Now that the D&D Next playtest has been released into the wild, there’s no shortage of talk about the future of the new edition. Who better to ask about it than the lead designer himself, Mike Mearls?
Although a slight technical issue compressed the time for the interview somewhat, this turned out to be a benefit, since the conversation stayed focused on some of the more important big-picture issues of D&D Next and the playtest.
Robot Viking: How has the process of using playtest feedback been so far? How helpful/aggravating has it been?
Mike Mearls: It’s actually been really helpful. When we launched the playtest, the week afterward we launched a survey for people who had signed up for the playtest and grabbed the documents off our server. And that’s actually really useful because, usually, forms and stuff is one way to read into what people are saying, or blogs, but the survey let us be really specific about what we’re asking. So it’s let us really — right now I’m looking at this file here, the ten things that came up in the survey that we need to work on. So it lets us get beyond some of the obvious things. We’ve seen a lot of feedback where people want fighters to have more options in combat; or clerics not to feel like they have to use all their magic to heal. But there’ve been things like the critical hit rules, people think they’re ok, but they’re not really excited about them. Things like that, which we may not have seen just by trying to read through what people are saying, as opposed to a really targeted survey, where we can ask about say 30 or 40 different things.
RV: Some of the changes between the Friends & Family playtest and the open test are fairly obvious, but I’m curious what changes were the direct result of some of the feedback from the F&F test.
MM: The Friends & Family playtest, it’s actually kind of funny because I’m looking at my list, and there are still issues. We tried to fix stuff, so we added the hit die mechanic to the playtest right now, which lets people sort of just rest and heal rather than relying on spells. And that’s actually funny because we tried to adjust it, and it didn’t quite work, because there’s still a lot of people that aren’t necessarily excited about it. That was the top issue we got with feedback from Friends & Family. There are some other things too, like the advantage mechanic, where people kind of thought things were a little more complicated than they needed to be. The system overall felt pretty slimmed down, but there’s still a lot of tracking, or the character sheets, the cleric character sheet was three or four pages, things were kind of a little bit bloated. So I think the advantage thing is something were trying to get right. It’s interesting how the healing mechanic is still a really big thing, and clearly we haven’t solved it yet. I’m looking at this list right now, this spreadsheet, and it’s like: amount of healing available, cleric spells and healing, the hit die mechanic, resting and healing, these are all things that came up. So that’s a thing which we clearly stumbled on.
The other thing we’re seeing too is a lot of people are still kind of on the fence, they’re not happy, but they’re also not upset, and I think that’s a lot of it. Character creation, tactical combat, more options for characters, whether it’s combat or not. I think that’s also something people just want to see more of, and honestly we haven’t really shown that off yet, so that’s a big unknown for us.
RV: One of the things I’ve been curious about is the approach to modular design and modular book releases. 4E was pretty based around splatbooks and more stuff. So I guess I’m curious, how is the new modular design of books and new releases going to differ from 4E? Have you thought about any different models than just putting out books of options, like an adventure-based model, or something like that?
MM: It’s a little early for us to say any specifics, but one of the things we have talked about is, I think one of the things that tripped up 4th edition was there was too much emphasis on what came after, and not enough on saying, “Hey let’s just make sure that the core has everything you need to play.” Like some of the classes showing up in Players’ Handbook 2, things like that. I think when we look at modularity, it’s really about thinking in terms of, if we’re going to add a thing to the game, what’s it really adding? What’s the real benefit? And I also think in terms of, if someone saw you using this thing, whatever it is, would they also think, “Hey, that looks really great, I want to use that in my game.”
So, as an example, we could do an environmental book about deserts. But instead of doing that, why don’t we just do a re-imagined “Desert of Desolation” adventure, and then incorporate all those options in there. So it’s more narrative-based, a lot more exciting. Or if we wanted to do mass combat, maybe that’s something we’d include with an adventure that’s about armies and war. Not saying we’re specifically going to do those, but just looking first and foremost and saying, what gets DMs excited? And I think that’s more settings and stories, rather than just dry mechanical concepts.
RV: Have you given any thought on doing an introductory version of the game, like a slimmed down rules set or something like that?
MM: Definitely. If you look at the current playtest, one of the reasons why we started really simple was, we wanted to make a game that didn’t have a huge mechanical footprint, that people who love D&D could say, “Hey, this feels like D&D and it’s fun, and it’s engaging.” Maybe they want some more detail, but it’s perfectly serviceable and works fine. And then that basically can just become our starting point. We don’t have to take the game that everybody’s playing and rip stuff out to make it accessible. We can just start there and then build up. So that was one of our big things we decided early on; we didn’t want to…like when you look at the Red Box for 4th edition or some of the starter sets, where you’re kind of paying to learn how to play the game. Once you’ve learned to play you don’t use that anymore. And I just think that’s not really a good experience for people getting into a game. I wouldn’t want to buy a Settlers of Catan intro set, and then never play it again so that I go out and buy the real stuff.
RV: Along the same lines, it could be argued that most of the people who are playtesting are probably old, or long-time players. Are you doing anything as far as finding testers that are new to the game, that type of thing?
MM: Right now the playtest, yeah, it’s skewed for mainly experienced players. It’s been a little broader than I expected, but it’s still clearly people who have been playing for at least five years. What we usually do here at Wizards, if we have a product that we’re aiming at people who haven’t played a game before, or younger people, that’s actually one of the areas where we work with Hasbro. If you’re Hasbro and you’re making a new toy or new board game that’s aimed at kids, you want to be able to find out if kids can actually understand this. So there’s some research there that we’re leaning on, and that’s going to require a lot more on our end. Market research and playtesting with focus groups and things like that. One of the things we do here locally too, is we’ll put out…I don’t know how they recruit these people, but they’ll find people who want to play D&D but haven’t yet played, and we’ll bring them in a room where we watch them play and have them fill out questionnaires and stuff like that. That’s further down the road for us, but it’s definitely something we will be doing.
RV: Do you have any ideas on any kind of online tools for the next edition, and what the ultimate fate of the 4E online tools will be?
MM: That still isn’t settled, but we definitely know the tools have been a really popular part of 4th for people. It’s the digital age, right? It wouldn’t make any sense to expect people to just use paper and pencil. Probably a good way to look at it is that we don’t want people to feel that they have to use the digital tools, but we do want to make it so obviously you will have tools to use.