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

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

C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness cover

C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness

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

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

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

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

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

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

A test of merit

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

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

Dungeon Crawl Classics 15: Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen

Dungeon Crawl Classics 15: Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen

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

The clues tempt intruders with false hopes for success

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

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

Challenges taunt intruders with the builder’s genius

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

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

Someone wishes for the dungeon to fail its purpose

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

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

    Charles IV of Spain and his Family paid for a portrait that flattered them with glittering jewels and finery, but the family’s dead eyes reveal them as foolish and banal.

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

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

Dungeon crawling is a sport

XCrawl Crawl or Die

XCrawl

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

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

A religion or cult demands it

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

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

I propose a new creation.

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

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

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

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

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Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

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

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

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

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

The Story of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

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

What had gone so wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

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The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Despite the alarmists warning that things like ascending armor classes, women, or fourth edition would ruin Dungeons & Dragons, the game has only faced one serious threat. Ascending ACs are just easier, woman have been improving the game at least since Lee Gold, and fourth edition once seemed like exactly the savior D&D needed. The real threat to D&D came from the way the game combined cheap entertainment with a valuable brand.

For a sample of D&D’s potential demise, witness the fate of another successful role-playing game: Vampire: The Masquerade. In the 90s, the popularity of Vampire seemed ready to eclipse D&D.

On its introduction by White Wolf Publishing in 1991, Vampire surged in popularity, attracting a new generation of players and more women. The game spawned a franchise of World of Darkness games.

But once the player community peaked, White Wolf saw its income slow until books barely broke even.

The low cost of role playing makes selling RPGs a tough business. Players can only spend so much time at the game table, and a few purchases will fill all those hours. Even if a game master buys an adventure to run, five other people get hours of fun from the purchase. And those hours come from a slim packet of pages. A hardcover adventure will sustain a campaign for a year. A few bucks spent on dice and maybe on a core book can sustain a player for years. Role-playing gaming rates as the cheapest entertainment around. See How the End of Lonely Fun Leads to Today’s Trickle of D&D Books.

By 1998, White Wolf was canceling games in the World of Darkness franchise. The company rode the d20 boom with D&D-related supplements, but that boon went bust too.

In 2006, CCP Games, the Icelandic company behind EVE Online, acquired White Wolf just to gain rights for a potential online game. White Wolf’s tabletop publishing schedule slowed a few PDF and print-on-demand products. When CCP’s plans for an MMO fizzled, White Wolf sold to another computer game company, Paradox Interactive. Now, the White Wolf web site calls the outfit a licensing company. In an interview, Martin Elricsson, the company’s Brand Architect explained the publisher’s status. “The economic center of the company will be computer games. As things are now, tabletop publishing hardly breaks even.”

Vampire: The Masquerade now rates as an entry in an IP portfolio, a brand to license or to apply to an online game. Paradox Interactive stands as the accidental owner of a tabletop RPG. If they bother to publish it, the action will hardly affect the corporate bottom line and stockholders will call tabletop a distraction.

At two points in D&D’s history, D&D could easily have met a similar fate.

The first threat came in 1997, when TSR neared bankruptcy. TSR sold itself to Wizards of the Coast, a company run by Peter Adkison, a D&D fan with big dreams for the game. A few years earlier, Adkison had asked designer Richard Garfield for a portable game suitable for passing time in a convention line. Garfield’s game, Magic the Gathering, captured lightning in the bottle, landing Wizards enough cash to buy TSR. Without this happenstance, TSRs assets could have been picked over and sold piecemeal to companies looking for intellectual property for computer games and movie licenses.

In 1999, Hasbro bought WotC for Magic the Gathering and the Pokémon card game. The waning profits from D&D’s second edition certainly didn’t help the acquisition. Like many folks in 1999, Hasbro executives probably wondered if people had to dress up to play D&D. Would remnants of the satanic panic stain Hasbro?

When Hasbro acquired WotC, they brought a big corporate cost structure and return on investment expectations set by Magic and Pokémon. If D&D failed to meet those expectations, imagine a D&D product line like the one today—but without any tabletop products—just an assortment of licensed video games, a D&D-themed Monopoly game, some t-shirts, and a movie a few years out. Maybe they would license the tabletop game to third party, where, like other high-profile licenses, a barely break-even business could struggle under oppressive license fees and stifling brand oversight. For a Hasbro executive cutting such a tabletop license, the deal offers little upside. A modest success barely registers; a runaway success embarrasses the exec who let a valuable asset leave the company.

In 2000, D&D proved a temporary asset to Hasbro. The new, third edition sparked a boom in sales, mainly by inspiring the same players who found the game in the 80s.

By 2005, D&D settled into a familiar pattern for a mature edition. After a big debut, players embrace character options, creatures, and adventures. Game companies have employees to pay, and only a steady income keeps the lights on, so they publish to meet demand. Before long, even the most passionate customers own more supplements than they can play. Players stop adding to the unused volumes already on their shelves. Meanwhile, the wealth of volumes on game store shelves overwhelms and scares away newcomers. Potential new customers wonder if they need to fill a bookshelf to play. Is the Player’s Handbook 2 required or is it an updated version of the original book?

The D&D team started enduring annual, Christmas-season layoffs as management expected slowing sales in each coming fiscal year.

Hasbro’s experience in the toy business made them familiar with such booms and busts. Except for a few core toy lines, they would roll out a toy like G.I. Joe, ride a surge in sales, and then sideline the toy for 15 or so years until a new generation of children seemed ready for it. Perhaps Hasbro execs wondered if a similar strategy suited D&D. Instead of losing money between generational releases, why not just retire the tabletop product during those 15-year lulls?

Peter Adkison had left Wizards, so no guardian angel would save the game this time.

For D&D to qualify as a core game brand, the game needed to match its best-ever year of sales in 2000, but this time the game needed sustained sales at that level.

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

As sales withered, the D&D team searched a way to save the tabletop game they loved. By 2008, they thought they found a way.

Next: Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

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Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

When Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax designed Dungeons & Dragons, they aimed for fun. In 1978 Gary wrote, “Enjoyment is the real reason for D&D being created, written, and published.” To Gary, when players fell in love with the game and spread their enthusiasm to new fans, D&D proved fun. Forty-some years later, the community of D&D fans continues to grow and thrive.

If players’ enthusiasm reveals the fun in D&D, then not every part of the original game passes the test—at least for most players. Over five editions, the game has lost some things that few players enjoyed. Only players seeking a deliberately old school style embrace things like mapping, strict encumbrance, spell blowback, and damage to treasure.

In the original D&D game, the party’s mapper served an essential role. Mappers translated the dungeon master’s descriptions of dimensions and distances onto graph paper. In Mapping—or Not-Fun Things That Dungeons & Dragons Players Learned to Skip, Part 1, I wondered why the game emphasized mapping, even though few players enjoyed it. I titled the post “Part 1” because I planned a series of posts making light of equally un-fun activities in the early game.

Dave and Gary created rules designed to create “a game which is fun to play and set so as to provide maximum enjoyment for as long a period of time as possible.” They showed a talent for finding the fun in dragons and in dungeons. Why did some parts of the game miss the target?

Perhaps the new game proved so thrilling that players overlooked its rough parts. Then, over time, gamers noticed rules they did not enjoy.

Mainly though, Dave and Gary actually enjoyed some aspects of the game that many players failed to appreciate.

Despite inventing the original non-competitive role-playing game, Dave and Gary loved competition and tests of skill in games. After all, both men held a lifelong passion for competitive games. “Games are usually for diversion or amusement, although sometimes they are played for a stake (gambling) or prizes,” Gary wrote. “They are typically contests.”

This love for competition shows in the way Gary and TSR always brought Dungeons & Dragons to conventions as a tournament. Early on, Dragon magazine and TSR sponsored competitions for dungeon masters, dungeon design, and “D&D masters.”

D&D rewarded ingenuity and resource management. Players took care to avoid fights they couldn’t win, to claim treasure without a fight, and to retreat from the dungeon when they ran low on spells and hit points.

Mapping tested skill. Gary relished any chance to frustrate mappers. The original rules’ half page of “Tricks and Traps” lists nothing but slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to thwart mapping. The tricks did more than waste graph paper—they threatened character’s lives. Heroes lured to a lower level of the dungeon faced more dangerous monsters. Lost heroes could run out of resources before they escaped the dungeon. Originally, Find the Path found an escape path.

Resource management tested skill. In a multi-level dungeon with uncertain maps, players always needed to consider whether to press ahead or to retreat from the dungeon. Pressing ahead offered more treasure but cost spells and hit points. Retreat imposed a cost too. Wandering monsters might still attack and they carried minimal treasure. Under these circumstances, spells like Leomund’s Tiny Hut offered a safe rest and a vital advantage.

Encumbrance tested skill. Gold is heavy, so early adventurers brought mules and porters to help empty the dungeon. Encumbrance forced players to make hard choices about the gold worth hauling, and the silver they might leave behind. Gary created Tenser’s Floating Disk on behalf of his son Ernie and every other player who wanted a painless way to recover every last copper from the dungeon.

Spells that ruined treasure tested skill. Even in D&D’s original rules, Fireball delivered more damage than other third-level spells. But Fireball destroyed treasure, and players hated seeing treasure within their grasp destroyed. Gary enjoyed this test of skill. His son Ernie recalled casting Fireball and how his father “would always let you know whatever cool thing you had destroyed. Normally it was difficult to figure out what anything was, but once it was destroyed, my dad would share. ‘Oh, it’s a real shame.’” See
Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve. Cone of Cold deals the damage of a fireball without destroying anything, but as a 5th-level spell.

Vancian casting tested skill. In the wake of D&D’s release, every aspiring, RPG designer replaced spell memorization with spell points. But spell points never brought the added strategy of choosing which spells to memorize. In D&D, casters needed to decide whether to memorize an attack spell or a utility spell like Find the Path, Leomund’s Tiny Hut, or Tenser’s Floating Disk. As for rituals that characters can cast without choosing to forego another spell, Gary would not approve.

Tomb of Horrors became Gary’s earliest dungeon design to reach print. By today’s standards of storytelling, saying yes to players, and letting characters shine, the dungeon rates as nearly unplayable. But no other dungeon reveals Gary’s love of competition so well. The tomb served as a tournament at the Origins convention in 1975. In his notes to the dungeon master, Gary promises that the Tomb of Horrors “is a thinking person’s module.” He warns, “If your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy.” The tomb works as resource management challenge, where the resources are henchmen and divination spells. Locating Acererak’s hoard demands finding 15 hidden and concealed doors. Those secret passages make as much of a barrier to claiming the gold as the traps. Midway through, the tomb tries to fool players into thinking they reached the end. If the tomb aimed to present a story of players thwarting evil, it failed. But as a test of skill for players who keep score in gold, the tomb offered fun.

For Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, that’s what games were for.

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Gary Gygax Versus the False Deity (of Realism)

Dungeons & Dragons started with a laser focus on dungeon expeditions. Specifically, the game assumed multi-level dungeons with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die following orders.

When Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax crafted the original role-playing game, they focused on making dungeon crawls fun. Even when the rules strayed from the dungeon, they only served to build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. (See The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons.)

Although D&D’s rules kept a narrow scope, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured players’ imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. They could roam fantastic worlds. This potential invited players to stop seeing D&D as game about raiding dungeons. Players saw a system for simulating a fantasy world.

D&D made a poor simulation, so players decided to improve it. Instead of making the game more fun, most tinkerers aimed to make the simulation more realistic.

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a foam sword cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system. Folks considered how magic should work, and then fancied that spell points offered more realistic, imaginary magic.

All the criticism of D&D’s lack of realism rankled Gary Gygax. He and Dave had designed a game. “As a game must first and foremost be fun, it needs no claim to ‘realism’ to justify its existence,” Gary wrote. “D&D exists as a game because thousands of people enjoy playing it. As its rules were specifically designed to make it fun and enjoyable.” A game needed to be fun before it made offerings to the “false deity” of realism.

Gary made his defense in a 3,800-word article that appear in Dragon issue 16, from 1978. He took a justified stand. D&D continues to thrive because the game’s design values fun before realism. Still, his defense failed to win anyone, partly because Gary diluted his point by railing against other targets: unauthorized supplements to D&D and APAs—a sort of stamps-and-mimeograph version of Internet forums.

Mainly, the defense flopped because Gary offered the wrong examples. Instead of choosing unrealistic rules that added fun, he cited rules that added no fun and that D&D works fine without. No one worries about wizards and swords anymore, because mages have better ways to contribute. Although fighters can use magic wands, the classes haven’t merged into a flavorless super class. Elves and dwarves no longer face level limits and the game works better for it. Critical hits never ruined the game; they add fun. (Although, to be fair, the maimings and sudden deaths featured in critical tables from 1978 never took off.)

Meanwhile, Gary’s defense fails to mention the brilliantly unrealistic rules that made D&D work.

Original D&D includes mechanics aimed at making dungeon crawling as fun as possible. In The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points, I explained how the game’s totally unrealistic system for tracking injuries supported dungeon delves and added fun. In The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold, I explained how the game built in a goal that rewarded successful dungeoneers with stronger characters. In When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons, I revealed how absurdly unnatural multi-level dungeons let players choose a difficulty level and encouraged them to delve deeper without pausing to rest.

Why didn’t Gary choose better examples to defend? Partly because he took pride in D&D, so he leapt to the defense of the rules that drew the most criticism. But I wonder how well Gary understood the advantages of the unrealistic rules that he never defended. In his article, he describes D&D as a carefully designed and developed system of cohesive parts. No one describes the original game as cohesive. But Gary and Dave lacked our perspective. When they created the original role-playing game, they lacked the current hobby’s decades of shared design experience. They could only rely on the shared experience of a small circle of lifelong gamers. Lucky for us, that proved enough.

Next: Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

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The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons

The first Arduin Grimoire starts by explaining how to play Dungeons & Dragons. Sure it claims to be an explanation of how to play “a fantasy game,” but in 1976, when Dave Hargrave penned the tutorial, the range of fantasy games included D&D, D&D set in a world called Tékumel, and a game designed under the generic name of D&D until it reached stores as T&T.

Gamers needed the how-to. The original D&D rules read as a summary for people who already knew how to play. D&D arrived as a companion to a miniature battle game called Chainmail, and the rules built on a foundation of turns and moves. Gary Gygax’s peers felt comfortable with rules for inches of movement and for how many 10-foot squares a character could search in a 10-minute turn. To Gary’s audience, D&D made sense. But the rule books confused folks accustomed to rolling dice to see how many squares a wheelbarrow could move.

Hargrave’s how-to amounts to this: move, roll for monsters, repeat. If monsters appear, roll for distance, surprise, reaction, and then initiative.

As hard as D&D proved to grasp, this “sequence of play” isn’t too different from Risk. Aside from the referee, the game seems nearly as constrained as Clue—except D&D features a hidden board like Battleship.

Ken St. Andre wrote T&T—Tunnels & Trolls—because he found the D&D rules “nearly incomprehensible.” He describes T&T as having the same relationship to D&D as “Chevrolet does to Ford.” His explanation of how to play T&T worked for D&D too. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon.” In 1975, games needed boards. (See 4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.)

There exist numerous enchanted tunnel complexes (call them dungeons or underworlds if you wish) that are liberally loaded with many types of treasure, and abundantly guarded by every imaginable form of monster, magic, and trap. Generally speaking, the greatest treasures and most powerful monster are found further below the surface. Brave men and women arm themselves and venture within the tunnels at risk of body and soul to seek treasure and experience.

In 1975, games also needed a way to win. St. Andre explained how. “Every time your character escapes from a tunnel alive, you may consider yourself a winner. The higher the level and the more wealth your character attains, the better you are doing in comparison to all the other players.” (See But how do you win?)

Neither D&D’s original rules nor interpreters of those rules describe the loose play of D&D today. They describe a tightly-focused game where treasure hunters enter dungeons, spend turns moving and fighting, and keep score in gold.

From 1974 through the 80s, the evolution of role-playing games marks a move from D&D’s medieval fantasy to universal systems like GURPS, the HERO System, and Basic Roleplaying. In the early 90s, universal systems peaked, and the hobby started moving toward games optimized for one genre or even a narrow range of activities. You could play Kung-fu or vampire campaigns in GURPS, but for many players, optimized systems like Feng Shui and Vampire the Masquerade offered a more compelling experience.

D&D followed the same evolution. Original D&D didn’t aim for the same scope of a modern D&D campaign. The 1974 game arrived laser-focused on dungeon expeditions—and not even on naturalistic lairs, strongholds, and tombs. Original D&D assumed multi-level undergrounds with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. (See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die in dungeon crawls.

Almost everything in the little, brown books supports dungeon expeditions. Sure, the books included rules for wilderness adventures, but as a way for characters to find castle sites. The rules for castles and followers only build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. Few players crossed that bridge. Even subsequent editions of D&D largely ignored it.

As a focus, the dungeon crawl proved a massive success. Dungeons provided an evocative environment with built-in threats and rewards. Plus, dungeons kept characters on that secret board behind the DM’s screen. The walls made the game manageable for new DMs, and all but two DMs were new. (See How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.)

Even though the D&D’s turns and hidden boards felt familiar to gamers in 1974, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured the imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. Hardly anyone held to the rigid structure or stayed in the dungeon. A city, The City State of the Invincible Overlord, became the first setting for D&D. (See A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.) By 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery offered rules for everything in a medieval fantasy world, from kings to peasants, and from jousting to courtly love. That game stemmed from a D&D campaign where players had tired of dungeons and embraced the larger world. (See Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun? Newer games with more realistic combat systems even made dungeon crawls too lethal to be a campaign’s focus. (See The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points.)

As the role-playing hobby broadened, D&D’s scope grew too. By 2000, third edition arrived late to the universal system party. D&D became a branch of the d20 system, which extended to modern settings and Star Wars role playing.

By 2007, the trend toward systems optimized for a narrow range of activities reached D&D and its fourth edition. This version returned to the narrow focus of the original game, but with a completely different choice of optimal activities. Now the game focused on designing characters capable of dynamic battlefield stunts, and then showing them off in combat encounters. Dungeon expeditions became an interchangeable backdrop for combat encounters and skill challenges. This new focus drew criticism from players who felt that a miniature skirmish game, or perhaps a video game, had replaced the original role-playing game. Sure, most players knew you could run fourth edition in the same wide-open style as the prior editions, but plenty saw the new focus as a sign that D&D no longer invited role playing.

Today, D&D returns to a comfortable balance between the sharp focus of the original game and the sprawl of d20. Rather than optimize a system for a narrow focus, the game seeks to embrace three pillars of exploration, combat, and interaction. The game is bigger, but you can still dungeon crawl in the original style—as long as you can live without 10-minute turns.

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My Scheme to Draw Dungeon Battle Maps Without Counting Squares

For my game, I like to draw battle maps of key locations in advance. I use gaming paper or easel pads marked with a 1-inch grid. When I copy an adventure map to a big sheet, I hate counting squares, but I’m too fussy to fudge and settle for close enough. My taste for precision makes winding caverns a particular nuisance. Sometimes I print map graphics as battle maps, but that requires more printer ink, cutting, and pasting than I want to lavish on a huge map. See How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software.

After my weekly group managed to end a session by alerting an entire dungeon, the next session promised a running battle spanning the site. I needed a big map. How could I draw it without wasting time counting squares and recreating that underground river? If only I could just trace a 50-by-50-inch map from my computer monitor.

Inspiration struck. I have a projector. And a wall.

Post-it Super Sticky Easel Pad, 25 x 30 Inches, 1-Inch Grid

How to draw adventure maps on 1″ grids without counting squares.

What you need

For this procedure, you need the following items:

On the wall

Steps

  1. Connect the computer to the connector.
  2. Open the map image in the computer.
  3. Project the map image on the wall.
  4. If the map includes a 5-foot-per-square grid, zoom the map image until the squares projected on the wall measure 1-inch across. Otherwise, zoom the map image until 5 feet on the map spans 1 inch on the wall.
  5. Stick a gridded sheet on the wall so the squares on the sheet align with any squares on the projected map. If you want to stick the sheet with a long side up, use removable tape.
  6. Trace.

For me, this method proved far faster and easier than counting squares.

Off the wall

Once I finished the map, I cut it into sections that I could lay out as characters explored. Having pre-drawn maps increased the pace of the next game session. The missing gaps behind doors and around corners seemed to encourage players to scatter and open doors, escalating the mayhem of battle.

I suspect I’ll use this trick often.

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Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff

Before I wrote this post, I scoured the Internet for help encouraging Dungeons & Dragons players to role play.

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons players tell me of a session where no one rolled a die because everyone role played for the entire night. Imagine this: On a flight to Los Angeles, I gain a free upgrade to first class, get seated next to Deborah Ann Woll, spend the flight talking D&D, show the wood-grained first printing I scored at a garage sale on the way to the airport, and then get invited to sit in a super-secret Hollywood D&D game. Later, my story of the day still couldn’t capture the rapturous tone of the folks who tell me about their sessions of pure role-playing.

We all know that acting in character adds fun, but role playing enhances D&D for everyone at the table. Role playing heightens the drama and the humor. It raises the stakes by making goals, successes, and setbacks personal. It fosters relationships between characters.

I’ve never reached the pure rush of a session focused entirely on role playing. Perhaps I just favor a balance of combat and exploration with role playing. Perhaps I’ve never played with a group who threw themselves into character with enough zeal. Nonetheless, stories of dice-free sessions fill me with a sense of inadequacy. Could my dungeon master skills lack some essential quality that nurtures role playing?

Ready to improve my game, I turned to my stack of gamemaster guides and then to the Internet for advice. How do I encourage players to role play?

In Internet discussions, lots of gamers ask this question. Most of the replies offer weak advice. Some of the older discussions had recommendations for things now baked into fifth-edition D&D: Encourage players to develop backgrounds, ideals, and flaws for their characters. Offer benefits such as inspiration for good role playing.

Beyond this sound but conventional advice, many DMs suggested ways to pressure uncomfortable or uninterested players to role play. Don’t do that. Other DMs require written descriptions of character backgrounds. To most folks, a writing assignment will make role playing seem like a chore. The players who do enjoy the homework need no encouragement.

How else can a dungeon master encourage role playing?

Create ties between characters

Traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws provide a foundation for role playing a character, but these aspects miss an essential ingredient: a character’s relationship to rest of the party. In any book or movie featuring an ensemble, their interactions create the humor and drama. The group’s interplay reveals their personalities. By inventing relationships between their characters, players gain a way to role play among themselves.

When starting a new group of characters, ask each player to invent a reason their character feels loyalty, friendship, or trust toward another character at the table. Both players must negotiate so the connection suits their characters. Every player should invent a new bond so most characters feel tied to two others.

In the official D&D podcast, Shelly Mazzanoble remembered this exercise. “It forced us to find each other, to interact with each other. ‘I want to be connected to you. Here’s our story.’”

For even stronger interaction, have players invent a source of friction between their character and another. Unlike the strong, positive bonds of trust and loyalty, make these notes of discord relatively mild, even humorous. They should foster amusing banter, not genuine rancor.

Portray non-player characters as you want players to portray their characters

As a dungeon master, you set the style of interaction at your table. To encourage role playing, make your non-player characters come alive by portraying their tone, mannerism, and speaking patterns.

Even if you struggle with character voices, body language can make NPCs come alive. “Your physicality can completely change a character without having to do silly voices,” Matt Mercer explained on the DM’s Deep Dive. “If they’re more of a sly character, steeple your finders and drop your shoulders a bit and just sort of be that sly sneaky character. If they’re a welcoming persona, put your palms up in front of you in a very open and welcoming position and smile. These are all things that you don’t have to have any performing experience to do, but it really makes a difference in embodying an NPC and changing how your players perceive them. Even if you just shift your physicality a little bit, you’re players will know that you’ve become a different character in that scene.”

Speech patterns also make NPCs distinct. Recently I played at a table run by DM Brittany, and the way she portrayed an older, male character struck me. After a relating each fantastic or tragic event in a long tale, she deadpanned, in character, “Well, that happens.” Without a silly voice, she made the character memorable and amusing.

Ask “How would your character say that?”

Don’t pressure players into character, but when they say they persuade, intimidate, or otherwise interact, invite them to show how their character acts. “Gently try and remind them to respond in character,” Matt Mercer suggests. “Like ‘Great, how would Dermans ask that question to me, the jailer?’ Or ‘Sure, and as those angry thoughts fill her mind, how would Layla express that verbally?’”

Single out specific characters for interaction

When the entire party participates in a role-playing scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes players find themselves overshadowed by players with more forceful personalities. Singling out characters gives more players a solo. “Make direct eye contact,” Matt Mercer says. “Lean in and gesture, or point to them when asking a question of their character. Let them know that they are in the moment and that this is their moment to seize.”

Whenever you introduce NPCs, ask yourself if they would feel an affinity for a member of the party—especially one who deserves time in the spotlight. Perhaps the NPC and the character share a class, background, or allegiance. Have the NPC focus on the character who shares a kinship.

Your players develop characters with exciting qualities. Try introducing an NPC who appreciates one of these unique traits or who admires a character’s reputation. Such regard lends characters a sense of importance, keeps players engaged, and lets them bask in a little glory.

You can encourage more players to interact by making characters tackle separate role-playing scenes simultaneously. For instance, if the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute.

Have non-player characters ask personal questions

Rather than limiting interaction to persuasion and intimidation, let your NPCs indulge in a little small talk. Personal questions feel especially natural from a character who admires or feels kinship toward someone in the party. On the official D&D podcast, Matt Colville suggests, “Have an NPC ask a player an introspective question like, ‘Why are you a adventurer?’ or, ‘Why did you become a paladin?’ There’s nowhere on your character sheet where you can find the answer. You’ve got to come up with the answer in your head. It’s often the first time the player has ever wondered those things.”

I’m still working to improve my game. How do you encourage players to role play?

Related: A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens

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The Stories (and 3 Mysteries) Behind D&D’s Iconic Monsters

Like every other kid who discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the late 70s, the Monster Manual suddenly became my favorite book. I studied the pages, and then turned to books of mythology to learn more about cyclopses, manticores, and harpies. But not all the monsters came from myth. Some started with Gary Gygax and other D&D contributors. Of these original monsters, Wizards of the Coast reserves the most evocative as part of D&D’s product identity:

  • beholder
  • gauth
  • carrion crawler
  • displacer beast
  • githyanki
  • githzerai
  • kuo-toa
  • mind flayer
  • slaad
  • umber hulk
  • yuan-ti
Signed Greyhawk Cover

The Original Beholder

The leap of imagination required for some monsters seems short. When Gary needed “something new” to populate the underworld, he imagined fish men and called them koa-toa. When Dave “Zeb” Cook needed memorable foes for an overgrown, forbidden city in the jungle, he made snake men called yuan-ti. D&D features a long history of frog men, but Charles Stross says a literal fever led him to imagine the extra-planar, chaotic slaad.

The gauth just offers a junior beholder to pit against lower-level adventurers. But where did the beholder come from?

Many of D&D’s classic monsters have better stories behind their inspiration.

Beholder

One of D&D’s original players, Rob Kuntz eventually joined Gary Gygax as co-dungeon master in the Greyhawk campaign. Rob credits his brother Terry with a wild imagination and the idea for the beholder, originally called the eye of doom. Terry provided most of the game stats. Before the creature appeared in the Greyhawk supplement, Gary explained that “All I needed to do was a bit of editing to make it a great addition to the terrible monsters to be found in the D&D game.”

Bugbear

Bugbear, Ghoul and Friends

In the original D&D books, the bugbear sports a pumpkin head. Gary recalls describing the creature as having a fat, oval head like a pumpkin, which led the artist to draw an actual pumpkin head.

Carrion Crawler

In the early days of D&D, Gary hosted games 7 days a week. During weekends, adventuring parties included as many as 20 players with their characters, hirelings, and henchmen. Rob Kuntz ran sessions too. All these expeditions delved the mega-dungeon under Castle Greyhawk. “When the encounter was eliminated I simply drew a line through it, and the place was empty for the foreseeable future. I’d give Rob the details of any session he was not at and vice versa.” Rather than imagining a dungeon piled with rotting corpses of monsters and adventurers, Gary conceived dungeon scavengers like the carrion crawler. “I needed something nasty for the clean-up crew, so I thought this one up.”

Displacer Beast

Cover by Gil Kane

Although Wizards includes the displacer beast in D&D’s product identity, the monster owes its appearance to an alien in the 1939 story “The Black Destroyer” by author A. E. Van Vogt. In the tale, a character describes a thing called a “coeurl” that looks like “a big cat, if you forget those tentacles sticking out from its shoulders, and make allowances for those monster forelegs.” The beast first appeared in the Greyhawk supplement, but the coeurl lacks the displacer beast’s defensive power. That power comes from the Displacer Cloak, which appeared in the original D&D books.

Mystery: The cloak and beast’s displacement power seems like a defense that Gary could have taken from a golden-age science fiction story. Did Gary invent the notion, or did he adopt it?

Drow

The first hint of dark elves comes in D&D’s fourth supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes (1976), by James Ward and Rob Kuntz. “These elves dwell beneath the earth, and cause trouble for anyone wandering through their territories. They live and cause evil upon Svartalfheim.” Perhaps inspired by the mention, Gary offered more hints in the first Monster Manual. “The ‘Black Elves,’ or Drow, are only legend. They purportedly dwell deep beneath the surface in a strange subterranean realm. The Drow are said to be as dark as faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good. Tales picture them as weak fighters but strong magic-users.” The word “drow” comes from Scots dialects and refers to a sort of malevolent being. Gary remembered pulling the name from an old, unabridged dictionary. In Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978), the drow made their first appearance. Gary gave them powers “to highlight their unique nature and potency.”

Mind Flayer

Inspiration for the land kraken, but not the mind flayer

Gary credits the form of the mind flayer to the cover of the Brian Lumley book, The Borrowers Beneath. “The cover made me think: Now what sort of nasty bastard is that? So without a qualm I made up the Illithid, the dread mind flayer, so as to keep the players on their toes—or to have their PCs turn theirs upwards.”

Mystery: A few year back, this tale led me to search for the The Borrowers Beneath, and I found a cover featuring a humanoid, tentacle-faced creature that closely resembled a mind flayer. Now, the same search just reveals a cover of tentacles erupting from the ground and a few images of Cthulhu. But in another reminiscence, Gary said the cover that inspired him showed a humanoid creature. What cover actually inspired the mind flayer?

Githyanki

Although Wizards claims githyanki as part of D&D’s product identity, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has a claim to them too. For D&D, science fiction author Charles Stross took the name githyanki and a bit of backstory from Martin’s SF novel Dying of the Light. “I’ve always felt slightly guilty about that,” Stross said. “Credit should be given where credit’s due.” Martin’s githyanki never develop beyond an unseen threat with limited intelligence. But like the D&D monsters, the originals were living, psychic weapons and former slaves of an alien race. Stross credits another legendary author with additional inspiration. “The Illithid/Githyanki relationship probably slid into my mind as a result of reading Larry Niven’s The World of Ptavvs, which features a psionic master/slave race relationship far in the past that nearly killed all the sapients in the galaxy when it turned hot.”

Bulette

Before D&D, Gary’s Chainmail games required miniatures. Back then, no one sold fantasy figures for gaming, so he improvised. He converted a plastic stegosaurus into a dragon. “I haunted the dime stores looking for potential additions and eventually found figures to represent ogres, elementals, etc.” Some of the improvised figures came from bags of assorted, plastic critters sold in those dime stores. The labels marked the toys as “Prehistoric Animals” but few resembled anything from natural history or even mythology. For pictures of the creatures and their packages, see a post by artist Tony DiTerlizzi.

When Gary’s gaming group switched to D&D, they stopped using miniatures, but the strange creatures remained as inspiration.

Gary and his fellow gamers probably never saw the Ultraman television show produced in Japan in 1966-1967, so they never knew the likely basis of the creatures. Most of the toys were knock offs of Kaiju, giant monsters from Japanese entertainment.

Inspiration for the Bulette toy probably came from the creature Gabora, which appeared in episode 9 of Ultraman, “Operation: Uranium.”

In the Greyhawk dungeons, the beast made a couple of cameo appearances, charging down a hall and bowling over adventurers. The players called it a landshark after its back fin and a current series of Saturday Night Live sketches where a “landshark” knocks on doors to deliver a “candygram.”

When editor Tim Kask needed content to fill a page in the first issue of The Dragon, Gary told Tim to write stats for the landshark. The name puts a French spin on the creature’s bullet shape. As for the monster’s appetite for halflings and their ponies, Tim was showing a bit of spite for players who always played hobbits and favored ponies named Bill.

Umber Hulk

Ultraman episode 7, “The Blue Stone of Vallarge,” featured another burrower named “Antlar.” A knock off toy for this Kaiju probably led Gary to devise the umber hulk. The creature’s crude, insectile eyes inspired the monster’s signature confusing gaze.

Owlbear

Some have tried to find a Kaiju that resembles the owlbear toy, but even the closest match takes blurred vision and a big leap of imagination. The toy’s bowl-shaped hair stands out as its most distinctive feature. As badly as the toy resembles an owl or a bear, it also badly resembles a Kappa from Japanese mythology.

Owlbear Toy and Kappa by Toriyama Sekien

Rust Monster

No creature resembles its dime-store inspiration more than the rust monster. The toy lacks teeth and claws, so when Gary made it a monster, he needed another way to menace adventurers. In the original game, powerful undead drained “life energy levels” when they hit. Life draining terrorized players, and Gary saw the power as a test for clerics, ranged attackers, and players too reckless to run. “I don’t agree with those wimpy whiners who are afraid of a few living dead,” he teased. The toy’s tentacles led Gary to imagine a way to threaten something players prized even more than their levels—their magic weapons and armor.

Mystery: Of all the toys, the rust monster ranks as the oddest. How did a four-legged bug with a propeller tail wind up bagged with kaiju and mythological creatures? Did a Hong Kong designer aim for pure whimsy or imitate some other creature?

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