1d12 questions with James Wyatt

Posted on September 14, 2009 by

10


I took the ol’ d12 out for another spin, this time to interview Mr. James Wyatt, D&D Design Manager at Wizard’s of the Coast, as well as an author of several Eberron novels.  Tomorrow sees the release of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, and who better to interview from the D&D team than the author of the book himself.  I rolled a 10 on the d12, so let’s get to it.

James Wyatt

So a little over a year after launching 4e, what are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the foundation that we built, which is proving to be a very strong foundation for continued innovation. I view it as my responsibility to keep pushing the design team to innovate, to push the boundaries of what we think we can do. At the moment, I’m very proud of the work that we did for Player’s Handbook 3, which took the basic math of our system, exploded it, and put it back together in a way that feels completely new, feels like psionics, and yet works perfectly within the system’s math. I think that’s a great example of the kind of innovation I’m pushing the team toward. Dark Sun has some of that as well, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet.

Do you think the game has brought more DM’s into the fold? What kind of feedback have you gotten from DM’s out there?

Anecdotally, yes, I absolutely believe that 4th Edition is the friendliest version of the game yet to the poor Dungeon Master, and that folks have responded to that in droves. We did a panel at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) last weekend called “The Art of the Dungeon Master” that drew in somewhere between 300 and 500 Dungeon Masters!

I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from DMs both new and experienced about how much easier their job has become in the new edition. They feel more freedom to focus on the story of their campaigns instead of niggling details of monster stat blocks. Behind the screen, they’re less worried about keeping track of minutiae and more focused on keeping the game moving and entertaining.

Talk a little about the DMG2, what do you think is the single neatest thing in the book for new DM’s?

For the new DM, I would point primarily to Chapter 2: Advanced Encounters. This chapter is chock-full of advice about turning combat encounters into more dynamic, dramatic events, from the basics of how to encourage characters (even archer rangers!) to move around during combat, to advice for building encounters for smaller or larger groups.

It’s also worth noting that significant chunks of this chapter were written by two RPG bloggers, Johnn Four (of roleplayingtips.com) and Yax (from dungeonmastering.com).

Let’s talk skill challenges.  Do you think people have finally “gotten it”?  What can the DMG2 give me as a DM who for the most part has ignored them for x or y reason?

I don’t have a lot of insight into how people are using them out in the real world, but I think we’re publishing an ever-increasing number of good examples, and DMG2 has a much stronger chapter on the subject than what we managed to get in DMG1. I compiled a lot of good advice and strong examples from places like Mike Mearls’ column in Dungeon magazine and our published adventures, added a lot of my own insights, and structured the chapter in a way that I hope makes skill challenges easier than ever to understand and use. There’s also an example of what a skill challenge actually looks like around the table, though that could probably have been a lot longer.

If you’re a DM who has ignored skill challenges so far, I hope this chapter will open your eyes to the possibilities they offer. I’m most excited about the way you can use a skill challenge to give structure to what is often the most difficult part of a game—the unstructured time between encounters, or between the acts of an adventure, when the players are trying to figure out where to go and what to do next.

It seems to me that with some of the storytelling excerpts that were released, you guys are trying to shut down the “all fighting, no role play” complaints levied against the game.  What can you tell us about this chapter you’ve called “D&D as an indie game” ?

That chapter came about because I was following Robin Laws’ blog (robin-d-laws.livejournal.com), and he talked a lot about the D&D game he was running. It was very clear to me that folks who complained about a perceived lack of roleplaying possibilities in 4th Edition were not reading Robin’s blog. Robin not only recognized that the players at the table, not the game system, determine how much roleplaying is possible in a game, but also actively ported over a lot of the storytelling techniques and mechanics that you often find in independently-published RPGs.

So to some extent it’s true that this chapter is in the book because I wanted to blow the minds of people who were arguing that the game isn’t about roleplaying any more. But more importantly, it’s there because I think Robin was doing some really cool and interesting stuff in his game, and I wanted to learn how to do it too. In fact, I was just re-reading that material last night and thinking about starting a new campaign that would put it all to full use. We’ll see if I ever get that off the ground…

So in the MM2, monster design for elites and solos was altered.  Are we going to get new rules for monster design in the DMG2, and if we are, will we get a way to re-stat the monsters in the MM1 to match the new philosophy of design?

The DMG2 does present that altered math, as well as guidelines for creating minions. There’s no alteration to MM1 monsters, because they’re still perfectly playable out of the book. There is a note that you can drop elite and solo defenses, but you should use caution, because that doesn’t always work across the board.

It is safe to assume that you guys are little by little building the assumed world through multiple sources:  stuff in the published adventures, the new location books that were announced, Fallcrest in the DMG, and now Sigil in the DMG2.  What can you tell us about the 4e version of Sigil?

That is a safe assumption, yes.

We reintroduced Sigil to the game in the Manual of the Planes, but it gets a lot more attention in DMG2. Michele Carter, who was the editor for a tremendous number of 2nd Edition Planescape books, was also the lead editor for DMG2 and took a tremendous interest in this chapter from start to finish, so Planescape fans can trust that we haven’t done terrible violence to their favorite planar metropolis.

One of the exciting things about Sigil as it appears in DMG2 is that we’ve found a way to reintroduce the idea of gate-towns—the planar villages that ringed the outskirts of the Outlands and contained portals to all the outer planes. The 4e gate-towns are suburbs of Sigil that exist in every other plane in our smaller multiverse, giving planar adventurers clear connections to Sigil wherever their travels may take them.

What advice can you give new dm’s out there looking to start a campaign?

I’ve put a lot of that advice out there already, between the first DMG and my monthly column in Dungeon magazine, called Dungeoncraft—which is pretty much devoted to that topic. I’d boil it down, though, to a simple nugget: Don’t over-prepare. You don’t need a fleshed-out world with unique cultures and detailed maps to run a D&D game. Relax and have a good time.

Being the author of the DMG, are people beating down your office door at work trying to get in your games?  Are you the DM king at Wizard’s?

Well, there are a couple of problems. First, I don’t have an office door; I sit in a cube with only two walls. So I’m frighteningly easy to get to.

Second, I’m only running one game right now, and it’s a lunchtime thing that’s hardly high DMing art. There is some demand for space in that game, but not violent demand.

Third, I think I talk a good show, but when it actually comes down to practice, there are better DMs in the world—and in the building. Chris Perkins, for example. He is Dungeon Master to the Stars, after all, and his two weekly games are packed to the gills.

Finally, tease us with something we can expect in 4th ed. that we don’t know yet.

I suppose this is a nice way of coming full circle from the start of the interview. You should expect the unexpected! I don’t ever want the design team to fall into ruts or do things because that’s what we’ve done before. For example, when we started Dark Sun design, we had a lot of discussions about what class we should include in the book, because we had introduced a class in each of our previous two campaign setting Player’s Guides. But first we had to ask the question of whether a new class was the right thing to add to the game in Dark Sun, and ultimately we decided no. So instead, Dark Sun is going to offer an entirely new mechanic that will take you by surprise. Stay tuned!

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There you go, good stuff.  I want to thank Mr. Wyatt for taking the time to answer the questions, and WOTC for making it happen.  The Dungeon Master’s  Guide 2 releases tomorrow, September 15th.

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Posted in: 4e D&D, Gaming