Ego Check: Mike Mearls, Senior Manager of Dungeons & Dragons Research and Design Team

Several months ago, I posted an interview with Monte Cook, which was the result of an effort that started in January to interview a member of the Dungeons & Dragons Next Design Team. After Mr. Cook left the project, I continued to communicate with Public Relations staff within Wizards of the Coast in the hopes of contacting a member of the design team. These efforts recently led to the opportunity to interview Mike Mearls, the Senior Manager for the Dungeons & Dragons Research and Design Team.

Mike Mearls

At the same time, I also realized that many others have interviewed members of the Design Team and Mike Mearls even hosted an extensive Ask Me Anything on reddit to answer specific questions about D&D Next. I decided that if I had the chance to interview a member of the design team that I would ask questions that relate to topics I have written about for this site – or as in the case of the psychology of ownership – topics I am in the process of writing [look for a series of articles on this topic in the coming weeks]. In the following interview with Mike Mearls, he was kind enough to offer responses to these questions.

Below, he talks about the challenges and opportunities posed by the shift to digital media in our culture. He discusses the benefits and limitations of designing and playing D&D as part of a job, and responds to my belief that D&D and other tabletop roleplaying games have not advanced far beyond stereotypes that are approximately 30 years old. We conclude by discussing the role of the Dungeon Master and how D&D Next can be structured to take the creative burden off of the DM’s shoulders.

This week will bring a flood of D&D news and information with Gen Con, but let this whet your appetite and give you something to read as you are traveling to Indy . . . or stuck at work wishing you were traveling to Indy!

Roleplaying games face the same reality as other forms of media – consumers are now more than satisfied to not own physical products. Netflix, Hulu, Kindle, Nook, iTunes, Pandora, Spotify; these applications and products have changed the very nature of what it means to own movies, television shows, books and music. How does this effect publishers, designers and players, and how can the RPG industry adapt to the new culture of ownership?

RPGs are in a fairly peculiar place. They are a mix of the physical elements used to play the game (books, dice, maps, props, miniatures) and the non-tangible, knowledge elements (the rules, fictional and imaginative elements, etc.). While players can pick up and play with the physical pieces, those pieces also grow to become as much a part of the gaming experience as our memories of friends, game sessions, campaigns and so on. The thing is, those physical elements become something different for everyone. They acquire significance based on our individual experiences. I’m reminded of the Skin Horse from The Velveteen Rabbit:

You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

The painted Ral Partha miniatures I used in my AD&D campaigns are very much Real to me. They’re badly painted, often damaged, but I wouldn’t dream of repainting or fixing them. I’m a little sad that I lost the three sets of orange dice I bought for GenCon 2000. I used them in my first games of 3e and Living Greyhawk. I think those are the things that really matter to RPG players in terms of physical objects. As creators, we have to think of any item we make as something that has the potential to become Real, in the sense the Skin Horse is talking about.

An aura of nostalgia.

A lot of the other elements of RPGs, the rules, how your task resolution works, the modifiers to your attack for firing revolver at a crinos form garou from the back of a speeding train, that sort of stuff isn’t really likely to become something people want to own in a physical sense. They can know it and even enjoy it, but that’s not where a real sense of attachment is going to take hold. In other words, in the 21st century it isn’t enough to think of your game as a rulebook or a reference. If you’re asking people to make room for it on their shelf, you want to give that item the potential to become something that will acquire an aura of memory, nostalgia, and reflection 10 or 20 years later.

For most people, Dungeons & Dragons is a leisure activity that is enjoyed with other players whenever those people can carve out enough time in their busy schedules to get together for a few hours to play. What is a typical day like in the lives of those designing Dungeons & Dragons Next as their job, and how has that influenced the actual enjoyment of playing the game?

A typical day looks a lot like a day in any other professional office setting. We have meetings. People go out for Indian food every Wednesday at lunch. We argue. We have deadlines. The biggest difference is that since we’re all gamers, we have a shared activity and a game that can pull people together. If anything, I think this environment allows you to take an even greater enjoyment in the game. The biggest barriers people face to playing D&D – time, finding a group, finding a DM – aren’t in play here.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that’s always a good thing. It’s easy for us to lose sight of how the typical gamer interacts with D&D and how they want to play it. You can design a game where the typical fight lasts an hour, knowing that your group meets at work every Friday afternoon for four hours. You have plenty of time to fit that in. Things change if you play once every other week, for maybe two hours depending on schedules.

In the mid 1980’s, Dungeons & Dragons was equated with devil worship and teenage suicide (the 60 Minutes’ clips of the controversy). It was a fringe activity and hobby that did not move beyond those associations and stereotypes in popular culture. Even today, the game is poorly understood as the question I’m asked most often when I say, “I play D&D” is, “Do you dress up for that?” Meanwhile, other hobbies such as video games and comic books have found acceptance in popular culture.

Why – in close to 30 years – has the image of the roleplaying games such as D&D remained entrenched in old stereotypes? What can be done with D&D Next to bring the hobby closer to mainstream understanding if not acceptance?

I think the number one thing to combat some of the negative stereotypes is creating a much better sense of awareness and accessibility. When you look at D&D and other RPGs, the starting point is almost invariably a book. A book is pretty daunting to a new player. People have a sense that they have to read the entire thing, memorize everything, or they’ll look foolish during the game. Most people don’t even bother to start. I think that inability or lack of desire to even take that first step helps set up those misconceptions. Most other activities are pretty easy to describe in terms of what you do physically. Like, if you wanted to introduce someone to volleyball, you’d describe the net, the ball, and how each side serves and returns shots. Describing the game draws a clear picture of how you play.

Since RPGs take place in the mind, you can’t really draw a clear picture of what happens when you play. It would be like trying to describe completing a math problem to someone. The physical activity isn’t the actual action. I might be able to write numbers on a piece of paper, but that doesn’t help me complete an algebra problem. And honestly, the staggering majority of people aren’t even remotely interested in a pastime that has more in common with algebra than volleyball.

Given those barriers, I think we need to explore finding an easy interface. If you look at how computers have changed over the past decade and change, you see that interfaces are becoming easier and easier to use. I think that’s hugely important for any activity that doesn’t have an obvious physical component. That doesn’t mean D&D needs to rush to miniatures or grids or physical components. We just need for new players to take that first step from being an “outsider” to developing an understanding of the basics of the game. From there, they can begin to enjoy it and entrench themselves in the game.

Luckily, digital media makes that all far easier to implement. We can start to look at video, interactive web content, and so on, to drive that sort of understanding. We’re moving beyond text.

Removing all rules and mechanics from the equation, Dungeons & Dragons consists of a group of people communicating with each other to play the game. One component that seems missing from the rules of the game is a primer for effective communication for all players and the Dungeon Master (DM). The rule books for 4th Edition wonderfully prepare the DM and players to understand the rules, but the practical advice on how to interact with players and manage the game is more difficult to find. How could the decades of “know-how” experience held by the D&D Next team be included in the rule books in an easily assessable manner for DMs and players?

I think the first step is to really look at how people learn stuff in the 21st century. Like, if I want to know about Vlad the Impaler, I just Google his name, read a Wikipedia page, and then follow-up other links for more details. We need a Wikipedia, or a shared knowledge base, of good DM skills. The collected knowledge of all the DMs in the world would be far, far more useful than a 20-person R&D team trying to answer that question.

In some ways, RPGs are way behind every other form of creative expression here. Everyone thinks they’re a good DM, but nobody really knows if they are or not. If I’m an artist, I can go to art shows, galleries, or whatever and get a sense of the current styles, what’s interesting, what’s controversial, and so on. In that example, people can sell their art, so there’s an obvious reason to become immersed in a scene, learn from others, network, and share ideas.

Follow Mike Mearls on Twitter just to see the AWESOME Star Man graphic from Pro Wrestling on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

For RPGs, that activity has really focused on game design, how to build a setting, and so on. There are DMing resources out there, but we really lack a clear definition of what makes a good GM. There are competing schools of thought, but even those are muddy and lack clear boundaries. We’re still stuck saying, “A good DM runs a good game.”

In my mind, RPGs as a form are stuck in a rut. We’re like painters who spend all our time debating colors and mixing new tones, but nobody really wants to talk about what ends up on a canvas. We all just assume that it’s good, or that what everyone else is doing is terrible, or whatever. I’d like to see a real movement to treating DMing as a form of expression that can be honed and improved over time, that is an outlet for an individual’s creative voice and point of view.

There is a segment of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master Guide that reads, “It’s not the DM’s job to entertain the players and make sure they have fun. Every person playing the game is responsible for the fun of the game.” However many believe it is the DM’s primary role to entertain players, and the structure of the rule books place the vast majority of responsibility for preparing and running campaigns on the DM’s shoulders. How can D&D Next involve players more often so the burden on the DM to entertain is reduced to a more manageable level?

I think this goes back to what I talked about in my last answer. I 100% agree that the DM is an entertainer, and in that role we have to think of what we can do to make the DM’s life easier.

To me, that comes down to rules that are transparent, easy to use, and easy to modify. On top of that, it’s about providing good, concrete examples of DMing styles, practices, and techniques that work at the table. In some ways, a DM needs to find his or her voice and bring that to the table. I think the best thing that a DM can have is confidence, in his or her grasp of the rules, understanding of the setting or adventure, and ability to improvise.

There’s an obvious need to make sure that it’s easy to prepare for a game session, to create NPCs, monsters, and so on. I think there’s room for us to improve upon creating good adventures for DMs. So far, we’ve relied on giving DMs fairly linear scenarios that progress from one fight to the next, and trying to make it easier for them by taking all the complexity and nuance out of it. Instead, I’d like to focus on creating adventures that make a DM’s life easier by cutting down on prep time while also issuing a challenge to the DM’s ability so that they can develop greater skill and greater confidence. Challenging a DM pushes him or her to step up and deliver a great performance, to challenge the characters and to keep things moving forward.

D&D Next

As far as players go, I think there are two things we can do. First, by placing a reduced emphasis on complex, time-consuming player combat abilities, we can loosen up the game to focus more on the action of the game as a whole, including interaction and exploration. Second, it’s vital that we present character creation as more than an exercise in number crunching. We’re framing stuff like backgrounds and specialties as reflections of your character’s life and story, not just powers and abilities to pump up your combat capabilities.

In an RPG, a character is much more like a character in a narrative, with a past, quirks, and a fully fleshed-out personality. Some of the most interesting, enjoyable D&D sessions occur when a character takes an adventure in an unexpected direction, but one that fits right in with that character’s personality. Some of my favorite playtest stories for D&D Next involve characters who have seized control of humanoid tribes in the Caves of Chaos, or who used trickery and diplomacy to set one monster group against another. The game is far more interesting when players take on roles, not in the sense of the rules or a “job” as a member of a tactical unit, but in terms of portraying an interesting, unique character.

Thank you for being so generous with your time and spending so much energy to make D&D the best game possible for all of us. Good luck with all the work that remains with D&D Next. And I hope you have an excellent Gen Con and PAX Prime!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

15 thoughts on “Ego Check: Mike Mearls, Senior Manager of Dungeons & Dragons Research and Design Team”

  1. Well ID DM thanks for taking the opportunity to persist with Mike and to frame such interesting questions many of which i hope, we’ll see distil into rules and concepts that really do take the game forward. Only sorry that our friend Sam couldn’t take the trouble to say anything more constructive.

    1. Thank you for the support. I set out to avoid specific mechanic and rule-based questions. I realize that type of thing may not be for everyone. No worries!

  2. It’s good to know that these topics are being thought about (now, if not before) when developing #dndnext. I think that brief interviews like this really can help direct the progression of the game, and it must be a great feeling to know that your emailed questions could do so.

  3. Heya Id DM!

    That is one of the best interviews with mike I read over the last couple of months. Thank you.


  4. Thanks for the insightful interview. I’m glad you stuck to your perspective and asked questions some people don’t ask (or stopped asking); Mearls brings up some good points and musings regarding some important issues with DM’ing. I, too, personally think leveraging technology to lower barriers to entry into tabletop gaming and provide a better interface for “newbies” is definitely a good, achievable first step we can make to bringing this experience—this expression—to the mainstream masses.

    1. You are most welcome. That was a topic of discussion during several panels at Gen Con – using technology to introduce new players and educate current players about quality DM’ing techniques. I think there are exciting things in store for D&D (and RPGs in general) in the coming years. The possibilities to strengthen and expand the hobby are limitless.

  5. Since one Sam piped in and lambasted your article, I will step in and represent the other Sams. Thank you for posting an insightful and interesting interview filled with questions of the type one does not usually see when talking about RPGs, especially DnDNext. Keep up the good work!


    1. Well, my name’s not Sam, but…
      …Agreed. These are not questions I would ever think to ask, but I found some of the responses given by Mike to be fascinating, in displaying how he views the realities of D&D and RPGs today, particularly.

      So that’s a -1 from Sam #1, +1 from Sam #2, and a +1 from some other guy.

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