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Updated: 23 hours 20 min ago

D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes

Tue, 09/18/2018 - 11:20

Last summer, I played in the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Hecatomb. The multi-table event put numerous parties on a massive battlefield. Our characters scrambled to destroy arcane obelisks while fighting monsters. To start the event, the dungeon master pointed to the empty grid, “There’s your part of the battlefield,” then he set markers for the obelisk and monsters. Now fight.

I’ve played countless battles on that same featureless grid. Sure, sometimes the blank space represents an open cavern, a desert, or a hilltop, but in every case, the empty field adds no interest to the scene. At least we had squares to count.

The dull setup turned duller when we realized that our party’s sharpshooter could safely destroy the obelisks and the monsters lurking two maps over, without ever letting threats come close enough to strike back. Our melee characters could only “ooh” and “ahh” like an audience for Annie Oakley.

In D&D, the empty grid has an equally humdrum opposite: the square dungeon room with doors on either end. I’ve played that map countless times, and I know how that goes as well. If the monsters win initiative, they crowd the door and nobody moves again. If the players win initiative, fireballs and hypnotic patterns cull the weak, while the sharpshooter drops the boss. Only the monsters who make saves get to crowd the door.

Perhaps some of these combat scenes prove fun. Sometimes players enjoy a chance to revel in quick victory. Mostly, they make DMs consider dismissing the fight with a quick visit to the theater of the mind or they consider altogether fewer fights. This makes me sad because while I enjoy exploration and role-playing, I also enjoy dynamic, tactical battles.

To map locations that lead to exciting battles, take my suggestions:

Monsters deserve cover

In a fantasy world with D&D sharpshooters and fireballs, combatants would hunker down in trenches like soldiers at the Somme. Melee fighters would advance under cover of Fog Cloud. Such tactics probably lack the heroic flavor you want, but you can give monsters a fighting chance without getting too tricky. Just add some total cover, and play creatures with the good sense to duck between their turns. This hardly counts as high strategy. If you throw a rock at a rat, it runs for cover. Faced with melee and ranged attacks, many foes will stay out of sight and let intruders come into reach. That usually works. By reputation, treasure hunters are bloodthirsty and undisciplined.

Such tactics encourage characters to move to engage. Melee fighters get more to do. They deserve to shine.

Total cover takes just few columns or stalagmites.

One caution: Newer players can find foes that duck behind total cover frustrating. You may need to dial down the tactic or explain the rules for readying actions.

Start some monsters out of sight—especially the boss

In the typical D&D battle, all the party’s foes start in plain sight. This makes the strongest monster an easy target for focused fire. Too often the mastermind dies before acting, or even before finishing a monologue. The players never learn of the fiendish plan that will end their pitiful lives. Consider starting that climactic battle with the main foe out of view. Let the characters spread out to attack the guards and lieutenants, and then have the biggest threat appear on its turn. In D&D, villains must fight and monologue at the same time.

When some lesser foes begin out of view, fights benefit. First, this gives some total cover. Plus the battle feels more fluid; the situation more uncertain. As characters move into the room, they spot unseen foes. As monsters emerge, the players wonder what other surprises wait.

Give flyers some air

Cover plus room to fly makes a good lair for a beholder

I find beholders irresistible. Who doesn’t? But just about every showdown against a beholder that I’ve played or run ended in disappointment. Too often, scenarios put them in a room with low ceiling, letting melee attackers rush in and smack them like t-balls. Any beholder worth its 17 intelligence finds a lair with a high ceiling and elevated places that provide total cover. A hole in the roof or some high columns will do. Between flying and antimagic, Beholders should frustrate every do-gooder.

What works for beholders works for every other flyer. Don’t ground flyers under a low ceiling. Let them fly over the melee ranks and bite the lightly-armored spellcaster attempting to concentrate.

Let the monsters intrude for a change

In an earlier post, I suggested an easy way to make dungeons feel vital. The method reverses the tired pattern of monsters that seem to wait in rooms for their chance to be slain. Pick a room where you would normally put monsters. In a published adventure, the room might already include some. Then assume the monsters have temporarily left the room. As the characters interact with other features of the room—the fountain or the bookcase—the monsters return. This trick begins fights with characters spread out instead of in a defensive formation. Characters who avoid melee may land in harm’s way. Some character may be surprised. The dungeon feels active.

Watch Counterspell range

Counterspell ranks as one of the 4 most annoying spells in fifth edition. Any encounter centered on an enemy spellcaster threatens to turn into a Counterspell duel where the foe does nothing. All that nothing amounts a boring encounter. Spellcasters can avoid Counterspell two ways: Either cast outside the spell’s 60-foot range or cast from out of sight. So place enemy casters in locations big enough for more the 60 feet of distance, and then favor spells that work from that distance. Fireball delivers again. After casting, duck behind total cover and let the melee characters come for a taste of shorter-ranged spells.

As for casting from out of sight, non-player spellcasters typically lack Greater Invisibility, but a few of their buff spells can be cast from total cover.

Love the small loop

The opposite of the static, bottlenecked encounter comes from encounter areas built around at least one tight, looping circuit through the dungeon. Such a layout enables foes to circle around and bring the battle to characters in the back—the characters who so rarely enjoy the chance to face foes up close. Meanwhile, melee characters rarely resist the temptation to chase skirmishers. The layout invites active battles.

Make encounter areas from clusters of rooms

D&D brings a long tradition of dungeons filled with square rooms with a door. Once upon a time, that game felt new enough to make even the 20-by-20 room a fitting battlefield. In today’s game, that worn setup rarely works. Don’t just draw a big square on a grid and call it a battlefield. Dynamic encounters demand more thought.

Rather than confining encounter areas to a single room, consider building sites from clusters of small rooms with one or more paths that circuit the location. Groups of rooms add places for total cover and for hidden foes. They encourage characters to pursue enemies, adding movement and excitement. On these maps, make the distances small enough so characters can move from room to room, and from attack to attack, with a single move.

Out of marching order

I pity players who favor melee characters. Fifth-edition D&D delivers too many advantages for ranged attackers. Spellcasters get fireball and hypnotic pattern. Ranged rogues can more easily attack from hiding. Archers get sharpshooter and crossbow expert. In addition to getting the best feats, ranged attackers get to fight out of harm’s way.

But battles with movement end cover tend to play to the strengths of melee characters. The monk finally gets to flaunt her speed! The backstabber gains places to dash, disengage, and reasons to engage. The paladin can drive foes from hiding. Sure, these sort of encounters may frustrate and threaten sharpshooters, but that just adds an extra benefit.

Don’t follow this advice for me. Do it for the beholders. Those characters won’t disintegrate themselves.

Related: In my side trek “To Steal a Primordial,” the party attempts to intercept a group of drow before they can escape to the Underdark. To foster a moving battle, I designed the scenario’s last map using much of my advice here.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Four Ways the New D&D Adventurers League Rules Reshape the Campaign, and One Way They Don’t

Tue, 09/11/2018 - 11:51

The new Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League campaign rules change treasure from a prize for looting to an award for the real hours players spend pursuing an adventure’s goal. This change aims to reward more styles of play, to balance the power characters gain from magic items, and to offer players a better choice of items. While the new rules promise improvements, they reshape the campaign in unexpected ways.

1. Treasure does much less to drive exploration and tempt characters to take risks.

D&D started as a game where characters plundered dungeons and kept score in gold. The rules awarded as much of 80% of experience points for gold, so no one missed the game’s point. Tomb of Horrors stands as co-creator Gary Gygax’s earliest dungeon to reach print, and its villain has no grand plot, just a knack for killing grave robbers. In Gary Gygax’s home games, his players beat the tomb by snatching the treasure while ignoring the demi-lich.

Modern D&D adventures still use treasure to tempt and motivate players. Recently, my players in the Tomb of Annihilation landed in a classic Dungeons & Dragons situation: They entered a room with a deadly monster and heaps of treasure. The monster caught them unprepared, so they fled, and then they debated whether the treasure merited the risk of battle.

Does this predicament still have a place in the D&D Adventurers League?

Single-session League adventures usually rely on loot as a symbolic motivation for players. In the first scene, a patron might offer a reward, but also a job that does good. To finish within a set time, these adventures avoid treasure-hunting tangents. Authors contrive these adventures so a well-behaved do-gooder will win as much treasure as grave robbers and thieves. I have never played or run a single-session League adventure where players lost treasure because they failed to find it or failed to slay a monster. The new rules for treasure awards won’t change how these scenarios play.

The hardcover adventures stay closer to D&D’s tradition: Treasure drives exploration and tempts characters to take the risks that make D&D exciting. The new League rules for treasure undermine some of the rewards that propel these adventures. Characters probably won’t choose to risk a battle for a promise of gold.

To be fair, the new rules offer a sliver of motivation for grave robbers and treasure hunters. Characters who find a magic item don’t just keep it, but they do unlock the ability to spend treasure points for the item.

Still, few players will feel lured to a risky fight by treasure, and I’ll miss that predicament. On the other hand, my players spent hours looting the seemingly endless crypts under Castle Ravenloft. I won’t miss another grind like that.

The flavor of treasure points takes some adjustment. In my mind’s eye, heroes open a chest and a golden glow lights their faces as they look down in wonder at a treasure point.

2. Tables will stop fighting for imaginary items.

By the old League rules, players seeking the best magic items worked to take as few magic items as possible. A low count of items meant your character could claim an adventure’s permanent item. It also might mean that another character particularly suited to the item lost it. In a way, this made sense. In the imaginary world of the game session, only one wand exists. By delivering only one wand each time an adventure runs, the campaign imposes some scarcity. But the League’s campaign world might include thousands of the same item. A character who claimed a “unique” wand might spend their next adventure with 2 other characters wielding the same wand.

Why should a particular character be denied the item just because another character who happens to play at the same table wants the item too? The new League rules still impose scarcity, but not in a way that capriciously denies some characters the magic items they want.

3. Scarce gold imposes tight limits on healing potions, spellbooks, and material components.

In most D&D campaigns, characters get tons of gold, but have nowhere to spend it. That applies to fifth-edition games that award hoards by the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and to the first 7 seasons of the League. All that gold meant characters could easily afford enough healing potions to enter every fight a full health. From level 11 up, parties with a cleric would always split the 1000 gp cost for Heroes’ Feast and laughed at poison and fear effects—and at assassins, yuan-ti, and green dragons. Power-hungry, teen-level wizards brought simulacrums and, in one case, soured an adventure by winning D&D for me. Of all the classes, only wizards might run short of gold. They bore the cost of adding spells to their books. At conventions, when wizard players shared a table, they snapped photos of each others spell lists, and then spend gold and downtime to share spells. Avid wizards collected every spell.

By delivering a fraction of the gold to players, the new League rules rebalance the campaign’s economy. Level 11 through 16 characters who sink all their gold into healing potions can still only afford 11 per level. Simulacrums come at a cost few will pay. Heroes’ Feast becomes a luxury rather than an automatic buff.

The limitations tax wizards most. Forget collecting all the spells; now you face difficult choices. Eleventh-level wizards can add Contingency to their spell books, but even if they save every gold piece, they can’t afford the material component until level 12.

Meanwhile, in a campaign without gold for unlimited healing potions, Healing Spirit now stands as the key to starting every encounter at full health.

4. Characters don’t get magic weapons until level 5.

By the old League rules, a party of new characters will probably find a permanent magic item during their first adventure. By the time the party reaches level five, about half the group will own a magic item. By the new rules, only characters who opt for colorful trinkets like a Bag of Holding will gain permanent items in levels 1 through 4. Characters who rely on weapon attacks will save their points and, at level 5, buy the most useful item: a +1 weapon.

This changes how monsters resistant or immune to non-magical weapon attacks play. For instance, wererats make a popular foe in low-level urban adventures. They boast immunity to non-magic weapons that aren’t silvered. With scarce gold, few characters will lavish 100 gp on a silvered weapon. So until level 5, only spellcasters can hurt a humble wererat. Then, at level 5, everyone grabs a magic weapon and the immunity becomes meaningless. In the new League, resistance to non-magical attacks becomes impotent at level 5. I miss the grades of resistance in third edition.

5. Most characters will select distinctive sets of magic items.

Just like with the old campaign rules, players intent on optimizing their characters will seek adventures that unlock choice items. Every bard will still play that adventure that unlocks the Instrument of the Bards. Now, an all-bard party can play and everyone gets one! I’ll pass on that table, but I will watch that session’s movie version. In my imagination, it’s the D&D movie staring Fred, Ginger, Gene, and a tone-deaf actress voiced by Marni Nixon.

Beyond optimizers, most characters will still carry a unique mix of magic items.

For one, characters of the same type will tend to play different mixes of adventures, unlocking different sets of magic. Few items prove as compelling to a class as that violin for bards.

Also, the point costs encourage variety. A character will earn 48 treasure points advancing through tier 2, levels 5-10. By rule, those points must be spent on items available to a tier 2 character. Some characters may select three uncommon, 16-point items from table F. Others might choose rare items from table G for 20 points, and then have points remaining for curios and wonders. They could choose 2 rares and an irresistible item like an Alchemy Jug or an Immovable Rod. I expect many players to select items that catch their fancy or fit their character’s personality. The hardcover adventures even include unusual, permanent items available for just 2 treasure points.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to Create Wire Spell Templates for Dungeons & Dragons

Tue, 08/28/2018 - 11:15

Nothing stalls a fight on a grid like a circular or conical area-effect spell. Everyone waits while someone counts and recounts squares, and then figures angles like a pool shark. For fireballs and other circles, macrame rings trim minutes from the process. The rings come in variety of sizes, so you can get an 8-inch ring for Fireball, a 6″ ring for Darkness, and a 4″ ring for Antimagic Field.

ArcKnight’s sets of flat-plastic templates include conical templates, but I favor wire templates. Rigid patterns make measuring easier and wire can often be set on a map without moving any miniatures. No one manufactures wire cones that work as well as macrame rings, so I made my own.

My cones along with circular macrame rings

 

Materials

These templates require these components:

Home-improvement stores sell all these components, including the heat-shrink tubing.

Tools

To make the templates you need these tools:

Steps

To create a 6-inch-cone template and a 6-inch extension, do the following steps:

  1. In the corner of a large sheet, use the protractor to mark a 60° angle. Extend the angle 12 inches and then mark each line at 6 inches. Rotate the ruler at 6 and 12 inches to draw circular arc between the branches.

    I drew cones on a paper folder.

  2. Clean the steel rods.
  3. Use the pliers bend the rod to match the shape of the 6-inch cone.

    Shaped 6-inch cone

  4. Using the hacksaw, cut the rod where the wire overlaps.
  5. Bend and trim the remaining wire to the shape of the 6-inch extension.
  6. Connect the ends of each template with heat-shrink tubing, and then use the heat gun to shrink the connection.

    Heat-shrink tubing

  7. Paint the templates.

    Painted cone

These templates approach the quality of macrame rings.

Finished cone and extension

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”

Tue, 08/21/2018 - 11:30

As I wrote last week’s post about players who gamed the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League rules, I feared misleading folks. Years before I started participating in organized play, players told me stories about the Living City and Living Greyhawk campaigns. Sometimes they boasted of their character’s unbeatable combination of magic items and the ingenious ways they won their gear; sometimes they complained about another player’s overpowered cheese and the metagame exploited to collect it. Either way, I drew the same lesson: Don’t join the campaign, because the play style won’t suit you.

I drew the wrong conclusion. If I had only played, I would have had fun.

I have played and run 100s of Dungeons & Dragons organized play sessions in third though fifth edition and even in the Alternity Living Verge campaign. Gamers seldom talk about all the game sessions where a bunch of strangers sat at a table and enjoyed a few hours playing D&D, but those sessions come almost every time we play. No, we talk about the unusual: The rare games spoiled by an annoying player. The characters that stretch the rules to the breaking point.

The new Adventurers League campaign rules aim to reward more styles of play, to give characters a better selection of magic, to level power between characters, and to free players from bookkeeping. The Adventurers League is already fun and welcoming. If successful, the changes will make the league a bit more of both.

Despite all the ways gamers play the campaign rules to win, I have never seen this metagame spoil my fun as a player or DM.

In all those organized play games I have joined, another character has only interfered with my fun two times.

As a DM for the fourth-edition Living Forgotten Realms campaign, one player brought an optimized, high-level defender. In this edition, defenders filled their role too well. This character featured maximized defenses that no level-appropriate monsters could hit on less than a natural 20. With an action, he could mark every foe on the map. His mark imposed such severe penalties that the monsters could only target him. So for hours of play, the monsters could only paddle uselessly at the defender while serving as bags of hit points for target practice.

If his play style could talk, it would say, “I won D&D for you. You’re welcome.”

For me as DM, none of those combats offered enjoyment, but I can also draw fun from players having fun. Did they enjoy being an audience for one player’s 4-hour character demonstration? I couldn’t tell. Maybe they enjoyed target practice.

Fifth edition no longer enables characters who can lock down every foe. I still see characters with armor classes or hit point totals that say, “no one can hurt me.” If a player enjoys a sense of invulnerability, they can get sell out for it. But still, every fifth-edition character suffers some weak saves. And no defender can shield every ally.

The second bad game came years later, when I played a fifth-edition convention session. One wizard brought a simulacrum, a duplicate able to act as a second wizard. The double meant that one player effectively took the turns and actions of two characters. Normally, such a character makes a minor nuisance. This time, the monsters proved badly overmatched. Meanwhile, my plodding cleric kept rolling low initiatives. Through every combat in the adventure, my character never contributed. The wizard and simulacrum blasted, and then the battle would end before I reached my first turn. Obviously, the DM could have dialed up the difficulty, but the wizard’s player drew my ire. Every fight, he played two turns for my none.

“I won D&D for you. You’re welcome.”

DM Tom Christy has run over 300 Adventurers League sessions, more than half for strangers on the Internet. “I ask that players avoid bringing extra, action-consuming creatures.” This helps grant each player equal time to act in combat. The request extends to simulacrums, golems, shield guardians, and charmed creatures, but not to class-feature-specific sidekicks like familiars, animal companions, and mounts. By league rules, the request is purely voluntary. “So far, all players have been understanding of that and happily agreed.” The new adventurers league rules bar shield guardians and slaad control gems, but such restrictions need to go further.

I wish I had more stories of other people’s characters ruining my fun, because a post filled with such tales would draw readers. After years of Adventurer’s League, I just have two accounts. Mostly in Adventurers League new and experienced players, strangers and friends, optimizers and storytellers just join at a table and have a great time playing D&D. Oh well. I suppose non-bloggers prefer it that way.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win.

Tue, 08/14/2018 - 10:35

Starting on August 30, the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League will introduce a sweeping overhaul of the campaign rules. These changes affect how characters in the campaign advance levels, gain gold, and win magic items.

The new level-advancement system aims to reward players who enjoy guile or roleplaying as much as monster slaying. The change seems obvious. The old system centered on killing foes, so a new method based on hours of play encourages more styles of play.

The new treasure rules also base awards on hours of play. The change seeks to help players gain items that suit their characters, partly by offering a bigger choice of items.

D&D started as a game about raiding dungeons for magic and gold, so the old league rules gave characters the loot they claimed in the course of an adventure. The new rules turn away from the in-game treasure grabs, and that makes a dramatic change.

What went wrong with the old way of awarding treasure?

The campaign rules extend the core D&D rules. To no one’s surprise, when tens of thousands of gamers face a set of game rules, some will play to win. Players sought the most, and most powerful items for their characters. When this quest for power meant braving traps and facing evil, everyone won—except evil. When the quest for power led to other shenanigans, the players who ignored the game-within-a-game lost. For instance, items one character might prize could be claimed by someone else for “trade bait.”

For insight, I turned to Thomas Christy, who has logged over 16,000 hours prepping and dungeon mastering on Roll20. Currently, he runs 2 Adventurers League games a week online, and serves as a DM at conventions. Tom opens about half of his games to any player who cares to sign up. About 20% of his players come from outside the United States.

Bearer of unwanted magic items

Tom rarely minds if everyone in a party brings powerful magic, “I can tailor the difficulty.” But he favors treasure rules that balance character power so every player can contribute. “I want a casual player with only one PC who has never traded a magic item or played the great loot-dropping, companion-gaining adventures to have as much time in the limelight as a prolific player with a dozen characters.”

A player with a catalog of PCs can trade magic among them, ensuring that each gets the best matched items. “Trading causes a large differential in power levels between characters of prolific players and those of casual players. I will be happy to see that go away if possible.”

While trading brings characters the power to occasionally overshadow others, it does help items reach the characters best able to use them.

Trading meets both the rules and the spirit of the campaign. But some practices that follow the letter of the rules could cause characters to miss out—or lose out—on the fun magic items can bring to D&D.

Players interested in winning the best loot would track the items available in adventures. As a misdeed, this ranks with peeking at presents before Christmas. As long as you don’t misuse insider knowledge and you act surprised, no one loses.

Sometimes players would come upon the treasure information honestly. They would play an adventure with one character, spot an item another of their characters could use, and then replay the adventure with the second character. These players would show up at my convention table and passively sit through four hours just so they could legally claim a magic item. Have you wondered what a lawful neutral alignment looks like in real life? A chaotic player would just fake their logs.

Some questionable tricks emerged because hardcover authors seemed oblivious to how their treasure awards would affect play in the Adventurers League.

Curse of Strahd grants a particularly powerful item to players who do something impulsive and foolhardy. In a world of death traps, I’m not snatching things that appear in the air. An improbably high number of players proved reckless enough to win the prize. Or maybe they either snooped or they played with Monty Haul. (My players claimed the item. Call me Monty.)

Many hardback chapters included too few magic items to interest players who looked to boost their characters. A few chapters offered legendary items and boons more powerful than anything in the League’s single-session adventures. So aggressive players just ran the chapters with the best loot. “It was getting really bad with a certain chapter of Storm King’s Thunder and a certain ability bump from a chapter of Curse of Strahd.”

Tom resorted to asking players not to bring certain dodgy items unless the character played the majority of the hardback. Even though Tom understands that campaign rules allow players to bring any legal items, most players prove very understanding of the request.

The old treasure rules brought some perverse incentives that sometimes hurt the campaign.

League rules grant first choice of items to the character with the fewest items. This made players avoid taking fun or useful items that lacked combat power. At most tables, nobody wants the helm of comprehend languages. Driftglobes may as well be cursed. Better to wait for something that kills monsters.

I’ve seen a few characters who give up on keeping a low item count—and magic of their choosing. These players take every item other characters spurred for being unworthy of their count. If it weren’t for all their bags of holding, these collectors could never haul all their magical trinkets.

In the hardcovers, players would avoid taking a perfectly useful +1 weapon in chapter 1 so they could be guaranteed the belt of giant strength or staff of power 6 months later. Tom asks players in his campaigns to agree to allocate treasure based on rarity, so players don’t skip the useful uncommon items in hope of getting a very rare item at the end.

Characters who want to lower their magic-item count can’t just donate unwanted items. So what do you do with a +1 sword after you gain a +2 blade? The rules block giving away treasure or equipment. Even if a character destroys an item, it still counts toward total items. To unload items, players seek trades for limited-use items like Keoghtom’s ointment, the chime of opening, elemental gems, and Quaal’s feather token. Once you traded your unwanted loot for a limited-use item, you could expend the item and lower your magic item count.

In addition to changing how characters earn magic items, the upcoming league rules remove some items from the campaign. Characters with these banned items must trade them for other treasure. Many of these problematic items served the story in a hardcover and should never have left that adventure. For instance, the elemental weapons in Princes of the Apocalypse were meant to be destroyed at the adventure’s conclusion.

Some items bring role-playing baggage that prove hard for DMs to track and enforce. For example, when a character brings the mighty sword Hazirawn to a convention table, the DM may be unaware that the sentient blade acts as an non-player character, bending its owner toward evil. DMs running games for strangers have enough on their plate.

The league also removed the sentient blade Dawnbringer. While not murderous or evil, this sword brings its own role-playing challenges. Dawnbringer sheds bright sunlight, useful in battles against light-sensitive undead and drow. But if a party includes a drow, the blade might foster conflict.

Once when Tom served as DM at a convention, someone brought Dawnbringer to his table. Unfortunately, the party included a drow rogue. Unfortunately, the drow rogue brought Dawnbringer.

Some players excel at portraying the quirks and drawbacks of their items, but many just become blinded by power.

When the drow’s adult player attempted a sneak attack, Tom told him he couldn’t. Rogues can’t sneak attack while they suffer disadvantage, and Dawnbringer’s bright light imposed disadvantage on all the drow’s attacks. When the rogue tried to sneak ahead, Tom reminded him that carrying a sliver of sunlight made stealth impossible. “Fine,” the player fumed. “I’ll turn it off.” Tom reminded the player that Dawnbringer is afraid of the dark. By now, the player was seething, but he offered to leave Dawnbringer behind. Tom reminded the player that Dawnbringer suffers a fear of abandonment.

Unlike Tom, most DMs don’t know the details of every unique item in the campaign—nobody should have to. Few DMs would steadfastly enforce the drawbacks of an item in the face of a angry player—nobody should have to, but I admire Tom’s lawful DM style.

By the way, Adventurer’s League administrator Claire Hoffman had joined this session as a player. She didn’t intervene then; Tom ran the game. As the administrators discussed removing items from the campaign, I wonder if she told the tale of the drow rogue who wielded Dawnbringer.

Tom streams his online D&D sessions on Twitch and then posts them on YouTube. You can follow Tom on Twitter @d20play. For a schedule of his upcoming games, see his web page.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points?

Tue, 08/07/2018 - 11:20

In a typical fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure, characters will reach every battle with full hit points. Healing comes too easily to enter a battle at less than full health. Above level 10 or so, spells like Aid and Heroes Feast mean parties routinely pass their day with hit point totals above their ordinary maximums.

By the time characters near level 10, few monsters inflict enough damage to seem threatening. Except for a few outliers like giants, foes lack the punch to dent characters at maximum hit points. If round of combat results in a gargoyle hitting a 90-hit-point character 6 damage, then the fight seems like a bookkeeping exercise. “At this rate, I can only survive 14 more rounds!”

I know I sound like a broken record but man, high level #dnd monsters don’t do nearly enough damage. This is true in Mordenkainen’s as well. The Leviathan, a CR 20 monster, does about 62 damage per round when it should do about twice that at least according to the DMG.

— SlyFlourish (@SlyFlourish) May 19, 2018

I think every edition of DnD has had that problem. It’s why authors would tweak 3E monsters with absurd templates and levels. Or why I spent hours picking good monsters in 4E and 5E, plus adding terrain damage, etc.

— Alphastream (@Alphastream) May 19, 2018

The fifth-edition design limits the highest armor classes so weaker monsters can attack stronger characters and still hit on rolls less than a natural 20. This design aims to enable hordes of low-level monsters to challenge high-level characters. In practice, the hits inflict such pitiful damage that the hero would feel less pain than the bookkeeping causes to the player. It’s the pencils that suffer the most.

The obvious fix to high-level creatures and their feeble damage is to make monsters’ attacks hurt more. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea routinely makes creatures inflict maximum damage on every hit.

But what if the solution doesn’t come from the monsters? What if characters at double-digit levels just have too many hit points?

If high-level characters had fewer hit points, high-level monsters with their puny attacks would suddenly become a bit more threatening. Lower-level monsters could pose more of a threat high-level heroes without becoming too dangerous to low-level characters. High-level PCs would still rip through weak foes, but the survivors could deal enough damage to seem dangerous rather than laughable.

D&D no longer focuses entirely on dungeon crawls where characters judge when to rest based on their remaining store of hit points and spells. The game’s move to storytelling means characters often face just one fight per day. Healing comes cheap and easy, so characters start fights at full hit points. Lower hit points at high levels would suit the reality that characters enter every fight at maximum health. In more battles, foes would seem like credible opponents.

Of course, no one has ever argued that low-level characters sport too many hit points. New characters feel as fragile as soap bubbles. Before level 5, don’t get too attached to your hero. As characters near level 10, they begin to seem stout. They rarely go down in anything short of a slugfest, so they feel like superheroes, but not invulnerable.

But in double-digit levels character hit points keep rising at the same steep rate until DMs resort to letting monsters routinely deal maximum damage. D&D might play better if, somewhere around level 10, characters stopped gaining so many hit points.

When I first considered this notion, I dismissed it as too big a break from the D&D’s conventions. For nearly two decades, characters have gained a full die worth of hit points at every level.

Except for most of D&D’s history, somewhere around level 10, characters stopped gaining so many hit points.

From the original game through second edition, when D&D characters reached level 9 or so, they started gaining hit points at a much slower rate. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, fighters rising above 9th level gained 3 hit points per level with no bonus for constitution. Other classed gained even fewer points. Continuing to let characters gain a full hit die plus constitution bonus at every level defies D&D’s origins.

The original limits to hit dice served as co-creator Gary Gygax’s way of putting a soft level cap on D&D. The cap kept the game’s link to the Chainmail mass-combat rules, where the best fighters acted as “superheroes” who could match the power of 8 soldiers. Gary wanted a game where crowds of orcs or goblins could still challenge the heroes.

Admittedly, when I started playing D&D, I disliked how characters’ hit points topped out. Gary and his hit-dice tables seemed to punish players of high-level characters—especially fighters.

Although the soft cap on hit points lasted 25 years, the cap on the other perks of leveling started to disappear as soon as the first Greyhawk supplement reached gamers. While the original box topped out at 6th-level spells, Greyhawk included spells of up to 9th level. Gary never intended player characters to cast the highest-level spells, but that didn’t stop players.

By the time designers started work on third edition, they aimed to deliver perks to every class at every level from 1 to 20. The soft cap on hit points must have seemed vestigial. The designers felt the game’s math could handle a steep rise in hit points past level 10. The design abandoned any aim of making groups of low-level mooks a match for high-level heroes. Besides, a steady rise in HP made the multi-classing rules simpler.

Today’s D&D game does a fine job of awarding every class—even fighters—perks at every level. Nobody leveling into the teens gets excited about another helping of hit points. Reverting to smaller hit point advances doesn’t spoil anyone’s fun.

Fifth edition keeps levels and monsters at power levels broadly similar to those in original game. This loose compatibility makes adventures written during D&D’s first 20 years continue to work with the new edition. In theory, a DM can just swap in monster stats from the new game and play. In practice, higher-level characters have more hit points, more healing, and the creatures fail to do enough damage to keep up. Story-centered adventures make the mismatch worse.

Suppose Gary Gygax had hit points right all along. Would D&D play better if characters stopped gaining so many after level 9?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 12:00

When home computers seemed like rare gadgets, a killer app was a program so compelling that people purchased the computer just to run the application. VisiCalc became the Apple II’s killer app, and then Lotus 1-2-3 drove customers to the IBM PC.

Dungeons & Dragons came with a killer app baked in—the dungeon crawl. The dungeon provided such a powerful setting for the first role-playing game that I suspect the game’s success owes as much to this setting as to the invention of the role-playing game. (For a taste of fantasy role playing without the dungeon crawl, read my post, “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?”)

From Gauntlet to Diablo, the dungeon crawl is now such a popular video game convention that it stands as its own genre. Even folks who think tabletop games are all like Monopoly and see video games as unworthy of attention, know of Indiana Jones, the Tomb Raider movies, and the Mines of Moria. The D&D dungeon may seem conventional by now, but in the early 1970s, nothing exactly like it existed in the popular imagination.

The dungeon has developed such a huge role in popular culture that we struggle to imagine how novel and compelling dungeon crawls were 40 years ago.

In 1977, when I first overheard kids at my new school talking about Dungeons & Dragons, I managed to learn just two things about the game, but these hints electrified me. In D&D, you played a person in the game who grew in power through experience, and you explored dungeons filled with monsters, hidden secrets, and treasures—often magical. I went home, opened the yellow pages, and called countless hobby shops in Chicagoland, searching for one that stocked this astounding game. When I finally located a copy at the distant Hill’s Hobby, I coaxed my mom into providing a ride—but not until the weekend. Still excited, but facing a torturous wait, I sat down with some graph paper and speculated on how a game of dungeon exploration might play.

My enthusiasm was not unique. The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Dave Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit. Dave Megarry of the Blackmoor game wanted to capture the dungeon experience during Arneson’s down time, so he created the Dungeon! board game.

Even when the first role-playing games left medieval fantasy, they kept dungeons or sites that played like dungeons.

Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.”

Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

Dra’k’ne Station

Traveller (1977) brought an entire universe to play in, but for years all the game’s published adventures featured derelict space ships, alien and abandoned research stations, and other location-based adventures resembling dungeons in space.

  • Dra’k’ne Station (1979) is “a vast alien research station hollowed out of an asteroid…still protected by its automated defense systems and one surviving alien.”
  • Darthanon Queen (1980) consists of deck plans for a 600 ton merchant ship along with a crew and a passenger roster. The adventure suggests a few scenarios to stage on the ship, including one cribbed from Alien.
  • Adventure 2: Research Station Gamma (1980) describes an arctic laboratory that players must infiltrate.
  • Adventure 3: Twilight’s Peak (1980) takes characters to a location with “many of the elements of a haunted house,” and then to an alien base complex.

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

The dungeon crawl offers several essential advantages:

  • Ease of play – The dungeon’s walls limited options, making the game master’s job manageable. In a Gamespy interview Arneson said, “Dungeon crawls were, I think, the easiest things to set up because all you had to do was draw a grid map and didn’t have to worry about the great outdoors and setting up trees and stuff. People also couldn’t go wandering off where you didn’t have a map because it was solid rock.” More than anything, the wide-open space of Traveller drove designers to attempt to duplicate the dungeon experience in space.
  • Group play – Dungeon exploration provided an activity for a party with divergent skills. A host of role-playing games ranging from Chivalry & Sorcery to every spy game ever struggled to find reasons for characters to work together.
  • Obstacles – Dungeons provided an excuse for monsters, tricks, and traps. Their inevitably-insane architects gave dungeon masters free reign to create a funhouse environment.
  • Goals – The treasure underground gave a reason to explore, and a gave players a common goal.
  • Flavor – Dungeons provided an evocative setting full of secrets and ripe for exploration. For me, the most evocative illustration in the blue box was the underground cross section. I wanted to crack the mysteries of just such an underground complex.

Nowadays, some D&D players dislike dungeon crawls and that’s fine. Forty-some years of evolution have taken D&D to villages, forests, palaces, and across the planes of the great wheel. Dungeon masters no longer prepare for play by following the instructions from the 1974 brown books. “First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his ‘underworld.’” If you dislike dungeons you can still like D&D. (If you don’t like dungeons or dragons, then you probably just play to seem cool.)

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to Get D&D Players to Make Unforgettable Character Introductions That Take a Minute or Less

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 11:45

Whenever I serve as a dungeon master for strangers at conventions, I learn things that improve my game. But the games where I play Dungeons & Dragons teach me too.

I try to start convention games by giving players a chance to introduce their characters, but sometimes I forget. Not long ago, my lapse hardly seemed to matter. Most character introductions seem forgettable anyway. If you’ve seen one 6th-level barbarian, you’ve seen them all, right? Would anyone notice if I skipped the routine and let the characters reveal themselves in play?

Yes. Playing taught me that I notice.

This year at the Origins Game Fair, I played in several D&D games where the DM skipped character introductions.

In these sessions, learning about the party members could take hours. In my mind’s eye, I would fight alongside faceless placeholders, learning nothing more than that they rolled a hit and scored damage. Three hours in, someone would volunteer to heal and their placeholder would reveal a class. Only by the end of the slot would my comrades in arms come into focus.

I missed the character introductions.

Still, introductions where everyone just recites name, race, and class hardly seem worth the time. I won’t remember those labels, and I suspect names disappear from other players’ memory as quickly as they slip mine.

Instead of stating names, give each player a note card to fold into a tent. Have the players write their character’s name, race, and class on each side. Now everyone can see each character’s essentials.

These race-class descriptions give nothing to inspire interaction between characters, so consider asking players to write one more detail—something visual that invites interaction. I suggest asking players to write one aspect of your character that people can see and that someone might find curious. “During the idle moments at the table, your character may want to ask their companions about these unusual features.”

Before your game, make a sample tent that shows the format you want.

A good spoken introduction presents a character so vividly that it proves unforgettable. It reveals a hook that invites interaction with the character. And it shows a character quickly enough to leave time for 5 or 6 other introductions, plus time to actually play the game.

I’ve wondered how ask players to make such a strong, brief introduction in the moments available. By Origins, I knew the answer. When I played at Teos Abadia’s table at Winter Fantasy, he demonstrated an elegant technique. He asks players to think of the opening credits of 80s TV shows like the A-Team or T.J. Hooker. These sequences show each character in action, and then end with a name flashed across the screen. Teos asks each player to describe their D&D character in such a montage. “Players get concept because they’ve seen those kind of TV shows, and usually they’ll do something that’s really cool.” The format encourages players to describe brief, vivid scenes that demonstrate what makes their character special. To prompt ideas, ask a question like, “Describe a moment from another adventure when your character used their talents to save the day.” The scene doesn’t have to come from game play. Montages can pull clips from later in the season or unaired pilots.

As players first reach your table, and before they even unpack dice, start them thinking about their character’s introduction. Most players appreciate a few minutes to dream up their scene.

Begin the instructions with a player who shows signs a being an enthusiastic role player. Choose the person who brought their own table tent complete with a character portrait, or who already told a story about their character, or just seems outgoing.

If you can spare extra time for introductions and want to encourage interaction, make a second turn around the table where players tell how their character knows another party member. In a post on encouraging role playing, I recommended having players invent a reason their character feels loyalty, friendship, or trust toward another character at the table. Among strangers gathering for a 4-hour game, this seems like a daunting exercise. Instead, ask each player to explain why they trust that another character can help the party. Reluctant players can just restate something revealed during the cinematic montage, but the word “trust” leaves room for enthusiastic role players to invent deeper bonds.

For more from Teos on character introductions, see his post Using Cinematic Montages in RPGs, and this appearance on NewbieDM’s Minicast.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose

Tue, 07/17/2018 - 11:15

In the original Dungeons & Dragons game, ordinary monster attacks inflicted just 1d6 damage. Yet characters still died, frequently. Clerics gained far fewer spells and much less healing than today, so most damage took a trip out of the dungeon to heal. Heroes mounted dungeon expeditions, fought as many battles as they dared, and then hoped their mapper could lead them to safety and healing.

To threaten full-strength characters in a climactic fight, monsters needed unique attacks that did massive damage, like a dragon’s breath weapon, or save-or-die effects like a beholder’s eye rays.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons granted clerics more healing spells, so characters entered more fights at full hit points, but damage still taxed resources that only a rest could regain. If the cleric squandered spells on something other than cures, the party hollered.

Third edition changed that equation. Without anyone ever needing to rest for spells or healing, characters could regain all their hit points after every fight.

A 2nd-level character who had gained the 900gp of treasure recommended in the Dungeon Master’s Guide could buy a 50-charge Wand of Cure Light Wounds for 750gp. At 2nd level, the party might share the cost. In just a few levels, characters gained enough gold to make buying in bulk a minor expense. Of course, dungeon masters could limit the purchase, but by 5th level, PCs stopped needing a magic shop. A cleric could take the Craft Wands feat and make wands at half price.

Third edition’s Living Greyhawk organized-play campaign enabled PCs to craft and purchase healing wands. Most characters bought Wands of Cure Light Wounds and loaned them to the party cleric for healing between battles.

In a standard third-edition campaign, savvy characters stopped needing rest to recover hit points.

Third edition’s designers probably overlooked how the low cost of healing wands would erase D&D’s 25-year-old limits on hit points and healing. The fourth-edition designers noticed. Their edition kept magic healing available for purchase, but also limited healing between rests. Rested characters gained a limited number of healing surges, and then healing magic let characters trade surges for healing. For example, healing potions just let characters spend a surge in the heat of battle. Fourth edition’s treatment of hit points and healing ranks as one of the edition’s best innovations.

At a glance, fifth edition seemed to keep D&D’s tradition of limiting hit points and healing between rests. This presumed limit made the introduction of the spell Healing Spirit seem like a game breaker. With a mere 2nd-level spell, everyone in the party could regain 10d6 hit points in just 1 minute. Casting at higher levels increases the healing, so a 3rd-level spirit could restore 20d6 to every PC in the party.

Blogger Merric Blackman summarized the concerns, “One of the major objections to the healing spirit spell is that it turns all the assumptions of hit point recovery in 5E on their head; suddenly we’re in a 3E-style game of ‘hit point loss isn’t important’ rather than the 5E-style of ‘hit point lost drains resources.’”

While Healing Spirit outshines other out-of-combat healing spells so much that druids need sunscreen, the spell doesn’t shatter any standing limits on healing. When the Player’s Handbook offered healing potions for sale for 50gp, the fifth-edition rules freed characters of any need to rest for healing or hit points. Unlike in early D&D, characters can buy potions. Unlike in fourth edition, potions work without a limit imposed by healing surges. Characters who gain a typical amount of treasure can easily afford all the potions they need. Most PCs gain tons of gold and have nowhere else to spend it.

Savvy characters can recover hit points without ever resting.

Dungeon masters who want to capture D&D’s original limits on hit points and healing between rests need to limit both healing potions and Healing Spirit. Such limits restore hit points and healing as a resource to manage through an adventuring day.

If you want to keep healing potions readily available for 50gp each, I suggest adopting a version of the fourth-edition limit: Drinking a potion lets characters spend a Hit Die for healing as if they had rested. To avoid doses that just heal a point or two, make potions heal an extra 1d4 hit points per Hit Die spent. Stronger potions spend more Hit Dice. With this house rule, make stronger healing potions for sale at higher prices. Although these potions spend hit dice, they still bring the advantage of granting healing in the heat of battle.

Potion of Healing
Potion, rarity varies

When you drink this potion, you spend hit dice up to the maximum listed on the Potions of Healing table. For each Hit Die spent in this way, the player rolls the die plus an extra 1d4, and then adds the character’s Constitution modifier to the rolls. The character regains hit points equal to the total.

Whatever its potency, the potion’s red liquid glimmers when agitated.

Potions of Healing

Potion of … Cost Spend up to … Healing 50gp 1 Hit Die Healing Moderate Wounds 300gp 2 Hit Dice Healing Serious Wounds  750gp 3 Hit Dice Healing Critical Wounds  1400gp 4 Hit Dice

Potions of Greater Healing, Superior Healing, and Supreme Healing can remain unchanged as long as they keep their rarity and only appear in treasure. These potions bring the precious advantage of healing without costing Hit Dice.

James Haeck listed a couple of house rules for limited Healing Spirit. For instance, designer Jeremy Crawford suggests having the spell end once it restores hit points a number of times equal to twice the caster’s spellcasting ability modifier.

Of course, none of these house rules apply to organized play. Authors who write adventures for the Adventurers League should expect characters to enter every fight at full health and to never run short of healing between battles.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens

Tue, 07/10/2018 - 10:24

A few recurring types of adventure scenes make me want to fast forward the game. For instance, I dislike when an scenario starts a party in a tavern, masquerade, or other social gathering, and then expects them to spend an hour or more mingling before the adventure finds them. Such scenes appear too regularly in Adventurer’s League scenarios. Even the adventure that introduced fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons to the public, Murder in Baldur’s Gate, started by letting characters mingle in a marketplace while they waited for the adventure to start.

This setup comes from good motives. Many role-playing gamers enjoy role playing, so a gathering of lovingly-crafted and colorful non-player characters seems like a playground. But I’ve never seen such setups offer more than a struggle for dungeon masters or players. I wrote a post about my trouble making Murder in Baldur’s Gate work during the convention slots I ran it.

Instead of living up to an author’s ambition, these mix-and-mingle scenes follow a different pattern:

  1. While the dungeon master describes the colorful occupants of an inn, players update their character sheets, snack, and check their phones. The most attentive players will remember one—perhaps two—of the NPCs crowding in the scene.
  2. Players enjoy a moment of vicarious wealth as their characters, who carry thousands of gold in loose change, pay a gold piece for a 1 copper piece cup of ale because keeping track of coppers is too much bother.
  3. Players of dwarves act out their character’s exaggerated appetite for ale. (To players of dwarves, ale provides as much material as air travel and 7-Eleven provide to stand-up comics.)
  4. The characters look for the mysterious hooded figure beckoning from a corner.
  5. If no figure beckons, characters wait for the bar fight. Sometimes an impatient player starts one.
  6. If no bar fight erupts, players start metagaming as they try to determine how to start the scheduled adventure. “Innkeeper, have we entered the wrong establishment? I was told there would be adventure here.”

The mix-and-mingle scenes fizzle because players lack an objective other than discover how to make the adventure start. When characters lack a goal and a DM launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering what they are supposed to do.

Instead, players should enter a scene with a goal they think their characters can accomplish. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Pass the sphinx that bars the way. Get the name of an alchemist who can supply reagents.

To succeed, a scene needs more than a goal. If the dwarf enters the bar with a purse full of gold and a goal of drinking ale, then a good bartender ends the scene in a hurry.

In Dungeons & Dragons, as in fiction, the really interesting action happens when the characters have both a goal and an obstacle that stands in their way. In the early days, the objective (treasure) was as simple as the obstacles (dungeons and dragons). Now we enjoy more variety, buy we still need the core ingredients of objectives and obstacles to keep the game moving and fun.

Sometimes players face the obstacle of not knowing which NPC in the crowd has the clue they need. This works. The players now have a reason to interact with several characters. Still, stronger obstacles make better scenes.

Typically, role-playing encounters combine an objective of gaining information or help, with the obstacle of an uncooperative non-player character.

Often the players simply try to persuade the NPC, succeed at a diplomacy check, and move on, but if every interaction amounts to a skill roll, the game loses interest. At times the bard’s honeyed words may overcome any objections; at times an NPC faces conflicts or repercussions that require action.

For more challenging and interesting encounters—and more memorable NPCs—treat some NPCs as puzzles. Just as the puzzles in a Dungeons & Dragons game have solutions, and locked doors have keys, NPCs can have keys of a sort too. Every NPC who stands unwilling to cooperate must have a reason for it. To unlock the NPC’s help, players must find ways to defuse or overcome their objections. Perhaps the NPCs feel certain they’re being watched, or they love someone working for the villain, or they plan to buy the reagents. For more ideas, see 22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate. If an NPC enters an interaction with a reason not to help the players, give the players enough clues to find a way past the objection.

A lack of goals or obstacles explains some of the game’s less-interesting stretches.

You can pace your game by looking at the players’ objectives and the obstacles they face. If no obstacles challenge the party, then consider summarizing events until something new blocks the players’ progress. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

If the players lack objectives, then unveil some new development that suggests their next step. Characters should start each scene with an objective that can be achieved in the scene, and they should end with a new objective or, better still, a choice of objectives. A steady supply of objectives keeps the game moving forward and the players eager for more. A choice of objectives prevents the players from feeling railroaded.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers

Tue, 07/03/2018 - 11:15

Publicly, members of Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons team never discuss sales numbers. Privately, they dispute the notion that the Pathfinder role-playing game ever outsold fourth-edition D&D. But at Gen Con, late in the short life of fourth edition, evidence of D&D’s collapse seemed glaring. Pathfinder players filled the massive Sagamore Ballroom that had once hosted D&D play. Meanwhile, D&D players became exiles in a much smaller space. To be fair, Paizo made a bigger financial commitment to the con, but Pathfinder players filled more tables. And Paizo boasted a long line of customers  waiting to pass the velvet ropes into the Pathfinder sales area.

If big-shot Hasbro executives had seen this difference, they would have rehired the entire fourth-edition team just to sack them again.

At Gen Con 2010, fourth edition seemed like a catastrophe, but the game’s designers deserved less blame then they got. They had simply created a D&D edition that tried to match the appeal of online role-playing games. During development, the edition seemed like a savior the D&D needed. Their plan had suffered some tragic, and unimaginable setbacks—and D&D designers boast pretty good imaginations.

Most of the blame for the collapse lay with the executives who needed to wring as much revenue as possible from the D&D brand. They had made the one decision that crushed the edition’s chance for modest success. Of course, these planners never imagined that their decision would lead to an upheaval. That came from unintended consequences.

And the decision proved lucky for gamers, because we benefited from the blunder.

Fourth edition’s chance of success died before the edition even reached stores. It died when Wizards of the Coast chose to prevent Paizo Publishing from staying in the business of supporting D&D.

Paizo started in 2002, when Wizards of the Coast decided to focus its core competencies by selling its periodical business along with 5-year licenses to publish Dungeon and Dragon magazines.

The new publisher endured a rocky start. When the harsh economics of magazine publishing led to the end of their Undefeated and Amazing Stories magazines, the cancellations forced layoffs. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens took the setback hard. “The people at Paizo are my friends. With just a few keystrokes on a spreadsheet, I was potentially destroying lives, or at least changing their trajectories forever. The stress took over while driving home and I had to pull over to the side of the road and started bawling. I knew in my heart that I needed to make some drastic changes to give the company a chance to survive.” (For much more on the history of Paizo, including the quotes from their staff in this post, see the series of blog posts called Auntie Lisa’s Story Hour.)

Paizo continued to build publishing expertise. In Dungeon, The Shackled City launched a series of multi-part scenarios that Paizo called adventure paths. The paths plotted an entire campaign, from 1st to 20th level, from a series of linked adventures. “The reaction to The Shackled City was nothing short of fantastic,” Stevens recalled. “Little did we realize that the Adventure Path would eventually become our flagship brand, and our salvation in our most difficult time.

In 2005, the company started seeing profits and won the silver ENnie award for best publisher. Stevens saw validation that Paizo had finally found the right course.

By 2006, the license to publish Dragon and Dungeon neared its end, but Stevens and publisher Erik Mona felt sure a renewal would come. “With subscriptions on the rise, and powerful wind in our sails from the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths, there seemed little reason for concern.

But Wizards made other plans for the magazines. Their fourth-edition business strategy depended on luring monthly subscribers to D&D Insider. Electronic versions of Dragon and Dungeon would add value to that program.

On May 30, 2006, Stevens learned that she would lose the license. “After the call, I brought Erik in to my office and told him the news, tears streaming down my face.

I don’t think any of us ever really thought that this was much more than a remote possibility. Dragon and Dungeon were finally firing on all cylinders and were enjoying critical acclaim that hadn’t been seen in years. So this news struck us to the core. In one meeting, the last large chunk of the company that we started not quite four years before was going away. We were numb. How the heck were we going to cope with this? Frankly, it seemed impossible at the time.

I have to give Wizards of the Coast a lot of praise for how they handled the end of the license. Contractually, they only needed to deliver notice of non-renewal by the end of December 2006; without the extra seven months’ notice they chose to give us, I’m not sure that Paizo could have survived. Wizards also granted our request to extend the license through August 2007 so that we could finish up the Savage Tide adventure path. This gave us quite a bit of time to figure out how we were going to cope with the end of the magazines. It would have been very easy for WotC to have handled this in a way which would have effectively left Paizo for dead—all they would have had to do was follow the letter of the contract. Instead, they treated us like the valued partner we had been, giving us the ability to both plan and execute a strategy for survival. For that, I will always be thankful.

Paizo forged a survival plan based on replacing the magazines with monthly adventure path installments. If successful, the plan would save the jobs of all the company’s employees. “To transition the company into its new form in 2007,” Mona explained, “We needed all hands on deck.

Paizo’s new Pathfinder Adventure Path brought success. Sales were brisk, and the number of Dungeon and Dragon subscribers who switched to Pathfinder subscriptions surpassed targets.

But at Gen Con in August 2007, Wizards of the Coast announced that fourth edition D&D would arrive in 2008. Paizo’s plan depended on lines of products compatible with third-edition D&D. Suddenly these lines seemed doomed to obsolescence and obscurity.

After talks with our colleagues at Wizards of the Coast, we were cautiously optimistic,” Stevens recalled. “There was talk of getting together when we were back in Seattle and running through a playtest of the current rules. We were also promised that there would be a third-party license, similar to the OGL, really soon.

Meanwhile, Paizo employee and D&D freelancer Jason Bulmahn saw his assignments from Wizards disappear as the company turned to in-house development of fourth edition. Suddenly, he had free time. For fun, he wrote a set of revisions to the D&D 3.5-edition rules. “My first document had the title ‘3.75 Rules Set’ in the margin.

In the months after the fourth-edition announcement, Paizo anxiously waited for a chance to playtest the new edition, but the preview never came. Worse, the third-party license failed to reach publishers.

Inside Wizards, the D&D team wanted to launch fourth edition with something like the Open Game License, but they lacked the clout to get another generous license approved. In an interview, D&D designer Andy Collins summarized the situation by saying, “Legal opinions change; legal staffs change.

By the start of 2008, Paizo ran out of time to wait. “The lack of a firm commitment or any kind of schedule from Wizards was stretching our patience—and our deadlines,” Stevens wrote. She called a company summit to discuss options.

Bulmahn recalled the meeting. “We struggled most of that day to come up with a viable plan. I kept thinking back to my rules document, even though it was little more than a mishmash of rules ideas and notes. Late in the afternoon, I brought it up to the folks in attendance.” By the end of the meeting Bulmahn ranked as lead designer of Mon Mothma, the new code name for a potential Pathfinder role-playing game.

Wizards’ decision to end the magazine licenses had turned Paizo upside down and now made the company willing to explore a daring plan based on a mishmash of ideas and notes. “We were beginning to think that forging our own path forward might be a valid choice,” Stevens explained.

Nevertheless, we dutifully sent Jason Bulmahn to Wizards’ D&D Experience in Fort Wayne, Indiana that February. Jason’s mission was to learn as much as he could about 4th Edition, play it as much as he could, and report back with his findings. From that, we would ultimately make a decision that could make or break us. The tension was agonizing. I could barely sleep at night as my mind wrestled with the options. If we made the wrong decision, it could very well mean the end of Paizo.

From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 SRD: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

The cheap hobby of table-top role playing makes selling RPG games a tough business, but selling print RPG magazines in the Internet age is even tougher. Still, Paizo had learned to thrive. By fourth edition’s announcement, Paizo stood as an experienced publisher with an expert team of D&D designers, including many former Wizards employees.

When Wizards chose not to renew the Paizo’s license to publish Dragon and Dungeon, they led Paizo to compete with fourth edition. Paizo combined a lower cost structure and the nimble size of a small company with the resources to win against a giant like Wizards of the Coast.

As a result, gamers benefited from a choice of games. When asked about the split between Pathfinder and fourth edition, D&D designer Andy Collins said, “I think they’re both great games, and if they were more similar the hobby would be worse for it. I think it’s better to have games that are more distinct from one another that gives people clear choices. ‘Well this is the style of game I want to play, or this other one is the style of game I want to play.’ Nothing wrong with that.

If you loved fourth edition, you can still play games based on a shelf full of titles released for the game. Wizards even continues to offer D&D Insider to ongoing subscribers. If you favor fifth edition, many of the lessons of fourth helped make the new game so good. And if you love Pathfinder, the game continues to thrive. Is it okay to love them all?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Grand Campaign, Dungeon Master Gear, Fourth Edition D&D, and Other Reactions From the Comment Section

Tue, 06/26/2018 - 11:15

I’m ready for another trip into the comment section.

The Grand Campaign

My post on the grand campaign prompted a couple of commenters to tell of their long-running grand campaigns. Michael “Chgowiz” Shorten’s game has run more than 10 years. Rick Stump’s Seaward campaign has run 38 years and currently hosts 24 player characters and many more henchmen and hirelings. “With every player running multiple PCs and multiple adventures going on concurrently yes—strict time keeping is essential!” Rick has blogged about Seaward since 2013. Michael and Rick’s message: Passionate game masters still run grand campaigns. You can too.

Gary Gygax made the days characters needed to naturally heal seem like a key reason for a campaign calendar. Characters would spend days between adventures slowly recuperating. But Dan makes an good point, “Every game I’ve played in or run, there has been at least one PC with access to healing magic, so in between adventures he or she would just memorize as many healing spells as possible and rapidly bring the whole party to full or nearly-full hit points.

I’ve never seen a character sidelined for days of natural healing either. I suspect natural healing played a bigger part in Greyhawk for three reasons:

  • Few players chose to play clerics.
  • With no extra spells for high wisdom, and no spells until second level, the original clerics gained less healing magic.
  • Characters who adventured together also competed as rivals for the best treasure. In early D&D, characters raided dungeons for loot and players kept score in gold pieces. Outside of the dungeon, clerics might not heal rivals, and they certainly would not heal anyone who didn’t first make a generous donation to the church.

To gain the pace of a grand campaign where real time passes in pace with campaign time and an adventurer’s career can span years, Simon N. runs fifth edition with a house rule where a long rest takes a week.

Dungeon Master Tools

Chris asks, “Have you looked at ArcKnight for their spell effects? My only complaint there is they don’t have a way to pop them out so you have to cut them.

ArcKnight sells flat-plastic, spell effect templates. When I first saw these templates, the cones didn’t match the proportions set by fifth-edition rules. Now the templates fit the spell descriptions. I especially like the templates for ongoing effects like Cloudkill and Ice Storm, because their art adds scenery to the battle map. The templates come in exhaustive—but pricey—sets for clerics, wizards, and druids. I feel no need for line templates, or separate templates for, say, every 20-foot-radius effect. I would buy a less-expensive generic set with the common circles, cones, and squares.

Both ArcKnight and Impudent Mortal sell 1-inch grids marked on transparent sheets. (Sorry, Sly Flourish.) These products overlay a grid on an unmarked map.

In Some New Favorite Dungeon Masters’ Tools, I wrote about my attempt to shape conical spell templates from wire. My templates proved usable, but too flexible. Matthew Lynn offered some advice for shaping templates that I’m ready to try. From a hobby shop, he purchased a brass rod about as thick as a coat hanger. Then he shaped it with bending plyers and connected the ends with heat shrink tubing.

The Joy of Figuring Things Out

In a post on figuring things out, I suggested that fourth edition’s designers emphasized character skill over player skill. Tom challenged my statement. “I’m confused about what, exactly, in the core 4E books (a mechanic or piece of advice) emphasizes character skill over player skill that isn’t already present in third edition or earlier.

To be fair, nothing in 4E blocks a style focused on player skill. As Tom noted, the section on puzzles in the fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide explained how to challenge players. Still, the edition’s emphasis on skill challenges and set-piece combats leans on character skill. We know the designers wanted this emphasis because their author guidelines for Dungeon told authors to favor tests of character skill and to avoid challenges aimed toward players.

In response to the same post, The Grymlorde offered a good perspective on puzzles. “I like to think of puzzles more like doorways to secret levels, side-quests, and Easter eggs. You can get through the adventure without having to solve the puzzles but you miss out on the best treasure, the best experience, the “truth” and so on. The worst puzzles are the ones where the adventure fails if you fail to solve the puzzle. Which means that the mandatory puzzle must be fairly easy to solve so that everyone has a good chance of finishing the adventure because some people are really good at solving puzzles (e.g. my wife) and others are terrible at it (me).” One question: If you’re married to The Grymlorde, what do you call him at breakfast?

Linear Adventures

Even as I defended linear adventures, I praised The Howling Void by Teos Abadia for fitting many choices into the constraints of a convention time slot. In a comment, Teos gave more insight into his design. “The theme of my adventure was elemental air, and that element is all about chaos. I set to capture that swirling chaos through a multitude of options combined with foes that moved.

The downside is that there are some really fun encounters the party will never see. And, when they are having a great time, the players know they missed out on some fun. DMs certainly commented that they had to prep more rooms than they will actually run. One upside is that the DM can run this several times and still feel like every run is fresh and different.

Was it worth it? I think so. I won’t use this approach every time, but I think some adventures should work this way to keep players on their toes, to have a strong feeling of player action and choice mattering, and to break away from a linear style. Programs like AL are stronger when they include different approaches from time to time.

Lately, all the Adventurers League scenarios that I’ve played have flaunted an obvious lack of choices. Most still ranked as good-to-excellent adventures, but I have missed Teos’s flair for succeeding with different approaches.

Encouraging Role Playing

My post on encouraging players to role play, led several readers to contribute advice, so I suggest visiting that post’s comment section.

A few posters wanted to emphasize that role playing doesn’t require voice acting. A silly voice can distract from a serious character. Sometimes a character’s actions, decisions, and even silence can reveal role playing. That said, subtle depictions of character tend to get lost at the game table.

Someone with the handle 1958fury, who may also answer to Christine, commented on my tips for encouraging role playing. “I especially like this bit:

“‘Beyond this sound but conventional advice, many DMs suggested ways to pressure uncomfortable or uninterested players to role play. Don’t do that.’

“Thank you for that. I see that suggestion given a lot, and it drives me nuts. I’m shy, and I usually have to play with the same group for a while before I break out of my shell. Being put on the spot too much early on is a sure way to keep me from returning to your table.

Fourth Edition

When I wrote the story behind fourth edition, commenters like Marty from Raging Owlbear challenged my take on the business conditions at Hasbro leading to the edition. These comments made a fair request for more information.

Ryan Dancey led the D&D team through the third-edition boom and Wizards of the Coast’s first years as a Hasbro subsidiary. He wrote about Hasbro brand strategy and how it could apply to D&D. “Sometime around 2005ish, Hasbro made an internal decision to divide its businesses into two categories. Core brands, which had more than $50 million in annual sales, and had a growth path towards $100 million annual sales, and Non-Core brands, which didn’t.

Core brands would have included Magic the Gathering, while D&D ranked as non-core.

Core Brands would get the financing they requested for development of their businesses (within reason). Non-Core brands would not. They would be allowed to rise and fall with the overall toy market on their own merits without a lot of marketing or development support. In fact, many Non-Core brands would simply be mothballed—allowed to go dormant for some number of years until the company was ready to take them down off the shelf and try to revive them for a new generation of kids.

It would have been very easy for [Hasbro head of boy’s toys Brian] Goldner et al to tell Wizards, ‘You’re done with D&D, put it on a shelf and we’ll bring it back 10 years from now as a multi-media property managed from Rhode Island.’ There’s no way that the D&D business circa 2006 could have supported the kind of staff and overhead that it was used to. Best case would have been a very small staff dedicated to just managing the brand and maybe handling some freelance pool doing minimal adventure content. So this was an existential issue (like ‘do we exist or not’) for the part of Wizards that was connected to D&D.

To players who love and understand D&D, the perspective of a corporate, D&D-outsider can seem out of touch. Such executives might only know D&D as the game that lost players in the steam tunnels under Michigan State. Perhaps some wondered if players needed to dress up to play.

Dancey‘s best-case strategy parallels the one that kicked off fifth edition, with freelancers supplementing a tiny team of staff designers, and with as many staff working on branding and licensing as on the tabletop game.

Michael Benensky wrote, “You are not coming off as a 4E hater. Generally it irks me when people tear down 4E since I think it was the best edition.

I wrote a series about the business decisions that fed fourth edition’s design and why the design failed to pay off. Then I posted it on the Internet—a place not known for measured reactions. Folks who loved 4E and those who rejected it both liked the posts’ evenhanded stance. I count that as a win.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

5 Reasons Someone Might Build a Dungeon Filled With Clues, Tests, and Riddles

Tue, 06/19/2018 - 11:15

Dungeons & Dragons features a long tradition of dungeons built with tricks and puzzles to test and confound intruders.

C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness

Funhouse dungeons filled with odd challenges such as White Plume Mountain and Ghost Tower of Inverness rate as some of the most beloved adventures of D&D’s golden age. Most players enjoy these sorts of conundrums.

But why would any dungeon builder construct a room that forced intruders to answer riddles or to move like chess pieces on a huge board? Traditionally, dungeon authors provided one of two answers:

  • “The builder was crazy.”
  • “Are you going to keep asking annoying questions or are you going to play the game?”

Unless your players signed up to play in a game set in 1978, dungeons built by insane, magical pranksters no longer seem fresh or plausible; the life-size chess boards and reverse-gravity rooms can feel tired and silly. Also, while the crazy-wizard premise offers dungeon authors complete freedom, it gives little backstory to serve as a source of inspiration.

Still, Keraptis, Galap-Dreidel, and I all share an affection for pitting adventures against a strange and confounding room, so I will list some other reasons why a dungeon’s architects might build in clues and tests for intruders.

Some of these reasons assume that a dungeon exists to help guard or defend something: treasure in tombs, powerful or dangerous items in vaults, creatures in lairs or prisons. These dungeons’ built-in challenges allow worthy intruders through, and tempt the unworthy to die trying.

A test of merit

From the sword in the stone to the quest for the princess’s hand, fantasy offers plenty of examples of tests to reveal the worthy. A dungeon’s challenges could be constructed to reward the worthy and slay those lacking.

In the 2013 D&D Championship, players needed to solve three puzzles to retrieve three magic staffs. The puzzles were created to prevent the addled, insane cultists of Zargon from seizing the staffs before worthy champions.

Dungeon Crawl Classics 15: Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen

In the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen, the tomb is a prison for the evil Sphinx Queen. “The labyrinth below consists of a series of guardian creatures and traps, designed both to test the party (to ensure that they’re powerful enough to destroy Ankharet and her crown) and to teach them of the now-forgotten glories of the Sphinx Empire.”

The clues tempt intruders with false hopes for success

The dungeon includes clues and puzzles so that the any survivors who escape will spread tales that serve as a challenge, tempting more adventurers to test their meddle.

The original Tomb of Horrors acts as trap to capture the souls of the strongest adventurers for some wicked purpose. The ambiguous clues written on the tomb’s floor seem almost as likely to lead to death as to success, so could they be a lure for more victims?

Challenges taunt intruders with the builder’s genius

The dungeon’s builder is like the serial killer who leaves clues because he wants to flaunt his genius over the cops pursuing him, or because his name is Edward Nigma so what else? This premise works as a more plausible version of the insane prankster.

The 2010, fourth edition Tomb of Horrors says, “It’s not enough for Acererak to win; he has to to prove his superiority by by saying, ‘I gave you a chance, and you still weren’t smart enough to beat me.’”

Someone wishes for the dungeon to fail its purpose

During a dungeon’s construction, something may have worked to sabotage it so that it ultimately fails its purpose. This sabotage can come from a few sources:

  • psychological conflict. We’ve all heard stories of the killer who secretly wished to be caught. Suppose a dungeon builder’s inner demons—or real, live demons—drive her to create a dungeon’s death traps, but her better nature, or some compulsion, or even a foe’s geas drives her to bury clues with the traps.
  • architects and workers. Most dungeon builders recruit architects and workers to construct their vaults. The patrons always boast of retirement plans, while they plan to slay their workers to preserve the dungeon’s secrets. But suppose the architects added clues as a means of revenge on their overlord? This results in a dungeon filled with clues subtle enough to escape the overlord’s notice, but within the grasp of clever adventurers.

    Buyer beware: Charles IV of Spain and his Family paid for a portrait that flattered them with glittering jewels and finery, but the family’s dead eyes reveal what artist Francisco Goya thought of them.

  • bargains. Fantasy includes many examples where bargains with mystical powers give a scheme an Achilles heel. Here, the dungeon’s weakness comes from the same, mighty powers called to help construction. Great magic often comes from a source with its own, unknowable motives.
    In the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, Tears of the Genie, the Grand Caliph binds a djinni in his dungeon, but the gods of Àereth force the Grand Caliph hide the means of freeing the djinni within the prison.
Dungeon crawling is a sport

XCrawl

If adventurers crowd the streets and dungeons lie under every mountain, then dungeon crawling could become sport. This premise supports the six Challenge of Champions adventures that appeared in Dungeon magazine. Pandahead productions combined dungeon crawling for sport with all the posturing and pay-per-view rights of professional wrestling to create XCrawl. This premise abandons the mystery and enchantment of the exploring ruins, and replaces the thrill of confronting evil with artificial challenges and, in the case of XCrawl, humor.

If mortals can find sport in dungeons, then gods can too. Beedo from Dreams in the Lich House imagines death mountain, a place where the death god Hades can lure the land’s heroes, and then collect their skulls as trophies. This concept fits with the Olympians’ penchant for using mortal proxies as toys. “The other gods, for that matter, are greatly entertained when heroes overcome the machinations of the death god, and have gone so far as to sprinkle Hades’ sprawling dungeon with divine boons, godly weapons, and hidden shrines and sanctuaries where their beloved champions might gain a small respite.”

A religion or cult demands it

When Mike Shel decided to write an adventure inspired by Tomb of Horrors, he realized that the original tomb failed to provide much justification for its built-in clues and challenges. For The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb, he created a cult of mud sorcerers, who “delighted in riddles and conundrums, disdaining those who couldn’t equal their mental prowess.” And then he gave them a reason for planting clues. “It may puzzle your players that Tzolo would leave hints lying about for would-be grave robbers. However, the clues were intended for for her liberating servants.”

Mike Shel was on to something. D&D’s assumed background needs a cult or religion that provides a ready-made excuse for dungeons that test characters with puzzles and strange obstacles. The mud sorcerers point the way, but their plan seems flawed. Why build clues for your servants that could also aid meddling do-gooders?

I propose a new creation.

The cult of Seermock, god of wealth and power through cunning

Seermock serves as a secret patron to those of wealth and power who earned their status through scheming and manipulation. Although few know of the cult’s existence, Seermock gladly spurns the common herd that he deems unworthy. Seermock upholds these principles:

  • Wealth and power exist as a reward reserved for the cunning, while those of lesser intellect deserve impoverishment, servitude, and then death.
  • The weak minded who wish to claim wealth and power must suffer punishment for their presumption.
  • Bequeathing wealth on the unworthy only rewards the foolish. Those cunning enough to join Seermock after death must strive to protect their worldly gains from those of dull wit.

Like many figures of wealth and power, followers of Seermock strive to memorialize their achievements with grand tombs. But followers of Seermock build their tombs to test those who attempt to seize the riches inside, rewarding the clever while slaying others presumptuous enough to seek treasures they do not deserve.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 11:15

“Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons is all about taking that things that work in D&D, keeping them in the game, and fixing everything else,” designer Mike Mearls wrote after the edition’s announcement in 2007.

“That’s the goal, and I think we’re heading there.”

Later, he put the goal in a different light. “No one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them.’ That was never the intent. With fourth edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say ‘hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.’”

By 2010, when Mearls defended the goals of fourth edition D&D, nearly all the team behind the game had left Wizards of the Coast. The virtual table top was 2 years late and on life support. Pathfinder, a game descended from the D&D edition that fourth edition tried to replace, now drew players alienated by fourth edition. Rumors circulated that Pathfinder sales exceeded D&D sales.

The Story of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

On the fourth-edition team, Mearls ranked as a secondary contributor. Now, with the most of the team sacked, Mearls rose to head D&D’s design. He remained to take the heat for “ruining D&D” and to salvage fourth edition until something new could replace it.

What had gone so wrong?

The business plan for fourth edition centered on enticing players to subscribe to D&D Insider, where they could play online using a virtual tabletop. At the edition’s announcement, the team emphasized online play so much that some wondered if D&D would remain playable without a computer.

But weeks after the game’s release, real-life tragedy shattered plans for a virtual table top. Joseph Batten, the senior manager leading development murdered his estranged wife and then killed himself. Apparently, Batten’s work on the project proved unusable. A beta version of the tabletop took 2 more years to reach users, and that version looked nothing like the demos shown in 2008. While the demos promised 3D rendering and an extension of other DDI tools, the beta version retreated to 2D tokens and still lacked integration. Nothing set the beta apart from other VTTs already available. In 2012, after the announcement of D&D Next, Wizards pulled the plug. “We were unable to generate enough support for the tool to launch a full version to the public.”

Of course, D&D Insider had moved ahead without the tabletop. Subscribers still gained access to rules, a character builder, and magazine-style articles. But the lack of a tabletop forced Wizards to charge less and to scrap plans for selling digital assets like virtual miniatures and dungeon tiles. Without the virtual tabletop, the D&D team could never gain the $50 million in revenue needed to lift D&D to a core brand.

Despite trouble with the online initiative, a hit game might have carried the edition. But while many current players loved the new edition, as many others rejected it.

From the designers’ perspective, the rejection stemmed from two causes: The game dared to change too much at once, and the designers ran out of time.

D&D’s second edition tried to be broadly compatible with the original game. Third edition succeeded by adopting decades of role-playing game design experience while preserving “sacred cows” that made D&D familiar. Players had embraced the leap. The fourth-edition designers felt confident that existing players were ready for another step. “I expect that the improvements in game play will convince even reluctant players to switch over to fourth edition,” designer Chris Perkins wrote.

For the new edition, the design team “took time to imagine D&D games that took a different slant than any of us would have imagined,” team lead Rob Heinsoo explained. They turned sacred cows into barbecue and delivered a game very different from any other edition.

To designers the gap between third to fourth edition seemed smaller than the gulf most gamers saw. “I think of D&D as a conversation, in terms of game design, between the designers and the audience,” explained Mike Mearls. “To designers—and players who followed every release—the transition to fourth made sense.” Some fans followed the conversation by playing 3.5, Player’s Handbook 2, Complete Arcane, and then playing with the at-will magic in Complete Mage and the martial powers in Book of Nine Swords. To them, the step to fourth seemed small. (See The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition.)

But few players kept up. “If you got a 3.5 Player’s Handbook and that’s the only D&D book you have and the only one you read, and then you got the fourth edition Player’s Handbook there was a gap,” Mearls said.

Steve Winter, a designer since D&D’s 2nd edition, wrote, “Fourth Edition was a glorious experiment that succeeded technically. Unfortunately, its breaks from the past were too severe for many fans, who didn’t pick up the new banner.”

The designers came to regret changing so much so fast. Fourth edition’s lead, Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Knowing what I know now, I might have worked for smaller changes in the world, since shifting both the world and the mechanics at the same time proved difficult for some of the D&D faithful to swallow.”

More players might have accepted the change if the developers had gained time to perfect the edition. “We just ran out of runway.” Mearls explained “That’s kind of the story of fourth edition in a lot of ways. We ran out of runway as we were tying to get the plane up in the air.”

The rush to deliver hurt the system. For example, player surveys reveal that the simplest character classes rate as the most popular, but fourth edition lacked simple classes. And all the classes played the same. “The things I would have wanted to change about fourth edition mostly center on the knowledge that the class design project wasn’t entirely finished upon release,” Heinsoo said. “I’d never wanted to use the exact same power structure for the wizard as every other class, for example, but we ran out of time, and had to use smaller variations to express class differences than I had originally expected.”

Also, the lack of development left more than the usual number of bugs in the new system. The numbers behind complex skill challenges made success nearly impossible. The math behind difficulty classes needed revision too. Higher-level monsters lacked the punch to challenge characters.

The power system designed as the game’s irresistible hook led to unintended consequences. As characters rose in level, their growing number of choices overwhelmed players, slowing decisions. Characters gained more ways to interrupt combat turns, so each player’s decision paralysis extended into other player’s turns. Characters gained powers that targeted every foe on the battle map leading to more attack rolls than ever. Instead of delivering dynamic combat, battles showed to a crawl.

In 2010, the D&D team’s bid to salvage fourth edition reached players in a line of Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products. The designers had solved the bugs. Classes played differently. Some were simple, others granted ample options. Monsters challenged characters. The math worked. The newest classes sped combat by limiting choices, reactions, and battlefield-spanning powers. Essentials recaptured familiar spells, monsters, and even the look of past editions. But the rescue came too late. By 2010, the D&D team knew Essentials could only buy the time needed to develop a new edition.

Imagine an alternate history. What if the design team had been given time to deliver a game as polished as Essentials? Would the game have succeeded? Surely such a launch would have kept more players loyal, but would it lure the flood of MMO players the designers sought? Computer games offer frantic action and vivid graphics that D&D can never duplicate. By trying to match the appeal of a video game, the edition stumbled.

“We really lost what made D&D unique, what made Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing game distinct from other types of games that you could play,” Mearls said.

The new fifth edition of D&D ranks as the most successful yet. Rather than attempting to match the strengths of online games, fifth edition offers limited, elegant rules so players can focus what makes D&D special: playing through a story created when a 5 or 6 people join together as characters in a world open to anything.

Video games can never duplicate the same experience because they lack the same personal interaction and a dungeon master ready for the unexpected.

The fourth edition designers aimed to make the dungeon master’s role easy—something a computer could handle. So the rules discouraged the sort of ingenious or outrageous actions that break the game and create unforgettable moments.

Fifth-edition lead designer Jeremy Crawford even credits making the grid optional with some of the newest game’s success. “It’s a really simple thing, but in 5th, that decision to not require miniatures was huge. Us doing that suddenly basically unlocked everyone from the dining room table and, in many ways, made it possible for the boom in streaming that we’re seeing now.” Fourth edition did more than require a grid; it dwelled on one.

Fourth edition never emphasized D&D’s unique strengths. As Mike Mearls put it, “I think what was happening was [fourth edition] was really focusing on really hardcore mechanics, the intricacies of how the rules interact. It really became about the rules and about mastering the rules, rather than about the story, or role-playing, or the interaction between the DM and the players.”

By the end of fourth edition’s run, the designers had perfected a game about building characters and showing them off in dynamic fights. Perhaps they lost some of what makes D&D uniquely compelling.

Related: How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 13:00

In 2005, Dungeons & Dragons faced a possible future similar to the fate of another popular role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade. In this future, D&D only exists as a license for online games and t-shirts and another potential movie. The tabletop game remains as an archive of PDFs for sale to die-hards. See The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice.

To guarantee tabletop D&D never met this end, the game needed to qualify as a core game brand at Wizards of the Coast, now owned by Hasbro. D&D needed to match its best-ever year of sales in 2000, but this time the game needed sustained sales at that level.

Without a new edition, the game could never approach such numbers. A new edition could be easy, but it had to bring a profitable, sustainable strategy that would meet stockholder’s expectations for return on investment. So far, no tabletop publisher had found such a strategy.

None of this means that fourth edition’s inspiration came entirely from a reach for sales. D&D team leader Bill Slavicsek wrote, “As we move deeper into the third edition, it’s flaws and fun-ending complexities become more pronounced, more obvious to players and Dungeon Masters alike.” The design team saw ways to “greatly reduce and perhaps even eliminate completely the parts of the game that get in the way of the fun.”

Meanwhile, a new threat was taking players from D&D. World of Warcraft debuted in 2004 and experienced surging popularity. By May 2005, WoW had 3.5 million players. By 2008, the community hit more than 11 million players. D&D players started talking about the players that tabletop lost to WoW.

At gaming conventions, the same aging guys who started playing in the 80s showed up to play D&D. Presumably, the younger players and women who might love D&D stayed home to play Warcraft. Wizards of the Coast aimed advertisements at bringing WoW players to the tabletop, but mere ads could never win the flood of new fans D&D needed.

WoW didn’t look like a fad or another way to play. It seemed like the vanguard leading to the future of gaming. “Gaming was definitely changing,” D&D designer Mike Mearls explained. “And I think that for 4th Edition, what we were trying to do was to start predicting for D&D where we thought the game was heading.”

Surely, new players coming to D&D would have an online or video game background. To compete, D&D needed a big advance—a new edition that didn’t just improve the game but an edition capable of winning Warcraft players by matching some of what drew players to online games. “As far as I know, 4th edition was the first set of rules to look to videogames for inspiration,” Mearls said. “I wasn’t involved in the initial design meetings for the game, but I believe that MMOs played a role in how the game was shaped. I think there was a feeling that D&D needed to move into the MMO space as quickly as possible.”

So the new edition focused on the elements that made the D&D fun and especially appealing to fans of online fantasy games. Mearls recalled that the team felt that “building a player character was the real thing that drove people to play the games. You wanted to choose your feats, your prestige classes and whatnot.”

Once players built their characters, the fun came from showing off those characters on the battlefield. Lead designer Rob Heinsoo wanted to give the game an irresistible hook that tied the game together and compelled gamers to play. “The solution James Wyatt, Andy Collins, and I were excited about was to give every PC an ongoing series of choices of interesting powers. Most every time you gain a level you select a new power or a feat. Every combat round you have an interesting choice of which power or powers to use.”

But none of this excitement would benefit players who struggled to find DMs or potential DMs who saw the role as a chore.

The new edition worked to be easier to run. Casual DMs could simply buy an adventure, read the boxed text, and then run a sequence of skill challenges and combat encounters. In a skill challenge, the DM just had to decide if a skill helped the players—but only when the challenge’s description neglected to list a skill in advance. Combat encounters ran easier too. Monsters offered a few, clear options for combat. Just move and roll attacks.

To succeed, the new edition needed to do more than win new players. The game needed a profitable, sustainable strategy.

For Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft boasted an advantage that the D&D team surely envied. Players paid a monthly fee, which guaranteed steady revenue.

“Along the way, we also came up with the idea of Dungeons & Dragons Insider,” Bill Slavicsek wrote. “This exciting suite of digital tools for players and Dungeon Masters was just too powerful a concept to try to shoehorn the existing d20 Game System around it. Instead we knew we had to rebuild the game to take full advantage of this amazing new initiative.”

The game didn’t just need to be easy to DM. It needed to be easy to run online. Ideally, it would help DMs enough to make running a bad game nearly impossible. Players could drop into the virtual tabletop at any hour, join any available DM, and feel confident that a stranger could deliver a fun experience. A thriving virtual table would let players join a game 24/7, just like Warcraft. And all those player would pay monthly, just like Warcraft.

The designers aimed for online-friendly rules. Fourth edition defines powers as tightly as Magic the Gathering cards, so a computer never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. Unlike earlier editions, spell effects no longer required a DM’s judgement to rule on a Wish or to decide whether a wizard could polymorph a fly into a blue whale that would drop on a foe.

If the rules proved easy for computers to emulate, the virtual table could lift more and more of the rules burden from the DM and the players. Meanwhile, a new generation of D&D-inspired video games and MMOs could open new revenue sources.

The team planned ways for players at kitchen tables to contribute to the bottom line too. The emphasis on character building would inspire players to by a stream of books with new options. DMs would buy adventures. Everyone needed miniatures. The 4E rules list “D&D Miniatures” among things needed for play—not as a “Useful addition” like a character sheet. The rules never mention tokens or other alternatives to minis.

The D&D team thought they finally had the recipe for sustained success that D&D needed. The new game featured rules optimized to bring the most fun out of the character creation and combat choices that drew players to D&D. The new strategy could gain the income that would vault D&D to a core brand for years to come.

At the 2007 Gen Con game convention, the D&D team announced the new edition. Mike Mearls saw an uneasy reaction from the D&D faithful. “The big announcement on Thursday night was, well, tense. We didn’t spark a riot, but it seemed the audience was a bit nervous.”

As someone in the audience, I saw a confused reception. The D&D team emphasized D&D Insider and the virtual tabletop so much that people wondered if D&D would remain a game playable without a computer. But the designers loved D&D and their new edition, so we felt ready to embrace it too.

Next: Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

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