Remember how I said there were twenty interviews in the ENnies series for 2015? I was wrong, Wizards of the Coast slid under the deadline for your consideration, and I got the chance to interview none other than Mike Mearls, Senior Manager for Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast. Mearls shares his thoughts on Kickstarters, on fan works, and on the license he’d most like to see as a role-playing game. There’s just a few hours left to vote for the ENnies here, with the winners announced on July 31 at Gen Con’s ENnies Ceremony.
MT: Tell us about your gaming experience and your company.
Mike Mearls (MM): I’ve been playing RPGs for decades now, and also play board games and video games. I still collect and occasionally paint miniatures, but haven’t actively played a miniatures game for a few years.
Wizards of the Coast is likely no stranger to anyone who plays tabletop games. The company launched Magic: the Gathering in 1993 and publishes the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game and the Duel Masters trading card game.
MT: What product(s) are nominated this year?
MM: We have a bunch of D&D products up for awards this year. Hoard of the Dragon Queen, a collaboration with our friends at Kobold Press, is up for Best Adventure. Michael Komarck’s stunning depiction of Tiamat earned a Best Cover Art nomination for Rise of Tiamat. A literal horde of artists, ably directed by Kate Irwin, earned a Best Interior Art nomination for the Monster Manual, standing alongside that book’s other nomination as Best Monster/Adversary product. The Basic Rules for D&D earned nominations for Best Electronic Book and Best Free Product. The D&D Starter Set is up for Best Family Game and Best Production Values. The Player’s Handbook is nominated for Best Game, Best Rules, Best Writing, and Product of the year.
Moreover, a number of our licensing partners also earned nominations. WizKids is up for Best RPG Related Product and Best Miniature Product for Temple of Elemental Evil and D&D Icons of the Realms: Elemental Evil Boosters respectively. The D&D Complete Core Monster Pack for Fantasy Grounds earned a nomination in the Best Software category for SmiteWorks.
Overall, 2014 was a great year for D&D. It’s great to see so much of our hard work up for recognition.
MT: What sets your products apart from the competition?
MM: I think a lot of our success ties back into our open playtest process and our overall commitment to high quality. We release only a few books each year, but we put a lot of time and effort into each one. We have the largest group of play-testers, plus regular previews of new material and open tests of new game concepts. For instance, we just released a 5-level playtest of the psionics system for fifth edition.
Our focus on a tighter release schedule also gives us unmatched agility. We can listen to feedback and turn it into a new option or revised approach to the game in a matter of weeks. We’re not shackled to multiple products each month, with a rigid schedule locking us into work years ahead of time.
MT: What publishers or products will you be rooting for in the ENnies (besides yourself)?
MM: That’s a hard question to answer, if only because so many people are doing exciting things with RPGs these days. DungeonMorph Dice are really cool, and the first thing I backed on Kickstarter if I recall correctly. The new wave of British RPGs is out in full force, with both Modiphius Entertainment, Pelgrane Press, and Cubicle 7 scoring well-earned nominations. The Guide to Glorantha from Moon Design might settle in as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern RPG world. Really, at this point I think I might have to name almost everyone who earned a nomination. There’s a lot of great stuff out there, but if I had to narrow it down I’m rooting for Mindjammer and MUTANT: Year Zero.
MT: There was some controversy over an unlicensed fan product. What’s your opinion on fan products?
MM: There are two issues at work here. On one hand, creating a work using someone else’s intellectual property and making money off it is not cool. On the other hand, RPGs have long thrived on individual creativity, pulling in ideas from multiple sources, and a thriving hobbyist and DIY movement that keeps the hobby vital.
Nominating a fan product is not only cool, but really appropriate for RPGs. It’s unfortunate that in this case it was a game drawn on someone else’s IP. In my mind, you cross a line between being a fan who wants to game in a universe to something that feels a little opportunistic. I wish it had been an original setting. That would’ve been a cool story.
The tragedy, in my opinion, is that it’s not hard to take another person’s work as an inspiration and build on that. As a creator, once you decide to take your work from a simple web page or PDF and start promoting it as a full-fledged product, regardless of whether it’s for sale, you need to be aware of copyrights and trademarks.
MT: Licensed products are an interesting challenge that few companies can afford. Are there any licensed products you would like to see as a role-playing game?
MM: We haven’t done any licensed RPG stuff since Star Wars. That said, I think it would be pretty cool to see a game based on Destiny or an RPG sourcebook detailing the Elder Scrolls setting.
MT: It looks like Kickstarters are finally getting some regulation after the FTC went after “The Doom That Came to Atlantic City” board game. What’s your thoughts on crowdfunding?
MM: I think crowdfunding is a great concept, and I also think it’s good that people overall are developing a better sense for what’s realistic in terms of projects. Personally, I don’t use Kickstarter anywhere near as much as I used to. My personal approach is this – someone is asking me to invest in their startup, but without selling me an ownership stake. Instead, they’ll send me some product as a thank you for my donation. Am I OK with that?
MT: Will you be at any conventions this year?
MM: GenCon is looking like the last convention I’ll attend this year.
MT: Where can fans find you online?
MM: Our company website is dnd.wizards.com, and I’m on Twitter at @mikemearls
MT: Anything else you’d like to add?
MM: A lot of work goes into the Ennies, and all that work is performed on a volunteer basis. Personally, I think that publishers should be giving the people behind the Ennies an award rather than the other way around. It reflects incredibly well on the passion, energy, and excitement among RPG fans that one of our biggest awards is entirely volunteer driven. Kudos to everyone doing the hard work (and enduring all the controversy!) needed to bring an award show.