Ransacking the Dungeon: Chatting Dungeons and Dragons with Mike Mearls
“As you venture further into the tunnel the sunlight dims behind you and your lantern begins casting vicious shadows against the crooked walls.
You come to an intersection where the tunnel branches into opposite paths.
On the right, the tunnel is slick with muck, covered in a bizarre green fungus you don’t recognize. It almost hisses as your light licks against it. On the left, the tunnel narrows unnaturally and you know you’ll have to crouch down to venture further.
What do you do?”
Many of the fondest memories from my childhood begin this way.
A difficult question only I could answer, huddled under blankets in the basement; a single candle our only light, and someone…telling me a story.
But this wasn’t just any story: this was Dungeons and Dragons, an adventure where I got to be the hero.
You see, it was actually me who destroyed that ring in the fiery mountain; the glory given to some random halflings? Completely misplaced. I saved every princess and rescued every lost villager.
I was a hero.
And I was in love.
Dungeons and Dragons is one of the first (but probably most well known) role playing games ever created. There are rules and within those rules you build your character: a waifish elven thief, perhaps? Or, better yet, a stalwart dwarven fighter.
The rules tell you what your character is but you decide who your character is. Is your elven thief afraid of cities after growing up in the wilderness? Is your dwarven fighter actually charismatic, maybe even a bit of a poet and lothario? Those decisions are completely up to you.
Mike Mearls is the lead designer of the game’s fifth (and arguably most successful) edition, and his early experience with Dungeons and Dragons was similar to my own. His brother started playing D&D with his cub pack, but he quickly got bored with it and ended up selling his basic set to Mike; it was a copy of Keep on the Borderlands, an early adventure written by the game’s co-creator Gary Gygax.
Other than the three kids that he played with, he didn’t know anyone else that knew the game. It’s quite the contrast to what the fifth edition of the game has become: dozens and dozens of people playing at game stores and conventions around the world. “Dungeons and Dragons is a game that lends itself to building community,” Mearls said.
“I go back to when I was a kid, and the only people I knew were from my sixth grade class. [But today] it’s easier than ever to find people who want to play. [Most] [g]ames are about winning and losing – but in D&D the goal is to have fun: and that’s an experience that people want more of. D&D is [best] when everyone is having fun.”
Moving from the fourth edition of the game to fifth was a very controversial move, as moving from third edition to fourth was. The major difference is that third edition was a beloved version of the game, but fourth didn’t find as much support from players.
When the decision to move from fourth edition to fifth was being considered, there was one overriding factor to consider:
“[Basically] we had to prove that people still wanted to play a tabletop RPG.”
“Fourth edition did well at first, but it quickly stumbled. So the first thing I did was look back at historical sales records. At first we suspected that people didn’t want to play tabletop RPGs, but we noticed that not many new players were coming [so we wondered:] is it tabletop RPGs, or is the game actually becoming too complicated,” Mearls wondered aloud, somewhat rhetorically.
“Third and fourth edition had become more difficult. We needed a game that would be recognizable to our players but had as few barriers to entry, so you got into the roleplay as soon as possible. [D&D] isn’t necessarily about the books and dice, it’s about sitting around a table, physical or virtual, and interacting [with each other] and telling stories. That’s the driving force.”
The third and fourth editions of Dungeons and Dragons were very rules heavy. It isn’t a stretch to say that the system was focused more on the how, than the why. Don’t ask me why my character has seven classes; just ask me how he has a bonus of +46 to his spot check. (As an aside, my Ranger had seven classes but I was blessed with the opportunity to write a Living Greyhawk module called Left Unsaid that explained it.)
Fifth edition has a noticeably different flavour, however. Unlike third and fourth there hasn’t been a deluge of supplemental books adding new rules or classes for players to try. And according to Mearls, that was a very deliberate decision on the design team’s part.
“[The focus on storyline] was very much a conscious decision. We looked at the history of sales and [we saw] that they dropped dramatically for the monthly expansions, and worried it was causing a divided audience. [After all] owning 30 books is very different than owning just the core rules,” said Mearls.
“It became about mechanics, and it took the game away from storytelling. We wanted the game to be about concepts that even non D&Ders could understand. ”
Just because the team at D&D is releasing books at a slower pace to make each release feel more like an event, does not mean there isn’t stuff for Dungeons and Dragons fans to be excited about.
Tomb of Annihilation is a new adventure that will take characters from level one to level eleven and summons a team of heroes to fight an evil wasting disease that is sweeping the land like a virulent plague.
When designing an adventure book like Tomb, Mearls says his team starts with the pitch. “What’s the concept? [It’s] what people will read to get them excited. It needs a good hook. [We have to ask] how do we keep people’s interest in this storyline for a year?”
“We need encounters based on roleplaying, with story beyond just combat. There’s more to our adventurers than just fighting, we offer subtle ways to bypass battles [for clever adventurers.]”
For Tomb of Annihilation in particular, the hook was simple:
“Who wouldn’t want to play an adventure which is Indiana Jones meets Dungeons and Dragons , with undead dinosaurs, and heroes opposing a temple that’s cursing people from around the world?”
Okay. Sold. You had us at Indiana Jones meets Dungeons and Dragons, with undead dinosaurs.
And for those players who are seeking options to expand the core game, Mearls offered more insights into the future as well.
“In November we have Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, which will include new subclasses for all of the base classes currently in the game,” Mearls said slightly excitedly. “And we’re currently playtesting the artificer and mystic class in the DM’s guild. We want to play test the heck out of everything,” Mearls, said almost off-handedly, adding a comment that may explain why fifth edition is so much more successful than the previous iteration.
“We want the Dungeons and Dragons community [to feel] that they have a say in what is introduced in their game. We know we’re selling to expert users and they need to feel like our platform is tailored to their needs.”
Listening to the community is arguably the core reason why fifth edition is doing so well. The expansive playtest that took place prior to the game’s official release is clear evidence of that, as well the slow and methodical introduction of new character options. To the current leadership of Dungeons and Dragons, ensuring the integrity of the game is paramount, and it shows.
Listening has made Dungeons and Dragons better. While not every idea is going to be a winner, giving a forum for people’s ideas is one way to make them feel heard…and making them feel like their contributions are valued is a core way to keep them engaged in a brand.
“Fifty percent of my job is concepting…developing things we could do. Lots never go anywhere but a lot of D&D comes from this. One quarter of my job is supporting my team. [Ultimately I need to] keep the people doing cool stuff. The final quarter is working on product design, offering advice on products, or boardgames that a partner is working on, or interviews like this one.”
Sure, if I had access to a ring of three wishes, and I was wishing for the perfect job, it isn’t exactly how I’d word my final wish (there’d be at least one castle), but it still sounds pretty cool. After all, his name is at the top of a bunch Dungeons and Dragons books, in a very similar spot to where the names of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were in the original game.
Overall, the chat with Mearls was enchanting.
He is passionate about the game and particularly bright about its future. This self-professed chaotic-neutral man is leading Dungeons and Dragons to a place it’s never been before, which says something for a game that can go literally anywhere: mainstream acceptance.
The conversation ended naturally, but Mearls was able to sum up the very essence of what makes Dungeons and Dragons special:
“No other game can duplicate [Dungeons and Dragons.] Video games aren’t offering the same experience. [In D&D] I can add a castle flying in the sky, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of multi-coloured dragons. I say it’s there, [and poof] it’s in the game. In a video game, it could cost tens of thousands [or more] for that.”
And that’s the magic of Dungeons and Dragons: if you believe it, it’s there.
D&D has come a long way from that basement and the candle but one thing’s for sure: the soul of Dungeons and Dragons is in good hands.
Thanks to Mike Mearls for taking some time away from the d20s to chat with me about D&D
Tomb of Annihilation is available for sale now, at your local game store, or online
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is available in fine stores everywhere, November 21st
Unless indicated otherwise, all photos are taken from Wizards of the Coast and © Wizards of the Coast and used with permission