ne of the fun parts of working with a public playtest is that player feedback compels us to reconsider how we do things and to look at our traditional assumptions about Dungeon Masters, players, and the game. The biggest goal of the public test, beyond simply kicking the tires and making sure the game works, is to rebuild the connection between the R&D team and the public. It's important for us to be in tune with what people want from D&D, how people play the game, and what they like best about the game.
D&D's tone is just as important as its contents and functionality. What we choose to talk about, including how R&D addresses that topic, is more important in many cases than what we actually say. Let's imagine that we're showing off a new demon lord—let's call him Bob. We could take two approaches to presenting Bob, but let's assume that Bob went through the following steps in design regardless of how we present him:
- We created an interesting backstory for him that fits in with established D&D lore.
- We designed his mechanical abilities so that they are balanced and clear.
- We made him a powerful guy, and he is a tough challenge for even the highest-level characters.
Now, let's consider two different approaches to how we talk about him in the adventure where he first shows up.
In the adventure, we present Bob's backstory as a brief narrative. In the adventure, he is trapped inside a tomb within a dormant volcano. Bob has the ability to conjure whirlwinds and air elementals, and the adventure text points out that during a fight he tries to hurl the characters into the lava that flows through the tomb as the volcano rumbles to life.
This point is where things could diverge. In one approach, we explain Bob's ability to conjure whirlwinds because he once conquered a region of the elemental plane of air, slew a mighty elemental prince of storms, and claimed his powers. In the other approach, we tell you that Bob is a controller, and because of that he has abilities that allow him to move people around in a fight.
Depending on your point of view, either approach or both approaches can make a lot of sense. The truth is that we use both a story and mechanical basis for everything we do. Even if we don't tell you that Bob is a controller, the person in R&D who designed his abilities knows that Bob needs to do something useful and powerful, with a focus that makes sense, to threaten the characters. The trick is looking at how DMs want to think of the game.
Many DMs prefer to keep things at the story level. They don't want game constructs—things that explain or frame mechanics but don't appear within the game world—to stand at the forefront. They want to approach the world as a fictional place, where things work the way they do because of elements that arise from the setting rather than the rules. The evil duke sends twenty orcs to ambush the characters because he has twenty orcs on hand, not because twenty is the "correct" number to challenge the party by the encounter-building guidelines. If the characters are powerful enough, they might wipe the floor with the orcs. If they are weaker, they might have to flee or surrender if they want to live.
On the other hand, many DMs prefer to start with the mechanics first. They want to see the numbers and design intent up front. The duke sends the right number of orcs to ambush the party, where the "right" number matches the difficulty the DM intends for the fight. Are the characters meant to surrender? Then it's twenty orcs. Should the characters steamroll the orcs and find a map among their possessions that points to the duke's hideout? Then it's six orcs.
Neither approach is inherently better. I've played with both types of DM and have had a good time, and I've also run D&D using both approaches at different times in my life. The big question boils down to this: how does R&D present the game? Both types of DM want a different approach. Does one have to win out over the other?
I believe that we can use both approaches, as long as we're mindful of how and why we're doing it. An entry in a book like the Monster Manual might be driven entirely by the first approach. The entry frames everything in terms of story and the immersive elements of the world of D&D. Monsters don't have roles, they have backstories and cultures.
On the other hand, our encounter-building guidelines should speak to our more technical-minded DMs. We give crystal clear advice on how to balance encounters. We give you a list of every creature and tell you what it's best at. The DM who wants to be an architect crafts encounters with a fine precision. The story DM rolls on random encounter charts or just picks the creature that feels right. The DM in the middle uses what he or she wants from the tools we've provided, rolling on tables, assigning things, or taking the time to sculpt a battle.
In other words, a monster has a role when it's time for us to talk about that monster as a mechanical element in the game. When it's time to talk about the monster as a creature in the universe of the D&D game, then the monster has a backstory. A monster has both, but we talk about each in the correct context. As a DM or player, it's up to you to determine how you want to look at the game. Do you start with a list of monsters by level and role, or do you flip through a book looking for creatures that are greedy and foolish enough to strike an alliance with a cleric of Cyric? When the characters head to the Amedio jungle, is your first impulse to sort creatures by their typical climate and geographic territory, or would you happily reskin a yeti into a jungle brute if you liked the yeti's mechanics? If we're doing our job right, it doesn't matter which approach you prefer. The game supports both without making one or the other feel wrong.
At the end of the day, the key is for R&D to understand how gamers approach D&D and how they interact with it. If we understand your viewpoints, we can build a game that accommodates them without triggering a fight between them. That understanding is at the root of the D&D Next process.
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.