Rewind: Interview with WOTC Game Designer Mike Mearls

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls

Note: This interview originally appeared in Amazing Stories Magazine March 20, 2013.

The Game Room has a special guest today. None other than the legendary Mike Mearls from Wizards of the Coast. Mike serves as senior manager for the research and design team that is actively creating the next generation of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game code-named D&D Next. While not locked away in his laboratory, toiling over vast tomes of knowledge in an attempt to unlock the secrets of the planes, Mike enjoys casting Otto’s Irresistible Dance on the bugbears milling about the base of his tower.

 R. K. Troughton for Amazing Stories: Welcome to the Game Room, Mike. Your group is currently undertaking a landmark development project where the design of a game system is being conducted in the public eye. Material is created and then provided to the public for playtest. The playtesters provide feedback to the design team that is used as input for the next iteration of the design. You have a unique position in that you are both team leader for the development effort as well as a spokesperson for the brand. How did D&D Next get started and what led to the selection of this public design process?

MIKE MEARLS: It’s sort of a chicken and egg thing. In 2010, we were rapidly creating content for 4e while simultaneously launching products like the D&D Essentials line to give new players a quick and easy way to get into the game. What we began noticing was a segregation in our audience. In doing some informal research, one thing kept coming up again and again—what people seemed to value most in tabletop RPGs, stuff like flexibility and unpredictability, had taken a back seat to the rules, especially as newer editions of the game continued to get developed.

This was really a trend that had started with 3rd edition where the rules had grown denser and character abilities had become more and more rigid. If you have a rule for everything, you also need to give a detailed definition of what a character can and cannot do.

Dungeons and Dragons 5th EditionIf you look back at the history of the game, I think that this evolution ties into a cycle you see in tabletop RPGs and D&D specifically. The game started out fairly loose, with AD&D adding more detailed rules and options. Second edition AD&D largely kept those rules in place but emphasized worlds and the DM’s power to use rules as he/she sees fit. In other words, while the rules remained complex in practice they were fairly simple.

3rd edition encompassed the brilliant idea of making the rules logical and consistent enough that DMs would adapt and use them rather than ignore them. For instance, in AD&D I might just let a paladin sneak past a hill giant because the paladin player had a good plan or in my judgment the giant wasn’t paying attention. 3rd edition gave a rules system that let the paladin attempt a Dexterity check, and as DM I could simply decide that the check had a very high chance of success. The player rolled, and absent a ridiculously bad result I could simply say, “You made it.”

However, it wasn’t long before the rules started to grow. Along with the release of 3rd edition, the open gaming license allowed publishers other than WotC to create new rules for the game. Pretty soon, dozens of designers were creating new classes, monsters, character abilities, and spells. WotC soon joined in with monthly, or nearly monthly, new books of rules.

So, how did we get here? My belief is that RPG creators have lost touch with what makes our games so interesting. In the rush to create new rules, we’ve lost sight of the fact that the rules aren’t the point of the game. The interaction around the table, the give and take between players and DMs, the randomness supplied by a half-dozen people and the vagaries of the dice, are what make D&D, and RPG play in general, interesting.

Given that belief, the open nature of our development process of D&D Next makes a lot of sense. If you’ve lost track of what your players want, the best way to get back on track is throw open the door and invite them in.

ASM: What challenges have the team faced during the development of D&D Next?

MM: The biggest challenge has been in training ourselves to stop looking to rules to answer everything that comes up. In many cases, we’ve solved problems by removing rules and simplifying the game. Sometimes, your assumptions and philosophy behind an approach are the root problem, not the specific mechanics.

For instance, early on there was concern that fights were boring. They were over too quickly, with most battles over in two or three rounds of fighting. The design solution would’ve been to increase hit points, give monsters more special abilities, and add more complexity to the game.

What we found through the playtest process, though, was that people like quick fights. They like them a lot, it turns out. A battle is part of the game, a point of resolution in the grander scheme of things, not the entire point of the game. That kind of philosophical revelation has been really big for us in working on the game. We might’ve ended up spending weeks adding detail to the combat system, never realizing that the typical D&D player simply wasn’t interested in that level of detail.

ASM: In some ways, the development process resembles Agile software development, but while the voice of the customer typically originates from a relatively small group, you’re hearing from thousands of playtesters. I’m not sure anyone, in any industry, has undertaken product development in quite this format, which makes your role somewhat unique. How do you balance leading the team and managing the playtest?

MM: In the early going, it was tricky because we had to rely on anecdotal feedback from play test groups. Once we rolled out playtest surveys, things became much easier to manage. It’s a lot harder to argue for something if tens of thousands of people who played your game and gave you feedback told you that you were wrong. In many ways, it makes my job easier because as a manager I can argue from the data and trends we’ve seen.

On the other hand, the process does have its drawbacks. You can’t design a good game by committee, and while the surveys point out things we need to tackle it’s still up to the designers to come up with answers and directions. It’s definitely helped us become more effective in hitting the key issues, but it can also cause uncertainty.

As an example, for hit point and character survivability playtesters have been all over the map. Some people like lethal, deadly campaigns. Other DMs want an ongoing cast of characters to weave an epic campaign. We’ve settled on making the default rule as simple as possible and then giving DMs an easy way to change the rule to match the style they want.

The Dying Earth by Jack VanceASM: In some of your discussions regarding the development of the project, you mentioned some of the science fiction and fantasy authors that directly influenced the original Dungeons and Dragons game. The culture surrounding D&D even created such terms as Vancian Magic to describe the magic system influenced by author Jack Vance. Please explain the concept of Vancian Magic and its origins in the game.

MM: Vancian magic is from Jack Vance’s excellent Dying Earth novels. In that series, a wizard must carefully memorize a spell. Once cast, the spell vanished from memory and must be memorized once more in order to be used again.

I believe that Gary Gygax, in inventing D&D, had a few reasons for taking a similar approach. First, he was a big fan of Jack Vance. He liked it, so he used it. Second, I have heard that Gary was leery of adopting any description of magic that veered too close to any real world traditions or beliefs. Finally, it’s actually a pretty solid way to try to strike a balance between a wizard and a warrior in a game. A wizard can perform miracles, but within limits that force some interesting challenges in a game.

ASM: What other science fiction and fantasy authors influenced the creation of the original Dungeons and Dragons?

MM: Fritz Leiber was definitely a huge influence. He was a gamer himself, attended some of the early GenCon game conventions, and had his world of Nehwon adapted as an official D&D setting. Robert E. Howard also played a role, as did Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

Writers like Poul Anderson (trolls, paladins), Roger Zelazny (planar travel and worlds), and Michael Moorcock (law and chaos as opposed forces) all played big roles. Tolkien is an interesting one, as the basic trappings of elves, dwarves, orcs, and halflings form the foundation of the game, but the tone  of the game – exploration, combat, treasure hunting – is at odds with much of his work. It would be the rare D&D character who didn’t try to find a way to use the One Ring. The Hobbit is much more in the vein of D&D than The Lord of the Rings.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick RothfussASM: What authors are influencing the development of D&D Next?

MM: D&D has grown to the point that it exists as its own genre of fantasy. The obvious influences are people like R.A. Salvatore, Ed Greenwood, Erin Evans, and Paul Kemp who have written D&D stories and novels. It’s important that the characters and events you see in their work can function within the world of D&D.

When it comes to other authors, I try to put myself into the mindset of a DM who wants to steal liberally. Can I adapt things to the game easily? Do I have the freedom to tinker? Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon  was a great test for that, because he does such a great job of building a world that I want to run a game in. Folks on the team are also fans of Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, and Joe Abercrombie. There’s also this George R. R. Martin guy you may have heard of, I think he has a few fans here.

I think it’s a pretty good time to be a fan of genre fiction and creatively I think we’re seeing a groundswell of ideas.

ASM: Some would suggest that a symbiosis has developed between role-playing games and science fiction, fantasy, and horror (sf,f,h) literature. The inspiration for the first generation of role-playing games came from various authors. Today we see so many sf,f,h authors that have produced masterful works that were directly influenced by role-playing games. I know even my own writing is influenced by the D&D games I have played through the years. I’ve read countless reviews where readers suggest that a story must have been based on the author’s player character. This does not even take into account the vast number of books directly branded to an RPG. Role-playing games and literature now seem completely intertwined. How do you view this symbiotic relationship between RPGs and sf,f,h literature?

MM: I think it’s critically important. You can measure the health of D&D by the number of creative people it has inspired. In many ways, D&D is a training kit for storytelling, world building, and creative thinking.

I remember my own evolution as a DM. you face this constant pressure to keep your friends who might not be as interested in D&D as you are engaged. You might start with cheap tricks like free magic items for everyone, power fantasies that let the players rampage over gods and demon lords, but eventually that gets old and you need to find a way to keep people coming back for more. Whenever I’m on a panel at a con, or giving a presentation at work, I’m using the same skills to communicate that kept my players engaged back in 1988.

With D&D, there’s a pressure to keep topping yourself, to come up with something new, to experiment and try daring things. You have the great, instant feedback of your group, and the grind of every week building that new dungeon or coming up with the next story. It’s like creative boot camp.

ASM: Many people can point to a single book or movie that captured their imagination and got them hooked on (sf,f,h). For me, Conan comics served as my gateway to imagination. What author or book or movie pulled you in? What authors have influenced you the most?

MM: I was pulled in by Tolkien, but I stuck around because of Le Guin. Earthsea struck a deep chord with me when I was young. I could relate to Ged and his story in a way that I never could with other fantasy characters.

When I was young, Lloyd Alexander was also a big influence. In my teens, Fritz Leiber was by far my favorite, and his works are probably the single greatest influence of my approach to D&D. In my early 20s, I finally got around to reading Moorcock and expanded out to Michael Swanwick, Gene Wolfe, Jack Womack, Clark Ashton Smith, and a whole lot more. It’s odd, because in many ways what I read rarely has a direct influence on my D&D games, but I find that reading challenging and interesting authors is a good way to keep my brain in shape.

The Shady Dragon InnASM: Tell us about your first role-playing game experience.  How old were you, what game did you play, what character did you play?

MM: In grade school we “played D&D” by running around in the woods behind my house, wielding sticks against the imaginary monsters we read about in the D&D rulebooks. It wasn’t until 5th grade or so that we actually played the game. My first character was a thief named Barnabas Bladecutter. Poor Barnabas wasn’t much of a character. I stole his name from a D&D supplement called The Shady Dragon Inn, and he was basically an excuse to beat down monsters and get a taste of the power and autonomy that I think every kid longs to have. For my friends and I, we loved the game but we also liked that we were allowed to play in the grown-up section of the public library, away from the kids our own age who were sequestered to the children’s section in the basement.

ASM: We understand how busy you are now. If you find time to read, what are you reading and what do you have marked down on your reading list?

MM: I am the guy that everyone complains about when we talk about digital media’s assault on reading. I have subscriptions to genre magazines on my tablet and I’m a click away from some really exciting stuff, and I end up on Facebook or playing a game time and time again.

That said, I re-read The Hobbit before seeing the latest movie. I’ve been burning through Osprey Publishing’s line of military history books as research for work, plus Jon Peterson’s excellent history of D&D, Playing at the World. Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is next on my list. I’m a bit funny in that I do most of my fiction reading during the summer months. I love sitting in the sun with a good book.

ASM: Dungeons and Dragons really started the role-playing game industry and over the course of its evolution it has remained the benchmark by which all other games are measured. To various degrees D&D has transcended the actual game itself to become a part of our culture. Do you ever step back and reflect on the position your team is in as caretakers of the most hallowed of all role-playing games? How does that make you feel?

MM: I actually try not to think about it too much, because it would probably completely overwhelm me. In some ways, it is comforting that we could completely screw up but D&D is big enough to keep moving along without us. In many ways, though, it makes the job a lot easier. People know what D&D is, and we just need to make sure that we’re giving it to them.

Specifically with this new iteration we’re developing, our goal is to lower the barriers for getting into the game. D&D was at its most vibrant when you had people playing it on college campuses and in school yards. The world needs more DMs and it needs them at a younger age, because when you teach people to create you lay the seeds for so many amazing things. That’s basically my personal goal with the game, to make it so that anyone who wants to play, anyone who wants to be a DM, can do that.

ASM: We understand that development schedules are a tricky thing, particularly with the added complexity of your groundbreaking development effort. In an ideal world, when does your team expect to officially release D&D Next?

MM: We don’t yet have an official release date. So far, we’re playing things fairly close to the vest. With the open process, it’s best to let feedback filter in and focus on fine tuning the game for playability and accessibility, then figure out when it can hit shelves.

ASM: Has your team decided if D&D Next will be available in ebook form or only in hardcopy?

MM: We haven’t made that decision yet, but it’s definitely a thorny one. Retail game stores play a huge role in the success of tabletop games. We’ve seen stores evolve from the place where you buy stuff to a community where you can meet people and play games. If a city or area has good game stores, you can see that community evolve and pull people in. We definitely want to balance that between the realities of digital devices and how people want to buy and use content.

DND Adventurers LeagueASM: Some of our readers may not know how to get involved with the playtest program. Can you tell them how they can get involved in this groundbreaking development?

MM: It’s very easy. We have a website: where you can sign up for the program and download the latest rules. At regular intervals, we email out links to surveys to collect feedback and play experiences. Even if you can’t play, it’s useful to us if people read the rules and give us a sense of what you think.

We also just began making D&D Next conversion notes available for people participating in the D&D Encounters in-store play program. The DM running the in-store game just needs to be signed up for the playtest so that they can download the conversion notes right from our site.

ASM: Thank you for your time. The Game Room is filled with a renewed passion for Dungeons and Dragons as we continue to explore the D&D Next game system. Some even whisper of finding that magical sensation that reminds them of the days of old when they first discovered a d20. We greatly appreciate your team’s efforts and sit anxiously behind the keyboard waiting for the next Playtest Packet. Before you go, is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of Amazing Stories?

MM: Wow, thanks. That’s great to hear! If I could share one thing with people, it’s to try new things. Whether it’s checking out D&D for the first time or taking a chance on a new author, the age we’re living in is designed to reward curiosity. Take advantage of it.

(Editor’s Note:  Wizards of the Coast acquired Amazing Stories with their purchase of TSR; under Wizards, the magazine was published for several years; it was then licensed to Paizo Publishing, which continued to produce the magazine until 2005.)

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