D&D 5E represents ‘a new spirit of collaboration’: We speak to Mike Mearls


The recent launch of the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons 5E has caused quite a stir around the Ten Copper offices. Downloadable PDFs? Set your own price? Be actually encouraged to use copyrighted content like Illithids and Beholders?

We had no choice but to reach out to Wizards of the Coast’s Mike Mearls, lead designer on this new edition, for some answers.

Ten Copper: Can you explain why the DM’s Guild launched with such a strong, laser-focus on The Forgotten Realms and does not cover other popular Wizards-owned settings? Wizards is yet to produce a Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide for 5E like it did for 3E and 4E (two of the most prized books in our collection!) — is this a way for players to help flesh out what the Realms look like in 5E?

Mike: We launched with a focus on the Realms for a few reasons. To start with, it’s our most popular setting. We’ve actually seen it outrank homebrew settings for the first time I can remember. It also allows creators to focus on one world to start with. We’ve found that a focused approach seems to pay the biggest dividends in terms of drawing new people in. It’s less confusing.

In terms of a big campaign guide, I’m not sure we’ll do a product exactly like that again. We take a slower, more handcrafted approach to world building these days. You’re more likely to see fully realized explorations of specific areas, than a single book that tries to cover an entire planet or continent.

Ten Copper: This speaks to a more collaborative approach that I feel has come to the fore more in 5E than before. Authors like RA Salvatore have gone on record as saying that they weren’t happy with how Forgotten Realms lore in 4E was created without consulting them, and that they were a lot happier with how the transition to 5E was handled. Do you feel that 5E development represents a new spirit of collaboration?

Mike: Yes, definitely. We have a number of great storytellers and skilled creators who have worked on D&D. With Curse of Strahd, for instance, it was a no-brainer to reach out to Tracy and Laura Hickman. We take the same approach across the board.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E

Ten Copper: With the DM’s Guild, what is Wizards’ stance on setting-agnostic adventures that could fit anywhere? What advice do you have for people who want to publish these sort of adventures through the DM’s Guild – should they make them more Forgotten Realms-ey or leave them as they are?

Mike: With the DM’s Guild, you’re best off making sure that your creation makes good use of either the Forgotten Realms or the D&D sourcebooks that we’ve released over the past few years. The Guild’s framework assumes that you’re getting good use out of that material and that it helps you create a finished product.

Wholly new material, like a new world or an adventure that requires a new city or lots of new, non-FR lore to function, is something that you’re better off publishing yourself. Material released in the Guild, for instance, can be used by other writers and even by WotC (though we intend to pay creators for material we use, other Guild users don’t have to). Make sure you’re comfortable with that.

Ten Copper: You mentioned on Twitter that the team had been working on and off for six years to get the DM’s Guild out the door. That timeframe stretches back well before the launch of 5E. Was this originally planned for 4E?

Mike: Yes. DMs have always created material for their own campaigns, and we wanted a way to help DMs share their material with the wider world. The biggest issue was finding a way to let people use the Forgotten Realms and other settings without losing control of them. The process of working out what we wanted from the Guild, and then working with our partners at One Bookshelf, took quite a long time.

D&D 5E dungeons and dragons

Ten Copper: What were the biggest issues in getting the DM’s Guild off the ground? What happened in those six years?

Mike: Fifth edition happened! That project took up a lot of our time, as did our transition to supporting big, exciting annual stories. We’ve done a lot to reinvent the D&D business over the past few years, so the Guild often had to take a backseat to more pressing projects.

Ten Copper: It’s interesting to see Wizards embracing PDF content for side projects such as the DM’s Guild but not with core releases like the main rulebooks. Can you explain what sort of issues Wizards faces when bringing these books to digital (and are you sick of hearing this question?)

Mike: It’s a completely understandable question! PDF is a great format for making publishing as easy as possible for DMs. However, we’re taking our time to assess a number of options and platforms. Hard core RPG fans are used to dealing with PDFs, but for a lot of players an ebook means something they buy on their Kindle or through some other app. We want to make sure that our digital products mesh well with how people already read ebooks.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E

Ten Copper: You’ve spoken before about how the rise of streaming has changed how D&D is (for want of a better word) consumed. Can you elaborate more on how this has affected you as developers behind the scenes and what you’ve done in response to the rise of Twitch/YouTube?

Mike: To start with, I think it has made D&D much, much more accessible. Seeing someone play D&D is the best way to understand how the game works. On top of that, streaming allows us to see exactly how people play the game. In the past, we’d have to rely on anecdotes and informed guesswork.

Now, we can combine our frequent polls and data collection with observations to get a good handle on where the game works and where it can be improved. Our understanding of how D&D players and DMs approach the game has grown by leaps and bounds. That understand feeds back into how we manage the game and help it grow.

To switch tracks entirely, what do you think has changed since the last D&D movie that the time is right for a new one? And would you prefer a cheesy movie with very obvious feat references that people can use for drinking games (take a shot) or a more serious gritty fantasy?

Mike: Our partners at Warner Brothers are big D&D fans. They understand how the game works, why it continues to appeal to people after 40 years, and what makes D&D different. I think they have the right team in place to understand how D&D can be funny in one moment, and deadly serious the next. That combination is important to making a good D&D movie.

Thanks to Mike Mearls for taking the time to speak to us!

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