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.

Posted in Advice, D&D fifth edition | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Advice, D&D fifth edition | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Role-playing game design, Role-playing game history | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s

The media keeps telling us how we, the geeks, have won popular culture. Golfers chat about Game of Thrones at the country club. A minister I know boasted that she was a member of her high school Dungeons & Dragons club. The Return of the King won best picture. Fan culture is everywhere. So we forget that in the early days, when D&D burgeoned by word-of-mouth, no one had seen anything like it.

Of course, little in D&D stands as completely new. The book Playing at the World devotes hundreds pages exploring threads of influence. But in the 70s, unless you joined a tiny cult of miniature gamers interested in fantasy, you would have never seen the game coming. Unless you followed a few, obscure genre authors, you would never have seen anything like it. You shared popular assumptions that D&D would explode.

1. Fantasy is for children and a few oddballs.

Forget the The Lord of the Rings, and then name a work of fantasy that was widely known before D&D. Anything you name is a fairytale or fable—something for children. Conan? He’s a comic book character. Every grown up knows comics are for children. Now consider The Lord of the Rings. It enjoyed enough popularity to get cited by Led Zeppelin and some other long hairs, but when Hollywood tried to trade on its popularity, they added musical numbers. Hollywood did not think they could reach a big enough audience of oddballs, so they adapted for children.

In making the 1978 movie Superman, the producers needed adults to see a movie about what they saw as a children’s character. Imagine marketing a Thomas the Tank Engine film to adults. To free grown ups from the embarrassment of buying tickets, they gave a fortune to Important Actor Marlon Brando. For 15 minutes of screen time, Brando received $3.7 million up front, plus 11.75% of the film’s take, right off the top. The film’s marketing rested heavily on the actor’s performance. All so grown ups could gain an excuse to see the movie on date night.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N. A game where trolls lived in dungeons and refused to die. The original Monster Manual revealed beholders, mind flayers, chromatic dragons and countless other dreadful wonders that filled me with excitement.

The public’s unfamiliarity with fantasy contributed to the panic that surrounded D&D in the 80s. God fearing adults saw their teenagers obsessed with spells and children’s fairy tale nonsense, but darker and more violent. They settled on the only logical explanation, demon worship, because the culprit could not possibly be a really fun game.

Meanwhile, I worked to find the books named in The Dragon’s Giants in the Earth column and later in Appendix N. I found none. Admittedly, I suffered the disadvantage of shopping from a mall bookstore. I knew nothing of used book stores or inter-library loan. Nonetheless, few of Gary’s inspirations remained in print. Today, fantasy books of all stripes crowd the shelves. Then, I took years to collect the books that inspired the game.

2. Games are terrible.

In the 70s, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. The winner becomes obvious long before the end, yet they took forever to finish. Games covered prosaic subjects like Life and Payday, or financial wish-fulfillment like Monopoly or, well, Payday. Still, I liked games enough that I even played terrible ones endlessly. (Except, of course, for Monopoly, which I suspect Hasbro makes to convince millions that games are tedious. I cannot fathom their plot’s endgame.) My standards were so low that I liked the 1974 game Prize Property where you launched legal actions against your opponents to stall their building developments. Legal actions. The box claimed fun for ages 9 and up.

People suffered from narrow ideas about what a game could be. Someone wins, someone loses, the game never extends past the board and never continues after you close the box.

Before I saw D&D, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. Working from a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch, I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetSo in a mere 48 pages, the Holmes Basic D&D rule book shattered my notion of what a game could be.

Later, when I described the new game, everyone asked the same questions: “How do you win?” and then, “if you can’t win, what’s the point?” Everyone struggled to grasp the notion that you played to have fun without any chance of winning. For more, see “But how do you win?

3. Adults cannot play act a role.

People sometimes say that D&D did not invent the role-playing game. Kids have always role played; we just called it make believe. Saying that D&D just brought make believe to adults misses the true innovations. The revolution came from playing a character with stats that carried to the next session, and from the idea that characters gained experience and improved. In Playing at the World, while describing D&D’s reception, Jon Peterson shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players. The combination proved so compelling that just about every computer role-playing game borrows it.

For more, see “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”

Meanwhile, parents feared that playing a role in D&D would lead their children to confuse fantasy with reality. After all, wasn’t anyone old enough for such a complicated game too old for make believe? Kids talked about being a wizard or a thief and responsible citizens worried that kids believed it. The D&D panic stemmed as much from this unfamiliar blurring of reality as from spells and demons.

4. Dungeons are just medieval jails.

Zombies and vampires appear everywhere in popular culture. Both archetypes seem medieval, but the popular conception of zombies only dates back to George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.

The concept of a dungeon as an underground sprawl with monsters and treasures, is even newer.

In the fantasies that inspired the game, no character explores a dungeon. At best, you can find elements of the dungeon crawl, such as treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, traps in a Conan yarn, and so on.

Now, the dungeon adventure qualifies as a trope that appears in virtually every computer fantasy game.

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

In my world before D&D, games gave the fun of launching legal action against fellow real estate developers. When I opened the basic rules, I could brave the peril and mystery of the dungeon shown in the Stone Mountain cross section. Still today, no image inspires my enthusiasm to play as much. I jumped from property law to Greyhawk.

For more, see “From Blackmoor to Dungeons & Dragons: The invention of the dungeon crawl.”

By the end of the 70s, fandom had yet to dominate popular culture, but Star Wars and Superman and Dungeons & Dragons had established a beachhead. The gains would only continue.

For me, the 48 pages of the 1977 Basic Set did more than introduce the best game in the world, those pages turned some of what I understood upside down.

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Building a miniature collection on a budget from the most useful figures

Miniatures offer plenty of visual appear, but the task of collecting enough figures for play can seem overwhelming. Fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder include hundreds of monsters, and then most encounters require duplicates.

Despite all the possible monsters, you can add miniatures to many encounters by collecting figures for a few, common foes. For the price of grand, expensive figures like Tiamat and Orcus, you can collect enough cheap figures to power about a third of your encounters.

Unless you want to adopt a new hobby painting miniatures, I suggest building your collection with plastic, pre-painted miniatures.

Not all miniatures paint as quickly as these slimes from Reaper

Not all miniatures paint as quickly as these slimes from Reaper

Instead of opening random boxes, buy your collection as singles on the secondary market. The secondary vendors open cases to chase rares that command high prices, then they sell the dull commons at reasonable prices. You may never play that pricey chimera or balor, but that kobold will see plenty of time on the table.

A few types of enemies appear very frequently in fantasy adventures, so you can fill lots of encounters with just a few figures. The most-played figures represent evil humans and a few low-level foes. In “11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I offered a list that included many of these. For this post, I present an updated list of the most useful types of miniatures.


Human Thug - Harbinger 47

Human Thug – Harbinger 47

The most useful figure of all can appear as a thug or bandit in countless encounters. These types typically carry a simple bludgeon. My favorite tough guy appeared as the Human Thug in the Harbinger miniatures set. The thug’s shiny, expensive armor doesn’t suit a ruffian with a club, but until someone makes a bandit who spends less time polishing, I’ll keep packing these figures with my dice.


Human Rogue - Heroes and Monsters 16

Human Rogue – Heroes and Monsters 16

Not every criminal element favors blunt-force trauma. For thieves and assassins who prefer knives, I like the Human Rogue. Perfect for an encounter it a dark alley.


As soon as the adventure reaches the water, the thugs become pirates. For years I relied on the Cloudreaver for the swabbies and the Defiant Rake for commanders. The Pathfinder Skull & Shackles miniature set brought and abundance of pirate riches. Pirates appear so often that all these figures find a role on the table.

Cloudreaver - War of the Dragon Queen 44

Cloudreaver – War of the Dragon Queen 44

Defiant Rake - Dungeons of Dread 43

Defiant Rake – Dungeons of Dread 43

Pirate Smuggler - Skull & Shackles 14

Pirate Smuggler – Skull & Shackles 14

Pirate Sailor - Skull & Shackles 13

Pirate Sailor – Skull & Shackles 13

Tessa Fairwind - Skull & Shackles 24

Tessa Fairwind – Skull & Shackles 24

Arronax Endymion - Skull & Shackles 27

Arronax Endymion – Skull & Shackles 27


Every tyrant and corrupt official needs guards to keep power, so PCs will tangle with soldiers almost as often as thugs. In fourth edition, the typical guard wielded a halberd, making the Human Town Guard a fit. For a sword-wielding version, I favor the Watch Officer.

Human Town Guard - Lords of Madness 22

Human Town Guard – Lords of Madness 22

Watch Officer - Heroes & Monsters 9

Watch Officer – Heroes & Monsters 9

Wise soldiers shoot from the walls, so I wish some figures looked like a uniformed guard aiming a ranged weapon. The Cleric of Syreth fits best; he just seems a bit too fancy. The Human Ranger also fits, although he seems a bit too woodsy.

Cleric of Syreth - War of the Dragon Queen 3

Cleric of Syreth – War of the Dragon Queen 3

Human Ranger - Heroes and Monsters 17

Human Ranger – Heroes and Monsters 17

Skeletons and Zombies

In the early days of dungeon adventures, no one worried about how dungeon dwellers reached food or water or an exit. Now if you stock a room with a dragon who is too big for the doors, you will lose your game master’s card—after your players stop laughing at you. This leads dungeon builders to fill rooms with creatures that survive on nothing.

Skeletons and zombies make a perfect threat for a sealed dungeon, so they appear constantly. The Harbinger set included my favorite zombie. Its posture suggests a shambling gait and its exposed gut looks suitably gruesome.

The skeletons guarding some ancient crypt shouldn’t sport polished armor, so I like the unarmored, Boneshard Skeleton. Skeletal Archers balance encounters with ranged attackers.

Zombie - Harbinger 58

Zombie –
Harbinger 58

Boneshard Skeleton - Desert of Desolation 39

Boneshard Skeleton – Desert of Desolation 39

Skeletal Archer - Angelfire 50

Skeletal Archer –
Angelfire 50


To dungeon designers, elementals and undead provide the same advantage: Neither type needs food. Elementals appear frequently because they pair interesting attacks with evocative flavor, plus they work at many power levels.

The first medium-sized elemental figures came molded in opaque plastic. The earth elemental looks like a brown Thing. Although the water and fire elementals hardly look wet or fiery, they’re recognizable. The slate-gray air elemental looks like a melting fish-man. It ranks as the worst D&D miniature ever.

Earth Elemental - Heroscape

Earth Elemental –

Medium Air Elemental - Dragoneye 23

Medium Air Elemental – Dragoneye 23

Later, the Heroscape game redid these air, fire, and water elementals in translucent plastic. Three of these figures became favorites. No other water elemental looks as wet; no other fire elemental as hot. Sadly, cloudy plastic fails to redeem the melting fish-man. The Heroscape bases are too big to fit a 1 inch squares, so I snapped the figures off and glued them on smaller bases. Alas, Heroscape ended production years ago.

Water Elemental - Heroscape

Water Elemental – Heroscape

Fire Elemental - Heroscape

Fire Elemental – Heroscape

Air Elemental - Heroscape

Air Elemental –

For medium elementals, look to the Pathfinder Battles Shattered Star miniature set. The fifth-edition Monster Manual only presents stats for large elementals. The Pathfinder elementals stand tall enough to double as large, or buy large figures in the Elemental Evil set.

Air Elemental - Shattered Star 10

Medium Air Elemental – Shattered Star 10

Medium Water Elemental - Shattered Star 15

Medium Water Elemental – Shattered Star 15

Fire Elemental - Elemental Evil 28

Fire Elemental (large) – Elemental Evil 28

Shardstorm Vortex - Savage Encounters 32

Shardstorm Vortex – Savage Encounters 32

Ideally, I want a medium air elemental that looks like a whirlwind and can double as a spell effect. The Shardstorm Vortex comes close except for the dirty wash representing shards of stone.

Dungeon Vermin

In a fantasy game world, rats, snakes, and spiders make a common foe. Dungeon designers can add them without food-chain questions. Unlike charismatic beasts like wolves, no players want to befriend them.

So far, no rat figure earns my endorsement. The D&D miniatures line hasn’t produced a rat that looks much like a rat. Meanwhile, the Pathfinder Dire Rat towers over halflings and goblins.

Diseased Dire Rat - War of the Dragon Queen 28

Diseased Dire Rat – War of the Dragon Queen 28

Venomous Snake - Heroes & Monsters 14

Venomous Snake – Heroes & Monsters 14

The Pathfinder line produced my favorite serpent, the Venomous Snake. For spiders, I like the Deathjump Spider despite its budget paint scheme. The Wolf Spider offers more color.

Deathjump Spider - Dungeons of Dread 54

Deathjump Spider – Dungeons of Dread 54

Wolf Spider - Elemental Evil 8

Wolf Spider –
Elemental Evil 8

Corporeal Undead

Terror Wight - War Drums 41

Terror Wight – War Drums 41

How do you tell the difference between a ghoul and a wight? To me, they all look like angry dead things. One figure can fit ghouls, wights, and similar creatures. My favorite angry dead thing appeared as the Terror Wight. The Castle Ravenloft board game even made this sculpt a zombie, so it can play hungry or angry.

Incorporeal Undead

Lurking Wraith - Against the Giants 51

Lurking Wraith – Against the Giants 51

How do you spot the difference between a ghost, wraith, phantom, specter, apparition, haunt, or other incorporeal undead? You flip the miniature and read the base. My favorite phantom is the Lurking Wraith figure, which ranks as the absolute best D&D miniature figure ever produced. Not only does the translucent figure look great, but it works in numerous encounters at every level. Plus, the sculptor gave the figure a neutral expression, so it can appear as a friendly ghost without provoking an immediate attack.

Evil Spellcaster

Grim Necromancer - Deathknell 36

Grim Necromancer – Deathknell 36

Plenty of miniature sets feature lichs and other evil wizards, but more adventures include evil spellcasters that rank below dark lord. I want them to look evil, but without skeletal faces, crowns, and so on. So I like how the Grim Necromancer looks nasty without appearing poised to explain his plan to kill you all. Bwa-ha-ha-ha.


After Horde of the Dragon Queen and Princes of the Apacolypse, I’m ready for a 5-year break from evil cults. Nonetheless, someone has to join the ritual to free the demon god. Plus cultist figures can double as wicked spellcasters. The detail painted on the face of the Blood of Vol Cultist caught my eye. Someone at the factory should have gone to art school.

Doomdreamer - Legendary Evils 11

Doomdreamer – Legendary Evils 11

Cultist of the Dragon - Archfiends 48

Cultist of the Dragon – Archfiends 48

Blood of Vol Cultist - Blood War 29

Blood of Vol Cultist – Blood War 29

Black Knight

Dread Guard - Archfiends 31

Dread Guard – Archfiends 31

Not every evil mastermind goes to wizard school, so adventures often feature black-knight types. According to an online retailer, the Dread Guard ranks as the most popular figure in the Archfiends set.

Goblins and Kobolds

Most D&D games get played at the lower levels, which tend to limit DMs to pitting players against goblins or kobolds. For instance, the 4E and 5E introductory adventures featured goblins, while Horde of the Dragon Queen opted for kobolds. I suggest stocking both races of evil humanoids, and getting a mix of ranged and melee figures. They’re cheap. Pathfinder GMs should select the game’s distinctive goblins. For D&D, the Goblin Sharpshooter and Goblin Cutter look best. I like the Kobold Slinger, but I have yet to see a definitive kobold melee figure.

Goblin Cutter - Legendary Evils 23

Goblin Cutter – Legendary Evils 23

Goblin Sharpshooter - Dangerous Delves 22

Goblin Sharpshooter – Dangerous Delves 22

Kobold Slinger - Lords of Madness 27

Kobold Slinger – Lords of Madness 27

Inessential figures

In “11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I listed 3 figures that no longer seem to rate as essential.

Animated statue

I wrote: I love to toy with players’ metagame expectations. Every D&D player knows that statues invariably come to life and attack-at least when they have a miniature on the map. So whenever a statue appears on a map, I drop a statue or gargoyle figure on top of it. Inevitably, the players edge nervously around the potential hazard. It never ceases to amuse me. Does that make me a mean DM?

In practice, animated statures appear less often than players fear, and most come in large size. On the other hand, gargoyles see nearly enough play to merit a place on the list of most useful figures.

Animated Statue - Desert of Desolation 2

Animated Statue – Desert of Desolation 2

Earth Element Gargoyle - Blood War 48

Earth Element Gargoyle – Blood War 48

Gargoyle - Dragoneye 52

Gargoyle –
Dragoneye 52

Elf Warmage

Elf Warmage - Blood War 5

Elf Warmage – Blood War 5

I wrote: I always carry a few miniatures suitable for player characters that I can loan out. Players borrow this Elf Warmage more than any other figure. Plus, she often finds work as a patron, bystander, or fey villain.

I still loan out the Elf Warmage and other figures for PCs, but I limited this post to foes.

Guard Drake

With the end of the Dragon Queen storyline, I expect drakes to see much less play. However, the Tyranny of Dragons set offers a Guard Drake that looks imposing. Earlier drakes looked like a pet for the Flintstones.

Guard Drake - Tyranny of Dragons 22

Guard Drake – Tyranny of Dragons 22

Guard Drake - Demonweb 48

Guard Drake –
Demonweb 48

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Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games

When creators dream up imaginary worlds, they can go in two directions. They can build their world from a curated set of ideas, and then fit these pieces together into a logical and consistent manner. In a fantasy gaming, these creators worry about how magic affects society and culture, and then wind up with worlds like Glorantha or Tekumel.

Dave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. If Tekumal is a museum, with treasures for contemplation, then Arduin is a dragon’s horde, with everything shiny heaped to the walls.

Dave Hargrave pictured in Different Worlds issue 31

Dave Hargrave pictured in Different Worlds issue 31

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in a little, brown book named after his world, The Arduin Grimoire. In 1977, his unofficial supplement to Dungeons & Dragons debuted at California’s DunDraCon II convention. The book’s success led to the sequels Welcome to Skull Tower (1978) and The Runes of Doom (1978).

In a look back on the trilogy, Ryk Spoor called Arduin “one of the most absolutely concentrated essences of the fun of roleplaying games ever made.” Jonathan Tweet, the lead designer of third-edition D&D, called Arduin the “the coolest RPG book ever.”

The Arduin TrilogySometime in 1979, I found the series on the shelves of The Hobby Chest in Skokie, Illinois. The pages teemed with fresh ideas. The author suggested strange pairings of science and fantasy. He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. It all seemed a little subversive. I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read. At first I thumbed through the books at random, discovering gems, then I turned to page one and read. (Due to the books’ random organization, both reading orders felt the same.) As Hargrave wandered through Arduin lore and free-associated RPG wisdom, I learned three lessons.

Fantasy gives freedom to imagination.

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

As D&D’s audience exploded, in the days before Appendix N, most new players’ experience with fantasy started with Tolkien and ended with a few imitators. The sort of science-fantasy found in say, Jack Vance, seemed wrong. To us, Hargrave preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” Hargrave wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

Evidence of his creative abandon appears everywhere, from the “Multiversal Trading Company” to descriptions of the world’s 21 hells. For instance, the 17th plane of hell features blasted futuristic cities and space ports under a blue-black, moonless sky. Most vegetation is petrified. This hell’s most common inhabitant is The Black Wind, a fog of shifting shadows, lit by crackling, blue lighting bolts. The wind envelops and attacks psychically, taking over the body, and “forever making it alien.”

Hargrave welcomes a variety of character types. “Do not be a small player in a small world, embrace the whole Alternity and give different types a chance. I think you will find that the world your game is in will become a lot more fun if you do.” (Twenty years later, Dave Hargrave’s portmanteau “Alternity,” from alternate eternities, would become the name of a Wizards of the Coast RPG.)

The rules belong to players.

Jonathan Tweet noted the weakness of the Hargrave’s rules. “The Arduin system is usually unbalanced and often unbelievably complicated.” Still, some mechanics would fit a modern game. For example, he offers rules for touch attacks and a hit point system that resembles fourth edition’s. But the specific rules hardly mattered. Hargrave encourages players to own the rules and their games, to tinker, to playtest. On presenting his magic system, Hargrave advises readers to “take whatever I have that you like, use the old established fantasy gaming systems…and put together whatever you like in a magic system. Who knows, it may end up with such a good system that people will want to publish your fantasy world.” (Vol. I, p.30)

Detail makes game worlds come to life.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of the Wilderness Survival map and some encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later. According to Ryk Spoor, “One of the strongest and most powerfully attractive parts of the Arduin series was that, within and around the game mechanics, the statistics for demons and items and spells, Dave Hargrave wove tales and hints of his campaign world, giving us a look at the life of a world that didn’t exist, but … perhaps… could, elsewhere.”

The impact of Arduin

To gamers today, Arduin’s three lessons seem banal. New games seek freshness by colliding genres, so cowboys meet the undead, magic meets cyberpunk, and so on. Endless setting books lend detail to world building. When the fifth-edition designers explain their hesitancy to tweak the published rules, they say the rules belong to the players now. Arduin’s Phraints seem to have become Dark Sun’s Thri-Kreen.

After reading the books in 2008, James Maliszewski mused that most of Arduin “generated a resounding ‘meh’ for me,” mostly because its better ideas “were readily accepted and incorporated into gaming.” He concludes, “It’s nearly impossible to read the Arduin Trilogy now and see any of its ideas as original as they once were.” True, but in 1978, Arduin’s lessons demolished barriers that would never stand again.

Gary Gygax versus The Arduin Grimoire

In the 70s, Gary Gygax resented products that rode his and D&D’s coattails. The man had 6 children to feed! Arduin aped the little, brown books and tore down D&D’s rules, so the grimoires earned particular ire. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gary added the Vacuous Grimoire (p.155) as a dig at The Arduin Grimoire. Read it and lose 1 intelligence and 2 wisdom. In the pages of The Dragon, Gary attacked spell points, critical hits, and other rules that Hargrave offered as improvements.

TSR issued a cease and desist letter to Hargrave, who responded by blanking references to D&D. My printing splices in mentions of “other popular systems” and “old established fantasy gaming systems” where D&D was mentioned. Hargrave took to calling Arduin a completely different game, although it skipped essential rules that readers must find elsewhere (in D&D). Rules sections are labeled as changes or revisions to an unnamed game (still D&D).

Over the years, Hargrave created the missing rules needed to make a stand-alone game. But no one cared about his rules. Dave Hargrave never realized that his rules hardly mattered.

His feverish invention mattered. Arduin’s lessons mattered—and they changed role-playing.

Related: For an affectionate and funny tour of the first Arduin Grimoire, read “Arduin Grimoire cover to cover” from the first post at the bottom of the page.

Emperors Choice Games offers Arduin products for sale. The original trilogy now appears in a single volume, although the price seems high for anyone but a passionate student of RPG history.

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In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The cash-poor, big-score campaign

empty_chestGary Gygax devised Dungeons & Dragons to motivate player characters to chase treasure, but the game matured in 40 years. Now player characters adventure to smite evil, to redeem their name, to recover lost knowledge, to reach endless other goals. This development makes obsolete the game’s old practice of motivating PCs by handing out gold hoards that double every few levels.

So why not stop?

The pulp-fantasy heroes than inspired Gary Gygax rarely strike it rich. Even when they scored big, they lost their gains before they retired from adventure and deprived readers of another yarn. If you, as a dungeon master, rob or tax gold away, players will howl. If you never give PCs more gold than they need, few players will care.

In the cash-poor campaign, you avoid awarding more gold than the PCs can spend on mundane expenses and consumables. PCs gain as much magic treasure as ever. Those few PCs still motivated by treasure can still chase the big score—just like the pulp heroes, but that score comes at the end of the campaign. When PCs chasing wealth get rich, they retire, realistically. These PCs don’t risk their lives to fill a second Scrooge-McDuck-style pool of loot.


The cash-poor campaign keeps gold meaningful by never awarding much. The game’s economy matches the pulp-fantasy settings that inspired it. If players score big at the end of a campaign, it feels like a climax—and a reason for a character to retire.

The cash-poor campaign lets the dungeon master focus on other aspects of play. DMs can avoid contriving a magical market. The can worry less about awarding gold, which no one spends anyway.


The gold that accumulates on D&D character sheets, unspent, still feels like an achievement. The Forbes 400 teems with real-world billionaires with more money than they can ever spend, still chasing a higher score. (How much gold do you need to win D&D?) For some players, a cash-poor campaign may feel like a game without enough rewards. You will need to calibrate expectations and be sure players feel comfortable with it.

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In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The game within a game

The baseline Dungeons & Dragons game offers player characters plenty of chances to gain treasure and few chances to spend it.

When Dave Arneson opened the dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor, Chainmail miniature battles served as a game within his game of dungeon crawling (or technically vice versa). Player characters spent gold to raise armies, launch fleets, and build castles.

Since then, various rules for clashing armies have complimented D&D’s editions. For more, see Dungeoneering and the Art of War by Shannon Appelcline. Few D&D players care to trade their characters’ adventures for a miniature wargame, so none of these war games within D&D lasted. Without the miniature game, PCs could still buy strongholds, but their clubhouses entered play about as much as a fancy hat drawn in a character portrait. Some players happily feather their characters’ caps, but most players will not chase simple trophies.

Instead, players favor investments that factor into play. Magic items affect the game’s core of adventuring, so they make a popular way to spend. To create a campaign where players eagerly spend on more than magic, expand the campaign’s scope beyond dungeon crawling and dragon slaying. Follow Dave Arneson and add a game within the game.

If you want to create a war game within your campaign, fifth edition D&D offers a set of mass-combat rules. The spirits of Dave and Gary will smile down on you as you play D&D as they always intended.

However, unless your group features a rare bunch of grognards, you probably need a secondary game that better suits roleplayers.

In this post, I review some history of the game within the D&D campaign and show how the story leads to 5 lessons.

D&D expands beyond fighting men

When D&D grew, many new classes did not suit the original goal of building castles and commanding armies. Perhaps thieves could build a hideout, but druids could only plant a tree. The original, stronghold-building game unraveled.

Lesson 1: The game within a game must match the players’ characters and their goals.

You need not tailor a game for each character, although you can. As a dungeon master, when you start a campaign, you can establish a goal for it. For example, the PCs must fight to free their homeland or scheme to raise a princess to the throne against her rivals and their shadowy supporters. The players can decide how their characters come to share the campaign goal, but they all need a reason to join together and work toward that goal.

A game within the D&D campaign should let players advance their characters’ goals.

D&D Companion Rules

TSR1013_Dungeons_&_Dragons_-_Set_3_Companion_RulesThe best attempt at a game within a game came when Frank Mentzer wrote the D&D Companion Rules (1984), supporting play from levels 15 through 25. These rules included Dominion rules to drag the PCs’ strongholds into the game. The rules give players something to do with their domains, even if it’s mostly bookkeeping.

PCs start with a county, build a castle, and watch its population and economy grow. Players do the calculations. When I read the rules, I admired the design, but the activity seemed colorless. The dominion rules seem like tending an aquarium, with more paperwork.

Lesson 2: Losing must seem possible.

Now imagine that the PCs hold a dominion at the last bastion on a hostile border. Imagine the PCs defending their subjects with shrewd administration, diplomacy, and typical PC heroics. This dominion game becomes compelling. Once defeat seems possible, the dominion turns from a bookkeeping activity into a game.

D&D War Machine rules

The D&D Companion Rules also included a War Machine mass-combat system that let players resolve battles without building a basement sand table. “To use the system, all you need is a pencil and paper, plus some knowledge of simple arithmetic.”

Lesson 3: The game within a game typically must to be simple, because the players sat to play D&D .

Traditionally, adding mass combat to a D&D campaign meant adopting another game—almost another hobby. When Frank Mentzer and Douglas Niles created the War Machine mass combat system, they made a key insight: For their game within D&D to work, it needed to be simple enough not to distract from the usual D&D adventures. If anything, War Machine brings too much realism. Most D&D players would happily adopt something as simple as the Risk rules.

Lesson 4: Players must see how their choices will lead to outcomes.

The pursuit of a simple rules might tempt you to reduce the game within a game to DM fiat. Instead of inventing some simple rules, you just rule on an outcome. Don’t make this mistake. Relying on DM fiat will rob the players of their agency: their sense that they control their destiny in the game. Players will wonder if your ruling just follows whatever narrative you dreamed up at the start.

Instead, the players should understand understand the rules of the secondary game well enough to plot strategy. They should know how their bribes will affect diplomacy rolls, and how the mercenaries they hire will swing the battle.

Battle Interactives and Epics

Some of my favorite games within a D&D game only spanned a single session: the convention games known as Battle Interactives or Epics. These games gather hundreds of D&D players into a ballroom, where they cooperate to reach a common objective. While players at each table race to win battles, the event’s organizers create a game within the game to track progress toward winning—or losing—the war. For more, see “Living Forgotten Realms Battle Interactive.”

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

Lesson 5: Show players their progress toward success.

Good games within a game tend to focus on a game board. This board might show provinces freed from the dread emperor’s rule, or it could just list electors and show their willingness to support the princess’s claim to the throne.


In the typical D&D game, PCs wander the game world, looking for troublemakers to kill while increasing their battle prowess.

The game within a game helps transform your game world from a backdrop to something vibrant. It can transform PCs from drifters into people with a home. PCs can use their wealth to extend influence and change the world—and not just by murdering the troublemakers.


Even the simplest game within a game demands a lot of work. Some players just want to slay monsters.

Next: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The cash-poor, big-score campaign

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In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The limited magic-market campaign

The easiest outlet for wealth comes from trade in magic items. However, for reasons that I spelled out in “Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains,” fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons lacks the free magic economy of fourth edition.

Even without an open market, your campaign can still allow some trade. A limited, magical marketplace empowers players to purchase magic you select, so the market avoids the drawbacks of granting total access. This campaign style keeps magic items rare and extraordinary, like works of fine art. A market for magic exists, but buyers and sellers connect by rumor, personal connections, and agents.

In most campaigns, D&D players seek rumors and patrons for the jobs that lead to adventure. In a limited-market campaign, PCs extend their network to find contacts with magic for sale. Perhaps a merchant knows a noble family on hard times, or a temple gained a magic sword from a benefactor. In this model, some items still come from monsters in the cellar, but as many come from willing sellers.

Creating the market campaign

In the market campaign, you, as DM, reduce the number of permanent magic items available in treasure hoards, and then enable players to purchase a similar number of items.

What items become available for sale? Unlike fourth edition, which encouraged players to shop for items in the Player’s Handbook, characters shop in the game world. Contacts offer selections of items for sale. This gives DMs the authority to choose which items enter their game. Players gain a choice over the magic they buy. In a baseline 5E game, unless you take player requests for the items that might coincidentally appear in a horde, players have no choice in the magic their characters get. In a market campaign, you can gather magic want lists from the players in game. Just have a dealer in magical curiosities ask the PCs what sort of items might interest them.

The reduction in magic available in hoards means that adventuring parties may need to divide treasure differently. Players who do not claim magical treasure should get a bigger share of the gold. They will need the cash to buy their own magic.

If you prefer not to spend game sessions letting PCs ask NPCs about magic for sale, you can allow PCs to spend downtime locating items for sale. Let the players spend 10 days of downtime and then make an Intelligence (Investigation) check to give a sense of the number and rarity of items available for sale. The player can suggest the sorts of items they want, but you decide exactly what items become available and at what price.

Regardless of the way the PCs locate magic for sale, some of the items should cost more than they can pay right away.

You can add some adventure to the magic-item market by creating transactions more colorful than a simple sale. For example, PCs could spend gold to pay craftsmen or enchanters to repair a broken item, or they could be contacted be thieves offering to steal an item from someone who the players cannot rob themselves. Perhaps the most interesting transactions double as adventure hooks. For example, players could discover chances to make these deals:

  • Buy a map showing the location of an item.
  • Pay sages or diviners to find the location of a lost, legendary item that the players can retrieve.
  • Pay miners or laborers to excavate the buried entrance of a site housing a legendary item.

All of these lead PCs to more adventure while giving players interesting ways to spend. Especially with deals that include hooks, dangle the opportunity well before the players have enough gold, so you can weigh interest and prepare as needed. The players must feel free to pass on any deal.

How much do the items cost?

When game designers price magic items, they need to consider relative power and the game’s economy. That’s hard. As a DM, when you price magic items, it is easy. Remember that you ordinarily give players magic for free.

spell_compendiumTo price magic items, use your position as DM to keep track of how much gold the players have. Estimate the amount of gold the PCs could win in their next adventures. Then set prices for the items you’re willing to allow based on the PCs’ wealth. If you want to gain a better sense of the relative value of items, check some of your old, third-edition books containing lists and prices of magic items. New copies of the Premium 3.5 Edition Dungeons & Dragons Magic Item Compendium remain available for about $30. The exact 3E prices do not apply to 5E, but the values give a sense of the relative prices of similar gear.


The magical economy adds fun because every player happily spends gold on magic. Castles and titles and ships only appeal to a few, but everyone loves a new magic item. Dungeon masters can use the economy to lure players to adventure.


Creating a magical economy demands creativity and preparation that you might want to devote to other aspects of the game. Some players may see commerce as an unwelcome distraction from dispensing justice and such.

Next: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The game within a game

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