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System vs. Content
Mike Mearls

O ne of the biggest challenges in working on D&D Next lies in finding the right balance between addressing issues in rules design and in campaign or adventure design. It's easy to conflate the two, and making a mistake in this area can have big consequences.

A debate we had in R&D a few weeks back brought this topic to light. Someone made the point that running low on spells and hit points while in the middle of the dungeon was irritating. Putting the adventure on pause to return to town was disappointing.

At this point, I'm willing to bet that about half the people reading this agree with that statement. The rest of you are likely already making the counterargument. Running out of resources in the dungeon is a challenge to be overcome through strategy and planning. The adventure doesn't pause at that point. Escaping the dungeon with only a few hit points, spells, and potions is part of the adventure.

In many ways, our approach to adventures and campaigns shapes our approach to modularity. What kind of campaign do you want to run? What are your favorite parts of an adventure? One person's feature is another person's bug when it comes to adventure design.

The danger we face is that solving an adventure design issue in the system can quite likely harm one style of play at the expense of another. D&D Next is a big enough game that, based on what we've learned from our playtest surveys, players and DMs value a flexible game that supports a wide variety of campaign and adventure styles. Making one specific style king takes away from your ability to enjoy the others.

From a system design perspective, we have to be sure that our design achieves one of two goals. The core game must support the most essential, core elements of D&D—those that are needed for all types of campaigns. Second, when we design rules that we expect DMs to change to match their campaigns, we need to focus on the simplest, easiest to modify rule. In these areas, we must focus on flexibility above all else.

Let's take alignment as an example. A good number of DMs prefer to leave it out of their campaigns. On the other hand, it's a big part of D&D's identity. We've all seen charts that try to fit different characters from a TV or comic series into the nine alignments. For that reason, we've included alignment as a default part of the game, but we're also committed to severing its ties to any mechanics. For instance, a paladin detects the presence of supernatural creatures rather than whether a creature has an evil alignment.

In terms of adventures, you can easily imagine how alignment and its mechanical elements can wreak havoc with adventures heavy on intrigue, roleplay, and mystery. Who murdered the duke? Probably the person who makes the paladin's nose bleed when busting out detect evil. The same goes for spells that allow casters to detect thoughts, learn information, and so on. In designing our spells, we need to take into account a variety of different adventure styles and make sure the game can support them all with its core system and options.

Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle

Speaking of adventures, a few weeks back, we announced that we would offer a limited edition, D&D Next preview book at this year's Gen Con through our partners Gale Force Nine. Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is a complete, level 1 to 10 campaign set in the area around Daggerford, a small town in the Forgotten Realms. This product includes a number of pregenerated characters, complete with notes on advancing them all the way to 10th level.

The real exciting part of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle lies in its graphic design. We're producing a book that is designed to serve as a sort of yearbook for your D&D Next experience at Gen Con. It includes places for your fellow DMs and players to sign their names, along with spots for designers, editors, artists, producers, and anyone else you meet at the show. We're also featuring design notes for the adventures, concept art, and classic art from previous D&D editions.

Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is but one part of our overall approach to Gen Con this year. As with everything we do, we're always looking for ways to improve the play experience. This year, we're forgoing a traditional booth in favor of a focused D&D Next play area. We're taking over a big space in Hall D to host the massive Confrontation at Candlekeep adventure, your chance to man the walls of Candlekeep and take part in a battle that will play a key role in the future of the Forgotten Realms. We'll also have author signings and the Murder in Baldur's Gate launch weekend events. I'd mention the 28-hour marathon sessions of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, but those are all sold out.

Gen Con also officially kicks off the Sundering—a huge event that reshapes the face of the Forgotten Realms, involving the whole pantheon of gods, many nations, countless individuals, and the fabric of the cosmos itself. You might remember us announcing this last year during the Gen Con Keynote address. To celebrate the launch, make room on your calendar to spend an evening in Baldur's Gate with the "Night with Dungeons & Dragons" Sundering launch party. Kick back with authors, D&D designers, and other industry luminaries for food, drinks, music and adventure.

If you attended Gen Con last year, you might have taken part in our dice giveaway. If you had to wait in a long line last year to get your dice, allow me to apologize. We had a lot of success with our walk-up and play events at PAX and PAX East, but our sense was that most gamers at Gen Con have mapped out schedules that preclude drop-in events. It turns out we were wrong, to the tune of several thousand people showing up to play D&D Next. That's an order of magnitude more than we expected.

We're bringing the dice back this year, but making it much easier to collect them. If you take part in the defense of Candlekeep, you get a set. On top of that, we've designed Confrontation at Candlekeep to meet the overwhelming demand we encountered last year. This year, we're offering pregenerated characters, a quick turnaround to get people playing, the option for people to step up and DM for their friends (rather than relying solely on our indomitable volunteers), and other improvements to keep the game moving.

Check out the Gen Con page on our website for more information about our events.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.
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