Interview: D&D Lead Designer Mike Mearls on 5E

© 2016 Wizards of the Coast LLC

Mike-Mearls-Headshot-200x201People are passionate about Dungeons & Dragons, and no one knows that more than Mike Mearls, the game’s lead designer. When it came time to design a new edition of the game, Mearls knew where they needed to start first: with the fans.  Mearls and his team enlisted the gaming community in a open beta test that enabled gamers to directly influence the evolution of the new system. With the D&D Starter Set available now, the game’s Basic Rules available for free download, and the new Player’s Handbook on the way, it seemed like a good time to ask Mearls a few questions about what he learned from fans, how it guided the design philosophy of 5th edition, and what we can expect to see in the future.

Unbound Worlds: I got started playing D&D over thirty years ago, and have been around to see the community response to all four (and now five) editions. I’m not sure if you’d agree, but fourth seemed to galvanize fans more than any of the prior ones. What were some of the lessons learned from the prior edition, and how did they inform the development of the new one?

Mike Mearls: The biggest lesson was to listen to the entirety of D&D players, not just one group. If you look at reviews for 4th edition, they tend to be either very positive or very negative. There’s not much of a middle ground. It did a very good job of bringing balance and depth to combat, and for many D&D players that was a very good thing.

However, the audience is much more diverse than that. We launched the open playtest not only to test the rules, but to get a sense of what people actually wanted out of D&D. We found that many people in the audience wanted a fast, flexible, and easy-to-play game. That feedback went against nearly 15 years of conventional wisdom in the D&D business. It also stretched across all editions. Even people who loved 4e’s depth were interested in seeing a fast, simple core that they could expand to include deep combat when they wanted it.

UW: When it came time to outline the new rules, were there any hard “do this” and “don’t do that” mandates?

MM: The only real mandate was to make sure that we captured the essence of D&D. It was important that anyone who had played D&D in the past could play the new edition and have a clear sense that this was D&D.

We were also committed to analyzing and using the playtest feedback to guide our decisions. Those might seem like fairly simple mandates, but it can be difficult for game designers to take a step back from their work and treat it with a cold, ruthless editorial eye.

I think our entire process was fairly novel for tabletop games. Data is a big deal in business these days, with everyone going on and on about being more data-driven. The playtest and the data collection around it were huge undertakings, and there were some growing pains in learning to adapt our creative process to it.

UW: How long did the beta playtest last? Was the design team surprised by any of the responses they received?

MM: The open playtest ran for about 18 months, with numerous rules updates and incremental changes to the game. The most surprising thing had to be the strong, positive reactions to a lighter approach to rules and a game that emphasized exploration, roleplaying, and combat in equal measures. Again, that went against nearly 15 years of conventional wisdom about D&D and RPG game design.

It was also a relief to see that the concept of edition wars really didn’t play out with the staggering majority of D&D players. We never had a situation where people who liked one edition preferred option A. and everyone else preferred option B. The support for any particular change or new concept was fairly consistent across editions.

UW: “Murder your darlings” is a common adage among writers. Did you guys have any favorite rules that ended up on the cutting room floor?

MM: In the new game, characters have a proficiency bonus that reflects their overall skill. You add this bonus to a die roll when you attempt a task and your skills improve your chance of success.

Rather than a flat bonus added to a roll, proficiency was originally represented by a second die. So, you’d roll a d20 to see if you succeeded as normal, then rolled a second die and added it to the result to reflect your training.

I really liked this mechanic, because it cut down on the math you need to do before play and made it much easier to add your proficiency to a roll if you forgot it, or to ignore it if you accidentally used it.

The feedback, though, was very clear that people didn’t like adding more randomness to situations that involved their character’s skill. They felt like training should be a reliable benefit, rather than one that had a random effect on a task.

I will totally admit that I love the feel of rolling more dice. It was definitely a case of acquiescing to the playtesters’ observations and experiences, rather than trying to force something on everyone. Still, I did slip the dice version into the Dungeon Master’s Guide as a variant rule.

UW: I was surprised to see that you guys released a free PDF of the Basic Rules. What was the reasoning behind that from a business standpoint? I understand that this is a “living document” that will receive incremental updates. Do you worry that fans will just stick with that and not purchase any products?

MM: By sharing the rules, we’re making it easier than ever for people to get into D&D. For way too long the rules have been a deterrent. So, it’s really about focusing on what’s important – campaigns and adventures – and selling that, while removing barriers to entry.

As far as worrying about sales goes, we’re definitely approaching the business in a different way. In the past, the way to make the business work was to release more and more RPG books. In reviewing sales records, it’s pretty clear that after a few expansions people simply stop buying and many even stop playing. Could you imagine trying to keep up with a boardgame if a new expansion or three came out for it every month?

Instead of flooding the market with an endless tide of RPG books, we’re moving to diversify the business. We have two active MMOs, board games, miniatures, t-shirts, novels, and even more stuff we’re working on.

In hindsight, it’s actually a fairly obvious move. Let’s say you buy the three core rulebooks and then the two volumes of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign. That gives you everything you need for the next 6 to 12 months of gaming. Do I really have much of a chance to sell you more RPG stuff during that time? Why fight that battle?

Instead, what we’re doing is looking at all the time you have when you can’t play the RPG and looking to fill that with more entertainment. In that world, someone who downloads the Basic Rules and likes D&D is a customer. Maybe not for tabletop RPG stuff, but they might want to buy a novel, or try out our new video game.

UW: I’m fascinated by the modular rule system. As I understand it, everyone can tailor their character development in a way that best suits them. Does that mean that if there are two players in the same group then one can use feats if he or she wants and the other opt not to? How do you ensure that the characters are balanced without these changes becoming cosmetic only?

MM: The feats example is spot on. The idea is to let players find their own happy level of complexity, rather than mandate a threshold that might be too high or low.

In terms of balance, the fighter is a great example. The really simple fighter has the ability to score far more critical hits than the complex fighter. The critical hit rule is very easy to learn, and scoring more of them is exciting. In play, though, it’s fairly simple to learn and apply that benefit.

In contrast, the complex fighter selects from several different combat maneuvers and spends resources to activate them. It requires tactical cunning to make the most of it.

When you compare the damage they do, they come out even. How they get that damage is what distinguishes them. The experience of playing each fighter is very different, and satisfies different types of players.

UW: Will we see any incarnation of the “at will/encounter/daily” power system from fourth edition? I thought it was innovative, and was one of my favorite parts of that system.

MM: Yes, though not every class uses it. The fighter is a great example of this. The simple fighter essentially has no powers. The complex fighter regains expertise dice, the resource used to power maneuvers, after taking a one hour rest. In essence, those are encounter powers.

Many classes have abilities that come back after taking a long rest – an eight hour break – and a shorter, one hour rest.

It’s funny, because in fourth edition the short rest was usually a trivial obstacle. By lengthening it, we found that people were much more careful with their “encounter” powers and felt genuinely rewarded when they were able to regain them. It’s one of those subtle but important shifts in the game.

Overall, what we found is that some people liked the idea of encounter abilities, but they didn’t like making all the classes have the same number and type of powers. Players really love the idea of each class as a unique thing.

UW: Tell me about the skill system. It’s attribute-based, and looks like anyone can take a try at, say, picking a lock. How does this work in concert with one’s choice of class?

MM: If you are trained in a skill, you add your proficiency bonus to your ability check. That bonus goes up as you gain levels.

What’s funny about the skill system is that it is mostly divorced from your class. You gain skills as part of your background, a package of abilities that represents what you did before becoming an adventurer. So, a fighter with criminal background might be the party’s trap finder, while a wizard with the noble background might serve as the party’s diplomat.

Classes do give a few skills, such as wizards gaining access to skills that represent the lore they’ve picked up, but your background is the real driver for it. That flexibility has proven very popular with players so far.

In terms of bigger picture design, we wanted to drive home the concept that in a tabletop RPG there are no limits. Anyone can try anything. Certain characters and classes are better at some tasks, but overall your imagination and ability to improvise trump the rules.

UW: I’ve joked that fifth edition is the One True Ring of D&D’s various editions. It certainly seems that way to me, but will it be backwards compatible, and if so, to what extent?

MM: We’ve already had DMs cook up conversion guides for earlier editions. We’ll be producing official ones that will be freely available in the fall, once we dig ourselves out from beneath the three core rulebooks.

UW: Are there any big surprises coming for fifth edition? Anything you can tell me?

MM: There are definitely some big, exciting surprises coming up. There are easily six things that come instantly to mind that I want to talk about, but I don’t think I can tease anything yet. I can talk about the philosophy behind our approach to the future.

I will completely admit my jealousy for games like Magic: the Gathering or Mass Effect, where you have players on the edges of their seats waiting for the next release. I think in the past D&D relied way too much on a volume strategy, where we did so much stuff that it was hard for people to get excited about any one thing. Book after book came out each month, far faster than anyone could absorb it all.

Our philosophy now is to make everything count. If we release a new super adventure, like Tyranny of Dragons, or a new rules expansion, we want it to be an event. When you add stuff to an RPG, you’re asking all the DMs out there to evaluate their campaigns, learn new options, and then try to implement them. You have to be very careful in how you add things to the game, and very deliberate in making those additions exciting and compelling.

My dream would be a world where new expansions are real events, where people are seeing exciting new ideas and concepts for the game. Even better, as we expand into digital gaming we can bring D&D to life through video games in ways that people have never dreamed. That’s really exciting to me.