Goodbye Mearls, Hello Cook: Reflecting on Legends & Lore

by Dantracker (Kenneth McNay) on September 21, 2011

In this week’s Legends & Lore column, Mike Mearls announced he is stepping aside and handing the column over to Monte Cook. Over the past eight months, I’ve read every Legends & Lore article written by Mearls. I’ve come to know and respect his writing and his ideas. Thanks in large part to the content in the Legends & Lore articles; I’ve started to really internalize the game theory. The question on everyone’s mind now is how big an impact will replacing Mearls with Cook have on the Legends & Lore column and on D&D?

Last week we put out a call for submissions. Today the Dungeon’s Master team is pleased to welcome the first of our new contributors, Dantracker (Kenneth McNay). Kenneth discovered D&D as a way to a keep in touch with fellow Soldiers after he left the service. It only took a few sessions before he jumped into 4e with both feet and began running campaigns in 2009. He serves as a store organizer for D&D Encounters and participates in private campaigns as both a player and DM. Outside of D&D, Kenneth works in information and networking technology. On rare occasion, he even plays ukulele. We welcome him to the team and hope you enjoy his first contribution. – Ameron

Before proceeding I must admit that my gaming experience is limited. My introduction to D&D (and RPGs) was in 2009 shortly after 4e launched. My gaming knowledge and experience has grown considerably in the past two years, but I come to the hobby without preconception of previous editions or the baggage that often accompanies it. My opinions and comments regarding D&D and the Legends & Lore series specifically are those of someone without agenda or axe to grind. I enjoy everything D&D has to offer and love to share my enthusiasm. Now that you know where I stand, it’s up to you to decide how much value my opinion carries.

At the horizon

When Mearls began writing his Legends & Lore column eight months ago, I doubt he had any idea of how his writing would guide the R&D department with regards to 4e D&D. This in turn led to plenty of speculation that a new edition was undergoing development. Many speculators felt that slowing book publications, reduced content in the magazines, slumping sales numbers, and possibly other esoteric statistics (I haven’t read every speculator) were proof enough that the claim of a new edition had to be true. Of course, some speculated for their own modest enjoyment.

As Mearls passes the Legends & Lore torch we have to wonder just how far he got with it? I think he managed to arrive at a horizon. We cannot see for certain what is ahead.

Mearls’ final Legends & Lore

The final Legends & Lore topic was soft compared to previous columns. What it lacked in controversy it makes up for with several worthy nuggets of truth. Before I go into specifics and add my commentary, I encourage you to read DM Rules and Exciting News by Mike Mearls, the Legends & Lore article from September 20.

Rules for a good DM

A good DM can walk past barriers of edition, game or genre so far as the rules empower them. A good DM is ultimately a story-teller above all. He will build an engaging setting with complex problems while allowing for players to plan and carry out solutions. The players might even be successful. The good DM balances risks and rewards. This isn’t just the risk of a character dying in-game; it includes the risk of characters failing to succeed. Small risks can still bring about modest rewards, but great risks deserve enriching rewards. In the realm of role-playing games, a good DM allows players to impact the campaign, influence non-player characters and see consequences of their actions – dastardly or beneficent.

Good rules make good DMs

The solid rules of 4e D&D empower DMs to create the thrilling story of fantasy. The rules lay down a solid foundation to build up an adventure, a character or an artifact. The tools for generating creatures which satisfy their purpose are clear and present. Creating an effective set of encounters may take practice, the rule set is solid. The guidelines for rewarding PCs drive motivation for characters to achieve their goals as much as allow DMs to manage PC effectiveness in-game.

Pure game theory

Finally Mearls lands on what I believe to be the real truth behind the eight months of Legends & Lore columns: understanding the system comes through practice and leads to two benefits – a DM can create better adventure sessions and a PC can better immerse in the narrative. The best mechanics are easy to remember and implement. The best mechanics have intuitive application. They allow DM and PC to learn and drive the story forward.

Perhaps Mearls did not see eight months ago where the path would lead, but having seen it through, it does seem appropriate that he can now turn over Legends & Lore to another designer. I hope he will take up other writing projects in the future.

Beyond the horizon

So what lies beyond the horizon? We arrived at a safe haven after some stormy travel. The rambling musing at times led in off-road pits and lonesome forest paths, but now we all sit poised on a horizon asking where our next caravan master shall take us.

Focus on the future

Mearls boasts a focus on the future of D&D. That is hardly surprising; everything from today forward is the future of D&D. I’m certain there is more meaning to it. The audience now consists in equal parts long-time gamers and recent inductees. The result is that 4e is becoming a mature game. The new material is thinning and content focuses on enriching existing options rather than promoting new options. We already know that Heroes of the Feywild will present the last new races for the foreseeable future. The future of 4e D&D must now shift to long-term health of the game rather than frequent new content. Among that enriching content there remains a lack of quality content for epic tier campaigns.

I suspect that Mearls intends the phrase “Focus on the future” to indicate the long-term future of D&D. I certainly believe that a new edition is in the works or at least is being imagined by everyone on the Wizards R&D staff, and the return of Monte Cook may well indicate a strong intent to begin developing functional mechanical systems to represent a new edition.

D&D is the greatest

I don’t expect D&D to truly fulfill the role of a “greatest RPG the world has ever seen.” There are plenty of viable competitors, but more importantly, it cannot overtake all genres of role-playing games. It shouldn’t try to. The wide variety of other games provides myriad choices for the story-telling needed in other genres. D&D has its field of expertise, but I cannot imagine it will stray far outside the right and left limits of such a niche. I’d say there is danger in placing so high a mark for the brand to strive towards. However, many good ideas may transfer into D&D and make it much better.

Cook’s thoughts are not enough!

I surely wonder about the third major landmark along the horizon as far as Mearls states it, “Monte will use this column to share his thoughts about the game.” Honestly, the column got where it is now because Mike Mearls took the initiative to not only share his thoughts about the game but also include the input of community members. We are done meditating on the thoughts about the game and are prepared to see design, development, testing, tossing aside, redeveloping, refining and so many other aspects of the R&D process. There were brief turbulent periods in the past several weeks. We need turbulent periods ahead to be sure; however, walking over the same path of thoughts about the game is not the way to go about stirring the pot.

Mearls was permitted to spend eight months writing and only now is reaching some of his best work. I hope we are all patient enough with Cook to allow him some faltering steps as he begins.

Legends & Lore: a conversation for all of us

If the purpose and meaning of the Legends & Lore series was to involve the community in a grand conversation about the future of D&D then the time has come to move beyond musings and reviews. I hope that Cook will begin to draw out topics from the community forum, look them over, discuss them and possibly expand on the merit each might display. The conceptual ideas need flesh and some need dedicated community members prepared to test, write and make suggestions.

If Cook can lead the community forward when it comes to looking at D&D with a unified perspective, seeking out the best mechanics, it can truly continue as a conversation in which all of us can participate.

What are your thoughts on Monte Cook replacing Mike Mearls as the author of Legends & Lore? Do you think Mearls was doing too much saber-rattling and vague supposition, or did he make progress in the process? Do you trust that Cook will encourage added discussion and controversy with an open mind?

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1 Snarls-at-Fleas September 21, 2011 at 9:46 am

Can’t say I’m glad to see that announcment. I’m afraid Cook will lead D&D “back to roots” with system mastery and all that stuff. After 3 years of D&D 4E 3d edition is a dreaded monster for me, though I played it for about 3-4 years.
When I see 3.x and PF stat blocks they send shivers down my spine. I really hope I am mistaken, but overall I don’t like the announcment.

2 froth September 21, 2011 at 10:37 am

it sucks

3 benensky September 21, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Mearls has dropped the preface, “My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager . . . because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.” I guess he understands the game well enough now and has thrown Cook in to tell us how the game should be played.

I give it the benefit of the doubt, but I wonder if Cook will alienate us 4E players like Wizards alienated 3.5E players changing to 4E. We will see.

They need to do a new edition since there is some kind of product cycle timer that a new edition has to be put out every so often so they can maintain or increase book sales. Forget all that other crap about making the game better, for Wizards it is all about selling product. Cook is here to change the game. For better or worse id does not matter, as long as it sells books. If Mearls thinks they need to change the game to sell to the Pathfinder people even though they may lose us 4E players because net result is selling more books, that is what they will do.

Let us hope for the best and plan for the worst. Right now I am holding my judgment until Cooks puts out a few articles.

4 Rabbit is wise September 21, 2011 at 8:12 pm

As a businessman, I find it laughable that people think that wizards will knowingly alienate customers, just to sell more product. 4e is the first and only edition I’ve ever played, and it is the best form of enertainment per doller spent that i’ve ever experienced.
Its been said before but having everything online helps them track what classes and path options are being played more. Thats what this article was designed to do. I can GUARANTEE the next edition will have powers (available) for all classes. Why? because whenever they talked about it on the forums its what people want.
Rule #1 in business:to hell with what you want give the customer what he wants, or someone else will

5 Kenneth McNay September 21, 2011 at 9:22 pm

I agree that D&D need not be retro to be popular. Do you think that there are valuable things which could be rediscovered by looking back at its roots? Surely the stat blocks are obsolete, but are there other elements that still have value? Many gamers still want to see some original settings renewed in 4e.

I recall listening to a podcast in the recent GenCon Q&A period after the products announcements in which Mearls was given some time to speak. He talked of walking away from 2e because so much content seemed too preachy from the designers about how to play the game. I think he empathizes with customers that don’t want designers telling the ‘how to’ of playing the game. Cook could be alienating, but this is a big chance for him to return to Wizards and D&D. I’m sure he wants to make the best impression to Wizards and to the community. Do you think that Wizards really would attempt to emulate Pathfinder? I can imagine them developing a new edition, but I’m sure they want most of all for D&D to retain a strong identity that sets a standard for other games instead of copying another game.

@Rabbit is wise
One of the impacts I see coming from the L&L series is increased inclusion of concepts discussed on the forums. This is also helped by the increased digital community. Those tools do provide a database of info, but open discussion will be most influential.

6 Alex September 22, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Ok I’ve been playing D&D since 2E. I played through 3E and currently run a weekly game playing 4E. I like Mike Mearls, but I loved Monte Cook. I am excited to see where he takes 4E and hope he has a hand in the design of 5E. 4E is a fun system, but it’s far too combat heavy for my tastes. I mean I love a good fight sequence but it needs better mechanics for handling the other aspects of the game. I’m hoping that Monte can take us somewhere new with the game at least mechanically. I don’t need someone to tell me how to play, but I would like someone to open up some new doors for my players.

7 benensky September 24, 2011 at 8:08 am

@Rabbit is wise & Kenneth McNay – thanks for taking the time to comment on my post
@Rabbit is wise – You make a good point, I do not think they intentionally went out to alienate us- However, the way Wizards sold 4E it ended up alienating many of 3.5 players. Reluctantly I tried 4E and ended up liking it much better. However, I could have been one of the Pathfinder players who still feel that the game I play and love is still fine and works for me no matter how bad Wizards told me it was. A second point I want to make is Essentials, regardless if you like it better (I do not) there was no request in the core 4E community for most of the changes they made. Wizards, knowing there may be some resistance, sold it like it was a little side project to put in big box and book stores to be a point of entry for new players into 4E. They told us they made changes to suite that audience. In the future they would return to putting out traditional 4E material. It though at the time and hindsight proves me correct that it was a redirection of 4E. They wanted to see if they could grab a larger audience and I believe some of the Pathfinder players. That alienates me when they try to play me like some idiot and that was intentionally done by Wizards.
@Kenneth McNay – I do not think they are going to make it emulate Pathfinder, however they could make changes to the game that make it more unbalanced and more complicated. I find 4E simpler and less complicated than 3.5 and like it. I fear them making changes to make the game more suited to the power gamer. There are some 4E builds that are more powerful than others but in general it is rare that I find a build that totally dominates combat. However, in 3.5 I was finding when I (a casual player) would play with some power gamers it would be boring and frustrating when entering combat knowing the power gamer would just totally dominate.
In general, my fears may be feeble and the changes they make may make the game better. However, my experience with Wizards is thy will intentionally try to mislead us and at times talk about going in direction A and then change their mind and go in direction B. So what they say, I know, is not what they are going to do half the time. What I do know is they are in the business to sell books. I think they are planning changes to sell more books rather than supplements to the game they have. That change scares me because I am enjoying the 4E game the way it is.

8 Kenneth McNay September 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Oh, I agree about the power gaming. I find myself sometimes rejecting characters that are clearly streamlined for optimization in build, feats, stats, powers, and equipment.

I also agree that Wizards has a tendency to act without a complete understanding of the player community. One of the benefits of Mearls writing each week was a more open discourse between R&D and players (forumites at least). It never meant a promise of being influential, but at least it meant we were heard.

So, this change makes me wonder most of all what changes will happen to that feeling of having a direct line to the R&D folks.

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