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Gen Con 2014 report: Interview with D&D 5E designer Jeremy Crawford, Part 3

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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. In the third of three installments, Jeremy explains why dragons are eating low-level adventurers and the average expected duration of a D&D campaign. For the rest of the interview, see parts one and two.

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MT: I'd like to ask you some specific questions about playtesting itself. I can't help but notice that there are dragons in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, the Starter Set, and Tyranny of Dragons. This seems like a conscious choice to put newbies "in the deep end of the pool." Can you explain the reasoning behind that?

JC: It's been our goal to make dragons terrifying. They're also part of a larger goal we had for our monster design and for the design of the game in general, which is to make it feel like a living world, and feel a bit sandboxy. We do not expect every time that adventurers come face to face with a monster that it is what we would consider to be a balanced encounter. Sometimes it's happening because it's right for the story and what that means is sometimes the smartest thing to do is to negotiate or run for your life. And that's a bit of a cultural shift from the past ten years where often the sense was that if we run into a monster in this room we are meant to fight them and it is going to be a balanced encounter. Now, often if you run into a dragon, especially at lower levels the best thing to do is to try to talk to it or run for your life.

MT: I think this is a big shift for people. Sandbox gaming does seem to be on the rise however.

JC: And that's why even in our first few adventures, not only the adventure in the Starter Set but Hoard of the Dragon Queen, there are little side trek bits to give a sense of the world being alive. Not everything in the world necessarily ahs to do with the main story.

MT: I've noticed there's more opportunities to talk and formally tie experience points to negotiating with enemies instead of killing them. It does make DMs have to think about advancement. Tyranny of Dragons has rules of leveling between sessions, which is definitely a new mindset that's different from "killing one more orc to get exp."

JC: The advantage of this open-ended approach is that if the DM prefers to track experience points, the DM can do that because since things are more open-ended the DM has more space to play in, so if the DM would rather have more traditional combat encounters and those are the source of experience points, that can totally be done.

MT: 3.5 rules can even be applied to this edition of the game, just as advantage and disadvantage can be applied to older editions. I predict dice sales will be up thanks to advantage and disadvantage. I've already picked up a green and red twenty-sided die for that purpose.

JC: What we're hoping -- which is one reason why we like the advantage/disadvantage rule, and why bless spells rather than giving you a hard bonus gives an extra die you can roll -- is that people will get into the habit of handing dice to each other. That's what we would do in our internal playtest. So players would cast bless and give people those d4s. The help rule where you're helping somebody else do something you give them advantage, and we like the physical aspect of the rule where if the person wants they can actually model that by giving their d20 to the other player to roll.

MT: D&D is a modern game now, with a lot of software principals applied to how it was designed and playtested. Any word on the Open Game License?

JC: We prefer to wait until after the Dungeon Master's Guide is released. Mike wrote a Legends & Lore column about this. Really our belief is that if we were to do something like that, people who are going to make materials will be better positioned once the whole game is released.

MT: I think releasing the Basic PDF was a huge step in addressing the Open Game License gap -- ensuring all players have something in common in approaching D&D, the same way the D20 SRD became a must-have for 3.5 gamers.

JC: The Basic rules are again a part of that goal of inclusivity. We wanted to get rid of as many barriers as we could to people playing D&D and so that's why we made it so that let's say somebody is jazzed about Tyranny of Dragons, they go out and buy Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Really other than buying dice and maybe a pencil and paper, if you download the Basic rules and the PDF that goes with Hoard of the Dragon Queen, that's all you need to buy. We wanted to make it that easy to get started, so that years from now if a person sees a cool adventure and they might not even know what Dungeons & Dragons is and that there's this awesome Player's Handbook and Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide -- of course we want them to enjoy those books -- but if they buy that thing we want to make it as easy for them to enjoy that thing as possible, and the Basic rules were part of that.

MT: The release of the PDF has lowered the barrier to entry tremendously, and I think that's absolutely critical to the longevity of D&D.

JC: And not only for D&D but for tabletop role-playing games in general, because D&D is often the entry game for people. As we've talked about people often come back to D&D and there are plenty of people who stick with D&D as their favorite game. But D&D often is also a great way to just get people into the hobby, so we not only want D&D to be healthy but also for tabletop games in general to be healthy.

MT: What's the biggest competitor for D&D?

JC: It would be many things. There are now so many things competing for peoples' entertainment time and dollars. Not only are video games huge now, board games have seen a great resurgence. The advantage that D&D and other tabletop role-playing games have is they are providing an entertainment experience you don't find anywhere else: the ability to play with your friends, make up worlds on your own, characters that can be customized any way you like.

MT: A lot of my players are online. Are you seeing that people don't get together anymore? Is the Internet helping? PDF seems to be a good first step, but there's a lot more Wizards could do.

JC: We have the digital tools that are being worked on, although they're mostly meant to support at-the-table play. One of the reasons we've made the game so you can play it without miniatures is because we know there are people who play D&D over Google Plus or over video chat or voice chat like Skype, so for the game to be playable in those media we need to make it so you can play without those miniatures. That's one of the reasons we did that.

MT: I know back in 2000 there was a huge survey of the players. What are you using for data these days?

JC: The data we were gathering throughout the playtest process, so for every packet we always asked about the packet itself but we also always asked a demographic question. We asked questions like what's your favorite edition of the game, partly so we could get a sense of where the players were coming from and what sort of taste did they already have that they were bringing to their experience of the new edition.

MT: Speaking for myself it seems like an older generation is returning to D&D that breaks the four-year rule of high school and college students, who were bound together due to a lack of funds and transportation. So what's the sweet spot for a D&D campaign now?

JC: Our hope is if a group plays regularly, maybe twice a month, that you could get through a meaty campaign in a year. And because of that goal that was one of the reasons why we made the game pretty quick to play. You can still have knock-down drag-out encounters that last an hour or more, but typical battles in the game now are pretty short. And the length of play is really a call of the DM and the players. That was important for us because of how diverse the D&D player base is. We have children playing, we have teenagers playing, we have people in their twenties playing, we have middle-aged people playing, we have people who've been with the game with first edition, so this amazingly diverse player base has very different schedules. We needed to make the game fit into this huge array of possibilities and amount of time they have.

MT: What's the average group size?

JC: Four people and a DM. The average number of players that we target is four. In playtest, we experimented with groups much larger.

MT: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.

JC: My pleasure!

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