I recently had the opportunity to sit down with James Wyatt, the Design Manager for Dungeons & Dragons. It was an informal interview in his dining room while his 12 year old son hovered around in the background. We discussed D&D glory days, the encroachment of MMOs, 5th edition and more. As it turns out James can talk an awful lot about D&D once he gets going, so the interview has been divided into 2 parts. Part 1 is below and part 2 is here.
Dungeon Mastering: Lets start off with the classic softball, tell me about your first D&D character.
James Wyatt: Oh, wow. It was so long ago that I’m not sure that I remember. I have very vague memories of a dwarf fighter. The early character that I remember the best is the ranger that I played. I still have his character sheet. Fafrinar was his name, Fafrinar Laurëfalma. Human ranger I think. He and his magic user friend M.U. Aiy advanced up to 17th level in first edition AD&D. I remember – this was me and my friend Evan playing D&D together with no DM because it was just the two of us – fighting Yeenoghu. Basically, M.U. Aiy took care of the demon prince and I took care of all the gnolls. Because if I remember correctly, I got multiple attacks against creatures lower than X number of hit dice and just ended up standing on top of a huge pile of gnoll corpses. That’s what I remember about my earliest D&D characters, more or less.
DM: How is that different from what and how you play today?
JW: Oh my gosh, *laughs* I was 10! Yet not much different, really. In many ways the adventures are different, but the play experience is not all that vastly different. Then as now, I like to think about characters as people and personalities and live their lives going through-
*looks back at his 12 year old son in the kitchen, who is cutting himself a piece of cake the size of his face* You thought would take advantage of this distraction to snag a piece of cake? *laughs* I don’t get these kind of interruptions at Gen Con.
I mean, the rules system is very different. The fact that my 17th level ranger had nothing to do but swing his sword round after round while his magic user friend had all the fun taking on the demon prince. That fight would go very different in 4th edition, in good ways. And the way 10 year olds *looks back at his son again* or almost 13 year olds play D&D can be very different from the way from the way that 40 year olds play D&D, in terms of the willingness to go Monty Hall for yourself and your friend’s character. Gosh, but we played some pretty deep, immersive story adventures back then too. So I don’t know. In some ways it was very different and in some ways very similar.
DM: For as long as I’ve been playing D&D, about a decade now, I’ve been hearing that tabletop games are dying. That MMOs are going to replace them. Do you think that D&D is at any serious risk of being replaced by video games?
JW: One could argue that it already has. The audience for Warcraft is so much bigger that the audience for D&D that from a big business standpoint it is almost not worth comparing them. The flip side of that is no, it never will. Even if the audience is not what it was back in 1982, and I’m not positive that it is not, there will always be a group of people who prefer sitting around a table *chuckles* or even playing over the internet chatting with their friends live (DM note – James is a player in my online D&D game using Skype and Map Tools).
More than that, I think, the imaginative experience. One of the the things that helped me get Carter (his son) back from World of Warcraft to D&D is that he got frustrated with the limitations of the game. Computer game technology has advanced tremendously and I’m sure will continued to advance, but I don’t think it will ever be a substitute for having a DM at the table who will let you do whatever you want to do, who can bend the rules in ways that make the game more fun for everyone. The dungeon master is the reason that D&D is such a great game. Until or unless computer games can find a way to replicate that, I don’t think it will ever fully supplant D&D.
DM: The ardent class was just revealed to D&D Insiders. From what I’ve seen it was very well received flavor-wise, but mechanically it was very similar to the warlord only with the power point system. That has caused some consternation that the four rules are as deep as they will get mechanically and now we’ll just get classes that are mixes of old mechanics. What do you have to say to that?
JW: I would be very very sad to discover that we have run out of design space 3 years into the edition. I don’t think we have and if my design team tries to tell me we have I might have to look for new designers. *laughs* That is mostly a joke.
There’s a lot of overlap between the ardent and the warlord thematically. It might be that the flavor overlap led to the mechanical overlap. We wanted a psionic character who was fighting up in the front line and very literally inspiring allies. He does it in a more magical way than the warlord does, but with very similar effects. But it’s also the fact that we’ve only seen half of the ardent in print.
The ardent build that we published is the one that is more warlord like. I think the other build is different in some interesting ways. I think the other build is different in some interesting ways – *pauses* should I talk about this? – sure, it’s more about inspiring your allies to fight more fiercely and with more courage and dedication.
DM: If you read web forums you’re going to find people say “oh, this is the worst designed class” and “4e is World of Warcraft. Basically whatever you do some group somewhere is going to hate it. Do you and the rest of the design team take that personally? Do you even consider it?
JW: We take it seriously when it is warranted. We try not to take it personally. Being in this business requires a certain amount of thick skin and I think we’ve all developed it by now. But yeah, it bugs us, at least it does me. We have a lot of conversations about what are the flaws that people are perceiving and what are some ways to address that. Like the Dungeoncraft column that I wrote last week that just went up. One of the things that column was reacting to when people say “I don’t have as many options as I did in past editions” because they feel constrained by their power list. You might be playing a fighter who never had a power list power before so you felt like you can do anything. But now you’ve got a list of 7 powers and you feel like you can’t do anything but those things.
I don’t understand what is going on in people’s brains when they talk like that, but I think there is something there and it is something worth addressing. Anything that we can do to help people understand or be inspired to reach out and branch out to different options, so much the better. There is an extent to which I despair because I’m not sure that- like the story telling chapter in DMG2 – are the people who say that D&D is not an RPG anymore even going to see that and be aware that it exists? Should we consider their opinion based on that? And who is going to read my Dungeoncraft article? I don’t know, 25 people maybe. But it is out there.
I posted a satirical “Yes, 4th Edition is World of Warcraft” article on my Wizard’s blog years ago now. Talking about how we’ve introduced things like aggro radiuses, grinding, solo play and magic items are hugely important and it is all about the end game. It was full of blatantly false stuff and some number of people thought I was being serious, which terrifies me.
We hear it, we listen to it. Sometimes we shrug it off. Sometimes we beat our heads on counter tops trying to figure out how to bring people around.
Do you think MMOs will ever replace D&D? Are forum trolls worth consideration? Give your thoughts in the comments!