Mike Mearls, Wizards of the Coast’s Lead Designer for D&D, posted a series of tweets on Sunday about Critical Role’s event at Gen Con. The event was a huge success.

I don’t normally comment on tweets (in fact, this is my first time). But since Mearls brought up Third Edition, and that’s the focus this month for my website, I figured his tweets are fair game–especially since they don’t make sense initially.

The block quotes of the tweets below were compiled and taken from Dyvers.

“. . . It’s interesting seeing reactions at GenCon to Critical Role’s show in Indy. Illustrates a big divide in how designers grok TRPGs these days (source). It’ll be great to see a higher level of awareness of how RPGs have transformed and what that means for their future (source)

Yes. Critical Role has proven popular (note the views per episode), and the success at Gen Con cannot be downplayed.

Yet tabletop RPGs have not transformed. Even with digital tabletop platforms and other technologies, these are just bells and whistles. There is no higher-level of awareness. The basic concepts the remain the same: you still have a group of players telling an interactive story.

I believe that the rise of 3/3.5e and online discussion forums created a massive, fundamental shift in how RPGs were viewed and used (source). 3e, and then into 4e, D&D was very dense, rules heavy, complicated, and filled with character building options. That was the game (source). That spread to other RPGs, placing the baseline complexity of the typical RPG at the extreme upper end of what we saw in 80s/90s (source). At the same time, online discussion veered heavily towards character optimization and rules details. It was a culture of read and dissect (source).

It was a culture of read and dissect because Wizards of the Coast produced a game which required mastery. You had to study it to play it. And you were there for part of it? Remember?

And here’s the strange thing: 3/3.5e was marketed as simpler and more intuitive than what had come before. See my posts from earlier this month, and especially my upcoming post on Dragon #275.

Also, there were far more complicated systems in the 80s and 90s before 3e came out? And there plenty of discussion in print sources about realism and more rules in RPGs. Remember Rolemaster?

Both the indie and old school design movements rose in counter to this, focusing much more heavily on actual play at the table (source). However, the prevailing, forum-based online culture made it very hard to communicate meaningfully about actual play (source). That changed when streaming and actual play vids became accessible to the average DM. The culture of actual play had a platform (source).

Yes, agreed, forum-based online culture was always a mess. Heaven forbid you designed a game based on the feedback from online forums. The most vocal forum members are often the ones who are often the most angry.

And even bonafide gems of feedback could be silenced by forum moderators wanting to maintain the status quo, or quell even the whiff of an Edition War.

The OSR and indie movements, however,  weren’t about countering what WotC had to offer. WotC was going publish whatever it wanted. We could not stop that. Long live the OGL.

It was more about breaking away from what WotC had to offer, and asking some hard questions about what would we rather do with our time–read a bunch of rules, or play a game.

Furthermore,  the culture of actual play always has had a platform: the tabletop.

We can now meaningfully interact based on what we’re doing when we play, rather than talk about the stuff we do when we don’t play (source). This is HUGE because it shifts the design . . . [conversation] away from “How do we design for forum discussions?” to “How do we design for play?” (source)

Shouldn’t you always be designing a game for play? Where have you been? Is this the reason why many people disliked 4e?

If the game is good, people will talk about online and elsewhere. If it sucks, players will gripe about it, too.

As game designers, we can actually watch how RPGs play and what rules and concepts facilitate the effects we’re looking to create (source).

Wait, you haven’t been watching RPGs play until now? Again, where have you been?

What about the D&D Adventurer’s League? Or the old RPGA? Or going to conventions? What about those fabled games that take place at WotC HQ?

The tension between theoretical discussion vs actual play has always been a big part of RPG design (source). I believe at the table ruled for a very long time, swung hard to theory, and now back to table-driven design (source). Theory is useful, but it has to be used in service to actual, repeatable results in play. And I say this as someone who veered to theory (source).

I tend to agree with you on this. But I think gamers started discussing theory, in part, because the rules (say, for 3e and 4e) weren’t working as they would have desired. Well, wait, actually if I cracked open some issues of Dragon from the ’80s and ’90s I bet I can find discussion on theory in those pages, too. (Even if it’s, say, Gygax ranting about what true D&D is and what isn’t).

The real tension, however, lies between game designers (that is, the Industry) and the gamers themselves. The game designers keep trying to figure out what exactly the gamers really want, the gamers themselves can be so elusive in articulating their desires.

In fact, there’s a Penny Arcade webcomic about this.

So in a series of 14 tweets, that’s why I see Critical Role at GenCon something that can be very good for the hobby and designers (source).

But where was the official presence Wizards of the Coast at GenCon?

(Okay, fair enough, I didn’t have an official presence there either).

Addendum: This ties into the huge success of 5e and the growth of RPGs – people can now learn by watching. The rulebook is not a barrier (source). We don’t learn sports like baseball or soccer by reading the rules – we watch and quickly learn how to play (source). The rulebook is a reference, like the NBA’s rulebook. Comes out only when absolutely needed. Barriers are now gone. Design accordingly . . . (source)”

Where have you been for the last decade?

The trend toward simpler game design had been happening across the board, from roleplaying to wargaming. See the OSR, see Savage Worlds, heck, see Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG.  And as for wargamming, look at what they did to Warhammer.

And nearly every edition of D&D has had some kind of “rules-lite” introductory set to get players to play within 15 minutes.

But after all of these criticisms, I think I understand what you’re really getting at:

As a game designer,  You are glad you can watch gamers actually play these games via live online streaming or on media like YouTube.

You no longer have to rely on second-hand accounts from online forums, or play test reports from gamers who may or may not be reliable.

And with the Critical Role even at to Gen Con, you also got to watch the audience’s reaction to what’s happening at the tabletop and gauge what works and what doesn’t.

From a game designer and a marketing standpoint, this kind of direct feedback can be gold. Nobody is arguing. Nobody is starting an Edition War. The players are just playing.

But here’s my biggest objection to what you’ve said: Of course people learn by watching. This has been going on since the dawn of the hobby–even when rules heavy systems came along.

Don’t make it sound like it’s something new.

Rulebooks have always been there for reference. (Some games require more referencing that others–which leads back to the arguments for simplified games).

The real hurdle for game designers: getting the watchers to stop watching and start playing.

And no matter if a game is impeccably designed, it still has to deal with The Social Beast to have any chance of succeeding.