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Gen Con 2014 report: Interview with D&D 5E designer Jeremy Crawford, Part 1

Jeremy Crawford
Jeremy Crawford
Michael Tresca

I had a chance to interview Jeremy Crawford at Gen Con, the lead designer of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and managing editor of Dungeons & Dragons. Jeremy DMed the playtest version of D&D Next a few years ago at Gen Con, where my dwarf cleric Tobias Hyrthstone debuted (and took on kobolds who just couldn't hit him). In the first of three installments, Jeremy shares record-breaking numbers for D&D and explains how software influenced the design of the new edition.

MT: How has the 5th Edition release going?

JC: The Starter Set was our real launch last month. It's been going very well for us. It's already in its second printing. It is already one of the best selling starter sets that D&D has ever had going all the way back to the early 80s.

MT: The 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons is a huge milestone for the D&D brand. What's the release schedule?

JC: Tyranny of Dragons and the Player's Handbook both have August 19 officially as their release date, but Wizards Play Network stores were able to release both early. Tyranny of Dragons is a huge epic campaign. There's also a patch of content for the Neverwinter MMO that is also Tyranny of Dragons-themed. The story is spanning not only the tabletop role-playing game but also the MMO.

MT: Have you seen downloads for the Basic PDF?

JC: Downloads are great. Basically, we're seeing downloads paralleling the number of people we had in the playtest. We had over 175,000 people in the playtest, the downloads are tracking ahead of that.

MT: What would you consider success for the 5th Edition of D&D given what you were trying to achieve?

JC: One of our biggest goals, kind of an artistic goal, is that people play this and feel that in its very bones is classic Dungeons & Dragons, but classic Dungeons & Dragons that feels right for today. It's not enough for this to be just a nostalgia product, but we want it to also be fresh, modern, but also totally in sync with its roots. Already we feel by that artistic metric it's been successful, because that's exactly the feedback we're getting. And it was feedback we were getting in the playtest. We had an unprecedented amount of feedback in the playtest, despite that fact we were human we still wondered if when the actual product was out that everybody will still feel the same way. And thank goodness, the feedback we got in the playtest is consistent with what we're seeing now that the product is actually out.

MT: What was the biggest ah-ha moment for you between the playtest and the release?

JC: One of the things that surprised us over and over again, in both the playtest process and now that the game is out, is just how much people often wanted us to reign complexity in. There has been a tendency in the game over the last decade for complexity to constantly expand. And we do know -- and again this is the advantage of having as much playtest data as we now have -- we do know that there's a very committed segment of our audience that adores that complexity. So we knew we didn't want to eliminate it, but we knew looking at this data that the majority of our players wanted something that really had meat that they could sink their teeth into but that wasn't overwhelming. We were constantly, pleasantly surprised that the playtesters were telling us, "this could be a little less complex," while at the same time there was a vocal, committed minority that was saying "we want even more complexity." And so we constructed the game in such a way that we could serve both audiences at once. And the way to do that -- we talked about this before, going back several years Mike and I mentioned this on a panel at PAX East -- to do that you have to have the core of the game be simple, because it's far easier for us to build on top of what we call the kernel (to use programming speak). If you have a simple kernel it's easier for us to build on top of that rather than create a highly complex kernel and then take things away. This is another mark of our success: have we succeeded in creating an edition that is accessible but is extensible enough that we can create meat for our players who want a lot of options and a lot of complexity? There are already glimmers in the Player's Handbook of that range. You can even see it in particular classes. With the fighter there are options for people who want a more straightforward classic experience and there's also options for people who want a lot of tactical options and basically they want all the trimmings.

MT: Did software design influence your approach?

JC: It is actually the first time the game has ever been designed and developed with as many key people with software backgrounds because Mike and I both have a programming background, we both did web work in the past and web development -- he has more of a background in it than I do. And then Peter Lee who was responsible for analyzing the mountains and mountains of playtest data that we got, he also has a programming background.

MT: Businesses are starting to see the value of software as a methodology through an iterative approach to their products. The challenge of course is with games like Dungeons & Dragons, you have to eventually print something. It seems you compromised, in which you have a print Player's Handbook and an electronic PDF of the Basic rules. Is this the last version of D&D?

JC: On one hand it's impossible for us to never say never, because who knows ten years from now, there could be a different team shepherding the game and there's no way for us to know what decisions they will make. Really what Mike and I mean whenever we talk about focusing on this edition evolving rather than saving up change for a future edition, is we want this very successful playtest process to be ongoing. And so our plan is going forward, when we have a new direction we're considering for the game we will put that into an open playtest and see what people think. And if there is enough excitement about a new direction for the rules and enough momentum for it then we will explore incorporating that into whatever revision of the current edition rather than saying, "alright, you have to wait for a theoretical sixth to see these changes."

This interview continues in Part 2.

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