Mike Mearls – A summary of the interview on Tabletop Babble

Tabletop Babble is a new podcast from James Introcaso, once the host of the Round Table on The Tome Show. In his first podcast, he interviewed Mike Mearls. It’s a fascinating interview, where Mike discusses the state of D&D and its future. James kindly gave me permission to post a summary of the interview. Note that this is a summary, not a transcript; it is likely to be very much worth your while to listen to the entire podcast, as Mike and James go into more depth than I do here.

Mike Mearls is the head of the Story Team for D&D. He does long-term creative planning for D&D, which consists of looking at what games they want to do, the storylines they want to explore, and what settings they want to bring back. Chris Perkins may come up with the concept for an individual story, but Mike weaves those stories together with an eye on the bigger picture of D&D, especially in relation to other branded products, such as video games, board games, t-shirts and miniatures. He’s trying to make sure that there’s always something interesting happening. (James Introcaso compares Mike to Kevin Feige…)

Mike believes that the slow release schedule has been a big part of the success of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. D&D can be big and intimidating, and in earlier editions, the breadth of options allowed for many broken (over-powered) combinations, as well as characters that were (mechanically) quite difficult to understand. Similarly, with settings, the amount of detail published for (say) the Forgotten Realms, would intimidate Dungeon Masters, as they didn’t feel that they could get enough of a handle on them to properly run and design adventures in the setting. The wall of information presented by previous editions so daunted potential players and Dungeon Masters that they wouldn’t even try the game.

The new edition has given an opportunity to all these people a chance to do so, without as many of the barriers that were there. The big “shelf of books” was a big part of the barrier to new people picking up the game. There weren’t clear starting points, and there weren’t clear lines of conversation about the game.

That last is interesting. Mike thinks that, in previous editions, because the release schedule was so cluttered, everyone was talking about different things (and the latest book might not get any attention at all). For a new player, it wasn’t clear what to get after the Player’s Handbook, because people were talking about many different products. Now, with the “event” release schedule, conversations are much more focused on the new product. So, new players might get directed to Storm King’s Thunder, because it’s the new product that everyone is talking about.

Another aspect of this is how the digital culture and D&D culture have melded together. Mike compares the D&D experience to one of his current favourite games, Overwatch. In Overwatch’s case, its publishers built the community for the game before the game was released, through a beta release, through announcements and teaser trailers. Thus when the game was actually released, new players discovered there was an active community around the game, making it easier to approach, with streaming and discussions active.

In D&D, the adventures now have blog-posts, podcasts and youtube videos giving tips and people actually playing them, allowing new players a much easier time of understanding how they work and how to play them. If you buy the starter set, you can find lots of advice and videos and other help you play the game. There’s now a convergence around this which makes for much more of a community feel: “You aren’t playing the game alone anymore.” It’s very easy to step into Storm King’s Thunder because that’s what everyone is talking about.

The release schedule thus focuses everything. You don’t have fifty different products to worry about; only a very small number of them. It’s easier for new players to connect.

Mike admits the D&D team didn’t foresee all of this. The decision to have a slow release schedule comes from surveys that indicated people didn’t want to buy lots of products. Mike, himself, never owned that many D&D books. In 2nd edition, he had the Complete Fighter (a gift), and the core rulebooks, but he didn’t have the urge to buy all the other books. Setting boxed sets? Yes, and Dragon and Dungeon magazines. It was only with 3rd Edition, when he had a full-time job, that he started getting everything, but looking back he thinks his 2E collection was closer to the typical player’s than the much more complete set of 3E. The kicker is that he was using barely any of the 3E material he collected.

Greg Leeds, the former President of Wizards of the Coast, challenged the D&D team to think about why they were producing a book (or more) every month. Was this the best business model? Were they sure this is what people wanted? And so, after a lot of discussion, they came up with the three products a year model. It felt like a reasonable pace, where players had enough time to read the products and use it, and so, by the time the next product came out, you’d be excited for it.

Mike is particularly happy with one rule that isn’t in the Player’s Handbook, but is used in the D&D Adventurers League, that characters can only use the Player’s Handbook plus one other source to create their characters. Players don’t need twenty books to create their characters: at most, they only need two. It sets a more realistic expectation of the typical player, the type of player that were excluded by the “you must have it all” philosophy. So, a new player can join the D&D Adventurers League without needing 20 books first.

Mike tells the story of a player who started trying to play D&D 4E using Player’s Handbook 3, because they treated it like a video game, where you always get the most recent core version of the game. The assumption they made was that the first PHB was outdated – and that everyone would be using the PHB3 instead.

So, the accessibility, the community, the slower product release, and the rise of fantasy in pop-culture have combined to make Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition a success.

The rise of fantasy in popular culture is quite important. Back in the 80s, if you mentioned you were playing a dwarf, the default assumption would be the dwarfs from Snow White. With the Lord of the Rings films (and many other fantasy products), dwarf now gets equated with Gimli.

Of course, there’s also the upcoming D&D movie (James attempts to get Mike to tell us the plot, but no luck there). The D&D team are involved in a similar manner as with their other licensees – the team acts as experts on D&D lore, making suggestions on locations, creatures and the like. Thus, their partners might need a big scary monster that isn’t a dragon, and the D&D team give suggestions on what it could be. Likewise, for locations in settings.

In some cases, the team makes suggestion on scenes as to what might be more iconic to the audience; for instance, what spells would be used by a wizard in battle. So, what the D&D team do is try to make sure the show (and products) conform to what people expect from D&D. Mike feels that in the 80s and 90s, studios were pretty casual about existing fans, and didn’t try to make sure the lore was right. Now, the studios understand a lot more the importance of the fans, and that getting them on your side to become advocates for the film or show is very important.

Mike thinks the early 2000s, with the release of Lord of the Rings, the Spiderman films and the negative reaction to the Star Wars prequels woke up people to the importance of all of this.

The Unearthed Arcana column is currently producing a lot of playtest material. The D&D team is approaching this from the viewpoint of story first. The story is not easier to create than the mechanics (it’s very easy to say something does 5 extra damage!) The upcoming mystic (psionic) class is a case in point; Mike thinks they’ve spent more time trying to work out what psionics is in the D&D world. How do psionics work in a fantasy world, when there’s already magic in it, and how do you distinguish the mystic from the spell-casting classes?

The team has worked through a lot of concepts as they try to get the visuals and the story right. Their view of the mystic has become that it’s a lonely vocation. Mysticism is about the self, with the psionic power coming from within, and trying to perfect yourself, and unlocking your inner potential. When the team looked at the visuals of this – how does a mystic look? – they came up with the idea of sculpting an inner astral form with your power. When a mystic evokes a discipline, the mystic is using their perfect self to impose their personality reality on the world. This leads to both looking at the personality of the mystic and its visual appearance.

Another effect of the story-first approach is that, when discussions aren’t all mechanics-based, but rather about the story of the characters and the game, it has proved easier for new players to join in those discussions. Talking about a dragon living in the tunnels beneath a sky-castle is much more engaging than just mechanics. Mike compares with the stories that get told about Skyrim – the stories are about the narrative rather than just “I have a powerful magic dagger!”

James asked Mike about his excitement level for the next storyline… a question made harder for Mike by the fact he’s working up to 5 years ahead, and so has a lot of storylines to be excited about! His answer was fun: He’s so excited about the 2017 storylines, that now he’s flipped into worrying that the 2018 storylines won’t match them! There’s one piece of art he’s been using in presentations that all the licensing partners have become very excited about. Mike never wants to be in the position of saying “We’re experts, we’ve done it”. He always wants to be learning and going forward… but the 2017 storylines are going to be hard to top.

Mike’s been happy with all their products, but he always sees things he wants to improve.

Mike asked on twitter a while back about what products Wizards could produce to help people get off the fence and start being Dungeon Masters. One of the things that has come out of that is that Wizards are now looking at the D&D Adventurers League and what role it plays. Not only in its traditional sense of a campaign where you can take the same character from table to table, but as a way of helping people to become Dungeon Masters and becoming better DMs. Mike suggested that over the next year you’ll see a lot of changes to the way Wizards approaches the D&D Adventurers League – not so much on the play side, but on support side, providing articles, podcasts and videos that help DMs prepare the games, breaking down the preparation step-by-step and producing Actual Play videos to help DMs. So, Wizards will be taking more of an active role on the social and teaching side of things.

So, while there has been a rise in videos showing the art of Dungeon Mastering, Mike hopes to shine more light on preparing to run adventures, and showing that it’s not as hard as some might fear.

It’s imperative that D&D keeps growing; Mike thinks it important that they find the barriers to people starting to play the game and remove them.

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