Little-known D&D classics: Fez

In 1980, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Open tournament played much like D&D games at home. The scenarios included dungeon exploration and fights with a dash of problem solving. Success came from quick play and cooperation. The Against the Slave Lords adventures show the sort of game players could expect.

In 1979, Len Bland and James Robert tried to enter the AD&D Open at Gen Con, but were turned away, so they decided to create their own tournament for next year’s convention. In 1980, they introduced Fez, a tournament like the AD&D Open, only better. In 1981, my buddies and I, at our first Gen Con, stumbled into the Fez tournament and had a blast, more fun than we had in that year’s AD&D Open. For several years, even as our interests wandered from AD&D to other role-playing games, Fez remained the Gen Con event we most eagerly anticipated.

Plus, Fez featured a play style different from the typical D&D game, and it blew my impressionable mind.

FezI The Wizard’s Vale was originally printed as Fez I Valley of Trees

Fez I The Wizard’s Vale was originally printed as Fez I Valley of Trees

Fez I: Wizard’s Vale sets a pattern the tournament would follow for years to come. Players begin the game unfamiliar with their characters’ abilities. The players start with a brief description of their character and hints of what the character can do, but with no game stats, and with no knowledge of their goals. In Fez I, the characters begin the game waking with amnesia.

This setup points to what made Fez so brilliant. The character sheet lacked the pat solutions of skills and magic and THAC0. To succeed, players could only rely on their wits as and whatever solutions they could uncover in the game world.

In this blog, I’ve shown how a reliance of skill checks tends to encourage players to focus on their character stats and to lose interest in the game world. When a skill check solves any problem in the game world, the details of the problem become unimportant.

When I played Fez, little seemed to demand a roll. Behind the dungeon master’s screen, Fez was a D&D game complete with THAC0 and HP (or HTK as the module writes, perhaps as part of an agreement between Mayfair Games and TSR). From my player’s perspective, Fez factored rules out of the game, making immersion the game world all important. Normally, I would not want to play battles without character stats, but in Fez, the objective seemed to be to avoid fights.

In Fez, the characters always started without knowledge of their ultimate objectives. This convention started the players and their characters on the same footing. It enabled Bland and Robert to start the players with a puzzle—the task of learning their goal.

Fez II The Contract

Fez II The Contract

Each tournament offered more puzzles and mysteries beyond the first. In Fez II: The Contract, players must settle Fez’s bet with a demon by accomplishing seven impossible tasks. Every task offers a puzzle with a variety of solutions. For example, players can circle the world in a single day either by repairing a crashed spaceship and circling the world, or by going to a library, finding a map, and drawing a circle around the world.

In Fez II, characters are plucked from the modern day, and one is an engineer, so repairing the space ship is less impossible than it seems. Every Fez challenges players with novel characters. In the first Fez, one player gets a Lammasu character. In Fez III: Angry Wizard, everyone plays a polymorphed monster. In Fez V: Wizard’s Betrayal, someone plays this:

The Orbion from Fez V

The Orbion from Fez V

Much of the Fez’s charm comes from a gleeful mix of magic and technology. The game’s namesake, the wizard Fez, travels though time and frequently visits the modern day. The scenarios mix faerie and monsters, aliens and robots, with as much joy as a kid mixing action figures and toys for make believe. Despite the light tone, the first adventures still feel like D&D and avoid turning goofy.

Fez V Wizard’s Betrayal

Fez V Wizard’s Betrayal

After Fez V, Bland stopped writing the series, and the tone becomes sillier. For example, Fez VI: Wizard’s Dilemma includes a gag where the players overcome orcs by getting them to argue over whether a beer tastes great or is less filling. Years later, when I resampled Fez’s descendent, the NASCRAG tournament, it seemed to have lost any flavor of a D&D world to gags and pages from a puzzle book tacked to the dungeon wall.  For my taste, it lacked the old magic.

But before Len Bland passed the torch, he and James Robert finished with Fez V: Wizard’s Betrayal, an adventure that would blow my mind again. Fez V inspired me to do a Gen Con tournament of my own. More on that in a future post.

During the 80s, Mayfair Games published the Fez adventures as a series of modules. You can still find used copies at affordable prices.

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When D&D art put concerned parents ahead of players

In an interview for Mary Sue, Dungeons & Dragons lead designer Mike Mearls spoke about broadening the appeal of the game beyond its traditionally male audience through graphic design and art direction. “Very early on, we decided that we were going to avoid bare midriffs, cleavage, and other common gaming tropes. We only use those if a specific character would actually dress that way.” Illustrations in the Starter Set feature nearly equal numbers of male and female adventurers. (I cannot be certain of the dragon’s gender.) I hope the art inspires a wider variety of folks play D&D. Although I fall in the game’s old demographic, when I page through the D&D Starter Set, the pictures make me want to play D&D.

2014: For any fan of fantasy

2014 Starter Set: Art for any fan of fantasy

Back in 1989, TSR hobbies also introduced a new edition of the game. Then the art designers faced a different set of problems and got less-favorable results.

1989: nothing to concern mom

1989 Player’s Handbook: Nothing to concern mom

I remember paging through my new copy of the 1989, second-edition Players Handbook and seeing no pictures that made me want to play D&D. Quite the opposite, for the first time, D&D didn’t look like much fun. Instead of fearsome dragons, I saw adventurers posing beside a dead dragon barely larger than a turkey. Instead of dungeons, I saw no dungeons. The pictures featured

  • people laughing in taverns over cups that must have contained cold milk or cider
  • good-natured magicians who look like the sort whose spells always go comically awry
  • potential Disney princesses, but wearing less taffeta
  • gnomes from grandma’s garden

Much of the art looked like clipart swiped from a century-old history text now in the public domain. The art seemed calculated to feel safe and familiar to God-fearing folks whose experience with fantasy ended with Fantasyland and an anglicized version of the Arabian nights. While the art showed great technical proficiency, it seemed dull and uninspired. This was the opposite of Erol Otus. I felt ready to beg for a tentacled beast or three-headed, three-armed hermaphrodite.

1980: for wargamers only

1980 Dragon magazine: For adult, male wargamers only

So how did did second edition come to feature such uninspiring art? The edition came in the wake of controversy over whether the game lead players to witchcraft, Satanism, suicide, and even murder. Remember that this is also the edition that replaced demons and devils with the less-threatening tanar’ri and baatezu. I suspect that the art in those second-edition core books was commissioned less to inspire potential players, and more to calm parents, teachers, and ministers. So rather than art that drew inspiration from Moorcock, Lovecraft, and Howard, we got art that drew from from Disney, the Arabian Nights, and Camelot.

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Mini Dungeon Master’s screen for fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons

For reasons explained in my post “Dungeon master’s Screen,” I tend to use a screen. Standard-sized screens stand too tall for my taste, so I prefer the 6-inch-tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog games. This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides.

Mini dungeon master's screen on tableI have created rules inserts for fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, which you can download as a PDF file. Put them in the Hammerdog screen, or just put the inserts on cardboard and fabricate your own screen. You’ll need to add your own pictures.

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Top 3 rules questions from Dungeons & Dragons fifth-edition dungeon masters

Just under a year ago, I posted the Top 3 rules questions from Dungeons & Dragons Next dungeon masters based on questions dungeon masters at Gen Con asked a panel of designers about the Dungeon & Dragons Next rules. With Next now available as the official fifth-edition rules, some of the answers change. This post re-answers the top 3 questions DMs asked.

escape from the demon

1. What happens when a character is reduced to 0 hit points?

“When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum.”

Notice that this rule avoids any talk of negative numbers. In fifth edition, negative hit points no longer exist.

Once you reach 0 hit points, you fall unconscious and must spend your turns making death saving throws. Unlike in the playtest, this is not a Constitution check, but a flat d20 roll. If you roll 10 or higher, you succeed. Otherwise you fail.

  • If you fail three saves, you die.
  • If you succeed at three saves, you stabilize at 0 hit points and stop making saves.
  • The saves do not offset each other, so if you have two successes and two failures, you lie poised between life and death.
  • Anything that damages you while you have 0 hit points counts as a failed death save and, if you were stable, destabilizes you, restarting once-a-turn death saves from 0 successes and the 1 new failure. If the damage comes from a critical hit, you suffer two failures. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you die.
  • A natural 20 on a save lifts you to 1 hit point.
  • A natural 1 on a save counts as two failed saves.

Fifth edition skips rules for a coupe de grace. If you want to finish an unconscious creature, you gain advantage and attacks from within 5 feet count as criticals when they hit, all as part of the Unconscious condition.

This system dispenses with the complexity of running totals of negative hit points and lets characters heal from 0, as in fourth edition. Short of massive damage, this makes characters hard to kill.

2. Can players delay?

No. Unlike earlier editions, the initiative order remains constant through a battle. If you want to hold your action, you must ready it.

3. How does readying an action work?

You can still set aside an action to trigger in response to an event, but many details work differently.

  • You take your readied action after the trigger occurs.
  • You remain at the same place in the initiative order.
  • The readied action replaces the one reaction you can use per turn. After you ready an action, you can still choose to use your reaction to do something like take an opportunity attack instead, but you may no longer take your readied action. Also, once you use your readied action, you no longer have a reaction available for things like opportunity attacks.
  • When you hold a spell ready, you must cast the spell and then concentrate on holding its effects.

Holding a spell leads to some additional complications:

  • When you choose to ready a spell, you cast it, so you spend the spell slot whether you wind up finishing the spell or letting its energy dissipate.
  • Because you can only concentrate on one spell at a time, you cannot ready a spell and maintain another.
  • While you hold a spell as a readied action, anything that can break concentration can foil your readied spell. For example, if you take damage, you must make a Constitution saving throw to keep the spell ready. The DC equals 10 or half the damage suffered, whichever is higher.
  • Presumably, you could cast as spell and hold it ready across multiple rounds, for as long as you take no other actions and can maintain concentration

The fifth edition lacks rules for disrupting spell casters, so don’t bother readying an attack to interrupt a casting.

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Top 5 rules questions from new Dungeons & Dragons fifth-edition players

Just under a year ago, I posted a Q&A based on questions players at Gen Con asked about the Dungeon & Dragons Next rules. With Next now available as the official fifth-edition rules, some of the answers change. This post re-answers the top 4 questions players asked about the D&D fifth-edition rules, and then adds a bonus answer.

Murder In Baldur’s Gate launch at Gen Con 2013

Murder In Baldur’s Gate launch at Gen Con 2013

1. Are there opportunity attacks?

Yes, but you only provoke opportunity attacks when you leave a creature’s melee reach. This means you can circle an enemy without provoking so long as you stay within the enemy’s reach. If a creature’s reach exceeds 5 feet, then you can even move 5 feet away without provoking.

If you want to leave a enemy’s reach without provoking, use the disengage action. The disengage action does not include any movement, so it does nothing by itself, but after you disengage, you can move without provoking opportunity attacks for the rest of your turn. Because disengaging takes your action, you cannot disengage and also attack or cast a spell.

You only get one reaction per round, so you only get one opportunity attack per round. Due to this limit, and because disengage allows you to move past multiple enemies without provoking, 5E makes fleeing combat less murderous than earlier editions. I love this change. If players find themselves overmatched by a fight, they can run without a gantlet of attacks. Monsters can also run, so monsters can rout and the game can move on without a ritual of endless opportunity attacks.

You can freely cast spells and use ranged weapons without provoking. However, if you make a ranged attack with a weapon or spell while a hostile creature stands next to you, you suffer disadvantage on the attack roll. If you cast a spell that does not include an attack roll—even one that forces saving throws—you can cast without any handicap.

2. Is there flanking?

No, but rogues can Sneak Attack when an ally stands next to their target. A rogue using Sneak Attack this way does not gain advantage, just the extra damage on a hit.

D&D tzar Mike Mearls explained that some players find flanking difficult to grasp—not so much with figures that occupy a single square, but with large figures where flanking positions aren’t completely obvious. We may see flanking, and possibly facing, in tactical combat rules.

3. What spells can I cast?

In the basic rules, wizards and clerics share similar rules for preparing and casting spells. Eventually, other classes may follow different procedures.

Both wizards and clerics know a certain number of 0-level spells, also known as cantrips. They can cast their cantrips at-will, as often as they like.

Level 1 and higher spells require preparation. Wizards and clerics prepare a certain number of spells for their day. The number of spells you can prepare equals your spellcasting ability modifier plus your level.

spells you can prepare = spellcasting ability modifier + level

Within this limit, you choose the number of spells you prepare at each level. For example, your high-level caster could opt not to prepare any level 2 spells.  Wizards prepare spells from their spellbook; clerics may prepare any spell from their cleric spell list.

Wizards and clerics both get a certain number of spell slots at each level. You can expend a spell slot to cast any prepared spell of the same level or lower.

When you use a higher-level spell slot for a lower-level spell, the spell typically gains power. For example, Magic Missile shoots 3 darts when cast using a level-1 slot, and 4 darts when cast using a level-2 slot. Unlike in earlier editions, spells do not gain power just because a higher-level character casts them.

Unlike the classic, Vancian system, you can cast a prepared spell more than once as long as you can spend another casting of the proper level or higher. This system grants casters an extra measure of flexibility, while avoiding the risk of preparing a roster of spells that proves useless, resulting in a bad day in the dungeon. There should be no bad days in the dungeon.

4. Does a diagonal move cost one square or one and a half?

When played on a grid, D&D’s basic rules opts for the simple method of counting 1 square for a diagonal move. “The Dungeon Master’s Guide provides guidance on using a more realistic approach.”

5. Can I disrupt a spellcaster?

The rules offer no way to foil spells by interrupting spellcasters as they cast.

However, if a spell requires concentration, you can stop the spell’s effects by breaking the caster’s concentration. “Some spells require you to maintain concentration to keep their magic active. If you lose concentration, such a spell ends.” The concentration system limits casters to maintaining a single spell with concentration at once. When casters maintaining concentration take damage, they must make a Constitution saving throw to keep their spell going. The DC equals 10 or half the damage suffered, whichever is higher.

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Gallery of poster battle maps published for Dungeons & Dragons

I have collected over 100 poster battle maps from various Dungeons & Dragons adventures and other products. Although these maps originally supported particular scenarios or adventures, I reuse them for new adventures.

The Slaying Stone (1)

The Slaying Stone (1)

To make the most of my collection, I needed a gallery that I could browse to find the best map to suit new an adventure, so I created one. Soon, I plan to create an page sorting maps into categories such as dungeons, ruins, towns, and villages. For now, I present galleries sorted by product category.

Battle maps in fourth-edition D&D products

D&D Encounters poster maps

D&D Fantastic Locations and map packs

D&D Lair Assault poster maps

D&D promotional and miscellaneous maps

 

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The best poster battle maps published for D&D

Soon, I will post a catalog of the poster maps printed for Dungeons & Dragons products over the years. As I compiled the catalog, some maps stood out, either because of the design, or because the maps proved useful beyond the adventure that they accompany.

The Gates of Firestorm Peak adventure supported Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics with color battle maps. Artist David Martin painted these maps in a hallucinogenic palette rather than the more earthy colors of current maps. See “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons” for more on Firestorm Peak.

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (2)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (2)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (3)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (3)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (4)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (4)

Does the next map look familiar? The moathouse from The Temple of Elemental Evil returns as a map in the Village of Hommlet promotional adventure (of course), and also in the Against the Cult of Chaos Encounters season and the Shattered Keeps map pack.

The Village of Hommlet - 2009 promo (2)

The Village of Hommlet – 2009 promo (2)

Three map sets included double maps that fit together into a single large location. Both Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin and Shattered Keeps feature a sprawling ruined castle. The Vaults of the Underdark map pack includes a river and bridge that may be underground, but could also be out in the badlands.

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin - Keep of Fallen Kings I

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin – Keep of Fallen Kings I

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin - Keep of Fallen Kings II

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin – Keep of Fallen Kings II

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (3)

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (3)

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (6)

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (6)

Before Wizards of the Coast started packaging battle maps in every adventure, they published maps intended for D&D miniatures battles. The underground maps include broken walls, which make them unsuitable for dungeon crawls but good for big battles. Of the miniatures maps, I favor the neon colors of Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow.

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Drow Enclave

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Drow Enclave

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Fane of Lloth

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Fane of Lloth

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Tomb of Queen Peregrine

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Tomb of Queen Peregrine

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Mithral Mines

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Mithral Mines

If you spot a copy of the third-edition adventure City of Peril for sale, snap it up. This adventure comes stocked with maps of a town square, an inn, rooftops, and sewers.

City of Peril (1)

City of Peril (1)

City of Peril (2)

City of Peril (2)

City of Peril (3)

City of Peril (3)

City of Peril (4)

City of Peril (4)

Recently I stumbled on a StackExchange question asking why used copies of the fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Kit cost so much. I suppose some buyers covet the monster tokens, but for me the maps are the real draw. I have used the castle wall in at least 8 sessions.

Dungeon Master’s Kit (1)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (1)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (2)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (2)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (3)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (3)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (4)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (4)

I love the waterfall and magic circles included “Forest Cliff Lair” map included in Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto and Keep on the Shadowfell. This map fires my imagination more than any other.

Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto - Forest Cliff Lair

Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto – Forest Cliff Lair

Unlike later adventures with a single poster map, Keep on the Shadowfell included three. In addition to the “Forest Cliff Lair,” the package includes the useful “King’s Road” map, originally from Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin.

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin - The King’s Road

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin – The King’s Road

Most of the Lair Assault adventures include specialized maps, but Kill the Wizard includes a three-story house and Talon of Umberlee features a ship.

Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard (1)

Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard (1)

Lair Assault: Talon of Umberlee (2)

Lair Assault: Talon of Umberlee (2)

I have reused the waterfront map from Lost Crown of Neverwinter in more than one session.

D&D Encounters 06 Lost Crown of Neverwinter (5)

D&D Encounters 06 Lost Crown of Neverwinter (5)

The village map in King of Trollhaunt Warrens and War of Everlasting Darkness strikes me as particularly eye catching. I wish it connected with the similar map in the third-edition adventure Red Hand of Doom.

P1 King of Trollhaunt Warrens (2)

P1 King of Trollhaunt Warrens (2)

Red Hand of Doom (1)

Red Hand of Doom (1)

A map in Storm over Neverwinter turned the graphic assets from the Castle Grimstead dungeon tiles set into a grand palace.

D&D Encounters 13 Storm Over Neverwinter (2)

D&D Encounters 13 Storm Over Neverwinter (2)

Of all the seasons of D&D Encounters, the Web of the Spider Queen featured the most memorable encounter site: a hollowed out stalactite with bridges connecting three levels.

D&D Encounters 09 Web of the Spider Queen (6)

D&D Encounters 09 Web of the Spider Queen (6)

Finally, I have two mystery maps that must have been included with Dungeon or Dragon magazines around 2006. I can’t figure out what magazine issues included these maps. If you can help, please comment.

2006 Magazine Map

2006 Magazine Map

Dungeon Magazine Map

Dungeon Magazine Map

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Organized play versus random ability scores

Legacy of the Green RegentWhen fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons arrived, many players saw an attempt to bring the play style of computer role-playing to the tabletop. That may be true, but I saw an effort to create a game that delivered a consistent public-play experience. By the end of third edition, Living Greyhawk, Legacy of the Green Regent, and similar organized-play campaigns dominated the game to the extent that third-party books of character options no longer sold because their options were not legal in organized play.

Unlike, say, a Magic the Gathering tournament, the players’ enjoyment of a public D&D game hinges on the quality of the DM.

Perhaps aiming to deliver a consistent, fun organized play experience, the fourth-edition designers created a game that minimized a dungeon master’s influence on the game. When you sat at a Living Forgotten Realms table, players could count on the same experience no matter who took the dungeon master’s chair, at least in theory. Potentially, a 4E DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For actions outside of combat, 4E presents the skill challenge, where the DM only has to decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance. For more, see “D&D Next empowers DMs; players stay empowered.”

A focus on organized play extends to character creation too. Fourth edition became the first D&D edition that presented a point-buy system as the standard method of rolling—make that creating—a character’s ability scores. For the first time, the standard characters worked for public play.

So nothing about the fifth edition surprises me as much as the return to rolling ability scores as the standard method. This reversal shows the designers aiming to bring the game back to its roots, to create a game for the kitchen table first, and then offering public play as an alternative.

Too bad the game does random abilities scores wrong.

In fifth edition D&D, players generate abilities scores by rolling 4d6 and add the three highest dice to generate each of 6 scores, and then they assign these 6 scores to the 6 abilities in any order.

Plenty of history backs this method. It first appeared as the first recommended method in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. The method carries through second and third editions.

The best quality of random character generation comes from the interesting but not quite optimal characters created. Random ability scores can create characters that feel organic—that break the optimal recipes of good ability scores and dump stats. For example, your randomly-generated fighter might have a high intelligence and a weaker constitution. These unusual combinations can fuel both role-playing and play strategy.

Allowing players to assign scores to any ability keeps the worst part of rolling characters—uneven character power. Then the method throws out the best part of rolling—interesting and organic characters.

I get the method’s purpose: Players can assign rolls to suit their chosen class. While some old-schoolers may find this decadent, the game should allow enough latitude to choose a class. Even in original D&D, where the referee rolled the characters, players could choose from a pool of candidates.

Rather than allowing players to shuffle rolled ability scores into any order, I suggest players roll scores in order, and then swap two scores. This system keeps characters organic and interesting, while giving players flexibility to choose a class. Plus, new players only have one decision to make. If you want to compensate for the less-flexible scores, allow players to reroll one bad score. That’s decadent enough.

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The D&D fifth edition Basic Rules Introduction

The toughest part of writing the core rules for a role-playing game comes on page one, when duty and tradition force the author to describe how to play a role-playing game. When you sit at a table and see a RPG played, it makes sense, but try describing the activity to someone who has only seen chess and Monopoly.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Quest The Introduction to Role-Playing Games

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Quest – The Introduction to Role-Playing Games

Although most new players enter the RPG hobby through Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D books tended to do the worst job on explaining role playing. In the brown books, Gary Gygax did not even bother. In the first basic game, J. Eric Holmes devotes two paragraphs to convincing you to play and to shop for more TSR products. The original game had to spread gamer to gamer, like the best con crud ever. Since then, the how-to-play section in D&D has gone something like this: “Players, you create a character. Dungeon masters, you create a dungeon. Now read this long glossary.” Other games work a bit harder, typically by making some comparisons to children’s make believe and then replacing the glossary with an explanation of funny dice. Among D&D releases, the second edition First Quest box does the best of explaining the game. Third edition consciously delegated the chore to the starter set, which offered a offered a programmed adventure rather than an explanation.

The Introduction in the D&D’s fifth edition Basic Rules does a far better job of describing how to play a tabletop role-playing game than any other introduction I’ve seen. This is the Mona Lisa, Beethoven’s ninth, and Die Hard of the seldom appreciated-genre of “How to play an RPG.” Instead of dumping a two-thousand word example of play, this introduction explains the game with a couple of concise examples. Instead of “create a character and then tell the DM what you want to do,” the “How to Play” section explains play in three numbered steps. At last, a D&D writer thinks like technical writer to help players.

The introduction explains, “There’s no winning and losing in Dungeons & Dragons.” To gamers who grew up immersed in World of Warcraft and Minecraft, this may seem like an odd point to make. In the late 70s, when I started playing, the the first question folks asked me about D&D was, “How do you win?” Back then, a game had to be a competition. If a game failed to produce a winner and a loser, what was the point? Such questions, more than anything else, reveal the gulf between now and how people thought of games in 1974. Such questions show just how revolutionary D&D was. For more, see “But how do you win?

Now, almost everyone has seen a video game where you play a character and finish rather than win. Virtually every computer game owes a debt to D&D. Almost everyone has seen D&D played on The Big Bang Theory or Community or in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. We hardly need an introduction this good. But they could really use it in 1974.

Three more observations:

  • The “Worlds of Adventure” section seems like a nod toward the strategy that elevates D&D from a mere tabletop role-playing game to a multi-platform brand for stories and worlds. You may grumble, but we can credit this effort to sell D&D as a brand for the resources and patience Hasbro has granted to developing the fifth edition.
  • The “Game Dice” section explains how to roll a d100. Fourth edition eliminated percentile dice, but apparently they make a return in fifth.
  • Even pages of the basic rules are labeled V0.1, while odd pages are 1.0. This means that if you want to play the official game, you can only use rules on odd pages.
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Dungeons & Dragons fifth-edition Basic Rules, an annotated page 1

Wizards of the Coast has released the Dungeons & Dragons basic rules as a free download. I have yet to read past the first page, but even that invites comments.

The July 3 basic rules are labeled, version 0.1, but that does not mean that the playtest has restarted. It indicates that more basic rules will come. In “A Bit More on the Basic Rules for D&D,” lead designer Mike Mearls wrote, “As the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide near completion, we’ll add to the basic rules with more material to grow it into a complete game. Our goal is to continue to make updates to the basic rules for D&D until the end of the year, at which point it will be feature complete.

In “Five ways to create more usable game books,” I mentioned the love game publishers have for tiny, 8-point text. True to form, the PDF features tiny, 8-point text, presumably to save pages. In a PDF. Speaking to the page-layout staff on behalf of those of us in the reading glasses and bifocal demographic, I say, “Your time will come.” That’s way nicer than what I considered saying.

As for page layout, the staff at Wizards continues to make me doubt their competence. The original download included a parchment-colored background to pointlessly tax your ink or toner supply. Wizards has since added a printer-friendly version. Even in this version, if you duplex print, the page numbers and chapter titles appear on the inside of the page rather than on the outside where they can be easily spotted.

The credits cite contributors throughout the history of D&D. You probably know of E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the game’s original creators. Brian Blume, Rob Kuntz, and James Ward served as co-authors on the four supplements to the original game. Don Kay was Gary’s original partner at Tactical Studies Rules, later known as TSR.

The disclaimer on the first page is a hoot.

Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for the consequences of splitting up the party, sticking appendages in the mouth of a leering green devil face, accepting a dinner invitation from bugbears, storming the feast hall of a hill giant steading, angering a dragon of any variety, or saying yes when the DM asks, “Are you really sure?”

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

The great, green devil from Tomb of Horrors

The leering green devil face refers to the face of the great, green devil from the original Tomb of Horrors.

The dinner invitation refers to The Keep on the Borderlands, which featured this location:

BUGBEAR LAIR: The group of bugbears is not numerous, but what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in strength and cunning. There are signs beside the entrance cave in kobold, orcish, goblin, etc. Each says: “Safety, security and repose for all humanoids who enter — WELCOME! (Come in and report to the first guard on the left for a hot meal and bed assignment.)”

The feast hall refers to the great hall in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, which includes the following monsters:

Chief Nosnra & wife: HP.: 65, 41 (he fights as a frost giant, she as a male hill giant)
Sub-chief: HP.: 49
Cloud giant: HP.: 63
3 Stone giants: HP.: 51, 48, 43
22 Hill giants: HP.: 44, 3 x 40,39,5 x 38,5 x 37, 3 x 36, 33, 30, 2 x 27
8 Ogres: HP.: 31, 29, 3 x 28, 27, 26, 20
Cave bear: (beneath chiefs table) HP.: 43

Hint: Do not storm the great hall without a very good plan.

Just last week, I asked a player at a D&D Encounters table, “Are you really sure you want to do that?” The younger players at the table failed to see the warning, but their fathers sure noticed it.

That covers page 1. When I started this blog, I worried that I would run out of things to write about.

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