Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about you and your history with D&D, what you're playing now, and anything else you want people to know about you?
My name's Russ Morrissey (I use the username "Morrus" online) and I own an RPG news, reviews, and community website called EN World. I also own the Gen Con EN World RPG Awards, the ENnies, which is the world's premier RPG awards program, Circvs Maximvs (a more offbeat community which has a large proportion of gamers) and EN Publishing, a small RPG company which focuses primarily on plot-heavy adventure paths for the experienced GM or DM. I also co-own (with my brother) and produce an animated web series called The Perturbed Dragon, which pokes fun at some of our failings as gamers.
My first D&D game was when I was 12; it was AD&D (1st Edition), though I can barely remember the details now. My first RPG experience happened by accident, though, a year or two before that - my parents bought me a black-and-white Warhammer tabletop battle boxed set for Christmas one year. Never having seen a tabletop battle game or a roleplaying game, and not fully comprehending the basic intent of the game, we kind of accidentally played it like an RPG rather than a wargame. Over the nest few years, AD&D remained our primary game, but we flirted with a bunch of others - FASA's Star Trek and Doctor Who games, a Judge Dredd RPG of some stripe (I don't remember which), Golden Heroes (a superhero RPG), TMNT, and a bunch of tabletop skirmish games including Battletech and Steve Jackson's Car Wars. But we usually came back to AD&D as the big daddy of them all - partly, I think, because it had the biggest and heaviest books. And partly because the books smelled nice.
So AD&D 2E came out in the later 80s. I struggle to recall when I upgraded, as I and my friends moved away to different universities and jobs after school finished, and I stopped gaming for a few years - hey, I was 18 and had other things on my mind (like trying to be James Dean). I came to my senses a few years later, though (post-university) and found myself in another gaming group which lasted for many years as various people drifted in and out. That period was pretty much only AD&D 2E - we went in for long, long campaigns and didn't vary the system much.
3rd Edition I remember a bit more clearly. I was very, very excited in the run-up to that game; and followed along eagerly on a site called Eric Noah's Unofficial D&D 3rd Edition News (the site which eventually because EN World, the site I currently run). We played years of homebrews- mainly sandboxy city campaigns which I made up as I went along. The final 3E game we played was Paizo's Age of Worms adventure path from DUNGEON magazine. By then, I think we had started to gain a little system fatigue; so 4th Edition seemed exciting and new. Actually, that was the first time I experienced the "Edition Wars" in real life (as opposed to the way they sweep the intrawebs these days) - one of my players was dead-set against 4E right from the start. Still, we played it -- we started with the initial adventures (Keep on the Shadowfell etc. as far as Pyramid of Shadows) but we didn't feel those adventures were targeted at us, being in our 30s by then. We eventually switched to a two-year adventure path (one I published myself, incidentally) and played all the way through that.
For about 10 years I'd been pretty much constantly DMing. I was getting a little tired towards the end of that last campaign, which coincided with the initial announcements about D&D Next. At that time, there were no public playtest materials, of course. So another member of my group started running a short Pathfinder campaign, followed by a Traveller RPG campaign. We're currently playing that Traveller campaign, and dropping in D&D Next playtests from time-to-time. We played Caves of Chaos (the first playtest adventure), and a bit of Blingdenstone, and also tried adapting it to an adventure I happened to be writing at the time off the back of a Kickstarter project, with me converting it on the fly.
What do you think of the D&D Next playtest so far?
Our group has been a little divisive over the current playtests. One chap really isn't keen on D&D Next; while the person I thought wouldn't like it is fairly optimistic. I find myself struggling with presenting it as a playtest, and not as a complete game - and pointing out that finding things you don't like or think don't work is the point of the playtest, not an indication of its failure. Too often I'm seeing or hearing "X is broken; therefore D&D Next will not be a good game" rather than "X is broken; cool, I'll mention that in my playtest survey so it can be addressed"; I find this fairly frustrating. It does make me wonder whether an public playtest is as good an idea as it sounds, and I do worry about "design by committee" (I'm a firm believer that genius usually comes from a single vision), but I also love some of the intended basic design tenets of D&D Next.
Are there any specific things in the current playtest that rub you or your table the wrong way? Anything you’re hoping to see changed?
For me, two main things. The first is healing. While I wasn't keen on the 4E over-proliferation of healing, I'm also not fond of a cleric finding his main action in combat to be healing. I feel that the cleric should be able to heal in addition to doing fun stuff, rather than instead; and that some healing ability can be spread around as long as the cleric's role isn't diluted by doing do - that, however, is a tricky line to follow. The second thing is the action economy - I feel 4E got that about right with a move, minor, and standard per player plus action point (although the sheer number of reactions and interrupts bogged things down) and D&D Next feels a little empty in comparison. I am certainly looking forward to seeing a tactical rules module - so far we haven't been using miniatures or battlemaps with Next, though we will try that also.
What about things the current playtest gets right? Anything you really like the look of?
I haven't fully absorbed the latest (Oct 29th) iteration of the playtest package yet. I love what you guys did with magic missile. Love seeing dinosaurs. The magic item customizations are great. The skills approach has wavered a little over the playtest packages; my preferred approach is the current one: the DM asks for an ability check, and the player gets to apply a skill if it's relevant. I wrote an article about it months ago, but I still like the idea of very specific skills (as narrow and obscure as you want to make them) in a *completely* open-ended list of what are, essentially, simply bonuses to ability checks in certain predefined situations.
In the most recent packet, the rogue gets some expertise dice and ways to use it that are different than the fighter. Do you have any thoughts on the class and the mechanic?
I'm not sold yet on the expertise dice, but I may well change my mind on that. From my point of view - and I fully recognize that this may simply be a play style issue - when I was running the playtests I was not really aware of the expertise dice being used; they had no dramatic narrative place in combat. As such, the fighter was simply adding them sometimes, but they were simply a number. By contrast, sneak attack damage (which is similar) "feels" different because the rogue is actively doing something dramatic. My sense, looking at the latest iteration of the rules, is that the extra options may well go some way towards fixing that perception issue in my head. I'm fine with the rogue and fighter both having access to the mechanic as long as their maneuvers feel different rather than just turning the rogue into a Dex fighter. That actually takes me back to some of the extensive house rules we used to design for 2E, where I tried - unsuccessfully - to unify the combat system and the "martial" classes in a similar way.
Do you have any ideas or mechanics you’d like to see that would encourage fighters or other melee classes to effect the narrative of combat?
Narration of combat has always been a tricky issue. Partly, that's because it's a play style issue, although I believe mechanics help to guide play style (which is why people play different RPGs with different mindsets). Action points were a strong method of player-controlled narrative; but of course the more player-controlled narrative you add, the more you take away the DM's power. But - with complete awareness I'm repeating words here - that again is a play style issue and will vary from group to group. There are strong games out there which allow players to place objects and so forth into the scene - and perhaps D&D could take a cue from that, especially in situations where a tactical map isn't being used.
You mentioned spreading the healing around. Are there any classes you’d like to see with some healing abilities, or different approaches to healing?
No classes specifically come to mind. I'm not personally a fan of the morale=healing concept. If I were to try something (and this with the understanding that I've never actually written a role-playing game in my life!), I think it would be linked into a more mundane, skill-based approach useable by everyone. I'm not sure exactly how "gritty" I'd want that to be - less so than I would have ten years ago, I think.
What’s your take on the signature spells in the current playtest? Do you think it’s something you and your table will like, or do you anticipate some criticism?
I have a hard time with signature spells simply because it's something I've wither house ruled in or used third-party supplements for for as long as I can remember; so it's become the default in my mind. I absolutely believe that magic using classes should have themed, at-will abilities which help to define them. I would like to see more player control over this, though - the way Magic Missile is currently skinned to suit is great, and allowing a magic user to have a flavor such as "spider-mage" or "ice-wizard" or what-have-you and have a *lot* of his magic use fit that theme works well for me; the flavor percolating through the whole suite of abilities.
Do you have a favorite class in the playtest so far? Is there a class you’re hoping to see in an upcoming packet?
My favorite class is, and always has been, the wizard. I'm an old-fashioned kinda guy; I like Vancian magic, I like a wizard who has to hide behind a meat-shield, and I love a spell system where each spell could literally do anything. That was always one of the strengths of the spell system - each spell could be its own little rules system all by itself without being forced to fit into any square holes. Or round pegs. Or whatever the saying is. I was delighted to see that philosophy returning.
As for classes I hope to see - I'll be very interested to see what you guys do with the ranger. I'm hoping for a core of Aragorn rather than Drizzt (who I always said is a *fighter*). The ranger, for me, is less fantastical than some of the other classes - nature magic is the province of the druid; being really excellent at fighting (like, say, with two weapons) is the province of the fighter. The ranger shouldn't steal either class's thunder.
What do think about the idea Mike mentioned in a recent Legends & Lore about having a magic user umbrella class that could possibly branch off to things like the wizard or sorcerer?
The magic system approach has me intrigued. By this I assume you mean the "magic-user" class with "wizard", "sorcerer", and "warlock" being traditions within that class? That works well for me, and allows a DM to flavor the magic in their campaign; and it certainly makes sense that different cultures could find different methods to access and control magic. I'm looking forward to seeing what traditions you guys come up with; and I hope the DMG (assuming you'll be having a DMG of course!) contains guidance on selecting a cohesive theme for the magic systems in a given campaign.
Magic items are also a pretty popular topic right now. Do you like what you’re seeing in the magic item descriptions, random tables, and rarity? Is there something else you’re looking for when it comes to the loot?
Absolutely love it. I love that a magic item Christmas tree isn't hard-baked into the core math, and that magic items seem to be trending back towards the more flavorsome. This was actually one of my main hopes for the new edition, and it seems I'm going to be in luck! And I'm a sucker for random tables...
Wrapping things up, do you have any extra feedback you want to highlight for the D&D Next team or any words of wisdom to offer your fellow playtesters?
I'd encourage players to remember that they are *playtesters*; that the packages are not to be evaluated as a full game and that each is looking for specific data. And, most importantly, finding something you don't like means than the playtest process is working as intended and isn't evidence of eventual failure. And I'd strongly encourage them to try to avoid getting mired in pointless edition wars and to be glad that at least we're all tabletop gamers.