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This Week in D&D
Legends & Lore
Mike Mearls

A s I write this, it's the Friday of Emerald City Comicon. One of the nice benefits of working on D&D is that interesting people like to play the game. Felicia Day stopped by the office to visit, and we were able to sit down for a quick podcast. Am I bragging? Is there a point to this story? Yes and yes. Felicia's Geek & Sundry Network is organizing International TableTop Day on Saturday, March 30th. As a creator of tabletop games, I have a vested interest in urging you to grab a game, gather some friends, and take part. Games are fun. Share them with people.

The Right Tool for the Job

There's an old saying that every army is equipped for the last war it fought. Game development is similar in that it's easy to hold on to assumptions about systems and games that might no longer apply because of changes we've made. For instance, our approach to magic in D&D Next is more forgiving when it comes to picking spells than previous editions were. If you guess wrong in D&D Next—that burning hands spell you prepped can't dent the fire elementals swarming around you—you can always spend your magic to cast acid arrow or fall back to a cantrip such as ray of frost.

Up to this point, our spell design has followed a philosophy that worked well in the past. We tried to make spells as versatile and broadly useful as we could. While a spell might not have been the exact fit for a situation, we wanted to avoid universally applicable spells. But as we test D&D Next, it has become clear that we can afford to make spells more specialized.

For instance, fog cloud as currently written in our tests hinders vision for your enemies, but not for you and your allies. We are now looking to modify this, and our change in emphasis means that we don't need to worry as much about making it strictly beneficial. We can make the spell a little simpler and apply its effects to everything. You won't use fog cloud unless you can afford to hinder your allies. If you don't want to do that, you can cast something else. Preparing fog cloud doesn't shut down your ability to use other spells.

This approach is one of the advantages of our playtest. Nothing is more frustrating than finding that old assumptions have led to more complexity or a broken spell a week after new rules for the game release.

Managing Options

We've talked about managing dead levels, a level in which you gain nothing aside from hit points, versus the creeping complexity that comes with piling on character abilities. This topic is critical to managing the transition from a simple option to a complex one, based on what kind of character you like to play.

Our current thinking is to do some renovation to the classes and create the opportunity to add a new ability or improve an existing one where we can. For instance, as a fighter you might have the option to take a new maneuver or improve one that you already have. A fighter's maneuver might increase accuracy, and then it can be improved to grant a larger bonus.

This change is subtle, but it helps the system flex to match a user's needs. It also makes it much easier to manage nonplayer characters with character levels. You can expect that in published adventures and in our guidelines for using classes to modify monsters or create NPCs, we'll show you the bare minimum you need to make a functional character. For instance, an NPC wizard might have only three spells prepared, but if those spells scale with the level used to cast them, you haven't weakened your NPC.

Delving Further into Complexity

Speaking of things being easier to manage, complexity is a big issue for me. I've heard far too many stories about people trying to play tabletop D&D and giving up on it. We know that many people get into D&D by finding someone to teach them, but why design a game that requires this when it does not need to be the case? Giving people the ability to easily jump into the game without guidance from an experienced player and to make the transition from a simple game to a complex one is a key part of a design. And as we move ahead, you can expect it'll be a huge focus after the classes and races are out there being playtested.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.
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