RPGamer Feature - Jeremy Crawford Interview

The hustle and bustle surrounding Dungeons & Dragons was difficult to ignore at this year's Gen Con. Rather than ignoring it, I decided to go straight to the source and see what Jeremy Crawford, one of the lead designers, had to say about what he had wrought. Attentive RPGamers may know the name Jeremy Crawford from his work on Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition and Blue Rose.

This was a round-table interview, so my questions are mixed in with the rest. Can you guess which hard-hitting dirt was uncovered by your pal at RPGamer?

Jeremy Crawford: Nice to meet all of you. I'm Jeremy Crawford, one of the lead designers of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons as well as the managing editor of tabletop roleplaying games at Wizards of the Coast.

A legion of reporters, speaking in perfect unison: Two years ago, Mike Mearls stood up at the Gen-Con address and said, "We're going to give D&D back to the players." There was a huge playtest. Give us a sense of the scope of the playtest.
JC: The playtest, as far as we know, is the largest playtest any tabletop game has ever had—not just any roleplaying game, any tabletop game, period. We've had over 175,000 playtesters over the course of two years. As you can see, if you've looked at the playtest packets over the past two years, there has been a tremendous amount of evolution, even from the final packet to what you see in the starter set and the Player's Handbook.

In addition to that large body of playtesters in the public playtest, we had a group of playtesters that we called our alpha playtesters. They signed a non-disclosure agreement, and they were seeing information that the public was not. That was over 100 groups, each group of five to six people, so that was on top of the public playtest. They were often giving us very rapid feedback on material that we would revise, sometimes every other week. They were champs. We would sometimes revise a whole section of the game, send it out, and say, "We want feedback from you in two weeks," and they did it.
What this meant for us was creating processes that we never had before. We always incorporated playtesting into our work, but we had never incorporated it to this scale. The person who really took point on processing this insane amount of feedback was Peter Lee.

Peter Lee is one of the designers of the board game Lords of Waterdeep, and he was the guy who was taking line after line after line of feedback and sifting through every line of it. I like to bring that up because sometimes there's skepticism: "Did Wizards go through this?" Yes, actually, we did. It required a person working nearly fulltime for several months, just on this, but it was worth it. It bore all sort of fruit for the game because it helped ensure that we really were listening to the thousands of people who love D&D. It also highlighted for us at times things that we thought we were going to need to change, but it turned out we didn't. There were things we weren't sure were going to work, but everybody loved it. There were other times where we confident. "Oh, this is absolutely a thing that should be in the new game," but the playtesters showed us otherwise. It was a very fruitful and dynamic process over the two years.

L: It feels to me like the game has gone back to its roots. It feels like you've taken the best bits from each edition. Is that right?
JC: That's certainly been our goal, so it's gratifying if it seems that we've hit that goal. As we've said many times when talking about the new edition, our goal is to draw in all the treasures from the game's rich history. I guess another way I would put it, instead of being a reaction to the edition that came before it, our goal was simply to make a great edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Even D&D, at times, has engaged in an edition war with itself, and we wanted no part of that. We wanted simply to dive into our own legacy, which is vast and beloved, and draw in all of the best aspects of that legacy. I think you've seen that in what we've come out with so far.

L: What are some of the major changes between 4th Edition and fifth edition?
JC: I would say one of the biggest changes, and it's a change that distinguishes the current edition from both 4th Edition and Third Edition, is we stopped mandating the use of miniatures. That might seem like a minor thing, but the decision, specifically in 3.5 and 4th Edition to hardcode the use in had a ripple effect through the entire ruleset. Simply by removing that requirement, that made it made it possible for us to have combat rules that are no longer than 10 pages. You'll notice in the Player's Handbook that the "Playing the Game" portion of the book is the shortest portion. It meant that the rules overhead could be much lower.

It also meant we could provide a broader range of play options. You can still fully support the use of miniatures, as many people (including myself) love to use miniatures. But it means we can also make it so that if you want to have a D&D game around a campfire or in your living room lounging on your sofa, you can now do that again, which was possible in first and second edition. You could certainly do it with Third and 4th, but you were often going against the grain of the rules expectations. Really, that goes to the heart of our goals: to get as many things out of the game that are going against how people want to play. We know that D&D has such a huge audience that people have a vast array of ways they like to experience this game. I mean, some people like to experience it as a hardcore tactical miniatures game, and that's an awesome version of D&D. Other people, on the other end of the spectrum, like to experience it as an open-ended theatre of the mind roleplaying experience, and that's also an awesome version of D&D. Most groups, we have found through the massive amounts of data we've collected, fall somewhere between those two extremes.

L: Can you say a little more about the existence of more optional rules in this edition?
JC: There are optional rules already in the materials we've released, like the Player's Handbook, sprinkled all over the place. Now, some of them are flagged as optional rules, so in the Player's Handbook you'll see multi-classing and feats are both optional rules. But we've also embedded this approach of options everywhere. That's why when you pick your class, for instance, you'll invariably be presented with a really meaty choice.

You're not only going to be a fighter--you're going to be a champion, a battlemaster, or an eldritch knight. Each of those choices not only gives you additional features, but also shapes your game experience in a particular way. That is another way that subtly we are trying to address this idea that people like to play D&D in different ways. That's why in the fighter we have the champion, which is really meant to evoke the early edition fighter, and it's really there for the people that we discovered through the playtest—there were thousands of them—and we weren't sure of this until we collected this massive amount of data, but there are indeed people who want to play a fighter who just goes in there, has a ton of hit points, and hews off heads and does so with very little fuss. We also know though that we have another group of our audience that wants a much more tactical experience—something more akin to what they would experience with the 4th Edition fighter or with some of the options in Third Edition. That's why we constructed the battlemaster.

In each of those cases, you're not only getting different features, the whole play experience is different. We've also expanded that to the class designs themselves. You may have noticed there's a lot of asymmetry among the classes, and that's intentional. We've made it so that when you pick a wizard versus a warlock, sure you have some different spells to choose from, but the spellcasting methods themselves are different because we want your class choice not only to be an aesthetic change and a story change, but the overall experience changes to feel different. We want you to feel in that next campaign, when I play a rogue instead of a barbarian, it will truly be a different experience. That's why you'll see a lot of unique mechanics in each class.

L: Can we talk a little about past editions just briefly? Over the past several years, you've put up a lot of old stuff on DrivethruRPG. Are we going to continue to see that? Are we going to see books that support more than one edition?
JC: As long as there are still old edition products for us to release in digital form, we will continue to do so. People have loved D&D Classic stuff; I love it because there's a lot of old edition that's fantastic. As for the 4th Edition character generator, our plan is to keep it going. There's no reason for us to shut it down, and there are many people who want to continue their 4th Edition campaigns. Our position is we are the shepherds of Dungeons & Dragons and not a particular edition; we're happy to support the people who want to keep playing 4th Edition.

I realize, going back to the previous question about options, one of the areas where people will see a lot of new rules options is in the Dungeon Master's Guide. The Dungeon Master's Guide, which we're working on now—the Monster Manual is finished—in addition to having the usual guidance you would expect (creating an adventure, campaigns, and being filled with magic items), also is kind of a kit-basher's guide and has a lot of optional rules so that a dungeon master can fine tune the experience. In some cases this is to emulate certain rules that were present in previous editions, but also to insert rules that are new to this edition.

L: What do you feel you've learned from the playtesters and the other competition on the market?
JC: We always keep an eye on not only what other roleplaying game publishers are doing, but also board games. We pay special attention to fantasy roleplaying video games, particularly because so many of these other games are inspired by D&D. We like to see where the seeds planted in D&D grow in these other media.

We're also all gamers, so we're constantly inspired by awesome designs we see elsewhere. Other than that, we play other people's games, we read them, and we also keep an eye on what's going on with the market. One of the surprising things actually, speaking of the market, is when we would survey the kinds and frequencies of what kind of products people would like to see, the message that came back was there was the desire to not see so many game mechanics. Our goal, long term is to keep our grip on the amount of game mechanics released; our grip is going to be pretty tight. People really want to see exciting adventures, inspiring stories. DMs want tools to create innovative campaigns moreso than new rule upon new rule upon new rule.

L: How do you keep the sense of structure that D&D founded? How do you balance that with freeform storytelling?
JC: We do that largely by having a solid core ruleset. We've talked before about how important it is to us to have a base ruleset that is simple, solid, and extensible. What we've found in our design is that we could've gone one of two ways with the system: we could have gone very complex and tried to account for every corner case that might come up in every campaign, or we could go very simple and create a simple, extensible core that a DM could then riff on or other products could build on. Obviously, we went with that second choice. The problem is if you build really large up front, it's much harder to take material away than it is to add to it. With this approach we can, at a later date, create more elaborate add-on with a far more complex set of rules and that can rest on top of the foundation we've created. It would be much more difficult if we started with a complex foundation and tried to take a bunch of it away.

L: Would you say that's like the very early D&D like D&D Expert?
JC: The thing is we're building that even in the core books. You'll see in a particular class, making one choice over another, like with the battlemaster/fighter, you've actually added a rules module on top of a really simple class. If you add multi-classing, you've added an additional layer of complexity. If you add feats on, that's an additional layer of complexity. If you add the grid rules that we have in the Dungeon Master's Guide, well, you've just added another layer, right? But again because the core's simple, solid, extensible, it's not that difficult to layer on those options.

L: How important is role-playing in Dungeons & Dragons? It felt to me like 4th Edition was basically a war game. There were so many powers and combat took forever. But now combat is very quick, and I think that feels more like the D&D that I grew up with.
JC: It's vital. D&D is, at its heart, a storytelling game where everyone at the table is a collaborator in the creation of the story. We felt it was important to embrace roleplaying and embrace it in a prominent way—not only on the character sheet, but also in the amount of pages we devoted to it in the Player's Handbook on personalities and backgrounds. Partially to wave the flag of storytelling and roleplaying, but also because if a group isn't into a lot of storytelling and roleplaying, and they really do want a more tactical "fight monsters, get experience," it is much for them to ignore the roleplaying material than it is for us to have a game that's serving just the tactical play and having to try to make it clear that there's still a roleplaying game.

L: If you had to explain the core mechanic to someone who had never seen a roleplaying game, could you describe that gameplay mechanic in two sentences or less?
JC: I don't know if I can do it in two sentences, but I can do it in a few. If you're the player, you describe what your character does or says. That might be as far as it goes. The DM then says how the environment or other characters respond. If dice must be rolled, it's usually just a twenty-sided die—you add the relevant number from your character sheet and that number is compared to a target number to see if you've succeeded or failed.

L: So it really hasn't changed that much from Third and 4th Edition? How do you take that system, which works, and move it into this iteration and improve upon it?
JC: One way we've tinkered with that system is with the introduction of the mechanic of advantage and disadvantage. As you all know, throughout D&D's 40 years, in every edition there has been a parade of bonuses and penalties—little +1 here, -1 there, -3 there, +4 there. We still have bonuses and penalties in the new edition; however, we've found that keeping track of them could slow things down and create a bookkeeping experience. As we were working on the core system we thought, "OK, everything comes down to this roll of the d20. This is the core mechanic." What could we do to get it to do more work for us? We could scoop up a lot of these situational modifiers. We ended up with the mechanic of advantage and disadvantage.

It's actually something we experimented with a bit in some of our class and power design in 4th Edition. For example, there's a version of it in the avenger class in 4th Edition. Mike Mearls was the one who had the light bulb go off and ask, "What if we tried this in the core?" I loved the idea. We weren't sure if the fans would actually like it; this was something we sent out in the public playtesting and were ready for people to reject it. We were prepared for people to reject it and say, "Nope. This is too different. This doesn't feel like D&D." Mike and I are always read to kill our babies. As a designer of a game like this, you really have to be. We were happily surprised to find out that the large majority of the playtesters loved this mechanic. It's a great way to show that even that simple mechanic can evolve in ways that have a huge impact on the game. Now we've made it so that just by adding a second d20 in certain circumstances, we've simplified the game and we've given the DM a powerful improvisational tool. If the DM wants to modify the situation in some way, he or she can pose disadvantage or grant advantage.

L: Looking forward, we have the three core books coming out. When are we going to see the parade of settings? Is it just going to be Forgotten Realms and Eberron? Are you looking at Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Birthright, or anything like that? Al-Qadim!
JC: [Laughter] Al-Qadim! Our focus right now is finishing up the core books. We also have the second installment of Tyranny of Dragons coming out: The Rise of Tiamat. The hints are certainly there. If you look at the Player's Handbook, the book is filled with references to all of our beloved settings. Our focus right now is on the Forgotten Realms, but in the Player's Handbook you see references to Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Eberron. In the Monster Manual there are direct references to Ravenloft. The references are there, that's the most I can say for now.

L: Switching gears, you guys put out a lot of tabletop board games. Is there anything developing in that area?
JC: Our focus has been on finishing up the new edition, but in the past year we did have the iOS version of Lords of Waterdeep come out. We've also had the expansion to that. The team has also been working on other board game designs. Our board game design work often follows its own schedule: if a game is ready, it comes out. Sometimes the team might have two or three designs that they're playtesting at any given time. Sometimes none at all. There will be a period where it's pondering or working on other projects.

L: So it is ongoing, you haven't abandoned it?
JC: No.

L: Earlier, you mentioned looking at a lot of fantasy video games. When I received my Tyranny of Dragons character folder, it had a code in it that could be redeemed in the Neverwinter MMORPG. What does the future look like for D&D video games?
JC: The code is obviously for the Neverwinter MMO, where the Tyranny of Dragons story will also be featured. We have pans in a number of fires and a lot of excitements and hopes, but nothing to announce at this point.

L: Going back to settings, are there any plans to introduce new settings or new iconic characters into the mix?
JC: All of us who work on the game are DMs at heart, which means we're world-builders at heart. We would love at some point to do a new setting, but our focus in the foreseeable future will be on the beloved settings that are already established—particularly because some of them haven't received much attention in quite some time.

L: Like Al-Qadim.
JC: [Laughter]

L: You mentioned the Monster Manual. Can you say a little more about it?
JC: Have you had a chance to see it?

L: I haven't seen it yet.
JC: There are actually copies of it around the show. Early copies were delivered and a few people got them. It's a beautiful book! Kate Irwin, our art director, and Bree Heiss, our lead graphic designer, did a spectacular job with Emi Tanji, one of our other graphic designers. I just love paging through the book. It's one of those fantasy bestiaries with one gorgeous monster painting after another. In addition to how great it looks, the book is filled with stat blocks for all of the game's classic monsters with a lot of story information. We have lair information for the legendary monsters, as well as information on some stock NPCs. We have an appendix for the first time with a variety of stock NPCs for the DM to use. As a DM, I'm excited to have the book.

L: What comes after The Rise of Tiamat?
JC: We're already working on the adventures that will come after that, but we're keeping our lips sealed for now. We're actually often working several years in advance, so we have all sorts of types of stories that we're looking forward to telling. .

L: Going back to the playtest feedback you mentioned, you probably encountered a lot of classic D&D arguments on topics like the alignment system , wizard superiority, the importance of splitting the party, etc. As a gamer and DM, which of these arguments is your favorite? How does the new edition speak to it?
JC: Interesting. I wouldn't say I have a favorite! (Laughs.) It's partially because I'm mystified by the acrimony that sometimes arises because ultimately, for me, I've been playing D&D since first edition. I've been playing D&D since elementary school. D&D has always been a source of comradery with the people I play it with, a chance to tell amazing stories, so it always bums me out when people start fighting about something that is really supposed to be a source of happiness for us.

Now, that said, I'm fascinated by what is usually referred to as the Quadratic Wizard versus Linear Fighter problem because the analysis of the issue in various editions is often spot-on; sometimes it's wildly off-target. I find both readings fascinating partially because it's a window for me into how certain really dedicated fans view the game, analyze the game. It's a chance for me to adjust how I'm analyzing something. It's interesting: sometimes the playtesters and the people writing on forums who are most off-target with their mathematical analysis, with their logical analysis, sometimes they'll provide the best feedback because they're often providing such a different way of viewing something that even if they're crying, "Fire!" and saying this part of the game is on fire and we say, "No, this part is fine," they're helping us see the thing right next to that thing is actually on fire and no one is noticing. We often find feedback that may seem off-base is very helpful because those people are like canaries in a mine.

They think this is the thing that's wrong and it's OK, but ohmygosh, this gigantic issue that they're right next to is (Laughs.) Thank goodness they brought this issue up.

L: There are more options now for the fighter, especially with the battlemaster. Did you do this on purpose to make him more than a linear class and more robust like a wizard?
JC: Our goal wasn't so much to help make the fighter feel comparable with the wizard, goal was, "How can we make the best array of fighter options that speak to what makes the fighter awesome. We're not designing a PVP game, it's a cooperative game. As much as some fans would like us to have all the classes sort of pitted against each other, or want to win in a one-on-one fight, the classes are designed to slot together as a team. What's important for us is not that they're all equal in a head-to-head fight, but on a team they can all contribute meaningfully throughout a campaign.

This means contributing meaningfully in different settings. A bard, for instance, is rarely going to be as effective as a front-line fighter, but a bard is going to shine in social interaction, in beguiling foes, and having a lot of fun tricks to use at different times. We do this because each class appeals to a different type of player—or they may all appeal to the same player in a different mood. The last thing we want to do is make the different classes feel the same or be able to do exactly the same thing.

Going back to your question, when we were looking at the battlemaster we certainly did look at the work that we did on the 4th Edition fighter. We were inspired by it and looked at what were the most fun things that fighter could do; we also looked at the warlord in 4th Edition. We took elements from the fighter and warlord and incorporated them into the battlemaster. There's also a bit of the 4th Edition warlord in the college of war option in the bard.

L: The sense I'm getting with the classes is the sum is greater than the parts. How did you come up with the "math" of how to make each part equal a better sum, since gamer culture is inundated with the idea of PVP?
JC: It's funny, even before we had the term PVP from video games, there's always been a little of this in D&D. I remember as a kid, my friends and I would always want to make claims about which of our characters was the most powerful. It's like the arguments that people have about who would win in a straight-up fight with the Hulk or Superman. It's a fun mental exercise that we make as gamers or comic book nerds.

Going to the question of "math," and figuring out the output of a class—and by output we're not just referring to damage, but also healing because healing has a very interesting role, which I won't get into here because it will get really boring. Basically, anything strictly mathematical like that, we do balance very carefully. Now, balance doesn't mean everyone is equal. The barbarian and the fighter simply deal more damage on average than a wizard would whacking someone with a stick. That's intentional, partially because that's what the fighter and barbarian are supposed to be good at.

In other areas of the game, we definitely have to apply different sorts of analysis other than strictly mathematical analysis because there are effects that scale perfectly. They require more logic analysis and interaction analysis. There are certain charm effects, for instance, control effects like immobilizing a person, which in certain circumstances can amount to completely neutralizing a foe. Certain effects like that, we weren't going to take them away. Not only are they classic for some of our spellcasters, but really they're archetypal for these characters in fantasy fiction, in movies, etc. If we didn't have wizards or bards who could beguile people, there would be something wrong with our game. To control effects like those, we introduce other mechanics.

This is why we introduced the concentration mechanic, for instance. You'll notice that many spells in the new edition require concentration. This mechanic has existed in one form or another in most editions. Part of is that when a spellcaster is casting a spell and they take damage there's a chance the spell is interrupted and lost. This isn't the key for us. The key in the new version of concentration is a spellcaster can only have one of these spells going at a time. You'll notice most of our control spells, most of our buff spells, including flying and turning yourself invisible or giving a person the magic weapon spell, which adds +1 to their sword, all of those require concentration. An individual spellcaster has to make choices. It's no longer for one spellcaster to have three areas of effect going at the same time with five buffs on him or herself with additional buffs on their objects and conjured creatures going at the same time. The spellcaster is going to have to pick one of those things. Now, there are certain spells that we've made sure can also be used in tandem with a concentration spell, but to have multiple effects like this going on at once requires teamwork. It's going to require multiple spellcasters having multiple concentration spells going at once. It will mean, let's say your party has more than one cleric. One cleric might have bless going while another cleric has a different buff going. They can't have the same thing going at the same time.

L: Can you tell us a little more about the Adventurer's League that has just kicked off?
JC: One of the big changes in the Adventurer's League from our recent organized play is that there is a strong player content generation focus. What we mean by that out of our judges (who are here, running D&D as we speak), one of them will be responsible for writing the adventures that are used. This is an approach we had years ago with Living Greyhawk.

The other big thing, and one of the more exciting things, is now we have factions. All characters who are members of the Adventurer's League are members of a faction. There are five different factions in the Forgotten Realms. Each faction has different goals, different methods. The factions sometimes work together, sometimes they're at odds with one another. They're open to all classes; each one is open to every class, but also each one tends to appeal to particular classes and alignments. This includes the Harpers, the Zhentarim—already, those two will often be in conflict with one another because the Zhentarim are basically like the Mafia, where the Harpers are a secretive order working for good and gathering knowledge. The factions also include the Emerald Enclave, which is largely a group of druids and rangers and others who are trying to protect the natural world from the deprivations of monsters and villains. We have the Lord's Alliance and the Order of the Gauntlet. The Lord's Alliance is a force for order in the world; the Order of the Gauntlet appeals largely to clerics, paladins, and others in service to the gods. They're really out there to smite evil.

L: Can you talk a little more about the Tyranny of Dragons event? How can players get involved?
JC: The main way people can get involved is to play through The Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the first of the two Tyranny of Dragons adventures. They can do that in home play or through in-store play. Our Encounters program actually includes parts of that massive adventure. There is also adventure content here at Gen Con for the Tyranny of Dragons. The other way people can get involved is through the Neverwinter MMO and the Tyranny of Dragons content there.

L: Beyond the gaming table, one aspect of the roleplaying experience that has always been compelling has been how people can apply it to the classroom. A lot of schools adopt gaming groups as part of extra-curricular groups or after-school programs. Is there any plan for Dungeons & Dragons to create a sponsored event similar to Encounters for classrooms?
JC: It's not something that we have planned now, but it's a great idea. We're delighted by the number of libraries and schools that do use D&D, and we're hoping they continue to do so. I'm hoping the new edition makes their work even easier.

With that, the interview drew to a close and the spontaneous reporter hive mind disappated. RPGamer would like to thank Jeremy Crawford for his time and the other interviewers for their questions.

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