Origins 2017: Choose Your Own Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

This year at Origins, I split my time between serving as a dungeon master, and playing in Dungeons & Dragons games. Remember the disappearing McFly family photo from Back to the Future? It gave Marty McFly a look at his progress toward setting his future right. This year at Origins Game Fair, I ran an epic adventure that made me think of that photo. More on that later.

For many gamers, the Origins Game Fair feels just the right size. Unlike Winter Fantasy, the convention offers diversions beyond non-stop D&D. Unlike Gen Con, you don’t face a city and a convention center crowded to the limit. In 2015, Gen Con brought 61,423 unique visitors to Indianapolis. Origins 2016 brought 15,479 unique visitors to the similarly-sized city of Columbus. At Origins, you can reserve a hotel room without winning a lottery and you can pay for it without winning a lottery.

Goblins and scenery from Tomb of Annihilation

Elmwood adventures

I arrived with two convention-created adventures on my DM schedule. ELMW 2-1 Tendrils in the Fog and ELMW 2-2 Mists of the Moonsea read well. They land characters in vibrant scenes that promise to excite players. Both adventures feature a good mix of role-playing, investigation, and combat challenges. ELMW 2-1 takes players to villages and hideouts along the Moonsea, before ending in a small dungeon. ELMW 2-2 features battles on and under the sea, and ends with an ambush spanning a series of rope bridges. Both adventures pit the players against a group of adventurers cursed by evil. The foes resemble any number of morally questionable parties, perhaps dialed one notch darker. I loved these villains. ELMW 2-2 proved as fun as I anticipated.

An introduction to Tomb of Annihilation

I never ran ELMW 2-1 because the marshals needed an extra hand to run the introductory adventures for Tomb of Annihilation. I ran these adventures cold, reading one step ahead of the players. Each of this set of 5 missions plays in hour and a half or so. These adventures take characters to the jungle of Chult and the exotic Port Nyranzaru. Chult substitutes dinosaurs for shining knights and blood-sucking vines for wizards in pointy hats. Players feel like Indiana Jones in a lost world.

Most of the folks who come to play D&D at Origins rank as passionate players who bring a quiver of characters and who may play adventures more than once. The introductory adventures draw a different mix of players. First-timers and gamers who haven’t played since THAC0 join the D&D enthusiasts. The new and returning players bring a fresh enthusiasm that I savor. In the past, I haven’t volunteered for these introductory adventures, but next year, I plan to.

At conventions like Origins, where the dungeon masters belong to the Heralds Guild, we get scored based on players’ feedback. Running the introductory adventures cold lead to a dip in my score for preparation. I can’t argue with the accuracy, but seeing a drop in my overall judge scores disappointed me.

Hecatomb

This year, Origins hosted all three of the epic adventures that accompany Tales from the Yawning Portal. I played in Hecatomb, an epic for tiers 3 and 4.

Hecatomb’s author ramped up the difficulty of this adventure, even for tier 4. I love a challenge, so I welcomed the threat. I heard tales of tables practically wiped out. Meanwhile, at my table, two characters died, rose as undead, and attacked surviving players at other tables. One of the DMs administering the event went from table to table with a group of players running their now-undead PCs. The dead took revenge on the living. This “interaction” beats just having some evil champion roaming from table to table.

Hecatomb landed all the players on massive battlefield, scrambling to destroy arcane obelisks while fighting monsters. Presumably, our comrades in arms fought on battlemaps next to ours, facing other battles for other obelisks. By social convention, everyone agrees not to seek out the folks at the next table to form a party of 12.

Our party featured a crossbow expert/sharpshooter character—number 1 on my list of character types absurdly good at one thing. Even folks who play the combination find it overpowered. After taking casualties, our table changed strategy. We realized that the sharpshooter could safely destroy the obelisks and the monsters lurking two maps over, without ever letting threats come close enough to strike back. In this optimal strategy, my magic user’s best contribution was to cast Haste on the sharpshooter. Our melee characters could only “ooh” and “ahh” like an audience for Annie Oakley. Encounter designers need to consider sharpshooting just as they might consider something like flying. If you design an encounter where characters can engage foes from 500-yards away, then for parties with sharpshooters, the monsters resemble infantry crossing no-man’s land.

Return to White Plume Mountain

I ran Return to White Plume Mountain as a dungeon master. This epic accommodated both tier-2 and 3 characters. The tier-3 PCs fought to thwart a sacrificial ritual, while the tier-2 PCs attempted to distract the monsters, drawing them away from the main assault.

Return to White Plume Mountain worked hard to foster interaction. Some of its methods fascinated me.

A twist that required communication. Return gave each party a sending stone linked with another table. In many epics, such stones enable communication, but Return also included a clever trick that could foil groups who failed to communicate. In my session, some tables treated messages as a distraction and failed to notice the essential information. If more solutions come from messages between tables, the design would work even better.

Scoring that affected encounters for both tiers. Return featured a push-pull dynamic where each tier’s efforts drew monsters away from the other tier. Potentially, this could force tables to agree on a strategy that raises enough of a distraction to ensure success without drawing all the monsters into a deadly encounter. In practice, tier-2 tables just saw a distraction score that they could raise. Like any good gamers, they put all their energy to reaching a high score. Tables marched through the dungeon making more noise than a parade, without seeing the danger. In the end, tier 2 faced all the monsters.

The push-pull feature would work better if, instead of a rising score, the players saw the additional monsters in their future. Suppose some divination magic gives the PCs visions of their near future. This idea made me think of the McFly family photo—a vision of the future that results from the players’ current actions. I wanted a line of miniature figures that showed the monsters to come, but a scorecard handout would work as well. Back in How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever, I recommended letting players choose their own difficulty. In Return, a more visual push-pull mechanic would help.

Every table joined in the same battle. In the finale, all the tier-2 parties enter a massive dungeon room where they spot the ritual at the far side. An army of tier-3 monsters defend the ritual. As intended, the tier-2 parties stay on their side of the room and work to rescue sacrificial victims until tier 3 arrives near the heavy hitters to thwart the ritual. This works so long as the Tier-2 groups stay in their lane and avoid any bold ideas that might interfere with the ritual.

Step aside, pipsqueaks. I’ll finish this.

When I ran, my tier-2 group had little reason to stay in their lane. Before entering the final room, tier-2 table captains gather to share resources. Somehow, my table’s captain returned from the meeting with an allied planetar summoned by a tier-3 table. So a party clustered around level 7 added a challenge-rating-16 powerhouse with a fly speed of 120. I spent days wondering what part of the adventure let tier-3 tables share such resources with tier 2. What did I miss? The event’s one administrator was doing a job intended for three people, and I think he overlooked this extra interaction. But at the time, I figured the planetar came approved by the boss.

When my group entered battle arena and saw the ritual on the far side, they wondered whether to send their planetar to intervene. In one round, the celestial could have flown across the entire room, engaged the villain, and dealt lethal damage, while using innate Truesight to foil the Contingency intended to keep the villain alive. Before 6 tables even reached the final encounter, the event administrator could have stood and announced the abrupt victory to all 12 tables. “Now everybody has an extra hour for lunch. You can thank table 3 on the way out.”

Dungeon masters, choose your own adventure. In this situation, do you…

  • Tell the players you don’t care what anyone says. They can’t bring a planetar. (But the planetar came from the boss, and I can’t believe you’re saying “no” to your players.)
  • Let the planetar cross the room, then invent reasons that it fails to thwart the ritual. (You’re just abusing your power as a DM just to make the players fail.)
  • Pass the planetar back to the overextended event administrator and let him figure out what to do with it. (Just say, “Excuse me. I know that you’re already doing 3 jobs, but I can’t handle a little trouble at my own table.”)
  • Let the planetar solve the epic for all 12 tables. (Everybody, you’re welcome!)
  • Suggest that the players stay in their lane and use the planetar to help themselves. (Why should players have to meekly follow the author’s intent?)

My players stayed in their lane. I’m not particularly happy with the way I handled the situation. How would you do it?

D&D Open

In eight hours, the D&D Open aims to combine the fun and community of a battle interactive, with a measure of the competition of the old tournaments. The Open’s all-star team of authors, Teos Abadia, Shawn Merwin, and Sean Molley, capture all the challenge that made the original event such a blast. This year, I played as groups ventured to the jungle land of Chult to rob the tombs of dead gods. Monsters native to this lost world provided a unique flavor.

The event added a room of physical and mental challenges for Players—something like dungeon carnival games. Everyone seemed to enjoy this short break from the table.

The adventure also added the shtick of having a wandering monster roam from table to table to trade attacks. I only like this trick when the wandering menace comes from now-undead PCs. In a quasi-competitive event where players race against time, I disliked the gimmick more than usual. Fortunately, the interruption only takes a few minutes.

The event’s finale featured clever twist and a thrilling race to escape. The escape encouraged even faster play and set an objective other than kill everything. Once again, the D&D Open delivered the year’s best D&D game.

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Challenging Your Players’ Skill Without Risking Frustration

The Zork II computer game from 1981 includes a locked door that you can open by solving a clever puzzle. The door has the old-fashioned sort of lock that lets you look through the keyhole and see the other side. Except here, the key is in the other side of the lock. You slide a mat under the door, and then poke the key out onto the mat. When you pull the mat back, you have the key.Zork II Box Art

Back when Dungeons & Dragons consisted of the original brown box, before skills, before rogues, before thieves, all the obstacles in the game invited that style of play. You overcame obstacles by immersing yourself in the game world, making decisions, and problem solving. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

This style of play suffers from the same problem as the puzzle in Zork. When Zork II came out, I had only ever seen that sort of old-fashioned lock in my grandma’s house. And if you’ve never examined that kind of lock, the door puzzle simply leaves you stuck and frustrated.

In the old computer adventure games, when you became stuck and frustrated, you had to send money for a hint sheet, and then wait for it to arrive in the mail.

Fourth edition attempted to eliminate such frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. During this era, Dungeon magazine’s submission guidelines warned authors to create challenges for the characters, not the players. When every obstacle has a DC and multiple skills, then no one gets frustrated. If you find a locked door, you can pick the lock with Thievery, or break the door with Athletics.

No one gets frustrated, but no one feels engaged either. When the game only challenges character skill, the players never need to make meaningful decisions or engage the game world. They just look at their character sheet for the best applicable skill. This improves on playing guess-the-solution-I-thought-of with an inflexible DM, but the picking a skill and rolling is less fun than D&D can be.

The fourth-edition designers must have know this, but they emphasized selecting skills and rolling outcomes for a two reasons:

  • To add weight to the choices players make when they build characters. See The Pros and Cons of D&D’s Ability Checks.
  • To prevent inflexible DMs from hurting the game. Fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland wrote, “In the early days, DMs all too often felt compelled to demonstrate their cleverness and punish players for making ‘wrong’ choices—even a choice as simple and random as which passage to explore.”

Such inflexible, punitive DMs neared extinction decades ago. When Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea asked players to cite the traits of a good DM, flexible ranked first.

Dungeon masters can challenge players without risking player frustration, because DMs can allow creative solutions.

Have you ever noticed how the Tomb of Horrors makes the demi-lich only vulnerable to a short list of curiously-specific attacks?

The demi-lich Acererak’s skull can be harmed only as follows:

      • a forget spell will force the skull to sink down without taking a soul
      • a shatter spell thrown at it inflicts 10 h.p. of damage
      • a power word, kill pronounced from the an astral or ethereal magic-user will destroy it.
      • only a fighter with a vorpal blade, a ranger with a sword of sharpness +5, or a vorpal weapon, or a paladin with the like or even a +4 weapon can inflict damage on the skull
      • an exorcise spell will cause it to sink as a forget does
      • a dispel evil spell inflicts 5 h.p. of damage
      • a holy word pronounced against it will inflict 20 h.p. of damage
      • a thief slinging one of the large gems in the crypt will inflict 1 h.p. of damage per 10,00 g.p. of value, i.e. 1, 5,, or 10 h.p. of damage, but the gem is thereby shattered

A power word, kill does nothing, unless you happen to be ethereal or astral! How would anyone think of that? Also, the demi-lich is vulnerable to the destruction of very expensive gems. That messes with the players in the best(?) old-school tradition. Only someone immersed in that tradition would even consider the gem attack.

Once, I thought that this list exposed Gary Gygax as an inflexible DM working to punish players. After all, he devised the tomb to challenge—and frustrate—those “fans who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game.”

Now, I see the list differently. I suspect Gary created Acererak with no vulnerabilities in mind, but as he ran the adventure, players invented attacks. If Gary judged them reasonable, he allowed them to work. When Gary wrote the adventure for publication, he listed the attacks he had allowed so far.

Gary Gygax had the wisdom to allow a creative solution. In the Foreword to Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Gary wrote, “In one tournament use of the setting, a team managed to triumph by using the crown and scepter found earlier as the ultimate tool against the demilich. As Acererak’s skull levitated, one PC set said crown firmly upon the bony pate; another tapped the regal adornment with the ‘wrong’ end of the scepter. Poof! Scratch one demilich, and give the tournament’s first place to the innovative team of players who thought of this novel solution. Russ Stambaugh, the DM for the group, was stunned. ‘Could that work?’ he asked. I shrugged, admitted I certainly hadn’t thought of it and that it was a stroke of genius that deserved a reward.

When I DM, I love to be surprised. One of the great joys of being a DM is crafting some trap or obstacle, leaving a couple ways to overcome it, and then watching as the players crack the problem with a third way. I’ve run campaigns for groups who proved so good at coming up with unexpected solutions, that I stopped worrying about planning any solutions. I just sat back and watched the players come of with something.

I have three bits of advice for refereeing game-world obstacles that demand player skill to overcome.

  • Watch the players for signs of frustration. Be prepared to let he characters uncover a new clue, or to just have something on the other side of that locked door come and open it.
  • It’s good to say yes, but avoid being too quick to accept implausible solutions. If a couple of players are deeply engaged in a predicament, and you allow any dumb idea to work, they just get annoyed. The last thing you want is a player arguing that something you allowed should fail.
  • Watch out for clever, repeatable ideas that break the game. I remember a player who regaled me with a story that he remembered fondly. His party defeated a dragon by enclosing it in a wall of force shaped like a giant fishbowl, complete with an opening on top too small for escape. Next, they created water above the opening, filling the fishbowl and drowning the dragon. I suspect that no version of Wall of Force ever actually allowed such shenanigans, but as a one-time trick, the stunt created a moment the players’ loved. I wonder what the DM decided to do when the players kept trying to repeat it. If you can use this trick on a dragon, the dungeon becomes your aquarium.
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The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition

Dungeons & Dragons players have seen five editions plus a few versions that fall outside the count. We tend to see the release of a new Player’s Handbook as a clean break from the last, but each new edition received a preview in a book or two that appeared for the prior edition.

In a convention appearance, TSR designers Dave “Zeb” Cook and Steve Winter talked about how the first-edition books that reached print in 1985 led to 2nd edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”

From Oriental Adventures and the Dungoneer’s Survival Guide to 2nd edition

Oriental Adventures brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer.

“One of the things dreadfully lacking from AD&D was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills,” Cook wrote. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”

Ability checks reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide previewed rules innovations that appeared in 2nd edition. The non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success. For more, see Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D.

From Gamma World and Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics to 3rd edition

In a D&D podcast episode examining the 2nd edition, Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in 3rd edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with 2nd edition.”

TSR’s management required that AD&D stay broadly compatible with the original version, but other games allowed more innovation. Gamma World took D&D’s play style into a post-apocalyptic Earth. Crumbling buildings replaced dungeons, mutant powers replaced spells, mutated creatures replaced monsters, and so on. The 1992 edition of Gamma World took the current D&D rules and made changes from the 2nd-edition designers’ wish list:

  • Ascending armor class
  • Skills called skills
  • Attribute checks
  • Attribute modifiers similar to those that would appear in 3rd edition
  • Health and Mental Defense saves that resemble 3rd edition’s Fortitude and Will saves

This 4th edition of Gamma World set half of the blueprint for 3rd edition D&D. The other half came from Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics (1995).

Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics introduced the gridded battle map to D&D. In the Foreword, Skip Williams promises that, “You will find plenty of ways to make combat more than a dice-rolling contest or an exercise in subtracting hit points from your character’s total.” Combat & Tactics reads like an early draft of the 3rd edition combat rules, complete with rules for opportunity attacks, reach, cover, and critical hits. Combat & Tactics probably scared more players away from battle maps than it converted. The supplement moved deep into wargame territory, with over 250 pages of rules for facing, fatigue, and things like direct and indirect bombardment. However, the 3rd-edition designers chose the best of the innovations.

From Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords to 4th edition

In 2005, work on 4th-edition D&D started as a project codenamed Orcus. In Wizards Presents Races and Classes, lead designer Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Our instructions were to push the mechanics down interesting avenues, not to stick too close to the safe home base of D&D v.3.5.” The project team developed eight classes built around powers and giving every character some interesting action to choose each round.

Early in 2006, designers Rich Baker, Mike Donais, and Mike Mearls “translated current version of the Orcus I mechanics into a last-minute revision of Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords. It was a natural fit, since Rich Baker had already been treating the Book of Nine Swords as a ‘powers for fighters’ project.”

Tome of Battle: Book of the Nine Swords presented new martial classes for 3rd-edition D&D. The additions blended the unreal, cinematic stunts of Far-East action games and movies with a typical D&D game. Warriors gained maneuvers that worked like encounter powers in 4th edition.

Now, used copies of the Book of Nine Swords command high prices, a scarcity which might stem from meager sales in 2006. Nonetheless, the book offered a prototype for 4th edition.

From the D&D Essentials red box to 5th edition

Many fans of D&D felt the 4th edition no longer resembled the game they loved. A few years after the edition’s release, sales of the 3rd-edition D&D spinoff Pathfinder surpassed D&D. In an interview, Mike Mearls said, “No one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said ‘Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them,’ that was never the intent. With 4th Edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say ‘hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.’”

Aside from a barely-noticed sample in the Book of Nine Swords, 4th edition came from a secret project. Rather than ask D&D fans what they wanted in D&D, the design team made assumptions and built a game based on them.

When Mike Mearls took control of the D&D team, he worked to reverse course. “We want D&D to be the best roleplaying game it can be. We’re always open to change, to reacting to what people say. The past is in the past, there’s nothing we can say or do. If you are a disgruntled D&D fan, there’s nothing I can say to you that undoes whatever happened 2 years ago or a year ago that made you disgruntled—but what I can do, what’s within my power is going forward, I can make products, I can design game material, I can listen to what you’re saying, and I can do what I can do with design to make you happy again.”

Just two years after 4th edition’s release, Wizards of the Coast couldn’t ask players to adopt another new edition. Instead, the D&D team tried to win back some unhappy players with the D&D Essentials line. A new, red-box starter set built on nostalgia for the game’s most-popular introduction. Essentials aimed to recapture “that core of what makes D&D D&D, what made people fall in love with it the first time, whether it was the Red Box in 83, the original three booklets back in 74 or 75 or even 3rd edition in 2004. Whenever that happened, to get back to what drew you into D&D in the first place and give that back to you.”

When Mearls gained time to create a 5th edition, he stuck with the same strategy of listening to the game’s fans. In another interview, he explained that he launched the open playtest “to get a sense of what people actually wanted out of D&D. The only real mandate was to make sure that we captured the essence of D&D. It was important that anyone who had played D&D in the past could play the new edition and have a clear sense that this was D&D.

“We were also committed to analyzing and using the playtest feedback to guide our decisions. Those might seem like fairly simple mandates, but it can be difficult for game designers to take a step back from their work and treat it with a cold, ruthless editorial eye.”

Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition hardly resembles 4th edition, but Essentials showed the way to the current game’s success.

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The Pros and Cons of D&D’s Ability Checks

In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, players searched by telling the dungeon master where they wanted to look, and then the dungeon master told them if something was there. The game resolved most actions using back and forth dialog, plus clear cause and effect. Before skills and core mechanics, resolution relied on the on the logic of the game world. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

Old-school gamers swear by this method, and with good reason: It grants players, and not the dice, control over their characters’ fates. It makes player decisions and ingenuity count. The details of the game world matter.

But some tasks demand a character’s talents to succeed, so this sort of resolution cannot cover every action: listening at doors, creeping behind an enemy, balancing atop a rope spanning a moat.

Once skills and ability checks entered the game, they began to spread. Over the years, D&D’s rules encouraged players to rely more on checks. This trend peaked in fourth edition. In skill challenges, players overcame obstacles by explaining how their character’s skills could help, and by rolling checks. As written, players never needed to engage the game world or to show ingenuity. They just found the best applicable skill.

Although fourth edition promoted checks more than many players wanted, the emphasis brought advantages.

Making characters unique

In the original D&D game, characters that shared a class and level all played about the same. Without ability checks, their ability scores rarely affected play. Without skills, they all featured the same capabilities.

The fourth-edition designers created a game optimized for a style of play where players built awesome characters and then showed them off in encounters—either battles or skill challenges. Character building became as much a part of playing D&D as time at the table.

By emphasizing checks, the game highlights each character’s talents and limitations. When a player invests in a persuasive character with a high charisma, they can win allies with a die roll. On the other side, if you play a character with an 8 Intelligence, your own brains cover some of your character’s stupidity, except when you make intelligence checks. You might solve a real puzzle, but an abstract one makes your character face a check.

Commenting on another post, Andrea Back describes it well, “Without skills, you end up with you playing you in a fantasy dress, with all your own limitations and qualities laid bare.”

On the other hand…

In the fourth edition, designers made the mistake of emphasized the parts of D&D that video games do best. If you want character building, electronic games offer more options, and you can play your character at any hour from the comfort of home. Tabletop games thrive when the focus on aspects that computers can’t match, so why focus on choosing skills and playing against random chance? By joining live players and a DM, we gain the ability to speak as our character and attempt any action, even ones not in the rules.

Skipping the dull parts

Sometimes a check can provide a shortcut for tasks that could prove dull. If the players want to search a cluttered room, but want to avoid the tedium of describing how they cut the straw mattresses, sift the dirt in the flowerpots, and so on and on, a check seems like a time saver. Fourth edition’s Streetwise skill seems contrived to skip the urban role-playing that the designers found tiresome.

On the other hand…

As a DM, I steer the game away from activities no one seems to enjoy, but I feel wary of letting someone use a die roll to cheat the other players out of the fun of interacting with the game world and actually playing the game. However, if the entire table agrees, we can just substitute a Wisdom (Survival) check for that trip to Tomb of Horrors.

Shaping the game

Different players favor at different parts of the D&D game. Some lavish attention on crafting characters. For them, the fun at the table comes from showing off their creations. Fourth edition was made for players like this.

Some players use their character to shape the sort of game they want to play. Sometimes this means making a character good in an area where the player feels weak. If you lack charm, but play a charismatic paladin, you can let a persuasion roll do all the talking. Even the most timid player can enjoy the benefits of a magnetic personality.

Sometimes players craft characters able to breeze through challenges that the player finds tiresome. They claim that their character has more brains, and ask to solve a puzzle with a check. I once met a player who optimized characters for combat because he wanted to speed through the battles.

On the other hand…

We gather at the game table to enjoy the tactics, ingenuity, and silly voices. Most of the time, we would rather act as our character rather than just rolling dice on their behalf.

More than once I’ve seen a player make an impassioned speech in character, asking the Baron, for instance, to defend the settlers. The player’s voice trembles with passion as she speaks of courage, loyalty, and the honor of the Baron’s ancestors, calling their spirits by name. The player steps down from atop a chair to applause and tearing eyes. But then, feeling bound by the system, I ask for a Charisma (Persuasion) check with the advantage earned for an outstanding performance. Then the orator rolls, and flubs. Sorry, you fail.

In situations beyond diplomacy, specific actions can also make a check seem pointless. If someone taps the bottom of a chest looking for the secret compartment, skip the search check and just reveal the location. If someone describes an ingenious use of leverage to lift a gate, skip the strength check.

Rolling for surprise

We all savor the split-second drama of waiting to see the outcome of a die roll. Every player remembers a moment when a lucky roll made a crazy, long-shot scheme work, or when bad rolls caused a plan to unravel and forced everyone to plan B and then to C. If these moments came from a DM’s ruling, they would seem like cases of DMs steering the game to fit their story. The magic comes because the dice twisted fate, making a surprise that proved unforgettable.

On the other hand…

Sometimes an extreme roll lets a 98-pound weakling batter open a door or causes the mighty barbarian to fall from a rope. Such outliers diminish the qualities that make characters unique.

On an unlikely success or failure, sometimes I use some outside cause to explain the fluke. If the barbarian falls, did the knot slip loose? If a clumsy oaf picks a lock, did someone just forgot the latch? By narrating a cause outside the character’s control, the effect remains, but the character still feels consistent.

Finding the sweet spot

If an elite acrobat sprints across a swaying rope bridge, do you require a check or just let them show off? If someone specifically examines the bottom of a chest, do they still need a roll to find the hidden panel there? Can someone skip a puzzle if their genius character aces an intelligence check? If someone offers a generous bribe to a corrupt guard, do they still need persuasion?

I don’t know, but when I reach the table, I can judge.

Some players love to roll dice. For them, the game only moves when they make rolls. Others like speaking in funny voices or solving puzzles and boast of sessions where no one rolled a die. Most players favor a style in the middle.

Original D&D and fourth edition mark extreme approaches to ability checks, from no checks to a game that can—if players choose—rely entirely on checks. Each approach brings some advantages. In our games, we can adopt either style—or find a balance that suits us.

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Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

Dungeons & Dragons makes ability checks a key part of play, but these checks took years to enter the game. How did ability checks advance from house rule, to optional rule, to a foundation of fifth-edition D&D?

Before D&D added ability checks, players found a style that mostly avoided a need for such rolls. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. Even so, characters tried things that the rules didn’t cover. For many of these actions, success or failure hinged on a character’s ability scores. Gary Gygax told dungeon masters to guess the odds of success and roll for it. But DMs and players wanted more consistency and less guessing.

In 1976, issue 1 of The Dragon printed “How to Use Non-Prime-Requisite Character Attributes” by Wesley D. Ives. The article proposes a sort of ability check before anyone coined a name for it.

This first ability check suffers from a mechanic so baroque that it reads like a gag.

To determine an action’s success, perform these actions:

  1. Roll d100, add the ability score, and then use this result to determine which die to roll in step 2. On a result of 1-20 roll a d4; on 21-40 roll d6; on 41-60 roll d8; 61-80: d10; 81-100: d12. To cope with results higher than 100, create a house rule for this house rule.
  2. Roll the die determined in step 1 and multiply the number by the attribute. This result becomes the chance of success.
  3. Roll a d100. If the result is less than or equal to the probability from step 2, you succeed!

The method requires three rolls, multiplication of double-digit numbers, and a table. But if that seems too simple, the article offers optional rules accounting for character level and class. All this yields an outcome barely more realistic than a coin flip.

To settle on an ability-check mechanic that required so much fuss, the author must have seen checks as a rare undertaking.

Despite the tortured mechanic, the idea of ability check marks a major innovation. None of the few role-playing games available in 1976 featured anything like the concept. In a few years, every RPG would build on the idea.

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1978), Gary invented a playable ability check for the Dig spell. “Any creature at the edge (1’) of such a pit uses its dexterity score as a saving throw to avoid falling into the hole, with a score equal to or less than the dexterity meaning that a fall was avoided.

By the late 70s, the method found in the Dig spell turned into common house rule: To make an ability check, players tried to roll under an attribute on a d20.

The 1980 D&D basic rules by Tom Moldvay made this house rule official. “The DM may want to base a character’s chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.

Meanwhile, other role playing games advanced the state of the art. Traveller (1977) introduced skills and a single mechanic for skill checks. Runequest (1978) boasted skills and “attribute rolls” that multiplied an ability by 5 to set a percentage chance of success.

In games with skills, the skills cover most tasks a player might attempt, so ability checks blur into skill checks. Fifth edition intentionally makes skills an addition to ability checks.

For AD&D, Gygax showed little interest in ability checks. Improvised rulings worked fine for him. (When the DM is E. Gary Gygax, no player quibbles with a ruling.)

As for skills, Gygax preferred to keep D&D’s class archetypes pure. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but the narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes. Oriental Adventures (1985) extended the concept to create non-weapon proficienciesskills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities.

After Gary left TSR in 1985, his successors on the AD&D team lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. Nonetheless, their additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

Ability checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success.

The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, but suffered a few drawbacks:

  • Class abilities already covered most of a character’s actions, so non-weapon proficiencies rarely came up in play.
  • The phrase “non-weapon proficiency” proved unwieldy. The term evolved from Gary’s own work on D&D, but it forced a lot of extra syllables on players just to avoid contaminating D&D with anything called skills.
  • Roll-under ability checks confused players and designers.

For D&D’s other d20 rolls, players aimed high, but for ability checks they aimed low. This simple difference fostered confusion. The original ability-check rule said, “The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.” That meant a bonus subtracted from the roll—an ugly break from intuition.

A cleaner method adds the bonus to the attribute, so players roll under a higher number.

By now, some Internet critics might scoff at my notion that adding roll-under checks to D&D confused people. I imagine an argument heaping contempt on idiots who clearly lack the intellectual capacity for RPGs. Go back to Candyland. Who would let roll-under checks trip them up?

The D&D team at TSR.

Sometime during playtesting, the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide apparently switched its method of applying modifiers, but the book reached print with an incomplete change. The “Sage Advice” column in Dragon issue 118 tried to sort out the mess. “OK, OK, OK, already! You’re right—there is something wrong with the DSG non-weapon proficiency system.

We went through the manuscript and thought we had caught all the places where the text needed to be changed. We missed a couple of simple ones, and this caused a tremendous problem in the system.

TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included a corrected version of non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary.

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained leeway to correct old drawbacks. Ability checks flipped so players aimed for high rolls. Skills embraced the actions characters actually did in the game. And no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

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A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons includes three types of d20 rolls: saving throws, attack rolls, and ability checks. Saves and attacks come from the original game, but ability checks first got a name 12 years later. Ability checks began as an obscure rule where players tried to roll low on a d20. In second edition, the rule for ability checks only appears as one paragraph in the glossary. Today’s style of check finally arrived in 2000.

Modern D&D players make ability checks throughout the game, so a D&D game without checks seems stunted. But before ability checks, D&D players found a style that mostly avoided a need for such rolls.

In A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, Matthew J. Finch describes this original style. “The players can describe any action, without needing to look at a character sheet to see if they ‘can’ do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens.

You don’t have a ‘spot’ check to let you notice hidden traps and levers, you don’t have a ‘bluff’ check to let you automatically fool a suspicious city guardsman, and you don’t have a ‘sense motive’ check to tell you when someone’s lying to your character. You have to tell the referee where you’re looking for traps and what buttons you’re pushing. You have to tell the referee whatever tall tale you’re trying to get the city guardsman to believe. You have to decide for yourself if someone’s lying to your character or telling the truth.

To players who still favor D&D’s early versions, the lack of ability checks counts as a feature. Faced with an challenge, players must observe and interact with the game world. Instead of scanning their character sheet for solutions, players rely on their wits and ingenuity. Without checks, the game tests player skill more than character stats.

The absence of checks encouraged dungeon masters to assume that characters brought enough competence to succeed at ordinary tasks. For example, if characters wanted to bind a prisoner, they tied him up. But in third edition, characters relied on Use Rope skill, which often painted heroes as ridiculously inept at knots. I once played a convention game where a DM stretched Use Rope failures into hours of tiresome gaming. DMs can always skip a check for a simple task, but the presence of a skill tended to encourage checks.

Early characters could tie knots and they found pits by tapping on the floor with a 10-foot pole, but they still attempted actions that defied common-sense resolutions.

In the original game, common tests of an ability each brought a separate rule. To see if characters perceived a secret door, the dungeon master rolled a d6. Typical feats of strength relied on two different mechanics: Bending bars and lifting gates required a percentage roll, but bashing doors required a d6 roll.

If a situation came less frequently, the game offered no rules. So how could a dungeon master decide whether a character crossed a tight rope?

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax describes his approach. “Allow the dice to control the situation. This can be done by assigning reasonable probability to an event and then letting the player dice to see if he or he can make that percentage.” Gygax made up rulings on the spot to suit whatever seemed “correct and logical.”

This approach led to the jumble of the original D&D rules. Faced with a game situation, Gygax tended to invent a roll that settled the outcome. If the situation came up enough, the method become a rule.

Many dungeon masters felt uncomfortable embracing Gary’s improvisation. D&D players frequently try things that test a characters’ ability scores, and DMs wanted a fair and easy way to decide the outcome. Their players wanted consistency too. Rules become the laws of physics in the game world. If a rule exists for an action, players understand how it’s resolved and their chance of success. Players enjoy that transparency.

The first ability check mechanic reached print in 1976, but ability checks would take decades to become a foundation of D&D.

Next: Ability checks—from the worst design in role-playing game history to a foundation of D&D.

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Running Scenes and Summaries that Invite Choices and Reveal Characters

My last post explained how scenes and summaries allow game masters to speed past uneventful time in the game world and focus on the action. This post offers more advice on running scenes and doing summaries.

Running a scene

Before starting a scene, you need two essential ingredients: (1) characters with a goal and (2) an obstacle that stands in their way.

To start a scene, set the scene. Describe the time and place. Make the description vivid. Finish your description with the thing that will spur the players to action. In a classic Dungeons & Dragons game, the call to action comes from the monster in the room. Mention the monster last, because otherwise your players will plan their attack and ignore your description of the bas-relief, the incense, and the patter of dipping liquid.

A monster will launch some scenes into motion, but other triggers could be the duchess asking why the characters intruded on her battle council, birds crowding the rooftops to silently watch the players, or anything that invites players to act. A good call to action hardly needs the usual follow up question: “What do you want to do?” Nonetheless, characters might ignore the call. The party might see the gathering flocks as a threat, or the druid might want to have words, or perhaps they count the birds as an omen and move on.

The rules of most role-playing games dwell on the scenes, leaving little need for more explanation.

How to do a summary

A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time. It begins when the scene ends—when players look at the scene’s outcome and decide what to do next. Often, they choose a goal that carries them to their next scene.

During a scene, the players’ choices tend to focus on overcoming an immediate obstacle. But during a summary, the players’ choices tend to drive the adventure. If players pass too many summaries without a choice to make, your game may start feeling like a railroad.

In a summary, damage is healed, resources replenished, and so on. Players can describe as much of the activity as the game master.

“We go to the docks and find the captain of the Salt Mist, and then hire her to sail north to the City of Sails. Does anything happen along the way?”

“No. After 3 days at sea, you dock in Luskan on the Open Shore.”

If the passage of time presents new developments that might change the players’ plans, then mention the events and give players a chance to interrupt the tale and make new choices. Perhaps something happens on route. “On your second day at sea, you spot a thick column of smoke rising from inland, just beyond a hill.”

You might remind the players what makes their new options interesting. “As you talk about investigating, the captain seems too willing to put you ashore, and you suspect she may be eager to leave you behind.”

When a summary takes players someplace new, add enough description to give the flavor of the experience, and a sense of the passing time.

A summary can include colorful moments that inspire players to act in character. For example, if the party spots a live stag with an arrow in its flank, does the druid heal the beast, or does the ranger finish it and host a feast? Such moments usually lack the ingredients of a scene, but they offer hooks that let players reveal their characters.

Accelerating the pace

When a summary covers familiar ground, shorten the narrative. That first journey to the City of Splendors deserves some color. The third can pass in a sentence.

As players approach their ultimate goal and the climax of the adventure, they will lose patience for long summaries. When adventurers first reach Barovia, players may enjoy stately trips from town to town. But when the party stands ready to confront Strahd, cut directly to the gates of Ravenloft.

A cut eliminates all the narrative between scenes. The players might say, “We want to question the longshoreman to see if anyone saw the Salt Mist.”

“Okay, now you’re in the Siren’s Call as the place fills with thirsty roughnecks.”

Cuts rush past the flavor of the game world, and short circuit the players’ chances to make choices. Early in a campaign, avoid cutting between scenes.

Near the end of a long campaign, cuts grow more welcome. When few choices remain and when players feel eager for the story to reach a climax, cuts accelerate the pace.

Letting players take the narrative

In How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke, I talked about how the GM bears responsibility for the game’s challenge. Often, a GM must control the narrative so players face meaningful obstacles. But in a summary, no obstacles block the characters’ progress. This makes a summary the ideal time to let players tell their characters’ tales. For example, if the players spend 10 days waiting on town, ask each player for their character’s story of the downtime.

At the end of the adventure, when the characters return to the town they saved, let them tell of their hero’s welcome. Who celebrated with the fetching Sheriff? Or maybe keep that to yourself. This is a family table.

During a summary, when players take the narrative, characters gain chances to reveal their personalities. Plus, you get a break while they do the talking. That’s how you win at Dungeons & Dragons.

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How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure

This started as a post on pacing until I checked other game masters’ advice on pacing and discovered that nobody discussed the same topic. Some “pacing” advice helps GMs run at a brisk tempo. For that, see my posts on initiative, delegation, and how to end a battle. Some explained story beats, dramatic tension, and the three act structure. I’m not clever enough to finesse such narratives without my players noticing a loss of freedom.

So this post covers scenes and summaries.

Have you seen the image that explains Dungeons & Dragons as the game where a 3-hour walk takes 5 minutes, but a 5-minute battle takes 3 hours? That sentence tells the difference between scene and summary.

Game mastering advice rarely talks about scene and summary because game masters tend to manage the two by feel. Mostly, feel works okay, but often not. Although scenes feature the game’s excitement, dull role-playing sessions start when a GM tries to make a scene from time that should pass in summary. On the other hand, a bad summary makes player feel rushed and railroaded.

Scene

In a role-playing game, scenes focus attention on the times when players fight a battle, talk to an non-player character, or search a chest for secret compartments. In a role-playing game session, scenes show all the action. During scenes, players make every decision for their characters. In combat scenes, game time expands so players can focus on small decisions and use the game rules to determine outcomes.

Summary

A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time. Summary speeds past the times when players travel a safe road, search a library, or collect a reward from a patron.

A good summary leaves players with a sense of passing events and with chances to pause and make decisions. During a summary, characters heal damage, tally and replenish resources, weigh their options, and make the choices that lead to the next scene.

When to run a scene

To start, a scene needs two ingredients: characters with a goal and an obstacle that stands in their way.

Goals

The classic D&D scene starts with the goal of treasure and the obstacle of a dragon. Sometimes, monsters attack and the party goal becomes to survive. (In those cases, especially, think about the monsters’ goal. See Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want.) The most interesting encounters often feature a goal different from kill all the monsters.

A goal needs enough stakes to merit a scene. If the party goes to the fletcher for arrows, the chance to save a few silver hardly calls for a negotiation scene.

Typically, role-playing scenes combine a goal of gaining help or information, with the obstacle of an uncooperative non-player character.

When characters lack a goal and a GM launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering they are supposed to do. See A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.

Obstacles

The obstacle in a role playing scene comes from any NPC reluctant to help anyone who asks. For help creating the obstacles needed for compelling role-playing scenes, see 22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.

A true obstacle must bring a chance of failure. If players face a locked wooden door, but they have unlimited time and an axe, the door fails as an obstacle. On the other hand, if the crash of an axe into boards could bring monsters, players face a dilemma and the scene has an obstacle.

Exploration

When players explore, they have a goal—perhaps only find the treasure—but they may face unknown obstacles. The unseen hazards make the players’ choices important and make the exploration work as a scene. If a scene continues for too long with unknown obstacles, players may lose interest. Add a reminder of nearby peril. Perhaps strange sounds echo through the stones, or a chill passes the corridor.

In exploration, when no obstacles lurk nearby, the game master can rely on summary. “You look through all the rooms in the cellar and find a polished, black ring among the rubbish.”

Exposition

Sometimes game masters start a role-playing scene without a goal or obstacle because they want exposition. At the start of an adventure, players tolerate such scenes. The implied goal becomes, learn our goal. Scenarios often add a minor obstacle by introducing a patron who needs the right questions to provide extra help and information. However, such weak scenes typically work better in summary.

I used to make the mistake of trying to conclude adventures with a scene where characters meet their patron to collect payment and tie any loose ends. I learned that as a scene, denouements never hold attention. While players tally their loot, just summarize the medal ceremony.

Exception: Scenes that work as a reward

When a game master announces treasure, players tend to pay careful attention to their reward. Likewise, role-playing scenes that reward players with information can hold attention even when the scene lacks an obstacle. These scenes feature players with questions and a colorful NPC ready with answers. Crucially, these scenes still feature a goal. Players must want the information enough to have fought for it and won. Don’t dump unwanted backstory and call it a scene. See How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session.

When to do a summary

Whenever an game session lacks the ingredients for a scene, a goal and an obstacle, you can rely on summary. If you feel unsure about switching to a summary, ask the players. “Do you want to do anything special, or should we move forward?”

During a summary, as game time speeds along, players can feel like they lose some control over their character. Among other things, my next post will explain how to do a summary without making players feel like passengers on a railroad.

Next: Running Scenes and Summaries that Invite Choices and Reveal Characters

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How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures For Good

When Dungeon issue 116 ranked the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God landed at number 19. Ed Greenwood summed the 1982 adventure as, “Detective work, hunting for villains, some monster-bashing, and a settlement detailed enough to use beyond the scripted adventure; a quiet little gem that has it all!”

The adventure’s creation began when Kevin Hendrix wrote an encounter with a reptile cult to serve as an episode in Len Lakofka’s adventure L1 The Secrets of Bone Hill (1981). Lakofka chose not to include the cult, so Hendrix began expanding the idea into a full adventure. In 1981, TSR layoffs claimed Hendrix’s job. The core concept and title reached Douglas Niles for completion. When the module saw print, TSR management felt wary of helping designers gain the clout of name recognition, so Hendrix, now an employee of Metagaming Concepts, received no author byline.

Tracy Hickman and his Dragonlance adventures get credit (and sometimes blame) for moving D&D from aimless dungeon crawls to a story focus. But N1 came first, and it includes a stronger narrative than any of TSRs’ earlier adventures. Niles explained, “I liked settings that allowed the characters to play out a story.” N1 features a story with rising tension and a climactic showdown, but the plot still turns on the players’ choices.

A 1983 review in Imagine issue 3 praised Against the Cult of the Reptile God and touted its “innovative touches.” What made N1 innovative?

Early town adventures tended to stumble

The original Dungeons & Dragons rules say that if a referee makes a map of a town close to the dungeons, “players can have adventures roaming around the bazaars, inns, taverns, shops, temples, and so on.” Because imaginary revelry offers scant fun, roaming town typically focused on shopping and gathering “rumors, information, and legends,” which “lead players into some form of activity or warn them of a coming event.”

Actual town adventures tended to stumble. Typically, the party visits the market and someone tries to haggle: Best case, one player saves a few coppers while everyone gets bored—even the shopper. Later, the players gripe about the tiresome D&D session when the dungeon master stubbornly limited players to shopping.

That’s the best case. Usually, a restless thief picks someone’s pockets, leading to party strife or to a confrontation with the city guard. Such trouble drove D&D designers to rename thieves to rogues. See Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.

In the worst case, the players realize the townsfolk have no chance against a band of experienced killers, leading to murder and looting. See Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.

The gulf between towns and the sites of adventure

When Gary Gygax wrote T1 Village of Hommlet (1979), he prepared for the worst case. Gygax lists the treasure found in shops and homes, and then discourages looting by inventing a social network able to punish murder hobos.

Gary populated Hommlet with colorful characters who might foster role playing, but I suspect most groups paid them little notice. The real action lay in the Moathouse, because for most players, the heart of D&D lies in crushing evil and winning treasure, not necessarily in that order. In town, evil keeps hidden and gold belongs to a rightful owner.

Unless some goal drives players to talk to villagers, most players have nothing to discuss. In D&D, as in fiction, the really interesting action happens when the characters have both an objective and an obstacle that stands in their way. See A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.

After Gygax, other D&D authors tried to connect towns to adventure. L1 The Secrets of Bone Hill provided another home base. U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh suggests that some villagers might be involved with the sinister events at a haunted house, but leaves creating the town as homework for the DM. When I played U1, the DM dropped us at the door to the haunted house and Saltmarsh remained unseen.

N1 entwined a town into the adventure

In Against the Cult of the Reptile God, the characters investigate disappearances in the village of Orlane. Fear and suspicion grips much of the town, while other folk behave oddly. Players need to interact with townsfolk to solve the mystery. A wrong move in town could bring peril.

To modern players, the setup may seem conventional, but N1 became the first D&D scenario to feature an investigation and to bring adventure into town. Before Against the Cult of the Reptile God, a gulf separated towns from the wilderness and dungeons that offered adventure. Until N1 bridged that gap, players found little reason to interact with townsfolk.

Lesson: To capture players interest in role-playing, pair colorful NPCs with a goal that invites interaction.

N1 introduced the event-based adventure

Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or of adjacent hexes. See Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon.

N1 introduced an event-based scenario where active NPCs affect the course of adventure. The 1983 review spotted the change. “A noteworthy feature is that the unknown adversaries do not tamely wait for the players to come and get them. They are active.” In Orlane, the kidnappings continue as time passes. Party members can even be abducted and compelled to spy for the cult.

This advance marked another milestone. Before Against the Cult of the Reptile God, when players weren’t watching, non-player characters only did one thing: They refilled dungeon rooms emptied by adventurers. In N1, even if the players do nothing, things still happen.

As in one of pulp fantasies that inspired D&D, the sinister events in Orlane lead to a rising sense of peril. Tension increased toward a climax.

Lesson: To make the villains come alive, let them act offstage, and then show their actions in the game world.

Making the most of N1 today

Early D&D adventures like Against the Cult of the Reptile God can still work with today’s rules. Just replace the printed monster stats with numbers from the fifth-edition Monster Manual.

Against the Cult of the Reptile God plays best when the its tension builds over days of game time. To get a sense of passing days, characters need to keep busy. If they focus on rooting out the cult, they tend to solve the mystery before pressure rises. To work best, develop the events of N1 alongside a second adventure that can dominate the characters’ attention. For example, while the PCs make a few forays to the Caves of Chaos, let the disappearances and weirdness in Orlane reach a boiling point. The Encounters-program adventure Against the Cult of Chaos (2013) took exactly this approach by combining elements of N1 with T1 Village of Hommlet and B2 Keep on the Borderlands (1981).

Some critics fault N1 for requiring a 1st-through-3rd-level party to ally with a 7th-level wizard for the final showdown with the cult’s “reptile god.” The wizard overshadows the PCs, but without the ally, the party may die to a single fireball. The adventure itself suggests a solution: Have the wizard give the party a scroll of Globe of Invulnerability for protection during the showdown. Make the elderly wizard too frail to venture into the swamp, but let his familiar guide the party. For more on the risks and benefits of allies, see The Surprising Benefits of Giving and Adventuring Party a Guide.

Among the greatest adventures

Based on quality, N1 merits the standing, but based on achievements, I might rate it higher. N1 set two milestones for published D&D adventures. Thirty-five years later, it still offers lessons to dungeon masters.

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Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon

The Dungeons & Dragons game’s original 1974 version offered two types of adventure: dungeons and wilderness. In such site-based adventures, players’ decisions about where to go set the course of the adventure. These adventures revolve around on a map with a key detailing important locations. When characters enter a location, they trigger encounters.

Today’s D&D scenarios mix places to explore, with events, and with clues to follow, but adventure authors took years to stretch beyond numbered lists of locations.

In the years after D&D’s release, every role-playing adventure to reach print was site-based. This extends beyond D&D. Until 1980, a keyed list of locations drove every published adventure for every role-playing game.

The first role-playing games all recreated the dungeon-crawl experience of D&D. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.” Tunnels & Trolls (1975) recreated the D&D experience with simpler rules. Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

By 1977, designers began to see the potential of role-playing games. By then, if you asked RPG designers what characters in their games would do, the designers would probably answer, “Anything.” Designers of the newer games strove to model game worlds as thoroughly as possible. This led to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), “the most complete rule booklet ever published,” with rules for everything from mass combat, to courtly love, to the One Ring. C&S offered a game so open ended that a table of players with randomly generated characters might fail to find any common activities that their characters could do together. In Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun, I had some fun at the expense of C&S. I showed how the game downplayed the dungeon crawl, but struggled to find a fun, group activity to serve as a replacement.

In 1978, after I found Traveller, I failed to imagine what players would actually do in a game without dungeons. Traveller opened the door for anything, anywhere in the universe, but nothing in particular. I concocted a scenario where a villain abducted the travelers and dropped them in a space ship filled with death traps.

Professional authors could do no better. Even though new role-playing games aspired to take characters out of the dungeon, authors of adventures created dungeons…in space. Science fiction games like Traveller (1977) featured players raiding or exploring space ships, star bases, or alien ruins. Sometimes travelers crossed an alien wilderness. Superhero games featured assaults on villains’ lairs. Horror games featured haunted houses. From a distance, they all looked like dungeon or wilderness adventures.

In every single one, the decisions that drove the adventure all amounted to a choice of doors (or to a choice of which hex to visit next).

In a Gamespy interview, D&D co-creator Dave Arneson said, “Dungeon crawls were, I think, the easiest things to set up because all you had to do was draw a grid map and didn’t have to worry about the great outdoors and setting up trees and stuff. People also couldn’t go wandering off where you didn’t have a map because it was solid rock.”

Like dungeons, site-based adventures limited characters’ choices, and this made them easy to write and easy to run. Adventure authors relied on numbered locations until they found new ways to limit players to a manageable number of choices.

Borderlands (1983) has players doing a series of jobs for their patron, a Duke

Traveller opened a galaxy of choices, so the rules recommended matching characters with patrons. “Patrons could specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task,” the rule book explained. “Some tasks may be ordinary in nature, such as hired guards or escorts; other tasks may be for the location and procurement of items of great value.” A patron’s task often led characters to an adventuring site, but not always. The first scenarios without location keys tended to rely on simple jobs.

Traveller casts patrons as an employer, but a patron can be anyone able to persuade the players to help. Once players selected a task, it limited players to the choices that brought them closer to their goal.

In the 70s, D&D players never needed patrons. By awarding characters with an experience point for each gold piece won from a dungeon, D&D built a goal into the rules. But games from Traveller to Runequest used patrons to match players with goals.

Eventually, even D&D players grew weary of just chasing loot, and D&D characters began meeting patrons too. D&D players began entering dungeons for more than treasure, they sought to thwart giant raids or to rescue the princess from the vampire queen. Nowadays, the cloaked figure in a bar who offers a job ranks as cliché.

The Traveller adventure Twilight’s Peak (1980) took another step away from site-based adventures. Here, the characters begin as crew on a starship that needs a costly repair. As they journey from system to system, hauling cargo and seeking a big score, they investigate clues that may lead to the lost base of an advanced civilization.

Twilight’s Peak ends as a site-based adventure, but it starts as the first investigation adventure where the players chase clues that author Marc Miller calls rumors. “The rumor is ultimately the source of all information for adventurers. Once they have been pushed by a rumor, they may look longer and harder in that direction and thus be moved closer to their goal. But without the initial impetus of the rumor the adventurers will find they have little reason for adventuring.”

In Twilight’s Peak, all the rumors lead to the same destination, but clues can drive a non-linear adventure too. When a scene or encounter gives more than one clue worth chasing, players face a decision that takes players in different directions. Do we check out the hunting lodge shown on the map, or go to town to question the jeweler who made the murder weapon?

Whether called rumors, clues, or leads, the technique’s introduction offered a new way to take players through an adventure.

Related: How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success

Next: A D&D module makes the next step away from site-based adventures.

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