Laid off by Hasbro, ex DnD designer wants to fix the game’s faults

Ex-DnD designer Mike Mearls reveals behind the scenes info on the 5e design process, as well as a new CR system inspired by Warhammer 40k.

DnD figher battling a hydra.

Ex-DnD designer Mike Mearls has owned up to mistakes in the way encounters are balanced in Dungeons and Dragons, and – now he no longer works for Wizards of the Coast – has set about trying to fix the issue. “Like a lot of DMs, I’ve struggled to get CR to work reliably in my games,” he writes, in a forum post on RPG site EN World. “Unlike a lot of DMs, I can honestly claim that it’s my fault.”

Together with Jeremy Crawford, Mearls led design on Dungeons and Dragons’ fifth edition. In his forum post, Mearls takes responsibility for Challenge Rating making it into the game. This well-known system, ported over from 3e, helps DMs balance encounters so that parties don’t meet DnD monsters of too high a level. A first level 5e Bard does not have the means to survive an encounter with a DnD dragon (unless they’re really skilled in seduction) so it’s advisable not to throw one at them.

According to Mearls, while other designers “pushed to do something else,” he “locked us into CR because it fit with our timeline and was a tool that our existing DM base already understood.” Apparently, the work was constrained by a “small budget” and “tiny team”. Now Mearls argues that the decision was correct from the POV of a producer in his position at the time, but “it wasn’t a great call from a design point of view.”

DnD owl monster attacking a dying person in the snow

Many DMs complain that CR is an unreliable yardstick for measuring an encounter’s difficulty, and ironically it looks like Mearls is among them. He’s now come up with a new point-based tool that’s apparently inspired by Warhammer 40k. The system assigns point values to different characters and monsters, and in a balanced encounter, the points will be the same on either side. It’s available on Github for free.

One of many Wizards of the Coast employees let go in the 1,000 Hasbro layoffs that took place in December, Mike Mearls had been at Wizards since 2005 and was a prominent developer on both Fourth and Fifth editions. Now, it seems he’s continuing his DnD design work as a third party creator.

“Work I did for WotC is owned by WotC, so I can’t take it up and expand on it,” Mearls said in response to a question on the forums. “However, there’s tons of empty space beyond those bounds that I want to explore.”

“Things like psionics, new character class structures, and so on, are high up my list, with DM tools my top priority for now.”

Mearls also plans to devise his own DnD setting for this new content, but adds “I think it will be some time before I have anything to publish”.

For more TTRPG content, check out our guide to all the DnD classes and DnD races.