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Updated: 2 weeks 3 days ago

Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters?

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 11:17

In 1970, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson joined the Castles & Crusades Society, a group of miniature gamers formed by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. The group imagined a Great Kingdom and parceled out territories to players to develop for their local games. The Great Kingdom became Greyhawk. In the foreword to the first Basic Set, Gary wrote, “Dave located a nice bog wherein to nest the weird enclave of ‘Blackmoor,’ a spot between the ‘Giant Kingdom’ and the fearsome ‘Egg of Coot.’” Dave’s Blackmoor campaign became the foundation to D&D.

In a way, D&D got started because Gary let players like Dave create in his world. Then as now, creativity leads to more creativity.

In a typical D&D game, the dungeon master describes the game world, the players tell what their characters do, and then the DM describes the results of the PCs’ actions. But in some games, the players’ creativity extends beyond their characters. Players contribute ingredients that conventionally come from the DM.

When dungeon masters and players join imaginations and build on shared ideas, D&D campaigns gain benefits:

  • The game world can become richer than the work of one imagination.

  • When players add creative work, the DM’s job becomes easier.

  • Players can create content that helps develop and reveal their characters.

  • Players who help create the game world feel a connection and stake in the world that can’t come from visiting someone else’s creation.

Even tiny player contributions might enhance your game. In Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea recommends a few ways to invite players to embellish the game. Two ways are particularly quick and easy.

  • When a character kills a monster, ask the player to describe the fatal strike.

  • The first time a character attacks a monster, ask the player to describe a distinguishing physical characteristic of it.

Each technique reveals some of the benefits and risks of asking players to help describe the game world.

Asking to describe a killing blow helps players reveal their characters and grants players extra attention. However, it can grow tiresome. By the end of a game session, players may strain to find novel ways to say, “I stab it with my sword.” The descriptions might either become silly or extravagantly gruesome. They can push the game to revel in blood and gore more than players like. The question only spotlights characters with combat prowess.

Instead, I look for characters’ heroic moments. In a movie, a heroic moment might come when Wonder Woman rushes a foe through a window, crashing out in a shower of glass and debris. In a game, heroic moments come when a hero grapples Acererak and heaves him into a pool of lava, or when a hero stops fleeing an onrushing boulder and turns to drive the sword Shatterspike into it. Whenever you spot a heroic moment, invite the player to describe it. Tell them to make it awesome.

Not every player feels comfortable taking the spotlight this way. If they hesitate, their character still deserves the moment. Put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome.

When players invent distinguishing characteristics for monsters, the creatures become unique, which makes the world richer. Some players enjoy this technique, but many feel uncomfortable with it. When a player describes a heroic moment, they reveal their character. Describing a monster feels like a bigger step into the DM’s territory.

“For what it’s worth, I find players can be on the fence or even against that style,” Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains in a Twitter conversation. “It confronts them with how the game isn’t real. We all know that, but it can pull them out of the immersion and into ‘just making this up, there is no truth.’”

For many players, the kick of role playing comes from diving into the role of a character. Jarring players out of immersion to embellish the scenery seems counterproductive.

Beyond these tiny embellishments, players can contribute bigger chunks of world building. Mike Shea asks player to help him describe things like the taverns characters visit. Lazy DMs can outsource improvisation this way.

How much players welcome such invitation varies widely. “I was at a table recently where I was asked to name the town we reached and describe what made it interesting. I did so and enjoyed it,” Teos recalls. “The DM asked 2 other players similar questions…uncomfortable silence.”

“Part of some players’ reluctance comes from feeling put on the spot,” Hannah Rose writes. For DMs, inventing a new tavern during a game session is part of the job, but many players shrink from that role.

Harold advises, “I do the world-building mostly as icebreakers at the start of a session, and rarely give such prompts once the players are in character for the game.” This avoids calling players to the blackboard during class. Plus, players can stay immersed in character.

Delegating world building works especially well when DMs ask players to define the places and non-player characters that define their background. If the party visits a family home, or the wizard school that shaped a character, many players embrace an invitation to create that corner of the world.

“I think there is a wide variance in this idea of bringing players’ creativity into the story,” Mike writes. “Killing blows and describing enemy physical characteristics are one thing. Building towns is another.”

“I asked players to help define the campaign world. We hit a point where they basically said, ‘Uh, we want you to do that, or it won’t feel real,’” Teos recalls. Delegating creation can rob the world of mystery. “When I asked them why Yuan-Ti were active in Port Nyanzaru, they flat-out said they didn’t want to know that as players.” Secrets serve as a key ingredient of any D&D world.

Teos has players that care for a believable game world. Based on the number of ridiculous character names players bring to my public play tables, some players treat the game world as a joke. Be prepared to veto some ideas unless you want a party to meet Captain Crunch on the deck of Boaty McBoatface. Some ideas could prove harder to kill. Players might invest loving effort into ideas that either don’t fit the DM’s vision for the campaign or meet the DM’s standards. If you invite player contributions, are you prepared to dismiss gifts that don’t suit you?

Besides heroic moments, my favorite times to invite player contributions come when characters pass time between the main action of the game. For example, when the characters spend downtime at the inn, ask the rogue’s player what their character does on the streets at night. Mike asks players to tell the story of their journey across the map.

In these passages, the question of whether the characters succeed is already answered with yes. DMs can skip their usual role of confronting characters with obstacles. Players invent challenges as they like to develop and reveal their characters while the group prevails. Time passes in summary rather than scenes, but everyone still gains a sense of time passing.

The end of an adventure or campaign presents the best time for such character developments. Instead of trying to tie up the campaign in scenes, wrap the characters’ stories in summary—and let the players tell their tales. “Tell us how your dwarf spends some of that gold. Tell us how your halfling lives out the rest of their days. Tie a bow on a happy ending. Make it awesome.”

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Unfrozen DMs, Annoying Spells, Dynamic Battles, and More Insights from the Comment Section

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 11:15

Time for another trip to the comment section.

The unfrozen dungeon master

In The Plight of the Unfrozen Dungeon Master, I wrote about DMs returning to Dungeons & Dragons and adapting the changes in the way folks play the game.

Edgewise wrote “One thing everyone needs to learn is that there are many different legit styles of GMing. There is no single new and current approach, and if there was, it wouldn’t be ‘better.’

My post highlighted a shift in play style from cooperating to overcome deadly challenges to a style aimed at developing characters and their stories.

Even in the same campaign, D&D can accommodate both styles. To span styles, DMs need to separate their roles in the game. Unfrozen DMs like me first learned to act as impartial referees who bring challenges and control monsters. Even in a story-focused game, that role remains important because compelling tales put characters through a wringer. We unfrozen DMs know when to tell players no(sometimes). The collaborative storyteller learns to say yes and become the character’s biggest fans. We can all learn to welcome the players ideas and weave them into the game.

This post also prompted some discussion of Matthew Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, a pamphlet I mentioned in A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. The pamphlet merits a read. Just as unfrozen DMs can learn from the game’s innovations, newer DMs can learn from D&D’s original style of play.

I failed to explain why a Lair Assault game made such a bad match for an unfrozen DM’s style. Thanks go to Marty from Raging Owlbear for making up for the lapse.

Lair Assault was an organized play event where players were challenged to optimize a party build in order to defeat a specifically designed difficult scenario.

It was not a home game. It was not Adventurers League. It was more akin to a cooperative board game where it was the players vs. the game with the DM acting as the ‘AI’ of the scenario.

This means that the DM changing the Lair Assault scenario is breaking the whole concept of the Lair Assault. The whole point of Lair Assault was to stick to the rules as written to “win” the scenario. If the DM changes the scenario as written, it’s not fair to the players who signed up for that specific game mode. The DM is breaking the agreed upon play style.

Preparing situations

Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead advised DMs to build games around situations rather encounters.

Grimcleaver offered an alternative approach that mixes specific encounters with some improvisation.

Take your normal map with encounters scattered around, cut out all the same encounters and put them in a bullet point list. Then just sit back. When the time seems set for one of the encounters–run it. They need be in no preordained place on the map so long as the circumstances are right. They collapse the mine entrance with an avalanche? Fine, but a ways out they discover tracks–a warband of the creatures must have been out when the cave was sealed. If they do the expected thing and follow them into the woods then your first encounter can be whatever you’d planned, but in a clearing in the woods. If they come up with another crazy out of the box solution and subvert that situation? Well that’s fine, you have the encounter prepped and in your notes whenever you need it–and the PCs get to do something else clever.

What I try to go for is to have a list of encounters that are both dramatic and balanced that I can drop in anywhere to use as filler or twists or kickoff points to further the action. If what the PCs are doing is proactive and interesting on its own, that’s better. I’ll stick with that. But when things slow down and the players need an external stimulus, bam I can throw down an encounter that works.

This technique resembles the way I sometimes manage wandering monsters, so it makes a good addition to a preparation toolbox. But DMs who lean too heavily on the technique risk robbing players of meaningful choices. If options lead to the same encounters, do the players’ choices matter? See Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?.

Character introductions

Replying to How to Get D&D Players to Make Unforgettable Character Introductions That Take a Minute or Less, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia reminded us that you don’t need a DM’s invitation to make an unforgettable introduction. “It may be worth mentioning that as players, we can also plan for a generic ‘fit anywhere’ scene. When a DM asks for a character introduction, you can drop it in. ‘My introduction isn’t about me standing here before you, but what led to my arrival. It started with a few shouts down the street, as I battled a pair of ruffians…’”

Spell templates

Regarding How to Create Wire Spell Templates for Dungeons & Dragons, skwyd42 asked a question: “I agree that wire templates are quite nice. However, these cones (and also circles) will have the issue of ‘partial squares’ when using a grid. I’ve yet to find a satisfactory solution for this issue. Any ideas?

The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives this answer: “Choose an intersection of squares or hexes as the point of origin of an area of effect, then follow its rules as normal. If an area of effect is circular and covers at least half a square, it affects that square.” Likewise, if a cone fills half a square, it affects the square.

Alphastream offers a method suited to making square templates. “Should it be of help, during the 4E days I used a technique one of my friends had, using window screen tubing and wire. That same technique can be used for 5E.”

Gary Gygax’s plans for AD&D

In reply to Gary Gygax’s Thwarted Plans for Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a couple of posters mentioned Joseph Bloch’s game Adventures Dark and Deep. This AD&D game attempts to capture the second edition Gary Gygax would have created, based on exhaustive research into Gary’s stated plans.

Joern Moller writes, “Isn’t Castles and Crusades (which Gary consulted on and supported) the game closest to his ideal version of D&D?

Correct. In Gary’s later years, he favored his own Lejendary Adventure Game. But when an occasion called for a modern take on D&D, he ran Castles & Crusades.

Annoying spells

In a response to How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, Andy Walker succeeded at diplomacy, by the standards of Internet comments.

I will try to be diplomatic here, and probably fail. I like some of the spells you hate in this post. Banishment? Sure it upsets the table temporarily, but the target gets a save, and IT WORKS BOTH WAYS. Try letting the villain banish the Barbarian or the Wizard as his opener, and suddenly the PCs are the ones on the defensive, pinata side. When a villain is banished, have him return invisible, or in Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere. Just because the baddie is gone, doesn’t mean he/she suddenly becomes stupid or helpless.

Counterspell? One of the best spells in the game. If you want an interesting duel between mages, this thing rocks. Nothing is more dramatic than causing the evil necromancer’s Disintegrate Spell to fail, or a PC’s high level spell, carefully selected for just this foe, to fizzle. And counterspell against a counterspell (yup, totally legal)? Mage Battle Royale!!!

This whole column seems like ‘things that annoy me as a DM because I didn’t prepare contingencies, and I’m too nice to use them against the PCs.’

If I ran a regular game with players who enjoyed such reprisals, I would relish banishment. However, most players find seeing their characters sidelined by banishment or counterspell more frustrating than fun. Fortunately for most players, unless DMs opt to drop spellcasters into most encounters, and then routinely switch up the stock non-player character spell lists, the annoying spells rarely work both ways.

Tracking initiative

I discovered my numbered technique for tracking initiative from Alphastream.

To use numbers, create a set of tents numbered from 1 up. When initiative starts, the players compare numbers and take the card the matches their place in the order. The highest takes 1, second highest 2, and so on. The DM takes cards for the monsters’ place in the order. Everyone sets the numbers at their spot at the table so everyone can see their place.

I have to give all praise to Paul Lauper Ellison, an amazing gamer and friend I first met during the days of Living Greyhawk 3.5 organized play,” Alphastream commented. “Paul came up with the idea of numbered tents (and made his first ones) for special Living Greyhawk events like Battle Interactives, where time was a big factor for success. We could shave off many minutes of the DM pausing to figure out who went when by using his tents.

During the first round, Paul would simply start placing numbers as the DM called out someone’s turn. I do the same as a player. I must say that by the end of the adventure/event, 99% of DMs have stopped tracking initiative on their end and are letting us do it, because it is so much better. Every player knows when their turn comes up, no one gets skipped, and we know when monsters go (typically, we place a number in front of the DM for each group of monsters, so a DM might go on both 4 and 9). It really is a brilliant system. These days, you see the system used all around Adventurers League, and it is all thanks to Paul!

As for handling monster initiatives, Alphastream writes, “I still assign them a number. Because most encounters have a few types of creatures (a bugbear, three orcs), and cards are used for each group of monsters, the players are used to seeing the DM have several numbers at the start of combat. They don’t know if a number belongs to one of the orcs (maybe one of them is a spellcaster) or something else, until the initiative passes (and even then, they may not notice).

It can also be fun to announce it. ‘And on number 5… nothing happens!’ It creates mystery and excitement at the table, as they wonder what will happen. If you use initiative numbers for things like traps and events (on every number 4, the volcano causes the ground to shake and all creatures make a Dex save to avoid falling), the players won’t always assume it’s a hidden monster. It really works well overall.

Dynamic combat scenes

In response to D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes Alphastream offered more suggestions. (As you see, Alphastream’s comments make half this post. Thanks, buddy!)

One thing I would add is to give the characters obvious goals inside the room, to draw them in and give them things to do. Some examples: A monster is heading towards a lever, so it probably should be stopped. The treasure is in a clearly visible alcove, but a huge stone wall is dropping down to seal it off. A clockwork device begins to slowly count down.

When it comes to foes, making them interesting really helps. Four goblins and a wizard… everyone will target the wizard. But when you have goblins throwing strange alchemical or mechanical devices at the party, or if the goblins control levers that activate traps, suddenly players won’t know where to focus fire, and the battle gets interesting and dynamic. Even vivid descriptions can be effective. A common outcome in my home campaign is that they don’t focus fire (despite being very tactical) because the monsters all demand attention.

Terrain is also worth underscoring. Cover is important, but the design of the room itself will drive how players react. A ramp up the middle, elevated places, stacks of crates that can topple over, a chasm, a pit, a rope bridge with ropes you can clearly use to swing across, and other such terrain will all change the behavior of players and encourage at least a few of them to engage the battle in fun ways.

My terrain post also drew suggestions for dynamic encounters from Timothy Park. He adds too much good advice to quote here, so go back to the post and read the comment.

In the same post, I faulted the adventure Hecatomb for a lack of terrain, which set up monsters for execution by sharpshooters and other ranged attackers.

Stevey writes, “I helped with Hecatomb last spring also here in Montreal. I was to be DMing Tier 3. Upon reading it, I immediately noticed the open battle field effect you mentioned. I proceeded to create a dozen ‘Claws’ and a huge box of scatter terrain to hand out to the 10+ DM’s to help with this. I really think it helped. We even used it to help raise money (the Epic was for a charity) and gave away the terrain to those that donated.

Check out Steve’s stunning terrain props.

The terrain post led Duncan Rhodes from Hipsters & Dragons to create a list of terrain features that would improve a combat scene. See 101+ Terrain Features for Better Combats. I plan to draw from the list for inspiration.

From the authors of a 40-year-old adventure

Finally, during this site’s first year, I praised one of my favorite adventures, Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a 1980 tournament adventure Judges Guild sold for a mere $2. Authors’ Allen Pruehs and Ree Moorhead Pruehs, found my review and wrote, “Wow. Thank you for the compliments. We are blown away!” Their notice delighted me. Incidentally, I also listed Astigar’s Lair, among the 5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1978-2000.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to Use the Players’ Metagaming to Mess With Their Heads (and Improve Your Game)

Tue, 12/04/2018 - 13:36

In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Dungeon & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax suggested speeding overcautious players by rolling “huge handfuls of dice” to raise fears of nearby monsters. Of course, the characters in the game world never hear the die rolls or Gary saying, “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far.” He relied on the player’s metagaming to speed the dungeon crawl. When metagaming, players use knowledge of the game in the real world to make decisions based on things their characters don’t know.

Gary intended to use the power of metagaming for good.

Whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. Players routinely ignore statues drawn on the map, but if I add a miniature, their characters inevitably sidle around thing, expecting it to animate and attack. The presence of miniatures sends the metagame signal that the figures represent things to fight.

Although this never fails to amuse me, it brings another benefit. Placing miniatures for harmless things defies a metagame assumption. Maybe next time, the players won’t tie up all the statues in the dungeon just in case.

Animated Statue?

These sorts of metagame stunts carry a price. They call attention to the game and may interfere with the players’ immersion in the imaginary world. When DMs use meaningless die rolls to hurry the players or foster paranoia, they can nudge players out of the game world.

Instead, consider fostering paranoia based on things inside the game world. Describe the sound of a door slamming in the last room, a smell of wet fur, a sudden chill, cries echoing through stone halls, and so on.

Still, my trick with the statures seems  innocuous to me. After all, the players are already focusing on the map and minis when I place the figures.

Despite the price of instigating metagame thinking, I occasionally ask players to make meaningless checks. This discourages the assumption that every roll signals something. I prefer requesting such checks when players already seem focused on the game table rather than immersed in the game world. For instance, if a rogue scouts ahead and checks for traps, I might also ask for a superfluous stealth check.

In my games, I like to toy with players metagame expectations for two reasons:

  • It discourages metagaming. If you sometimes do things that defy the metagame, players will rely less on it.
  • It creates uncertainty and fosters surprises. In the game, we can create surprises by doing things that break the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
People bring meta-fiction expectations to stories as well as games. The movie Psycho provides my favorite example of violating these expectations to shock and surprise. The movie contains two big surprises. I will spoil one here. Psycho begins with the movie’s star embezzling $40,000 cash and taking to the road. We’ve all seen countless movies, so we all know what will happen. Obviously, the movie will follow the story of the stolen cash to the end. And we know the movie’s star will survive until the finale. The star always does. Instead, Psycho shatters our expectations by having the movie’s star suddenly murdered less then half way through. The turn shocked and electrified audiences. Hitchcock even added a personal plea to the end of the film asking viewers not to reveal the twists.

I recommend playing with these metagame assumptions.

Metagame assumption Countermeasure The battle map signals a fight. Every DM has set a battle map on the table and seen players immediately ready weapons and announce their battle stances. I discourage such shenanigans by saying something like, “This map shows a forest clearing exactly like several others you passed on your journey, except—unknown to your characters—this clearing happens to be on a battle map.” Use a battle map for a non-combat scene like a council meeting or a visit to the tavern. From Twitter, @Styro_Vgc writes, “Watching the PCs carefully maneuver to flank the mailman delivering the summons is worth the effort of drawing a few building outlines.” I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway. Miniatures represent combatants. If a non-player or creature has a miniature, you should expect to fight them. In addition to statues, I collect miniature figures for unarmed civilians, from royalty to beggars. During combats, they often serve as bystanders to be protected. Bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. Vary your adventures from the expected arc to a climactic battle. For instance, in Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the players almost immediately face one of their biggest, most dangerous fights. Monte designed the battle to shock players who expected the usual, leisurely start. Unique miniatures or tokens represent important NPCs. Players tend to focus attention on the unique figures in a battle. From Twitter, Kyle Maxwell writes, “I use and it’s fun to name the NPC tokens so my players immediately assume they are some highly significant character. (Bonus, the interaction with them sometimes turns this into a self-fulfilling prophecy!)” A variation of this trick works with unique or important looking miniatures mixed in with, say, a group of bandits.

While these tricks keep players on their toes by toying with metagame assumptions, I can think of one assumption DMs should uphold. A tricky DM can alarm players by lavishing description on a harmless, ordinary object such as a door. Don’t. None of this suggests you should avoid vivid descriptions—they make the imaginary come alive. Still, no player wants to spend a half hour investigating an ordinary door because their DM’s extra attention made it seem important. Your descriptions help guide players to the fun and interesting features in the world. Without that lead, you risk slowing the game as players poke, prod, and investigate every bit of decor.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Plight of the Unfrozen Dungeon Master

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 12:15

If you play Dungeons & Dragons in game stores, you will meet an unfrozen dungeon master. Fifteen years ago, I was one.

The first surge in the popularity of D&D started in 1977, when I found the first Basic Set, and continued in the 80s. Nerdy kids everywhere found the game, played obsessively, and then mostly moved on. Eventually groups separated for college and jobs. Players abandoned their books in their parents’ attics or sold them for gas money.

But we missed the game, and 10, 20, or 30 years later, those of us who loved D&D come back. We are the unfrozen dungeon masters.

Over the years, D&D has changed. Not just the rules, but also play style and player expectations have changed. When unfrozen DMs play, we can either adapt to the new style—shaped by 45 years of innovation. Or we can find like-minded players in the old school—still as fun as ever.

An unfrozen DM came to my local store during the fourth-edition era. He played enough to learn the new edition and then served as a DM on a Lair Assault. After the game, he told me about the rules he fixed on the fly because they didn’t suit him or his style of game. Such changes defied the spirit of fourth edition, which aimed to limit DM meddling in favor of giving players a clear understanding of how their actions will play in the game world. Such DM fiat especially defied the spirit of a competitive challenge like Lair Assault.

Since then, I haven’t seen a DM so clearly unfrozen, but DMs still stagger from caves and icebergs into game stores. When they run a game, newer players probably see too much focus on pitting an unyielding game world against the party, and too little on shaping the game to suit the players and their characters.

This topic inspired a question that I asked on Twitter. The answers showed the gulf between the game when I started playing and the current style of play. I felt a little like a DM staggering from melting ice to see a new world of wonders. Will I ever learn enough of the new ways to fit in?

When D&D started, DMs were called referees and they played the part of an dispassionate judge of the game. As a referee, you used die rolls to place most of the monsters and treasure in your dungeon. When the players explored, you let die rolls and the players’ choices determine the outcome. A referee ran home adventures the same they ran a tournament where competing teams might compare notes and expect impartial treatment.

D&D’s roots in wargaming set this pattern. Referees devised a scenario in advance. Players chose sides and played. In the spirit of fairness, referees didn’t change the scenario on the fly.

Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), one of D&D’s early imitators, spells out this ideal. The rules advised the GM to set out a dungeon’s details in advance so he could “prove them on paper should an incredulous group of players challenge his honesty or fairness.”

That style didn’t last. In most D&D games, no competing team watches for favoritism, so if the DM changes unseen parts of the dungeon, the players never know.

Dungeon masters differ from referees in other ways.

Unlike wargames with multiple sides, dungeon masters control the foes who battle the players. Now, DMs sometimes struggle to suppress a will to beat the players. In the 1980s, when people still struggled to understand a game that never declared a winner, competitive urges more often proved irresistible.

RULE NUMBER ONE in Chivalry & Sorcery is that it is a game, not an arena for ‘ego-trippers’ to commit mayhem with impunity on the defenseless or near defenseless characters of others. Games have to be FUN, with just enough risk to get the adrenalin pumping. The moment that an adventure degenerates into a butchering session is the time to call a halt and ask the would-be ‘god’ running the show just what he thinks he is doing, anyway.

All of the early fantasy RPGs came as reactions to D&D. For example, Tunnels and Trolls (1975) aimed to make D&D accessible to non-grognards—to players who didn’t know combat results table from a cathode ray tube. C&S follows the pattern. It reads as a response the shortcomings of D&D and the play style it tended to encourage.

C&S reveals much about how folks played D&D in the early years.

Before I entered the DM deep freeze, my players would sometimes discuss their plans of action out of my earshot. In their talks, as they speculated on the potential threats ahead, they imagined worst-case scenarios. To avoid giving me ideas, they kept me from overhearing. After all, their worst-case scenario might be harsher than anything I planned. (Obviously, I never borrowed the players ideas. My worst cases were always worse.)

D&D has changed since then, so I asked current players on Twitter for their feelings:

How do you feel about GMs who eavesdrop on your conversations, and then incorporate your speculations in the game?

  • Love it. Let’s tell stories together.
  • Hate it. The DM shouldn’t steal my ideas to complicate my character’s life.

In the responses, the lovers overwhelmed the haters to a degree that surprised me.

Players see RPGs are structured, collaborative storytelling and they enjoy seeing their ideas shape the tale. “D&D is a collaborative storytelling activity,@TraylorAlan explains. “I imagine it as a writer’s room for a TV show, with a head writer who has a plan that is modified by the other writers. A good DM riffs off what players do, uses that to build. Players then feel invested because their choices matter.

I agree, but my sense of the answers is that folks don’t often imagine their DM overhearing a worst-case scenario, and then wielding it against characters. If players only wanted compelling stories, DMs should sometimes adopt players’ cruelest ideas and use them. Stories feature characters facing obstacles. Countless sources of writing advice tell writers to torture their beloved characters. But how many players want to participate in the torture of their alter egos?

For my money, the answer to my question depends on the part a DM plays in the game, moment by moment.

Are you the adversary, with a Team Evil button?

Better to keep your eyes on your own paper, even if the players’ worst-case scenario fills you with glee. Never adopt killer strategies or dream up countermeasures for tactics you overhear.

Are you the collaborative story teller, looking to help the players reveal their characters?

When players speculate at the table, they’re making connections based on what they know about the game world—connections that the DM may not see. Adopt the speculations that link the characters to the game world in unexpected ways. They reveal they characters and tie them to the shared fantasy. Making connections real makes the D&D world seem deeper and more meaningful. It adds a sense of order that we humans enjoy in the game world, especially at times when the real world shows too little order and too little sense.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D

Tue, 11/20/2018 - 12:15

In 1972, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson introduced his Blackmoor campaign to co-creator Gary Gygax. The campaign stemmed from Gary’s Chainmail rules, but Dave’s game transformed the rules for miniature-figure battles into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

My last post explained how Dave shaped a combat system that featured hit points, 2d6 to-hit rolls, damage rolls, and armor classes where higher numbers represented better protection.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. In Pegasus issue 1, Dave recalled that Gary and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.”

Gary changed Dave’s combat rules in 3 key ways:

  • Hit points became less realistic and more fun.
  • To-hit rolls switched to a twenty-sided dice, creating a new market for funny dice.
  • AC ratings flipped to make lower values better, forcing awkward, negative ACs on players.
Unrealistic hit points

Gary’s changes let characters gain hit points as they leveled. In Blackmoor, Dave wrote, “As the player progressed, he did not receive additional hit points, but rather he became harder to hit.” Dave based armor class on armor, but fighters gained better saving throws. By the Blackmoor rules, saves applied to weapon attacks, so fighters could avoid damaging blows. “Only Fighters gained advantages in these melee saving throws. Clerics and magicians progressed in their own areas, which might or might not modify their saving throws.”

In Chainmail, a hero fought as 4 ordinary soldiers and a superhero as 8. D&D translated this scheme by making heroes 4th-level fighting men and superheroes 8th level. When Gary reconciled Dave’s rules for hit dice with the notion of heroes that fought as several men, he probably decided to give characters more hit dice as they leveled. The mechanic seemed unrealistic. After all, nobody gets 10 or more times more durable through experience. But rising hit points helped power the game’s success. They boosted the positive reinforcement of leveling. Plus, heroes capable of unrealistically surviving many blows supported D&D’s combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing style. These advantages helped make the game so appealing.

Every “realistic” system to follow D&D echoed Dave Arneson’s original method of using hit points to measure a character’s body’s physical capacity to survive injury. In D&D, hit points rise as characters advance, and that turns hit points into an elegant damage-reduction mechanic. As characters level, they essentially reduce the damage they take from blows.

Using hit points for damage reduction boasts a number of virtues:

  • Combat plays fast because players do not have to calculate reduced damage for every single hit.
  • Although damage is effectively reduced, the reduction never makes a combatant impervious to damage.
  • Once characters gain enough points to survive a few blows, hit points provide a predictable way to see the course of battle. If a fight begins to go badly, the players can see their peril and bring more resources like spells and potions to the fight, or they can run. In a realistic fight, things can go bad in an instant, with a single misstep resulting in death.
  • Most attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight. Realistic combatants do not wear down from dozens of damaging blows; instead each hit is likely to kill or maim. In more realistic systems like Runequest and GURPS, when two very skilled combatants face off, they block or dodge virtually all attacks. The duels turn static until someone muffs a defense roll and lets a killing blow slip through. This model may be realistic—it reminds me of those Olympic competitions where years of training turn on a single, split-second misstep—but the realistic model lacks fun. No popular sports begin as sudden-death competitions where the first to score wins.
  • Battles can gain a dramatic arc. Fights climax with bloodied and battle-worn combatants striving to put their remaining strength into a killing blow. No one likes to see the climactic battle fizzle with a handful of bad rolls, especially at their character’s expense.

Bottom line: Using hit points for damage reduction enables a combat system where you can hit a lot, and hitting is fun.

Funny dice

When Dave adapted the Chainmail rules for his Blackmoor campaign, he kept using ordinary 6-sided dice. He later explained, we had “no funny dice back then.”

The twenty-sided die may not have reached Dave’s corner of gaming yet, but Gary had funny dice and they enchanted him. At first, polyhedral dice only came from vendors in Japan and the United Kingdom, so getting a set required significant time and money. But by 1972, polyhedral dice started arriving from domestic sources. Gary recalled buying his first set from a teacher-supply catalog. In 1972, Creative Publications of California started selling 20-sided dice in a set of polyhedrals, and word spread among gamers. By 1973, Gary wrote an article touting funny dice. “The most useful are the 20-sided dice,” he explained. The original d20s came numbered from 0 to 9 twice, so most gamers rolled twice to generate a percentage from 1-100. Gary noted that gamers could do more. “Color in one set of numbers on the die, and you can throw for 5%—perfect for rules which call for random numbers from 1-20.” As an example, he mentions being “busy working up chance tables for a fantasy campaign game.” Gary found his new d20 so irresistible that he changed Dave’s 2d6 to-hit tables into D&D’s d20-based system.

Descending Armor Classes

As Gary reworked his attack table, he discovered that switching to descending AC numbers created a mathematical elegance. Game historian Jon Peterson describes how this system appears in a draft of the D&D rules. “If you were a first-level fighter rolling to hit, the number you needed was equivalent to 20 minus the armor class of your target. To hit AC 2, you needed an 18, to hit AC 3, a 17, and so on. Armor class descended to make it easy enough to calculate your needed roll that you wouldn’t even have to consult a table.”

If D&D had settled on this system, we might now be rolling a d20 to hit, adding the foe’s AC, and trying to reach a target number based on our character.

D&D reached players with a muddled system that kept descending armor classes, but hid any reason for the scheme. So players wondered why lower armor class represented better protection. Usually, bigger is better.

What happened?

When Gary expanded D&D to account for a greater range of levels than 9, he lost the mathematical simplicity. While the draft rules just present to-hit numbers for fighters up to level 9, the published D&D rules extend the table up to level 16 and beyond. To keep a steady advancement over a greater range of levels, Gary reworked the table and broke an elegant design. This left a system where players just used armor class to reference a row in a table and where intuitive, rising numbers could have worked just as well.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit

Tue, 11/13/2018 - 12:24

In 1977, when I first read the Dungeon & Dragons basic rules, the way armor class improved as it shrunk from 9 to 2 puzzled me. Shouldn’t higher numbers be better? Players just used AC to find a row on a table, so rising ACs would have worked as well. Magic armor introduced negative ACs, making the descending numbers even more awkward. Also, many of the demons described in 1976 in the Eldrich Wizardry supplement sported negative armor class.

D&D’s designers seemed to think rising armor classes made more sense. The game rules stemmed from co-creator Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules for miniature-figure battles. Chainmail rated armor from 1 to 8, with better armor gaining higher values. Co-creator Dave Arneson based his Blackmoor fantasy campaign on Chainmail. His campaign developed into D&D. In Blackmoor, higher armor classes represented better armor.

So how did the first D&D rules set the puzzling convention of descending armor class?

The answer lies toward the end of the genesis of D&D’s combat system.

In the original D&D rule books, the combat system that everyone used appears as the Alternative Combat System. “Alternative” because players could just use the combat system from Chainmail instead. When Dave launched Blackmoor, he tried the Chainmail system. But it focused on battles between armies sprinkled with legendary heroes and monsters. For ongoing adventures in the dungeon under Castle Blackmoor, the rules needed changes. Original Blackmoor player Greg Svenson recalls that within about a month of play, the campaign created new rules for damage rolls and hit points. (More recently, Steve Winter, a D&D designer since 1st edition, tells of playing the original game with the Chainmail combat rules.)

Much of what we know about how Dave adapted the rules for his Blackmoor campaign comes from two sources: a 2004 interview and The First Fantasy Campaign, a raw publication of notes for his game. Most quotes in this post come from those sources.

Chainmail’s melee combat matrix

To resolve melee combat, Chainmail used a combat matrix. Players matched the attacking weapon or creature against the defender, rolled a pair of 6-sided dice, and consulted the table for an outcome. “That was okay for a few different kinds of units, but by the second weekend we already had 20 or 30 different monsters, and the matrix was starting to fill up the loft.”

Dave abandoned the matrix and extended Chainmail’s rules for missile attacks to melee combat. In Chainmail, ranged attackers rolled 2d6, and tried to roll higher than a target number based on increasing armor classes. Blackmoor gained melee to-hit rolls.

Chainmail’s man-to-man combat and ranged combat tables

In Chainmail, creatures lacked hit points, so a single hit killed. But with extraordinary individuals like heroes, wizards, and dragons, a saving throw allowed a last chance to survive. For example, the rules say, “Dragon fire will kill any opponent it touches, except another Dragon, Super Hero, or a Wizard, who is saved on a two dice roll of 7 or better.”

Under rules where one hit destroyed a character, Dave tried to spare player characters by granting saving throws against any hit. “Thus, although [a character] might be ‘Hit’ several times during a melee round, in actuality, he might not take any damage at all.”

But the system of saving throws still made characters too fragile to suit players. “It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn’t have,” Dave explains.

Chainmail battle on a sand table

“I adopted the rules I’d done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer.” In a Chainmail battle that featured armies spanning a sand table, hit points would have overwhelmed players with bookkeeping. But the Blackmoor players liked the rule. “They didn’t care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn’t care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn’t want the monster to kill them in one blow.”

When players rolled characters, they determined hit points. For monsters, hit points were set based “on the size of the creature physically and, again, on some regard for its mythical properties.” Dave liked to vary hit points among individual monsters. To set the strength of a type of monster while rolling for an individual’s hit points, he probably invented hit dice.

Dave said he took the armor class from Ironclads, but the concept came from Chainmail and the term came from its 1972 revisions. I suspect Dave meant that he pulled the notion of hit points and damage from a naval game that featured both armor ratings and damage points. Game historian Jon Peterson explains, “The concepts of armor thickness and withstanding points of damage existed in several naval wargames prior to Chainmail.” Still, nobody has found the precise naval rules that inspired Dave. Even his handwritten rules for ironclad battles lack properties resembling armor class. Perhaps he just considered using the concept in a naval game before bringing the notion to D&D.

In Blackmoor, Dave sometimes used hit locations. Perhaps naval combat inspired that rule. When ships battle, shells that penetrate to a boiler or powder keg disable more than a cannonball through the galley. Likewise, in man-to-man combat, a blow to the head probably kills.

Dave’s rules for hit locations only reached D&D in the Blackmoor supplement, which came a year after the game’s release. But hit locations made combat more complicated and dangerous. Realistic combat proved too deadly for the dungeon raids in D&D. So D&D players never embraced hit locations. Even Dave seemed to save the rule for special occasions. “Hit Location was generally used only for the bigger critters, and only on a man-to-man level were all the options thrown in. This allowed play to progress quickly even if the poor monsters suffered more from it.” Dave ran a fluid game, adapting the rules to suit the situation.

By the time Dave’s fantasy game established hit points, 2d6 to-hit rolls, and damage rolls, he showed the game to Gary Gygax.

Next: Gary Gygax improves hit points by making them more unrealistic, and then adds funny dice

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Event-driven D&D Adventures Aren’t About Events; They’re About Villains

Tue, 11/06/2018 - 14:42

The plot of every vintage James Bond movie resembles a role-playing scenario based on an investigation and events. A hook like the theft of an atomic bomb sets Bond into motion. In an investigation, he chases leads from one situation to the next. The events come when the villains’ agents attempt murder, usually while Bond pilots a gimmicky vehicle or skis downhill.

Lloth and Drow at Gencon

Event-driven adventures aren’t really about events; they’re about villains. Unlike dungeons or the classic situations, I described in an earlier post, event-driven adventures stem from dynamic villains working to achieve some goal that the players feel compelled to foil. “Villain adventures are, by their nature, more dynamic,” the Angry GM writes. “The players aren’t pursuing a goal so the game master isn’t completely reliant on the players to drive all the action in an otherwise static adventure setup. Instead, the villain can take actions and the adventure is constantly changing.”

To prepare and event-driven adventure, plan villains instead of events.

Villains require three elements:

  • a goal
  • a plan to reach their evil ends
  • assets that can help bring their goal

Every villain must have a goal. For bad guys, the usual aims include power, vengeance, and, in Dungeons & Dragons, to harvest souls for ultimate power. Any of these goals make the foundation of a sound villain, but more evocative goals can make more compelling foes. Strahd Von Zarovich aims for power and vengeance, but he also wants to win a woman who would rather die than return his love. She does, more than once. Such depth helps make Strahd a classic.

Every villain needs a plan to gain their desires. In D&D, they make plans to conquer kingdoms, bring worshipers to dark gods, and so on. Those plans shape adventures.

In a typical D&D game, most players will act to oppose signs of evil, especially if thwarting evil would also bring treasure. The game builds on such calls to action. But plots that affect the characters directly make more compelling conflicts. Look to the player characters’ bonds for inspiration. If a wizard in your game seeks arcane knowledge above all else, then a plot that threatens to burn an ancient library would provoke the character.

When some DMs develop evil plans, they imagine a timeline of how the plan advances if the players fail to intervene. Such plots can continue all the way to the moment when Dendar the Night Serpent devours the world. But the game depends on the players meddling, so steps 13 and up rarely show at the table.

A better plan starts loose and develops through play. At first, the players may only see signs of evil.

An offstage villain can develop into a compelling foe. “One of the key components to creating tension is the slow burn,” Courtney Kraft of Geek and Sundry writes. “Don’t show your villain fully right from the start. Perhaps there are mysterious things happening around your heroes. The mystery is fun, so take your time. Give your players small tastes of what’s to come. Leave them warnings. Send minions. Maybe even let them experience a fraction of the villain’s power.”

As a tool for introducing villains to a campaign, I like the concept of fronts. The idea comes from the games Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Dungeon World by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra, but the concept’s best lessons apply to games like D&D.

Fronts abstract villains. “Each is a collection of linked dangers—threats to the characters specifically and to the people, places, and things the characters care about. It also includes one or more impending dooms, the horrible things that will happen without the characters’ intervention.”

Game masters planning fronts imagine grim portents that expose a villain’s progress toward a sinister goal. You reveal these portents to raise tension, or when players need a call to action. I liken fronts to weather fronts, because with both, you spot a coming storm in a distance. The early portents start a slow burn without necessarily calling players to action.

The game rules describe another sense of the term. “‘Fronts’ comes, of course, from ‘fighting on two fronts’ which is just where you want the characters to be—surrounded by threats, danger and adventure.”

In a campaign with multiple potential villains, grim portents help introduce the group. Such warnings suggest villains without much preparation. See what captures the players’ interest, and then develop the foes behind the portents. The players’ response to multiple portents can help shape a campaign’s direction.

Too many fronts advancing too quickly can make players feel overwhelmed and under-powered. Much of the fun of D&D comes from a sense of potency, so second fronts work best on a slow burn. They suggest an active world full of peril and opportunity.

The players’ actions to thwart the villain will eventually force a reaction. Perhaps the enemy slays someone the heroes recruited as an ally or captures some magic artifact the heroes need. Suddenly, the adventure comes alive as the players face a dynamic foe.

Villains need assets that help advance their plans. Most D&D villains start with monsters ready to fight. These assets range from faceless mooks to lieutenants colorful enough to overshadow their boss. Think Odd Job or Darth Vader. In more nuanced scenarios, the villain may bring allies with their own goals. Such friends of convenience can bring depth to an adventure by making adversaries that the heroes can turn to their side, or at least against the villain.

To build an event-driven campaign, dungeon masters need to imagine a villain’s assets, plan, and goal. But you don’t need a final, personified villain. That creation can wait. Waiting to develop a lead villain can even bring some advantages.

When DMs invest time in villains, they start to dream of recurring enemies who appear though the course of a campaign and escape alive.

In D&D, villains don’t recur like they might in a book or movie. The game strips away plot armor. As soon as recurring villains appear onstage, the players will attempt murder. Sometimes DMs can engineer an escape without railroading, but usually villains just survive a round or two.

In D&D, recurring villains work behind the scenes. Players learn of their hand through their reputation, their servants, and the accounts of would-be heroes who fled for their lives. The characters may thwart a plan, but the recurring villain’s goal remains to inspire another, more diabolical ploy. Each scheme needs to escalate the stakes. At level 1, a villain’s first plot might act to corrupt the kindly, village cleric. At 3rd level, the entire village becomes the target. In a campaign, some of the plans may succeed, raising the conflict further.

In an episodic campaign, keeping the lead villain undefined can help set a recurring villain who resonates with the player and even develops a record of beating the heroes.

Whenever players confront a bad guy, think about making the scene an audition for the role of ultimate villain. In most episodes, some agent of villainy will work a plan, fail, attempt escape, and perish. But sometimes, the players suffer a setback, and the villain escapes or even succeeds and complicates the characters’ lives. Consider promoting that enemy to the big bad. Justin Alexander advises, “The real key here is to simply refrain from pre-investing one of these guys as the ‘big villain.’ Basically, don’t get attached to any of your antagonists: Assume that the first time they’re in a position where the PCs might kill them that the PCs will definitely kill them.” If someone survives or prevails, you have a villain the players can hate. That enemy may need more power for a lead role, but the game is D&D. Just back a winner with a dark pact, evil artifact, or battle-ready servants.

By preparing active villains with goals, plans, and assets, you can prepare adventures that follow an arc that resembles a pre-planned plot. But you prepare without assuming what the players will do or how the game will advance.

 

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Masters, Instead of Plots, Prepare Secrets, Clues, and Leads

Tue, 10/30/2018 - 11:00

Planning a Dungeons & Dragons game around encounters and plots leads to trouble. In my last post, I explained how preparing encounters proves less flexible than preparing situations.

Situations can take dungeon masters far. Every D&D adventure published before 1982 presented a situation ripe for adventure. These early adventures might include broad goals, like destroy the evil behind raiding giants, but these modules mapped out situations and then set characters loose. Nothing broke this mold until N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God in 1982. Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or adjacent hexes. N1 paired an investigation with a scenario where events happened even if the characters did nothing. Since then, both features have appeared in countless adventures. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures for Good.)


Such features make adventures resemble plotted stories, so dungeon masters preparing for events and investigations often imagine plots for their scenarios. Then they contrive ways to make players follow the plot. When the players’ choices upset the plan, the DM feels tempted to invalidate the diversion. Sometimes, to avoid railroading, DMs work to build player-proof plots by including contingency plans for every choice and outcome. The preparation effort can swamp a DM.

As an alternative to plotting adventures, DMs can turn to situations. Adventures designed around situations allow both investigations and events, but other techniques make preparing and running such scenarios easier.

Instead of preparing plots, prepare leads.

Leads go by other names. Some writers call them clues, secrets, or hooks. When they discuss clues and secrets, their terms cover scraps of information that may lead or may serve another purpose. I favor “leads” because the word matches my main purpose, but I’ll use the other terms too.

Suppose the characters investigate a string of bloody murders in a village, they might discover the following leads:

  • All the murders center on well, recently dug to replace one that went dry.
  • A farmer found blood on the clothes of family members, but believed their innocent explanations and hid the evidence.
  • Children have spotted parents wandering the woods at night and returning at dawn.
  • A forester who cared for the woods now spends days in a drunken stupor.

Clues like these leave many angles that invite investigation. Each could lead to more clues.

Leads serve as one way DMs direct players through a plot, so in a sense, planning leads instead of plots just represents a change of mindset. But leads encourage choices. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

If situations form the obstacles in an adventure, then leads become the scraps of information that direct players through situations and from one situation to the next.

Most adventures begin with a lead that everybody calls a hook. The best adventures supply characters more hooks as they go.

Leads give players a sense of direction. They lure players through an arc that, looking back, will resemble a plot. Leads can guide characters to the locations that match their power. As clues, they help reveal a situation in an order that keeps players asking questions and craving answers.

Blogger and game designer Justin Alexander has a rule for giving clues:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

“Why three? Because the PCs will probably miss the first; ignore the second; and misinterpret the third before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along.”

By Justin’s three-clue rule, every step in the scenario needs three clues that lead to another step. The surplus clues make the scenario robust. In game, players never wind up so clueless that they lack direction. In life, they’re on their own.

The clues can lead in different directions. Such diversity gives options, breaks linear adventures, and sometimes creates tough choices for players. Justin builds on his three-clue rule to create a node-based system of scenario design.

Typically, I plan clues, planting them along the course of the adventure ahead of players. But Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea takes a looser approach. He calls his clues secrets. He prepares for each game by listing 10 secrets that the session could reveal. Some of his secrets reveal the game world, but others serve as leads for players. “Secrets and clues are the anchors of our games. They’re a simple way to build out an adventure, create meaning and story for the players, and connect people, places, and things. Secrets and clues are the connective tissue of an adventure—and, more often than not, a whole campaign”

Mike’s lazy technique skips planning where the clues lead or how players will find clues. “You know the characters will learn something interesting—but you don’t know how they will learn it. You get to figure that out as it happens at the table.” He prepares a list of evocative secrets, and then as he runs a game, he improvises ways to reveal the secrets. Mike’s secrets don’t even become real until the players discover them. After a session, he discards some unrevealed secrets, but revisits others for the next session. For example, in my game based on the murders, if I choose to reveal the secret of the well, then the well becomes important; otherwise, it’s nothing.

“Abstracting secrets and clues works particularly well with mysteries. You’ll have no idea how the characters might go about investigating a mystery. But as they do, you can drop in the right clues at the right time to help them solve it.” For more on secrets, consult The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures designed campaigns around situations that offered all the advantages of the situation mindset. The designs gave players maximum freedom and DMs the flexibility to cope. But these adventures tended to lack ready-made leads that helped players find direction and helped DMs anticipate and prepare for the players’ next destination. (For more, see Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?)

Alone, situations can overwhelm DMs with information to remember. Campaign-sized situations make preparing for sessions hard on DMs because the scope of what players might do becomes vast. DMs who run published adventures suffer the worst of this problem. Chances for improvisation are more limited. And I can’t be the only DM who finds remembering lore from a fat adventure book harder than the product of my own imagination. Few DMs can master hundreds of pages of content that spans a region like the Underdark well enough to prepare for aimless wandering.

In my games, leads provided the secret ingredient that the campaign-sized situations lacked. They gave players clear options and narrowed their likely choices enough for me to focus my preparation.

Next: Instead of preparing events, prepare villains.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Masters, Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead

Tue, 10/23/2018 - 11:00

Every dungeon master sometimes throws characters into a combat encounter, and then sees players do something unexpected. We never expect a peaceful dialog. Later, the characters reach a mountain outpost stocked with perfectly crafted encounters and the players show ingenuity by, say, triggering an avalanche that buries the place. Sometimes, every DM wants to say, “Come on, you all took intelligence as a dump stat. Just fight the monsters!”

Sometime in most dungeon masters’ careers, we plot a grand adventure for characters, complete with dramatic beats, treachery, revelations, and a climax. Then the players impulsively murder the traitor in session 1. In session 3, instead of escaping as planned, the evil mastermind dies too. The threat of such reversals tempt any dungeon master to railroad.

All these setbacks come from preparing encounters and plots that expect players to behave as expected. Often players do something surprising that leaves the plans in ruin.

Such planning misfires stem from taking the wrong mindset to prepare for a Dungeons & Dragons game.

For a better approach, follow two principles:

  • Prepare situations instead of encounters.
  • Prepare clues and villains instead of plots.

Situations form the bones of an adventure.

Game-world situations are the arrangements of locations and non-player characters that stand between the characters and what they want. The most elemental form of a situation includes (a) an obstacle, like a bridge blocked by a troll hungry for the party’s delicious gnome, and (b) a goal, like the other side. Often the difference between a small situation and an encounter is a mindset. An encounter starts as a situation with an assumed plot—perhaps as simple as (1) the characters fight and (2) they win. A situation stops assuming a plot and fills in other details like what the monsters want. (Hint: Not to wait in a room until heroes come to murder them.) A small situation might resemble a combat encounter complete with monsters to (probably) fight, but the situation mindset opens DMs for other courses of action. Maybe the characters talk, or sneak, or dislike the gnome.

Unlike combat, exploration, or interaction scenes, situations bring enough flexibility to play in different ways.

Larger situations often resemble dungeons. From a situation mindset, players could solve the Tomb of Horrors by excavating it from the top down—or by skipping it. Rather than grave robbing, real heroes should battle evil overlords. They have treasure too. (Perhaps by looting the tomb, the heroes can defeat the overlord by getting enough gold to cause runaway inflation. I want an adventure where evil is thwarted because it can’t make payroll.)

Tomb of Annihilation includes more modern takes on the dungeon as situation. Within the campaign, The Fain of the Night Serpent features factions, intrigue, and a McGuffin to recover. The Tomb of Nine Gods resembles the Tomb of Horrors, but with the time limit and an objective bigger than runaway inflation.

Situations can go beyond locations. For instance, a masquerade could be a situation where players need to uncover a spy. The characters might find their target through deception, magic, or by picking a suspect’s pockets to gain stolen plans.

The Prince of Murder’s network of covert assassins could form another situation. Instead of predicting which encounters the characters will face as they unravel the network, the DM invents a organization that reacts to the players’ actions.

As with combat encounters, a boring situation can lead it to dull scenes. Good situations include features that lead to interesting play. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea has advice for creating situations. “Develop situations with lots of options, lots of hooks, and lots of interesting things the characters can interact with.”

So a situation that might feature combat may include a location primed for a dynamic battle. A situation that might include role playing may include memorable NPCs, but should at least include NPCs that want something.

I think of developing situations as piling kindling. Add enough incendiary ingredients so that if a spark flares, the scenes catch fire.

These details rarely require more work. Most dungeon masters will feel comfortable improvising some of the pieces. Plus, the situation mindset often frees DMs from worrying about contingencies. DMs who build situations spend less time preparing responses for every potential action because consequences stem naturally from the situation.

Mike touts the virtues of situations. “D&D is a lot more fun when we can watch scenes unfold in new and interesting ways well beyond what we originally intended. In order for that to happen, however, we need to build environments with all of the right elements to give characters, and their players, the chance to take things in lots of different directions.”

For situations, Tom “Dungeon Bastard” Lommel plans one extra element: He prepares a menu of potential outcomes. He lists wins that represent total success, complications that bring success at a cost, and setbacks that represent failure. “One thing I always get bogged down in is analysis paralysis,” Tom says. “This is a road map for me to respond to what the party is doing. I have a list of plausible options at my command and I don’t have to think about it in the moment.”

I like Tom’s strategy because, in the heat of a game session, I struggle to improvise reactions to sweeping victories and epic fails. Such grand outcomes often threaten to upend the game. An easy win can’t cut a 4-hour convention adventure to a half-hour assassination. Instead, I want to reward ingenuity with some success, and then add reasonable complications that keep one move from ending the game. A total-party kill shouldn’t abort a long-running campaign arc short of a satisfying conclusion. Instead, I want the characters captured, or to lose the magic key, or to suffer the gloating of the rival who saves them. (Forget bludgeoning, adventurers hate blows to their pride most because they wound the player too.) At the least, I always plan ways to turn total-party kills into setbacks that spare the campaign.

Tom uses a storyteller’s sense of drama to help decide among outcomes. His choice results from the usual factors of the player’s choices and the luck of the die, but also from what suits the narrative. Will an up-beat or a down-beat better add drama? Is the table spoiling for a fight or for a lull? Does the session’s pace leave time for complications?

Instead of preparing encounters, prepare situations. The mindset opens you to plan less for what the players might do, while making you ready for anything.

Next: Prepare secrets, clues, and villains instead of plots.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Game-Design Trends That Turned D&D Into a Game Gary Gygax Disliked

Tue, 10/16/2018 - 11:15

The second edition of Dungeons & Dragons that reached gamers probably stayed close to the edition co-creator Gary Gygax might have designed. But later, Gary would say, “In my estimation second-edition AD&D began to lose the spirit of the original.”

What spirit did it lose?

Partly, Gary probably missed his own quirky touch. But I suspect that most of the changes he disliked arrived as the edition matured. As second edition grew, it began adding character options from new classes and kits. The design staff seemed intent on luring players to each new set of character options by making them a bit more powerful than the last. To Gary, this escalation defied the spirit of the game.

After Gary left TSR, two design trends that he resisted shaped D&D’s evolution from second through fourth edition.

Current D&D lead, Mike Mearls wrote about these directions in a series of tweets. The first trend came from “an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance. They aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.

“The downside to this approach is that the rules became comprehensive to a fault. The game’s rules bloated, as they sought to resolve many if not all questions that arise in play with the game text.”

Gary saw this trend begin with third edition. He said the version’s “mass of detail” made the game “too rules-oriented for my personal taste.” Gary saw D&D leaning less on a DM’s judgement and more on comprehensive rules that made the game procedural. His play favored minimal reliance on the rules. “Generally, I just DMed on the fly, so to speak, and didn’t use the rule book except for random encounters, monster stats, and treasure.”

He advised DMs to do the same. “Do not let the rules get in the way of play. Be the arbiter of the game so that the adventure continues without unnecessary interruptions, and the immersion of the player in the milieu remains complete.”

Mike Mearls thread goes on. “At the same time, 3.5 and 4 were driven by the idea that D&D players wanted as many character options as possible, presented in a modular framework meant to encourage the search for combinations that yielded characters who broke the power curve.”

Character options never raised objections from Gary. After all, he planned skills and several new sub-classes for the game. But Gary saw D&D turn into a game centered on building characters that matched the power of comic book superheroes. This direction made him fume. He wanted an “emphasis on group cooperation, not individual PC aggrandizement.”

D&D started as a game that challenged players and threatened their characters. To Gary, later editions just offered players a chance to show off their characters with minimal risk. “How I detest namby-pamby whiners that expect to play a real RPG without threat of character death or loss of a level, stat points, or even choice magic items! Without such possibilities, what it the purpose of play, a race to see which character can have the greatest level, highest stats, and largest horde of treasure? That is just too flaccid for words.”

In many ways, fifth-edition D&D represents a return to Gary’s tastes. He would have liked the lighter rules. Mike explained the direction, “With 5th, we assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”

“In terms of players, we focus much more on narrative and identity, rather than specific, mechanical advantages. Who you are is more important than what you do, to the point that your who determines your what.”

Gary would have approved of these changes, but would he have liked fifth edition?

To an extent, I doubt any edition that Gary didn’t design could have earned his favor. Gary saw AD&D as his baby and kept tight control on its content. No other version, no matter how many improvements it featured, could earn the same paternal love.

Also, Gary might fault fifth edition for one thing: The edition emphasizes storytelling over challenging players and endangering their characters. Sure, you can still run a killer game. Tomb of Annihilation and its meat-grinder variant set a blueprint for that. But beyond level 4, fifth-edition characters become as durable as comic book characters. According to Mike Mearls, the edition “focuses on socializing and storytelling.” No storyteller wants to see their tale’s planned resolution spoiled when a hero dies to a fluke critical. Gary and his original co-designer Dave Arneson came from wargaming and a passion for competition. To Gary, D&D needed to test player skill to feel compelling. A storytelling exercise that glorified precious characters failed to interest him.

Still, fifth edition captures the soul and spirit of original D&D better than any other version. I’ll bet Gary would have liked it enough to write adventures for it. Except his adventures would not have let characters skate through with minimal risk. So don’t get too attached to your hero, keep another character sheet on hand, and keep playing D&D.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How Much Would Gary Gygax’s Second-Edition D&D Have Differed From the Version That Reached Gamers?

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 11:15

In 1985, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax shared his plans for a new, second edition in Dragon magazine. Even as his column reached print, Gary was forced out of TSR, ending his work on D&D.

This left D&D fans to speculate how Gary’s second edition would have differed from version that actually reached stores in 1989.

For the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, designer David “Zeb” Cook wrote an introduction that sets his goals for the revision. “To make it easier to find things, to make the rules easier to understand, to fix the things that did not work, to add the best new ideas from the expansions and other sources, and, most important of all, to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed.”

To preserve the D&D games knew, TSR management mandated that Zeb and the other second-edition designers keep AD&D largely compatible with its first edition. That requirement blocked innovations like ascending armor class.

Like Zeb, Gary planned to keep the D&D players knew. Gary later explained, “The soul and spirit of the revised game would have remained the same. The change might have been likened to that from D&D to AD&D.” Gary planned some subclasses and other additions, but nothing that changed the game as played.

As for making things easy to understand and to find, Gary lacked the skills to meet those goals.

Gary had already tried and failed give AD&D a sensible organization. He and  started the first edition by tacking clippings from the original rules to bulletin boards in a logical order. Despite their intentions, the Dungeon Master’s Guide reads like an open window let a breeze clear the boards. Apparently, a janitor reposted the scraps. Gary’s strength came not from organization, but from ability to heap fantastic ideas like a dragon’s hoard.

As for Gary’s writing, fans lovingly call his ornate prose and difficult lexicon High Gygaxian. I learned enough of his vocabulary to boost my SAT score. His style brings some charm, but hardly clarity. Once around 1980, as an exercise, I took a pencil to a page in my Dungeon Master’s Guide, striking unnecessary words. I thinned a quarter of the text. This insane exercise began my slide into blogging about D&D.

Could Gary have realized that a second edition needed skills that he lacked? Perhaps not, but I suspect that if Gary had remained a TSR, a time shortage would have pressed him to seek assistance. Half of the class ideas he floated in 1982 had languished for years. Sure, Gary had made time to compile his old magazine articles into Unearthed Arcana, but only when TSR’s survival required immediate cash. D&D historian Shannon Appelcline explained that Gary “wasn’t up to producing book-length RPG work of his own, due to the time required in running the ailing company. Thus, Unearthed Arcana was actually the product of diverse hands, including collaborator Frank Mentzer, design consultant Jeff Grubb, and editor Kim Mohan.”

If Gary had delegated writing of second edition, who would have drawn the assignment? Not Zeb Cook. Gary favored the notes his friend Francois Marcela-Froideval wrote for Oriental Adventures over the book Zeb Cook actually wrote, so Zeb was out. Likely, if Gary had remained at TSR, his trusted lieutenant Frank Mentzer would have written the new books under Gary’s supervision. In his work on Basic D&D, Frank demonstrated the ability to write clearly and to organize rules.

In his introduction, Zeb avoids mentioning another goal: To sooth the worries of concerned parents who fear that the game will lead their children to the devil or to lose touch with reality. Among other changes, this led the designers to rename demons and devils to baatezu and tanar’ri. Gary would have made similar changes. In what Gary called a bow “to pressure from those who don’t buy our products anyway,” Gary let TSR retitle Deities and Demigods to Legends and Lore. He didn’t “particularly approve”, but he still bowed.

Under Gary, second-edition might not have been hugely different from the version gamers saw. Still, it would have been more idiosyncratic. Gary’s update would have introduced eccentricities like the mountebank, the class that inspires every gamer to say, “What’s a mountebank?” (A boastful charlatan.)

After second edition, D&D benefited from the skill of new designers. The game’s subsequent design teams brought innovations that Gary probably would have spurned. Leaving TSR forced Gary to design role playing games that defied comparison to D&D. (TSR sued him anyway.) But if Gary continued on D&D, I doubt Gary would have murdered his darlings and adopted inventions from other games. D&D’s new designers did both, and the modern game benefited. Plus, new teams brought skills for rigorous and mathematical design that Gary could not match. Gary’s strength came from ability to heap fantastic ideas like a dragon’s hoard. The order and elegance D&D needed came from other sources.

Related: From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance

Next: The game-design trends that turned D&D into a game Gary Gygax disliked

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Gary Gygax’s Thwarted Plans for Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons

Tue, 10/02/2018 - 10:20

In 1985, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax wrote a column for Dragon magazine describing his plans for a second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “This task does not preclude later supplements, changes and yet new editions (a Third, perhaps a Fourth someday).” Imagine that.

By the time his plans reached readers in November, Gary had been forced out of TSR. Gary’s part in shaping D&D ended. TSR ignored his outline and would not start work on a second edition until 1987.

This left D&D fans to speculate how Gary’s second edition would have differed from version that actually reached stores in 1989.

Gary never sets goals for the new edition. He later explained, “The soul and spirit of the revised game would have remained the same. The change might have been likened to that from D&D to AD&D.” AD&D started as a collection of all the material published for the original game. Similarly, Gary’s outline for second edition dwells on compiling first-edition monster books and arcana into four core books. “Each is far larger than now, but the needed information is all under the cover of the appropriate tome.” (Gary added Legends & Lore to D&D’s usual three, core books.)

Most of Gary’s plans centered on selecting what parts of D&D merited a place in the new edition. By his reckoning, monks belonged in an oriental-themed campaign book and assassins should become optional. As for psionics, he wrote, “I’d like to remove the concept from a medieval fantasy roleplaying game system and put it into a game where it belongs—something modern or futuristic.”

He planned to remove rules for weapon-speed factors and weapons versus armor. Like virtually every AD&D player, Gary ignored those rules.

His offers few thoughts for new material, and none that threatened to change the game. He planned to tinker with monster hit dice, giving robust creatures more hit points and damage. Powerful individuals gained extra hit dice. “I suppose some will call that monster munchkinism.”

His best plans featured changes that reached D&D without Gary’s help. The original bard class forced players to gain levels in Fighter, Thief, and Druid before becoming a bard. Gary’s updated bard could start as a bard.

He planned a skill system that would have resembled a system he designed in 2006 for for the booklet, Castle Zagyg Class Options & Skills for Yggsburgh. This book supported a game called Castles & Crusades, a rules-light game that mixed some third-edition innovation with the spirit of original D&D. Gary’s skill system let characters trade experience points for skills that granted bonuses to checks. This approach offered advantages over the weak skill system in second edition. Best of all, with Gary’s skills, no one had to say “non-weapon proficiency.”

His plans included wizard specializations beyond illusionist and a sorcerer class that resembled today’s conjurer specialization.

Mainly, he planned to design some class ideas that he had floated three years earlier in Dragon issue 65. Then he had asked readers to rate his concepts. “Let me know which you like best, which least.” Two issues later, he reported a flood of responses.

The most popular notions, the cavalier and the thief-acrobat, reached print in Unearthed Arcana, but neither idea captured players’ imagination. Even these best concepts suggested that Gary had run short of compelling class ideas. Nevertheless, Gary still dreamed of bringing second edition the remaining classes:

  • Mystic: A cleric subclass focused on divination.
  • Savant: A magic user subclass specializing in knowledge and study. The class crossed the old sage class with divination and detection spells.
  • Mountebank: A thief subclass focused on deception, slight-of-hand, and persuasion. Gary’s short story, “The House in the Tree” included a character named Hop who describes himself as a mountebank. Hop comes across a fast-talking snake-oil salesmen, except some of Hop’s concoctions might actually work. The story appears in a collection of short tales about Gord the Rogue titled Knight Errant.
  • Jester: A bard subclass with jokes, tricks, and insults. “The class will be less than popular with fellow adventurers, I suspect, so that jesters will frequently have enemies and travel alone.” Jesters come from the same inclination that produced the sage—from an urge to design classes around every medieval profession without any mind to what might attract players to the class.

Even though none of these ideas seem compelling enough to merit a class name, I’ve seen some characters that fit all these concepts except for the Jester. Between class archetypes, skills, and spell selection, D&D now boasts enough flexibility to realize any of these class concepts. As for the jester, a bard could adopt the wardrobe, but why? Old-school blogger James Maliszewski asked, “What’s the appeal there? Perhaps I’m simply humorless and unimaginative but I have a hard time imagining either an adventuring jester or a need for a NPC class based around juggling, tumbling, and minor spellcasting.”

Next: How much would Gary’s second edition have differed from the version that reached gamers? Plus, would Gary have liked fifth edition?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 12:30

In my last post on tracking initiative, I surveyed every tracking technique I knew, from apps to combat pads. Five years later, I feel ready for a stronger statement:

If you don’t use card stock tents to track initiative, you are doing it wrong.

Sure, you can still run a fun game, but with initiative tents, your game will become a bit better.

Initiative tents enable two tracking methods that both work well. If you track initiative wrong, you can choose which improvement suits you best. One technique puts names on the cards, the other uses numbers.

To use numbers, create a set of tents numbered from 1 up. When initiative starts, the players compare numbers and take the card the matches their place in the order. The highest takes 1, second highest 2, and so on. The DM takes cards for the monsters’ place in the order. Everyone sets the numbers at their spot at the table so everyone can see their place.

Initiative tents

To use names, each player puts their character name on a card. When initiative starts, the players roll and write their scores on their card. Someone collects the cards, and lines them up in initiative order where everyone can see. I let a player sort the cards before I drape them in order atop my DM screen.

These tracking methods boast two advantages: They make the initiative order visible to everyone, and they let the dungeon master delegate tracking to the players.

When players can see the tents and initiate order, they can see when their turn is coming and plan their actions. This speeds play. Plus, the visible initiative invites players to remind less-attentive people of their turns. It prevents DMs from accidentally skipping someone’s turn.

Numbered tents do a better job of keeping players aware of their place in the order, because everyone collaborates to establish the order and everyone displays a numbered tent.

Delegating DM chores to the players leads to better games. Typically, game masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the DM’s attention. A DM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck created by the game master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain tasks to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative.

Named tents do a better job of delegating initiative, because the DM can ignore the entire process of establishing the order.

Tracking with numbers

Dungeon master and D&D freelance author Teos Abadia champions tracking with numbers. You can read more about this method in his blog.

To make numbered tents, fold index cards and use a marker to write numbers on either side. Twelve cards should be enough for every player and type of monster. White cards work fine, but colored ones offer more visibility at the table. You can reuse numbered tents.

Tracking with names

For a minimal initiative tent, use index cards. Cutting a card lengthwise yields two tents suitable for draping across a DM’s screen. Cut from top to bottom for three, smaller tents suitable for standing on the table. I like using colored index cards and giving each player a unique color, so they can identify the color from across the table. All my monsters get white stock. Before a game session, pass out the cards and have players write a name on each side. When initiative starts, everyone rolls and writes their score on their card.

I prepare the monsters’ tents in advance. This lets me write the monster names and either pre-roll their initiatives or just use static initiatives that set all the monsters at 10 plus their dexterity bonus. Static initiatives rely on the players’ rolls for a random element. Skipping the monsters’ rolls saves time, but tends to cluster the monsters’ turns.

Many DMs who drape initiative tents on their DM screen use something to mark the current place in the turn order. A binder clip on the active character’s tent works well enough.

Although tents with just names and scores work well, I add extra information to my tents. With the tents draped across my DM’s screen, I gain a quick reference. For instance, I have players write their characters’ armor class and passive perception scores on their tents.

Some DMs who use initiative tents just give players blank tents, show a sample, and ask everyone to follow the example. But I’ve created formatted tents with spaces to write in. Download my formatted tents here.

My monster tents show armor class, the three most common saving throws, and include spaces for attacks and other information. On the player-facing side of the monster tents, I added a big box for armor class. Sometimes, when a fight went long enough for the characters to figure armor classes, I used to mark the ACs where everyone could see. This sped turns a bit.

Now, I save the monster tents so I can reuse them. This discourages me from writing ACs where players can see. Also, this encourages static initiatives. I can write an initiative score of 10 plus dexterity modifier and reuse it in every fight.

Some of my tents have initiative scores I rolled a year or more ago. Is it wrong if I reuse a year-old roll? Have you ever wondered why my shambling mounds always prove quick to act while my bugbears never get a drop on anyone? I should probably cross out those rolls.

My player tents include spaces for AC and passive perception, plus space for up to 8 separate initiative scores. As an extra time saver, I have players pre-roll initiative. During the a game session, I never slow for initiative. When an encounter starts, I hand all the tents to a player for sorting, and then I drape the folds on my screen.

Some eager helpers won’t wait for initiative. At the end of every encounter, they re-order the tents. I never have to call for initiative. While this skips a dramatic moment, it also blends the line between combat and the rest of the game. I suspect that’s better. What do you think?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

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