Mike Mearls has written nearly every d20 System book you’ve heard of (or at least it seems that way). Before going full time with Malhavoc Press, and more recently with Wizards of the Coast, he was one of the most prolific freelancers in the RPG industry.

Despite the name, he wrote Monte Cook’s Iron Heroes, one of the most popular implementations of the d20 System to date. And with a zillion game design credits to his name, the most impressive thing is this: It’s all good.

So he can write like the dickens and he’s got a unique, unpretentious and usually spot-on take on the industry (often showcased in his LiveJournal) — but what’s he like as a GM? How did he get started as a freelancer? And what are his lunchtime games like? The answer to these questions (and many others) are in this email interview.

Treasure Tables (TT): For starters, thank you for being here, Mike!

Mike Mearls (Mike): Thanks for having me!

TT: Given your workload, I have this mental image of you handling this interview, your current project for WotC, a LiveJournal post and a messageboard thread all at the same time . . .

Mike: Yeah, I’m usually pretty busy. I’ve been at Wizards of the Coast for over a year now. Typically, I work on a D&D book, a miniatures set, and maybe some extracurricular work. For instance, I wrote the tournament adventures for the D&D Open this year. I like to throw myself into a diverse range of products. It keeps things interesting.

TT: Let’s start at the beginnng — not how you got into freelancing, but how you got into so much freelancing.

Did you start out as more of a hobbylancer? Was there a tipping point when you knew you could do it full-time?

Mike: I never really intended to become a full-time freelancer. It happened more due to a variety of factors rather than any specific set of decisions I made. I really liked D&D, and when the d20 license was announced I was excited about the possibilities. Up until September 2001, I saw freelancing as a good way to get paid while getting other people to publish my d20 stuff. My long-term goal was to pile up enough credits to get a job as a game designer, not freelance full-time.

After September 11, things changed. I lived in NYC, and the company I worked for as a programmer was already in bad shape. I also had this sense that, if I ever wanted to write full-time, now was the time to take that risk. So, I abandoned the sinking company I worked for, moved back to New England, and the rest is history.

TT: What’s your favorite book that you’ve written? What’s your least favorite?

Mike: My least favorite is probably the Underdark Adventure Guide from Goodman Games. That book should have been so much better, but in the end I was too overworked to give it the polish it needed. On the other hand, almost every book I’ve written has been my most hated at some point or another. After a while, a project becomes an annoying house guest who won’t go away. You have to kick him out into the world and hope for the best.

I think that’s also why criticism has never really bugged me. I have probably hated almost everything I’ve worked on more than the harshest critics.

Picking a favorite book is tough. It’s probably Book of Nine Swords, aka Tome of Battle. It was the first project that I served as lead developer, it required an enormous amount of work, and in the end it was never clear if people would like it. Releasing Nine Swords was like pushing a boulder down a mountain into a foggy valley. You have no idea where it’s going to go, but it’s going to cause a lot of noise. So far, judging from the forums, we didn’t crush anyone’s house.

TT: One thing I’ve consistently noticed about your d20 work is that you always nail the mechanics. If I pick up one of your books, I can count on the crunch being balanced, interesting and eminently playable.

How do you do this, and do it so consistently?

Mike: Blind, crazed overconfidence. I have a ton of faith in GMs, and I have no problem throwing stuff out there that could be insanely broken. That doesn’t mean I’m cavalier about balance, but I’d rather make something that’s interesting and a little too strong than something that’s balanced but boring.

I also have something of a secret. A lot of the time, I write stuff to build a specific character I want to play, to support an adventure I want to run, or to support the campaign I’m currently running. I think a lot of RPG stuff is designed without actual play at the table in mind. It drives me nuts when I see a new RPG and there isn’t a clear, obvious way you are supposed to run it. I hate games that start with fiction, or a gazetteer of the setting. Just tell me what I’m supposed to do with the game. I suspect that, when an RPG fails to do that, the designer simply doesn’t know. He’s just created this die mechanic, or this story bible for the novel he wants to write, and thrown it out into the market.

An individual GM can get away with that for his own game, but when you write professionally you need to level with your audience and tell them what you’re trying to do.

TT: What RPGs hit the “how you’re supposed to run it” high note for you?

Mike: Many indie RPGs do a great job with clearly communicating their goals, and then following that with a design that supports them. Games like Agon, Dogs in the Vineyard, inSpectres, The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, and many others from indie designers are built for one, specific purpose or one, specific story. They’re more like boardgames in that you can sit down for a 2 to 4 hour session and have a complete game experience. In contrast, a traditional RPG lets you have an entire session for character creation, or a session where you do nothing but chase clues and spin your wheels. Many indie games are designed with such focus that you have to willingly ignore the text to mess up that badly.

I think that, at times, mainstream designers are too worried about the myth of infinite choice. We want to tell gamers, “You can do anything with this game!” In reality, you can do a near infinite number of boring things, and a limited number of fun things. In other words, it’s very easy to be a sucky GM. It’s HARD to be a good one. Too many games leave the GM at sea without a paddle, or even a piece of driftwood to cling to. That good games happen is usually a testament to a GM who manages to muddle his way to developing good skills.

I like to draw the analogy between miniatures painting and GMing. You have to be an outstanding visionary (or a trained artist!) to develop advanced painting techniques. 90% of painters learn from someone else, from the painting chapters in miniatures game rulebooks, from an online article, or a learn-to-paint kit. We need analogies to those resources for RPGs.

TT: Coming back to one of your first comments for a moment, how do you go about writing a tournament scenario — like the ones you did for this year’s D&D Open?

Mike: I think there are two tricks.

First, you have to build a story that is compelling enough that about a paragraph of explanation hooks the players. In a tournament, you don’t have time for a 20 minute intro with detail upon detail. You want one paragraph that tells people what’s going on and hooks them into the story so that they care about what’s going on.

Second, you need to test everything in a player’s arsenal. It’s easy to do combat encounters. Anyone can challenge a 7th-level party with a CR 11 creature. It takes a lot more work to put in puzzles, roleplaying challenges, and tactical situations that require thought. Even though it’s a tournament, this is still D&D. I want people to identify with their characters, feel like their choices matter, and have those “Ah ha!” moments where they figure out something and put a plan into motion. D&D is the only game where you have truly creative game play. People can do whatever they can think of, and I want to reward that. A tournament that feels like a series of multiple choice questions is a failure. The correct answers should arise from players putting together clues and creating the answer, not picking it from a list of choices.

TT: What are you like as a GM?

Mike: That’s a really good question. I think my style varies tremendously. I’m more of an entertainer than a storyteller, or tactical meat grinder, or world builder. If I can make people laugh, get them to have fun, and engage them, I’m happy. I’m the kind of DM who, if the players like a particular NPC, brings that guy back into the game as often as possible. I want the players to have fun, and the type of game I need to run to make that happen doesn’t matter to me.

TT: Along the lines of the TT post Write Your Own Naughty List, what are your GMing weaknesses?

Mike: A big mistake I make is confusing my own idea of what I’d want to do as a player with the players’ desire. Once, I forced a guy to roleplay out his interaction with an important villain. He was really nervous about it and just wanted to make a Diplomacy check. I forced him to say something in character, and it derailed the game a bit.

I am also by nature argumentative, and it’s too easy for me to get caught up in arguing with a player rather than moving things along.

Finally, when I really fall in love with the idea of something happening I can railroad a bit too much. Usually the players don’t notice, but sometimes it gets a little obvious.

TT: Do you get a chance to run games anymore, or does writing them take up all of your spare time?

Mike: I run a weekly, lunchtime game at work, but I haven’t had time or the group for a normal gaming session. I definitely have ideas for games I’d like to run. The lunchtime game is fun, but an hour a week makes it hard to do any epic story arcs or character driven stuff.

That said, I do play in a campaign. Playing is really interesting, and I think as a designer it’s more informative than running a campaign. When you play, you learn how to deal with the rules when you can’t simply houserule.

TT: The idea of gaming over lunch sounds awesome, but how does it actually work? Do you game and eat? Can you handle more than an encounter or two? I can easily see a mid-level D&D combat taking a whole week to resolve — which RPGs work best for this?

Mike: The lunchtime game is almost pure combat. The session begins with initiative rolls and goes from there. The story is at best a thin veneer of explanation, along the lines of “You are fighting sahuagin in a flooded temple because…” rather than anything truly compelling.

I structured the game so that each “adventure” is really one big fight in a large, interesting environment. We never leave initiative order, and it’s rare for the PCs to not have a monster on their hands. Even when there is no fighting, the players know that there are creatures (like an invisible ogre mage) in the immediate area. The concept of discrete encounters goes out the door. Rather, the adventure is one long encounter over a big area, with waves of enemies entering the map or “activating” when the PCs draw their attention or stumble across them.

We’ve had a lot of fun with it, primarily because I made no bones about the lack of story. The players know what they’re getting each week, I know what they expect, and so everyone has fun. Best of all, I get the chance to test out all sorts of weird rules. One week, I used rules for firearms I had written. Another week, I re-wrote the rules for swimming to prove that you could run an enjoyable underwater adventure in D&D.

I think almost any RPG can work for a limited, weekly game, as long as the players and GM are on the same page. I wouldn’t try anything too story-oriented unless we played every day. Alas, meetings and my comic book addiction (every Wednesday for lunch we hit a BBQ restaurant and then pick up our comics from a local store) make a daily game impossible.

TT: Have you ever gotten burned out, either as a writer, as a GM, or both? Are there similarities between the two? And what did you do to bounce back?

Mike: I was a bit burned out as a writer about 18 months ago. I was sick of churning out 4,000 words each day, every day, week after week. I felt like I had done all I could with d20, but I didn’t see any other games out there that I wanted to work on. Luckily, my next project was the Dragon Compendium with Paizo Publishing. It was a huge shot in the arm. I got to wade through the entire run of Dragon Magazine in search of cool content to plunder and update. I felt like I was standing on the shoulders of giants, and the work was much different than the normal, 4,000 word grind.

When it did come time to do original design work, such as on the classes, I was really excited to dive in. It was a joy to work with articles I had loved back in my 1e days.

My answer to burn out ties back into what I said earlier. If I can work on a few different things, especially if the work is notably different, I can keep everything fresh and interesting.

TT: If you can talk about it, what projects do you have on the front burner right now?

Mike: I’m not exactly sure what has been announced yet. WotC works at least a year ahead of release. I can say that I did work on Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords, Monster Manual IV, and Player’s Handbook II. I also worked on the latest D&D miniatures set, War of the Dragon Queen. I was the first person to kill Tiamat in a D&D minis game! It was a playtest starring a ridiculously powerful iteration of the war weaver. At one point, she could cast snake’s swiftness on three targets at once. If you know D&D minis, you realize how powerful that is.

TT: Is there anything else you’d like to share with TT readers?

Mike: Don’t be afraid to experiment. I think it’s easy for gamers to fall into a rut. Try running an adventure where the villain swaps the PCs minds and bodies. Let the players try switching character sheets and see what happens. Run an encounter that is a flying carpet chase through a magma field with huge, arcing plumes of fire that soar through the air, as the carpets dart beneath and above the fiery blasts. Weird, fun, and unique elements make RPGs shine. These are games of the imagination. Go crazy and have fun!

TT: Again, thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Mike. It’s been a blast. 🙂

(Did you enjoy this interview? I asked Mike more follow-up questions than I usually do — did you like that approach?)