Q&A: Mike Mearls on D&D’s legacy, creating 5th edition and Barnabas Bladecutter

If you’ve recently been combating the rise of Tiamat or falling in love with the new bard class, you’re welcome to thank Mike Mearls.

Mearls is the lead designer for Dungeons & Dragons, and he’s been a game designer with Wizards of the Coast since 2005. It’s his name in the credits for the rulebooks of the 5th edition of D&D, which he succinctly called “the preeminent roleplaying game that defined an entire genre.”

Amen.

We spoke to Mearls recently about the game, its legacy and the what went into crafting a new edition that would draw in new fans and keep veterans rolling those d20s.

We also spoke about Barnabas Bladecutter, a thief of great repute and Mearls’ first D&D character.

Crit for Brains: D&D has been going for 40 years now. What is it about D&D that’s so appealing?

Mike Mearls: Dungeons & Dragons brings people together in a unique and compelling way. Lifelong friendships have been forged though shared story-telling experiences, whether it’s around the gaming table or through digital expressions of the game. It’s the “you had to be there” moments you relive for years to come.

CFB: How long have you been playing D&D?

MM: I was first exposed to D&D in 1981, but I really didn’t start playing the game for real until about 1985.

CFB: Do you remember your first character?

MM: My first long-term character was a thief named Barnabas Bladecutter. He started out as a typical burglar and dungeon explorer but eventually became a robber baron who controlled multiple important trade routes throughout the land. As a money-obsessed thief, he learned that it was easier to make money by cornering markets and establishing himself as a middleman than by fighting monsters. Why fight a dragon when you could negotiate a protection racket between it and the king for a reasonable, 10 percent fee?

CFB: What do you think has made D&D so popular for so long?

MM: D&D is a unique blend of storytelling, heroism, and adventure that is totally customizable. The only limit to where D&D takes you is your imagination. The world of D&D contains some of the most iconic fantasy monsters set against some of the richest, most storied landscapes.

CFB:  So, let’s talk about 5th edition. What’s different about the new edition compared to past ones?

MM: This version of D&D brings a few things to the table. To start with, it’s been designed to be as accessible and easy to learn as possible. It’s the perfect time to try out D&D if you are curious about the game but haven’t been able to get into it. For the first time in a long time, we designed the game with new players in mind.

If you’ve played D&D before, the game feels a lot like a greatest hits compilation. It has a focus on roleplaying and storytelling of the earliest versions of the game, combined with the clear and elegant rules of newer versions. We’ve designed the character classes for flexibility, allowing players to make customized characters that echo their favorites from the past while also leaving room for new concepts.

At the end of the day the combination of accessibility and flexibility are this edition’s hallmarks.

CFB:  How do you innovate on something that’s already so successful?

MM: On one hand, an established game comes with a deep set of expectations and requirements from its fans. People who have played D&D know what they want, and it’s important that the game deliver on that.

On the other hand, with so many dedicated players it allowed us to reach out and conduct an open playtest of the new game. With nearly 200,000 people taking part, it was a great test kitchen for new concepts. D&D is blessed with players who take the time to understand the rules in a very deep, comprehensive way. As game designers, we can have conversations with players on a level that allows us to try new things and get good, clear feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

If you look at fifth edition, you’ll see a lot of streamlined mechanics that bring new things to the game while working within the framework of D&D’s identity. It’s hard to change the details of a game to improve it without changing its identity. Our open playtest allowed us to pull that off by focusing on the changes and new ideas that had the biggest benefit to players.

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