wisdom of the mearls: good decisionmaking in crowdsourced D&D

I’ve been DMing the Mearls crowd-sourced D&D game for a week, and one thing is clear: the PC, whose every turn is controlled by a committee of up to 50 or so players, has that elusive quality “player skill”.

The communal player avoided a trap; killed two and charmed one orc without ever hazarding personal combat; and has been steadily pilfering everything of value, despite the watchful eye of the orc ally. The player has been creative, greedy, and hasn’t made a single rash decision. It would be interesting to run a Mearls through a true Tomb of Horrors-style deathtrap dungeon or an old tournament module. I have a feeling that we’d do better than most human parties.

Watching the votes come in has been fun. While the first-offered alternative has a slight edge in the voting, it’s been interesting to see that a late-suggested, but clever, option frequently wins the voting.

There’s accepted wisdom about committees making bad decisions. On the other hand, there’s a famous story about the “wisdom of the crowd”. In a contest to guess the weight of a bull, the average of all the guesses was within .1% of the true weight.

It’s been fun to run this D&D game: there are plenty of mindless little CRPG games you can use to waste the odd ten minutes at work, but nothing’s quite like reacting to a real person (or real people) in a true RPG. I’d judge the experiment a success, and I’m thinking of keeping it going.

Here’s what I propose:

  • This week, I’ll move the Mearls to a permanent spot in the sidebar of the side, so you can play a turn every time you visit. I’ll probably slow down the game to one or two turns per weekday.
  • I’ll probably change the polling system so that you don’t see others’ votes before you vote. I included the visible votes because I actually thought they represented D&D communal decisionmaking pretty well: you don’t make decisions in a real D&D game by secret ballot. However, without the influence of others’ opinions, we might actually be able to do better than a real D&D group. What do you think?
  • I’d like to let other DMs use the software to run their own Mearls games, either on their own sites or by email invitation.

    If you haven’t joined the game yet, jump in! Right now we’re at a crucial decision point: should the PC fight four ghosts, or try to teach them about the evils of sexual harrassment?


  • 7 Responses to “wisdom of the mearls: good decisionmaking in crowdsourced D&D”

    1. Jason says:

      I’d love to use the software to do my own mearls. Thanks for taking the time to make it and experiment with it, Paul.

    2. paul paul says:

      Voting was close on this question (what to do about the sexually-harrassing phantoms: throw the orc into the room or educate them on sexual harrassment), so I didn’t know which option would win when I closed voting. So I rolled a d20 (16) and wrote two outcomes, one for each leading possibility. Here’s what would have happened if the “Obi-Wan the fops on the importance of active consent and respecting the autonomy of all women” option had won:

      OK, you try to instill basic principles of respect in the evil undead creatures. Let’s see how that goes! (DM rolls 1d20+2: 18!) Pretty well, actually! One of the phantoms accuses you of “mansplaining” but we don’t even know your gender so this doesn’t work. As the serving girl floats away, one of the fops says, “Thank you. But when next we appear, I am afraid that this will be forgotten and we will re-enact our ancient crimes.”

    3. Robert says:

      I’d like to see the poll results for the last question along with the next question, so I can see how popular each suggestion was. All we get now is the winning choice.

    4. paul paul says:

      Good idea!

    5. brink. says:

      This has been a lot of fun. I’ve been meaning to send an email saying that, and wondering what software you were using to run it – i’d like to run one for my boys and their friends (and, of course, anyone else who happened upon it on the internet).

      And, if i may throw my two coppers in, i think it would be nice to see the number of votes for each option after (and only after) the poll is closed.

      Lastly, did i mention this is fun?

    6. X says:

      +1 to running my own mearls using your software. It’s been pretty entertaining so far tho!

    7. Am I the only one who feels a great thrill when his suggestion is chosen by the crowd? Both times it’s happened to me I felt a huge vindication.

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