Dungeons, Dragons, and d20

An Interview with Jonathan Tweet
By Therese Littleton, Amazon.com

Jonathan Tweet led the design team that recently overhauled Dungeons & Dragons, the grand dame of roleplaying games, with a rules system that's not seen a dramatic revision since Advanced D&D's 1979 release. One playtester's reaction to the new edition of D&D was typical, comparing it to the revamped VW Bug, a testament both to its almost universal likability and its thoughtful, elegant design.

An old-school pro, Tweet already had a few games under his belt, including Ars Magica (Gamer's Choice Best Fantasy RPG of 1987), Over the Edge (brilliant, bizarre, and not originally intended for publication), and Everway (think of it as freeform high fantasy). He's still busy working just south of Seattle at Wizards of the Coast, new owners of D&D's parent company, TSR, and makers of Magic: The Gathering and the wildly successful Pokémon trading-card game. We stole some time from his packed schedule to ask a few questions about what went into D&D 3rd Edition.

Amazon.com: Before its release, you predicted that 3rd Edition would worry those who heard about it, intrigue those who saw it, and be loved by those who played it. Have you had any surprises so far in how the game's been received?

Jonathan Tweet: The big test was GenCon, where the Player's Handbook debuted. It was received even better than I thought it would be.

Amazon.com: What was the point of the new edition? Was there an overarching philosophy to the overhaul?

Tweet: Our philosophy was simple: Make the game better. We had a number of smaller, more precise goals, but our overarching philosophy was simply to improve the game.

Amazon.com: Did any mechanics or elements from your previous games migrate into 3rd Edition or influence how you approached the design?

Tweet: The core mechanic (d20 + ability modifier + class/level/skill modifier) is very close to the core mechanic in Ars Magica. The similarity comes as no surprise, since I based the Ars Magica core mechanic partly on hacks I did to the rules in my D&D campaign. Coincidentally, it's also very close (maybe even closer) to the core mechanic I worked with when I developed the Talislanta Guidebook for Wizards. The other designers already had a core mechanic similar to the current one when I joined the design team, and I've seen the same basic idea in a few other games as well.

Feats are like the "virtues" you see in Ars Magica, but again that's a pretty common feature in RPGs. The way that spells are defined owes something to the work I did defining spells for Ars Magica, too.

My more freeform designs didn't contribute anything directly to the new D&D because they approach roleplaying very differently. Some of the ethnic diversity you see in Everway, however, is also visible in D&D now. I was one of the people calling for humans in D&D to look like humans from earth in general rather than like humans from Europe, but I wasn't the only one.

Amazon.com: Had Wizards already covered all this ground with Magic: The Gathering?

Tweet: Indeed, Wizards' move away from Euro-centrism goes back years. You see it in both the Magic: The Gathering TCG and the Alternity RPG, for example.

Amazon.com: What aspect of 3rd Edition are you most proud of?

Tweet: I like the core mechanic. I'm very happy that a game that used to be a compilation of ad hoc rules and systems now has a single, coherent system for attacks, saving throws, skills, etc.

Amazon.com: What proved most contentious, both internally and with playtesters?

Tweet: Initiative. In the new system, you roll for initiative once per battle and "cycle" through the order of battle instead of rolling for initiative each round.

The version of D&D that I learned from had each character and monster act in order of Dexterity every round, and that's the way I always played. When AD&D came out with initiative rolled each round, I thought it was a silly idea and never used it. Years later, Wizards bought TSR, and I started working on a secret D&D project (now shelved). When a playtester told me he didn't like my weird initiative system, I didn't even know what he meant. He meant that we didn't roll for initiative each round.

When I joined the D&D design team, we designers were split over how to structure rounds and initiative. I proposed something like the system that eventually made it into print, and the concept wasn't well received. In fact, I was willing to give up without a fight. "Even if it's better," I said, "D&D players will hate it." Luckily, one of my co-designers, Skip Williams, suggested that we should at least playtest my weird initiative system. We ran the same fight twice back to back, once rolling initiative each round, and once rolling only once for the whole combat. With fixed initiative, the combat ran something like 30 to 40 percent faster. And fast combat is more fun than slow. Based on that test and further tests, we finally agreed that we owed it to the game to use "fixed" or "cyclic" initiative, especially because anyone who wants to roll each round can simply do so.

When we sent the rules out to playtesters, a lot of them hated cyclic initiative. But a lot of them loved it. We actually surveyed our playtesters for how they liked various general and specific rules, and the playtesters were split on cyclic initiative. For most rules, we got a standard bell curve centered on 4 (1 = "hate the rule" and 5 = "love it"). For most rules, lots of people mostly liked them, a few loved them, and a very few hated them. For cyclic initiative, however, we got a U-shape, with most playtesters either loving or hating it, and only a few responses in the middle.

Our overarching philosophy, remember, was to make the game better. We went with cyclic initiative. So far, it's gone over pretty well.

Amazon.com: Wizards made extensive use of playtesters for 3rd Edition. Were there any specific instances of playtester input that forced the design team to radically rethink an idea or approach?

Tweet: More than anything, the playtesters helped us smooth out the game. They found rules that didn't work, feats that were too strong, spells that were too weak, and so on. By the end, we had a game that the playtesters were by and large very happy with. Two changes that we made in response to our playtester survey were that we slapped multiclass restrictions on the monk and paladin, and we changed the magic missile spell back so that it worked just like it used to.

Amazon.com: Why did monks and paladins need to be reined in? And what was the playtest version of Magic Missile?

Tweet: Paladins and monks didn't need to be reined in. Playtesters just objected to the idea that they could multiclass without restriction. They see these classes as more narrowly devoted to their careers than other classes. It's a flavor issue.

The playtest version of magic missile was 1d6+1 damage per missile with a Reflex save for half damage. It averaged out to the same damage most of the time, but monks and experienced rogues had the chance to take no damage at all (thanks to evasion).

Amazon.com: Wizards purchased TSR in 1997, and work on 3rd Edition began not long after. Hasbro then acquired Wizards in late 1999. What impact did these corporate changeovers have on the new game?

Tweet: The Wizards acquisition was very important to the new D&D because it put Peter Adkison, CEO of Wizards, in charge. He had been sorely disappointed by 2nd Edition, which he viewed as a missed opportunity to substantially improve the game. We followed his vision for the new game: that it would be a much better game, even if we had to overhaul the system. In fact, when the design team was timid in making changes to the game, he assumed leadership of the team for a while and gave us the impetus to take the redesign all the way.

The acquisition also put Ryan Dancey in charge of the D&D business. He reversed the failed business strategies of TSR and put the game on the right track. Plenty of gamers don't care about the business end, but if the business doesn't work, the game suffers.

Amazon.com: The ad copy for 1989's AD&D 2nd Edition predicted that the roleplaying world would be "forever changed" by that rules revision, which largely ended up being a lot of house rules and a reprint of all the spells from Unearthed Arcana. But it's clear that 3rd Edition brings much more substantive changes. How will gamers look back on the historic significance of 3rd Edition even five years from now?

Tweet: I'm in the lucky but awkward position to have been very closely involved in a project that has had a tremendously successful launch and that has a lot of promise. My honest opinion unfortunately sounds like bragging, which goes against the grain of my Norwegian soul. But here goes.

D&D players will find it amazing that they ever calculated THAC0, rolled different damage dice against larger-than-man-size creatures, used the old dual-classing rules, or rolled for thief skills on percentile dice. They'll have a hundred quibbles with the rules, and every player with any experience will have one or two serious differences of opinion with the design philosophy. That's par for the course in hobby gaming. But they'll see the release of the new D&D game as the best thing that happened to D&D since AD&D came out.

Amazon.com: Wizards has high hopes for 3rd Edition drawing in new players. How successful will the game be at making inroads with a more mainstream audience?

Tweet: For years, TSR had a haphazard strategy for introducing new players to D&D. Wizards, on the other hand, has a coherent strategy that draws on the expertise that we've already developed with introductory games. The new Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game, on which I was the lead designer, is a polished game, benefiting from several careful tests with new players.

Amazon.com: What's the core mechanic for proselytizing new players?

Tweet: First of all, it's a $10 price point. The Adventure Game's going to be easy for new players to pick up. Second, now that we're using the D&D game mechanics for other games, the Star Wars RPG is going to be a de facto entry point to the D&D game.

Amazon.com: Fox Kids recently revived the long-dead, lumbering corpse of the awful Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. If Hank put his energy bow to your head and made you pick a favorite character, who would you pick and why?

Tweet: I'd pick Uni the unicorn. Dumb animals are without sin, and the other characters are all guilty by association with that show.