An interview with Mike Mearls (taken from Critical-Hits.com)
On Saturday of Origins, I peeled myself out of bed after a long night hanging out and gaming to attend the panel run by Mike Mearls. It was nearly all questions and answers, and even ran a half an hour past when it was supposed to let out.
Mike started with introducing himself, saying that he joined Wizards in September of 2005. When he first got there, he did not know fourth edition was in the works, but had his suspicions. Then one day he was called into an office (where he thought he was going to get into trouble for something) but instead was let in on ORCUS, the codename for 4e.
After a few more discussions about working at Wizards, the floor was opened to any and all questions. (Both the questions and answers are paraphrased.)
Q: Why is there a limit of 1 action point per encounter?
A: It happened because of play testing. If the players found out that they had to kill a dragon at the end of a dungeon, they’d save up all their action points (and even get into additional fights) to unload on the dragon. Then every player’s turn went: “daily, action point, encounter power.” If you think of a game of D&D like a movie, this would look ridiculous. Mearls cited the Luke vs. Vader fight as an example of a fight that wouldn’t work like that. Same with fighting Sauron.
Q: How did Star Wars: SAGA Edition influence, or be influenced by, 4e?
A: SAGA was the test-bed for 4e. Everyone in R&D was working on D&D4e, but the time was right to release SAGA. So they put things that were in 4e into SAGA. They would go to the SAGA team with mechanics and say, “You’re using them,” but they were OK with it. It wasn’t a one-way street either: development of Star Wars helped nail down some system. The powers system wasn’t quite as far along in development at that point, or else Star Wars probably would have had them. SAGA was a snapshot of how 4e looked at the beginning of 2006.
Q: Why change the planes?
A: Mike mentioned that this was more on the story team, and he was a mechanics guy. They decided early on that they didn’t want to use an established setting. They didn’t like how there was the claim that Greyhawk was the default setting in 3e, but changed so many things, and ended up not really supporting Greyhawk as a setting. They wanted a springboard for people’s own settings. They wanted to leverage the differences between World of Warcraft and D&D by focusing on “making stuff up.” Think of the DM as a novelist, crafting his own story. The new planar structure is supposed to be more open, and leave lots of room to add your own parts to. You’re given the basic structure and then you can zoom in and fill what you need for your story.
As an example, Mearls said he was working on an adventure that uses “Orcus’s Zombie Closet” (not the final title) as a new demiplane. Instead of worrying about which layer of the Abyss might already be established, he can add to it easily enough.
Q: Many of the magic items from previous editions were missing in the PHB, and the ones that had carried through were underpowered. Was a future supplement planned for those old items?
A: “Yes- Adventurer’s Vault.”
Q: Why weren’t those items in the corebook?
A: A big part came down to space in the book. Or in some cases, the mechanics weren’t quite ready yet (like the Figurines of Wondrous Power.) He said he’d rather wait and get it right the first time instead of having to errata it.
Q: Why no Ring of Feather Fall?
A: It was related to “everybody can fly all day long” that was a problem in previous editions. They opted to be more conservative about flight. Flight is tricky, and they also tried to be conservative about long-distance teleporting for similar reasons. They are working on new stuff for both.
Q: One of the big draws to playing a Warforged was how different they operated. Why was that removed?
A: “Anything specific?”
Q: Healing? Specifically, that they needed repair spells.
A: It’s hard to make them fit with the party, and for the Leader role to do their job. You can’t ask the rest of the party to take powers to accommodate one PC. It’s hard to make things specific, but at the same time not pigeonhole them into “take X only if you have Y in your party” or “monster is only affected if you have a Z.” Mearls wasn’t sure if the Warforged rules in Eberron will be the same as the Dragon article- but he highly recommends emailing Dragon magazine if you have suggestions.
Q: What about Artificers?
A: Artificers are definitely in. Showing up in Dragon. (Later, he said it might be as early as next month’s Dragon, so soon.)
Q: I like that PrCs and Multiclasses streamlined, but they’re too restrictive.
A: That’s possibly the biggest difference between 3e and 4e. You’re more set on a path than before. Multiclassing rules were the rules that got the most work. They wanted to get the classes right first, then go back and figure out multiclassing. They didn’t want to sacrifice a strong design to get the old style of multiclassing. That’s how the feat-based approach came about. Fighter’s can still multiclass and still follow their role. The wizard is the most bound to his role. The question was, “How many powers do we have to give until you feel multiclassed?” If 1 power is 25% of a class, and 2 powers is 50%, how much more can we give you to feel like a multiclass character, instead of just a hodgepodge character.
The big plus of the system is that instead of having to issue errata to replace what’s out there, they can just release more feats to handle different aspects of multiclassing. There will also be Paragon Path and Epic multiclassing feats.
Q: Fighters can take Ritual Casting, making them feel like “multiclassing without multiclassing.” Was that intentional?
A: “I’m glad you noticed that.” People can see other ways of multiclassing in addition to the feats. You can have pious Fighter who isn’t necessarily a Cleric. And all of these things play better than they read. For example, one of the characters in his groups is a Fighter that can throw a fireball and mark all of the monsters.
Overall, they wanted to make a game where if problems came up (for example, with multiclassing), instead of doing 4.5, they can just add new feats to the game to address concerns. He compared 4e to more like a Lego kit instead of a model kit- it’s easy to add or subtract pieces, instead of being a glued together-whole that has to be rebuilt each time there’s a change.
Q: There’s a big thread on ENWorld about the math behind skill challenges. There’s been experience that shows that they work, but the math to prove that they are broken seems solid.
A: Skill challenges are interesting, since they are not reflected in the written rules as they were intended. They started as more “combat” with initiative, etc., but eventually moved them to be more free form. They were intended as more of a framework, not strictly mechanical. When planning a non-combat encounter, try to come up with options, different ways to play out while not stopping the game. (i.e. don’t build in a roadblock if they don’t succeed at the skill challenge.)
They want to address different ways to handle it without errata-ing. That might make it into a future DMG. Here are ways to do things differently, not “these rules are different.”
Q: Is the Dragon stuff “official”?
A: All official, RPGA legal, comes directly from the R&D team. They’re also very interested in feedback on the articles, since they’re designed as a test before they go into a book.
Q: Are there plans to write up all the races from the back of the Monster Manual like the Warforged got?
A: Maybe not all of them… Kobolds, for example, are too powerful. (When has that ever come up before in D&D?) They’d like to eventually do most of them for full write up. More of a question of “when” than “if.”
Q: There seems to be a shift towards pregenerated adventures. How does that work with the “three core setting books” idea?
A:They’re trying to give more ideas on how adventures can work together. Also, the pregenerated adventures set the tone for how a certain plays out. Paragon tier has plane-shifting, so paragon tier adventures will contain plane-shifting.
Setting themselves may only get three published books (with one being an adventure), but there will be plenty more in Dungeon magazine. Some settings are very adaptable to 4e, like pre-war Dragonlance (so Warlords can take the place of Clerics.) Dark Sun could have specific equipment tables.
Q: Some have argued that the intention of leaving out classes from the PHB was just to sell more books. How do you respond to that, and will we be seeing Psionics soon?
A: Every previous class from last edition missing has had some work done on it. They don’t want a power source for just one class. They also don’t want to have a class that makes other classes useless. The attitude going forward is they want to support every class with feats, paths, magic items, not like later classes in 3e like the Hexblade that didn’t have as much unique stuff.
Q: In the selection of feats, there are some that come into play every encounter, some every other encounter, and some even rarer. How do they balance against each other?
A: The approach was that since there are more feats, let people keep working on their own path. They want characters to take a variety of feats, some that are all the time, some that are maybe once per encounter, and some that are just a method of customization. Balancing is not just across individual feats, but how are players going to select them. There are less stackable feats, and more customization. The idea was to reward how people want to play at the table and not force them into rigid chains.
Q: Was the power system from MMOs like World of Warcraft? Were you conscious of comparisons? Were you trying to streamline 3.5 or copy MMOs?
A: A combination- streamline 3.5 while picking up on what makes MMOs so easy to get into. Mearls loves hearing that the “game runs smoothly.” The designers tried very hard to make the rules such that if they were designed for something, they just said it instead of trying to hide it. Like a Fighter’s job is to protect everyone else, so that’s now stated up front. Previous editions could feel like a “passive-aggressive friend” that obfuscated what the true purpose of a rule was.
Games are moving in that direction, especially eurogames. Something like Ticket to Ride, you have your three options on your turn, and you know what each of them means. Something like Titan was more like D&D, where there are stacks of monsters and hidden under rules are various percentages. The designers wanted to tell you what was intended, not just teasing. Once you know what’s going on in a game, you can start to make better decisions, and then start making everything more interesting.
Q: Why only one controller and three strikers?
A: They looked at the Ranger and said he was definitely Martial and not Primal. They also didn’t think it made sense to have a controller that dual-wields. The controller had a specific image of a lightly armored character that throws fireballs. Other roles were more generic templates, but the controller was defined by the Wizard. Then they looked at the Warlock as being a controller, but the curses and pacts were more interesting as a striker power. They have a better handle on controllers now, and more will be added.
Q: Artificer role?
A: “I don’t have clearance to reveal that.” As a hint, they’ll probably shy away from adding another Arcane Controller for a bit.
Q: Some feats are very specific, like Scimitar Dance. Was it just a matter of “we need a feat for Drizzt”?
A: At one point in the design, feats were emphasized as being very specific. With the many different weapons in the game that are similar, feats were added to try to make them different. More of scimitar dance style feats are coming to cover all weapon styles. Should see more in the martial book.
Q: 4e more accessible to casual gamers. How did that inform the design?
A: They worked on getting rid of that layer of guesswork. You can sit down at the table and know what you’re supposed to do. When sitting down at an MMO, you are guided to know what you are supposed to be doing right away. Now, you don’t have to push mechanics in directions they aren’t designed to go. You don’t have to go through 3-4 characters to figure out what you want to play. Like in Eurogames, the big trend was to not hide anything from you. People have little tolerance for hiding rules. At the very beginning, you just see what powers you have. Then once that makes sense, you can start doing crazy stuff like kicking over tables with gnomes on them, but initially, new players need guidance.
Q: Cleric specialization: in 3e the domains made each Cleric seem different. Why was that cut back on?
A: There are sample Gods in the PHB, but no actual setting. They wanted to let people pick gods that aren’t in there, and not be tied to rules. Channel Divinity is the hook to put unique domain/portfolio abilities. They definitely want to make clerics more flavored- this get talks about among the designer a lot. More stuff like that coming.
Q: The thievery skill now is just a single number to encompass a large number of abilities, so you aren’t better at some thief skills than others. Why is this?
A: It was Mike’s personal pet peeve: the rogue in 3e gets lots of skill points, but rest of party is depending on you to specifically take 5-6 skills. So then 2/3rds of your points were gone right there. The change was a very specific response to that problem. If they’re all being taken anyway, it’s better to combine them, so you can customize the rest of your skills and abilities the way you want to play.
Q: The game is definitely more accessible to players, but how about to DM?
A: The encounter design system is a big one. Kind of like Warhammer, it’s an intuitive system. Here’s the points you have to spend.
Monster roles: again, just say what this thing is supposed to do. Lurkers hide and pop up, artillery shoots you from a distance, etc. No one in the game world uses those terms, but it’s a game mechanic. If it’s on the monster, it’s meant to be used.
Treasure system: list of 10 treasures for your power level. The game doesn’t know what level of monsters you are fighting, so instead of giving out higher level treasures, treasure is tied to party level. It gets rid of an arcane process to focus on results. More effective.
Cut down on prep time: NPCs and monster creation are simple. CR wasn’t working for that.
Q: There’s a lot of praise for the DMG. Any more on how to be a DM?
A: A big change, again, was to say “this is what the game’s about.” James Wyatt wrote it, but focused on what has worked before in previous DMGs. DMing should be less intimidating. DM is not the entertainer: everyone is here to have fun, and everyone should contribute to that. The future of the game is DMing: the more DMs, the more players.
Q: Talk about yourself and ending up on the 4e team.
A: After college, Mearls missed playing RPGs. He checked out Over the Edge. He joined a mailing list, wrote some things for it, and the designer said he should write more. When 3e game out, Mearls had early access, so he could work for different companies before the game was actually out. When the new edition came out, he sent out emails offering to write early adventures, but only 1 company said yes. By then, he lived and worked in New York City on 9-11 for a Dot Com. After that, je decided that didn’t want to do that with his life and moved back in with parents to write full-time. It was a lot of work. It’s hard to get a full time job doing it, but freelancing is just a matter of knocking on doors. Never be afraid to ask for something you want. For example, Alliance made a castle DM screen. Mearls just sent them an email asking for one, and was able to trade for it. “That way I didn’t have to explain how much it cost to my wife.”
Q: What happened with Grapple?
A: They streamlined it by kicking it and saying “don’t come back”. Mearls read an article on ENWorld about the black box theory: throw in stuff in one end, result comes out. You don’t know what’s going on inside. For grapple, the end result is you have a guy held who can’t move. 3e was not a black box, it showed each step. Grab (as it is now called) is just to stop somebody from moving, not a full-on wrestling system. You’re just trying to stop someone moving. Get the intent, then support it. The monk will be able to take grappling powers.
The game Warmachine has poster with all the rules, but each figure has its own rules. You learn the basic rules, then learn what you need for your character. Other characters don’t have to look at how other people’s rules work. Powers are supposed to be concise and to the point. Just need to know the end result.
Q: How are the podcasts going?
A: In some ways they’re easy since you just go up to a room and talk for an hour. D&D is a community- everyone is going in the same direction. Wizards can go in a new direction, but if they’re not followed, it doesn’t matter. It’s like for Windows, updates happen automatically, and then stuff stops working. Wizards can’t do that. So much is the players and DMs making stuff up- it’s hard to force you to do something you don’t want.
The designers read the messageboards heavily, but don’t always have time to respond. (And sometimes, they just don’t want to step in and get flamed.)
Q: Any more video podcasts?
A: They’re annoying; you have to stay on marks. It was filmed at noon on Friday. Most people leave work early on Friday (some kind of West Coast thing.) But there were lots of interruptions, and it’s hard to be spontaneously funny and then recreate it for a second take. They don’t know yet if they’re doing another one- it was very much a learning experience.
Mearls said that the take that made it in where he’s making fun of coworkers was only supposed to be a practice take. They did another serious take that he thought was going to be used, but they ended up using the funnier one. Now one of the editors is referred to around the office as “Editor #3.”
Q: Opinion of Pathfinder?
A: Whenever there’s a new edition of D&D, there are some people who buy all new stuff, some people who wait to decide, and some people who like the way it is now so won’t change. Pathfinder is good for people who don’t want to move. It’s good for everyone since it keeps people playing games. Jason Buhlman is a friend of Mike’s, and now Jason is going through the same things Mike did.
Q: Any word on D&D Insider?
A: He doesn’t have a schedule (different department). He used to be a programmer, so tried very hard not to do it again. The character visualizer was up at Seattle Game Day. There are some test versions in house- hopefully nearing completion. “I honestly don’t know.”
Q: Care to respond to “only reason to change is to sell more books”?
A: If new editions was easy to get everyone to buy, it would happen more often. New editions are hard work. “Games evolve”- eurogames, computer games, console games all have changed the way people think about games. D&D must remain relevant to what people today think is a good game. Each previous edition had changes.
D&D is very much a product of its time. It’s never an easy undertaking: in fact, it’s terrifying. Hasbro did not have a list that said “either do new set of magic, new minis game, or new D&D.” It’s always a big risk. A gamer used to be a very niche thing. Now, everyone’s a gamer because of video games. When he was a kid, computer games used to be a super-nerd thing, since very few people owned computers at home. Now things like Katamari Damancy show that game are very different. He doesn’t ever want someone to say “this game is too complicated, I’m going to go back and play Final Fantasy“. He hopes that whoever does 5e does the game better, and keeps up with the times and changes what needs to be changed.
Q: I like the new multiclassing: the old system either lead to broken characters or useless characters.
A: Things will break in the new system- that’s inevitable. But people should have a better understanding of what’s going on and why.
Q: What’s something that you feel should have gotten in, but didn’t?
A: All things that would not alter the game dramatically. Ongoing damage at the end of turn instead of start, so you don’t have the weird “I’m not down yet, but I will be at the start of my turn”. Resistances and vulnerabilities could be more interesting. For example, instead of just taking extra damage, something vulnerable to cold could be automatically slowed. Red dragons could still take damage from fire, but if you don’t kill it, they get charged up. Acid things get attacks if doused. If you were making a movie of the game session, it would be clear on cause and effect. It would mean more evocative mechanics that don’t solely rely on DM narration. Of course, right after launch day, these things comes out.
Q: Do you have a powerpoint you wanted to show? (there was a large screen set up next to him)
A: “I’d just show you pictures of my dog.”
Q: Favorite class?
A: Rogue! Back in the 80’s, using his d4 hit points and crappy damage, Mearls swore that one day he would make rogues better.
Thanks to Mike Mearls for answering all those questions!