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What Is The Next Dungeons & Dragons?



Last week, Wizards of the Coast finally pulled back the curtain to reveal that a brand new edition of the world's most well known role-playing game is on the way. As the longtime centerpiece of the tabletop role-playing hobby, as well as the chief inspiration for dozens of video games over the years, it's no exaggeration to say that Dungeons & Dragons has had a profound influence on gaming and gamers, whether you play at a table, in front of a screen, or some combination of both.

The most recent edition of the game released in 2008 to mixed reaction from fans. Its intricately balanced classes and highly tactical combat excited many enthusiasts, and drew many new players into the fold. However, its dramatically different approach to gameplay systems, non-combat encounters, and highly specific rules alienated some, many of whom continued to play older versions of the game, or switched to other role-playing systems.

Since its announcement last week, one feature of the newly announced edition has been placed front and center; Wizards of the Coast wants to unite the disparate groups of players who love the game, and craft a functional and fun definitive version of the game. How is that even possible? We went right to the source, and put some questions to Wizards' Mike Mearls about what longtime players (and potential new players) can expect out of this newly announced venture. 

Just to get started, what is your name and title at Wizards of the Coast, and what is your role in connection to this new edition of D&D?

My name is Mike Mearls, and I am the senior manager for the Dungeons & Dragons R&D team. I’m in charge of shaping the creative vision for D&D. I work with my staff to come up with the big ideas that we want to implement in our product lines, including the RPG, board games, and miniatures.

Early messaging on the new edition of the game is strongly focused on the idea of unifying the varied groups of players out there in the gaming world.  How is that possible, given some of the dramatic differences in rule systems between the different editions?

We want to create a shared foundation that people can build upon, so it’s really about creating a slim, easy to use set of rules. From there, there are two basic paths.

Players can pick their own style and complexity within a class. Think of it kind of like having a $10 budget to spend on lunch. Some people will go to a restaurant and buy a $10 lunch special. Someone else might spend that $10 by ordering a few different things off the menu, rather than a special. Someone else might take that $10 and go to the grocery store to buy all the ingredients for a recipe they like. The idea is to put everyone on the same scale, but then allow people to burrow into the level of detail they want.

DMs have a similar process they can go through, adding optional rules to flesh out their campaigns. Those options can range from creating a unique list of races or classes for a setting, to adding in special rules for things like managing a kingdom or waging a war.

I’m hoping you could shed some light on what fundamental concepts remain key to the new edition. In other words, what elements of the existing D&D game are absolutely essential to bring into a new edition, whether in terms of game systems, storytelling, or atmosphere?

We actually went back and played every major edition of D&D and used those experiences to help narrow down the absolute core elements of the game. If you removed those elements, it’s not D&D. Our list includes the six abilities, classes, levels, hit points, Armor Class, and a few other things. In many ways, the list creates the shared language that links the editions.

Of course, the most important element of D&D is the DM. We found that across all the editions, the DM was more important than the specific rules. Supporting DMs and giving them the tools to create the campaigns they want is an important goal for the project.

4th edition D&D pushed forward the concept of powers as the core elements of a character’s class, and was in many ways a new approach to play. Does the new edition have any fundamental new ideas in that vein that will be core to the game experience, or is the new edition entirely built around drawing ideas from older versions of the game?

It’s a little too early to say, but I think our approach to slimming down the game and putting the focus on the absolutely essential elements of D&D and then building upon those elements will be a defining aspect of the design.

While many gamers praised the tactical and balanced combat of 4th edition, other players hoped for deeper non-combat interactions. Is the out-of-combat gameplay an important focus for the new edition, or do you see combat maintaining its primacy as the central feature of the upcoming system?

One of our mantras is to let the DM and players decide on the focus. This is where the idea of a strong foundation and flexible rules that can be layered upon comes in. It isn’t the job of the D&D rules to tell you how to run your campaign. The rules are tools that you use to create the campaign you want. That’s a big part of our design philosophy.

[NEXT UP: Can D&D succeed without an open license for third-party publishers?]

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