by Mike Shea on 18 December 2017
In November 2017 on the DM's Deep Dive I had the great pleasure to talk with Mike Mearls, the senior manager for the Dungeons & Dragons team, about our experiences with three years of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
In this article we'll summarize some of the salient points of our conversation. The interview is fantastic, however, so give the whole thing a watch or a listen.
Mike had one big tip with some smaller sub-tips.
The 3rd and 4th edition of D&D moved DMs to think tactically about the game. We dug deep into monster stat blocks and exactly how to make the most out of wielding a spiked chain in combat. In D&D 5e, we can think more strategically about our game, focusing on the big picture and thinking about how the characters change within the story.
What does the D&D level arc look like without thinking about fights? If we're building out a campaign (or maybe even just an adventure) what would it look like if we don't think about the combat encounters within it?
When we're thinking strategically, we can think about what's important to the characters and use these character hooks to drive the direction of the campaign as it plays out.
From the D&D Next surveys, the character classes with the most simple combat options but the most complex options out of combat were the favored options. As an example, spells like speak with dead have a much larger range of options for characters and the stories than powerful but straight forward spells like fireball. It's easy for us tactically minded characters to miss this.
Don't think ahead too far with boss tactics. Six brains versus one puts us DMs at a disadvantage already. Focus more on the feeling we're trying to go for instead of the nitty gritty of combat tactics in a boss fight.
Mearls is a fan of pro-wrestling and the story they wire into it with the "face" and the "heel". What's the gimmick for the fight, not mechanically but dramatically? Put obstacles in the way of the characters so that they will feel triumphant when they overcome it. What are the gimmicks that will frustrate players but ultimate let them break free? What will make the players feel accomplished in a fight? Infiltration of a powerful lair might be more interesting than the straight-up fight against the boss.
The real emotional power of the last episode of Critical Role wasn't the fight itself but the hard choice between saving a friend or stopping the ultimate evil.
The design of 5e is getting away from focusing on things like boss fights and instead focusing more on larger situations.
5e D&D wasn't originally designed around the focus on open and narrative situations instead of plots (some might describe this as the split between sandboxes and railroading games). Current 5e products focus more on giving DMs larger sandboxes and situations. Some are more focused like Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihiliation and others wide open like Storm King's Thunder. Older adventures, like Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Rise of Tiamat, and Princes of the Apocalypse were more procedural. This new focus on more open-ended adventures came out of Wizards watching people play D&D 5e over the past three years.
I asked Mearls to describe what parts of the game we seem to be ignoring. He had two interesting points.
First, we're not leveling fast enough. Campaigns typically don't go on very long, they're measured in months not years, and they tend to stop at 5th or 6th level.
The survey on highest level D&D campaigns I ran points in this direction as well.
Leveling faster gives players a wider range for their characters.
Mike suggests that we try leveling characters once every four hours and then tweak it as we prefer. DMs might be worried about getting into those high levels too fast but we can try it and see how it goes.
Second, we might try using static monster damage. There is a lot of theory that this will lead to heavy metagaming. In my own practice, this doesn't actually come up. Many players really don't care.
There's a reliance on mechanics in 3rd and 4th but this isn't a miniatures game, this is drama. Players want to be challenged and we shouldn't be shy about improvising these challenges as long as we're not using them to punish the players. Players don't care if you added a bubbling pool of acid that you just made up five seconds earlier. If you have fun, it doesn't matter how you get there.
DM's worry what the world thinks about their game. We only have to worry about running a fun time for our players.
Mearls ran a game using nothing but random tables and it meant that no one, including Mearls, knew what was going to happen in the game. When a session ends in a way he didn't see ahead of time, that's what gets him excited.
"Half of the fun of DMing for me is how things change."
"I make up two thirds of it as we play."
"Every band plays differently."
People get too worried about the procedure of the game instead of the immediate effects of it.
At GDC, the Hearthstone developers said that when cards had effects that were too random, players hated it.
The limited required variance of D&D weapons (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12) limits the differences we can have in different weapons. For example, if weapons had static damage, a longsword could do five damage while a mace could do four damage but include an additional effect.
There is a stark difference between newer D&D players and old D&D players. All of them are similar in how often they play (I'd guess weekly), how long their campaigns run (we hear months), how many hours per week (I'd assume four).
Veteran players of previous editions like fighters, clerics, wizards, and rogues. New players like very different classes such as warlocks and bards. Older players assume bards suck because they focus on the mechanics. New players just look at the characters and think they sound cool. Veteran players know the value of turn undead. New players don't care. Warlocks are wizards with a story; older players look at it as the third-in-line wizard.
"We have a bajillion new players coming in".
New players like D&D because they can cosplay without having to make a costume. They can be another person without anything but a sheet of paper and four or five friends. Younger players are used to adopting a persona.
People like Tabaxi because who wouldn't like hyper short-attention-span characters. Tabaxi are troublemakers.
WOTC's intention is not to dictate how to run theater of the mind combat. If people want more structure for combat, they should use maps and miniatures. If you're happy to play loose, we likely don't want more guidelines. Would guidelines for narrative combat end up creating a set of rules that don't make anyone happy?
Xanathar's Guide might have had better guidelines for adjudicating areas of effect in narrative combat but it didn't make the cut (bummer).
If they are going to do something with narrative combat, it would be even more abstract than just narrative guidelines to the existing combat system.
There might be a talk with D&D streamers to see what options might help with streaming D&D.
Mike Mearls is most excited about the tools options in Xanathar's Guide to Everything. It offers interesting options for tools and a character's proficiency in those tools. Characters can use their proficiency in tools to help them with other in-game activities like brewers being able to identify potions. Tool proficiency is another character hook we DMs can use to build out adventures that spotlight the characters.
If you had one hour to run an adventure for new players, what would you do?
I'd prioritize around character choices without unlimited options. Give them a question that doesn't have an answer and use their response to see what kind of adventure they want. Use the scenario to see what kind of game do they want to play.
How do we collect and implement feedback from ongoing players in our games?
Mearls sent out a survey to his players that asked "what does your character want to do?" at about 4th or 5th level. In his game the feedback was "kill this villain" so it was easy but it helps to get characters' goals.
The strategy of putting out a core adventure every six to twelve months seems to be going strong. Is there any worry that it might slow as it creates a backlog?
Every product changes the shelf. WOTC sees new types of products in the future. We shouldn't expect a common pattern of product releases. How does WOTC make a product that helps both new and old players and DMs?
What subclass is Mike's favorite crunch-wise and why?
Mike likes the hexblade but answered that elsewhere. His second favorite is the zealot barbarian. Mike likes the idea of the rail-thin growling guy with an apocalyptic sign he smashes over people's heads.
How would you change the Monster Manual knowing what you know now?
They considered including flaws, bonds, and traits for monsters so that we can use it as NPCs instead of just monsters to fight. We could have gotten a lot of mileage out of roleplaying traits for monsters. For example, Kobolds have four hit points and they know it.
I admitted to Mike Mearls that I have yet to read the whole Monster Manual and sought Mike's absolution for this sin (which was given). There is so much great info in the text of the Monster Manual, read it!.