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!