The James Wyatt Interrogation, Part 1

Table of Contents

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!


24 thoughts on “The James Wyatt Interrogation, Part 1”

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  3. @Gull112
    “We have not been disappointed. In fact, we are very excited. I don’t get what people mean when they say they feel limited by 4E.”

    4E pigeonholes you into a tight, specific role. You’re not playing a Ranger; you’re playing a Striker. You’re not playing a Fighter; you’re playing a Defender. You’re not playing a Wizard; you’re playing a Controller. Don’t you dare make a Wizard that doesn’t put their high score in Intelligence or you’ll be sorry! Suppose I want to make a Fighter that is a dedicated archer?

    “Well, then, you might as well play a Ranger, because he’s got martial powers that support archery.”

    Oh, so the name of the class doesn’t really mean jack; Ranger is just a different flavor of Striker.

    Well, in previous editions and in other games, a Fighter was a man-at-arms and he wasn’t particularly limited to melee combat as he is in 4E. I could pattern this guy in a variety of ways; from Roman Gladiator to Roman Legionnaire, from Mongolian Cavalry to Armored Knight. In 4E, he can only be a Armored Knight; the tank that goes out in front of the party, and he can’t choose very much of anything else. Sure, he can use a bow, but he has no powers to support it, so if you focus on archery as a “Fighter,” you’re only going to piss of your fellow players who are wondering what the heck you’re doing.

    This game makes a lot of very flawed presumptions and forces people to play in a paradigm of its design. It presumes you’re going to have a “balanced” party. It presumes that a “balanced” party consists of a character in one of the four main roles: Defender, Leader, Striker, and Controller. With one extra to spare. Sure, the DM can adjust his game to the composure of the party, but is that really realistic? Would a villain handicap himself just because the party didn’t happen to bring a Defender?

    It is true that in previous editions you wanted to have a good mix of talent and skill to bring to bear so that you can handle the widest possibility of threat, but this wasn’t forced on you like it is in 4E. I’m not saying that Mr. Wyatt and his crew went out of their way to tell everyone you must play with a Cleric and a Rogue and this and that. I’m saying that the design of the game forces you into specific roles that you really can’t branch out of. In previous editions, a Fighter could also be a sort of Controller or a Striker or even, yes, a Leader if he had to be. In this game, even if he multi-classes (which is a spare joke compared to previous editions) he’s pretty much locked in to the role by design.

    This is partly what we mean when we say that 4E limits you.

  4. The last thing I want to do, after writing code all day, is come home and stare at another computer monitor.


    Which, I like to think, is the reason that MMORPG won’t take over DnD- there are too many programmers, out there.

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  6. @Wayfinder
    [quote]And no, I’m sorry, even the best GMs cannot make great campaigns with lousy systems.[/quote]

    I think was directed at me, to clarify, your talking about systems, I was referring to incarnations of D&D. I agree with you that there are many systems out there that are clunkers…

  7. 4E is not the worst RPG system in the world. That honor goes to The World of Synnabarr. 4E is an awful system, geared more for a loose wargame out of an attempt to amuse the MMO crowd than a real RPG, but it’s not Synnabarr.

    And no, I’m sorry, even the best GMs cannot make great campaigns with lousy systems. Assuming that you’re playing as close to the rules as given, many systems just are too clunky and too absurd to be believed. Synnabarr is another great example. This is a game that had you doing a lot of pre-Trig mathematics just to know how far back you’ve been knocked back by an explosion. Palladium’s games are filled with characters that have upwards of five or six attacks per melee in a 15 second combat round. You try tracking them all accurately with four to six people playing at your table and see how far into an adventure you get.

    So naturally you’re going to do a lot of fudging, and I judge a system based on how much you end up doing. So far, the only game system I haven’t ever fudged any rule on is Savage Worlds because I don’t have to. The game is simple and it works extremely well. Granted, it’s not for everyone; it’s not as complex in and of itself as some people like, but you can make it so if you want.

  8. I, like many others here, have been playing D&D since first edition. My group played 3.0 – 3.5 and had fun. Next, for some variety, we played Star Wars RPG and mid-campaign switched to SAGA. Our very first reaction after a gaming session with SAGA was “Hey wow! This is how D&D should play! Lets convert it while we finish up the SAGA campaign and start a fantasy campaign!” A few weeks into our conversion process we learned that WotC was doing the very same thing and we couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.

    We have not been disappointed. In fact, we are very excited. I don’t get what people mean when they say they feel limited by 4E. For one thing, a collapsed skill set gives you more flexibility because you are expected to find a closely approximate skill and use that. When you have a huge skill list there is a greater tendency to say things like, “well, you don’t have disarm natural traps so you can’t do it.” This was a very limiting factor with Rolemaster. I really like the level bonuses because I hope to never hear my ranger player plaintively cry “but I’m a ranger, I should know these things!”

    I read troll rants and thresh out the actual content and dismiss the adjectives and superlatives. Ultimately, if somebody doesn’t like the Ardent flavor, they don’t have to play one. On the other hand, if we want to play a charismatic psionic leader type, well we’ve got that option.

    James, keep doing what you are doing. You are making a game that’s fresh and fun and we thank you.

  9. @John,

    I live in the Whitsundays, which is Central Coast Queesnland. Roughly 1500 miles from SE Queensland or Brisbane where GenCon Oz is. (I’m currently planning on going to the next one). Also i currently have 2 play groups with 6 players in each. So players and gamers in general aren’t hard to find in this country, it’s the products that are almost impossible to find in this country.

    So without the internet i doubt i would have ever been able to get into RPG’s or pick up my 1st rules book and i believe that to be the case for several people. I guess all i was trying to say is that the growing online availiability of the table-top game is more than likely the future and coupled with more people playing video games online and in general, more people may try RPG’s because of games like WoW and the unavoidable restrictions they have.

    RPG’s and MMO’s will never see eye to eye on many things and neither will their players. However i believe they do alot more for each other than alot of people think, but thats just my opinion.


  10. No, I don’t think that MMOs will ever replace tabletops. Too many players I know just hate pc and video games. I’m a dedicated PC gamer, or was, until I discovered tabletops. I’d so much rather play DnD sitting around my dining room table with my friends and screaming battle cries loud enough for my neighbors to hear than clicking on the computer screen and type-screaming at perfect strangers. Computers make you feel isolated, and you never feel isolated in a table top. Unless you split the party. And a red dragon ambushes your cleric and bard while your pally and rogue are off beating the crap out of rat swarms.

    Now, as to forum trolls receiving consideration. That all depends on whether they provide advice as well as criticism. If they have a genuine complaint, and they have a way to solve it, then I say listen to them! Even if you decide not to change a mechanic, maybe it could be an alternate rule. If they’re just there to whine about something, then they probably wouldn’t be happy if you did fix it because then they’d have nothing to whine about.

    Can’t wait to read part 2. Great interview. A chance to pick James Wyatt’s brain….every gamer’s dream.


  11. Good read, thanks…

    As for the 4e debate;

    A GOOD DM can take any incarnation and make it GREAT!

    Basically play the system you want! So much energy has been put into complaining about 4e it amazes me, I think people fail to realize that Wizards of the Coast is a business. Businesses need to make money to stay in business, & they can’t cater to everyone.

    “If they put a new cover on an old book you already own, would you buy it?”
    Probably not!

    I’m old school, I mean really old school, back to the days of Chainmail & OD&D. I remember when you could play an Elf or Dwarf and they were the race & class, good times! But I’ve had good times with every edition, I’ve liked & disliked things about every system! 4e is beautiful in the way it can be easily picked up and understood by today’s newer gamers, it hearkens back to OD&D in a way; you plundered dungeons & fought baddies, flirting about in towns and roaming the countryside was something you did between scenarios and rarely role played it! It took some serious commitment to learn THAC0!

    As for 4e being “limited”, I believe the people that feel that way are lazy or stubborn (or maybe not that crafty!)! Go play the edition/system you want and leave others alone! Just remember it’s a game, it’s about having fun PLAYING!

  12. @carborundum: Sadly articles never revert to free.

    @Bill: Yes, you are a troll. Hating 4e does not make you a troll. Everyone is entitled to their gaming preference and to share their opinions. Absurd proclamations like calling 4e the worst system ever is what makes you a troll. There are many systems so lazy or ill designed they are unplayable. 4e does what it is designed to do, even if you don’t like what that is.

  13. I’m no 4e fan, but “worst system ever made” seems like a stretch. I’m pretty sure there are many more worthy contenders for that title.

    I think perhaps part of the issue–and this is going back to the DDI articles–is that 4e has created in part an insular, closeted community as far as some of the advice and fixes go. This is not an open game, and it suffers both the drawbacks and the rewards of that decision.

    Good interview! Looking forward to Part II.

  14. The comment about being blinkered by the power cards touched a nerve with me. I had that exact feeling when we tried 4e for about six months. I found still found myself looking at the environment, but even that was in the context of “how can I use power a, b or c with that piece of decor?”
    I don’t know how it happened either, and I found it the most frustrating thing of that short campaign. The DM was inexperienced, that probably didn’t help, but some of it was my own problem. I eventually persuaded the DM to let me do whatever I wanted flavour-wise as long as the mechanics stayed the same (eg Range 5, 2d6 damage burst 2) – that made it a bit more fun though it till felt like I could do less somehow. Weird, since it obviously wasn’t the case.
    Anyhoo – after the first year I let my DDI subscrition lapse, and this sounds like the sort of article that non-subscribers need to read. I know I want to! Do articles come into the non-subscriber domain after a certain amount of time?

  15. Geez Scott which part of Australia do you live in? I’m guessing not SE Queensland (home of GenCon Oz and full of gaming) Hunt down the Dragon Coast Yahoo group and find some players etc. ;)

    As to the forums, there seems to be two general things I see; Firstly the play experience of the WotC bodies seems to be different to a lot of forum folks. This creates a lot of disconnect. Look at the responses to the Class Essentials articles to see what I mean. Secondly people’s likes and dislikes vary and on the internet we are all free to share them: so if people dislike 4E for reason x they are free to shout that on every net venue they can, and typically the people that dislike something have more to say than those who like it (afterall the ones that like it are busy doing it…) even if their ideas are misconcieved.

  16. Guess I am a troll because 4E in my opinion is probably the worst game system ever made. I as well as many others feel the same way. If you want to play a MMORPG go play one, don’t make a table top game system that tries to emulate one, does it poorly and label it as the best RPG ever published. Want to play a table top war game? Many other systems currently published do it much better.

    The direction that Wizards has taken with D&D has alienated many fans and potential customers. That’s there loss, and other publishers’ bountiful gain. Thankfully other publishers realize this and are reaping the benefits off of D&D 4E’s short comings.

    Edition wars have always taken place but this one I feel has done the greatest harm to the once great title that is Dungeons & Dragons. Many of us so called trolls will not spend a dime supporting such a train wreck. I have hope the when 5E comes around, Wizards may learn from their mistakes and us trolls can come out of the wilderness.

    TROLL Badge #254,897

  17. “Sometimes we beat our heads on counter tops trying to figure out how to bring people around.”

    Let me just say that as a big fan of 4e who tries to stick to rational debate, you are not alone on that one.

  18. I don’t think MMOs will ever replace D&D any more than MMOs have replaced single player video game RPGs. MMOs provide a very specific experience that I don’t think can substitute for anything else. Also consider the inherent costs of MMOs are much higher. Sure, buying a bunch of D&D books can get pricey, but players can share books and it’s more of a one-time cost. MMOs have subscription fees that you really can’t get around, not to mention hardware costs.

    And in MMOs, everyone’s a PC. For those of us who like to DM, MMOs have nothing to offer

  19. Forum trolls don’t require any consideration, because they, like James himself seems to understand, are not aware (or don’t WANT to be aware) of the solutions to the problems that they cry about. At the same time though, there are people who are labeled as “trolls” (I was called some nasty names for talking about the Ardent over Twitter) that actually have honest concerns about certain things in the game. I hope WOTC listens to those people, as they have so far, making updates and errata and so on.

    The “troll” label is applied too broadly, I think. I suppose it’s because in places like Wizbook, the community is so…I don’t know how to put this lightly, but the flames burn hard on Wizbook, and the lines blur between criticism and crucifixion, so it’s hard for the average gamer to tell whether any negative opinion is worth consideration anymore, since so much of what they are exposed to is overwhelmingly caustic, negative opinion.

  20. Being australian there is literally no support for RPG’s outside of the two major cities and even my journey into the largest shopping centre in the country revealed no store stocking dnd products. That being said it was my eventual boredom with video games that made me look into RPG’s 3 years ago. My friends and i highly value the social aspects and creativity that RPG’s allow. I do not believe that video games will ever be able to replace or completely kill the RPG industry, i just wish and hope that the future holds a larger audience for the industry. The growing availability and resources on the internet for RPG’s will hopefully provide this, but i guess only time will tell.

    Looking forward to the second part of the interview.


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