Check out the first part of the interview, then continue on. Here, we mainly talk with Mike Mearls about R&D/rules questions.
Critical-Hits: We’ve been hearing complaints about lack of customization on fourth edition. How are you going to add to fourth edition as far as customization, and options for classes?
Mike Mearls: One of the important things is that with the structure of the roles, whenever we add new options that are meant for a specific class, we have to work within that class’s structure. The roles are a very important part of the design, and the philosophy of fourth edition is like playing on a basketball team. In earlier editions of the game, all the classes wanted to score. The only function was how much damage you are putting out there, and that’s what you optimize your character for. In fourth, with the roles, we wanted to put out there different ways the characters could excel. So it’s not just who’s doing the most damage, it’s also “I’m the leader, so I’m keeping the party together, and I use my abilities to initiate a cool plan. We can get across this bridge if I teleport the rogue across the bridge, so he can take down that wizard.”
Mechanics that say “we’re going to take this guy in this role, and push him to somewhere else” is something we don’t want to do. That level of customization is really going to remain the sphere of multiclassing. If you want to be a Fighter who uses a bow, your best bet is to multiclass into Ranger. Or if you just see your guy as an archer, just embrace the Ranger class. It is something that if you look at it on the whole it can seem like you have less options, but one of the important things to do in the game is to make options clear. When you chose your character class, it’s not like third edition where you said you’re being a Fighter to get a bunch of ranged attack feats.
I think that’s part of the disconnect: in earlier editions of the game, archer meant Fighter, and it could have meant Ranger- either one. But in the new game, it’s clearly pointing that if you want to play an archer, that’s the Ranger class, that’s what you should be looking at. On some level, that’s the expectation going in, and looking at the system and saying “earlier I did this, and this is the result I got” and doing it again, I’m not getting that result. It’s taking a step back and saying “well, we know what the destination is, we’re taking a slightly different route to get there.” So on that role-breaking level, we’re never going to say “here’s the Fighter class, here’s a bunch of Fighter powers that make you feel like a leader or controller.”
Going forward, it does put a lot of pressure on new classes. If you already have the Paladin and Fighter established as defender, when we make a defender, it’s critical that the new defender play and feel different than the other defenders. Otherwise, it’s just slush, and everyone’s the same. If you look at the Swordmage in the Forgotten Realms, the Arcane Defender fills the same role as the Fighter, but has a much different set of powers. If you’re playing a Swordmage, you feel your tactics are different. The way you defend your party is way different than the rest of the party.
I’m playing a Rogue in one of my campaigns, and when I’m playing with a Fighter, I use different tactics than when I’m teamed up with a Swordmage. If the Swordmage takes on the guy I want to fight, I have to act differently as opposed to the Fighter. Teamed up with a Fighter, the monster doesn’t want to attack the Rogue. With the Swordmage, the monster might still want to attack you, but the Swordmage is giving a different set of benefits. Either he’ll come up close to help, or if I’m attacked, the damage will drop by a lot. I know that if it’s a goblin, which doesn’t do much damage, I can stay right up close to him. Things like that. So we’re really looking for certain levels where you make different decisions on layers of the game then maybe you’ve had in the past.
CH: How are you planning on dealing with power creep? When the Swordmage was released, there was immediately the impression that it was stronger than the other classes. Are you going to let some things creep up, or are you actively going to fight against it?
MM: The goal definitely is to fight against it. It’s interesting because with a class like the Swordmage, who is much different than the Fighter because he does a lot of area bursts and attacks a lot more enemies than the Fighter, it’s easy to slice the class one way and say “the Swordmage can spend a standard action to attack everyone around him, and the Fighter can’t do that.” And that’s an area where, sure, the Swordmage gets that, but then the Fighter gets other options. He can heal himself. He’s better at locking down one guy and saying “now that I’ve attacked you, you don’t want to shift or attack someone else.” Things like that.
One of the hardest things about keeping power creep in check is almost not to go too far and make new things too weak. Playtests might say “wow, this guy can attack everything around it, we need to make everything else weak” but then he’s not good at defending because we’re worried about this one area. One of the interesting things about the roles is defining things in teamwork terms. The defenders are occupying the monsters and keeping them locked down, so you have more latitude to use area effects attacks. We’re not saying that OK, the wizard or the controller is the only guy who can do areas of effect. Anyone can do that, the important thing is the thrust of that attack. What’s the action’s goal. We wouldn’t want the Swordmage to throw a fireball in burst 2 and do a lot of damage and roast all these guys- that’s more of a controller thing. There’s an area we want to go. There’s still a level where we can make burst and area attacks work within the Defender role. That’s an important aspect going forward to keep in mind. We’re not going to look at things and say “area attack, you can’t do that.” That is not necessarily attached to one role.
CH: Have you done any work towards new roles?
MM: Not yet. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s something we ever try. I know there was some talk of trying to make hybrid character classes that span two roles, but in playtests and looking at it, it was just a switch that let you go “OK, now you’re a controller”, flip a switch, and now you’re a striker. At that point, we don’t want to be in a position where the class is not as good in either role, or they’re straddling two roles and they’re just as good with them as everyone else. The trickiest thing is to say if there’s a middle ground there, and if that can ever work. At some level you’re just going to be worse than someone else filling those two roles. You don’t want to be a controller that’s sometimes a crappy striker.
Then you go further than that point: a lot of people have noticed that you have your role, and you have a dash of a second role. Swordmage defender with a dash of controller. That may be enough already. We don’t really need to make multi-role characters. New roles are something I’ve never considered seriously, but I don’t know if in this structure it would be the same as making a new monster role. We don’t see the need yet. I could see in the future someone coming up with a role that’s so iconic that we can’t make an existing role work for it.
CH: Are you thinking about new monster roles in the future? And how are more monsters coming into the game?
MM: There are more monsters in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, and we have plans to release new additions to the core books, so you will be seeing new monster books there. We’ve also announced a new Draconomicon with new dragons and dragon-themed monsters.
SR: That comes out in November. Then there’s Open Grave, the book of the undead.
CH: Which is early next year?
SR: January or February of ’09. Then Monster Manual 2 which is slated for the summer time period of ’09.
MM: I think it just entered development. I think with the monster roles and character roles, if there’s a new concept that demands it, and doesn’t seem to map to one of the existing roles, we’d look at it. There have been a couple times when we’ve been looking at things that almost do that. In Draconomicon, there’s a monster that almost fills a new role, and we looked at it and said “we could see making this a new role, but this guy is two steps away from this existing role.” We tweak it a bit, and we’re not losing anything that makes the monster cool, and it goes into the role. If we find ourselves wanting to do it for a very compelling reason, we’d do it.
CH: With monster design, is there a metric for how many powers a monster gets? For example, there are two level 5 brutes with different amounts of powers, how is that determined?
MM: Two things. First, there’s the story aspect, which is generally the overriding factor. A hydra- we look at what a hydra should do. On the other end, you have examples like the Bugbear. We’re designing Bugbears, and we’re looking at a more utilitarian level of how can you make good Bugbear encounters. A good rule of thumb is how the monster’s flavor adds to the overall encounter. Goblins, for example. Goblin warriors that you are going to have 4-5 in an encounter at once, whereas an encounter with a Goblin Hexer is going to be some kind of important guy. In your goblin tribe, he’s going to be your witch doctor, or your chieftan.
Usually a creature has one power beyond its basic attack per tier as a starting point, then one to three more. As the number of powers grow, you see the story importance of the monster grow. It’s also by role. A brute or soldier doesn’t need as many special abilities. We try to build their abilities into their basic attack. An ogre, he’s a brute, his basic attack does lower accuracy brute damage. He might have an ability that lets him heal or something like that, or attack as a free action when he gets bloodied. When we move to controllers, though, those are more like spellcasters. You want them to have a few tricks up their sleeve to mess up the characters’ plans. The more predictable the controller is, the easier it is for the party to circumvent. “This guy has a slow effect, so we react like this.” If a controller has two to three powers, that’s harder. “We can spread out to avoid this, but if we do, he has this wall, and he can trap the wizard along the corner.” It forces the players/characters to think more.
So generally, it’s based on role, it’s based on level, and this sort of “X factor” of story, what this guy should be doing.
CH: Going back to your comparison about 3rd edition and the roles, how do you think people have responded to those comparisons between 3e and 4e?
MM: It’s interesting because I like to think about it like the newest round of consoles that came out. You obviously don’t want to say “hey, that game that you played and we supported for eight years sucks.” But on the other hand, when you look at the Wii, or the Playstation 3, or the Xbox 360, the Wii got a lot of buzz because it was very easy to see “hey, you’ve got an Xbox or PS2, here’s why you want a Wii.” It’s very easy to see what it gives you that you can’t do on your Xbox. The challenge is, we just came out with fourth edition, we want you to take a look at the new game. The easiest way, and most compelling way, to do that is to just say “hey, if you’re playing third edition, look at this.” If you’re having a hard time coming up with an NPC stat block, well, we’ve solved that.
In a lot of ways, fourth edition is just a continuation of third, in that you could not have fourth edition without third. It really builds on what third started to do. And a lot of it literally just started as what do people in third not like to do and where the trouble spots are. It’s really tough to have that conversation without referring to third, and saying “here’s how it worked then, and here’s how it works now.” Especially in this phase of getting existing players to come along to the next edition. It’s something you have to be careful with, because you don’t just want to insult people. You like the game, we like the game, we played it for years. But on the other hand it gives you this common foundation that you can speak from, so people can understand “oh, I know why you did that.”
Otherwise, you’re speaking in a bit of a vacuum, and it’s hard to explain why things like powers are a good idea. We just want to express that we looked at third edition, and asked “how can we make things better.” We’re looking for trouble spots, and how can we smooth things over and improve them.
CH: Where were you drawing the feedback from where those trouble spots are?
MM: A lot of that was internal. Obviously everyone in R&D plays a lot of D&D. A lot of it came from cruising messageboards. It’s interesting how you don’t see Wizards people posting a lot, either on ENWorld or the Wizards boards, but we read a lot of threads. A lot of it is just seeing the same complaints crop up again and again. I don’t know how many times I saw someone complain that their games took too much time to prep. There were a lot of DMs saying that prepping for their 10th level game was like doing homework. Numbers have to be crunched and a lot of stuff has to come up. We looked at adventures and came up with a new format.
Just looking at what people are doing with our games and figuring out, just how can we make that easier, and how can we respond to what they’re doing. When we started talking about a new edition, we said “it has to be compelling, because this game is good.” We have to find ways that speak to people who play D&D. People who play D&D are really smart about what D&D is and what it isn’t. You’re not just selling cars to someone who has never popped the hood and has no idea what you’re talking about. You have to speak in that sort of technical language, since that’s what people respond to. It is a challenge, because you don’t want people to feel like idiots for liking third edition.
CH: Is is true that the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting sold out in the first few hours of the show?
SR: We sold out of our entire inventory of Forgotten Realms Campaign Settings and Players’ Handbooks yesterday [Thursday of GenCon] but we did get another shipment in this morning. Hopefully it lasts through the show. It’s a testament to the popularity of fourth edition at this point. The Forgotten Realms are being released a couple days early here at the show. It technically doesn’t come out until the 18th. But the Player’s Handbook selling out is a pretty strong statement that it’s a popular game.
CH: We noticed that there are other companies selling fourth edition stuff. Did you know that was going to be happening?
SR: We were aware of it because I saw the solicitation from Goodman Games. I think it’s worth looking at those materials. A lot of those, like the Pearls product from Goodman, are campaign ideas and things like that. Not necessarily rules-type products. I heard there are some fourth edition dice that people are selling too.
CH: How are those different from regular dice?
SR: I’m not quite sure. They’re special.
CH: DM Screen also sold out?
SR: Yep, those are sold out too. I think all the Living Forgotten Realm events are sold out here too. The delve you can walk into and find a session, but the other campaign-style games are sold out.
Something I wanted to touch on about your question about monsters, and new monsters coming out, we’ve put out a number of monsters in Dragon and Dungeon content as well. We just added monsters to the Compendium. There’s 80 or so monsters that have appeared in the pages of the magazine, and we’ll be adding more monsters. By the time we go to pay mode, the Monster Manual will be in there as well. I’ve heard that someone has an application for the iPhone that looks up data from the Compendium.
CH: Is it free?
RB: It’s just a prototype that someone has built for his own use.
SR: It’s his own toy. On my iPhone, I’ve got a pretty fun die-roller.
MM: We had an entire game session destroyed by iPhones. The week after they came out, everyone brought theirs, and installed the lightsaber application. We decided that we weren’t playing D&D that night, we’re playing with our iPhones.
Many thanks to Mike Mearls, Scott Rouse, and Randy Buehler for answering our questions!