intentions. 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.”

Wizards is changing 4th Edition in response to feedback, releasing an innovative set of new products that aim to recapture the classic feel many fans had missed. The first of these, the 4th Edition Red Box, launched last week, and aims to recreate the wonder that kids felt in the 80s picking up a strange new game.

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“The basic gist of the Red Box is to create an easy entry point into D&D,” Mearls said. “If you look back at the launch of 4th Edition, the game was really aimed at existing D&D players. The idea is really just to cut down the time between ‘Hey, I bought this game’ and ‘I’m playing it.’ That’s something that – especially within the past 5 or 10 years – gaming culture is much more focused on. The time between when you first interact with a game and you’re playing it is getting shorter and shorter and shorter. The Red Box is all about saying ‘you buy this box, you take it home, you unwrap it, and 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.”

That sounds good for a parent introducing the game to their kids for the first time, but what about experienced RPG players that want to get into 4th Edition? Should they pick up the Red Box, the upcoming Essentials line, or focus on the previously published 4E material?

“At this point, if you’re just getting into it, Essentials is the better bet, even just for the price point,” Mearls said. “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, it has levels 1-30 of the classic four classes: Fighter, Wizard, Rogue, Cleric.”

It’s clear there is more to Essentials than merely attracting new players. The tone that Mearls uses when discussing his current campaign, which uses first edition D&D rules, belies a reverence to the “old school.” We asked him if he was trying to bring 4E back in line with classic D&D.

Mearls smiled. “That’s definitely part of it. 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 new Red Box there’s Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. It’s the classic classes and the classic races. We asked [ourselves]: ‘What is the core of D&D and why did people like it in the original [Red Box]?’

The direction that Mearls was describing seemed very different from when we last spoke to Andy Collins, Mearls’ predecessor, back in March. At the time, we openly questioned why there was a focus on the newfangled races like Tieflings and Dragonborn, and why all the character classes felt and played exactly the same. That’s another problem that Mearls attempts to fix in Essentials through a return to classic D&D feel.

“If you look at the Fighter and the way he works in D&D Essentials, we removed the Daily powers to get more of a sense that ‘fighters and wizards should look really different,’ because that’s how D&D originally approached it,” Mearls said. “I remember playing the Wizard way back in Basic D&D, where 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. The way I like to design things – especially in RPGs – is all about that feeling, that 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.”

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These sentiments were all the more noteworthy when contrasted with the stated design philosophy of another of Mearls’ predecessors, Rob Heinsoo, who had explicitly praised the sameness of all of 4th Edition’s classes: “The point of bringing in powers for every character class was to make the game fun for everyone most of the time.” Heinsoo had also gone out of his way to slam design efforts built around simulating a fantasy world, saying that it “might make sense if you’re simulating a specific type of fantasy world … but it doesn’t make any sense for new players who want to have fun.”

So if Heinsoo just wanted to create a fun game, what did Mearls want to create? And was he really going against the entire design ethos behind 4th Edition? Justin Alexander elegantly expresses many players’ problems with 4E in an essay titled “Dissociated Mechanics.” Alexander damned the powers mechanics and marking system in 4E because they were not simulating anything that happened in the game world. For example, why could a Rogue only pull off his fancy Daily power once per day? The only answer was because those were the rules of the game, not because that was how combat ought or should work in the fantasy setting. We asked Mearls if he or anyone else at Wizards had read Alexander’s essay or even considered how 4E was fundamentally disassociated from the world it ostensibly simulated.

“It’s funny you brought that up because I’d read that blog entry. It’s definitely something I’ve thought of,” Mearls said. “If you’re an experienced player and if you’re willing to give some allowances to how the game works versus how you think reality should work, you’re probably in a narrative mode. If you’re more into the narrative side of gaming, you’re used to taking mechanics and interpreting them to say ‘this is what just happened.'”

But Mearls doesn’t believe that most D&D players want to play that way. “I almost think narrative games are a different hobby, where it really is group world building or literal group storytelling. 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.”

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At this point in our interview I recounted for Mearls a hotly debated discussion with my readers about that very topic in a Check for Traps column, where I’d said the focus on “story” detracts from the actual challenge of play. “That causes a lot of the narrative-type guys to declare me Public Enemy Number Two,” I told him.

“Who’s the number one?” Mearls asked.

“I think you are,” I said.

He laughed. “Fair enough, I’ll take it.”

Now seemed as good a time to ask as any: Is D&D going to survive or is it in what some pundits are calling the death spiral?

Mearls is optimistic. “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 into their lives. The challenge is to get them into the action quickly, hook them on it, and then pull them into it.”

I found myself nodding. “My biggest problem in getting people to play in a campaign is literally just getting them to come to the very first session,” I told Mearls.

“Exactly. The problem you face there is the challenge we face but on a bigger business scale.”

For the 4th Edition detractors out there, Mearls had some closing thoughts.

“If you are a disgruntled D&D fan, there’s nothing I can say to you that undoes whatever happened two years ago or a year ago that made you disgruntled – but what I can do, what’s within my power, is that 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; to 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.

“If you’re unhappy with 4th Edition, I say take a look at Essentials and see where we’re moving.”

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.

A full transcript of Alexander’s interview with Mike Mearls can be found here.

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