This month, Wizards of the Coast takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of 4th Edition, revealing the philosophies, insights and decisions that helped shape the development of the game. We speak with Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, compiler and editor of Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters, about what we can expect to learn from this 4th Edition preview!
Wizards of the Coast: We asked a similar question regarding Races and Classes—with 4th Edition releasing this summer, what does Worlds and Monsters offer me as a gamer? Why would I want to pick up a copy?
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: This book offers a first look at the revised cosmology of 4th Edition D&D, with details about the concept and design of the various planes, and gorgeous art depicting their natures. It also provides lots of designer insight into re-concepting encounters and monster roles in combat, as well as some preview art for iconic creatures.
Wizards of the Coast: D&D Insider currently runs its Design & Development column, which takes an inside look at the new edition—what sorts of secrets and insights does Worlds and Monsters also look to provide? What information about the game was R&D looking to convey?
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: This book is largely devoted to designer thinking about the “key conceits” of 4th Edition as they relate to adventuring and building encounters. Such ideas are part of the Races and Classes book as well: The world is ancient, mysterious and dangerous; gameplay should be fun and challenging; mechanics and assumptions that interfere with play should be replaced or removed in favor of material that encourages creativity and exploration.
Wizards of the Coast: One chapter in the book is titled What “World” Meant to the World Team”; can you tell us a little of what the book has to say on this matter? When players start playing their new 4th Edition campaigns, what will their world be like? “Points of light” has been introduced as a concept, but what does this mean for the 4E character just starting out?
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: What “world” does not mean is a default “core” setting, such as Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms or Eberron. Rather, it refers to the environment of play in the D&D game, the set of shared assumptions held by players and DMs. A number of legends (such as the ancient dragonborn empire) and notorious locales (such as the Temple of Elemental Evil) form part of this shared consciousness, but their place in a given campaign is entirely up to that group.
The player characters are surrounded by a wide, mysterious world that is itself only one of several unlimited realms, each with a distinctive feel and unique opportunities and threats. The DM decides which, if any, of the legendary details apply to his or her game, and how they relate to one another.
Wizards of the Coast: Beyond the known (physical? material?) world of us mere mortals, what tidbits does the book have to say about other realms where adventures will likely take place? What can you tell us about, say, the Feywild? The Shadowfell? Or the Elemental Chaos?
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: Five planar realms are known to exist, with another mysterious region hinted at in dark whispers. The known planes are: the world (what used to be called the Material Plane); two reflections of the world, the grim and dangerous Shadowfell, and the magical but equally dangerous Feywild; the Elemental Chaos (including the Abyss, home of demons) below; and above, the shining Astral Sea, home of the gods’ Dominions. Scholars of the arcane and bizarre hold that a strange, extraplanar space called the Far Realm also exists, home to weird and incomprehensible horrors.
Wizards of the Coast: What role will the Far Realm will play in the game? Does mean we’ll still be seeing plenty of aberrations: beholders, mind flayers, aboleths and the like? (And on a related minor note, did you receive a “Snowball” as a holiday treat?)
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: The new setting certainly links aberrations more thematically. An aberration isn’t just something that looks weird and tentacly (although most do), but is born of or linked to the madness beyond, what some mortals call the Far Realm. Some of them have a purpose, beyond the ken of ordinary beings, but many are the result of “leakage” from that strange world into neighboring reality.
And yes, Snowball resides with honor on my living room mantel. It’s frosterrific!
Wizards of the Coast: As we move a bit more from the worlds to the monsters, what could be a more iconic monster to the game than the dragons—what insights might the book have to offer on these legendary creatures? For instance, I hear that metallics aren’t quite the same dragons anymore?
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: The designers spent a lot of time with dragons, as you might imagine. For decades, dragons have had traditional features, some of which actually interfered with using them as adversaries. The game is called Dungeons & Dragons, yet dragon encounters can be intimidating to a DM. With a dozen age categories, a multitude of special abilities in addition to the iconic dragon breath, as well as the “build-by-numbers” style of the 3rd Edition dragons, an interesting dragon opponent can take many hours to prepare and present an overwhelming number of choices. In addition, as powerful as a dragon might be, it is a single opponent that takes one set of actions against a well-armed party with four or more sets of actions every round. Against such odds, it can’t present a real challenge unless it significantly outclasses the PCs—at which point, the encounter risks becoming a TPK.
In 4th Edition D&D, dragons have been redesigned as satisfying solo opponents. They can do things to interfere with PCs’ actions, take extra actions on their own turns, and stand up to the pounding of a group of opponents—essentially behaving as a group of monsters. Each dragon has an iconic suite of powers that is no longer diluted by additional details such as minor spell-like abilities or arcane spellcaster levels. We’ve simplified the age categories, eliminating those at the younger end and consolidating others, so that good dragon challenges exist at each adventuring tier.
Metallic dragons have traditionally been good-aligned. While flavorful and important to the “ecology” of dragons, the practical effect was to remove half of the available dragons in the Monster Manual as opponents. How often do PCs go up against good creatures? In 4th Edition dragons are more, well, dragonish. They are all ferocious and greedy creatures, with chromatic and metallic dragons distinguished more by personality than alignment. While chromatics tend to be destructive and cruel, metallics focus more on control and power. These differences are reinforced by the dragon’s special powers. The varieties of metallic dragon have undergone a revision as well, with some less well-defined kinds giving way to new ones with distinctive natures.
Wizards of the Coast: Other notable categories of monsters would have to be demons and devils. There are hints of changes taking place with these fellows as well—what does the book have to share about the shakeups to the Abyss and the Nine Hells, and their respective denizens?
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: Previous editions of the game created demons and devils with parallel roles, differing only in alignment and minor abilities. Thus, you had the demon succubus and the devil erinyes, the demon balor and the devil pit fiend. In 3rd Edition, demons and devils had different suites of resistances and immunities, but these didn’t distinguish them enough. The Fiendish Codex series did a lot to further distinguish the two: demons as agents of chaos and destruction, and devils as tempters and plotters.
With 4th Edition, the two have been set apart: demons kill, devils subvert. Demons are native to the Abyss, a corrupted region of the Elemental Chaos. They are elemental beings that embody chaos and ruin above all, and they are monstrous in appearance. These are the brutes and skirmishers of combat encounters. Devils, on the other hand, are beings of the Astral Dominions. They control realms and are well-organized, tactical masters, the soldiers and controllers of combat.
As a result, a few former demons and devils switched sides to better align with their combat roles. The succubus, for example, uses deceit and temptation to further its ends, and is thus much better suited as a devil than a demon.
Wizards of the Coast: Let’s talk about D&D and 4th Edition in general. When did you find out that a new edition would be in the works, and what were your first impressions of the idea?
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: I learned that we were starting design on a new edition in mid-2005, which is when the first design documents started to be written. I believed that the game did need to be overhauled but wasn’t so sure what the timeframe should be. We did an early playtest that summer. That first playtest was memorable for how much it didn’t feel like D&D—in my opinion, of course. It’s changed a lot since then, but that early game was fast and furious, with lots of options in combat. The best of those features have been retained in the final version, while keeping the game recognizably D&D.
Wizards of the Coast: And finally, have you encountered any of the 4th Edition creatures firsthand while playtesting the game—and how have you found them in comparison with their predecessors?
Jennifer Clarke Wilkes: I’ve been running playtests with my own gaming group as well as lots of testing at the office. I find that having distinct roles in combat makes building encounters much simpler for a novice DM like me, and it’s easier to run creatures that have a few solid powers that complement their theme. I’ve run a dragon encounter and found it to be very challenging to the players but not overwhelming for the DM. I think the monster that impressed me the most as a player in the new edition is the purple worm. That is one scary encounter!