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Updated: 1 week 2 days ago

The Twisting Tale of Skills in D&D

Tue, 04/27/2021 - 11:28

Modern Dungeons & Dragons includes both skills and character classes, but in the early days of the roleplaying hobby, gamers often saw skills and classes as incompatible. Some gamers touted skills as the innovation that freed roleplaying games from character classes. Three years after D&D reached hobby shops, new games like Traveller and RuneQuest eliminated classes in favor of skill systems. Advertisements for RuneQuest in The Dragon trumpeted, “No Artificial Character Classes!!” Such games eliminated the unrealistic class restrictions that prevented, say, a fighter from learning to climb walls or from mastering a spell. “Mages can wear armor and use blades.” The ad credits RuneQuest to designer “Steve Perrin and friends.” Remember that name, because Perrin returns to this tale later.

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax favored classes because they resonated with the fantasy archetypes everyone knew. He warned, “If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character.” He had a point. Skill-based games gave every character the ability to improve the same common adventuring skills, leading to a certain sameness among adventurers.

Classes let characters make distinct contributions to a group’s success. In a 1984 interview in DRACHE magazine, Gygax said, “The D&D game is based on the theory that there is so much to know and to do that nobody can do everything on his own. The team aspect is important. Each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

As long as Gygax controlled D&D’s development, he kept skills out of the game. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but their narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes.

Still, TSR designer Dave “Zeb” Cook saw a need for character development beyond class. “One of the things dreadfully lacking from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills.” When Cook wrote Oriental Adventures (1985), he brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies—skills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”

Checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks filled the place of ability checks. The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, although class features still covered most of the actions characters attempted during an adventure, so thieves still rolled on their private tables to climb walls and move silently.

In a convention appearance, Dave “Zeb” Cook and fellow designer Steve Winter talked about how these first-edition books led to a second edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”

Even after Gygax left TSR in 1985, designers like Cook and Winter lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary. Nonetheless, these additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

But TSR sold two D&D games, an advanced version that got more scrutiny from management, and a basic version that offered more freedom to designers. By 1988, RuneQuest designer and freelancer Steve Perrin was gaining assignments writing D&D supplements. His GAZ5 The Elves of Alfheim (1988) for the D&D campaign setting of the Known World introduced skills by name to the game. “Due to their background, elves have a variety of skills that are neither shown in the rule books, nor related directly to combat, thieving, or magic. These are optional additions to your D&D campaign.” RuneQuest’s designer put more cracks in the wall between skills and D&D’s classes.

A year later, GAZ11 The Republic of Darokin (1989) by Scott Haring expanded this skill system beyond elves.

“Each skill is based on one of the character’s Abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma). When a circumstance arises in which the DM feels the use of a character’s skill is needed, he asks the player to roll a d20 against his current score with the Ability. If the result of the d20 roll is less than or equal to the Ability, the skill use succeeds. A roll of 20 always fails, no matter how high the chance for success.”

The gazetteer listed skills from advocacy and animal training to woodworking, but the options still kept away from the class specialties of combat, thieving, and magic.

In 1991, the Dungeon & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia gathered all the rules from the basic line into a single hardcover that included the skill system. Meanwhile, AD&D would spend another decade forcing players to say “non-weapon proficiency” in place of “skill.”

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained permission to correct old drawbacks. “We knew we wanted to make a more robust set of skills,” designer Monte Cook said in an interview. “You had thieves‘ skills, which were different and they worked completely differently, because they were percentage based. So we wanted to marry all of that together.” Like RuneQuest and virtually every other contemporary roleplaying game, the new edition would adopt a single, core mechanic to resolve actions. Players made checks by rolling a d20, adding modifiers, and comparing the result against a difficulty class number. Skills now offered bonuses to these checks.

The older D&D skill system and AD&D proficiency checks had created in impression that the third-edition designers worked to avoid. In both systems, skills seemed like a requirement to attempt many tasks, so characters needed gemcutting skill to even attempt a radiant cut. That adds up. On the other hand, surely anyone could attempt bargaining and gambling, yet D&D’s original skill checks only applied to characters with a skill.

D&D’s new d20 core mechanic meant that skills expanded to include actions characters actually did in the game. For instance, rogues got skills rather than a private table listing their chance of hiding and picking pockets. “D&D was still a class based game, but the idea that you were not a thief, so you can’t climb and you can never climb, didn’t really hold a lot of water.” The system allowed any character to attempt to hide and climb. Unskilled characters just suffered worse odds of success. Good luck with the gemcutting.

By fourth edition the games designers worked hard to reach Gary Gygax’s ideal of teamwork—but only during combat. On the battlefield, each character class served a distinct role like striker and defender. For tasks outside combat, the designers contrived a skill challenge system aimed at ensuring that every character gained an equal chance to contribute.

During fifth edition’s design, the D&D designers planned to sideline skills in favor of simple ability checks. “We’re making skills completely optional,” lead designer Mike Mearls wrote. “They are a rules module that combines the 3E and 4E systems that DMs can integrate into their game if they so desire.”

But playtesters liked the depth that skills gave characters. Also finessing the game’s math so it played equally well with or without skill bonuses doubtless proved troublesome. So skills stayed part of the D&D core. The designers still chose to rename skill checks as ability checks. This further avoids from the implication that characters need a skill to attempt certain tasks. Without formal skill challenges, fifth edition allows characters with particular skills to shine more as individuals who bring special talents to contribute to the team.

And in the end, no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

If a Mind Flayer Fed on D&D Characters’ Brains, It Would Go Hungry. Should PC Intelligence Matter?

Tue, 04/20/2021 - 11:00

In modern Dungeons & Dragons games, intelligence vies with strength as the most common stat where players dump their characters’ lowest ability score. Of classes in the Player’s Handbook , only wizard requires intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. And unlike in earlier editions, high intelligence no longer brings more skills or even languages. Am I the only dungeon master who spots a mind flayer in an adventure, realizes that only a wizard can make an intelligence save against a psionic blast, and feels a shameful excitement? We DMs rarely get a chance to stir panic by exploiting a weakness the players chose for themselves.

In original D&D, intelligence brought even fewer benefits than in the modern game. The rules lacked intelligence saves and checks.  Magic users needed the stat, but otherwise smart characters only gained languages. Still, at some tables, low-intelligence characters came with a steep penalty.

The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson chronicles how after the release of D&D in 1974, discussion brought roleplaying from a single, revolutionary game to a mature hobby. The discourse started in fanzines like Alarums & Excursions and spread to magazines like Different Worlds, which treated roleplaying as a new art. The book shows how many seemingly modern controversies about styles of play actually date back to 1975 or so. For instance, gamers have argued about whether game masters should favor storytelling over impartiality almost since the first mention of D&D in a mimeographed zine.

One debate described in The Elusive Shift  seldom reappears now. It stems from the original D&D rules and this line: “Intelligence will also affect referees’ decisions as to whether or not certain actions would be taken.” In other words, dungeon masters could bar low-intelligence characters from taking clever actions dreamed up by a smart player.

The implications of intelligence go two ways. In 1975, Lee Gold wrote that when a player proposed an action too rash for a wise character or too dumb for a smart character, “a dungeon master should legitimately overrule a person’s call for his character.”

Especially in the days of roleplaying, when everyone generated characters randomly, many gamers saw playing low intelligence or low wisdom as both a penalty and as a demonstration of roleplaying skill.

In Alarums & Excursions issue 13 (1976), Nicolai Shapero wrote, “If I have a character with an intelligence of 6, and a wisdom of 8, I refuse to run him the same as an 18 intelligence 18 wisdom character. This has cost me characters…it hurts, every now and then.” However, he insisted that “it is a far more honest way of playing.”

Some gamers wondered if the players who ignored their character’s intelligence even counted as roleplayers. Did such gamers just play a game of puzzle-solving and battle tactics? Meanwhile, the gamers who favored tests of skill preferred games where players needed all their own wits to survive.

Nowadays, some players enjoy playing a low-wisdom character as someone who ignores signs of trouble and takes risks. Such recklessness leads to a more exciting game. But few players enjoy stifling their own ingenuity to play a lower intelligence. To be fair, the intelligence of a modern D&D character typically bottoms out at 8, just below average, but I suspect most D&D players are far more clever.

How do you roleplay intelligence and wisdom?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Dungeon Mapper: From Half of D&D to a Forgotten Role

Tue, 04/13/2021 - 11:57

In 1977, when I found the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, I noticed that the dwarf description included a lot of fluff: stocky bodies, long beards, and an ability to detect slanting passages, shifting walls and new construction. I figured the slanting-and-shifting thing would never affect the game unless some dwarf skipped adventuring for a safer job as a building inspector. “Your rolling-boulder ramp isn’t up to code. Someone might not trip.”

Years later, I realized the dwarven fluff actually helped players draw the accurate maps needed to keep characters alive. Sloping floors and shifting walls made more than a nuisance. In the mega-dungeons of the era, greater threats prowled on lower levels, so tricks that lured characters too deep threatened their lives. Lost explorers deep in a sprawling multi-level dungeon could run out of resources before they got out. Originally, the spell find the path found an escape path.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle photographed in 2007 by Matt Bogen

In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. The original rules present mapping as half of the game. In the example of play, the referee—the title of dungeon master had not been coined yet—spends half the dialog reciting dimensions. The rules’ example of “Tricks and Traps” only lists slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to vex mappers. The text’s author, Gary Gygax, suggests freshening explored parts of the dungeon by adding monsters, but also through map “alterations with eraser and pencil, blocking passages, making new ones, dividing rooms, and filling in others.”

Despite the emphasis, many gamers found mapping less compelling. By 1976, the first D&D module Palace of the Vampire Queen included players’ maps to spare explorers the chore of transcribing dimensions. By fourth edition, labyrinths had changed from mapping challenges into skill challenges. Such mazes were no more fun, but they saved graph paper.

Today, only players who play D&D in an older style draw their own maps as they explore a dungeon.

Did anyone ever think translating distances to graph paper added fun? Or was mapping another way to thwart players who tried to steal the quasi-adversarial referee’s treasure. (In that original example of play, the Caller finds hidden loot, and the Referee responds by “cursing the thoroughness of the Caller.” Rules question: Must the Referee curse aloud or can he just twirl his mustache?

Blackmoor scholar Daniel H. Boggs describes mapping’s appeal. “If the DM is running the game with a proper amount of mystery, then mapping is one of the joys of dungeon exploring. In my experience, there is usually at least one person in the group who is good at it, and it is lots of fun to see your friends pouring over maps trying to figure out where to go or where some secret might be.”

In 1974, D&D seemed so fresh and intoxicating that even duties like mapping found love—just less love than the game’s best parts. Then, exploring a hidden version of the game board seemed revolutionary. Even the wargames that relied on umpires to hide enemies from opposing players let everyone see the terrain—and only a tiny community of enthusiasts played such games. In 1975, when Tunnels & Trolls creator Ken St. Andre attempted to explain dungeoneering to potential players, he could only reach for a slight match. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon. He tells the players what they see and observe around them.”

As fans of competitive games, D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax relished tests of player skill more than many D&D players do now. To the explorers of the mega-dungeons under Blackmoor and Greyhawk, map making became proof of dungeoneering mastery. In the game’s infancy, different groups of players mounted expeditions as often as Dave and Gary could spare them time. Separate groups might compile maps and keep them from rivals.

While recommending slanting passages and sinking rooms, Gary seemed to relish any chance to frustrate mappers. Describing a one-way teleporter, he crows that “the poor dupes” will never notice the relocation. “This is sure-fire fits for map makers.”

Dave favored fewer tricks. Daniel Boggs writes, “Arneson would actually help map for the players by drawing sketches of what players could see in difficult to describe rooms.” In early 1973, Dave Megarry, a player in the Blackmoor campaign and designer of the Dungeon! board game, mapped much of Blackmoor dungeon during play. Megarry’s maps proved more accurate than the versions published in The First Fantasy Campaign (1980), a snapshot of Arneson’s Blackmoor game.

Still, Dave Arneson expected players to show mapping skill and deal with setbacks. In a 2009 post on the ODD74 forum, he wrote, “A referee ‘happy moment’ was when the mapper was killed and the map lost. ‘OK guys now where are you going?’ What followed was 15 minutes of hilarious, to me, fun. A non-player character gave them a general direction. Another was when the mapper died and the players couldn’t figure out how to read the map. Again an NPC saved them.”

“In terms of tricks, Arneson primarily relied on complexity,” Boggs writes. Despite ranking as the first dungeon ever, Blackmoor includes rare vertical twists. “The combination of connecting shafts, pits, elevators, and literally hundreds of stairs across levels is just astounding. There is also the fact that the dungeon is segmented, so portions of certain levels could only be accessed by stairs on other levels or via secret doors. Secret doors abound in Blackmoor dungeon and most of Arneson’s dungeons.”

Nowadays, the task of transcribing explored rooms and halls to graph paper lacks its original novelty, but turning unexplored space into a map brings as much satisfaction as ever. Sometimes as my players explore, I draw the map for them on a grid. For some sessions, I bring a dungeon map hidden by scraps of paper fastened with removable tape. Players can become so eager to reveal rooms that they vie for the privilege of peeling away the concealment. While running Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I loaded the maps on a tablet and concealed them under an erasable layer. All these techniques eliminated the chore of mapping for the pure fun of discovery.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Steal This Rule: Numenera and XP for Discovery

Tue, 04/06/2021 - 12:17

By popular reckoning, the original Dungeons & Dragons play style centered on killing monsters and taking their loot. But D&D’s experience rules focused less on killing than folks think. The monster and treasure tables provided as much as three times as many XP for gold as for slaying. Savvy players learned to snatch treasure without a fight. Their characters lived longer that way.

Still, gamers criticized the rule for awarding experience for gold as unrealistic. For example, in the original Arduin Grimoire (1977), Dave Hargrave wrote that in his campaign experience “points are given for many reasons, but NOT for gold or other treasure. After all, it is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience.” The second-edition designers agreed, because they removed XP-for-gold from D&D.

But D&D co-creator Gary Gygax never aimed for realism. He intended to reward players with XP and levels for doing the things that made D&D fun—for exploring dungeons and for taking risks when surely the Oerth merchant trade promised wealth with no chance of a painful death in some murder pit. D&D’s third-edition designer Monte Cook gets the point. He writes, “I’m a firm believer in awarding players experience points for the thing you expect them to do in the game. Experience points are the reward pellets players get. Give the players XP for doing a thing and that thing is what they’ll do.”

Over time, D&D players started spinning stories about topics other than that time we killed a troll for gold. Originally, every character chased treasure; now, characters pursue adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure. For this sort of campaign, the classic awards of XP for gold and XP for slaying both fall short. In Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling, I suggest awarding XP for overcoming obstacles, but during D&D’s exploration pillar, the obstacles often miss the point.

If a party finds a secret door to the magic fountain, should they earn less XP than the party that killed the monsters guarding the obvious route? If obstacles bring rewards, then the party who finds the secret misses XP. If discoveries win points, then both groups gain for finding the fountain, and perhaps the observant party gains for finding the secret way.

Discovery is the soul of Monte Cook’s Numenera roleplaying game, so the game awards XP for discoveries rather than for overcoming challenges or killing foes. In D&D, similar awards can spotlight the goal of exploration: discovery.

For investigation and exploration adventures, the obstacles come from a lack of information. Reward the party for the discoveries they make.

To reward explorers for discovery, get a copy of your map and highlight the features to find: magic fountains, hidden shrines, magic items, keys, maps, hidden passages, and clues to the prince’s disappearance. Divide the number of XP characters need to level by the number of discoveries you hope they make before advancing. Then mark each discovery with the point award it brings. (See Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling for a helpful table of points.) If you like precision, adjust the points so bigger discoveries bring bigger rewards. Optionally, you can mark obstacles the group must overcome and include them with the discoveries. Some gamers favor calling D&D’s exploration pillar its discovery pillar instead. This XP method fits that notion perfectly.

Flashing back to 1973, perhaps Gary should have chosen this XP system for his dungeon-crawling game. How would that small change have shaped the way we played?

Related: XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas. Now the Designers Don’t See the Point

Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to Build a D&D Cleric Who’s Super Fun in a Fight

Tue, 03/30/2021 - 11:00

In Dungeon & Dragons, clerics suffer from a reputation as the dull class that folks dutifully play to support the party. Forget that. In fifth-edition D&D, clerics can enter a fight like a tornado, damaging every foe around them, dodging blows, and attacking, all in the same turn.

Plus, their faith gives clerics a ready-made hook for playing the sort of big personalities that make roleplaying fun.

At level 5, D&D classes leap in power. Martial classes typically gain an extra attack, potentially doubling their damage dealing. Monks gain Stunning Strike. Wizards and Sorcerers gain fireball, which delivers 5th-level power for a 3rd-level slot. Bards and Warlocks gain hypnotic pattern, a spell that turns fights into beatdowns. (See How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve.) The 3rd-level spell that lifts clerics in power lacks the flash of fireball or hypnotic pattern, but it makes clerics more fun in a fight.

Spirit guardians summons spirits that surround you to 15 feet and that damage enemies who enter or start their turn in that sphere. Spirit guardians rates as one of the most efficient spells to up-cast with a higher-level slot. I played a cleric to 20th level and loved casting spirit guardians at 8th or even 9th level to deal 8d8 or 9d8 damage to any foes near me. Clerics on the move take their 15-foot sphere of divine fury across the battlefield, forcing more foes into the destruction. If the party ever gains boots of speed, give them to the cleric!

Spirit guardians suffers from an obvious drawback and an overlooked one. Obviously, the spell requires concentration while encouraging clerics to go into the thick of a fight. Also, the spell requires clerics to see allies to exempt them from the guardians. That means invisible allies or even friends around the corner can’t be spared.

Tactics

Starting at 5th level, the fun battlefield cleric starts combat by casting spirit guardians and moving into the thick of battle. On turn two, cast your favorite combat cantrip—or just dodge—plus cast spiritual weapon for another strike, and then keep moving to include the biggest groups of foes in your radiant doom.

Ability scores

To build a cleric, make Wisdom your highest score, followed by Constitution. Choose an odd-numbered Constitution score. Traditionally, clerics rely on Strength, but a cleric’s cantrips can bring more damage than weapon attacks, especially with the Blessed Strike option in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Only domains that grant heavy armor proficiency might actually benefit from Strength. A 13 Strength enables you to wear an affordable suit of chainmail without losing speed. A 15 Strength enables you to wear plate without slowing. Low strength dwarves can wear heavy armor without losing speed, so ironically the D&D rules reward creating agile, pencil-necked dwarves who defy their archetype. If your domain lacks heavy armor proficiency, choose Dexterity as your third highest score.

Why choose an odd Constitution score? Clerics surrounded by spirit guardians become an immediate target for attack. Through any damage, they must maintain concentration by making Constitution saves. The War Caster feat can help, but the Resilient (Constitution) feat proves better. If you start with a Constitution of 13, then taking Resilient (Constitution) before level 5 adds 1 to Constitution and helps your save about as much as War Caster. Then your save continues to improve with your proficiency bonus. If you play your cleric to high levels, you can add War Caster later.

Race

If your campaign uses the standard rules for ability scores in the Player’s Handbook, hill dwarves and variant humans make particularly good clerics. Wood elves also work well if you favor Dexterity and speed over Strength. If your campaign uses the custom origins from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and you prefer weapon attacks, pick a high elf and choose Booming Blade as your bonus cantrip. You can strike a foe, and then when they flee your spirit guardians, they take thunder damage. This combination works best with cleric domains such as life and tempest that grant the Divine Strike feature.

Domain

The forge and tempest cleric domains excel for clerics capable of fun battlefield fury. Both domains grant heavy armor proficiency.

Forge. The forge cleric brings improved AC to heavy armor and the 1st-level searing smite spell powers weapon attacks until you gain better spells to concentrate on. Opt for Strength over Dexterity. At level 7, you get the underrated wall of fire spell. Sadly though, wall of fire also competes for concentration.

Tempest. Once tempest clerics cast spirit guardians and become a target, they can use Wrath of the Storm to heap punishment on foes who hit back. Plus, the spell thunderwave and the Thunderbolt Strike feature both let you push away creatures so you can move freely around the battlefield. The tempest domain makes a flavorful combination with that high elf who makes attacks backed by the booming blade cantrip.

Other domains gain some versatility while remaining especially fun in a fight.

Life. Choose a life cleric to gain the durability of heavy armor while becoming the best healer in the game. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything adds the aura of vitality spell to the cleric list. This domain gives that spell game-breaking power. (See The 7 Supreme D&D Character Builds for One Thing.)

Light. Choose the light domain if your notion of fun in a fight includes blasting things with fireball. For a light cleric, opt for a high Dexterity and ignore Strength.

Essential spells

Cantrips. Select guidance. Forge, tempest, and other clerics who favor weapon attacks should prepare sacred flame for the undead-slaying potency of radiant damage. Clerics who rely on damaging cantrips should choose toll the dead for maximum damage—unless you roleplay your light or life domain cleric as someone loyal to their ideals. (If you’re not a grave domain cleric, you can still prepare toll the dead, but you should feel bad about it.)

1st level. Prepare healing word to heal without slowing your attack. Add guiding bolt for attacks at range. Before 5th level, prepare bless. Once you reach 5th level, spirit guardians becomes a better spell to concentrate on.

2nd level. Prepare spiritual weapon. Aid makes one of the game’s best spells to cast using a higher-level slot. Although silence requires concentration, prepare it. Silence hinders enemy spellcasters, stops guards from calling for help, and lets you chop through doors without announcing your location.

3rd level. Prepare spirit guardians, mass healing word, and revivify. Invest 300 gp in diamond dust for revivify’s components. You may rarely cast revivify, but when you do, you become party MVP.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to Improve Your D&D Game by Posing Difficult Dilemmas

Tue, 03/23/2021 - 11:14

As a game master, my favorite moments during session come when I sit idle as the players’ debate the tough choices open to their characters. Each option balances hope with a price. All the options lead to consequences that will spin the game in a different direction. Watching these discussions, I know the game world has come alive. No one tries to metagame what they’re supposed to do. Later, when those same players wonder what might have happened if they had chosen the other path, I bask in that moment.

If players just wanted to follow a story, they could have read a book. In role-playing games, much of the players’ fun comes from making choices and then experiencing the consequences as the game spins into a new direction. A hard choice lets players reveal their characters, reminds players that they control their characters’ fates, and turns the game world into a vibrant place that reacts and changes.

Occasionally tough choices spring naturally from the twists of your game, but you can plan your game to pose more dilemmas for players.

What makes a good dilemma?

Dilemmas have consequences

Much of the fun of making game choices comes from seeing the effects. If the adventurers get a call for help from a fishing town threatened by raiders, the hard choice comes when they learn of a far more lucrative job: The cunning Lady Redblade wants a magical curiosity retrieved before her rivals can snatch it. When the curiosity proves to be a dangerous artifact, the hard choice comes when the players must decide whether to hand it over. Every GM can tell such choices matter, but the consequences must ripple into the game. If the players spurn the town, it burns (even if you prepared for a rescue session). If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies (even if your plot assumed she would remain an ally). If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Still, consequences don’t make a good game. If you put a dracolich behind door number 1 and a pile of +5 swords behind door 2, you just offered a choice with consequences. But your players will still drop out of your crummy game.

Dilemmas require information

If you play Dungeons & Dragons long enough, you hear of a Monty Haul dungeon master who loads treasure on players. The name comes from the Monty Hall, host of a game show called Let’s Make a Deal. He handed out so much treasure that every bumblebee and Raggedy Ann left his studio with a vorpal sword. Sometimes, Monty offered contestants a choice of whatever lay behind three doors that concealed prizes ranging from a toilet plunger to a Chrysler Cordoba. Guess a door makes a dull decision, but Monty’s game entertained by creating dilemmas.

After a contestant picked door 1, but before revealing its prize, Monty would pull out wad of cash and count off bills that he offered in exchange for the unseen prize. Now players faced a dilemma.

Interesting choices start with information.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, the choice only merits a coin flip. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the thief a favor. Now the choice becomes interesting. Players can expect their choice to take the adventure on a different spin.

Menus of choices like these let players reveal their characters or steer the game toward their own preferences. I like offering such options near the end of each game session so I can prepare for the road ahead.

Dilemmas defy correct answers

Sorry Monty, but choices with one right answer don’t count as dilemmas.

Such choices might serve as puzzles. Suppose the PCs want to pursue the Dread Baron, but wonder whether to follow the low road or the high road. If they see he left his fur boots in his tower or if they find an invitation from Auntie Boil tied to a bird in the rookery, then they know which road to take.

Puzzles like this enhance your game, especially if you occasionally allow the players to miss the clues. Virtually every adventure spins clues and other leads into the threads that draw players along. But such clear answers only offer a choice between continuing the adventure or dropping out. If players know which road to take, they gain no sense of freedom.

In a dilemma, every option brings a price

In the choice between the high road and the low road, each option brings a price: The high road means calling a giant’s dept and hoping a he will honor it; the low road requires some wicked deed.

“To craft a good dilemma,” Wolfgang Baur advises, “Don’t give the players any good options.” (See “Dungeoncraft – Temptations and Dilemmas” in Dungeon issue 148.)

Clever players may still find good options—players relish the chance to crack an unsolvable problem, but you don’t need to hand them a solution. And definitely don’t hand them a fight. Usually, a good dilemma puts PCs between forces too strong for an assault. If you make Auntie Boil or those giants look like a problem that just needs a few smacks with a warhammer, you created skirmish rather than a dilemma.

Creating dilemmas

The limits of loyalty and time can easily create dilemmas for players.

As player characters gain in renown, powerful non-player characters will begin to request or demand their loyalty. If Lady Redblade and the Master of Eyes both want the players to retrieve the same magical curiosity, then the players choose more than an ally—they choose an enemy.

The limit of time can create many torturous dilemmas. The players must understand that accepting Lady Redblade’s job means risking that besieged town.

We DMs tend to offer quests with no particular urgency. This spares us from having to rework a mission because the game world moved on. The fishing town perpetually waits on the verge of doom until the players arrive to save it.

Sometimes though, time must force the players to choose which fires to fight. This does more than test the players. Such dilemmas make the game world seem like a dynamic place that moves and changes even when the PCs turn away.

Let’s Make a Deal

Suppose you know that the paladin in the party would never spurn the townsfolk for Lady Redblade’s bounty. Now you can play Let’s Make a Deal. The heart of Monty’s game came when he started counting off the hundred-dollar bills that he would exchange for whatever prize lay behind door number 3.

For the paladin’s help, the Lady can offer that magic sword he covets. “So armed, imagine the good you could do.” If she offers to send her own men to aid the town, will the party take her job? After closing a deal, what happens when the party learns that the man assigned to rescue the town is corrupt and possibly incompetent? Do you betray the Lady and your word, or do your leave the townsfolk to their uncertain fate?

Let players feel powerful sometimes

Don’t turn every decision into test of the characters’ limits. A few tough choices add to the game, but people also play to feel powerful enough to sweep away trouble with an stroke of the blade and a fireball. Read the mood of your players.

Still, even if you work to put players in dilemmas, hard choices can be hard to create. That’s what makes them so delicious.

Related: Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing
Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books

Tue, 03/16/2021 - 11:07

The prior edition of Dungeons & Dragons, its fourth, welcomed too many players with a feel-bad moment. Eager new players would join a table with a character built from their new copy of their Player’s Handbook and learn the character was unplayable—full of errors created by fourth edition’s errata. The potential message: Your character is bad and you can’t use the book you just bought without embarrassing yourself.

The fourth-edition team strived to get rules right the first time, but they faced a relentless publishing schedule focused on releasing as many hardcovers as the market would bear, all packed with character options. To fix the inevitable missteps, the designers relied on players able to download errata. The game’s business strategy centered on online subscriptions to D&D Insider, so the finished rules existed on the internet, while the books attracted completists and folks who enjoyed reading the latest D&D lore from a comfy chair.

For fifth edition, the D&D team completely reverses this strategy, striving to avoid any changes that contradict text in print. In newer printings, wording gets an occasional change for clarity, but the game’s mechanics remain virtually unchanged. Surely this stability accounts for a measure of the newest edition’s success in winning new players.

To perfect new content before it reaches print, the D&D team relies on a slower release schedule and on letting players preview and test new game elements as Unearthed Arcana. Only the rare overpowered features that prove game breaking get tweaks. While the D&D team avoids errata, they feel comfortable assuming that players and dungeon masters can ignore feats, spells, and archetypes that don’t suit their game. If we find some spells annoying, then we can skip them.

Still, the D&D designers see the game’s flaws. The 12th printing of the fifth-edition Player’s Handbook includes some corrections. On rare occasions, the designers feel compelled to make functional changes to printed rules. For example, errata to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything changes the healing spirit spell from game altering to adequate.

Newer D&D books give the D&D team chances to improve on the Player’s Handbook without actually invalidating anything. Mainly the new books offer options that improve on the original versions. Players can still opt for the original, but the newer alternatives rank as stronger, easier, or just as a more flavorful realization of an archetype. So Xanathar’s Guide To Everything revisits the rules for downtime with a more evolved take, and Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything includes new beast master companions that strengthen the ranger archetype.

During the typical edition cycle of a roleplaying game, years of play expose flaws, while new supplements build a complexity that rewards obsessed players while deterring newcomers. But the D&D team’s careful release strategy has let the game attract new players when most RPGs—including past D&D editions—introduce a new edition. The rules foundation of fifth edition remains strong enough that even an enthusiast like me just names a couple of feats as the worst thing in the game. New editions fuel a surge of sales as a game’s existing fans replace their books, but they also lose players who choose not to leave their experience and old books behind.

Given the success of fifth edition, I suspect the D&D team would feel content keeping the lightly-edited Player’s Handbook in print for years to come. However, I predict that one change in emphasis will lead to a quicker revision. In an article on diversity, the team writes that in the six years since fifth edition’s release “making D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible has moved to the forefront of our priorities.”

This new emphasis shows in Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything and the book’s options for customizing characters.

The original, 1974 D&D game avoided linking ability scores to a character’s race. Nearly 5 years later the game’s Advanced version added ability score penalties and bonuses for elves, dwarves, halflings, and half orcs. This change reinforced fantasy archetypes, but it also limited player freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes. Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. Sure, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are imaginary species, but they become relatable reflections of us in the game world. After all, imaginary halflings, I mean hobbits, just started as Tolkien’s stand-ins for ordinary folks.

Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything offers an alternative to ability score modifiers. “If you’d like your character to follow their own path, you may ignore your Ability Score Increase trait and assign ability score increases tailored to your character.” In a post previewing the change, the D&D team writes, “This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.”

The old approach to races in the Player’s Handbook hinders the book as a welcome to D&D. I predict that by the end of 2022, Wizards of the Coast will release of new version of the Player’s Handbook that revisits the old ability score adjustments in favor of the more flexible version. To be clear, this will not represent a 6th edition, but merely a better welcome to the existing game. That book will join revised versions of the other core books by swapping some of the original elements of the edition with the improved alternatives that appeared in more recent books. Meanwhile, the revisited Monster Manual will make some of our more fearsome reflections in the game world clearly “as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.” After all, isn’t that freedom to decide a lot of the reason we love D&D?

Related: 3 Posts that Need Updates Thanks to Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How To Adjust Combat Difficulty on the Fly Using the Magic of Roleplaying

Tue, 03/09/2021 - 13:10

In Sly Flourish’s DM Deep Dive, Mike Shea explains how he adjusts encounter difficulty. “I don’t fudge dice, but I fudge everything else. A die roll is a die roll. That’s sacrosanct. But everything else around it is malleable.” This leads Mike to change things like the monsters’ hit points and damage numbers. The Dungeons & Dragons rules grant dungeon masters this freedom. The range of possibilities created by, say, a deathlock’s 8d8 hit points ranges from 8 to 64. DMs can choose the average of 36 hp or opt for another value.

I favor tweaking the numbers before the fight. This gains the minor benefit of letting me describe creatures as frailer or stouter than normal. I often dial up hit points for leaders, solo monsters, and other obvious targets for focused fire. In an encounter where a deathlock spellcaster leads a horde of lesser undead, the caster becomes an obvious target for focused fire and probably needs all 64 hp to live to cast a second spell. Some monsters need a damage boost to pose a threat. For example, gargoyles deal such feeble damage compared to their toughness that they turn fights into chores. My gargoyles may deal max damage rather than average damage.

Mainly, I refrain from changing the numbers during a fight. This helps me avoid the temptation to steer the game to suit my plans and expectations. Instead, the players’ actions and the dice guide the narrative. Sometimes during a battle I lower hit points to bring a battle to a quicker end, but by then the outcome is settled. Does this self-imposed restriction lead to more fun? Perhaps only for me. Players typically never learn whether adjustments came before or during combat.

In the Deep Dive, Mike Shea and his guest Ryan Servis mention a powerful way to adjust difficulty on the fly. Have the foes make better or worse tactical decisions—usually worse. Most often this means holding back a big attack or spell when using it could destroy the party. Sometimes it means changing targets instead of finishing a character, or focusing fire on an armored paladin or stout barbarian able take the blows.

Most DMs base some of a creature’s tactics on one roleplaying factor: the creature’s intelligence. They use smarter tactics with brainier monsters. DMs seldom dial up difficulty by playing low-intelligence creatures with cunning, but often this makes sense. Even beasts instinctively know to use their fighting traits in dangerous ways. Wolves gang up on the weak. Rats duck and cover. Tyrannosauruses bite before they swallow.

The most room to adjust difficulty comes from letting smart foes make weak tactical choices. Such poor choices can stem from roleplaying. In stories, villains frequently make bad decision, often because of the same character flaws that led them to evil. Their rage drives them to focus attacks on the wrong target. Their overconfidence leads them to save a devastating spell. Their sadism makes them leave a foe to suffer rather than dealing a killing blow. Their cowardice tempts them to run when they could have won. Their arrogance leads them to tell their henchmen to finish killing an apparently defeated party. A villain’s hubris can change a total-party kill into a second chance for victory.

In a battle scenes, bringing out such character flaws add a dimension to a villain while they explain the poor choices that spare the heroes. Still, you rarely need an explanation. Ryan Servis says, “The players never complain when the enemy makes a bad decision, but if you admitted to your players that you were fudging dice, they would all be upset.” Players rarely track all a monster’s abilities, so they seldom notice those fatal errors.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

To Find the Fun in Traps, Did D&D Miss the Search Check?

Tue, 03/02/2021 - 12:45

Traps add fun to Dungeons & Dragons when players can (a) make choices that help uncover them or (b) interact with them. Interaction includes crawling to evade scything blades or stuffing the mouth of the green dragon statue to block a jet of poison gas. Fun interaction favors discovery over die rolls and certainly doesn’t include just subtracting damage from hit points.

The standard routine for traps in fifth edition skips all the entertainment. The game’s example goes like this: A character’s passive perception reveals a trap, then a player rolls a Intelligence (Investigation) check to discover how the trap works, and then someone tries a Dexterity (Thieves’ Tools) check to disable the thing. This rote mostly dodges any potential fun. Passive perception just skips any engagement, and a trap’s discovery leads to zero choices. The only activity comes from die rolls. The only decisions come during character building. I daresay the procedure’s designer dislikes traps, but dutifully includes them based on D&D tradition.

Because the fun of traps comes from finding and interacting, dungeon masters can watch players evade them all and rate the session a success. Still, characters may overlook a few gotchas. Unnoticed traps that spring on characters serve three purposes:

  • To make careless and reckless choices lead to consequences.
  • To set a mood of peril.
  • To warn of more dangerous traps ahead.

For setting the mood and as a signal of more traps, the devices players do find work just as well. Even spent traps and their victims’ remains serve the purpose.

When players spot traps and use ingenuity to evade them, they gain the pleasure of figuring things out and feel clever. But even traps where the interaction goes wrong can prove fun. On the Mastering Dungeons podcast, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia says, “I recall an adventure that had a series of traps that were engaging enough that my party activated all of them after spotting all of them, and we were all laughing and having a great time. At one point a player found this pressure plate, and somehow, she concluded that this was the safe spot, so she jumped on it.” Later in the gauntlet, the group found a pit that dropped to a strange growth that hit the bottom, so someone dropped a torch to see. The growth was brown mold, which grows with fire.

The advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for running traps favors using passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to decide when characters notice traps. This advice aims to speed play by skipping time wasted looking for non-existent traps. But passive perception also loses the surprise and fun of rolling the dice. (See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.) Also, passive checks eliminate decisions that lead to uncovering traps, except for choices during character creation. Sure, no one wants a game slowed by fruitless checks for traps, but traps work best where players expect them—preferably past the spiked and burned corpses of previous explorers in dungeons with words like “horrors,” “death,” and “Tucker’s” in the name.

Passive perception can fill a role in a dungeon master’s trap game. Perception enables characters to notice things that simply require keen senses, such as a trip wire strung across a corridor. Passive perception can feel like a rule where the DM just chooses whether someone finds a trap. After all, the DMs who set DCs often know their group’s perception scores. But when only the characters at the front get close enough to spot traps, the choice of marching order factors into success. Sometimes the choice to light a torch also leads to success by eliminating the -5 penalty darkvision suffers in total darkness.

If someone observant leads and that character inevitably spots a trip wire, then the incident still sets a mood and signals more traps to come. Plus, players who chose the Observant feat feel rewarded for their choice.

Even the highest passive perception score falls short of trap radar. Totally concealed traps such as a pressure plate buried under dust require a search to uncover. For searching, choose Intelligence (Investigation) checks. Someone skilled at Investigation spots ordinary but significant details such as the residue around the gaping mouth of the dragon statue or the scratch left by the swing of scything blades. When players must ask for searches, they make the choice that a uncovers a trap. Plus, the roll for success adds the uncertainty that passive checks lack, and that roll adds surprise for the DM.

Traditionally, the D&D rules granted thieves and rogues a special knack for finding traps. Arcane tricksters aside, fifth edition’s rogue class fails to reward the Intelligence scores needed for skilled investigation or the Wisdom scores needed for keen perception. Not even the so-called Mastermind archetype requires brains. Even a rogue who chooses to pair Perception or Investigation with expertise will probably fall short. This makes either clerics or wizards best at finding traps, depending on how the DM runs the process of looking. (Hint: Wizards.) The rules for tool proficiency in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything help rogues meet expectations. Characters proficient in thieves’ tools gain advantage when they use Investigation or Perception to find traps. This amounts to a +5 to passive perception. Perhaps the thief can lead the marching order.

If I were to redesign a rogue class, I would consider more abilities that reward a high Intelligence. This would yield thieves more apt at spotting traps and spies more capable of investigation. Character optimizers call classes that require high scores in more than one attribute multi-ability dependent or MAD. Such requirements weaken classes a bit. Fortunately, MAD paladins bring power to spare. Sorry, MAD rangers. A hypothetical MAD rogue would get a small boost to compensate. My dream rogue would also become a capable backstabber, unlike the current version where daggers only rate as a strategy for players seeking the roleplaying challenge of playing an inferior character.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

9 Facts About the First D&D Module, Palace of the Vampire Queen

Tue, 02/23/2021 - 12:54

Before Curse of Strahd and Ravenloft came Palace of the Vampire Queen, a dungeon written by California gamers Pete and Judy Kerestan and distributed by TSR Hobbies.

1. Palace of the Vampire Queen may count as the first Dungeons & Dragons adventure module published, but only after a few disqualifications.

Book 3 of the original D&D game devoted two pages to a dungeon level, but the sample falls short of a complete dungeon. Supplement II Blackmoor (1975) includes Temple of the Frog, but that location plays as a Chainmail scenario rather than a dungeon. As Palace reached print in June 1976, Jennell Jaquays published Dungeoneer issue 1. The magazine including a dungeon called F’Chelrak’s Tomb. So Palace of the Vampire Queen rates as the first standalone D&D adventure in print.

2. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax thought no one would buy published dungeons, because dungeon masters could easily create their own.

The key to Palace makes dungeon creation seem trivial, so you can see Gary’s point. Each room appears as a row on a table with a monster quantity, a list of hit points, and a line describing the room’s contents. Anyone with enough imagination to play D&D could create similar content as quickly as they could type.

3. TSR Hobbies distributed Palace because they found success reselling blank character sheets from the same authors.

In February 1976, Strategic Review announced the Character Archaic, a set of character sheets for D&D and Empire of the Petal Throne.

4. Palace came as a collection of loose 8½ by 11 pages tucked into a black folder with a copyright notice taped inside the cover.

Adding to the low-budget feel, TSR fixed missing pages in some kits by adding Xerox-streaked duplicates from the office machine.

5. Most of the adventure’s text comes in a 1-page background.

The page tells of a beloved queen, slain by a vampire, and entombed on the dwarvish island of Baylor. She rises to bring terror to the night.

In addition to launching the standalone adventure, Palace gives D&D players their first shot at rescuing the princess. The vampire queen has abducted the king’s only daughter. “The people wait in fear at night. The king wanders his royal palace, so empty now without his only child. Neither the king nor his people have hope left that a hero or group of heroes will come to rid them of the Vampire Queen. For surely the Vampire Queen lies deep within the forbidding mountains, protected by her subjects, vengeful with hate for all truly living things and constantly thirsting for human blood on which to feed.

In the early days of the game, when players raided dungeons for treasure and the experience points it brought, this qualified as an unprecedented dose of plot.

6. Palace shows a dungeon designed before anyone worried about making things plausible.

Even though the dungeon’s background presents it as a tomb for a queen-turned-vampire, it features assorted monsters waiting in rooms to be killed. In any natural underground, the creatures would wander away for a meal. And the bandits in room 23 would search for a safer hideout near easier marks. And the Wizard selling magic items in room 10 would find a store with foot traffic that doesn’t creep or slither.

7. In 1976, nobody worried about dead characters much.

When someone opens a chest on level 2, a block drops and kills the PC and anyone else in a 3×6’ space. No damage rolls, no save—just dead. The dungeon’s threats escalate quickly. Level 2 includes orcs and a giant slug; level 5 includes 35 vampires and a balrog.

Despite these menaces, players in 1976 stood a better chance than they would now. The balrog was just a brute with 2 attacks and 41 hit points, not the modern balor with 262 hit points and a fire aura. Vampires suffered significant disadvantages: “Vampires cannot abide the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of cross. They will fall back from these if strongly presented.” Level 4 even includes a Garlic Garden so players can stock up.

When the players reach the vampire queen’s tomb, she flees their garlic and crosses, and tries to take the dwarf princess hostage.

8. In 1976, no one knew how to present a dungeon—or agreed on how to play the game.

The key sketches just the most essential information: a quantity of monsters, their treasure, and an occasional trick or trap. The text lists no stats other than hit points, but lists them as Max Damage. Apparently, D&D’s terminology remained unsettled. Back then, DMs rolled hit points, so pre-rolling counted as a time saver.

In one room, a PC can adopt a lynx kitten as a pet, which lets him “add 3 to his morale score.” D&D lacked morale rules for player characters, but in those days popular house rules spread though regions. Folks writing about D&D regularly confused their regional practices for canon.

Each level of the dungeon includes a keyed and unkeyed map. “The Dungeon Master may give or sell the player map to the players to speed game play.” Even in 1976, players saw mapping as a chore.

9. The dungeon master needed to work to bring the Palace to life.

Palace of the Vampire Queen isn’t called a “module” or “dungeon adventure,” but a “Dungeon Masters Kit.”

The authors realized that dungeon’s brief descriptions fell short of adventure. “Feel free to use your imagination for dialog or any extra details you feel would add to more exciting play. The kit itself is only a basic outline—you can make it a dramatic adventure.

The kit uses fewer words to describe 5 levels than some modern adventures lavish on a single room. Nevertheless, it presents some charming bits. On level 4, PCs find a petrified lammasu missing a jewel eye. Replacing the eye causes the creature to come to life as an ally.

On level 3, room 24 holds 3 sacks of sand. Room 25 says, “Sand alarm rings in room 26 when door is opened.” I searched the web for “sand alarm” to determine if it were some kind of widely-known trick, perhaps requiring a supply of sandbags. Finally, I realized room 26 holds a sound-making alarm.

One room holds an Invisible Chime of Opening. I have no clue how the PCs might find the thing unless they literally sweep the floor. Just for kicks, I would have put a broom in the room.

Just a couple of years after Palace of the Vampire Queen reached gamers, the D&D community forgot about it. But this first adventure showed Gary that adventure modules could attract buyers, so he rushed to publish the giant series.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Stop Favoring Perception for Searches in D&D

Tue, 02/16/2021 - 13:08

When Dungeons & Dragons characters search, what check should players make? Based on my experience playing with a hundred or so fifth-edition dungeon masters, most answer Wisdom (Perception). Nonetheless, many DMs ask for Intelligence (Investigation) checks instead.

So what character should search a door for traps? Based on the Dungeon Master’s Guide, pick the wise cleric. Based on the skill descriptions, pick the clever wizard. Based on tradition, pick the thief and—if you play fifth edition—run for cover because they can’t spot anything. Besides initiative checks, search checks rate as the second most common in the game, so you would think everyone would agree. We don’t.

All this uncertainty means that as a DM making a call for your table, you decide. I’m here to help.

Some players like to call for their own checks. A character enters a room and the player announces something like, “I use perception and roll a 17. What do I find?” Rolling a check that the DM didn’t request counts as a small lapse of table decorum. Only the DM decides whether a situation merits a check, whether the character can succeed, what check suits the circumstances, and which characters deserve the roll. If a player just announces such a check, say “First, tell me what you’re examining. Do you touch it?” That question grabs attention.

To complement Perception, D&D’s fifth-edition playtest included a Search skill. So during exploration, PCs “make a Wisdom (Perception) check to detect hidden creatures and an Intelligence (Search) check to detect hidden objects (such as traps and secret doors)”. This makes the difference between Perception and Search seem like noticing creatures versus spotting objects—surely not the intended distinction, and perhaps one source of confusion that led the designers to drop Search in favor of Investigation. At least everyone could agree to use Search for searching.

The game rules for Investigation explain, “When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check.” The bit about looking around for clues makes Investigation seem like a more useful superset of Search. Aside from treasure, clues rank as the most common thing for a search to uncover. Even traps only prove fun when players find clues to their presence. Falling down a pit: no fun. Investigating a puddle and finding an edge where the liquid meets a seam in the floor: fun.

For searches, opt for Intelligence (Investigation) checks. Investigators notice clues and uncover things outside of plain sight. Investigators know where to look, so they check under a drawer to find the envelope tucked in the joint. Most characters ignore the scuffs on a stone floor, but an investigator notices them because the marks show where the statue slides to reveal a trap door. Someone skilled at Investigation spots the ordinary but significant details that the keen-sensed barbarian overlooks because such details seem insignificant. Sometimes players know where to look too, so if a player asks to peer under drawers, they spot that letter.

In contrast, perception enables characters to notice things that simply require keen senses, for example the sounds of an invisible creature, the master rogue Waldo in a crowd, or the cat obscured by shadows. “Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses.” Perception can reveal the obscure, but it can’t expose something hidden from all the senses.

Many D&D fans, including me, tend to think of Investigation and searching as active in contrast to passive Perception. While this pattern frequently holds, don’t rely on it to distinguish the skills.

Such thinking leads players to make two checks to look around, one for percieving and one for investigating. Better to avoid such repetition. See How to Avoid Boring Rerolls of D&D’s Ability Checks. Players who make one check to find nothing in an empty room feel disappointed. Why invite a second, time-wasting check?

Freelance designer Teos “Alphasteam” Abadia explains how a distinction between active and inactive skills leads players to game the system. “Spycraft did that, with one skill for actively looking and another for possible noticing. It led to absurd behavior. You would enter an enemy camp, but state you were not looking around. That way, your better Notice skill would kick in.”

Sometimes the difference between Investigation and Perception blurs. Typically, when characters pause to examine and interact as they look, call for an Investigation check. This tends to reinforce the distinction of an investigator noticing the details in the mundane, plus it balances the value of the overvalued Wisdom (Perception) check with the undervalued Intelligence ability and Investigation skill.

D&D is a team game and when different character architypes skills and abilities contribute to a group’s success. By using the Intelligence ability and the Investigation skill, players who excel at those less pervasive knacks gain a chance to shine.

This approach amplifies the importance of not completely blocking a group’s progress with an Intelligence (Investigation) check. Fifth edition minimizes the value of the Intelligence ability so much that unless a party includes a Wizard, then no character may have a score higher than 10. In an essential investigation, give any required information, and then reward the sleuths with additional insights.

As for all those 8 and 10 Intelligence characters played by smart D&D players, they show the changing fashions of tabletop roleplaying. In the hobby’s early days of random ability scores, players who valued character immersion often felt obligated to play a low intelligence character as a knucklehead, complete with dangerously foolish decisions. Now, I rarely see such a commitment.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

To Run a Great Dungeon, Write All Over the Map

Tue, 02/09/2021 - 12:10

For running a dungeon, the familiar map with numbers sets dungeon masters up for trouble. Many times when characters enter a dungeon room, I turn to a room’s key, and then learn that the party just passed a trapped door. “Wait! You can’t go in yet because…no particular reason.” Other times, when dungeon expeditions recklessly make noise, I want to find any monsters that hear. After all, dungeons should feel like active places where dangers lurk and where actions bring consequences. I check the map, spot 10 or so nearby room numbers, and realize that paging through the adventure text would stall the game for minutes. So I wind up supposing the werebats next door failed to hear the thunderwave. I guess monsters can wear headphones. Meanwhile, a dog in the yard hears a bag of chips opening in the attic.

Really, as a tool for running a dungeon, the typical map with just numbered locations sucks. But DMs can easily improve maps and the process leaves you better prepared for adventure.

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

My best tip for running a great dungeon: Write all over the map.

This tradition of minimally-useful maps dates to the publication of Palace of the Vampire Queen and F’Chelrak’s Tomb. For 40-some years published adventures almost always include maps that suck. Designers should stop following a bad example. For a better example of useful dungeon maps, look to entries in the one-page-dungeon contest.

Meanwhile, few DMs considered improving their maps by marking up a brand new copy of, say, G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. In 1978 its $4.49 price amounted to $18 today. You couldn’t even mark a copy of the maps, which TSR printed in blue to thwart Xerox.

For published adventures, make a copy of dungeon map pages. For your own maps, either write on your original or save a clean copy. Then get out your colored pens and highlighters and mark the maps with the notes you need to run.

  • List monsters in their locations.
  • Mark traps and locked doors.
  • Circle areas where characters may hear or smell things in the dungeon like waterfalls, forges, unholy rituals, and so on.
  • If guards might call for reinforcements, mark the travel times between key locations.
  • Circle areas controlled by factions.

Time spent writing on the map doubles as preparation for running the adventure. If you mark enough, you can run direcly from the map.

Smaller map marked for adventure

Lacking a copier, I used sticky notes

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

D&D’s Advice for Dungeon Masters Offers Nothing on Running Dungeons

Tue, 02/09/2021 - 11:01

Even as a game with dungeons in the title, Dungeons & Dragons offers zero advice for dungeon masters aiming to run dungeons. The game provides plenty of help for the solo fun of sitting with a blank sheet of graph paper and designing dungeons, but nothing for sitting behind a DM screen across from players entering the underworld.

Seeking to fill this gap, I paged through a stack of guides and volumes of advice, many with titles like Dungeonscape and even just Dungeons. The dungeon-related content breaks down like this:

65% designing dungeons
35% exploring dungeons
0% running dungeons

To be fair, the 0% appears because I never counted D&D’s original volume 3, Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. That book includes Gary Gygax’s attempt to describe dungeon crawls in terms familiar to miniature-wargame grognards. So the explanation has parties taking turns marking inches of movement. Today, only groups seeking D&D’s roots attempt such formality.

Why so few tips for running the dungeon part of a dungeon adventure?

Partly, we givers of advice tend to suppose that dungeon masters already know how to master dungeons. After all, the game’s 3-step loop works underground. (1) Describe the situation. (2) Ask what the players want to do. (3) Resolve the action. Newcomers easily learn these 3 steps at the heart of roleplaying games, becoming players and potentially DMs. Beyond that, most advice for game masters works perfectly well underground.

Also, dungeon advice can prove situational. That original procedure with turns and movement works fine in a mythic underworld, but in other locations it amounts to tedium.

Still, when I started writing tips for running dungeons, and then asked for help from D&D fans on Twitter, I uncovered plenty of help specific to running secrets and challenges mapped on a sheet of graph paper. In a follow-up post, I reveal my favorite tip.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Improve Roleplaying Investigation Scenes With These 23 Reasons an NPC Won’t Cooperate

Tue, 02/02/2021 - 12:00

Roleplaying scenes prove most compelling when players start with a goal and face an obstacle to overcome. Even encounters with the most vivid and fascinating non-player characters fall flat without these two essential elements. When characters lack a goal and a dungeon master launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering they are supposed to do. When a scene lacks an obstacle, it bores. (See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure and Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.) So as a DM, when a roleplaying scene lacks a goal and an obstacle, either summarize the scene and move on, or add the goal or obstacle that the scene needs.

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

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

Just as the puzzles in a Dungeons & Dragons game have solutions, and locked doors have keys, NPCs can have keys of a sort too. Every NPC who stands unwilling to cooperate must have a reason for it. To unlock the NPC’s help, players must find ways to defuse or overcome the NPC’s objections.

If an NPC enters an interaction with a reason not to help the players, you should ultimately give the players enough clues to find a way past the objection.

The NPC may reveal the reason, but sometimes the players may need to figure it out for themselves. The key might not even be apparent on first meeting. If players learn something about a character that helps in a later meeting, then the world feels richer, the NPCs more vibrant, and the players cleverer.

To spark ideas and aid with improvisation, I created a list of potential reasons an NPC might have for refusing to cooperate with the player characters. Low-numbered items work best for ad-libbed objections from walk-on characters; they require less planning and fewer details about the NPC. Higher-numbered items work better when you have time to plan for your adventure’s most important NPCs.

Reasons non-player characters refuse to cooperate.

d100 Reason 01-05 Doesn’t want to get involved. 06-08 Doesn’t like your type. I recommend avoiding racism analogs in D&D games, so don’t select even a fantasy race or lineage as a type. Instead, choose a role like bards, adventurers, or meddling kids. 09-13 Doesn’t believe anyone can help. 14-19 Thinks the players will only make things worse and should leave well enough alone. 20-27 Wants something: a bribe, an errand done, or to be convinced that they stand to gain if the players succeed. 28-31 Was paid to keep silent or to stay out. 32-36 Insulted or offended by the players. 37-40 Thinks the players efforts are dangerous because they don’t understand what’s really going on. The NPC might know something the players don’t. 41-43 The players have unwittingly caused the NPC to suffer a loss. 44-46 Feels that helping the players will betray the NPC’s duties or obligations. 47-51 Needs more information to support the players case. 52-54 Knows or suspects that either the NPC or the players are watched. 55-57 Told not to help by someone the the NPC loves or respects. 58-60 Told not to cooperate by an authority. 61-65 Secretly involved with the other side. 66-70 The situation benefits the NPC, for example, by raising the value of the NPC’s trade goods, or by hurting competitors or rivals. 71-74 Fears the players might claim a treasure or reward that the NPC expects to get. 75-77 Is allied with rivals or competitors to the party. 78-82 Has been threatened. 83-87 Someone the NPC loves is threatened. 88-92 Someone the NPC loves is involved with the other side. 93-97 Not involved but might be implicated, perhaps for doing things that once seemed innocent. 98-00 Blackmailed for a misdeed unrelated to the players’ concerns.

When you play an uncooperative NPC, remember that the NPC may seem helpful. An uncooperative NPC can say all the right things while they lie or let the players down.

Still, I suggest feeding the players lies only when the deception leads to a new development. Lies that lead to false leads and dead ends will prove frustrating and un-fun. For example, the countess can lie and say than her hated rival stole the broach, but then the rival must reveal a new piece to a puzzle, perhaps a secret that the countess fought to hide.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Last Five GM’s Commandments Updated for Today

Tue, 01/26/2021 - 12:30

Back in 1987, Dragon magazine issue 122 published “The GM’s Ten Commandments: Ten dos and don’ts for game masters everywhere,” a list of tips that author Rig Volný likely wrote 35 years ago. In my last post, I updated the first 5 commandments into 5 tips for today. Can I update commandments 6-10 into exactly 5 more tips for a nice, round 10? That depends on they style of game you want, so don’t get the stone tablets yet. Roman numerals count off the original commandments; my updates appear in boxes.

VI. Try for consistency and realism.

The author of the 10 commandments writes, “If a fictional work has inconsistencies or is unrealistic, then it does not entertain the reader.”

If your magical Dungeons & Dragons world seems realistic, you might want to dial back the rats in basements in favor of fairies, giants, and vampires. Instead, game worlds aim for verisimilitude, the appearance of being true or real. Often this includes genre emulation where the game tries to stay true to its source material. So a comic book superhero game might include unrealistic rules that ensure heroes never die and villains always escape until a future issue. D&D aims to evoke the fantasy yarns from authors listed in the game’s Appendix N.

Verisimilitude makes suspension of disbelief easier and immersion deeper. Dungeon Mastering 4th Edition for Dummies (p.121) advises, “Imagination is fabrication, and like any good fabrication, it should be grounded in truth. The more things from the normal, mundane, everyday world are true in in your game world, the easier it is for your players to imagine.”

“Anything that doesn’t fit expectations and forces the players to reevaluate what they know about the game—or the setting where the game takes place—drags the players out of active visualization and lets their natural disbelief come rushing back in.”

Still, this commandment aims for another sort of realism.

6. Make the characters’ actions in the game world result in plausible effects.

This sort of realism lets players make decisions based on a shared understanding of the game world and feel confidence that the outcomes will make sense. Dungeon Mastering 4th Edition for Dummies (p.131) explains, “Players expect that their actions in the world result in logical consequences. DMs sometimes fall into the illogical consequences trap by sticking too closely to the script. If the person who designed the adventure had no idea that the characters might figure out a way to get into the vault right at the beginning, it’s tempting to just say ‘you can’t get in,’ or ‘the treasure isn’t here.’ But the better answer is to reward the player ingenuity and resourcefulness with the success they earned, even if that ‘breaks’ the adventure and causes you to do some fast thinking.”

Much of the shared understanding that leads to plausible outcomes stems more from genre emulation than from realism.

VII. Don’t let the players argue with the GM.

This commandment comes from an era when the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules lacked ability checks and many other tools that gamers now use to decide between success and failure. Instead, game masters relied on judging the odds and rolling a die, a loose process that left room for arguments.

The article suggests a way to avoid debate. “Explain why a decision is made. When the situation has been discussed and weighed out carefully, stick to it.”

This recommendation remains sound, though today, most disputes focus on rules rather than a GM’s rulings.

7. Never slow the action to quibble over the rules.

The Pathfinder second edition Gamemastery Guide (p.28) puts this best. “Often the best ruling is the one that keeps the game moving. Avoid getting so bogged down that it takes you several minutes to decide what ruling you’ll proceed with. Take what’s close enough and keep playing. If necessary, you can tell your group ‘This is how we’re playing it now, but we can have more discussion between sessions.’ This gets you back in the action, puts a clear stamp on the fact that this is your decision in the moment, and empowers you players with permission to express their opinions on the ruling at a later time. When in doubt, rule in favor of the player’s request and then review the situation later.”

VIII. Enforce statements.

This serves as the GM’s “no backsies” commandment. “When a player says his character tries something, that character tries it.” In 1987, many game tables enforced similar rules, mainly to get more thoughtful play from players who blurt out reckless or outrageous actions, before seeing horror in the other players’ faces and attempting to rewind. In those days, D&D tended toward a more lethal style. Rash actions could get imaginary people killed. Plus, the no-takebacks policy leads to faster, more intense games. It leads to a particular style of play.

An opposite extreme allows timeouts for side conversations and rewinds for better ideas. This leads to looser style where players aim to spin a yarn for some laughs. With this free style the potential for stalling and flip-flopping may frustrate players who just want to get on with the game.

Even for groups seeking and intense, immediate game, the “enforce statements” commandment suffers two faults: (1) the wording is unclear and (2) sometimes players ask for rash actions because they misunderstand the situation. Enforcing a no-takebacks rule means letting a character attempt something risky without knowing the odds, and that defies tip number 2.

Instead, for a similar game style, follow two guidelines.

8. Run the game as if what the players say in the real world reflects into the game world.

When players talk at the table, their characters in the game world communicate basically the same messages, though perhaps in different words. See How Much Talk at Your Game Table Reaches Into the Game World?. When a player blurts out, “He’s lying,” the character voices something similar. When players at the table exchange jokes and banter, characters in the game joke and banter.

9. Limit discussion on each player’s turn to questions for the game master and resolution of the character’s actions.

Players can still talk tactics between turns. Perhaps they can even call out things like, “Don’t stand there! I’m casting fireball.” (Although their foes will hear the same shouts.) This guideline leads players to focus on playing their own characters without telling the other players what to do. It limits the ability of players to suspend instants of combat to workshop tactics.

These two guidelines hardly rate as commandments. Game masters can treat them as dials and decide how much enforcement suits the moment. For example, before a particularly intense negotiation scene or dangerous showdown, allow planning, and then tell the players when the action goes live and table chatter ends.

IX. Encourage the players to play their characters.

“Roleplaying is acting. The GM is most successful when the players are the characters. Give out experience points for good roleplaying and let the other players know why that character is getting extra points.”

Acting the part of characters heightens the immediacy of roleplaying games. It leads players to immerse themselves to the game world. It dramatizes relationships between characters. For good roleplaying, fifth edition encourages DMs to award inspiration rather than XP. In my experience, inspiration alone seldom encourages acting, but I’ve heard tales of players who make a scene whenever they need fresh inspiration. Top that, Shamu!

To encourage players to act in character, demonstrate that style of interaction using tip number 5: Roleplay your supporting cast as if you are a player and each NPC is your character. Make your non-player characters come alive by portraying their tone, mannerism, and speaking patterns.

For more help promoting roleplaying, see Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.

X. Reward wit, quick thinking, and consistency.

“Experience points should be awarded whenever a player has successfully exercised his gray matter. Both rapid thinking and long-term strategy should be rewarded.”

Today, fewer game masters opt to award and have players track experience points. Even the game’s designers fail to see the point. In games that do feature XP, I recommend awarding points for overcoming obstacles, without judging ingenuity. (See Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling.) Instead, many DMs award inspiration for clever thinking, and that gives players a good feeling.

But rewarding wit and quick thinking goes beyond inspiration.

10. Welcome inventive solutions to problems, even when they don’t match the solutions you expected.

In Your Best Game Ever (p.161), Monte Cook writes, “When resolving actions, reward ingenuity even more than good die rolls or efficiently created characters. This means that for every challenge, there should be a straightforward solution and a not-so-straightforward one. It’s not your responsibility as the GM to come up with both. The players will come up with the not-so-straightforward solutions. You just have to be willing to go with their ideas.

“This doesn’t mean you have to let them succeed just because they try something you hadn’t thought of. On the contrary, the not-so-straightforward solution might end up being as hard or harder than the straightforward one. But you have to be ready to adjudicate the idea no matter what. If you don’t, and you shut down the players’ outside-the-box ideas, they will learn that the obvious solution is the only possible solution. Eventually, this will make for boring play because things will seem repetitive and too tightly structured.”

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Updating the 35-Year-Old GM’s Ten Commandments for Today

Tue, 01/19/2021 - 12:15

Back in 1987, Dragon magazine issue 122 published “The GM’s Ten Commandments: Ten dos and don’ts for game masters everywhere,” a list of tips that author Rig Volný likely wrote 35 years ago. Since then, play styles and advice for game masters have evolved. How well have the commandments stood the test of time? Roman numerals count off the original commandments; my updates appear in boxes.

I. Do not consider the players as adversaries.

The article explains, “In role-playing, the situation is not one of GM vs. players: It isn’t a fair fight.”

In 1987, many GMs framed players as adversaries. Now, everyone sees this as a bad mindset, but today’s advice goes farther.

1. Be a fan of the characters.

The Dungeon World (p.162) game recommends thinking of the players’ characters as protagonists in a story you enjoy. “Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.”

As a fan, GMs still get to test characters. In Your Best Game Ever (p.93), Monte Cook recommends game masters take this approach: “Have a playful attitude of, ‘I’m making this really challenging for you.’ This isn’t adversarial, just a way to—on a metagame level—inject a bit of tension into the game. When the PCs are victorious, the players will feel even greater satisfaction from believing that you were pushing them to their limits.”

II. Never say “You can’t do that.”

The original article cites two cases when a GM might make the mistake of telling players, “You can’t do that.”

  • When players want to attempt something very difficult or even impossible.
  • When players want to violate their characters’ alignment.

“The point of this commandment is that it gives the players a degree of control in the game—one that adds desirable unpredictability. This makes the GM ‘play’ the adventure rather than just direct a prewritten script.”

Sometimes as GMs, we imagine our games will follow a particular path, all according to our plans. Perhaps we devise a clever puzzle or challenge and want it to work so players can appreciate our ingenuity. Perhaps we lay twists for future sessions. Sometimes we favor a game that sticks to the comfort of familiar rules rather than one that strays into untested judgement calls. When the game veers from plan, we feel tempted to nudge or even wrench it back on course. Remember this temptation, because the GM’s 10 commandments will suggest ways to avoid succumbing.

When players try some stunt that might launch the game in an unexpected direction, let them. “If a player attempts a difficult task, have him make a difficult die roll.”

The article acknowledges that some tasks are impossible, and then suggests giving the player a clearly impossible die roll such as a 7 on 1d6 to avoid saying, “You can’t.”

Usually players who ask to attempt something impossible are confused by the situation in the game world. For example, they picture jumping a 3-foot wall when they actually face 25 feet of stone. Asking for a roll of 7 on a d6 just feels like mockery. Instead of this suggestion, substitute guidance inspired by my 4 Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break.

2. Whenever players attempt a difficult or risky task, make sure the players know the odds and the likely result of failure.

For impossible tasks, you can say, “You can’t.”

As for a character who violates a good alignment by attacking innocent people, the article suggests letting in-game consequences result. “Don’t tell him he just doesn’t do that sort of thing. Let the local constabulary enforce his conscience.”

In 1987, Dungeons & Dragons emphasized alignment as the one rule that limited a character’s behavior. Characters whose actions failed to match their alignment faced punishment. However, as long as characters remained true to their evil alignment, then torture and murder just rated as good roleplay. By the ethos of 1987, any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. Now, gamers focus more on how disruptive that sort of play can become.

3. Decide with your group about the sort of game everyone wishes to play and insist that players create characters that fit that game.

As a game master doing the heavy lifting, you deserve at least as much say as the players. If you want characters in your Curse of Strahd game to play do-gooders who help folks, rather than evil types seeking an alliance with Strahd, ask players to imagine characters who fit that campaign.

As a player, your first role-playing obligation is to imagine a character who can cooperate with the rest of the party to achieve the common goals of the game. (See A role-playing game player’s obligation.)

III. Don’t overplan.

“Overplanning prevents the GM from meeting the actions of the players with flexibility and interferes with spontaneous creativity.” This commandment circles back to avoiding the temptation to limit players to particular path. “If the GM prepares extensively for the players to do A, B, or C, and they do D instead, he is faced with the temptation to dismiss a good plan as irrelevant to play.”

The commandment still holds, but in The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea offers a more useful refinement.

4. Prepare what benefits your game, and omit what does not.

All GMs and groups are different, so what you need to prepare to run an RPG session varies. Mike’s Lazy Dungeon Master argues that most game masters benefit from less preparation rather than more, and then describes the steps most likely to benefit a session.

For me, preparation lets me reach past the “stereotyped situations” that I might improvise to find more evocative ideas. Lazy Dungeon Master (p.21) recognizes the same dynamic when it recommends preparing secrets for a session. “Sometimes thinking up ten secrets is hard. But as you wrack your brain for those final few, you’ll often come up with the most interesting ones. It sometimes takes great mental effort to dig deep into one’s mind and find the diamonds buried within.”

The article gives the example of a GM who spends 12 hours designing a dungeon lair just to see the players find a way to skip it. Dungeons rate as higher-prep scenarios. To avoid such wasted design, ask the players to outline their plans for your next session so you can prepare with more certainty.

IV. Keep adventures within reason.

This commandment recommends two types of restraint that seem unrelated to me.

  • “Don’t engage in stereotyped situations.”
  • “Don’t cheapen magic, gold, or fantastic creatures by making them too common.”

The article cites examples of the “stereotyped situations” that GMs should avoid, including ultimate battles between good and evil, one-dimensional characters, and totally evil bad guys. As a counterpoint, Dungeon Master 4th Edition for Dummies (p.54) advises, “Don’t be afraid to make your villains totally evil. The worse they are the more satisfying it will be for player characters to defeat them.” Games that avoid overused tropes can feel fresher, but this tip fails to merit a commandment.

The second limit seeks to avoid D&D’s classic problem of magical loot breaking the game. “When a beginning party starts to collect scores of magical items, the members begin to obtain a degree of strength that is often out of proportion with their level.” Thanks to item attunement and better guidance on treasure rewards, today’s D&D game does a better job of avoiding this trouble, even without a commandment. (See Too much magic kept breaking Dungeons & Dragons—how fifth edition fixes it and What is the typical amount of treasure awarded in a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign?.)

As for the bit about cheapening fantastic creatures by making them too common, tastes vary, but in most D&D worlds “monsters are everywhere.” The Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.9) gives advice for DMs who prefer to imagine worlds with rare monsters.

V. Run the adventures in color, not in black and white.

The article cites an example of boring play to avoid.

Player: We ask around to see if there’s a tavern in the town.
GM: There’s one a mile up the road.

Instead, the author recommends acting out the scene, complete with an accent for the NPC. In many situations, acting as an NPC creates a more vivid and dramatic game. Dungeon Master 4th Edition for Dummies (p.54) explains, “Whether an NPC serves as a walk-on or has a minor or major role in the story, play each one as an individual. Roleplay! Nothing makes an NPC come alive like roleplaying a key feature to give him or her personality and pizzazz. For major NPCs, such as the dastardly villain or the regal king who hires the adventurers, roleplay to the hilt. Even the lowliest kobold minions, though, really come alive if they have distinctive voices—even if all they ever say is, ‘I am slain!’ Ham it up, act it out, and make each character memorable in the scene.”

5. Roleplay your supporting cast as if you are a player and each NPC is your character.

The article’s example of getting directions leads me to a quibble: The example expands a two-line exchange between player and GM into inches of text, wasting time by exaggerating the importance of a minor moment. Because the GM gave the bystander so much attention, the players will keep talking, seeking the apparent importance in an inconsequential exchange.

Typically, an interaction without (1) a goal and (2) an obstacle only merits the sort of summary in the “boring” example. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure. If the bystander happens to have more backstory to share, you might drop into character for a more colorful delivery. For a full scene, introduce a minor obstacle for the players to overcome. “I really shouldn’t say. The sheriff doesn’t approve of adventurers. Not since that last bunch.” Now the players need to find a way to overcome the NPC’s reticence, and the information shared seems worthy of attention.

Next: Can I update commandments 6-10 into exactly 5 more tips? Check back next Tuesday.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

9 Best Collections of Inspirational Tables and Lists to Help DMs Create and Improvise

Tue, 01/12/2021 - 11:55

Never underestimate the value of a good list seeded with ideas or just evocative words. Inspirational tables include numbers for die rolls. I suspect the tables for traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws in the fifth edition Players Handbook developed more characters’ personalities, and therefor encouraged more role playing than anything in past Dungeons & Dragons history. And the table of trinkets on page 161 has probably been rolled against more than any other in the current game.

The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.” (For more on how M.T. Black creates, see his book The Anatomy of Adventure.)

Use the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity. I like to generate ideas by taking two notions that strike my interest, but that seem unrelated, and then inventing ways to put the two thoughts together. (See Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention and D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.) M.T. Black uses the same trick to create. “Some of my best adventures had their genesis through the amalgamation of two seemingly unrelated ideas. So very often in this business, the magic happens through an inspired combination.”

What’s the quickest source of random thoughts? Tables like ones for adventures starting on page 73 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide or for dungeons on page 292. You probably already have that book. Count it as number 10.

Random tables especially help give life to the parts of the game world that seem routine. Recently, I needed market square vendors colorful enough for roleplaying scenes. A few rolls on tables gave enough inspiration for me to imagine merchants that excited me.

For improvisation, random tables help me avoid the first thought that comes to mind—the thought process that lead to my introduction of a recurring NPC named Kendle Stick. Never again.

Books of this sort benefit from indexes that organize various tables. When I reference these documents from my tablet, I like hyperlinks from the lists of tables to the tables themselves. Alas, neither feature is common.

What are the best resources for DMs who want more inspiration than the Dungeon Master’s Guide can offer?

9. GM Gems: A Tome of Game Master Inspiration
$11.99. 84 pages.

GM Gems devotes most of its pages to creations like 6 memorable caravans (described in 3 pages) or 15 unusual holidays (spanning 5 pages). All these nuggets suggest adventure hooks and reward browsing. My favorite tables include Memorable NPC Frills and Empty Rooms Worth Describing. The list of smell words appeals to both writers and 8-year-olds.

Sample roll from Short Encounters for Short Attention Spans. 32: The party finds an enormous tome written in Draconic with the title “Indigestion: What Creatures to Avoid.”

8. The Mother of All Treasure Tables
$15.99. 162 Pages.

While I like the idea of giving characters unique and evocative loot rather than lists of coinage, the chore of imagining such hoards exhausts me. The authors of The Mother of All Treasure Tables did my homework. Tables inside list treasure parcels by values up to 50,000 gp and even epic treasure.

Sample roll from 50 Gold Pieces. 25: A wooden box [1 gp] is as long as a dagger but twice as wide, and is painted black. Inside you find a thin bed of red wax that is dimpled with dozens of small depressions. Five gems are pressed into the wax: an azurite, a piece of blue quartz, a chunk of lapis lazuli, a freshwater pearl and a moss agate [10 gp each]. [Total 51 gp]

7. 650 Fantasy City Encounter Seeds & Plots
Free. 65 pages.

This document features a single list of urban adventure seeds and scene ideas.

Sample roll. 599: The PCs come across a tavern where an artist is trying to trade one of his paintings for drinks. The painting is truly bad.

6. d30 Sandbox Companion
$4.95. 56 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

The d30 Sandbox Companion presents a way to improvise a wilderness, sandbox adventure using the rarely seen 30-sided die. (Hint: Ask your phone to roll.) Surely author Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr. ranks as the world biggest fan of the die that just won’t stop rolling. Some of the most useful tables describe NPCs, shops and shopkeepers, and name taverns.

Sample rolls from NPC Background, Eccentricities, and Talents. 30: Baker 21: father was a noble, had title stripped after “incident” 8: hates their life 29: whistles incessantly 24: talent for reading body language.

5. Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game
$16.95. 338 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

Masks presents 3 to 4 characters per page, with sub-headings for appearance, roleplaying, personality, motivation, and background. The book divides characters into sections for the fantasy, sci-fi, and modern genres. The index lets you find NPCs by traits like “Charming” and “Merchant.”

4. Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to inspire Game Masters
$16.95. 316 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

Eureka presents 2 adventure plots per page divided into sections for the fantasy, sci-fi, and modern genres. The index lets you find plots using tags like “Intrigue,” “Combat-heavy,” and “Betrayal.”

3. Dungeon Dozen
$8. 225 pages. Indexed.

Tables in Dungeon Dozen range from the useful ones (Also in Residence at the Inn and What’s on the Guard Monster’s Mind?) to gonzo (Occupants of the Colossal UFO Anchored to the Mountaintop). Everything seems evocative enough to supercharge your imagination.

Sample roll from Even the Doors are Weird. 5: Randomly opens and closes with damaging force.

2. Tome of Adventure Design
$12.60. 308 pages. Indexed.

The 400-something tables Tome of Adventure Design starts with help outlining adventure plots and villains, venture to dungeon tricks and decoration, and finish in cities and crossing planes.

Sample roll from Specific Tactical Situations. 77: Areas where spells have unusual effects; possibly weapons or movement also (underwater, for example).

1. GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing, Urban Dressing, & Wilderness Dressing
$13.99 each; discounted in a bundle. Linked tables of contents.

The GM’s Miscellany series rates as the best of the random-table genre. These volumes mix inspirational tables and a dash of advice into collections focused on dungeon, urban, and wilderness environments. A bundle that includes print and PDF versions of all the volumes offers the best value.

GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing. 216 pages.

Sample roll from Mundane Chest Contents: Wizard’s Chests. 95: The charcoal-rubbed papers in this chest appear to be of gravestone etchings.

GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing. 178 pages.

Sample roll from Market Stalls: Hooks, Complications & Opportunities. 4: An irate young man complains that he was almost killed by his last purchase. When pressed he explains ludicrous extraordinary circumstances.

GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing II. 118 pages.

Sample roll from Decadent Town: Sights & Sounds. 80: At least a dozen footmen and attendants clear the street to make way for a woman reclining on an opulent litter.

GM’s Miscellany: Wilderness Dressing. 122 pages.

Sample roll from Desert: Minor Events. 88: Two small scorpions are engaged in their own duel for a dead beetle.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs