Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Mike Mearls Happy Fun Hour

Mike Mearls
(by Tim Emrick)
I've recently started watching some of the short videos that D&D Beyond has posted on YouTube. These are mostly short interviews with the designers of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, in which they plug the latest "Unearthed Arcana" article, share some teasers about upcoming products (such as bits of lore from the upcoming Mordenkainen's Book of Foes), or give nuggets of advice on various subjects (such as running one-shots or making memorable villains).

One of these videos plugged "The Mike Mearls' Happy Fun Hour," a weekly Twitch stream by one of the co-creators of of D&D 5E. In these streams (which are later posted on YouTube), Mearls shows how he goes about designing new content for the game. For these first few months of the show, he has presented new subclasses for the Player's Handbook classes. He goes into some depth about how each class works, and the space that a subclass fills within it. For example, the warlock and sorcerer gain their subclass at 1st level, so those abilities pull more game-mechanical weight, and are more central to the character's core identity, than they would be in a class like the rogue, which doesn't pick a subclass until 3rd level. In the latter case, the subclass tends to be more about offering new ways to exploit the class features that defined the character at those first few levels.

The Happy Fun Hour will not, obviously, be everyone's cup of tea, as Mearls regularly gets very technical about game mechanics (though he does so in a way that's easy to follow if you're reasonably familiar with the rules). Watching Mearls' process can give insight into the rules that will be invaluable to anyone who wishes to design their own new material for the game, whether for publication or just for a home campaign. His design philosophy includes a few key tenets that he returns to frequently, and that all 5E GMs and designers would do well to keep in mind:
  • Refer back to the rules frequently while you are creating. Don't assume that you remember everything about how a given piece of the game works, because nobody has a perfect memory.
  • All new material must be balanced against the core rules, not against supplements alone. Forgetting to compare your creation to that baseline can lead to broken rules and power creep.
  • The designers don't assume that players own more than the Player's Handbook. They want new players to be able to get started playing without feeling like they need to buy yet another book in order to have a viable character.
  • They also don't assume that players use any of the optional rules (like feats and multiclassing) in their game.
For example, a subclass that grants access to new spells will draw them only from the Player's Handbook. (If a spell from Xanathar's Guide to Everything is truly necessary for the subclass, then they'll reprint that spell in a sidebar.) And when creating a new subclass, you have to be careful to not make it so good that it becomes the only option worth taking. That's a sure sign that something's broken.

Mearls has promised that some of the new material he produces in his show will eventually see print in "Unearthed Arcana," after he polishes it further and has a chance to get the other 5E designers to vet it, too. (One of his new subclasses had already appeared there by the time I starting watching.)

The episodes that I've watched so far cover January-April 2018:

1/30/2018: In this debut episode, Mearls creates a Kraken patron for warlocks. (I'm looking forward to seeing this in UA, and trying it out in a Freeport game!)

2/6/2018: Mearls starts with a recap of the previous episode, with notes on what he's done to flesh out the subclass since then. This will be standard format for the show, with some weeks getting more discussion of past work, and others glossing over it if he's not happy with his progress. This week's new subclass is the Acrobat, for rogues.

2/13/2018 and 2/20/2018: The Giant Soul subclass for sorcerers draws power from the character's giantish heritage. This subclass offers a variety of options based on the different types of giants (stone, fire, and frost, for now), so serves as an example of a subclass that (like the Draconic sorcerer) is effectively several related subclasses bundled together. As such, it takes more time to design, so Mearls takes two episodes to cover everything. One key point of the discussion is his comparison of the sorcerer and wizard classes, and their access to spells--and what can be reasonably done about the sorcerer's very limited spell selection at low levels, without going too far.

2/27/2018: Next up is the cleric, and the Order Domain. Mearls talks about how domains have changed since 3E, and states that clerics' abilities are not defined by their alignment so much as by their god's theme or portfolio. Therefore, alignment domains were not a priority for 5E; a god of chaos might grant Trickery, while a god of good might embody Light or Life. In contrast, the Order Domain is a deliberate attempt to create a "lawful" domain, but still grounding it in more flavorful concepts (civilization and leadership, in this case).

This subclass is the first from this series to see publication in "Unearthed Arcana" (in April). I will revisit it when I do my next "Unearthed Arcana and Freeport" column. (I anticipate referencing The Mike Mearls Happy Fun Hour quite often in those columns from now on, assuming the show continues to hold my interest.)

3/6/2018, 3/13/20183/20/2018, 3/27/2018: Mearls tackles a much more complicated concept--a Warlord subclass for fighters--so he needs a few weeks to develop the idea properly. Among the topics that he touches on are the pitfalls of calling any class a "leader," determining whether a character concept should be a new class vs. a new subclass, and using the spell creation tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide as a benchmark for how good new class features should be. He also expresses his belief that challenging yourself and learning from failure are important to one's growth as a designer (or in any other career), and confesses that this is probably the most complicated subclass he's designed for 5E to date. In the fourth episode, Mearls finally has a first complete draft of the Warlord subclass, and he goes over its tactics and gambits abilities in detail.

4/4/2018: Mearls revisits the Acrobat, finishing off its higher-level abilities. He then begins design on a new barbarian subclass, the Marauder, discussing the fine details of the class's rage ability, and how concerns about multiclassing inform design choices in 5E.

4/10/2018, 4/17/2018: Development of the new barbarian subclass continues. It goes through a couple of name changes (from Marauder to Volcano Barbarian to Disaster Barbarian) as Mearls' core concept morphs. The primary inspiration for these later changes is the 4E warden class, which is not yet represented in 5E. Trying to model that class, in which the character partially transforms during combat, has to be considered carefully in order to avoid copying too closely certain abilities of the Totem Warrior (PH) and Storm Lord (Xanathar's).

(I'm curious about how much this wealth of new elemental-themed subclasses--this one, the giant soul sorcerer from earlier episodes, and the elemental sorcerers from UA--would affect the tone and outcome of adventures such as Princes of the Apocalypse, Storm King's Thunder, and "Against the Giants" in Tales from the Yawning Portal.)

Going Forward: I haven't yet watched the last few videos (4/24/2018, 5/1/2018, 5/8/2018), which according to their blurbs on YouTube, dive into psionics (which have already seen a few iterations in past UA columns). But a dozen episodes is more than enough to share with you for now. I'm not sure yet whether I'll try another review of the Mike Mearls Happy Fun Hour after a few months' more episodes, but (as I mentioned above) you can expect some references to it in my future "UA and Freeport" reviews.

Counterpoint!: While finishing up this column today, I discovered that D&D Beyond has also uploaded Designing D&D Subclasses with Jeremy Crawford Part 1 (5/10/2018). This video hits many of the same points that Mearls regularly returns to on his show, but from a slightly different perspective. If your time is short and you just want a high-level overview of game design, this first part is only about 14 minutes long. (The initial video doesn't indicate how many more parts there will be, or how frequently they will appear.) If you are willing to invest more time in witnessing the full process, then the Mike Mearls Happy Fun Hour is the better choice--and yes, the more fun one.

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