The James Wyatt Interrogation, Part 2

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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 can be found here and part 2 is below.

Dungeon Mastering: Lets talk about campaign settings. Dark Sun is coming out, people are excited for that. What is the process for deciding which setting is next going to be adapted?

James Wyatt: That’s top secret.

DM: The process itself? Is it like electing the pope?

JW: *laughs* There are a number of factors that go into it. Our brand team has a say in it. In R&D it is usually the senior members of the staff who fill out each year’s schedule. That would be Bill Slavicsek , Chris Perkins, Andy Collins and myself, usually Rich Baker and Mike Mearls. Then broading the circle to our lead developer Steve Schubert and our lead editor Michele Cater. Usually the book department is involved in that kind of decision as well. With Dark Sun specifically, it almost felt like a no-brainer. I felt like we had been on the verge of doing it towards the end of 3rd edition’s life and decided to hold off because it would be so awesome in 4th edition. I think it is a really great match to the game system.

DM: If you got to make the full decision, what would be your choice for the next setting?

JW: I really want to do something new.

DM: That was actually my next question.

JW: So bringing something old back would not be my first choice. I really like what we are doing with Ravenloft on Insider with the Domains of Dread web series. I have a very dear place in my heart for Ravenloft, but not as a setting. As a set of rules and atmosphere that I don’t want to treat the same way again. I have no great love for Spelljamer, but it has been kind of folded into our idea of the Astral Sea. I never got into Mystara. There’s always Greyhawk, which is not a huge personal favorite of mine but I had the very first Greyhawk book. I kind of lost track of Greyhawk during second edition. What am I forgetting? Red Steel! No, I really want to do something new.

DM: So next question, are we going to see a completely new setting for 4e like Eberron was for 3rd edition?

JW: Almost certainly. It is just a question of when.

DM: Last question. If you were going to start work tomorrow on 5th edition, what would you change?

JW: *long pause* It’s funny, that question used to send me into a tizzy. It was like when we were in the middle of remodeling our kitchen and my wife would say “when we get around to remodeling the bathrooms-” AHHH! I don’t want to think about the bathrooms! I’m still working on the kitchen. I’ve since grown beyond that and part of being in R&D is thinking about what comes next.

I wouldn’t change the big picture. There are little things I would change. The way we are approaching updates to the game now is releasing errata and rules updates all the time so the game is always growing and changing. We can tweak things as we go. Every once in a while things come that we say “oh gee, it would be nice if we could fix that but it will have to wait until 5th edition” because it is too big of a change. I’m trying to think if I can remember any of them off the top of my head. The point is the changes we would make would not be on the scale of change we made from 3rd to 4th.  I expect when we do 5th edition some day it will be in line with the continuity of where 4th edition is now. We would probably tweak the math here and there. We might- hmmm… *long pause*

DM: What about rituals? Would you change rituals? Because that would be high on my list.

JW: Yeah, I’d probably change rituals. *pause*

Magic items! I’m not very happy with how the magic items system came out. Tracking daily uses is awkward. The number of slots the characters makes it easy to fill up on too many items and there are too many items in the game that could use a nerfing. So players who are really pay attention to that sort of thing can make characters that are really just broken, primarily through the item system. Probably because of legacy, magic items are trying to do too much. Up through 3rd edition the things that made a fighter cool were magic items. Now he’s got all these powers and the magic items are competing in the same space. At higher level in particular, crowding powers out. That would probably be the top thing on my list to fix.

DM: Would you change ability scores? The scale based off rolling 3d6 when really you just need the modifier?

JW: I went into the 4th edition design process assuming we were going to do that. It was one of the things that I kept coming back to in the design. We as a department talked a lot about the things that penetrated the pop culture. When The Onion can write a headline “Bill Gates gives self 18 charisma”, some significant number of people understand what that means. If we change the game so there is no such thing as an 18 Charisma anymore and instead he gives himself a +4 Charisma, it puts a distance between the people who used to play it and the people who play it now. One more barrier of communication between those people.

It’s funny because you will still see something like Wil Wheaton twittering something about failing his will save. But we never had will saves before 3rd edition. That’s a fairly recent introduction to the game that is now gone. So I will say something like “the chex mix attacked my will. I am now dazed and immobilized (save ends both). With my will saves I’ll just be standing here eating forever”. Hopefully the people who follow me understand that but it doesn’t have the same penetration yet.

The other thing about ability scores instead of just modifiers is I think there’s still some granularity to putting an even or odd number in your score. I don’t know if that’s worth keeping them in or not. Other than that it is just the legacy.

What campaign setting would you pick next? How would you write 5th edition? Share your thoughts in the comments!

22 thoughts on “The James Wyatt Interrogation, Part 2”

  1. Pingback: Tirando o máximo dos rituais
  2. @Jonathan Drain: You’re absolutely right, and Mike Mearls’ own game is a Fourth Edition Greyhawk campaign using Temple of Elemental Evil elements.

  3. My friends and me play our games with a combination of 1st edition, 2.5 edition, and I think a bit of 3rd. Its pretty much house rules though. We make due and we have fun.

  4. I like the EL system. The DMG is clear about how to provide encounters of different difficulties. In the last campaign I ran, the most enjoyable session had the most difficult encounter the group had had. Putting them in a situation in which they were really in danger and they had to think of a solution more complicated than just attacking made for good times for the group, and therefore for me.

  5. @Siliaris: I completely agree. If I was changing 4e I would roll the ritual system into utility powers and give characters a lot more of utility powers. Maybe have class specific utility powers and power source specific ones and characters can pick from either of their two lists.

  6. I love 4e mostly, however would love more powers.
    The best feature of 3e was the multitude of random utility powers, and i’d love to see a combination of the two systems.

  7. On points one and two, metagaming isn’t always bad. When it comes down to it, separation between in- and out-of-character knowledge is an unattainable ideal. What we can realistically hope for is functional separation in which the player’s out of game knowledge is used to enhance everyone’s roleplaying experience. That may mean acting such that there is no evidence that you have that OOC knowledge, but it could mean, for example, having your character do or say things that add a sense of dramatic irony to a scene which would be completely over the heads of that character. The problem really comes when people metagame for pure advantage at the expense of other people’s fun. At any rate, Metagaming and Roleplaying are not opposite ends of a spectrum in my view. The Sons of Kryos podcast had a great discussion of this a while back, but I can’t remember/google up the link. This sort of play may not be for everyone though.

    Points three and four seem directed at Nicholas’ interview rather than my comments.

  8. @Anarchangel-
    And I’m obviously a lousy typist. Thank you for overlooking that!

    1) True, No edition changes encouraged roleplay–but many changes discourage it by encouraging metagaming, which is on the opposite side of the same continuum.

    “In role-playing games, metagaming is the use of out-of-character knowledge in an in-character situation. A character played by a metagamer does not act in a way that reflects the character’s in-game experiences and back-story.”

    2) Mechanical complexity is not the problem I am seeing, though certainly, this was quite the conversation back in the late 80’s and early 90’s (ever play Aftermath???)
    Some people will always see too many rules as encumbering. But I also find what people think is an issue and what an actual contributing, underlying root causative agent to be very different.
    An actual zero-sum game, one of them (because there are more than one), is “Roleplaying vs Metagaming.

    3)Your interview mentions (as many conversations do) the competition between pen & paper/live/adjudicated games and MMO’s. And BTW, I liked your basic answer.
    However, one would think, from the rules development direction of the last few generations of D&D, that you were trying to minimize the differences between the two.
    Obviously, this is not the reason these rules have been adopted. There have been important demographic and design reasons. I ascribe nothing but the best reasoning to you and yours.
    But when looked at purely from the perspective of developing a ruleset to highlight the differences between the two, I think you actually emphasized the parts of the game where you are similar and reduced the parts of the game that would actually set you apart.

    4) Again, I am not advocating any major changes, but ‘advanced options’ that would not only create a larger offering, but enlarge a buying demographic.

  9. @LordVreeg: Heh, I’m clearly too used to any mention of comparison between editions turning into a ridiculous shitstorm; no offense intended!

    Quite right, you never mentioned 3e and I take your point about the long view. I can’t really think of any change between any of the editions in the degree to which roleplaying was encouraged with either mechanics or rhetoric. Is it that people see Roleplaying and Mechanical Complexity as a Zero Sum game?

  10. @Anarchangel—
    Where do you seem me mention 3e?

    I wasn’t a big fan there either. So interesting the assumptions and automatic defences people have….no edition wars here, my friend.

    I find 4e has moved in this direction a bit more, but I agree 3e was similar in that regard. I agree that neither does anything mechanically to promote roleplay, I just 4e actually takes things that I already thought were reducing the roleplay element and went further down that road.

    My real-world job is to analyze outcomes in my indsutry at the largest scale possible. I don’t want edition wars nor do I find them useful. I seek a larger demographic capture through advanced options, as opposed to a single dividing canon.

  11. A quote from one of the great dragons of time.

    “Let the fire that burns inside your heart light your way and guide you down the path of good, only straying from this path to do what you belive is morally right.” — Morten The Great

  12. @LordVreeg: I don’t want to start an edition skirmish, but I honestly don’t see how 4e is any different to 3e in this regard. Both give guidelines for GMs for creating balanced encounters; both have massive lists of powers with prereqs that encourage advance planning; neither does anything mechanically to encourage character roleplaying. None of the people I play with do anything differently in terms of character optimisation and roleplaying at the table. I don’t know why some people seem to see such a dichotomy between the two editions.

  13. I’d wish they could build some ‘advanced’ or ‘alternate’ ruleset that would give GMs options in retaining more of the role-play feel of earlier editions. Many rules, such as EL or wishlists promote metagaming player thinking (e.g., I know no matter what would be logical to find in a situation, the GM will only throw something level apporpriate at us), and unfortunately, metagaming is the oppostite of roleplaying.

    I feel like many of the additions and priorities of the game have moved in this direction. And I am not advocating a fullscale change, but alternate rulesets might bring back the roleplaying crowd that departed as the rules put the roleplaying in the backseat.

    I don’t think it was a consious decision to do this, mind you, but the above mentioned rules and others like it have certainly tilted the game in this direction; and some alternattive rulesets may allow the game to straddle both worlds as it moves to 5E.

  14. Personally, I think that Spelljammer would be good for the same treatment that ravenloft is getting.

    As to a new setting, I recently started reading dragonlance novels and I think it is close enough to the normal setting that I’m note sure it would be necessary to create two books for it, perhaps just to appease fans of the series. There are other settings that this might work for, but I would love some sort of new setting but with the progression of settings, it seems like its getting further and further from being ‘normal’ fantasy. I only worry that they are going to just start to leave behind every bit of what D&D once was.

  15. I like Greyhawk, but it’s very easy to play in 4E without any new books. You just need a copy of the third edition Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, and a little imagination as to where the new classes and races came from.

  16. Thanks, it wasn’t that tricky to find myself, I just thought I’d give you a heads-up.

    Great interview!

    If I was in charge would totally bring back Spelljammer, but beyond that I’d go for something new. I wonder what the other design contest winners that they have locked away have up their sleeves… I think I’d like to see some sort of Carribean Waterworld with flying islands.

  17. I’d say to keep the stats as they are. Partly because of legacy, and partly because so much of the game right now is instant gratification – stats are one of the few things that aren’t. You start out with a 13 so you can take a feat, and you have to wait another four levels to get that +2 bonus. But you end up better off in the long run than that the guy who spent the points to get it up to 14 right away, but has lower stats elsewhere.

    “Encourage us to embrace the card!”

    You’re right, I want to shoot you. :) I still don’t understand the point of power cards.

  18. I would like to see them bring back Al-Qadim. I am looking over at my shelf full of 2e Al-Qadim books and boxed sets trying to figure out a way to tweak them to be usable in 4e.

  19. Next campaign setting? Avatar. Seriously. Throw a curve ball with a bighuge Movie license tie-in that sends D&D spinning in a whole different direction to the core. Show them what D&D as a rules engine is capable of, and bring in a ton of new players all at the same time. Profit? I think so.

    For 5th Edition (and I’ll probably be shot for this) produce it in two forms: Digital only as per D&D Insider (Character Generator, Monster Builder, Compendium, etc) and as a collectible card game. Sell the Monster Manual as a pack of cards. Sell us Arcane Power in deck only form. Encourage us to embrace the card!

    Sell us the PHB, DMG and as books too, of course, but everything else make card based. Even adventures – sell us dungeon tile sets with pre-build delve layout suggestions and mini booster decks of monsters.

    Heck, I’d buy it.

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