We sat down first to talk with the Sara Girard the Associate Brand Manager at Wizards, who works a lot on the marketing for 4th Edition. We started by bringing up our experience with our first chance at playing 4th Edition in the Dungeon Delve, and Sara mentioned that she is currently playing a Dragonborn Paladin.
Critical Hits: We noticed that Dragonborn were not presented in the Delve, can you talk about them at all, about their racial abilities?
Sara: I like playing a Dragonborn because there are certain abilities which other races don’t have. Like the breath weapon or when you’re bloodied you get an added bonus to certain things. I like playing them because they have a lot of powers.
CH: So you’re the Associate Brand Manager and Marketing Lead for D&D, how closely has Marketing & Brand been working with the Design Department?
Sara: We meet weekly, we talk about all sorts of things, we meet with the R&D team and make sure that we are all of the same mindset because things change frequently through the process of development.
CH: How do the rules that make up D&D influence what you do?
Sara: I would say that we influence the rules a little, but we all have to communicate quite a bit. We play the game, we have 8 people in our game right now, so we find out the rules naturally as we play. “Oh this rule has changed from last time, it wasn’t working out so well.” So we’re learning from in-game situations as well, so I learn the rules and changes to them personally through experience.
CH: As far as playing D&D in the Wizards office, I imagine it’s not mandatory but do they go around recruiting people for a game?
Sara: Oh, you don’t need to recruit! We actually had a game before, we were playing an Eberron adventure, but then the DM left the company and our game group was so traumatized by not playing every week.
CH: How much community interaction do you do, dealing with the fans and the messageboards?
Sara: I visit a lot of the message boards, about 3-4 times a week. I try to get an idea of how the fans are feeling about certain games, what some of the main points are, and I try to address them when they get serious or if they start going down the completely wrong path to say, “Hey, don’t worry about that.” I try to jump in when necessary, but I am very up to speed on the community.
CH: With design ideas that you see in the community, how do you sift through them to find the actual valid concerns or suggestions among all of the fluff that you might see?
Sara: That’s true, there is a lot out there. We put a buzz around the office about what’s out there and the topics naturally come up when multiple people talk about them. When it becomes a serious argument rather than a lively debate that’s where we step in and start to think about it. Or it’s just fun, like the Dragonborn boobs thing.
CH: You said you were playing a Paladin, can you talk a little about the changes to the Paladin?
Sara: I don’t know that I can.
CH: Did you have a lot to do specifically with the preview books that came out?
Sara: I looked them over, to discuss how well we thought things worked. We were involved in seeing how they looked, but mostly they were an R&D endeavor.
CH: So they were really a more direct conversation from R&D to the community? Do you think they have been effective?
Sara: Yeah, I think they were great resources to give out a little bit of information on how the game is developing and what brought about the decision to do 4th Edition. I think those books were very good for that purpose, we’ll see how they go from there. I like them personally just for the interesting stories they present.
CH: We’ve encountered a lot of situations where the people developing games play them, and really enjoy them and talk about how great they are, but the community rarely believes them.
Sara: Yeah, I know, hopefully today we’ll get some of that skepticism out of the way because more people are playing it. Now people will see that I’m not just blowing smoke, but that it’s really a fun game! I love it, and I hope that when people play it they will just be like, “Wow!”
CH: What kind of efforts up until today’s showings have you taken to try and prove this to people?
Sara: Like they say, “You can’t tell, You’ve gotta show”. Today’s the show.
CH: What other events are happening after this weekend, like Gen Con as mentioned in the seminar earlier?
Sara: Of course, the launch is on June 6th, and after that is Game Day where right now we have over 3,000 stores participating. We are really attempting to reach more types of players. We have the potential to bring younger players in to 4th Edition with things like library sponsorships. We have the opportunity to bring lapsed players back into the game who haven’t played for a long time, you can play with your friends from college who haven’t played very much recently.
CH: I know that a lot of people have reacted badly to 4th Edition, claiming it is just a money grabbing scheme. Many of them never played 3.5e and never got to see the improvements that it made to 3rd Edition.
Sara: Definitely, we want to make it more enjoyable for a lot of people, especially the ease of play, and the ease of being able to DM as well.
(Rob Heinsoo joins us at the table at this point.)
CH: Sorry to pull you away from the Delves. (he was running a table there) We were talking to Sara earlier about the joy of playing a Fighter and really enjoying the choices involved in the combats.
Rob: I was talking to someone about that earlier, and that one of my favorite characters to play was a Fighter in 3rd Edition and that when I didn’t show up to play, the rest of the players played. But if the Cleric didn’t show up, or the Wizard didn’t show up, it was like “Okay guys, I’ve got this other card game we might be interested in playing tonight.”
Sara: Yes, we played for weeks without our Cleric and we were fine.
Rob: You can do that in 4th Edition, I mean it helps to have them there, but especially if you have more players in your party you have more options open to you when one particular class isn’t present.
One of the challenges for us with this edition is recognizing that the 3.5 sweet spot was real, it was this element where when the Game Master gets to the point around when their players are using 6th-level spells, all of the sudden the GM’s ability to really understand what’s going to happen in their game is a little bit gone. I’ve seen too many plans of GM’s lovingly figuring out what they want to do, and all of the sudden the PC’s say, “bop!”, and it’s like game over! The GM thinks, “I don’t know what to do.”
There are people who can handle it, I’m sure in our audience we have people who are intensely proud of being really good GM’s and can manage to handle it. But I, perhaps, am like the part of the audience who really didn’t want to have to learn 3.5 according to its rules. I could just make up rules when needed to help everybody have fun, but that isn’t really how the game is supposed to be played. What we’re trying to do with 4th Edition is make a game where the Dungeon Master is given enough tools, and enough SIMPLE ways of making the game fun, that the amount of time that 3.5 would force you to spend doing math is actually used by the GM on their story. Go ahead and finish figuring out your story and what seems cool to you, not just dealing with leveling up this monster or figuring out the math.
CH: What are some of the efforts you’ve put into expanding the sweet spot?
Rob: Well, the thing that we hope is that the sweet spot extends all the way up. I am aware that it’s always possible that that isn’t true, it’s always possible that somewhere in epic play – well epic level play is different, it’s very clear that there are things going on in epic level play that won’t happen earlier – but we try to keep the same dynamic. If you start off as a fighter, and you’re mainly about helping to protect your friends and doing damage to the enemy, you’re still doing that as an epic level character. You haven’t suddenly metamorphosed into, “Well, I do an awful lot of area damage effects, and I’m all about the flying, and hey, teleportation!”
It’s an element that we had to keep the flavor still the same, even though characters are capable of MUCH more ‘explosive’ things. I think that because the game spreads out more at epic, characters are faster, there’s more things moving around and using different areas, that’ll be different for some games. You can easily play the heroic and paragon teir on a small / dungeon tile map, but once characters get really-really powerful you want to have bigger areas, and you also want to be using huge and large miniatures more to the point. I think as the game changes it may have more to do with what space are you using, what size things are you using.
It’d be ideal if I had a perfect answer for you. “Oh, this is the sweet spot!” But I know, if there is a sweet-spot, the players will end up telling us. We think that it goes all the way up, and that’s what our goal was. Nobody set out with 3.0 or 3.5 to do that either, it was just the case with 3e. This time around we’ve designed all the development, we’ve designed all the powers, so we know what our target numbers are, and the same for monster math. The reason that the sweet spot goes away in 3.5 is that the math no longer makes sense, it’s like: “How much damage can you do?” “Not enough to get rid of that!” …unless you’re using this broken spell from this other class, or a save-or-die effect. The game uses all these shortcuts to allow us to keep playing, we’re trying not to have that anymore. So that it’s a consistent mathematical experience, and there’s no save-or-die effects that suddenly enter, and that means that the sweet-spot should extend. Funny, I gave you an incredibly long answer to what should have been a simple question.
CH: Would you say you took what was in the 3.5 sweet spot and extended it, or worked on adjusting what was outside of that area?
Rob: The one thing that 3.5 didn’t do at all, that we did now, that is it didn’t start from the ground up with the math it wanted. It inherited it’s math, the fact that something had two hit-dice, it still has two hit-dice and those are d8’s. How did that relate to the fact that a greataxe did 1d12? It didn’t. There’s this element that the levels of the sweet spot we talk about in 3.5 are accidental, a scientist would look at it and say “We’ve run all these experiments, and here are the results! It looks like between 5th level and 11th level things are great! Huzzah!” But that’s just accidental.
However, by doing the math all the way up, we’ve done something that 3.5 couldn’t do. It was coming close enough on the heels of 2nd Edition that its real fundamental advances didn’t include redoing the math. That’s something that they didn’t have the chance to do.
If you play with 3.5 rules as written, and save-or-die effects, you eventually end up with massive attacks by monsters and characters that certain characters can’t possibly fail their saves against and other characters can’t possibly make their saves against, it gets… when we use the words “save-or-die” effects we also talk about the ‘save-or-sit and-read-a-magazine-because-you-cannot-do-anything for-the-rest-of-the-encounter’, so that’s even worse than save-or-die because you don’t know if you should go away, you just know that at some indefinite time I may rejoin the fun, but it isn’t now! By taking all of that stuff out, I think we’ve improved the game. Those are the two biggest things, your character isn’t out of the game until they’re actually dead, which takes some doing, and your character also isn’t likely to be destroyed by an off-hand gesture from one monster.
CH: With rebuilding a game like this, I know everyone out there has an opinion about this, but at what point do you say, “this is D&D, and this is not” and what’s your method of division?
Sara: It’s all D&D.
Rob: We designed things that we decided weren’t D&D, so our end result is stuff that made us feel ‘we think this is Dungeons and Dragons‘. At one point people weren’t rolling damage, we had an interesting system by which you weren’t rolling damage, although it was freaking easy to run, for the GM it was like”Oh my gosh, congratulations Mr. Game Master your stuff is easy!” But we played it, and people were just like, “this is not Dungeons and Dragons. We want to roll our damage!” It’s like, okay! “and not only that but we want a polyhedral dice industry.” Hooray! So our end result, we’re not talking about all of the things that we pared away, because those things weren’t Dungeons and Dragons, I think that our end result is D&D.
I think that the most interesting shift for people is that this game does have a different paradigm, in the sense that previously simulation was king. What that meant is that, “Hey, what happens when a monster grapples you?” Those rules were written to some extent with, “okay now what do you do? Well now what happens that? Oh that, and what happens then? Oh that, and that and that. Have you got that?” And now it’s like, look – this game isn’t actually about grappling. It’s about hitting things with swords, and I am going to be fried if I’m gonna sit there and write multi-paragraph rules for something that is not fun.
Rob: We need a simple system to deal with it. What that means is that in play, simulation is still important, but game play has advanced to the point where we consider it quite a bit farther. If we made a system…well an example of this came up last week, but I’m not necessarily going to talk about it, I heard there was an argument being made about a system and I was asked for my opinion. I said, “you know what, don’t tell them that they’re wrong. They’re right, in a simulationist world, the system they want to use is RIGHT. That is exactly what happens in real life, but guess what, it’s a real pain in the ass.”
Game players are not going to thank us, and the amount of fun that would be added to the table if we actually did this ‘simulation’ is, my guess would be like one out of twenty players would get this warm rosey glow and say, “I think this is really like reality!” and the other ones would say, “When is it my turn?! Because I am so tired of you doing what you’re doing!” When I say the paradigm was shifted, this is the shift. We’ve moved away from simulation towards gameplay. Now that doesn’t mean that simulation is dead, that means that before 3.5 was on the simulation side of the middle ground, and now we’re on the gameplay side of the middle ground. That’s what I think.
Sara: Yeah, that’s about right.
Rob: Of course the word simulation is very funny when you’re talking about fantasy, because you have immediately stuff happening that I always use the word evocation. We’re evoking. I say, “Look, we’re not simulating anything most of the time.”
What you’re trying to do is make people believe in a sense of wonder, and if you spend too much time talking about the simulationist details it’s harder for people to get into the magic. You’re talking about, “Oh you’re on cobblestones, that’s minus 3!” It’s like, what? So we’ve gone to just difficult terrain. We don’t have dozens of types of terrain, we are going to have types of interesting terrain so that when you’re dealing with magical terrain it’s ‘magical’, it’s complex. If it’s complex, it has an effect on the game different than anything else you deal with, but not that this one is minus 1, this one is minus 2, minus 3, and minus 4, no one really cares. No one remembers the difference between those numbers.
CH: If someone came to you and said, “I’ve played 2nd Edition but I never touched 3rd Edition, why should I play 4th Edition?” What would you say to them?
Sara: Because it’s easy. You don’t have to pour over thousands and thousands of rules and books to know how to play. You can just get in and play. You just roll up your character and go, pretty much.
Rob: Yeah, that’s really the main point. It’s easier to game master, so that the person who’s game mastering for you when you play can spend more time telling you helpful things and less time worrying about what they’re doing on their turn.
Sara: I think it took about 20 minutes of update for the rules, and we were ready to go. It’s less overwhelming at the start than other editions.
Rob: We tried to make it so that on your turn, we tried to minimize the number of rules that you have to remember, and actually make you think about the choices that you get to make because of who you are as a character. I think that some players, with the delve characters, they didn’t get to make the character. They didn’t get to think about the powers that they got, they’re discovering them on the fly. I saw one person who wasn’t able to process that much information very quickly, but that person if they made the powers themselves and chose the powers they’d be better off. When you do it yourself, you know what your character has.
We think that with people who are new to games playing them now for the first time, I think it’s perfectly natural to them that every character in the game has powers. That every character in the game has cool things that they can do. And I think it can be a bit of a shock to new players when they’re told, “Oh no, that guy gets to do this interesting thing. You, hey, here’s a d20! Roll it! Because that’s the interesting thing that you do.”
In a certain sense that was simple for a couple people, you could always say, “Hey all you have to do is roll d20’s” But in terms of actually getting into the game, and understanding why it’s cool, I’m afraid an awful lot of people who rolled d20’s and didn’t do anything else never really understood what was fun about it.
Sara: The change from before is that you have a lot of interesting strategic choices depending on what is going on in combat.
Rob: That same thing happens when your character is going up a level, like in the 3.5 version we had a lot of feats that were available but you only get them every three levels, so the reality is there were all these levels where you go a level and yes it’s the most important piece of this game, like a little carrot, “do we level yet?” And the answer in the old days was, “Yes you do! And you get a tiny little carrot, like a hit point, enjoy!” “But…but…but the wizard is choosing his spells?” “Have a hit point!”
Sara: My experience so far with leveling, which we’ve only gotten to do a few times, is we developed back stories and ideas of what we want our characters to be. And when I’m leveling now I really do bring in the roleplaying aspect of it, thinking about what cool ability do I want to have next? How would it fit into my background if she learned this? The rules really do bring the roleplaying part of it in, for people who aren’t as mathematically focused it brings it all together.
Rob: All of the powers have interesting names.
Sara: And they all have great descriptions that make you think, “Oh wow, that would really fit with what my character wants to do!”
CH: That leads us to one important question, is the power still called “Feather Me Yon Oaf!” in print? (referring to a Warlord power mentioned with that name in the preview books)
Rob: Uhh…no. Oh wow, no comment. There are disagreements, there are those of us who would put that name in and those of us who killed the name every time there was a chance.
CH: Which were you?
Rob: I would use it, but…I’m a mechanical designer, that’s my job. Every once in a while I get to drive aspects of the story when I get the chance, but they don’t look to me and say, “please name our powers.” That’s a funny name, one of Rich Baker’s, because it captures a feel that some people love and other people don’t. It brings up the fact that this is a team job, an awful lot of people have input on and the product has gotten better and better and better as a result of that.
Everyone improves so many aspects of the game that I’m not going to disagree with them on one power’s name. We all choose the battles that we fight, and in the end hope that the strongest argument wins. Our process involves a number of people working on things, a lot of games don’t get to have that. If you worked on a game at another company they might say, “you better playtest this yourself!”
I’m really happy with how the whole thing ended up. Every iteration we went through made it better, and in the process, we discovered all sorts of new ways of contributing and designing.
CH: What’s it like working on a game with such a big team? I’d imagine the game is pretty unique in that sense.
Rob: No other RPG’s are in this boat. There might not be anyone else out there who would publish this kind of game. They usually get entrenched in the simulation aspect.
Indie games are similar in that they emphasize the gameplay aspect, but they’re super-focused, like a narrow laser. D&D has to be more general to accommodate a wide range of play.
CH: What’s your favorite part of fourth edition?
Rob: As a player, I love being able to make choices every turn and every level. As a DM, I love that it takes me half an hour to put together a complete adventure session.
Sara: I’m most excited about the possibilities. There’s less constraints around it. That means more people can get into it, and there are more people to geek out with.
Rob: Oh yeah, now my wife can play. If she played before, and got knocked out by a sleep spell or something as was told she had to sit out for a while, she’d never come back. Now you’re always doing something on your turn.
I invented 3 Dragon Ante to have a game that my family could play, since I knew there was no way they’d play D&D as it was. Now I might try.
CH: Thank you both for your time!