Confidence game: Why faking confidence makes you a better game master

Some game masters boast unshakable confidence in their skill, even though their games only attract players because no one else wants the DM’s chair. Confidence leaves these GMs blind to their flaws.

I should know. As a GM, I have been that confident, and it led me to run bad games.

bills_tableNow I know that my skills can always stand improvement. That my next session could be a dud. That however well my last game went, I can find ways to do better. When I finish running a game, I reflect back on the session and wonder how I can recreate the moments that went well and fix any missteps.

My lack of confidence makes me a better game master. Don’t tell my players. I need to seem confident.

When expert GMs name the qualities of a good GM, they often cite confidence. I agree 100%.

As a game master, you channel an imaginary world to your players. When you seem uncertain about what happens in that world, it yanks the players out of their imagination and reminds them that you just make things up.

In a confidence game, a con man schemes to gain someone’s trust in order to rob them. As a game master, you don’t chase anyone’s retirement savings, but your game still needs trust. If you speak of the game world with confidence, players trust you as their eyes into it. They throw their alter egos into an imaginary world and trust that it will react in ways the make sense.

For game masters like me who sometimes lack confidence, this insight should feel encouraging.

If you lack confidence, you can fake it. No game master always feels confident. You just need to pretend enough to show authority. No problem. As role players, we all practice pretending.

Even though you can fabricate confidence from pure bluster, I prefer to reach the table armed with the real thing. You do not need 10,000 hours of GM experience to build the sort of confidence that helps at the table. You just need to master the sliver of your game world that players will see. By doing the preparation you probably already do, you can reach the table with confidence.

As a game master, you may worry that someone at your table will know the rules better than you do. Don’t let this shake your confidence. Someone usually knows more, and that doesn’t matter. In the 4th-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, designer James Wyatt wrote, “When I started working at Wizards of the Coast, it took a long time before I felt comfortable running a game for any of my coworkers, even though I used to always DM for my friends back home. They all knew the rules better than I did, and I didn’t want to get caught in a stupid mistake. Eventually, I got over that.”

You need to know enough of the rules to keep your game moving, but you do not need to match the rules lawyer. You can delegate mastery of the rules. Have someone look up that spell for you. Let the lawyers explain the corner case. They relish the chance.

“The DM is the person who prepares adventures, plans a campaign, and runs the monsters and NPCs,” Wyatt wrote. “I don’t want to be a referee or judge, and my players don’t expect me to.”

Of course, the rules leave many decisions to the GM’s judgement.

Confidence—or an imitation of it—lets you make these rulings with authority. If your rulings seem to rely on the players’ approval, you encourage them to quibble. They start to lobby for favorable rulings. I’ve sat at tables where players see the GM as unsure. They try to wheedle advantages and the game lurches along. Despite the merits of saying yes, compelling stories require obstacles. Immersion requires a game world that doesn’t change as the GM waffles. Listen to the players, make a confident ruling that seems fun and fair, and then move on.

The secret to projecting confidence at the table lies in role playing. Play the character of a confident, expert game master. A game master much like you. If you come prepared to bring a sliver of your game world to life, playing the role should come easy. You can run a great game. Your players sat to roll some dice and have fun. They want you to succeed.

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How to end combat encounters before they become a grind

Every Dungeons & Dragons player experiences a battle that drags near the end, when the monsters have spent their best attacks and lack the numbers to threaten the PCs. As a dungeon master, I want to cut to the next scene, but thanks to focused fire, the remaining monsters stand near full health. Players won’t spend any resources on a fight that seems won, so they chip away with cantrips and basic attacks. The battle wears on.

briar_wood_buscot_park-1After a battle’s outcome becomes obvious, the game can drag. I have had many chances to test ways to move on. Some of my schemes have worked better than others.

Plan an out

The best combat encounters feature an objective different from kill all the monsters. PCs attempt to stop a ritual, defend a wall, close a dark portal, destroy an artifact, steal the brain in the jar, or accomplish some other task. Often, completing the objective ends the battle. Either the PCs escape or the summoned/dominated/animated defenders stop fighting.

In scenes where the players can win by slaying the necromancer or summoner who controls all the monsters, make sure the mastermind makes a difficult target. A typical dark lord won’t last a round fighting toe-to-toe with a rogue and barbarian. See The evil wizard’s guide to defense against murderous treasure hunters.

Dave “The Game” Chalker wrote more about The Combat Out.

Alternate goals make engaging combat encounters, but not every battle can turn on one.

Call the fight

When a winner becomes obvious, some DMs recommend calling the fight. Just sweep the monsters off the map. This fix seems tempting, but too many players hate the practice.

As a DM, you know more about the monsters’ conditions than the players. You may see an obvious win, while the players still feel tension.

Even when everyone sees the inevitable, your intervention jars the players out of their immersion in the game world. It leaves players feeling robbed of a victory they earned.

Only call a fight when a convention slot or other limit brings a severe time crunch—when you must move on or risk leaving an adventure unfinished. If you do call a fight, use narration to ease players out of the scene and give some sense of victory. Describe the characters’ final strikes—or invite the players to tell the tale.

Let monsters flee or surrender

Some argue that monsters would possess a sense of self preservation. That in the face of death, they would flee or surrender. I used to agree, but then I learned that bloodthirsty treasure hunters never show mercy.

Having monsters flee or surrender seems like a quick way to end a battle, but neither tactic saves time. PCs always pursue fleeing monsters, resulting in a chase. Only have monsters flee when you want a chase, or when the PCs simply cannot follow.

Surrender leads to a ugly interrogation scene followed by the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Finally, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. (If you have never run these scenes, welcome first-time dungeon master!)

Sometimes, a surrender can lead to an interesting role-playing scene, or a real dilemma. Usually this requires foes who can (a) trade for their lives or (b) offer a good reason they should be freed. Nonetheless, surrender never saves time.

With either a chase or a surrender, you spend 30 minutes to save 5.

I suspect that in the monster community, word has spread about murderous treasure hunters and their rogues and paladins. Better to fall in battle than to die on your knees or with a knife in your back.

Turn monsters into minions

You can bring a fight to a quick end by silently deciding that all the monsters stand at only 1 hit point. The next hit kills. I’ve done it, but I never feel proud of it. I like a game where the players’ actions and the dice seem to decide the PCs fate. Even in a battle that seems won, if the players notice my meddling, they lose some sense that they control their destiny.

Still, as battles wane, when a blow nearly slays a monster, I may round the damage up to dead.

Everyone roll

Near the end of a battle, typically only one type of monster remains. These survivors all act on the same initiative count, then all the players act. This situation permits my favorite way to close a battle: everyone roll at once. By now, the outcome has been decided, so no one would waste a spell slot. No player’s action requires my full attention. I announce the monsters’ armor class and invite everyone to roll their attacks and damage at once. If you need to move, just do it. Then I call out names and tally damage. In the time usually spent on one turn, all the players act. During these fast forwards, I used to ignore initiative and go around the table, having players call off their damage totals. But I learned that some players care about earning the kill, if only for the glory. So now I call names in initiative order.

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If you want to write games for everyone, game with everyone

In the 80s into the 90s, I would see convention panels or magazine interviews where game professionals said that their game writing left them no time for game playing. Those writers might admit to an occasional session of Call of Cthulhu—that was the role-playing game the pros played once they felt too mature for bashing monsters in dungeons. But writers of the era’s countless setting books rarely seemed to play their own games much anymore.

fameFor many of the game products of the time, play experience mattered less. People bought game books to read. RPG writers could succeed by satisfying game readers more than players. See “How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books.”

After D&D’s headquarters moved West from Lake Geneva, more designers played, but with a small cadre of friends and co-workers.

Speaking in an episode of the Misdirected Mark podcast, veteran RPG freelancer Shawn Merwin said, “One of the criticisms I’ve had in the past of [D&D] staff, especially through 3rd and 4th edition, was that they would sit in Renton, Washington and create this game, but they never really got out and saw how the game was played by the different kinds of fans, or the fans that may play a little bit differently than their own home games or their games within their company.”

At the 2016 Dungeons & Dragons Open, D&D designers served as celebrity dungeon masters. The star power added excitement for players, but it also should benefit the designers. Speaking in the podcast, prolific adventure author Teos “Alphastream” Abadia said, “This is a really important thing for Wizards to do. To meet with players and see how players play [the designer’s] game in this kind of environment.”

If you want to write games and adventures for strangers to play, then you benefit from playing with strangers.

In a convention game, you will join players who may play differently. “You’re just randomly dipping into the pond to see who ends up at your table and to see how they play the game that you create. And I think that’s very important,” Teos said. “For me as a fan, I want to see Wizards involved with fans in this kind of way as much as possible.”

How does a private game among RPG professionals and their friends differ from the convention games I frequent? I can think of two likely differences: The players in the designers’ private groups act more predictably and they favor more role playing.

Play style and predictability

Every regular group settles into a play style. Do they play recklessly or cautiously? Heroically or ruthlessly? How do they settle conflict between PCs that pull in opposite directions? Regular groups seek activities they all enjoy. A group’s style makes them predictable. When we play long enough in one style, we tend to forget other ways.

DMs who operate in public eventually see groups that defy even the most common customs of D&D. New players love to split the party.

Organized play adventures tend to come from veteran convention dungeon masters who branched into writing. I think these authors do better at anticipating what random players might do, and do better at accounting for players who veer off the path.

The foibles of full-time designers

In general, full-time professionals do worse at predicting how players will act, and they seem less interested in helping DMs account for unexpected actions.

The pros play their own material. They enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than anyone can gain from the text. This mastery makes improvising changes and additions easy. If their players go off book, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot printed in the adventure’s next 5 chapters. So pros underestimate the difficulty other DMs face when ad-libbing changes to a published adventure.

Organized play authors understand the challenges of running an adventure from a text. Their adventures sometimes even include troubleshooting sidebars that help DMs account for actions that threaten to break an adventure.

What do the pros do better? In general, their adventures feature more polish and a greater mastery of the game’s rules, history, and lore. When the designers add new monsters and magic, the additions work without upsetting game balance.

The joy of role playing

Remember the first time you sat down and played? How you had such a blast rolling dice and killing monsters? Remember the time you stayed up all night doing it? Every day, new players discover D&D and find just as much fun in monster slaying. On the other hand, many new players find speaking in funny voices odd and potentially embarrassing.

Meanwhile the pros have faced every monster countless times. Routine combat scenes lack their former excitement. Between those past battles, the pros learned to love playing make-believe in the guise of a fairie-tale creature. They relish a chance to role play. They play with folks who share this passion.

In my post on preparing to run adventures, I grumbled about how the authors of Hoard of the Dragon Queen assume that PCs will spend weeks traveling with cultists and wagons loaded with treasure instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold like every D&D player ever.

But obviously not like every D&D player. The authors’ groups saw a chance to travel with the cultists, uncover their secrets, and savor a session full of role playing and intrigue. Authors Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur read their groups’ tastes and catered to them. I rarely get to play with groups with the same patience for intrigue, so a strategy that seemed inevitable to Steve and Wolfgang struck me as far-fetched.

Every group is different. You can’t play with everyone, but if you want to write for everyone, you benefit from reaching out to game with random strangers.

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Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons worlds seem split in two. In the towns and hamlets, players exercise charm and guile. In dungeons and lairs, every creature attacks on sight and battles continue to the death.

When TSR printed Dungeon magazine, the most common room description must have included a passage like this: “The room has five orcs. They attack immediately!”

I remember when every dungeon denizen attacked because they were monsters in a dungeon. Over time, adventure writers came to assume the they-attack part. Even modern adventures often assume, because what else? Since when do creatures or adventurers in dungeons want to talk?baba lysagas hut

Sometimes, players in role-playing games choose to role play in the oddest situations. I know. They surprise us all.

Sometimes the author of an adventure adds a routine fight, complete with an implied “they attack immediately.” But at the table, the players decide to talk. So I say “yes” instead of “roll initiative.” I scramble to improvise an interesting scene that challenges the players without handing them the keys to the dungeon. And I think unkind shots about an author who failed to account for role playing. Yes, some of the fun of being a dungeon master comes from making stuff up. Nonetheless, am I wrong to think that perhaps the adventure’s author could come up with something better? Am I wrong to ask the author to inspire me?

In your home game, if you assume a monster exists to attack immediately, you can’t annoy me, but you might miss a chance to create a more interesting encounter.

If heroes and monsters decide to stake their lives on a fight over a 10-foot room, both sides need a reason. The players decide for their heroes, but you choose for the monsters.

Spend a moment thinking about what your monsters want. Often they just hate all that live, or they thirst for blood, or they want to fatten children for dinner. That’s okay. If you have a combat-focused game, players seldom look for more.

If inspiration finds you, the monsters motives may surprise you. If goblins stand watch for the tribe, why would they fight to the death? They might run as the players spot them. Now the players face a dilemma. Give chase and risk blundering into a trap, continue carefully and risk a prepared foe, or find another route? What if the monsters try to negotiate to save their skin? Do the players trust them? Perhaps the orcs are only raiding because they want to retrieve a lost totem. Do the characters help the orcs, perhaps stopping the raids? Or do the PCs just destroy one war band of many? You can create an extra dimension by imagining monsters that want something unexpected, perhaps even noble.

When you understand what your monsters want, fewer encounters end with one side dead. Encounters may end—or start—with monsters fleeing or bargaining. If the players all drop, and you know the monsters intentions, you may see a way to fail forward. (I recommend Sly Flourish’s post Failing Forward on a Banshee TPK.) Fewer encounters turn into grinds. More develop into interesting choices.

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Spells that let players skip the dungeons in Dungeons & Dragons

In today’s Dungeons & Dragons game, player characters gain experience by overcoming obstacles and defeating monsters. In the original game, PCs got most of their experience for claiming treasure. (For more, see “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”) Back then, if you skipped monsters and traps on your way to the loot, all the better.

dungeon miniatures dragon statueOf course, Gary Gygax never let players cart away gold without a challenge. His game included a few spells that allowed clever players to skip obstacles, but none that let players skip the dungeons or the dragons.

As the play style of D&D grew beyond the dungeon and focused on story, designers introduced spells that let players skip past dungeons to treasure vaults or dragon hoards. More than any other class of spell, these tend to vary with edition, revealing the changing fashions of play. When designers focus on setting books and novels, they overlook the potential of Find the Path. When they seek D&D’s roots, they notice the power of walking through walls.


(introduced in the original game, 1974)

Gary’s original game included rules for wilderness encounters, but his players preferred to explore under Castle Greyhawk. Underground, the 3rd-level spell Fly never rates above another fireball.

As soon as D&D left the dungeon, Fly shaped play. Every dungeon designer toys with the idea of turning a ruined city into a sort of open-air dungeon. Then they remember that the wizard can cast Fly. Every dungeon master eventually sees flying PCs turn a carefully-prepared challenge into a joke. The PCs soar over obstacles or strafe helpless foes. Players relish their prowess; DMs never overlook Fly again.

As soon as players gain access to Fly, the spell frees players from challenges they can fly past. But Fly carries a key limit: it only works on one character. This makes a spell that can both leap obstacles and create interesting complications. When just one person can scout ahead, they can fly into a heap of trouble with no help—a memorable game moment. When a spell takes an entire party, obstacles disappear.

Find the Path

(introduced in the original game, 1974)

Once, the 6th-level cleric spell Find the Path focused on escape. “By means of this spell the fastest and safest way out of a trap, maze, or wilderness can be found.” In the original books, the sample tricks and traps focus on getting PCs lost in the dungeon. When Gary’s shifting rooms and unnoticed slopes made the PCs hopelessly lost, Find the Path offered a way out.

As means of escape, Find the Path just keeps PCs alive, so in AD&D, Gary felt safe creating a spell that told players the “actions to take” on a path. Second edition explained, “For example, with concentration the spell enables the subject to bypass tripwires or the proper word to bypass a glyph.”

Some players had the bright idea of finding a path to something like “a hoard of platinum pieces.” Second edition specifically banned looking for objects or creatures.

When players stopped looting megadungeons and DMs introduced stories into their games, Find the Path gained game-breaking potential. If players aimed to capture the master of the thieves guild, the spell could take them safely to his hideout. If they needed to find the Gate of the Hidden Ways, the spell guided past any wards. By third edition, DMs were visiting message boards, pleading for ways to cope.

The fifth-edition designers realized that Find the Path offered more than escape from Castle Greyhawk. The latest version no longer reveals actions to take. It promises the shortest path, but not the safest.


(introduced in the original game, 1974)

Gary combed fantasy stories for spells to include in his game. He even added odd spells like Sticks to Snakes and Magic jar. Of course his wizards had to get Teleport. But a 5th-level ticket past every trap and monster would spoil the game, so wizards teleporting into unfamiliar locations suffered a chance to miss, perhaps fatally.

As long as PCs could not safely spy on locations from a distance, Teleport’s limitations worked. Teleport seemed too hazardous for anything but going home to rest.

Astral Spell

(introduced in Greyhawk, 1975)

Astral Spell serves as the ultimate spying spell. An astral wizard can move at will to anywhere on the prime material plane and observe undetected. They can’t bring their body, but after getting a good look, they can return to their body and teleport themselves and their pals. In the original game, magic users and clerics gained Astral Spell at 17th-level, beyond the levels that Gary expected for PCs. (See “The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players.”) We know better now. In today’s game, players with access to Astral Spell move out of the tier of dungeons and into the league of foes with True Seeing and Planer travel. (See “The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before.”)


(introduced in 3rd edition, 2000)

Third edition’s designers forgot the risks of giving PCs both Teleport and a safe way to spy. They added the 5th-level Scrying spell. Unlike Clairvoyance and Clairaudience, which targeted a familiar location, Scrying could target a creature. It worked with Teleport to make villains vulnerable to the scry-buff-teleport system of ambush, also known as scry and fry.

The target of the Scrying spell gets a save, but even if the spell fails, the caster can make another attempt—or just scry Igor or minion #3. The best defense against Scrying used to be a DM with the chutzpah to fudge an improbable number of saves.

Fifth edition still includes both Scrying and Teleport, but the new game changes Teleport enough to spoil the combination. First, Teleport jumps from 5th level to 7th. The error-proof Greater Teleport used to be a 7th-level spell. Now it’s gone. Second, the risk of missing a carefully-studied target jumps from 6% to 24%. With those odds, infiltrating the villain’s fortress through the sewers seems like a valid strategy.

Plane Shift

(introduced in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1978)

Ethereal travel can threaten to take dungeons right of the game. In 1st-edition AD&D, any cleric with the 5th-level Plane Shift spell could take seven friends ethereal, allowing them to waft through the dangerous dungeon stuff and go straight for the treasure. AD&D attempted to limit the problem by populating the ethereal with tough wandering monsters and the random Ether Cyclone. Apparently that failed to deter enough adventurers because Tomb of Horrors includes this note: “Character who become astral or ethereal in the Tomb will attract a type I-IV demon 1 in 6, with a check made each round.” Second edition closed Plane Shift’s game-breaking potential by ruling that the spell “rarely works with pinpoint accuracy.” In 5E, you appear 5 to 500 miles from your intended destination.

Now that Plane Shift drops PCs wherever the DM fancies, it becomes useless except as a save-or-goodbye attack. If the game requires the PCs to go to Hades, fate (the DM) will provide a way.


(introduced as a spell in Planescape – A Guide to the Ethereal Plane, 1998)

Etherealness began as a feature of magical armor or oil, items the DM could limit. Then it became a psionic power. When DMs allowed psionics, etherealness ranked as the least of their troubles.

A Guide to the Ethereal Plane opened the plane to a pair of spells. The 5th-level spell Lesser Etherealness took the caster and 3 friends ethereal for at least 4 hours. The 7th-level spell Greater Etherealness worked on 1000 pounds. Three strong, skinny friends could probably carry off more loot with the lesser spell.

A party with such easy access to the ethereal could loot half the dungeons on the prime material. But as long DMs kept Planescape to planer adventures, Lesser Etherealness stayed balanced. The third-edition designers recognized these spells’ power. When they brought the renamed versions Ethereal Jaunt and Etherealness into the Players Handbook, they raised each spell by 2 levels.

In fifth edition, the 7th-level spell Etherealness takes the caster to the ethereal plane, where they can waft alone into a heap of trouble. To take 2 friends, cast the spell at 8th level. At 9th, take the whole party.

The 6th-level spell Forbiddance protects an area from planer travelers and teleporters. When cast 30 days in a row, Forbiddance becomes permanent. In practice, most tombs, vaults, or fortresses that interest 13th-level characters will be guarded by Forbiddance.


(introduced in Tome and Blood, 2001)

By the time third edition came around, some designers had become so immersed in the story slant of D&D that they forgot how broken insubstantial travel could be. How else can we explain Ghostform, a spell that makes the target insubstantial? Just add invisibility to Ghostform and you can phase through any dungeon. Ghostform appeared at 5th level and rose to 8th in errata! The 3-level revision stands as a record. Fifth edition drops the spell.

The fifth-edition designers studied D&D’s history, playing every edition of the game. They managed to look beyond a single play style and address the problems with a category of spells that sometimes bedeviled dungeon masters.

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F’Chelrak’s Tomb: The earliest D&D adventure that remains playable

In earlier posts, I examined two of the first three Dungeons & Dragons adventures to reach print: Temple of the Frog and Palace of the Vampire Queen. To explore D&D’s origins, some modern players have tried playing these dungeons.

Don’t. Temple of the Frog plays as half spy mission and half Chainmail miniature battle. Players looking for classic D&D will only find a total party kill. Palace of the Vampire Queen demonstrates why Gary Gygax thought adventures wouldn’t sell. Any dungeon master could easily create a similar monster zoo from TSR’s Dungeon Geomorphs and Monster and Treasure Assortments.

But Palace was just one of two adventures that reached print in June of 1976.

The Dungeoneer

Dungeoneer01_3rdWhile still in college, Jennell Jaquays, writing as Paul, started The Dungeoneer fanzine. For the first issue, Jaquays wrote F’Chelrak’s Tomb. The pioneering adventure and its successors proved memorable. Looking back at The Dungeoneer, Jaquays said, “It’s the adventures that stand out, and not simply because no one else was doing mini-adventures in 1976. When I read comments about the magazine or talk to fans (old and new), no one talks about the monsters, or the art, or the magic items and rules variants. It’s always the adventures.

If you want to enjoy an adventure in the spirit of ’76, explore F’Chelrak’s Tomb. The tomb fits the early game’s style: It capriciously slays characters and drops magic like candy from a parade, but it also packs enough ideas to fill a game session with wild fun.

Jaquays published 6 issues of Dungeoneer, sold the fanzine, and then started work at Judges Guild. There she penned early, classic adventures like Dark Tower and the Caverns of Thracia.

About the tomb

As soon as dungeon masters turned from megadungeons to smaller sites, they started devising tombs. F’Chelrak’s Tomb boasts plenty of save-or-die moments, but it lacks the menace of its contemporary from Origins 1975, Tomb of Horrors.

Instead, F’Chelrak’s Tomb offers the chaotic whimsy of a Deck of Many Things. One room features a gallery of objects shrouded by sheets. When revealed, each object has some crazy effect. A sculpture of the Medusa might change the revealer to stone. A statue of a gorgeous woman could change the revealer’s gender or come to life and become a lover or slave. A great stone face might polymorph the revealer into a monster, grant a point of constitution, or split a character into good and evil versions. A statue of Death disintegrates the revealer. “No resurrection is possible!” One sheet covers an artifact: a shield that doubles as a mirror of life trapping. When the owner traps too many lives, the mirror makes room by freeing Morac, a 9th-level chaotic evil lord. I suppose he wants his shield back. (I didn’t know chaotic evil was an alignment in 1976).

If left on the floor, the sheets can animate and attack because, obviously.

The adventure rests on more than the gallery. A new monster merges the Human Torch with kobolds. Some vertical architecture calls for cross-section diagrams. Traps, tricks and interesting curios litter the place.

Like the Tomb of Horrors, F’Chelrak’s Tomb comes from a time when players aimed to beat dungeons and they kept score in gold. In this spirit, the dungeon can win by stumping players with the puzzle in the first room, by hiding key paths behind secret doors, or by tricking players into leaving after they loot a false crypt. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of an adventure seems unthinkable.)

The early presentation

When Jaquays punched F’Chelrak’s Tomb out on a typewriter, no one had presented such a dense and intricate dungeon. To understand the tomb, I needed to unscramble the descriptions.

The entire adventure spans just four pages, including a page of maps. Maps (titled “Charts”) number 1 and 3 use a familiar overhead perspective. Maps 2 and 4 show vertical cross-sections on the same graph paper, making them look like overhead maps too. Cross-section 2 puts the high-point at the top, but 4 puts its high-point on the right. The key for map 3 lists numbered locations, interrupts those numbers with a list of numbered objects, then revisits the same locations with a lettered list of traps and secret locations. This dungeon starts as a puzzle for the DM, but it can be deciphered.

Explaining the tomb to modern standards would take at least 12 pages of text. Jaquays does it in 3 by leaving all the details to the imagination of the DM. What will F’Chelrak or Morac do if they get loose? What are the stats for an attacking sheet? (Hint: Use the rug of smothering.) If an unlucky character get polymorphed in to a monster, what one? DMs must find the most fair or interesting answer to many questions.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb ranks as the first published adventure that remains playable in something like its original form. You can get a PDF copy of the original adventure in The Dungeoneer Compendium at the Judges Guild.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb today

Using original D&D rules, I estimate this adventure would challenge a party of level 4-6.

You could also run this adventure using fifth-edition rules.

If you wanted to run this adventure as a one-shot with the feel of the early game, let the players take a party of 12, 2nd-level characters. In 1976, adventuring parties tended to be large. Many PCs will die, but that only captures the spirit. Although many of the monsters in the tomb pose a grave threat to such low-level PCs, the PCs enjoy overwhelming numbers. Nonetheless, To reduce the chance of total party kill, put only 2 manticores in room 4. Somewhere in the adventure, give survivors a rest to heal and level up. If F’Chelrak finds them, they may need to run. That qualifies as smart play.

If you want better combat encounters and a lower body count, start each player with a 5th-level character. Make the following changes:

  • Replace the 10 gremlins with magmin. The gremlins penalize melee attacks by melting weapons, but 5E characters would sweep them away with spells and ranged attacks.
  • When the players take Morac’s shield, release 6 specters rather than just 1.
  • In the flooded tomb, put 3 ghouls rather than inventing a water gargoyle. Keep them hidden in the dark water so that only water-breathing PCs can easily confront them.
  • Make F’Chelrak a level-9 magic user based on the mage stats. If he possesses one of the PCs, he will study the rest of the party before attempting to reclaim his treasure from the party.
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How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books

Role-playing gaming must rate as the cheapest entertainment around. 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. Compare that to the price of comic books or collectable card games or, heaven forbid, golf.

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.

Back in the 80s and into the 90s, role-playing games seemed like a better business. Every major RPG line produced a new book or box every month, and TSR produced several. Sure TSR suffered setbacks, but their problem came from wild spending on things like company cars and needlepoint companies. The RPG products sold.

Moonsea_settingMost of the folks buying those books and box sets probably used a tiny fraction in play. Who had the time? Even if real life never interfered with your gaming, you didn’t have four friends who shared your passion and freedom.

During all the hours you wanted to play games like Dungeons & Dragons but couldn’t, you settled for exploring the game world by reading its source books. So the Complete Guide to the Tribes of the Southeast Highlands of S’norr sold to be read rather than played.

In those days, gaming used to be what D&D boss Mike Mearls called “a hobby of not playing the game you wanted to play.” Fate designer Fred Hicks calls time spent creating characters or reading game books “lonely fun.”

Electronic games took away the appeal of lonely fun. Now wherever you have a laptop or phone, you can game. “People are just playing games now,” Mearls says.

By the 90s, too few gamers bought game books to fill time between games. Nonetheless, TSR kept publishing until the cost of unsold books brought the company near bankruptcy. TSR sold itself to Wizards of the Coast. The sale spared D&D from becoming a mere brand, a once-proud name like Atari, now used by a winning bidder to sell video games.

When Wizards’ executive Ryan Dancy took charge of reviving D&D, he wondered how to build a business on a cheap pastime. Only D&D’s core books made much money. Dancy saw profit in selling the Player’s Handbook and character options to players, but D&D needed adventures and settings to attract dungeon masters. Dancy plotted a strategy around opening the game: Companies could support D&D with low-margin settings and adventures based on the d20 license, while Wizards reaped the real money selling the core.

Under this new plan. Wizards launched D&D’s third edition. For a year, core books and player-option books dominated the game’s releases. But the new game succeeded beyond expectations. Its sales boom lured the company back to printing settings and setting books. Once again, DMs faced more books than they could use.

When the boom ended, the D&D team began suffering annual layoffs.

By D&D’s fourth edition, everyone knew too few players bought campaign-setting books to make much money, and that few DMs bought more books than they could use in play. So fourth edition limited each campaign setting to two books: one for DMs and one with player options.

The 4E team refocused on selling books for players. The D&D team hoped every player would spend hours tinkering with character options, making a hobby of not playing the game that they wanted to play. Every month, hardcovers filled with new options reached stores.

But the strategy fizzled. Too few players wanted to devote time to lonely fun sitting around making characters.

Now, streaming and video offers a new way to watch people play D&D—and a new way to enjoy D&D while not playing D&D and not buying D&D books.

World of Warcraft and Acquisitions Incorporated may not replace all the joy of rolling dice with live people. However, for most folks, such substitutes make a better alternative to the D&D table than either pouring over Martial Power 2 for character options or reading The Great Glacier to explore a game world.

The D&D brand extends beyond the game table to things like novels and electronic games. Today, tabletop gamers add to D&D’s profit margin by buying core books. Wizards publishes other D&D game books to support sales of the core.

Mike Mearls and his D&D team see little market for game materials that won’t reach play. This shows in their focus on the adventures required by DMs and destined for the game table. The team produces just enough adventures to sustain weekly sessions. More adventures would tempt DMs to buy just the one they’ll play. Such choices stretch the profit of one sale over the cost of publishing more adventures.

In the years since the fifth edition’s release, only the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide caters to folks who want to read about D&D worlds or spend time tinkering with character builds.

For those of us who crave more monsters and classes, fifth edition’s few releases leave us hungry for more, but the Wizards team thinks they have a D&D strategy that can last.

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Preparing to run an adventure as a dungeon master at a convention

In 1984 at Gen Con, I first served as an official dungeon master for a table full of strangers. I ran the adventure that would become I11 Needle. As I explained in “Running I11 Needle at Gen Con in 1984,” the session fell short of my standards. Frank Mentzer, please forgive me.

Needle Gen Con 17

Judges’ copy of Needle from Gen Con 17

In the years since, I’ve run many more convention games. I’ve improved. Sometimes I even meet my standards.

This year at Gen Con, I ran 8 D&D Adventurers League sessions. This post explains how I prepare these sessions.

I start by reading the adventure twice.

My first, quick read provides a high-level view. When I finish, I want to know the important characters, the expected course of events, and the clues that lead the player characters through these events.

Most adventures feature an overview intended to serve the purpose of my first read, but these summaries never seem to help me. When I take my first look at an adventure, I’m keenly interested in what leads the PCs through the narrative. But a typical summary just lists events: “After finding the casket of wrath, the characters go to confront Lady Frost.” I need to know what motivates the characters to go from one event to the next. Those leads become the most important clues I must communicate to the players.

The first read enables me to reread knowing which details merit careful attention. I can sift clues from set dressing, key characters from extras.

During the second read, I pay careful attention to the decisions the characters will face. When I run the adventure, I can miss a bit of color, but I must communicate the details that weigh on decisions. I tend to think a lot about the actions players might take during a session. Although I enjoy when players surprise me, I still imagine their likely choices and consider how to handle each one.

A 4-hour convention slot leaves little time for decisions that swing the course of an adventure. I want to present any real options to make them as interesting as possible. See “How running an adventure eight times can be fun and educational.”

Even the best adventure authors sometimes make bad assumptions about what the players will do. See “Actions players always take and choices players never make.” For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen assumes players will join a caravan with some cultists transporting looted treasure and then travel for weeks—instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold. Like every D&D player ever. I wondered have the authors even played this game? (Answer: Yes. More than me, but perhaps not with so many strangers at recent conventions.)

Whenever I spot such an oversight, I plan on how to account for it. Will I reinforce the need to infiltrate the caravan? Will I present the cultists as too tough to confront? Will I let the players slay the cultists and then contrive a way to get the PCs to the next chapter. Sometimes I let players discover the risks of each option so players reach a dilemma. See “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.” Sometimes, I just make players understand the facts that make a bad strategy bad.

On my second read, I may mark up the pages. I cannot bear to mark up a hardcover adventure, but Adventurers League pages call for the red and blue pens.

Red and blue notes on page

Red and blue notes on page

In blue, I break the wall of text with sub-headings that flag key information. In play, I rarely scan my headings, but when I do, they can cut minutes of text skimming. Plus, the process of writing headings turns me into an active reader. I notice things that I might otherwise overlook. I remember more at the table, so I look down less.

In red, I write names and other bits of text I must find at a glance. Names always go in red, as do quotes that I might read as I glance down.

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

On any dungeon maps, I note everything I need to know. My captions include monsters, locks, objects of interest, difficulty classes and so on. Ideally, I can run all the rooms from the map.

When I first started running organized-play adventures, I would work from a packet of pages. This led to disaster. As I referenced maps, monsters, and descriptions of encounter areas, I plucked them from the pile. Half way through the session, I faced a shuffled heap. While I spent minutes hunting for that one sheet, I stammered apologies.

color reference sheets and player handouts

Color reference sheets and player handouts

Now, all my adventures go into a loose-leaf binder with tabs separating each module. Double-sided printing makes the best use of space.

I print second copies of the maps and monsters on single-sided sheets of colored paper. I can pull my green, monster stats at a glance and I never lose them in a stack.

Player handouts, including magic-item descriptions and story awards, also go on colored paper and in the binder. If I plan to run an run an adventure more than once, I use card stock.

Printed urban battle map fits the encounter

A pre-printed, urban battle map fits this encounter

For any of the adventure’s encounter areas, I look for pre-printed maps in my collection that suit the location. Many encounters rely on few specific details, so any map that captures a location’s flavor will serve.

When none of my existing maps fit, I might print or sketch a map in advance. If an adventure always lands PCs in a location, I’ll wind up drawing the map anyway. Drawing in advance saves time at the table. Plus, if I’m running an adventure more than once, more players can enjoy any effort I invest in maps.

Szith Morcane Unbound - Dengor’s palace

Szith Morcane Unbound – Dengor’s palace on Dungeon Paper

Maps go into sheet-protector pockets and then into the binder near the encounter description. (For more on printing maps, see “How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software.”)

Map in sheet protector paired with encounter

A map in a sheet protector paired with an encounter

After years chasing miniatures, I can match most monsters with suitable figures. If I lack figures, I may use the excuse to add to my collection, or even fabricate a figure.

Miniatures for an adventure

Miniatures for the CORE 2-2 adventure

No one leaves a D&D table annoyed because they needed to use imagination. So if you lack miniatures, you can bring tokens or even candy to represent monsters.

Finally, creating monster initiative tents in advance pays off at the table. When combat starts, ready-made monster tents avoid delay. Plus, pre-rolling gives me time to note key monster stats on the tents. This keeps things like Armor Class front-and-center rather than somewhere in a pile of green sheets. For my initiative tents and more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

How do you prepare for a published adventure?

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The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players

Dungeons & Dragons first supplement, Greyhawk, raised the game’s highest level spells from 6th level to 9th. None of Gary Gygax’s players had reached the level required to cast the new spells.

Tim Kask remembers that as he and Gary worked on the Blackmoor supplement, they figured players faced little chance of even reaching level 9 or 10. “This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was level 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave’s.”

Doctor_Strange_AstralGreyhawk’s high-level spells served non-player characters and indulged Gary’s love of systematic cataloging—the same inclination that drove him to create a plane of existence for every alignment.

At level 9, Gary stashed outrageous effects from fantasy. Shape Change duplicated a scene from the movie Sword in the Stone. Wish, Time Stop, and Gate came from popular imagination. Astral Spell came from the Doctor Strange comic.

Most of the level 9 spells boasted game-breaking effects. Shape Change let casters gain the shape and abilities of any creature at will, over a duration of hours. Gate could summon a god. Wish seemed to allow anything. Astral Spell helped in ways I still fail to understand, but I’m sure are awesome.

To Gary, these spells stood above the players’ reach, reserved for scrolls, liches, and legends.

Greyhawk’s description of Meteor Swarm interjects “(Jim!)” whenever it mentions the spell’s fireballs. Before Meteor Swarm reached print, Greyhawk campaigner Jim Ward’s PC acquired the spell on scrolls. He argued that Meteor Swarm should create flying rocks and overcome fire immunity. His dungeon master, Greyhawk co-author Rob Kuntz, put his final ruling in print. Years later, Jim prevailed. The spell now produces fiery rocks that deal both fire and bludgeoning damage.

Gamers played D&D with more passion—and less disciple—than Gary ever expected. Player characters raced past level 17 and gained those once-legendary spells. Now the spells marked either (a) where D&D stopped playing like D&D or (b) where players rolled new characters. All of Gary’s players retired their characters at levels in the mid-teens.

Gary wrote that he designed original D&D to challenge characters between 1st and 16th level, and not 17th-level characters with their level-9 spells. Eventually, the 9th-level spells prompted the fifth-edition designers to mark a new tier for 17th-level PCs. See “The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before.”


When heroes oppose the lich queen, what does she wish for?

By the time Gary designed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, he knew that 17-plus-level PCs bedeviled DMs everywhere, but he kept spells like Wish and Shape Change. Gary aimed to keep the elements of his original game. Instead of eliminating troublesome spells, he imposed limits. Shape Change now consumed a 5,000 g.p. jade circlet. The description for Wish now warned, “The discretionary power of the referee is necessary in order to maintain game balance.” I wish I had known that before my players wished for level-infinity PCs. Astral Spell added some baggage about silver cords and continued to discourage casting through obfuscation.

Third edition coped with the legendary spells by adding limitations. Wish stopped granting Wishes and now offered a page-long menu of magical boons. Shapechange lost a space and added hit die limits. Deities and unique beings could now ignore the Gate spell’s summons. As for Astral Spell, I must have missed the issue of Doctor Strange that explained its value.

Fifth edition continues the strategy of containing overpowered spells with long, limiting descriptions. Wish once appeared in 4 lines, now it spans a half page. Shapechange grows almost as much.

Why do these spells remain in the game, even though Gary Gygax never expected players to enjoy free access to them? In part, I blame tradition. Fourth edition eliminated Wish and its kin, but players rebelled against a game that cut so many familiar ingredients.

Designers struggle to capture a sense of wonder appropriate for the game’s most powerful spells while keeping spells playable. Meteor Swarm never aggravated any DMs, but a cluster of fireballs just feels like more of something from level 3. Of Gary’s legendary spells, Time Stop ranks as the best. It combines an epic feel with a manageable effect. In some future revision of the game, I hope to see Wish and Shapechange retired to legendary status and replaced by more spells in the mold of Time Stop.

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Divination in D&D: Spells that fish for spoilers

The Tomb of Horrors begins with Gary Gygax boasting of a “thinking person’s module.” This description makes players suppose that the tomb rewards puzzle solving and ingenuity. But the tomb never plays fair. The poem in the entry hall promises clues, but it’s a trap as much as an guide. The tomb rewards painstaking caution, and then reckless haste, and often just lucky guesses.

So why did Gary consider his capricious deathtrap a thinking persons module?

The Wish - Theodore von HolstInstead of working as a puzzle, the tomb operates as resource management challenge. Early on, the lives of hirelings or 15-member parties served as the resource. By the time the Tomb reached print, the divination spells in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons gave players resources. Just a 2nd-level Augury told which door leads to death. A 5th-level Commune answered at least 9 yes-or-no question. Even so, the tomb served enough dilemmas to test the most patient divine power.

Unlike the tomb, modern adventures never fill rooms with life-or-death guesses. They favor stories with just a few mysteries to unravel. But when players can get some divine power on the line, can any mystery last?

How does fifth-edition D&D deal with the classic spells that call for spoilers?

Augury (2nd level) tells whether a specific action will be beneficial or harmful. The 5E version penalizes repeat castings by adding a chance of a wrong answer. Augury gives wary players hints without ruining surprises.

In earlier editions, Commune (5th level) answered one question per caster level. A minimum of 9 answers could cut through most secrets, especially since early versions placed no hard limits on the number of castings. The description of Commune says, “It is probably that the referee will limit the use of Commune to one per adventure, one per week, or even one per month, for the gods dislike frequent interruption.”

The 5E Commune only answers 3 questions and it imposes real limits on the number of castings per day. At 5th level, few players will burn a Commune spell until they become stuck. The spell gets the game moving, replaces frustration with fun, and gives the cleric a chance to shine.

In 1st edition, Divination (4th level) gathered information on an area. Essentially, it told players how much treasure and danger they could expect in a dungeon level. Second edition changed Divination into an improved Augury, which answers questions with specific advice. Crucially, the dungeon master answers with “a short phrase, cryptic rhyme, or omen,” so the response can add fun by giving new clues to unravel.

The Contact other Plane (5th level) spell could potentially gather lies or drive the caster insane. How bad do you want to know? I’ve never seen a Wizard cast this spell.

Gary Gygax wrote D&D’s divination spells to hint without revealing all the game’s secrets. Fifth edition limits how often players can rely on divination, preventing Commune from turning D&D into 20 questions. These spells give DMs a way to aid to stuck players, to give thinking players more clues to consider. They enhance the game.

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