Number your monsters to stop wasting time finding them on the battle map

Many game masters boast an ability that I can’t match. I can’t stick to a character accent, but not that ability.

During combat encounters, many GM’s remember which monster corresponds to which damage total on a sheet of paper.

I can’t. In my games, I keep applying damage to the wrong totals until some goblin survives 50 points of damage. Players protest, and I invent a story about a goblin enchanted to never die, or about a legendary warrior cursed to live as a goblin. Good tales, but my players suspect the truth.

Now I use numbered markers to distinguish the miniature figures on my battle map. Alea Tools sells the disks and numbered stickers that I use. Unless you also buy adhesive, magnetic disks and stick them to the bottom of your figures, miniatures tend to slip off the Alea markers.

Elite DM Chuck Benscoter uses markers that cup miniatures’ bases. Too bad Dapper Devil no longer sells these markers.

I number miniatures to help bookkeeping, but two other benefits surprised me.

The numbers speed communication. In the typical fight, players keep referring to monsters as “this one” and “that one.” Then I look up from my notes and ask “which one?” and the pointing resumes. Repeat once per turn.

I train players to refer to monsters by number. “Number three” works much better than “this one.” I rarely even need to look up and find the creature on the board.

After someone damages a monster, number it. When my players hit something, I pass them a marker and say, “Make ‘that one’ number three.”

For area effects, numbers make bookkeeping faster. When the wizard casts the first fireball, I pass a numbered markers for each target. Without looking up from my damage tally, I roll saves. “Number 1 saves…2 fails…” and so on. If some targets already have numbers, then I ask the players to read the numbers of the figures in their area of effect. On my sheet, I make tick marks by the targets, roll saves, and total damage. I can do bookkeeping without looking up.

This method does require a new routine. The long habit of “this one” and “that one” takes a couple of encounters to break, but soon combat encounters run faster.

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Winter Fantasy hosted 12 slots of Dungeons & Dragons and I played through them all

At the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the entire Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall. Despite the event’s compact size, Winter Fantasy delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as the biggest table-top gaming cons. Imagine the D&D track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with a D&D designer or two, the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, concentrated in a convention of its own. Plus, the con offers plenty of $99 hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

This year, Winter Fantasy hosted 12, 4-hour slots of gaming and I played D&D through them all. This post covers some highlights.

An adventure’s written pages only step toward the final product: the play at the table. My dungeon masters and the other player shaped the adventures. We may have steered things in ways the authors never intended. Here, I write about my own experiences at the tables.

DDAL05-11 Forgotten Tradition

In Forgotten Tradition, PCs explore a time-lost museum revealing the history of giants and their kin. Some of this adventure’s success rests on the players’ interest in the museum’s lore. I learned a few things.

Our DM for Forgotten Tradition admitted to tinkering with the adventure’s final encounter. I have no idea what changes he made—or if they improved anything—but I liked the result. The final showdown pitted characters against a unique, single foe. The creature proved so dangerous that my group chose to run. And then our DM turned the escape into an entertaining conclusion.

DDAL05-14 Reeducation Parts 1 & 2

Reeducation lands the PCs on a mission to rescue Seer, their patron in many earlier adventures. Most of the adventure plays as a dungeon crawl. I like dungeon crawls and I liked the story behind this one, but its challenges seemed suited for characters nearing 10th level rather than characters around level 15. My cleric kept rolling low initiatives, so the fights finished before he could act. The pattern became a running gag. Our DM would shrug and remind us they we already played at the highest difficulty.

While my cleric missed turns, another player’s simulacrum took turns. Simulacrum lets you create a duplicate that doubles all your spells and half your hit points. One player gains an extra, second character in the adventure. Yes, I know DMs should scale adventures to challenge an extra character, but the addition doubles one player’s activity at the expense of the other players (me). I’m not sore, just grateful for a start on another post listing most annoying spells in D&D. The first attracted a surge of readers.

DDEP05-02 The Ark of the Mountains

D&D epics give players an experience they cannot match at home. Epics unite many tables of players together to fight for a common goal.

After last year’s Winter Fantasy, I raved about how author Will Doyle delivered the one of the best epics ever with Reclamation of Phlan.

This year, Will proved still he knows how to craft an epic. The Ark of the Mountains challenged players to seize control of a airship in time to use it to battle a giant’s flying war galley. I liked how the fantastic premise made the battle extraordinary, even for the a magical setting. Some past epics overreached in adding magic-as-technology to the Forgotten Realms. To me, fleets of airships dropping alchemical bombs belong in Eberron. This event kept a sense of wonder and the flavor of the Realms by making the airship a ancient artifact.

The Ark of the Mountains improved on Will’s last epic by adding improvements that made the adventure easier for DMs. Rather than the 50 maps in Reclamation of Phlan, Ark reused just a few locations.

At my table, we landed a DM without a killer instinct, so the encounters seemed too easy. What kind of basilisk fails to use its gaze attacks?

DDEP05-01 The Iron Baron

My convention group loves a deadly challenge, so some ranked The Iron Baron as the best session of the con. In this epic, characters raid a fire giant’s fortress. I loved the mix of challenging encounters with varied objectives. During my session, the players won the day, but during other sessions, the heroes fell short. Evidently, epics can be lost, and learning that pleased me. The threat of defeat gives villains credibility and makes the players’ wins meaningful.

Some players felt that The Iron Baron lacked interaction—that it felt like we neighbored tables that just happened to be running the same adventure. While events rarely rippled between tables, our head DM did a wonderful job of uniting the room. As our commander he rallied us; as the Iron Baron, he shouted threats, sometimes in the untranslated Giant.

In past years, conventions ran each epic just one time and the entire convention played at once. This year, the con repeated its epics throughout the convention for fewer tables. This change lifted a burden from dungeon masters. In the past, the convention drafted every DM to run the epic, forcing each DM to prepare an extra adventure, usually at two or three tiers. Now, DMs running the epic can focus on the event, and free the other DMs from extra preparation. Plus, the epics’ organizers face more manageable groups of players.

PHLAN2-1 Hatemaster, PHLAN2-2 Demagogue, PHLAN2-3 The Royal We, & PHLAN2-S

For Winter Fantasy’s D&D experience, Baldman Games premiered 4 adventures of con-created content. These adventures served an ambitious premise: The PCs find themselves protecting the three candidates running in an election to lead Phlan. Bane, god of tyranny, forces the PCs to prove whether any of the three merits the god’s support. In the first three adventures, the PCs enter dream worlds that reveal each candidates’ fondest wishes, realized in three dystopian versions of Phlan. I have never met such off-beat adventures in organized play. I appreciated how they broke from the more typical session.

Of the adventures, The Royal We stood out the most. To start, characters took the roles of commanders on the battlefield in mass combat using simplified Battlesystem rules. Some folks at my table enjoyed the experiment. For me, the scene just showed that if D&D world worked according to D&D rules, battles would look nothing like a medieval clash of arms. After our PCs spent a couple of rounds pounding enemy units with fireballs, they routed. The units represented by cardboard counters on the map barely clashed and never impacted the outcome.

However, the rest of The Royal We delivered. The plot moved to a knotty combat encounter that featured foes with clever synergies. Next, we solved an puzzle that revealed a candidate’s backstory while entertaining and challenging us. The final encounter combined a potential fight with another problem to solve.

The D&D Experience ended with a special adventure that pitted all the tables against a series of encounters where everyone battled to repel an invading fleet. The encounters felt solid, but the enemy spellcasters obviously never read my post on self defense. Characters built around the Sharpshooter feat dish out so much damage in tier-3 D&D play that no spellcaster can start in the open and stand much chance of casting a spell.

Like some past epics, this mini-epic left me wondering about magic and technology in the Forgotten Realms. The ships packed batteries of black-powder cannon.

DDAL05-18 Eye of Xxiphu Parts 1 & 2

As levels increase, characters gain abilities that let them fly, operate in underwater, and travel the planes. Adventures gain an epic feel by inviting players to use their extraordinary abilities. If PCs just wind up in dungeons blasting monsters—but with higher damage totals—then level 17 feels much like level 1. Eye of Xxiphu delivered an epic feel. Our choices took us into an underwater funhouse where author Merric Blackman seemed to channel a measure of White Plume Mountain with a dash of extra gonzo. I don’t know if any of it had a logical explanation, but I didn’t much mind.

When my convention group met the young DM who would run Eye of Xxiphu for us, I worried that running a 2-part, level-17-through-20 adventure for a bunch of old DMs might drag him in over his head. But he showed mastery over the rules and juggled difficult encounters featuring crowds of monsters.

This DM boasted a killer instinct. Someone in our group took a risk with something in the dungeon, and our DM said, “You’re dead. No save.” Fortunately, our party included two clerics, so death only slowed us a little. Welcome to tier 4.

The adventure climaxed in a set-piece battle with us mounted on dragons—or shapechanged into a dragon—chasing a giant airship as at raced to reach a cloud castle. An epic conclusion to an epic adventure. And to an epic convention.

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The surprising benefits of giving an adventuring party a guide

When I started gaming, people tended to play Dungeons & Dragons with larger parties than now. When game session fell short of 8 or more players, dungeon masters often added their own character to fill the group. To me, the practice seemed dodgy. The spotlight belongs on the player characters. The players’ choices steer the adventure; their characters’ actions create the story.

Now, DMs never add their player characters to the party, but sometimes they get the same kicks by adding a pet NPC. These game-world Mary Sues let game masters indulge in wish fulfillment. They turn other NPCs into admirers and turn PCs into sidekicks. (Aaron at RPG Musings tells how to spot at pet NPC.)

Over my career as a DM, I’ve read countless how-to-DM guides. They all warn against letting non-player characters overshadow the PCs. I read this advice and probably shared a typical reaction: No duh. I never felt tempted to create a pet NPC, but I never even created an NPC who traveled with the players.

Lately, I have run some adventures that added NPCs to the party. To my surprise, the additions worked. They enhanced the game.

Out of the Abyss begins with the new PCs held captive. They meet other several other prisoners, and everyone joins in an escape. The PCs and NPCs find themselves deep in the Underdark, traveling together for as long as their paths overlap.

As the adventure progressed, NPCs left the group, leaving a pair traveling companions: Jim Jar, the gambling deep gnome, and Sprout, the young Myconid. I started to see them enrich the game. The ongoing characters became more vivid than the usual walk-on NPCs. The players enjoyed interacting with them. Players never care about the NPCs they meet in passing, but now they became emotionally attached to a silent mushroom boy.

Plus, the traveling NPCs served as guides. Most D&D players feel at home in a fantasy setting, but the Underdark should seem alien. The party’s Underdark natives helped me reveal the strange environment. They could give background information and show the way.

Walk-on NPCs could have met the party and dispensed information, but having a guide creates a certain economy. The players don’t need to keep meeting characters they never see again. Instead, the guides save time while they build bonds.

The adventure Cloud Giant’s Bargain also adds an NPC who guides the players. This adventure takes place in a typical (for D&D), flying castle, so its guide doesn’t help introduce the background. But this adventure aims to introduce D&D to new players, so instructor Tulahk guides novices through the adventure. He reminds players to do the sneaking, investigating, and diplomacy that will lead to success. Plus, Tulahk is crabby, talking skull, so when I ran the adventure, I had fun channeling J. Jonah Jameson while calling the PCs empty-headed boneheads and numskulls.

Despite the advantages of giving a party an NPC guide, only add them when they serve a role. And then keep the guide out of the spotlight.

To prevent a NPC from stealing the spotlight, follow two principles:

A guide can’t make decisions for the party. Either create a guide with little interest in the party’s goal, or make the guide too young, too foolish, or too weird to direct the party. Ed Greenwood prevented his NPC wizard Elminster from overshadowing players by making him eccentric. “I never wanted Elminster to be anything more than the ‘old storyteller’ figure,” Greenwood said. “He was the mind-wandering, irritatingly whimsical old man who could OCCASIONALLY be of help to PCs.”

The players must prove more capable than their guide. Tolkien understood the risks of letting a powerful figure upstage his main characters. He kept contriving to have Gandalf leave for important business elsewhere. If a guide reveals more power than than the PCs, the players will wonder why they showed up. On the other hand, if you mix in NPCs who the players can upstage, and who admire the PC’s exploits, the PCs shine even brighter.

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Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: The Giant Ship

Chapter 3 of the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Storm King’s Thunder encourages characters to roam the Savage Frontier, completing quests and facing warring giants. As written, the section could to become a grind, with long marches interrupted by routine encounters. However, the content leads dungeon masters to enliven the journeys with their own ideas.

Lately, I’ve embellished my own sessions by building on the characters, monsters, and treasure featured in the book to create side treks.

Frost Giant’s Ship

This post shares one of my mini-adventures, The Giant Ship. Although this side trek expands on the suggested encounter for Helms Hold (p.91), you can also plant a hook at any time the characters travel the coast. This episode aims to bring problem solving, roleplaying, and more flavor to what might otherwise be a routine battle.

Characters at levels 5-10 gain access to abilities like flight and invisibility. The giant ship in this trek poses a rescue problem that such PCs can now solve. I tried to contrive a scenario that invites several strategies. I love when players face a dilemma that lets me sit back while they scheme.

As a battle, this final encounter should challenge a party of 7th-level characters. But because they characters probably won’t face another battle on the same day, they can win against the foes.

The scenario’s format shows my effort to make details easy to spot at a glance. I did not create this trek to be read and set aside; I created it to be played at the table.

Please tell me how the trek played at your table.

Download: Side Trek for Storm King’s Thunder.

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New photo guide to dungeon master’s tools

As a dungeon master or game master, you can run a fun game with almost no gear, just a couple of dice, a pen, and some note paper.  I prefer to operate on the other end of the spectrum, with a full array of miniatures, markers, and props. This guide takes a tour through the tools in my DM’s kit. You do not need any of this equipment, but I suspect you will see some items to add to your  case.

A bento box doubles as storage and a dice tray.

Bento box

A bento box serves as compact storage.

A bento box provides storage for my gaming essentials. This Japanese-style lunch set includes two boxes with lids that pull together with an elastic band. I put pens, pencils, and tokens in the one box. Dice go into the other. When I take out the pens, the empty box doubles as my dice tray.   Best of all, when I go to play, just need to grab the box and a character sheet. Also, except for a battle map, all my dungeon mastering essentials fit in the box. Amazon offers some appealing bento boxes for around $20.

Compartment case

The miniature figures I need for a game fit into a translucent-plastic, compartment case. Removable dividers make the compartments’ size adjustable. As visible in the photo, I half-filled some of the compartments with foam rectangles. This prevents miniatures from banging around and makes small items easy to reach. When I need space for a larger miniature, I pluck out the foam for extra room.

Deep compartment case

Deep compartment case

Dungeon master’s screen

I typically use a DM screen. I prefer the 6” tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog games. This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides. I filled the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I needed most at the table. Stuff the players’ side with your favorite fantasy art.

I have created rules inserts for fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, which you can download as a PDF file. Put them in the Hammerdog screen, or just put the inserts on cardboard and fabricate your own screen.

You can learn why I choose to use a screen and download my inserts in “Dungeon master’s screen.”

Behind the dungeon master’s screen

Behind the dungeon master’s screen


I always carry a blank battlemap. The Pathfinder flip-mat works with both wet- and dry-ease markers and folds for easy storage. When laid out, the mat tents a little at the creases.

The Chessex Battemat rolls out and lays flat, but the rolled map is harder to carry. This vinyl map limits you to wet-erase markers.

When I use folded poster maps, I typically make the map lay flat by covering it with a Lexan Polycarbonate Sheet—the sort of material used for storm windows. The Lexan sheets cost more than Acrylic, but they resist cracking. By using wet-erase markers, you can write on these sheets and then erase. Purchase these sheets from your local home-improvement store for under $20.

Battle map under plexiglas

Battle map under Lexan


I transport my maps and Lexan sheet in a inexpensive, artist’s portfolio case.

Some poster maps printed for miniature skirmish games lack a grid. You can still use these maps for your D&D games. ArcKnight sells clear-plastic sheets that overlay a grid on any map. Some DMs avoid grids. Tokens or miniatures on an informal map gives a picture of the battlefield without encouraging anyone to quibble over squares. Alternately, you can use a tape measure to find distances in inches, just as Dave and Gary once did.

Rolling in a box

Clear box for dice rolling

Clear box for dice rolling

For reasons explained in “Rolling in a box,” I always make die rolls in full view of the players. I used to use a clear, plastic box to keep the dice corralled. This clear box never hides the outcome of a roll, but now I use one of my bento boxes as a dice tray. The bento box doubles a storage, so it packs more easily.

Status markers

Alea tools magnetic markers in case

Alea Tools magnetic markers in case

Fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons required combat-status markers to track all the conditions on the battlefield. I invested in a set of Alea Tools magnetic status markers. You can mark the edges of these markers with adhesive labels so everyone can read the status names. The markers cling in place, and a storage case makes organization easy.

Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons eliminates much of the need for combat-status markers, so I no longer bring a case full of markers to the table. However, I’ll always use the numbered markers to tell one identical monster figure from another on the battlefield. When I lack miniatures for a game, I use my numbered markers as creature tokens.

Numbered alea markers

Numbered and labeled Alea markers


Plastic markers

Colored marking dots

Colored marking dots

Colored plastic disks provide any easy way to mark the location of things like a key, a magical glyph, or a wall of fire on the battlemap. Because the disks lay flat, miniatures will sit on top of them. I purchased my set from a convention vendor. You can also buy plastic countersonline.


Marking zones and areas of effect

To designate zones and areas of effect on the battlemap, I use three types of markers:

Colored transparencies.  I keep a set of transparent, colored sheets clipped to the inside of my DM screen. Whenever someone drops, say, a cloud of darkness, I can lay down a sheet on the battle map. Because you can see through the sheets, the terrain stays visible. Typically, you only have to lift one or two figures to place a small sheet, which is easier and faster than marking each of the area’s four corners. You can purchase the transparencies from American Science and Surplus.

Area of effect markers

Blue transparency and yellow boundary markers

Boundary markers. These plastic angles mark the four corners of square areas. The boundry markers from Litko Game Accesories come cheap, work for any size area, and allow the miniatures to stay put.

Area-of-Effect Templates. For third-edition D&D and descendants like Pathfinder, I recommend the wire templates from Steel Sqwire. Frugal gamers can bend and snip templates almost as nice from coat hangers.

Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide drops the jagged spell templates of 3E. Instead, the rules suggest that players measure actual circles and cones on the battle map. Spellcasters no longer need to stay inside the lines. Despite the change, eyeballing spell areas on a grid remains a chore.

Macrame rings

Macrame rings

To show circular spell effects, use macrame rings. The rings come in variety of sizes, so you can get an 8-inch ring for Fireball, a 6″ ring for Darkness, and a 4″ ring for Antimagic Field—or for the tactician who wants to launch a fireball above the battle to catch a smaller circle. The sturdy rings pack easily into your game bag.

Fireball-size ring

Fireball-size ring

I still hunt for wire templates for cone effects. I may try to bend my own.

Line-of-sight indicator

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

A line-of-sight indicator reels out a string that you can stretch between figures on the battlemap to see if obstacles block the line. The string is spring loaded, so it draws back automatically like a tape measure. Paizo sells these, but office supply stores and Amazon offers the same item as a retractable badge holder.

Initiative tents

I track initiative using folded, card-stock tents with names written on both sides. I drape the tents across the top of my DM’s screen in initiative order. If you work without a DM screen, or prefer to delegate initiative to the players, you can stand the tents on the table, lined up in order.

Initiative tents

Initiative tents

You can find more advice and my printable initiative tents at “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Pens, clips, and scissors

Obviously, your DM kit requires regular pens and pencils as well as wet- or dry-erase pens suitable for your battle map. I bring clips so I can affix maps and pictures to my DM screen in the players’ view. Any convention DM must carry scissors to cut apart certificates and player hand outs.

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Post-it flags enable me to affix reminders to my initiative tents, so I can remember when conditions lift, and when the purple worm will burst from the floor.

Poker chips

Poker chips

Poker chips

I give players poker chips to represent inspiration. Different colored chips can also account for magical talismans, blessed elixirs, keys, and other items players must collect or use during the course of an adventure.


As I confessed in “Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – I made a Drowslayer,” I enjoy representing the action on the table with the correct miniatures.

My DM case always includes an assortment of two types of miniatures:

  • Bystanders and civilians. As I wrote in “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads,” miniature figures for unarmed civilians can serve as bystanders to be protected as moving obstacles. Civilian figures can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s Bones lines.

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

  • Beast forms and animal companions. While fourth edition encouraged characters to collect animal companions, fifth edition lures many folks into playing Druids with animal forms. I pack an assortment of the most common beasts. In ascending level, Druids favor the following forms: Wolf, Bear, Hyena, Giant Vulture, Giant Snake, Ankylosaurus, Giant Scorpion, Giant Crocodile, Mammoth, and elementals.

    Animal companion miniatures

    Animal companion miniatures

For a list of other miniatures that I keep close at hand, see “The 11 most useful types of miniatures.”

To avoid the expense of miniatures, you can substitute tokens, Alea markers, or candy—tell players, “If you kill it, you eat it.”

ArcKnight offers a line of flat, plastic miniatures as a cheaper alternative to the real thing. These figures stand upright, so they offer more visual appeal than a token. Once you take them off their bases, they pack flat, making them easily portable.

Flight stands

Miniature flight platform

Miniature flight platform

The flying figure stands from Litko game accessories offer a way to mark airborne figures. The stands allow you to position one figure over another, or to set a die under a flying figure to indicate elevation. The flight stands come in three pieces that require assembly. Typical CA glue will fog the clear acrylic, so I suggest using the Craftics #33 Thick Acrylic Cement. Use nail clippers to trim the long tabs on the vertical support so they fit flush with the base and platform. Pack the stands carefully, because they snap easily.

Dungeon Tiles

When I use Dungeon Tiles, I arrange them on sheets of non-slip drawer liners, available anyplace that sells housewares. The liners grip the table and keep the loose tiles in place. These lightweight liners easily roll up for transport.

Shelf lines keep tiles in place

Shelf lines keep tiles in place


Removable mounting putty

Removable mounting putty

For all but the simplest layouts, loose tiles take too long to arrange on the table, so I like to assemble maps in advance. I use removable mounting putty to stick the tiles on foam-core art boards. Office supply stores sell both the boards and the putty. Get the Removable Adhesive Putty, and not clear removable mounting dots, because the clear stuff sets after a while and will damage the tiles.

For more one dungeon tiles, see my “complete list and gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets” and “complete guide to using Dungeon Tiles.”


Potion vial prop

Potion vial prop

I carry a couple of corked glass vials from American Science and Surplus. While completely unnecessary, I find them enchanting and I sometimes use them as prop potions.

Dungeon decor

While completely inessential, I pack some miniature dungeon decor to add to the battlemap. Figures such as chests, statues, and altars can add three-dimensional flavor to the battlemap, while calling attention to important features. Ballistas appear in enough adventures to make a figure useful. The photo below features items from more recent D&D miniature sets and from Legendary Realms. Reaper’s Bones line also includes some unpainted decor.

Dungeon decor

Dungeon decor

Posted in Dungeon master's tools | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Basic and Advanced—Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game (Part 6)

The Story of Basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Part 1: The time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games
Part 2: Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules
Part 3: Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions
Part 4: Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR
Part 5: Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game?
Part 6: Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game

In 1975, a surging number of Dungeons & Dragons players craved products for the game. TSR head Gary Gygax hired his Dungeons & Dragons co-author to assist. In January of 1976, Dave Arneson moved to Lake Geneva and joined the staff. Gygax seemed eager for the help.

Dave Arneson (photo Kevin McColl)

During Arneson’s time at TSR, he produced little for the company and nothing for D&D. Through all of 1976, Arneson earned just three credits: for an article on WWII naval combat that appeared in Little Wars magazine, for an introduction to the Valley Forge war game, and for ‘special effort’ on the Lankmhar board game.

Arneson did manage to publish several issues of a newsletter for his Napoleonic miniature campaign. He even printed the March 1976 edition on TSR’s mimeograph. For Arneson, the Blackmoor campaign that turned into D&D just provided a break from his true passion: Napoleonic armies and especially sailing ships. He could not match Gygax’s fervor for fantasy or role-playing games.

At the same time, booming demand for D&D products left the rest of TSR’s tiny staff frantically busy. While Arneson took a big cut of D&D’s profits and contributed nothing new, TSR needed money to grow and struggled with cash flow.

Gygax had welcomed his long-time collaborator, but the relationship between D&D’s creators soured.

After 10 months, Arneson left TSR. Arneson’s friend Dave Wesely told one account of Arneson’s exit. When Arneson refused to accept a reduction in royalties, TSR demoted him to shipping clerk, leading him to quit. (See Empire of Imagination by Michael Witner.) Even if the account isn’t accurate, it probably reflects Arneson’s take.

Gary Gygax (photo Alan De Smet)

From Gary Gygax’s perspective, he had labored for years on D&D. He had turned 20 pages of notes into the original rules. He had bet every cent he could scrape together on publishing an odd, risky game. In supplements and magazine articles, he enriched D&D. He defended it in letters and editorials. His friend Frank Mentzer wrote that for D&D, Gygax “paid the costs in stress on himself, his marriage, family, and friends.” Arneson had only planted an idea.

Gygax wondered why Arneson should get a cut of royalties for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Even while working at TSR, Arneson had given nothing new to D&D or AD&D. “Gygax felt that Arneson was but one of many contributors, and felt that the revenues should go to those who built the company and fueled the D&D boom…himself first and foremost.”

When the AD&D Monster Manual reached print in December 1977, the book gave no credit to Dave Arneson. Perhaps Gygax considered the book a supplement. D&D supplements only credited their writers.

When the Player’s Handbook arrived August 1978, Arneson only gets a thank you among 20 other contributors. The Dungeon Master’s Guide never mentions Arneson. As it reached stores in 1979, Dragon published Gygax’s editorials positioning AD&D as a new and incompatible game. Soon, the TSR catalog featured listings for an “Expert” extension of the basic rules. Before, the basic rules led to AD&D; now they lead to a separate game.

In 1979, Dave Arneson sued TSR for royalties.

From Dave Arneson’s perspective, D&D came from his ideas. He had started with a sort of miniature game that had existed for generations and that appealed to nobody (rounding down). Then he had added the concepts that made a revolutionary game. With some help from Dave Wesely, Arneson invented a game where each player controlled a single character, and where a referee enabled players to attempt any action. With some help from Dave Megarry, Arneson discovered the fun of looting dungeons. Arneson’s fantasy game added characters defined by numeric attributes, and characters who could improve through experience.

Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax each argued that D&D’s success rested on his contribution. Both were correct, but that didn’t make sharing the wealth any easier. The court fight lasted until March 1981. The settlement granted Arneson a royalty of 2.5% of the cover price of core AD&D books. (In 1985, Arneson sued TSR again. His lawyers argued that the Monster Manual II—a collection of new monsters—rated as a “revision” of the Monster Manual. Stop laughing. The court agreed.)

Despite the legal battles, TSR gave basic D&D as much support as AD&D. Early in the 80s, the basic game outsold the advanced version. Even as players in the States started to dismiss basic D&D as a kiddie version, the basic line thrived internationally.

Creatively, D&D thrived too. While D&D played well as written, AD&D suffered from cumbersome rules that most ignored. Also, Gygax treated AD&D as his baby and kept strict control over its products, but when designers worked on basic D&D, they enjoyed more creative freedom.

In 1985, Gary Gygax set aside any animosity left in the wake of lawsuits and approached Dave Arneson to do modules for D&D. Arneson submitted 4, starting with DA1 Adventures in Blackmoor. The series sold well, but Gary soon lost control of TSR. According to Arneson, new TSR president Lorraine Williams “did not want Gary or me involved with TSR in any way anymore. So, no more Blackmoor modules.”

Many tout the Rules Cyclopedia as the best version of D&D ever to come from TSR.

In 1991, the last of the basic D&D product line, the Rules Cyclopedia, reached stores. TSR vice president James Ward later explained that the reasons for dropping the line were “mainly financial ones. TSR didn’t have to give a royalty to Dave Arneson if no product was made for D&D.”

Until 2000, all D&D products would appear as part of the AD&D line. After Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR, they dropped the “Advanced” brand for the game’s third edition. In 30 Years of Adventure, Wizards CEO Peter Adkison wrote, Arneson “was supposed to get a royalty off of any product TSR published in the Dungeons & Dragons line. Previous owners ‘got around’ this royalty by publishing everything as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. To me this seemed silly. I talked with Dave, and we agreed that he would release all claims to Dungeons & Dragons if I simply gave him a big check. I did.”

The split between basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons showed an unflattering side of Gary Gygax. But that side didn’t last. Gary founded TSR as a passionate gamer eager to collaborate—and share credit—with any fellow gamer in a tiny hobby. D&D’s success fostered an ugly side. James Maliszewski from Grognardia calls this persona TSR Gary. During this era, TSR Gary became a shameless promoter of TSR interests, a scornful dictator whose proclamations often defied common sense. In the early 80s, I saw TSR Gary at Gen Con, rushing through crowds, flanked by an entourage. My memory my be off, but I recall hearing the Imperial March play.

In his later years, Gary grew open and generous. Despite his standing, he always gave time to interact with gamers. On enworld, he humbly acknowledged every grateful fan and answered every question. At Gen Con, I spied him at an open table, behind the DM screen, taking fellow gamers into a dungeon. The man even invited random gamers from the Internet to drop by his house to game.

Sometimes, when I feel cynical, I suspect that people never really change. But aside from working with Dave to give D&D to us, the thing I like best about Gary is that he changed, and for the better.

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Basic and Advanced—Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game? (Part 5)

Late in the spring of 1976, Gary Gygax started work on a complete revision of Dungeons & Dragons. In Gygax’s TSR office, he and collaborator Tim Kask cut up several old copies of the D&D rules—copies much like the one that recently sold for $22,100 on ebay.

“The first day,” Kask recalled, “We sat with legal pads and dissected the elements of the game into various categories: combat, characters, magic, monsters, artifacts, spells, abilities, and on and on.”

They tacked rules clippings to bulletin boards, sorting them by category. “Then, category by category, we examined the game,” Kask wrote. “We looked for loopholes, inconsistencies and instances of what I’ll call ‘game-illogic.’ We looked at balance issues.” As they tinkered with hit-point totals and with the damage inflicted by weapons and spells, they playtested hundreds of battles.

After seven or eight days consumed by the work, Gygax and Kask produced a plan for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

They planned for three AD&D books that roughly matched the three booklets in the original box set. Men & Magic became the Player’s Handbook, Monsters & Treasure became the Monster Manual, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventure became the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

To actually write the books, Gygax needed years. He wanted hardcovers, but the expense of printing just one title would stretch TSR’s resources. Sales of the first title had to pay for the second, and the second for the third. If gamers chose not to splurge on pricey hardcovers—if they kept photocopying the original rules or if they turned to imitators—then TSR might sink.

Gygax chose to write the Monster Manual first. He figured that current players of the game could use new monsters with few adjustments. Also, the book’s design made writing simple. Every day, between other duties, Gygax would write monsters and throw the stats into a box for employee Mike Carr to collect and type.

When J. Eric Holmes’ introductory manuscript reached TSR, Gygax faced another decision. The new Basic Set would only take characters to level 3. Where should they go next? “Sending them into the morass of ‘Original’ D&D put us back on square one, with all the attendant problems of rules questions, misinterpretations, and wildly divergent play,” Gygax wrote in the March 1980 issue of Dragon. “Would it be better to direct them to AD&D, even if it meant throwing out what they had begun with the Basic Set and making them start a fresh? Faced with a choice between chaos and a clean slate, we opted for the latter.” This explanation comes from 1980, when Gygax had other reasons for claiming that AD&D stood as a different game.

In the summer of 1977, when TSR had a manuscript for basic rules and just outlines for a Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, did Gary plan to create incompatible games?

He made a bid for compatibility. “Pieces and parts of the various components of AD&D were grafted into the Basic Set rules manuscript so that D&D would be more compatible with the Advanced game. Readers were directed to AD&D throughout the Basic Set.” His sales plan for the AD&D Monster Manual depended on players using it in their original D&D games.

But Gygax also expected differences. He and Kask had already tweaked some spells, damage, and hit point numbers. Because the Thief class highlighted the inconsistency where non-humans could treat their race as a class or could adopt a class, Gygax probably planned AD&D’s complete separation of race and class all along.

In a 2005 comment, Gygax wrote that he never intended the Holmes Basic Set to serve as in introduction to AD&D, and that he never intended to meld the two games.  But after decades of saying that AD&D was a separate game, perhaps his claim pushed aside any memory of his original plan. I suspect that if basic D&D had started as something more than introduction, TSR would have released an Expert Set in 1978. Instead, the expert rules came in 1981 when TSR needed them to bolster a legal case.

In the end, AD&D never proved as different as Gygax claimed. His new version of D&D remained roughly compatible with the original. Supposedly, AD&D featured strict rules while original D&D featured room for customization, but everyone—even Gygax—changed and ignored AD&D rules to suit their tastes. Later, Gygax wrote, “I just DMed on the fly, so to speak, and didn’t use the rules books except for random encounters, monster stats, and treasure.”

Next: Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game

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Basic and Advanced—Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR (Part 4)

Early in 1976, Gary Gygax decided that Dungeons & Dragons needed new rules that beginners could understand. He planned a complete revision of the game, but realized creating one would take years. Such a long wait would stifle D&D’s growth and encourage competitors. Then “as if by divine inspiration,” Dr. J. Eric Holmes volunteered to create introductory rules.

J. Eric Holmes MD as pictured in his book Fantasy Role-Playing Games (1981)

Starting with the original rule books plus the Blackmoor and Greyhawk supplements, Holmes made D&D comprehensible while keeping “the flavor and excitement of the original rules.” As much as he could, he reused wording from the original game. Where D&D left the order of events in a combat round ambiguous, Holmes adopted a sequence from Warlock—the D&D variant Holmes originally used to make sense of D&D. Like Warlock, Holmes relies on Dexterity to determine who strikes first. He even tried to convince Gygax to adopt something like Warlock’s spell-point system. Ultimately, Holmes created a clear, concise 48-page handbook.

Meanwhile, in May or June of 1976, Gygax visited the office where Tim Kask edited The Dragon magazine. Gygax wanted Kask’s help on a design. “Gary told me that this new project would begin the following Monday and to wear my thinking cap,” Kask remembers. “I had no idea what he had up his sleeve, but I figured it was bound to be fun.” Kask delivered The Dragon to the printer in record time.

Gygax filled his own office with bulletin boards from other rooms. He collected several sets of the most worn D&D books, issues of The Strategic Review, and The Dragon. When Kask arrived on Monday, Gygax ordered his staff not to disturb the two except in dire emergency.

Gygax planned to create blueprint for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and he needed a collaborator.

Dave Arneson

Dave Arneson

As TSR’s first employee, Kask had turned a basket of notes into the Blackmoor supplement. He now edited The Dragon. Gygax and Kask shared offices next to each other in an old, gray house in Lake Geneva. Kask had earned Gygax’s trust. He made a natural choice for the job.

But when Gygax recruited Kask, he passed up D&D co-creator Dave Arneson.

In January 1976, Arneson had moved to Lake Geneva and become an employee of TSR. When Gygax announced the hire in The Strategic Review, he seemed eager to gain Arneson’s help. “His function will be help us coordinate of efforts with freelance designers, handle various research project and produce material like a grist mill,” Gygax wrote. “Crack! Snap! Work faster there Dave.”

With D&D’s co-creator now working at TSR, why did Gygax pick Tim Kask to collaborate on a new edition?

Dave Arneson’s creative energy shined during his games. Gary Gygax lauded him as “the innovator of the ‘dungeon adventure’ concept, creator of ghastly monsters, and inscrutable dungeon master par excellence.” But Arneson struggled to capture his ideas on paper. Arneson started his Blackmoor campaign when he wanted a break from the rigid rules in his Napoleonic games. For Blackmoor, he made up rules at the table and put a few in notes so he didn’t contradict himself too much. In Different Worlds issue 3, Arneson explained that he closely guarded his fantasy rules so they could “change without notice if something got out of hand.” Dave wrote his fantasy rules for an audience of Dave.

Inspired by Blackmoor, Gygax asked for Arneson’s rules. Arneson thought “Rules? What rules!?!?” Gygax “received 18 or so handwritten pages of rules and notes pertaining to his campaign.” Those notes became Arneson’s written contribution to D&D.

While Dave Arneson invented the style of play that made D&D a smash, the specifics came from Gygax. In Pegasus issue 1, Arneson recalled that Gygax and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.” Arneson said, “D&D had not come out the way that I envisioned it.” By 1979, he tried to capture his own vision in the Adventures in Fantasy game.

When Arneson started work at TSR, Gygax looked forward to help with coordination and research projects. But when Gygax needed help reworking his version of fantasy role playing, he recruited Tim Kask.

Next: Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game?

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Basic and Advanced—Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions (Part 3)

By 1976, Dungeons & Dragons had reached beyond the audience of miniature gamers who stood a chance of understanding the inches, attack matrices, and Chainmail conventions spread across 7 little, brown books. Co-creator Gary Gygax saw his original rules limit D&D’s growth. He saw accessible imitators like Tunnels & Trolls and Warlock attract players.

But D&D’s sketchy rules caused other problems.

In Los Angeles in 1975, Lee Gold started Alarums & Excursions, a fanzine that collected articles and comments from D&D enthusiasts. Her zine attracted contributions by Gary Gygax and influenced the entire role-playing hobby. When the D&D house rules used around Caltech diverged from the brown books, Gold ruled that experience awarded in these Warlock games would no longer apply to characters in other Los Angeles D&D games. Her ruling appears in A&E issue 5, from October 1975.

In these days, players tended to take characters from one DM’s dungeon to another, much like today’s organized play brings players from one game table to another. The megadungeons of the era made dropping in for a delve easy—so long as the DMs ran similar games. But unlike today’s Adventurer’s League, the early games followed no campaign standards and shared no dungeons. Back then, every DM saw players bring outrageous characters from another dungeon.

In the March 1980 issue of Dragon, Gygax said that the original books “were hastily put together in late-night and spare-time hours, by and large, with little or no editing. Each supplement reflected development and evolution of the game, so there was contradiction, duplication, and vast areas of ambiguity and non-direction.”

Even if DMs played by the book, they disagreed about Gygax’s intentions. Old school gamers still dispute how Elves were supposed to switch between acting as a magic user and a fighting man. And to fill areas of “non-direction,” players needed house rules.

At best, house rules tended to get spread among players in a region, so nearby players might share rules for elves, morale, and negative hit points. These sorts of house rules turned into the Warlock rules and the Perrin Conventions.

D&D’s original rules invited so many house rules that players struggled to go from one DM to another. When players gathered at conventions, Gygax saw the trouble. “It’s very frustrating for someone to go from one place to another and sit in on a game that he or she doesn’t recognize and it’s called Dungeons and Dragons.”

At conventions, D&D games continued the wargaming tradition of competitive tournaments. The party that achieved the most won. For example, Tomb of Horrors debuted in a competition held at Origins in 1975. The G, D, and A-series adventures all came from tournaments. The first tournaments drew judges from Gary Gygax’s friends and family, but soon similar D&D competitions appeared everywhere.

Gygax understood that such events demanded a consistent set of rules. “I was not satisfied with Dungeons & Dragons in that it did not allow continuity of play from group to group and from region to region”

In the December 1977 issue of Dragon, Gygax recalled making a plan. “Two years ago, we determined to revise the whole of D&D in order to clean up the errors and fill in the holes. The project is a long and complicated one, a task not accomplished overnight.

“Some players have impatiently demanded immediate release of [revised] material, but we are not about to step into that mess again,” he wrote. “D&D originally came out as it did because of demands of those who had tested it and fallen in love with the concept.”

Gygax realized his revision would take years—ultimately 3 years of work. But D&D needed help immediately.

Help came from a man who had mixed D&D with the Warlock rules—a D&D “parody” that needled Gary Gygax. “As if by divine inspiration,” J. Eric Holmes contacted TSR and volunteered to revise the original rules into a beginners’ book.

Tim Kask recalls the decision to take D&D into two directions: “With the input from Mr. Holmes, they were going to scale back the system and rewrite it for a younger market in a form that would be easier to grasp.” With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, they would “re-publish the game, correcting all of the contradictions, and dropping bits and pieces that hadn’t worked well.”

Next: Recreating Dungeons & Dragons without Dave Arneson—while Dave works at TSR

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Basic and Advanced—Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules (Part 2)

The Story of Basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Part 1: The time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games
Part 2: Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules
Part 3: Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions
Part 4: Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR
Part 5: Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game?
Part 6: Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game

In 1976, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax realized that the appeal of D&D reached beyond wargamers to “almost anyone with an active imagination.” TSR’s first full-time employee, Tim Kask wrote, “Gary and I, and probably Gary and others, had often discussed how to broaden our market.” But unless players understood miniature wargaming with its inches, attack rolls, referees, and so on, they had little hope of understanding the original rules. D&D defied popular assumptions about games and fantasy. People wondered where to find the board, and how you won.

Despite being an avid wargamer, Kask struggled to learn D&D. “Had I not confidently announced that my club was going to have a go at this new game I was so enraptured with, I might not have spent three weeks trying to grasp enough of it to begin. And I had the benefit of having played it twice.”

Gygax and Kask saw D&D lure a new generation of players to wargaming conventions. Also, parents of potential players contacted TSR. Kask remembers, “We were starting to hear from parents that had bought the game as a result of their child’s cajolery, badgering or whining, only to find that it was too complex for their precious darlings to jump right in.”

The game’s supplements also caused confusion. After learning that a book called Greyhawk featured higher-level spells, I cajoled my parents into driving me to the store. Later, back at home, I learned of even more booklets.

Tunnels & Trolls

During D&D’s early years, D&D spread through the game table. Players started at Gen Con in Wisconsin or at Origins in Maryland. They brought the game to friends who taught their friends. But in the western states, the books reached folks before any gamers who had seen D&D played.

Far from Lake Geneva, confused but eager players created a market for games like D&D that featured clearer rules. In Different Worlds issue 1, Arizona gamer Ken St. Andre tells of reading the D&D rules in April 1975. He concluded that “as written the mechanics of play were nearly incomprehensible. I stood up and I vowed that I would create my own version.” By July, St. Andre began selling copies of Tunnels & Trolls.

California Neurologist J. Eric Holmes also found the original D&D rules incomprehensible. In Dragon issue 52, he writes, “There was no description of the use of the combat table. Magic spells were listed, but there was no mention of what we all now know is a vital aspect of the rules: that as the magic user says his spell, the words and gestures for it fade from his memory and he cannot say it again.”

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

To make sense of D&D, he found a set of rules circulating Los Angeles called Warlock, subtitled “How to Play D&D Without Playing D&D.” By using the combat table and spell point system from Warlock, Holmes could start playing.

Warlock came from a group of Caltech students. The game’s introduction tells a common story for the time. “When our group first started playing [D&D], our overall reaction was that it had great ideas, ‘but maybe we should change the combat system, clarify the magic, and redo the monsters.’”

In August 1975, the group published their new rules in a zine called the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal. The new rules took 33 pages. The introduction explains, “Warlock is not intended to replace D&D, nor is it intended to interfere with it. All we have tried to do is present a way of handling D&D without the contradictions and loopholes inherent in the original rules. We spent a considerable amount of time working out a solid combat system, a coherent magic system, and a more flexible way of handling monsters. We have been (rightly) accused of making D&D into a different game altogether, and we think a slightly better one.

“We recommend that you at least have access to a Dungeons & Dragons game, for the simple reason that we lack the space to go into some of the detail used in their three volumes. The D&D books are a good place to get ideas from. They are not a complete set of rules. We have completed them in our own.”

For more, see the Zenopus Archives post, “WARLOCK or how to play D&D without playing D&D.”

The threat of D&D offshoots like Warlock grabbed TSR’s attention. In the August 1976 issue of the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal, TSR published an ad for D&D urging readers to “TRY THE REAL THING!”

In December 1977, Gygax shared his feelings for such D&D “parodies” in the pages of The Dragon. “For most of these efforts TSR has only contempt. For saying so we are sometimes taken to task quite unjustly, but I suppose that is to be expected from disgruntled persons prevented from making a fast and easy buck from our labors—or from those persons responsible for cheap imitations whose work we rightly label as such.”

Gary understood that the fight against D&D’s imitators required a new set of rules.

Next: Campaigns, tournaments, and consistency

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