Lead Developer Mike Mearls Answers Questions About “Dungeons and Dragons Next”

With a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons on the way, the roleplaying community is abuzz. With the goal of unifying all past editions, and their player community in the process, the Wizards of the Coast development team seems to be producing a D&D master set, operating under the working title of “D&D Next.”

This week I had the chance to pick the brain of Mike Mearls, head ofDungeons & Dragons development, and he gave me some insight into what spurred this new evolution for the game.

MTV Geek: How long has “D&D Next” been in serious development? I imagine there was some turning point where the WotC staff decided that it was time to put their focus on a new edition, and I’d love to know more about what caused that decision.

Mike Mearls: In late 2010 we started looking at the long term future for the tabletop RPG. Two things became apparent. First, we had a divided audience. Second, if we kept altering the core of 4th Edition, the division would only become more apparent.

Like all good ideas, the concept of pulling all the editions into one game seemed like an obvious good idea, once it came up. One of our employees had come up with the initial idea which he used to work up an RPG system for his home group. After talking with him, the R&D team went back to each edition of D&D and started looking at the places where they overlapped with each other and how they were unique. That kicked off the process that led to where we are today.

Geek: How did recent efforts to engage the casual player relate to this decision? I know that products such as the new Red Box and all of the board games were well received by the community, but I don’t have a feel for whether they actually succeeded in expanding the player base, assuming that was their intent. Did the Red Box sell up to expectations? Were the board games a hit outside of the core board game fan audience?

Mearls: Stuff like Castle Ravenloft had a big effect on our decision, as it showed that we could focus the tabletop RPG on its strengths rather than worrying about incorporating the latest trends in gaming. If board games, or whatever category is hot, can support a D&D game then we can just create a game to meet that need. Personally, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how broad an audience our board games have attracted. I don’t have any hard numbers I can share, but anecdotally we’ve heard a lot of stories about people trying a D&D game for the first time through experiencing the board games.

The D&D Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set in the red box has also been a real success for us. It highlights the importance of having a good intro product—something that is definitely on our radar as we plan for the future.

Geek: What is the strategy for allowing this new system to be so flexible? Are the designers looking to scaffold layers of complexity on top of a base game, or take a more modular approach where groups could go down different branching paths to customize the experience to their liking? Or is there some other strategy beyond what I’m conjuring up here?

Mearls: We don’t have specific plans yet, as we’ll be running stuff through play testing to make sure it resonates. I can say that starting with the simplest base possible is likely a given, as it’s far easier to add complexity to a game rather than take it away.

There are really two paths. Player complexity comes down to how you present and organize character options. In some ways, the idea of letting people make 4e, 3e, AD&D, or Basic D&D style characters is the easier challenge, as we can tackle it by creating flexible structure for classes and options. For DMs, it comes down to something similar: a simple but robust core, built from the beginning with an eye toward extension and flexibility.

A big thanks goes out to Mike for taking the time to answer these questions. It definitely seems that “D&D Next” is quite far along for only having been conceived in late 2010; the jump from announcement to playtesting confirms that as well. I look forward to seeing how the finish product turns out, and hope that it is able to execute on these lofty goals.

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