Megadungeons in print and on the web

Perhaps few people play megadungeons, but my look at the era when megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons and why few people play them anymore revealed great interest in vast underworlds. So in this post, I present the megadungeons in print or on the web.

To qualify for my mega-list, a dungeon must meet three qualifications. It must be…

  • in print or on the web in a form close to playable.
  • suitable for the focus of an entire campaign from low to high level.
  • too big to clear of traps and monsters, even as the focus of a campaign.

Most of these products attempt to recapture or update the play style of the original campaigns that launched D&D, so many use rules that emulate either original D&D or AD&D. If you prefer advantage, concentration, and armor classes that go up, you can play these dungeons with fifth edition. Just use the monster stats in your new manual and make up any difficulty classes as you go.

Barrowmaze product page
Barrowmaze System: Labyrinth Lord and original D&D
Tagline: Barrowmaze is a classic, old-school megadungeon.
Typical reviews: “This is a multi-year campaign in a book. It is an obvious labor of love. If this product doesn’t deserve five stars—easily deserve it—then no product deserves it.” – Greg W.

Barrowmaze is nearly a textbook example of how to make a compelling, well-presented dungeon module. – Grognardia

Rational: Underground tombs infested by chaotic cult
Snap reaction: With an emphasis on undead and dungeon factions, will Barrowmaze prove too much of a good thing?
Castle of the Mad Archmage product page
Castle of the Mad Archmage System: Adventures Dark and Deep, other games with the same initials, or Pathfinder
Tagline: Constructed to match reminiscences of Castle Greyhawk.
Typical reviews:Castle of the Mad Archmage is a lot of fun…The problem is that so much of feels either random, unexplainable, or silly.” – Dungeon Fantastic

“Serious old-school aficionados should put the Castle at the top of their shopping lists – Roles and Rules

Rational: The Mad Archmage, an insane demigod, wants it so.
Snap reaction: A tribute to Gary’s game that is best enjoyed through heavy nostalgia.
Dragon’s Delve
product page
Dragon's Delve System: d20
Tagline: Created by Monte Cook (co-designer of 3rd-Edition D&D) and written by Super Genius Games for
Typical reviews:Dragon’s Delve hits most of the right old school notes. There is in fact a great deal to like about it and I’m not ashamed to admit I may even steal an idea or three from it.” – Grognardia
Rational: Ambient magic? Insane wizards? The mysteries of Dragon’s Delve remain locked from my gaze.
Snap reaction: A mountain of interesting content locked behind the dungeonaday paywall.
Castle Triskelion
product page
triskelion System: First edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Tagline: Come and get a free dungeon room every day.
Typical reviews: None. You could be the first to review this product.
Rational: A feuding family who practiced abominable sorceries.
Snap reaction: A labor of love offered for free.
Castle Whiterock
product page
Castle Whiterock System: d20
Tagline: The greatest dungeon story ever told.
Typical reviews:Castle Whiterock is an epic endeavor that is the best adventuring product released by any company this year.” – Nathan C.

“The adventure features great encounters, adventure to be had, wonderful villains, great twists in the tale, and many hidden secrets waiting to be uncovered. On the down side, there are some tedious bits.” – Peter I.

Rational: Traps, magic, and monsters accumulated over the castle’s 1200-year history.
Snap reaction: No mere list of rooms, this product builds a campaign with numerous quests around a megadungeon.
Darkness Beneath
product page
The Darkness Beneath System: Original D&D and similar rules
Tagline: A multi-author megadungeon released in installments in Fight On! magazine.
Typical reviews: “The community megadungeon ‘The Darkness Beneath’ has turned out some very good levels, with a single exception.” – Ten Foot Pole
Rational: Undetermined.
Snap reaction: A strong but uneven anthology that ranges from inspired to silly, just like the old-school dungeons it emulates. The cutaway map calls me to adventure.
product page
Dwimmermount System: Labyrinth Lord, original D&D, or Pathfinder
Tagline: With Dwimmermount, the Golden Age has returned.
Typical reviews: “The very size of Dwimmermount may also be its enemy, a few forays into the place won’t discover much, and the levels get consistently weirder, but start very classically D&D.” – Dungeon of Signs

“Pages upon pages of minutiae.” – Binkystick

Rational: A dungeon set atop a node of primal chaos
Snap reaction: An attempt to recreate a golden-age play style that resists capture in print.
The Emerald Spire
product page
Emerald Spire System: Pathfinder
Tagline: An all-star superdungeon.
Typical reviews: “The superdungeon might feel like a long series of Pathfinder Society dungeons.” – 5-Minute Workday

“Two levels of the Spire really stand out for me and made me want to slice them out of the megadungeon and run them back to back as a one-shot or mini-campaign.” –

Rational: An insane creature of immense power living at the bottom level.
Snap reaction: This collection of levels created by all-star contributors probably plays better if you divide the levels into separate dungeons.
Eyes of the Stone Thief
product page
Eyes of the Stone Thief System: 13th Age
Tagline: The Stone Thief rises. Enter it, find its secrets and defeat it–or die trying.
Typical reviews: “A very, very clever idea executed very well.” – The Other Steve

“The book as a whole also gives you the tools and tips to customize [the campaign] for your players.” – Addison Recorder

Rational: The dungeon is alive.
Snap reaction:  A promising example of the living-dungeon concept, backed with advice on running and customizing parts or as a campaign.
Grande Temple of Jing
product page
Grand Temple of Jing System: Pathfinder
Tagline: The dungeoncrawl that rules them all!
Typical reviews: None. This product hasn’t been released yet.
Rational: A temple to a trickster god
Snap reaction: With a catch-all concept and many contributors, expect a trap- and puzzle-filled dungeon loaded with ideas.
Greyhawk Ruins
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Greyhawk Ruins System: Second edition AD&D
Tagline: Enter the infamous ruins of Castle Greyhawk, the most formidable and expansive dungeon on Oerth.
Typical reviews:Greyhawk Ruins may not be a particularly inspired example of a megadungeon, but it is a megadungeon and I give it points for that alone.” – Grognardia

“A classic, illogical ‘gilded hole’ dungeon.” – Lawrence Schick, Heroic Worlds

Rational: The wizard Zagag’s mad experiments
Snap reaction: The product every player dreamed of in the 70s, released in 1990 when our expectations had changed.
Rappan Athuk
product page
Rappan Athuk System: Swords & Wizardry, original D&D, or Pathfinder
Tagline: Nothing more and nothing less than a good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl.
Typical reviews: “A TON of interesting encounters and levels. It’s also maddeningly confusing in places” – Ten Foot Pole

“I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by a couple of levels, but at the same time, I’ve really, really liked several ideas herein.” – Thilo G.

Rational: A complex created by refugee priests of Orcus
Snap reaction: Suited to old-school DMs who somehow recruit the rare players who enjoy dungeon-only campaigns, high body counts, and unwinnable final encounters.
The Ruins of Undermountain
The Ruins of Undermountain System: Second edition AD&D
Tagline: The deepest dungeon of them all.
Typical reviews: “The dungeon itself is barely detailed, with only the major level features written up.” – Dungeon Fantastic
Rational: Another insane wizard
Snap reaction: An outline for a DM determined to create a megadungeon in the Forgotten Realms and willing to dream up the details.
product page
Stonehell System: Labyrinth Lord and original D&D
Tagline: Enough monsters, traps, weirdness, and treasure to keep you gaming for a long, long time.
“Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is probably the best megadungeon published to date in any form” – Grognardia

Stonehell takes a curious middle ground between detailed set pieces, and leaving some room descriptions sparse to allow for DM improvisation.” – Dreams in the Lich House

“This is certainly one of the best works to come out of the OSR. It’s a megadungeon and it’s close to perfect.” – Ten Foot Pole

Rational: A prison where the pain and suffering attracted a powerful, chaotic entity.
Snap reaction: Highly touted by old-school fans. Adopts a concise presentation inspired by 1-page dungeon design.
World’s Largest Dungeon
product page
World's Largest Dungeon System: d20
Tagline: Over 16,000 Encounters – A mammoth dungeon unlike any other! Every monster in the SRD – And a few you’ve never seen before!
Typical reviews: “Nothing remarkable or all that memorable about it” – Jeremy Reaban

“They don’t expect you to actually run the World’s Largest Dungeon as one big dungeon. Considering that’s the only reason that anyone would actually buy the product, I find that pretty stupid.” – oriongates

Rational: A giant prison for evil.
Snap reaction: Not so much an adventure as a publishing stunt.
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The dungeon comes alive in the mythic underworld

In 1974, dungeons tried to kill you. More than just the creatures inside, the walls and stone wanted your life. Dungeons changed when you looked away. (See page 8 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.) Doors closed on their own accord, and then you had to force them open. The dungeon helped its monstrous allies kill you. Doors opened for them. “Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character.” (See page 9.) Dungeons had one-way doors and gently sloping corridors that lured prey deeper and closer to their deaths. Did the architects of these dungeons aim to foil explorers, or do the walls themselves bend to snare them? Was the door you went through earlier one-way or just gone now.

dungeon table at Gen Con 2015

Decades after the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor launched the game, players grew interested in recapturing the style of those old megadungeons. But D&D had matured. Even players bent on remaking the past wanted to drop or explain the most preposterous elements: Monster populations that defied any natural order. Walls that changed between visits. Doors that opened and closed to frustrate intruders.

So gamers looked for ways to account for the weird essence of those classic dungeons.

Jason “Philotomy” Cone popularized the idea of a mythic underworld, which justifies the strange things that happen in those old dungeons by embracing the unreal as part of a place’s nature.

There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should ‘make sense’ as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn’t necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through). None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld. There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should, be the centerpiece of the game. As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it.

For more about Jason’s concept, see page 22 of Philotomy’s Musings, a PDF that mimics the appearance of the original D&D supplements.

When Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo created their “love letter to D&D” in the 13th Age role playing game, the mythic underworld probably inspired their notion of living dungeons.

Other special dungeons, known as ‘living dungeons,’ rise spontaneously from beneath the underworld, moving upward steadily toward the surface as they spiral across the map. Living dungeons don’t follow any logic; they’re bizarre expressions of malignant magic.

The game charges heroic adventurers with the goal of slaying living dungeons. “Some living dungeons can be slain by eliminating all their monsters. Others have actual crystalline hearts, and can be slain by specific magic rituals whose components and clues can be found among their corridors and chests.

The concept even explains why a living dungeon might offer adventurers clues to its secrets. “More than one party of adventurers has observed that most living dungeons have some form of a death wish.

Adam Dray gives the best sense of the concept’s flavor.Like any good monster, the living dungeon wants to kill. It’s a mass murderer, gaining more and more power as it takes life. Like a clever virus, it knows that it can’t just instantly kill anything that enters it. It seduces and teases. It lures people into its depths with the promise of treasure.

If you like the living dungeon concept, in “I, Dungeon,” Mike Shea gives more ideas for a living dungeon’s motives and vulnerabilities.

Some 13th Age reviewers found the living dungeon concept too fanciful. For them, the biological whiff of the concept of a burrowing dungeon felt too dissonant.

For me, I think the mythic underworld resonates when it feels less alive and more haunted or cursed. Not cycle of life, but living dead. Stones that echo with so much hate and hunger and chaos that they mock life.

To make such a dungeon frightful, avoid putting a face to the wickedness. The evil cannot manifest itself as a ghost in a sheet or as a personified “Dungeon Master” working controls at the bottom level. For inspiration of a haunted place look to 1963 movie The Haunting, which never shows ghosts but proves scarier for it. Or see the 2006 movie Monster House, which my kids couldn’t bear to watch through to the end.

Imagine a place, perhaps one haunted by a massacre or some other legendary wickedness, perhaps one abandoned by god. This site devours all that is living and good that intrudes. It hungers to snuff more lives, so perhaps it pulls gems, gold, and lost treasure from the depths to lure more victims. Imagine a place that seems to summon—or perhaps even create—malign horrors to infest its halls. Imagine a place that waits to test the boldest heroes.

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Why Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons

In my last post I wrote about how Dungeons & Dragons creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built their campaigns around huge dungeons that grew and changed. These megadungeons enabled Dave and Gary to run campaigns for dozens of players. On any day, they could host games for whoever happened to show up for a session.

Even though the megadungeons under Greyhawk and Blackmoor became the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons, such dungeons rarely see play anymore. Why not?

Players never saw any examples. Originally, Gary thought that players would never pay for published dungeons. After all, players could easily make up their own. Despite this belief, TSR distributed the first published dungeon, Palace of the Vampire Queen. Strong sales proved Gary wrong, and so he set to publish his own dungeons.

But Gary’s megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle seemed impossible to capture in writing. As adventurers explored and plundered, the dungeon changed constantly. New monsters wandered in to take empty rooms. Whenever the players’ attention turned, the layouts of old levels subtly changed. Entire new levels appeared. Most of the content lay in one-line descriptions, or worse, locked in the heads of Gary Gygax and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz. Decades later, Gary wrote, “If we handed over the binders containing the maps and the notes, I don’t think even the ablest of DMs would feel empowered to direct adventures using the materials.”

So rather than attempting to capture Greyhawk Castle, Gary opted to publish adventures that he had created for D&D tournaments at conventions. For instance, the official D&D tournament at Origins ’78 ran the G1-3 adventures. The choice to publish such adventures changed the development of the game. D&D players everywhere saw Gary’s published adventures as a model. Instead of patterning their games after a megadungeon like the one Gary played at home, players imitated adventures created for a few hours of competition.

The Ruins of UndermountainIn 1991, TSR finally published The Ruins of Undermountain, its first megadungeon in print. Undermountain appeared in a box with maps and with booklets that sketched out encounter areas. This outline mirrored the terse descriptions and evolving notes that Gary Gygax used for Greyhawk Castle, but the sketch failed to satisfy DMs accustomed publications ready for play.

Perhaps locking a megadungeon in a box kills it. Printed pages cannot capture the dynamic essence of those original levels.

The ecology and rational of megadungeons seemed ridiculous. From they start, players struggled with the logic of megadungeons. Where did all those monsters get their food or leave their waste? Where did the creatures and treasure come from? Every dungeon master invented an insane wizard as an architect for their game’s underground sprawl until the notion became trite.

In the little, brown books, Gary suggested dungeons with layouts that always changed and grew to “maintain freshness,” but that made the megadungeon even more implausible.

Then Gary published adventures that featured a logic sometimes called Gygaxian naturalism. Monsters had lives of their own that involved feasting, scheming, sleeping, and everything but waiting for heroes to come kill them. Rather than wandering monsters living in defiance of reason, we saw giants and drow in their steadings and vaults. For many players, the giant- and drow-series adventures set an example that killed the megadungeon.

Soon, any DM peddling a megadungeon had some explaining to do. For instance, The Ruins of Undermountain kept to the insane wizard trope, then added magic that continuously gated in fresh monsters from across the Realms, and deep entrances that allowed creatures from the Underdark to well up.

Play styles expanded. Sometime in the middle of the 70s, for the first time ever, a party of adventurers visiting the inn met a hooded stranger with a job that needed doing. D&D expanded beyond a series of dungeon expeditions aimed at claiming treasure. Players began to favor games that mixed action with story. Kicking in endless doors to fight and loot turned from fresh and thrilling to a tiresome slog. Today, avid D&D players can claim that they don’t like dungeons or can say that their best games lack any combat. Even those of us who like dungeon crawls want to see some daylight and a plot.

Computers do megadungeons better. In 1979, computer games like Akalabeth and Temple of Apshai took gamers into megadungeons and started an electronic-gaming genre. Dungeon crawls limit players’ options, so they offer an easy premise for a computer game. See “How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.” With a computer DM, players can explore anytime. Digital dungeons offer faster play and better graphics. For players who just want to visit a sprawling underworld to kill monsters and take their stuff, electronic games probably offer a better experience.

Can a megadungeon work today?

A clever design can avoid the problems that pushed megadungeons out of play.

A story-centered game can take PCs into a megadungeon to accomplish more than looting. For instance, when Monte Cook created his superdungeon The Banewarrens, he paired it with overarching plot. Players don’t raid the Banewarrens just to loot. Instead, the story leads to objectives that require missions into the place.

Many megadungeons avoid monotony by introducing levels or zones centered on unique themes such as crypts, flooded sections, or fungus gardens. Even the levels under Castle Greyhawk followed themes that grew more exotic at deeper levels.

A megadungeon design can add intrigue by borrowing a page from The Keep on the Borderlands and adding factions of monsters. Players can join a side or play one against another. Factions under attack will bring reinforcements, creating more interesting battles, and giving players a reason for caution. The stories “Red Nails” by Robert E. Howard and “The Lords of Quarmall” by Fritz Leiber helped inspire the concept of dungeon exploring. Both yarns centered on feuds and intrigue.

A world of fantasy offers plenty of possible justifications for the strange things in the underworld. More on that in my next post.

A megadungeon (and a live DM) can create player agency and tests of ingenuity that no computer can match.

Although good design can yield a megadungeon that proves fun to play, ordinary dungeons can being the same advantages. Today’s gamers tend to create megadungeons to foster nostalgia or to enable episodic play.

Next: The dungeon comes alive in the mythic underworld

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When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons

In the early 70s, as Gary Gygax developed Dungeons & Dragons, he played the game seven times a week. He wrote, “As I worked at home, I did not schedule play sessions, but when a gamer or two dropped in on a day, I made haste to finish immediate work and put on my DM’s hat. Evening games with the regulars were generally scheduled a few hours or a day or two ahead.” Weekend games included 10 to 20 players.

How did Gary referee his ongoing Greyhawk campaign for a cast of characters that changed completely from session to session? (Nowadays, dungeon masters like me stretch to keep one or two absent PCs from upsetting our game’s plot.) How did Gary create material for so many games? (I always scramble to prepare one game a week.) In 1974, as Gary focused on publishing D&D, he began sharing campaign duties with a second referee, Rob Kuntz. (I would never dare attempt collaborating on a campaign with a second dungeon master.)

The secret to all these feats lay in the design of the 12+ level megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Castle Greyhawk

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle

Like Gary, D&D co-designer Dave Arneson ran a campaign for a large and fluctuating pool of players. Dave managed with his own megadungeon below Blackmoor Castle.

Every game session mounted a new expedition into the dungeon, so the particular cast of characters never mattered. These megadungeons enabled a style of episodic play that made those original campaigns manageable. Al from Beyond the Black Gate described the advantage well. “The scale and scope of the Megadungeon makes it friendlier to episodic play than for the more common ‘clear the dungeon’ style of play. The Megadungeon is the perfect place for short, engaging adventures in a compelling environment (even if those sessions just happen to combine into one long campaign).”

Gary never needed to adjust a session’s difficulty to party size or experience, because players could chose a difficulty by choosing how deep to delve. The game awarded more gold and experience to players who dared the lower levels. See “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.”

Today, we tout the value of sandbox play, where players can take the game in any direction they want without feeling corralled by some story in the DM’s head. DMs tend to expect sandbox play to require improvisation and in-game adjustments. For instance, the designers worked to make much of the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure play as a sandbox. When I talked to dungeon masters about running it, we always focused on the challenges of preventing the PCs from straying into certain death.

The megadungeon let Dave and Gary to act as referees rather than dungeon masters—that term would not see print until the game’s second supplement Blackmoor in 1975. They could run a game entirely from notes, wandering monster tables, and the whims of the dice. If megadungeon referees choose, their campaigns never needed improvisation or in-game meddling. This gives players more control over their characters’ fate—more player agency—than in typical modern games.

Gary kept preparation manageable. He wrote, “I usually made one-line notes for my dungeon encounters, from around 20 to 25 of same for a typical level done on four-lines-to-the inch graph paper—a few more on five-, six-, or seldom used 8-line graph paper. The other spaces were empty save for perhaps a few traps or transporter areas and the like.” He and Rob Kuntz kept notes. “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, so we winged all of [the campaign management]. Sometimes a map change and encounter key note of something special in nature was made, but not often.”

On page 4 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Gary made a megadungeon a requirement for play. “A good dungeon will have no less than a dozen levels down, with offshoot levels in addition, and new levels under construction so that players will never grow tired of it. There is no real limit to the number of levels, nor is there any restriction on their size (other than the size of graph paper available). ‘Greyhawk Castle,’ for example, has over a dozen levels in succession downwards, more than that number branching from these, and not less than two new levels under construction at any given time. These levels contain such things as a museum from another age, an underground lake, a series of caverns filled with giant fungi, a bowling alley for 20’ high Giants, an arena of evil, crypts, and so on.”

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

Although folks don’t play megadungeons much now, the places remain uniquely suited to episodic play with multiple parties exploring the same space. Scott Fitzgerald Gray ingeniously used those strengths when he wrote the adventure Dead in Thay for a D&D Encounters season. The Encounters program lets players drop in a game store for a night of D&D. Different players may come for any night of play, shuffling each table’s adventuring party.

At first, the program managed these fluctuations by requiring every table to play the same episode in the adventure. The format limited players’ choices to battle tactics.

In Dead in Thay, each table launches their own, unique foray into a megadungeon called the Doomvault. By creating the sort of dungeon that made the Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns work, the season rediscovered some of the format’s advantages: episodic play for whoever attends, the freedom of a sandbox where players can change the environment, and manageable cooperation between dungeon masters.

When Shannon Appelcline looked back on the adventure, he wrote, “For the most part, Dead in Thay is a classic, old-school dungeon crawl of the sort you could find back in the ‘70s. However, it presents a more mature, more active dungeon, where the rulers of the realm can react to the players’ actions…and where the players themselves could change an environment.”

Next: One surprising reason Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons

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Running Shackles of Blood: Making the good adventure into a great session

The free, issue 4 of Dragon+ includes the Dungeons & Dragons module Shackles of Blood by Joshua Kelly. This adventure comes from the Adventurers League Expeditions program. Normally, this program only lets you play such adventures in public venues such as game stores and at conventions, so the download introduces home players to the program. Shackles of Blood features a turning point in the Rage of Demons storyline, and concludes with an unforgettable final battle.

Shackles of Blood flooded arena

Shackles of Blood – the finale in a flooded arena

At this year’s Gen Con, I ran Shackles of Blood several times. Now, I will tell you how to make this good module into a great play experience.

If you plan to play this adventure, stop reading now. But if you intend to run it as a dungeon master, or simply want to peer under the hood with me, keep reading.

The dungeon master’s dilemma

The thorniest aspect of Shackles of Blood stems from the way leads characters into a virtually unwinnable encounter. The set up serves the aim of capturing the PCs so they wind up in that great final battle. During one session I ran, when the players’ capture left them feeling defeated, one said, “Don’t worry, this just leads to the last encounter and, trust me, you want to play the last encounter!” He had already playtested the adventure.

At Gen Con, the dungeon masters running Shackles felt conflicted about sending players into an encounter they could not expect to win or even avoid. Most DMs feel that railroading ranks as the worst abuse of their power. To be fair, none of the players at my tables felt railroaded. They had never read the adventure, so they never knew it was a setup.

The setup

The adventure begins with PCs charged with finding a family of halflings, the Tinfellows, who disappeared from a valley near the city of Hillsfar.

Meanwhile, a group of Hillsfar’s Red Plume guards plots to capture the PCs so they can be forced to fight in the city’s arena. Even if the PCs avoid an ambush, their investigation leads them to be overwhelmed by Red Plumes firing crossbow bolts laced with sleeping poison.

Tactics for the Red Plumes

When the Red Plumes battle the PCs, they fire crossbow bolts until one of the PCs fails a save and falls unconscious. Then a Red Plume can bring a knife to the sleeping character’s throat and the demand surrender in exchange for the character’s life. Of course, he’s bluffing, but the players will typically stand down. Because they chose to surrender, they feel like heroes opting to fight another time. Any PCs who call the bluff become the focus of attack.

In the battle with the Red Plumes, avoid letting the PCs scatter so that some escape. Hold a few Red Plumes back at the perimeter of the battle. Some PCs may still use invisibility or other tricks to get loose. If they succeed, a divided party makes running the adventure a bit more challenging, but the free PCs will trail any captives.

Plan B

If the players manage “the impossible dream” of escaping the Red Plumes, the adventure supposes that the party will return to their patron. (They probably won’t. See “Choices players never make.”) She tells them to get captured intentionally. After the players win against impossible odds, they must go back to lose on purpose. How unsatisfying!

Normally, players would trash a lousy plan that puts them in shackles and deprives them of their gear, but for the sake of the adventure, they will abide. Then you, as the DM, must improvise a narrative that puts players into chains.

Dismantling that unseen railroad requires a better plan B. Here is what I recommend.

In the unlikely event that the players escape capture during their investigation, they cannot rescue the entire family of Tinfellows. In my tweak, the players can rescue some of the Tinfellows, but most have been sent ahead to the arena at Hillsfar. Now, whether the players get captured or not, they must return to Hillsfar to rescue Tinfellows from certain death.

This pursuit leads the PCs to a meeting with Margery “Mags” Thrier outside the Hillsfar arena.

Unless your table features the first-ever all-human band of adventurers since the era of little brown books, the party must find a way to get their non-humans into Hillsfar and to the arena. Some party members might adopt disguises—it works for Breex Vandermast. Others could pose as captives bound for the arena. If you prefer to avoid this challenge, move Mags and the slave market outside the Hillsfar gates.

Mags explains that she purchased the Tinfellows legally and refuses to relinquish her property without compensation. The Tinfellows languish somewhere deep under the arena, slated to fight, and undoubtedly die tomorrow. If the players would be willing to trade places in the upcoming battle, Mags will set the family free.

Mags’s pet Goliath tries to startle the players. When they prove their nerve, she questions them about their combat experience. Inevitably, some party members will rise to pose as tough guys.

If the players worry that Mags will betray them, she steps to a betting kiosk and places a bet on the PCs in the next day’s battle of the bell. “Now if you lose, I lose, but I have a feeling about you lot.”

Once the players agree to take the Tinfellow’s place, Mags warns that if they fail to fight, the Tinfellows will fight, and die, in an upcoming contest.

Because of the non-human PCs, the entire party must surrender to the guards and go to that cage on the arena floor.

Dismantling the railroad

Now that you have a plan B that leads to the final encounter, you don’t need the PCs to lose to the Red Plumes. Instead, that confrontation can end in a draw or even a win. The Red Plume captain has no reason to see his men die in a fight with the PCs. If the players slay a couple guards, I suggest having the captain call a truce. He can tell the players that the Tinfellows have already been sold to Mags at the arena in Hillsfar. He might even promise not to take any more captives from the hills. You can decide whether he tells the truth.

Meeting Breex Vandermast

The half-orc sorcerer Breex Vandermast serves as the adventure’s final villain.

Whether the players find themselves on the arena as willing or unwilling fighters, they must meet Breex before the battle. This can happen as written, on the road to Hillsfar, or later with the PCs caged on the arena floor.

Either way, Breex tells the PCs how much he will relish seeing them die in the arena. He taunts the non-human characters for their filthy taint, and then turns his disgust on the humans for joining such rubbish. Describe Breex’s filed down canine teeth. Tell how his ears appear clipped to a human roundness, and how he wears a powder that lends his skin a more human tone. When the players identify Breex as half orc, I guarantee that his hypocrisy and bigotry will inflame them. During the arena contest, my players searched the stands for Breex, eager for a chance to strike at him.

The Bell in the Depths

The adventure ends with a battle in the Hillsfar arena that pits the PCs against a team of halfling gladiators. The contest spans platforms erected over the flooded arena floor. Both sides race to ring a bell atop a central tower.

Describe the battleground as fenced and flooded enclosure on the larger arena floor. That way, when blood-crazed spectators spill onto the floor to climb the pool’s walls and tear at its bolsters, its collapse and sudden draining seems inevitable.

Shackles of Blood - drained arena

Shackles of Blood – drained arena

In the battle of the bell, a 15-foot gap separates the halflings’ tower from the bell tower. The halfling thugs have a 15 strength, so they can jump that gap. This means that if the halflings win initiative, they could ring the bell before the players even act. Let the halflings’ overconfidence and their urge to preen for the crowd slow their assault on the bell. On their first turn, the thugs take positions on the bell tower.

The halfling spies can use Cunning Action to gain an extra dash action on their turns. If the halfling druid casts Longstrider on a spy, the ally can cross the arena quickly and assault any PCs who choose to stay on their tower. In my sessions, the druid never managed to concentrate on Barkskin long enough to matter, so Longstrider made a better buff. Because the druid lacks long-range attacks, don’t make him an easy target. Instead, he buffs allies and carefully advances into Thunderwave range.

A halfling who uses a dash action can swim the 4 squares from a starting tower to an assault tower in a single turn. That pace brings them out of the water before the quippers can attack.

Don’t bother holding Breex’s entry until all the halflings have been incapacitated. Bring him out when the contest starts to lull. The players will be eager for the showdown.

As the Red Plumes struggle to quell riots, the PCs will have no trouble rescuing the Tinfellows. After prevailing in the arena battle, the players will feel they earned this easy success.

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How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever

Third-edition Dungeons & Dragons reached stores in 2000. Its popularity fueled a number of “living” campaigns similar to today’s Adventurers League and Pathfinder Society. One such campaign, Living Arcanis hosted an event called The Battle of Semar at the Winter Fantasy convention. This event billed itself as a Battle Interactive. Before then, living campaigns held plain interactives. Paizo Publisher Erik Mona recalls, “Prior to Living Arcanis, most (if not all) interactives involved players wandering around a room with several ‘activity booths,’ occasional mini-adventures, and other non-adventure opportunities. The idea (though not wholly the practice) was that once you stepped into an interactive, you ‘were’ your character, and in-character chatter was highly encouraged.” The Battle of Semar gathered many tables of players to fight together toward the common goal of freeing the fortress city of Semar. The session might not have been the first such epic event, but it popularized the form. Suddenly every living campaign sponsored battle interactives. The format lives on in the D&D Epics and the Pathfinder Society Specials.

These multi-table, epic events have brought some of my favorite Dungeons & Dragons game sessions. At big conventions, they gather hundreds of players into a ballroom, where they cooperate to reach a common objective.

Just 3 years ago, I stumbled into serving as a dungeon master in my first such event: ADCP4-2 Lost City of Suldolphor by Dan Anderson. I had a blast. Since then, I’ve run tables at five epic events, and played in two more. Still, that first one stands as my favorite.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

This year, after running a table for DDEP2 Mulmaster Undone, the first of Gen Con’s two Epics, I tweeted, “Have the D&D Epics lost the plot? Recently they are fun but not special.” The event gave no sense of adventuring parties joining in a grand endeavor, and no interaction between tables.

The convention venue created many of the problems: Organizers could not use a public address system. They could not project results on a large screen. The schedule created severe time constraints. By the end, when the organizer would have announced results, the convention center cut the lights and power. But even aside from these handicaps, this Epic lacked the ambition of my first Battle Interactive.

The experience made me think of my past events, the many elements that I loved, and some elements that fell flat. I wondered how to build the best multi-table epic ever.

For more than 10 years, volunteers and professionals in the gaming community have written and organized these events. Some draw on experience that dwarfs mine. So who am I to explain how to create the most epic event ever? Nobody. Nonetheless, I will tell you what made my favorite events so good, how future events might even be better, and I’ll try to give you your money’s worth. If no one sounds off to tell me where I’m wrong, I’ll be disappointed.

Gather the room with a role-playing performance

The Lost City of Suldolphor did not begin with a dungeon master reading box text. Instead, Dan Anderson and M. Sean Molly stood at the front of the banquet hall, and performed as WeavePasha and Ala’Ammar, the adventurers’ patrons. This bit of theater did a far better job of setting the scene than any lone DM could have. Plus it brought the room together in a common mission. From the start, we were no longer separate tables isolated in our separate teams. We stood as a league of heroes standing together in a great fight.

No battle interactive or epic should ever begin with individual DM’s introducing their tables to the adventure. Setting the scene calls for a bit of theater. Don’t tell me our hobby lacks enough story tellers and role players to put on a show.

Establish a goal for everyone, and then show their progress

Epic events unite players at many game tables to reach a common goal. Each table’s success contributes to the final outcome. While players at the tables race to win battles, the event’s organizers create a game within the game to track progress toward winning—or losing—the war.

These events work best when the organizers use a projector to display progress: battles won and lost, territories captured, and MacGuffins claimed. The players may not know the rules of the game within the game, but they must see how its outcome turns on their actions.

Without an ongoing show of progress, epic events play less like games and more like tests: Everyone works alone, stops, and then gets the results. The lack cripples the event.

Embrace the fight for glory

Especially at Gen Con’s Epic events, the marshals who match players with DMs face an extra challenge: Many of their DMs are new to running for strangers, so they want easier, low-level tables. Meanwhile, high-level tables fill most of the room. For epic events, players typically bring their highest-level characters. Everyone wants to show off their strongest character; everyone wants their best shot at glory.

With a big stage and a shared goal, epic events fuel gamers’ competitive fire. They want to bring attention to their table and to their characters. This makes players rush to complete as many challenges as possible, to contribute as much as possible to the community’s success, to bring glory to their table and their PCs. The urgency creates an electric atmosphere that no single-table session can match.

The best epic events embrace the hunger for glory. They offer more challenges than the players can handle and the hardest challenges the players dare to accept. Players inclined to fight for the spotlight should have a chance to take it. Just as knights once competed to take the vanguard in the battle, tables could compete to take the most dangerous—and glorious—tasks. For a taste of glory, some players will even sacrifice beloved characters to suicide missions.

Focus on combat encounters and clear challenges.

A year after my first battle interactive, I served as a DM in my second. For me, this session didn’t feel like as much of a smash has that first event.

This adventure featured an assortment of challenges contributed by various authors. Some of the challenges came as battles, others offered skill challenges or even role playing diversions. Something for everyone, except the battlefield reports on the projection screen kindled my players’ taste for glory. When the adventure led to role playing, they grew frustrated by the pace. The organizers wanted a certain number of parties to tackle each encounter, so I could not always steer the players to challenges that would suit them. I worry that I failed to leave all the players happy with the session.

Fifth-edition D&D accommodates all play styles, but not every event must fit all play styles. D&D epics work best with short, clear missions. The Living Forgotten Realms Battle-interactive adventures included this disclaimer: “This adventure is combat-intensive. Players who do not enjoy combat encounters are less likely to enjoy this adventure.” A good epic event might allow players to choose role-playing challenges, but it cannot require them. When the event results begin to appear on the screen, few players have patience for tangents. An epic event that forces every play style fails to play to the epic format’s strengths.

Offer players a choice of challenges

This year at Gen Con, I ran a table at the low-level track of DDEP3 Blood Above Blood Below. The scenario put PCs in a gladiatorial contest that evoked the spectacles of imperial Rome. Scattered across a massive, flooded arena stood a number of platforms patterned after the cities on the Moonsea. For example, the Mulmaster platform punished characters who used arcane magic. Characters boarded boats and raced to capture flags from the platforms.

This buffet of challenges proved brilliant. From a distance, the PCs could see enough of each platform’s encounter to create meaningful choices. Players selected targets that suited their interests and their characters’ strengths.

The abundance of islands led players to move as fast as they dared to tackle as many challenges as possible. Critically, no table could collect all the flags.

In the same event, another track included a single, big challenge. I loved the track’s adventure, but some tables finished early and their players started begging for chances to help at other tables.

Epic events should always have more challenges and more encounters than any single table can complete in the time allotted.

The choice doesn’t have to come from a buffet. Players could also choose from a menu, with scouting reports that suggest the style a difficulty of the challenges.

Let players find a difficulty level

An epic event at a major convention welcomes a range of players and characters. Some tables feature folks still learning the game. Others include tacticians and min-maxers seeking to dominate encounters, the harder the better. Events like the Lost City of Suldolphor accommodated disparate skill levels by giving players a chance to choose a level of difficulty ranging up to glory—there’s that word again. The tactical gamers could flaunt their skills by selecting the most difficult level. Plus, they could hardly complain if some of their heroes fell in battle.

A clever event could even allow players to select a difficulty with the in the game setting. In the early days of D&D, players chose a difficulty level by choosing how deep into the dungeon they dared to explore. Epic events could parcel out missions of various difficulty and let tables choose which ones they wished to tackle.

Harder challenges might contribute more toward victory, although the contributions must be scaled by tier so even beginning PCs can weigh in the outcome.

Set party objectives that contribute to the overall goal

Some multi-table events have a shtick where a boss monster visits each table like the bride and groom at a wedding reception. Each table gets an exchange of attacks, schedule permitting.

Confrontation at Candlekeep put PCs in towers and flew a colossal dragon to each. I saw a PC jump on the dragon and ride table to table. The player was giddy. In an unforgettable moment of glory, he seized the spotlight at every table. The event led the designer to add the tactic to the encounter description.

However, these multi-table tours suffer drawbacks. When the boss leaves, no one at the table wants to go back to fighting mooks. That battle feels now meaningless, and probably is. Then when the boss finally falls, most players just hear cheers from another table. Most do not share the victory, or even feel they contributed much. The climactic win feels like a letdown. At a big con in a noisy room, I have sat at tables that never even heard their battle’s conclusion.

In the strongest multi-table finales, each table works to accomplish a separate objective that contributes to the overall goal. Perhaps each table must destroy some fragment of an artifact, or close a planar rift while monsters spill out, or slay a creature that carries a fragment of the master’s soul. Fantasy opens limitless options and plenty of monsters for everyone.

Foster interactivity

Without interaction between tables, epic events feel much like any other D&D game, so designers keep looking for ways to encourage interaction. I’ve seen promising techniques, but none have cracked the problem.

Many events let players call for help from other tables. But in play, players virtually never seek help. Folks play D&D to act as powerful heroes. No one wants to beg help from strangers. They would rather die fighting.

Another approach lets events at one table spill to other tables, as when a hero at one table jumps on a dragon and rides it to the next. Most commonly, the head DM announces an event when, say, a table completes an objective, and then DMs at the tables act on it.

A multi-table battle needs these sorts of events to feel interactive, but they create challenges with communication, interruptions, and for me at least, information retrieval.

I’ve seem two types of communication: table flags and announcements. Table flags let players at one table call for help. In other words, they go unused. Announcements broadcast events and conditions to the room. They work fine, especially in quieter venues, but they don’t suit messages to just a few tables.

Event announcements create interruptions. In practice, I cannot stop a player mid-turn to resolve some new event, so I have to wait and find the right moment. Sometimes, when I like the pace and energy at the table, I am slow to add a new ingredient. In practice, interaction is worth a few interruptions.

When interruptions come, I must find the rules for the new event in the adventure. Modules tend to describe an adventures progression in the order of events, but interruptions come out of order. The description could be—and has been—anywhere in a hundred-plus pages. I hate stopping the action for even a minute while I go hunting.

I would enjoy seeing interaction created by passing items like keys, scrolls, clues, and PCs on dragons from one table to another. For instance one table’s success could unlock challenges that another could tackle. This sort of interaction could be driven by handouts that explain the new event to the players and provide a page number for the DM. This sort of messaging might come with an order of communication, so the DM at table 5 knows to pass the key to table 4, and that if the creature escapes, it goes to table 6.

Create decisions for the room.

Some Battle Interactives offered another trick for uniting the room. They created decisions to be shared by the players in the room. For instance Lost City of Suldolphor had players decide whether enslaved elementals should be freed or whether they should remain bound to improve the odds in an upcoming battle. ADCP5-1 Home’s Last Light asked players to decide whether to destroy a city so its invaders would gain nothing from capturing it. Both ethical questions gave players a chance to step into their characters head and contribute to the decision in a bit of role-playing.

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A dungeon master’s guide to Glyph of Warding

From the beginning, Dungeons & Dragons has included a few spells for dungeon masters. In my last post, I cited Magic Jar as inspiration for adventure. Player characters won’t cast it, but villains might.

In today’s game, Glyph of Warding caters to DMs. PCs rarely have lairs and virtually never find them raided by murderous treasure hunters. Glyph of Warding protects lairs and treasure, so PCs don’t cast it anymore.

They used to cast it.

dungeon_adventureIn the game’s early days, PCs might rest in the dungeon and use a glyph to defend against wandering monsters. PCs might build strongholds to defend. DMs might even send thieves after the players’ treasure. Back then, many DMs thought angry players were just sore losers.

Also, older rules allowed players to misuse the glyphs. For instance, they would put evil-sensing, exploding glyphs on things like arrows, and then pose as either Green Arrow or Hawkeye, depending on favorite color. Fifth edition ends such hijinks by ruling that moving a glyph more than 10 feet breaks it.

Now the Glyph of Warding serves you, as a DM, and the villains you control.

Traditionally, glyphs appear as traps in empty crypts and on treasure hoards, but glyphs work best as defenses in combat encounters. A cunning wizard or cleric would plant glyphs in the throne rooms, arcane laboratories, and chapels where intruders might attack.

As a tool for Evil, 5E’s Glyph of Warding opens plenty of room for abuse. I could let an evil wizard advise you on how to use glyphs, but he would lead you too far. Angry players are not sore losers. Even though your villain has the means to create glyphs that would frustrate and destroy the PCs, you need to devise wards that simply challenge the party. Good games come from fun, challenging, and winnable encounters.

Triggering a glyph

For a glyph to help defend the dark lord’s lair, it must spare servants and henchman. The spell offers several options: If the lord only employs drow or undead, a glyph could spare those sorts of creatures. A master with only a few allies might award them talismans that let them pass some glyphs. Servants could be trained to avoid others.

Long before D&D grew to embrace mystery and intrigue, Gary Gygax created the Detect Evil spell. Since then, Know Alignment made getting away with murder impossible. Following Pathfinder’s lead, 5E purges all the spells and abilities that reveal alignment—except for Glyph of Warding. I suspect the designers overlooked this loophole. Unless you want a world where trials begin—and messily end—with the accused forced to walk over a glyph that blows up evil creatures, ignore the alignment trigger.

Spotting a glyph

Glyphs are nearly invisible and require a successful Intelligence (Investigation) check against the caster’s spell save DC to spot. In a combat encounter, let characters take an action to attempt to find all glyphs within, say, 5 feet.

Helpful spells

Through third edition, Glyph of Warding specified that casters could only store a “harmful” spell. This prevented casters from scribing helpful glyphs on the pages of a book, creating a collection of self-casting scrolls. Still, the word “harmful” left plenty of room for interpretation. For example, spells that unleashed negative energy could heal undead.

The fifth-editon spell drops the word “harmful.” I suspect that the designers felt the word lacked rigor, and that making glyphs immobile made non-harmful glyphs impractical to adventurers. After all, stationary glyphs can’t become self-casting scrolls. But for an evildoer defending a lair, helpful glyphs create a sort of lair action. Casters could store healing spells on the floor of their cult headquarters, each to be triggered with a step. They could lay a path over Stoneskin and Greater Invisibility glyphs. In 5E, a spell triggered by a glyph lasts its full duration, without any need for concentration. A caster could trigger a series of buffs as part of a move action, and bypass all their concentration requirements.

As an encounter designer, a helpful glyph sprung out of view just adds a power to a villain’s stat block. You admire the villain’s (your) ingenuity, but the players never see it. To be interesting, an enemy needs to trigger a helpful glyph in plain sight, perhaps after negotiation turns to combat. Imagine a foe who triggers healing glyphs just as the players think they have won the upper hand. When players realize they must immobilize their foe to win, the battle turns into an interesting, tactical puzzle.

Update: Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea noted that the fifth-edition description says the spell lets the caster “inscribe a glyph that harms other creatures,” so unless you rule that this description qualifies as flavor, then any helpful glyphs your villains use must be a unique variation on the usual glyph.

Harmful spells

Villains can also defend their lairs in a traditional way, with harmful glyphs that wreck intruders. Harmful glyphs can either trigger explosive runes or a spell that targets a single creature or an area.

Explosive runes deal about as much as any third-level spell, so they work well. However, if you put an encounter on a minefield, no one has fun. Everyone marks off the damage and vows not to move. Many of the spells you can pair with glyphs lead to livelier battles. Area-effect spells with lasting effects encourage movement. Single-target spells that blind or curse PCs will lift routine slug-outs by forcing new plans and by putting different characters in the spotlight.

Explosive runes may not appeal to evil masterminds either. Cleaning up blast damage in an arcane laboratory can be such a bother. A glyph that turns an intruder into a toad lets you gloat, and then squish. Delightful! Even lower-level spells can guard an attack route with less mess. For instance, the door and threshold to the dark chapel could trigger Darkness and Silence unless those who enter speak a short prayer. If an acolyte forgets, the glyph does no lasting damage. If intruders enter, they cannot target attacks or cast spells.

The following lists include the most dangerous or interesting spells to pair with a glyph.

Area-Effect Cleric Spells

Darkness [2nd-level Illusion] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 15-foot-radius sphere. p.230.

Silence [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 20-foot-radius sphere. p.275.

Flame Strike [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Dexterity save. 10-foot-radius cylinder. p.242.

Blade Barrier [6th-level Evocation] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) Dexterity save. p.218.

Fire Storm [7th-level Evocation] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Dexterity save. 10 10-foot cubes. p.242.

Area-Effect Wizard Spells

Faerie Fire [1st-level Evocation] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (Concentration duration: 1 minute) Dexterity save. 10-foot cube. p.239.

Cloud of Daggers [2nd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) No save. Five-foot cube. p.222.

Darkness [2nd-level Illusion] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 15-foot-radius sphere. p.230.

Silence [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 20-foot-radius sphere. p.275.

Web [2nd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour) 20-foot cube. Dexterity save. p.287.

Stinking Cloud [3rd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) 20-foot-radius sphere. p.278.

Confusion [4th-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. 10-foot-radius sphere. p.224.

Wall of Fire [4th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) p.285.

Cloudkill [5th-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) Constitution save. 20-foot-radius sphere. p.222.

Wall of Force [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) p.285.

Wall of Stone [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) p.287.
Does a Wall of Stone summoned by a glyph create a permanent wall? The demolition makes this impractical for lair defense.

Wall of Ice [6th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) p.285.

Reverse Gravity [7th-level transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Dexterity save. 50-foot-radius cylinder. p.272.

Sunburst [8th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Constitution save. 60-foot-radius. p.279.
The spell description fails to specify a cylinder or sphere.

Single-Target Cleric Spells

Blindness [2nd-level Necromancy] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute) Constitution save. p.219.

Hold Person [2nd-level Necromancy] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.251.
Unlike with Blindness, targets get a new save on each of their turns.

Bestow Curse [3rd-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.218.
The best single-target spell to pair with a 3rd-level glyph.

Harm [6th-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Constitution save. p.249.

Single-Target Wizard Spells

Hold Person [2nd-level Necromancy] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.251.

Levitate [2nd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) Constitution save. p.255.
Targets that lack ranged attacks could be removed from battle for 10 minutes. Rules question: Will a victim rise 20 feet and stop, or keep rising?

Bestow Curse [3rd-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.218.

Blight [4th-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Constitution save. p.219.

Phantasmal Killer [4th-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.265.

Polymorph [4th-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour) Wisdom save. p.266.
Turn the target into a frog or a rat for an hour. Probably the best single-target spell to pair with a glyph.

Flesh to Stone [6th-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Constitution save. p.243.

Otto’s Irresistable Dance [6th-level Enchantment] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save, but irresistable until the target takes an action to attempt to resist. p.264.

Feeblemind [8th-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Intelligence save. p.238.

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The evil wizard’s guide to defense against murderous treasure hunters

Every evil wizard occasional faces the threat of treasure hunters, do-gooders, and other barbarians. In order to exterminate such vermin, you must learn to defend yourself from their attacks.



Alarm [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: 8 hours)

Alarm is a first-level spell that lasts 8 hours. If you want to raise your minions, set an audible alarm. If you want to prepare your own welcome for the accursed intruders who dare to challenge you, set an inaudible alarm. Either way, you should ever face an attack unprepared.

Wizards will always have mage armor and other defenses that do not require concentration cast. They will probably have one active spell that requires concentration.


When some group of meddling simpletons dares to attack, always find a ready source of cover.

In fifth edition, a character can move out of cover, cast a spell, and then duck back into cover. No PC should ever gain an attack on a spellcaster unless they either readied the attack or met the caster in melee. Without cover, a fifth-edition spellcaster will die halfway through the first round, a victim of either DM carelessness or the adventure designer’s.


Many wizards seek brutish bodyguards, but your best protection comes from apprentice wizards. Students can lend their concentration to shield you in additional defenses or to lock down the battlefield. Best of all, they can do all that while remaining behind cover, out of view.

Apprentices can make players rethink the virtue of an all-out attack on an obvious leader, and such decisions make a better fight. The best encounters probably come when players face a leader protected by a mix of apprentices and brutes.

Essential defensive spells

Your essential defensive spells either last without concentration or work as a reaction.

Mage Armor [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 8 hours)

Shield [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S) (casting time: 1 reaction) (duration: 1 round)

Starting at level 1, every wizard should prepare Shield and have Mage Armor cast.

Mirror Image [2nd-level Illusion] (V,S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

Even compared to higher-level options, Mirror Image ranks as the best no-concentration defensive spell.

Blink [3rd-level Transmutation] (V,S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

The blink spell allows you to vanish from the battlefield in between half of your turns. The blinks force attackers to switch targets or to ready attacks for the blinker’s reappearance. When you blink, use your 10 feet of Ethereal movement to thwart readied melee attacks.

Fire Shield [4th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)

You shroud yourself in flames that offer resistance to heat or cold, and that punish melee attackers who hit. As a 4th-level spell, Fire Shield ranks as the worst no-concentration defense. The damage amounts to less than a typical melee attacker can deal, and wizards lack health to lose in trade. Still, you never face more than one group of foolish meddlers per day, so you can spare the spell slot.

In first-edition AD&D, Fire Shield returned twice as much damage as an attack dealt the wizard. Second edition dropped the punishment to match the damage dealt. Third edition dropped to 1d6+caster level. Fifth edition sinks to 2d8 damage, less than most monsters challenging a 7+ level wizard. I assume designers kept shrinking the damage to keep mages vulnerable to melee. With the concentration rule making wizards more vulnerable than ever, Fire Shield should dish more damage. This is a level-2 spell lost in a level-4 slot.

Counterspell [3rd-level Abjuration] (S) (casting time: 1 reaction) (duration: instantaneous)

As a wizard facing a party of murderous treasure hunters, you have plenty of spells, but few actions to cast. Counterspell lets you trade another caster’s action for a reaction that you probably would not use.

Counterspell helps balance the odds for outnumbered casters, but the spell can take fun from D&D combats. When foes counter spells, players see their turns nullified. When foes get countered, fights turn into batting practice.

Disguise and misdirection

Disguise Self [1st-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 hour)

If your enemies waste time chasing your enforcers while you pose as a footman or food taster, you gain the upper hand. If you pose as a jester, the simple fools could even mistake your gestures and incantations for mummery.

Don’t allow villains to use this ruse often, because the game suffers when players learn to suspect every bystander is a villain or traitor.

Mislead [5th-level Illusion] (S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour)

You turn invisible and leave an image of yourself in your place. Mislead is perfect for when you want to bargain or explain how your ingenious plan will destroy all who oppose you.

Your invisibility ends if you cast a spell, but you might maintain the ruse by stepping out of view and casting spells without an obvious point of origin.

Magic Jar [6th-level Necromancy] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: Until dispelled)

Among other things, Magic Jar lets you possess some other humanoid and use it as a puppet. Either give your enemies a nasty surprise after they “win,” or possess nobles with their own guards and protectors.

Magic Jar brings enough narrative weight to become a central element of an adventure. For a good look at the spell’s inspiration, see “Spells Through The Ages – Magic Jar” at Delta’s D&D Hotspot.

Project Image [7th-level Illusion] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 day)

Do you like long monologues and frustrated enemies? You’ll love this spell. This upgraded version of Mislead lets you create your image in a familiar location up to 500 miles away. You still cannot cast spells from the illusion, but if you surround it with enough henchmen, then they crush your foes while you sit in comfort.

Project Image teases players and builds loathing for the villain.


Levitation [2nd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

In addition to using levitate to rise out of reach of attackers, you can levitate unwilling foes. Also, decorate your ceiling with spikes.

Fly [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

If you DM long enough, you will accidentally pit flying PCs against earth-bound monsters, and then watch helpless monsters die to less-than-heroic bombing attacks. Fly and Levitate can make good defenses that prevent PCs from swarming. Just do not create a encounter where the wizard can remain untouchable and out of range.

Concentration defensive spells

Defensive spells that require concentration offer much less protection than in days past. Even the Globe of Invulnerability pops like a balloon when a single arrow breaks concentration. Some Invulnerability.

Foes who rely on concentration defenses should also have the War Caster feat. Advantage on concentration checks goes a long way to keeping defenses in place.

Blur [2nd-level Illusion] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

By imposing disadvantage on attackers, Blur offers a solid, low-level defense.

Protection from Energy [3rd-level Abjuration] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour)

As soon as your foes discover your resistance, they’ll switch attacks. Concentrate on Haste instead.

This spell works better for player characters who, say, plan to attack a fire cult and expect to spend an hour battling foes wielding fire.

Haste [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

Duration aside, Haste protects much better than Protection from Energy. You gain advantage on Dexterity Saves, +2 AC, plus the extra speed and action.

Greater Invisibility [4th-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

Under Greater Invisibility, you can blast accursed do-gooders while their attacks suffer disadvantage. To evade area attacks, use Misty Step and keep the dolts guessing your location.

Misty Step just takes a bonus action to cast, but you cannot cast a spell as a bonus action and cast another spell other than a cantrip in the same turn. See Player’s Handbook page 202. Only this rule keeps Misty Step from rating as my favorite spell.

Stoneskin [4th-level Abjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour)

The quality of Stoneskin depends on the number of attackers wielding magical weapons. Against many groups, it offers nothing.

Globe of Invulnerability [6th-level Abjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

The so-called Globe of Invulnerability only protects from magical attacks. Combine the globe with some no-concentration defenses, the War Caster feat, and an inaccessible perch, and it starts to live up to its name.

This edition lets Globe of Invulnerability block 5th level spells as well as spells of up to 4th level as in earlier editions. That fails to make up for the concentration requirement.

Battlefield control spells

Grease [1st-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

Grease gives apprentice casters a way to slow attackers.

Cloud of Daggers [2nd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

For fun, ready Cloud of Daggers. When attackers open your door, target the threshold.

Darkness [2nd-level Illusion] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Darkness makes everyone in its area effectively blind and invisible—a handicap to ranged and melee attackers, but little problem when you blast with area-effect spells.

Darkvision does not let you see through magical darkness.

Flaming Sphere [2nd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

This spell can choke avenues of attack. Also, once cast, the Flaming Sphere gives a you way to attack as a bonus action while remaining invisible or disguised.

Although the text says the sphere is made of fire, you cannot pass through. Earlier editions describe the sphere’s substance as “spongy.”

Gust of Wind [2nd-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

The foolish air cultists of the Howling Hatred showed the weakness of Gust of Wind. Still, it can slow a rush. Too bad it doesn’t interfere with ranged weapons as Wind Wall does.

Silence [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Once, you could cast Silence directly on spellcasters and prevent them from casting any verbal spells for the duration. Now, you must target a point in space, so casters can move out of the effect. This spell still makes spellcasters uncomfortable, especially once your lackeys engage them in melee.

Sleet Storm [3rd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

For slowing attackers, Sleet Storm a good value for the slot. Heavy obscurement blinds and hinders ranged attacks, while the slippery, difficult terrain slows a rush to attack. You hardly need to conceal your pit traps at all.

Wall of Fire [4th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

Wall of Fire may do a bit less immediate damage than Lightning and Fireball, but it lasts, forcing your foes to move and take more damage, or stand still and take more damage. That never stops being funny.

The level 5 and 6 walls tend to prevent any attacks across the wall, so they work best with a divide-and-conquer tactic. Let the knuckle-dragging fighters rush to attack, then drop the wall to separate those clods from their allies.

Wall of Force [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

For maximum evil, combine with Eyebite.

The spell description says that “nothing can physically pass through the Wall of Force.” Physically? D&D top-banana Mike Mearls says spells cannot pass a Wall of Force, which matches their behavior in earlier editions. Also in earlier editions, teleport, dimension door, and gaze attacks could pass.

Wall of Force often features in player schemes to automatically win every encounter by using the wall to trap monsters in a sort of killing jar. Years ago, a player told me of combining the wall with Create Water to drown monsters. Third edition stopped such shenanigans by requiring that the wall manifest on a single plane. Now, players combine walls of fire and force to trap and incinerate every monster, forcing their DM to seek help. So in a misstep, this new edition reopens the door to old DM headaches.

Wall of Stone [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Alas, you cannot create a Wall of Stone in the air where it will fall and crush the fools who oppose you.

Wall of Stone becomes permanent after 10 minutes, so it serves both tricky players who want to seal parts of the dungeon and fantasy economists who want to put imaginary masons out of work.

Wall of Ice [6th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Wall of Ice combines some of the damage dealing of Wall of Fire with a superior barrier.

Escape spells

Sometimes your enemies get lucky and force a temporary retreat. Later, you can return to crush them like insects.

Expeditious Retreat [1st-level Transmutation] (V, S) (casting time: 1 bonus action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes)

This spell grants the speed to outrun everyone except monks and rogues. If they dare to chase you, then make them die alone.

Invisibility [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour)

Don’t bother preparing Invisibility unless you either plan to cast it on your assassins or plan to use it as an escape. The invisibility ends when you cast a spell, and it demands concentration, so it just takes you out of the fight.

Misty Step [2nd-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 bonus action) (duration: Instantaneous)

To escape, use Misty Step to teleport to someplace relatively inaccessible, such as a balcony or across a chasm.

Remember that characters must take bonus actions on their turns, so they cannot wink out at any moment.

Gaseous Form [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour)

Gaseous Form is only useful if you can immediately pass through a crack or keyhole.

Dimension Door [4th-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Instantaneous)

Teleport [7th-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Instantaneous)

Teleport and Dimension Door allow near certain escape. Just allow time to cast them before a lucky blow can bring you down.

Next: A line of defense so potent that it deserves a post of its own: the Glyph of Warding.

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Saving fifth-edition D&D’s evil wizards from meddling do-gooders

In more than a year of fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, I’ve pitted player characters against a lot of wizards. Often, a published adventure or one from D&D Expeditions offers a spellcaster as a climactic encounter. These showdowns typically follow the same script: The players target the leader and focus fire. The villain falls, often without firing a single spell.

Sometimes players relish these easy victories. For instance, in the Expeditions adventure, “The Howling Void,” players spend the adventure unraveling the sources of the villain’s power. So at my table, when the showdown proved easy, it felt like a hard-won reward.

Wizard Pinata

Wizard Pinata

More often, players anticipate a climactic battle, face a cream puff, and feel let down. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us so dungeon masters like me could let that happen.

Some encounters with wizards threaten to go the other way. I once spoke to a DM who had just run a convention adventure. His villain won initiative and launched a fireball that killed the entire party. Rather than ending the session and going for a beer, the DM rolled back time, undoing the slaughter. In the wake of the Fireball TPK, casting Grease must have been a let down. To avoid my own total party kills, I’ve held back fireballs against low-level groups, blaming the villain’s overconfidence, and hoping I could still challenge the players with Web.

Some blame for these fizzled encounters goes to habit carried from fourth edition and the practice of building encounters according to an experience-point budget.

Fifth-edition adventure designers will put spellcasters in encounters as they would in fourth edition. They pit the PCs against a single wizard who ranks several levels higher than the PCs. Fifth edition’s experience point budgets even suggest that this match makes a good fight. Not so. In the last edition, these encounters worked because the game designed arcane foes as monsters, contrived to make a fun encounter. They had defenses and hit points that enabled them to survive a few rounds of focused fire, and spells (attack powers) calibrated to damage a party without laying waste to them. In fifth edition, that wizard’s spells may be too lethal, and he is as fragile as a soap bubble in a hurricane.

To create a satisfying fight against a fifth-edition wizard, spread the experience budget. The wizard needs plenty of allies: brutes to lock down attackers and apprentices to concentrate on defenses. Plus, a wizard of more equal level won’t have spells that can nuke the party that you intend to challenge.

Let me tell you how a showdown with a fifth-edition wizard would really go. It would be a hero’s nightmare. The villain’s magical alarms would ensure that he always stands prepared. You would enter an arcane lab for the climactic battle, tripping barely-seen glyphs with every step. Those lucky enough to escape the wards’ curses, blindness, and damage would face a choice between moving and tripping additional wards, or standing still and posing an easy target for fire and lightning. Any of the people in the room could equally be servants or the mastermind himself, magically disguised. Or perhaps he stands invisible and sheltered in darkness. Unseen, he darts from cover to unleash a barrage, then weaves back into cover before you can counter. The mastermind’s apprentices lurk behind barriers, concentrating to surround him in defensive spells. You face a choice between chasing these minions to unravel their master’s protection, or charging into the teeth of his defenses. Then, if you somehow near victory, the villain blinks away, or proves to be an image or dupe.

Truly, the bards would sing of a victory against such a villain. But at your table, find a fun balance between the evil mastermind and the unprepared pinata.

If you approach a wizard’s defense too much as min-maxing players would, you can devise an encounter that would result in a total party kill. Unless tacticians fill your table—unless your players see the game as a puzzle to solve—you must hold back a bit. Good games come from fun, challenging, and winnable encounters.

Even a balanced encounter can frustrate players. Many of the Wizard’s best defenses prevent PCs from finding, reaching, or even identifying their foe. For instance, in “Empowering the War Mage,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea notes that the Blink spell can lead to frustration.

To temper frustration, and add flavor and variety, you can organize a wizard’s defense on a theme. For example an illusionist may rely heavily on misdirection to keep characters guessing. A necromancer might rely on undead servants and may also use Magic Jar to possess a proxy.

However, just as an occasional easy encounter can prove fun, an occasional dose of frustration can lead to fun. A villain who keeps thwarting attacks by teleporting away or by making PCs flail at illusions will fill players with more hatred than one who merely burns orphanages and drowns puppies. When players finally best a maddening trickster, you will see cheers and high fives around the table.

This leads me to consider ways spellcasters can challenge meddling do-gooders. In my next post, I will review the spells that can save evil masterminds from a quick thumping by murderous treasure hunters.

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The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before

Stirrups. Zero. Shipping containers. Luggage with wheels. All these innovations seem obvious in hindsight. But they went undiscovered for millennia, until someone’s bright idea changed the world—or at least put airport porters out of work. Even those hotel shower rods that curve out made someone rich.

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons includes one obvious-in-hindsight innovation that Gary and the game’s other past designers failed to spot. Alas, it won’t make anyone rich.

Way back in my analysis of bounded accuracy, I explained how attackers in D&D Next tended to hit harder as they leveled up, rather than hitting more often. In “Changing the balance of power,” I wrote that fighters suffered from this new design. “The accuracy-for-damage trade matters most to fighters. Fireball and Blade Barrier work as well as ever. The rogue remains content to sneak up on the goblin king.” But if the Queen of Battle confronts a goblin horde, and she only makes one attack per turn, no amount of extra damage matters, because she can only fell one goblin per turn. “Fighter-types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. Instead, they wind up muffing to-hit rolls against one mook.

Sverrir by ArboEarlier editions of the game offer a solution, a solution so odious that I hesitate to mention it. If fighters gain multiple attacks per round, the misses matter less because there’s more where that came from!

Multiple attacks seemed bad because they always brought awkward memory demands and calculation. “D&D’s designers have struggled to parcel out extra attacks as fighters gain levels. Jumping from one attack directly to two results in a rather sudden leap in power. Instead, AD&D gave fighters extra half attacks, and a need to remember half attacks. Third edition traded half attacks and the memory issue for weaker attacks and fiddly attack penalties. Yuck.

If D&D Next’s designers can find a good way to allow fighters to gain multiple attacks against weaker opponents, then a key piece of the Next design puzzle falls into place.

Late in D&D Next’s creation, the designers compared the benefits each class gained as they leveled and noticed that wizards leap in power at 5th and at 11th levels. These jumps come from quirks of a spell list that dates to the beginning of the game. At 5th level, wizards gain potent attack spells like Fireball, plus unbalancing buffs like Haste. At 11th level, wizards gain 6th-level spells, which bring save-or-die effects like Disintegrate. At the 9th spell level, Gary Gygax felt comfortable stashing world-altering spells like Wish and Time Stop, because his players never reached 17th level and never gained free access to them.

Earlier editions of D&D aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. Those edition’s designers ignored the leaps in power certain spells brought; the fifth-edition designers embraced the leaps.

This brought the obvious-in-hindsight innovation: Rather than offering fighters half attacks or fiddly attack penalties, 5E matches the leaps in power brought by additional attacks to the leaps brought by 3rd, 6th, and 9th-level spells. Fighters gain extra attacks as wizards gain these spells. At the same levels, other classes make similar leaps, such as the rogue’s Uncanny Dodge ability.

Third and fourth editions arbitrarily aligned the game’s tiers with 10th and 20th levels, because of round numbers. Fifth edition aligns the game’s tiers with the leaps in power brought by 3rd, 6th, and 9th-level wizard spells. The designers finessed the other classes so they gain benefits to match the wizards’ gains.

It seems obvious now. Designer Mike Mearls says that a lot of innovations in game design work that way.

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