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

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

Needle Gen Con 17

Judges’ copy of Needle from Gen Con 17

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

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

I start by reading the adventure twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red and blue notes on page

Red and blue notes on page

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

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

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

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

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

color reference sheets and player handouts

Color reference sheets and player handouts

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

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

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

Printed urban battle map fits the encounter

A pre-printed, urban battle map fits this encounter

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

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

Szith Morcane Unbound - Dengor’s palace

Szith Morcane Unbound – Dengor’s palace on Dungeon Paper

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

Map in sheet protector paired with encounter

A map in a sheet protector paired with an encounter

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

Miniatures for an adventure

Miniatures for the CORE 2-2 adventure

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

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

How do you prepare for a published adventure?

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The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lich_queen_close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Divination in D&D: Spells that fish for spoilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dungeons & Dragons at the 2016 Origins Game Fair

For many gamers, the Origins Game Fair feels just the right size. Unlike Winter Fantasy, the convention offers diversions beyond non-stop Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. 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.

I photographed this multi-table megadungeon at Origins 2015

Multi-table megadungeon photographed at Origins 2015

Origins features reasonably priced options in a connected food court. Gamers can also walk to downtown restaurants or cross the street to the North Market. This pavilion features vendors selling Mexican, Indian, Polish, barbecue, Italian, sushi, and many other types of food.

Origins started in 1975 as a convention sponsored by wargaming-giant Avalon Hill in its home town of Baltimore. In tribute to Avalon Hill and its town’s role in the birth of hobby gaming, the convention took the name Origins.

In Origins’ early years, it became the convention where the board- and miniature-gaming enthusiasts could find refuge from the the role-playing gamers who infested their hobby and who took over Gen Con. In 1988, when Origins and Gen Con combined into a single event for a year, those old wargamers grumbled.

Compared to Gen Con, Origins still tilts more toward board and miniature games. It shows fewer signs of fan culture like anime screenings, celebrity guests, and costumes.

In a recap, Andrew Smith writes, “If you’ve been at Gen Con when the Hall opens, you may be envisioning crowds of thousands of people waiting by the doors. Origins is quite different. We got in line a few minutes before opening and were probably behind 20-30 people in a single file line. It’s a completely different atmosphere.” Unlike Gen Con, board game demos spill out into a patchwork of territories outside the exhibit hall. This offers more hours to sample games, more space, and more affordable space for the manufacturers. “Demo lines are shorter and publishers just seem less busy and able to really sit and discuss their games.

This year, Wizards of the Coast made a strategic move to avoid Gen Con and feature Origins. Members of D&D team, including Mike Mearls, Chris Perkins, Chris Lindsay, and Trevor Kidd visited the con, while none will reach Gen Con.

As with Winter Fantasy and Gen Con, the folks at Baldman Games operated D&D organized play. The con launched a new program where conventions can commission Adventurers League adventures for their events. The organizers gain exclusive access to their content for six months before releasing it to the world at the Dungeon Masters Guild. Adventures in this new program will center on the Forgotten Realms Moonsea region.

The new Baldman Games adventures included a trilogy of adventures set in Melvaunt and four adventures set in Hillsfar, which were were reserved for D&D Experience players. On the Down with D&D podcast, the Bald Man, Dave Christ, talked about commissioning top authors to launch his exclusives. “With this being the first one, I wanted to set the bar really high. I wanted to kind of knock it out of the park.

CORE1-2 A Cog in the Wheel

CORE1-2 A Cog in the Wheel

The D&D experience pairs tables of six players with the same, top-rated DM for all four adventures. My table’s judge, Krishna Simonse, did an outstanding job accommodating our taste for combat challenges harder than the adventure’s strong level and our love of grids.

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

In addition to the exclusive content, the convention premiered the final, season 4 Curse of Strahd adventures and the kickoff for the season 5 Storm King’s Thunder story.

For me, the con’s best moments came with the return of the D&D Open. I explained what made this classic so great in, “Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return.”

The new Open’s all-star team of authors, Teos Abadia, Shawn Merwin, and Sean Molley captured all the challenge that made the old event such a blast.

In eight hours, the new Open aimed to combine the fun and community of a battle interactive, with a measure of the competition of the old tournaments.

Me in black at the D&D Open—despite our game face, we're having fun

My D&D Open team, with me in black, listening intently to the DM’s description of our next challenge.

Most of the event pitted players against an old-school funhouse adventure set in the megadungeon of Undermountain. Here the challenges proved as fun as any tournament I’ve played. I loved how so many locations wrapped combat encounters with puzzles to be solved. In a maze, PCs raced to gather clues while fleeing minotaurs and mind flayers. In castle ruins, PCs needed to find a way to turn catapults against a Death Tyrant. Best of all, the authors made the new Open hard—none of the namby-pamby, say-yes, everybody-is-a-star D&D in fashion now. Characters died. Our table saw one character Plane Shifted to certain doom and a second slain by a death ray. Save or die! Gary would be pleased.

For a climax, the tables joined forces against a diabolic machine constructed by Halaster, the mad architect of Undermountain.  Sean Molley showed astonishing ability to speak loudly enough to be heard from the far side of the ballroom while still taunting us in the Doofenshmirtz-like voice of Halaster.

I still wish for a more rigorous tournament with pregenerated characters, multiple rounds, and elite dungeon masters striving for consistent rulings and style. The D&D team sees that style of tournament as history. For most players, the new Open probably offers more fun. For an old grump like me, the Open still ranked as my best game of the year.

Wizards is already hatching plans for next year’s Open. Based on the event’s success, I suspect they will offer this year’s adventure to other conventions, but that remains undecided.

In all, Origins 2016 ran twice as many Adventurers League tables as in 2015.

The Origins Game Fair returns to Columbus on June 14-18th of 2017. See you there.

Next: Spells that fish for spoilers

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Spells that ruin mystery and treachery

In my last post, I explained how Dungeons & Dragons includes a variety of spells that can ruin adventures. Confined to the original megadungeons, spells like Know alignment and Commune caused no trouble. But as D&D grew to embrace more types of stories, such spells caused problems.

Which spells prove troublesome, and how does fifth edition deal with them?

Spells that unmask villains

In the second-edition era, many issues of Dungeon magazine included an adventure that asked players to identify some secret villain who inevitably possessed a Ring of Mind Shielding—inevitable because none of these adventures could have worked without it. In the implied D&D universe, such rings were as common as window curtains.

Spells that reveal lies and evil can be foiled, but they either make adventures with deception impossible or they force dungeon masters to nullify the players’ abilities.  Players who prepare spells like Detect Thoughts will feel cheated if every mystery thwarts them.

Alignment detection spells

Third edition dropped the Know Alignment (2nd level) spell, but the loss did nothing to help adventure designers because Detect Evil, Detect Chaos, and so on filled the same niche. At least 3E kept Know Alignment’s reverse, Unknowable Alignment, on the spell list. Paladins could cast it, because they enjoy deception, I suppose.

Detect Evil (1st level) used to reveal any creature of evil alignment, which told players exactly who to trust. Now, Detect Evil and Good detects any abberation, celestial, elemental, fey, fiend, or undead of any alignment, making the name a meaningless nod to tradition. The redesign keeps the spell useful and makes it trouble free.

As written, Glyph of Warding (3rd level) can still detect alignment, serving as both judge and executioner. In a magic-as-technology world, you would have to pass a glyph before boarding your airship flight.

Lie detection spells

Detect Lie (4th level) entered the game with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, at a time when Gary Gygax should have known better. The original spell didn’t even grant a saving throw. Second edition added one, and then 3E changed the name to Discern Lies. Fifth edition removes the spell from the game. It offered no play value to offset all the adventures it spoiled.

Zone of Truth (2nd level) grants a saving throw, allowing schemers who save to lie freely. Dungeon masters determined to save their adventures can fudge saves. But I eschew fudging die rolls, so I would rather strike the spell from the game.

Mind reading

The-Demolished-ManOf all the troublesome spells still in the game, the mind-reading spell Detect Thoughts (2nd level) ranks as the worst. With just a 2nd-level spell, you can read a creature’s surface thoughts before they even gain a save. If you probe deeper, the target senses the scan and resists with saves and contested intelligence checks. “Questions verbally directed at the target creature naturally shape the course of its thoughts.” Presumably, you could shape a suspect’s thoughts with idle gossip about a murder or traitor. In a D&D world, every schemer needs an earworm on continuous loop in their head. I suggest, “Tenser, said the Tensor.

At least Detect Thoughts can cut tedious interrogation scenes where the murder hobo threatens a captive while the paladin visits the little boys’ room.

The spell’s description fails to say how long you can read surface thoughts before the victim gains a save. The spell comes from an AD&D spell called ESP, which let scans continue for the spell’s duration without a save. To remove the scientific flavor of extra-sensory perception, 3E renamed the spell. The 3E version adds a save to any attempt to read surface thoughts.

In 5E, I suggest only allowing a 6-second round to scan before the target becomes aware of the probe and gains a save. This will allow casters to gain clues and insights without laying every mystery bare.

In play, Detect Thoughts existence means that if a plot requires someone to keep a secret, then they either need that Ring of Mind Shielding or to be so dangerous that noticeable mind reading creates complications. (Denizens of a D&D world would consider mind reading as rudely provocative as burglarizing someone’s bedroom.) Imagine a scene where the target thinks at the mind reader. So you know my secret, but who will believe the word of a hired sword over the archbishop? Now the party faces proving their case before the archbishop’s inquisitors reach them.

Of course, D&D rarely pits players against schemers too powerful to confront, so the spell’s ongoing existence limits the sort of stories our game can tell.

Next: Spells that fish for spoilers (or perhaps a side trek to Origins)

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Spells that ruin adventures, revisited

Have you ever had an adventure spoiled by a spell? Through the history of Dungeons & Dragons, a variety of spells carried the potential to short circuit or spoil whole categories of adventures—at least without significant planning to avoid the spells’ potential.

Many of the adventure-spoiling spells existed in the early days, but given the play styles of the times, they posed few problems.

Drow_costumeOnce upon a time, D&D games took place in huge sprawling dungeons like the one under Castle Greyhawk, where monsters wandered and players balanced their own encounters by deciding how deep they dared to go.

Adventures never featured intrigue. You never needed to find the real killer from among a group of suspects. Detect Lie probably started as a way to determine if the captive Kobold was lying about the treasure behind the “untrapped” door ahead. It also deterred the thief from stealing your stuff. Know Alignment simply existed so the cleric could tell the paladin who to kill first.

Just a few years after D&D reached gamers, players discovered adventures with plot and roleplaying. But spells that served as just another resource in the Tomb of Horrors suddenly prevented entire styles of play.

Spells like Detect Lie (later Discern Lies), Detect Thoughts, and Zone of Truth threatened to eliminate intrigue.

With spells like Commune and Speak with Dead in the game, you can forget whodunits.

The Prince of Murder’s army of assassins cannot keep him safe in his mountain aerie if the characters can scry and fry.

Fourth edition defied D&D tradition by eliminating spells that broke adventures. Too many players felt 4E remade too much of the game. So fifth edition works to balance nostalgia for classic spells with changes that make them less troublesome.

Next: Which spells have proven troublesome, and how does fifth edition deal with them?

Posted in Role-playing game history | Tagged | 4 Comments

Some new, favorite dungeon masters’ tools

My list of dungeon mastering gear needs a new addition. In my original post, I recommended that 3rd-edition Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder players use Steel Sqwire templates to determine the area of spell effects. The wires map circular and conical areas to squares on a grid.

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

Macrame rings

Macrame rings

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

Fireball-size ring

Fireball-size ring

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

Back in 2014, I backed a couple of Kickstarters from Jonathan Wilson at Tabletop props. He makes covered wagons, tents, campfires, and dead trees all scaled to match miniature figures. The tent and covered wagon props pleased me so much that I wish I had chipped in for more rewards. The props are now available for sale.

Campsite from Tabletop Props on a battle map

Wagon, tent, dead tree, and campfire from Tabletop Props on a battle map

Almost as many D&D adventures have PCs guarding wagons as exploring dungeons. During the inevitable ambush, I used to put a dungeon-tile wagon on the battle map. Now I have the covered-wagon prop.

Tabletop Props covered wagon

Tabletop Props covered wagon

The wagon boasts stunning details. The top-half comes off, turning the wagon into a flatbed. The wheels turn. At two squares across and three long, its scale suits the battle map.

The tent spans a 3-by-3 square on the map, so it represents a big shelter.

The campfire fits perfectly into a square and features translucent flames.

The wagon’s $25 price led me to only order one, but I plan to order a second. I will use the wagon in many more encounters than any of the more expensive dragon figures in my closet.

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7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing

The designers of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons want to avoid changing the game as it exists in print. In a Tome Show interview, designer Mike Mearls said they would only make changes if something proves “horribly broken.” Although no character options seem to qualify, a few rate as troublesome enough to land on designer Jeremy Crawford’s undisclosed “watch list.” A few more dominate enough to overshadow lesser PCs. Here are 7 examples.

7. Dealing massive damage during surprise rounds – Paladin 2/Assassin 3/Fighter 2

At level 3, a Rogue who takes the Assassin archetype treats any hit scored against a surprised creature as a critical, which doubles the Rogue’s sneak attack dice. The 2nd-level Paladin’s Divine Smite adds even more dice to double. To land more critical hits, add two levels of Fighter for Action Surge and a second batch of attacks. If you want criticals without surprise, continue to level 3 with the Fighter’s Champion archetype for crits on 19-20.

Is it broken? No. How often does a party or even a sneaky PC gain surprise? When a party does gain surprise, this advantage typically leads to a romp even without an assassin going nova.

Without surprise, you have a Rogue who must boast a Strength and Charisma of 13, and a Paladin who either skips the protection of heavy armor or sneaks with disadvantage.

Related: Dealing Death: Handbook of the True Assassin

6. Healing at low levels – Druid 1/Cleric 1

The 1st-level druid spell Goodberry creates 10 berries that PCs can eat to heal a hit point. Whenever a Life-domain Cleric uses a 1st-level spell to heal, the target regains 3 additional hit points. This bonus applies to each of 10 healing berries produced by Goodberry. At levels 2-4, gaining 40 hit points of healing from a 1st-level spell rates as outrageous.

Is it broken? No. Although you can upend a bag of M&Ms into your mouth, eating a single Goodberry demands an action. As levels rise, the healing stays at 40, and the class pairing just yields a Druid/Cleric who can’t wear metal armor, or a Cleric/Druid who can’t be a Druid. Adventurers League players will drop the combination before they reach level 5.

5. Locking down monsters – Monk 5 and Hex

Update: Hex only imposes disadvantage on ability checks, and not on saving throws, so this combination doesn’t work. Jay Elmore tells me that some players combine Hex and grapple to impose disadvantage on their target’s Strength checks.

At level 5, every class gains a game-changing ability. Monks get Stunning Strike. After striking, they can force their foe to make a Constitution save to avoid being stunned until the monk’s next turn. A stunned creature can do nothing except endure attacks made with advantage. Few foes will survive more than a turn or two of the onslaught.

The Warlock’s 1st-level Hex spell lets the monk impose disadvantage on one type of save, say Constitution. Hex lasts at least an hour and can move from victim to victim. The extra 1d6 damage added to each blow just adds a lagniappe of pain. (Also a good name for a Zydeco-Metal band.)

A Monk can gain the ability to cast Hex in two ways: Take the Magic Initiate feat or a level of Warlock. With the feat, Monks can only Hex once a day—still enough for a hour-long adventuring day and at least one boss smackdown. The level of Warlock costs both the level and a 13 Charisma, but gains multiple castings.

Is it broken? No, but the combination tends to dominate every boss fight. If I were a better person behind the DM screen, I would enjoy watching monks seize the spotlight as they turn my biggest threats into piñatas. Forgive me though, because sometimes I fake my admiration.

I have a memo to anyone designing D&D adventures, including many pros who should know better. No single foe without legendary actions can pose a fight to a group of PCs.

4. Dealing melee damage – Great Weapon Master

Arbo-ValkyrienThe Great Weapon Master feat lets characters trade accuracy for damage. “Before you make a melee attack with a heavy weapon you are proficient with, you can choose to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you add +10 to the attack’s damage.” With fifth edition’s bounded armor classes, this trade usually makes great deal. Your fighter gets no benefit from rolling 20-something to hit a typical 14 AC, but that extra 10 damage stings.

A fighter who gains many extra attacks at higher levels and from action surges can multiply the extra damage by several attacks.

Is it broken? The combination falls short of breaking the game, but it overshadows other melee-fighting strategies.

Related: Great Weapon Mastery How to -5/+10 Like a Pro

3. Dealing consistent ranged damage – Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert

Exactly like Great Weapon Master, Sharpshooter lets characters trade accuracy for damage. The trade can yield even more damage per round, because a sharpshooter with the Crossbow Expert feat gains an additional attack.

Crossbow Expert lets a character attack with a one-handed weapon, and then use a bonus attack to make another attack with a hand crossbow. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “Crossbow Expert does allow a character to shoot a hand crossbow as an action and again as a bonus action.” So fighters with the feat can use their usual multi-attacks, attack with a bonus action, and optionally spend an Action Surge for another volley. Plus, you can make these attacks from range. (The fifth-edition designers often undervalue the benefit of attacking from a distance.)

As a downside, loading requires a free hand. Also, the Great Weapon Masters will mock your tiny weapon.

Is it broken? Players who play any martial archetype that has ever appeared in fantasy face being overshadowed by an improbable character who rapid fires a tiny crossbow for massive damage.

Some DMs will rule that the crossbow used for the bonus attack cannot be the same as the one used for the regular attack. This forces PCs to stow a crossbow, freeing a hand to reload. In organized play, any DMs making this ruling will hear players howl that the ruling “COMPLETELY AND ARBITRARILY INVALIDATES MY ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT.”

2. Dealing bursts of ranged damage – Warlock 2 / Sorcerer 3+

Warlocks gain fewer spell slots than other casters, forcing them to spend more rounds blasting with their Eldritch Blast cantrip. In compensation, eldritch invocations make Eldritch Blast much better than other cantrips. The best invocation, Agonizing Blast, lets Warlocks add their Charisma bonus to their blasts’ damage. It makes the essential, first invocation to take at level 2. Even when PCs never take another level of Warlock, the number of beams from their Eldritch Blasts increase as their level increases.

Once a 2nd-level Warlock can blast the game’s most powerful cantrip, a switch to the Sorcerer class unlocks a way to cast another in the same turn. Third-level Sorcerers can take the Quicken Spell metamagic option, which lets them spend sorcery points to fire another Eldritch Blast as a bonus action. As a level-5 PC, Quicken Spell allows firing 4 beams in one round. By the time such characters reach level 11, they can quicken their blasts for 4 straight turns, dealing up to 6d10+30 damage per turn.

Is it broken? Warlock and Sorcerer both use powers based on Charisma, so the classes combine well. Whether the combination breaks the game depends on how many encounters your game tends to pack between long rests and fresh allotments of sorcery points.

Honorable mention: At level 14, Evokers gain the Overchannel ability, which lets them boost a spell to deal maximum damage. After one use, the overchannelling Wizard takes 2d12 of damage per level of spell—a steep price. But cantrips count as level 0, so overchannel Firebolt every turn!

Designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “As written, an evoker can overchannel a cantrip without taking damage (on my watch list). A DM could say no cantrips.” Sure, and INVALIDATE MY ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT.

Update: The Player’s Handbook errata changed Overchannel so it doesn’t benefit cantrips.

1. Surviving damage – Druids in the Circle of the Moon path

At 2nd level, a Druid can take the shape of beast along with all its hit points. When Druids return to their regular shape, they return to the hit point total they had before they transformed. In effect, a 2nd-level druid can lose most of the, say, 68 hit points of two brown-bear forms before even dipping into their regular supply.

For Druids in the Circle of the Land, the beast form lacks combat strength, so they transform to scout. No one enters the Circle of the Land. Druids in the Circle of the Moon get beast forms that can fight. Plus, Druids assume the Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution of their beast forms, so they can make all three physical attributes dump stats.

Some players make their Druids even tougher by adding levels of Barbarian for their Rage ability and the resistance it grants to piercing, bludgeoning, and slashing damage. Moon Druids never seem endangered, so the combination probably offers more protection than anyone needs. Multiclassing dilutes the Druid’s overall power, because it slows access to more powerful beast forms.

250px-Justiceleague_v2_01Is it broken? Jeremy Crawford has the feature on his watch list, but calls it better on paper than in play.

Many critics of the Moon Druid cite the level-20 archdruid’s ability to shapechange an unlimited number of times, which makes them virtually invincible. But all level-20 characters have abilities that would qualify them for the Justice League.

Nonetheless, in the role of defender, Moon Druids change the balance of the game. In level-appropriate encounters, Druids never become endangered. Once a Druid learns to screen party members, they rarely feel threatened either.

Related: 5th edition D&D Druid Handbook

That’s my list. What have I missed?

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Mapping—or not-fun things that Dungeons & Dragons players learned to skip, part 1

In 1978, when I found the Dungeons & Dragons basic set, I noticed that the dwarf description included lot of fluff: stocky bodies, long beards, and an ability to detect slanting passages, shifting walls and new construction. I figured the slanting-and-shifting thing would never affect the game unless some dwarf skipped adventuring for a safer job as a building inspector. “Your rolling-boulder ramp isn’t up to code. Someone might not trip.”

Years later, I realized the dwarven fluff actually helped players keep the chore of mapping from becoming maddening.

In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. Map-keeping dominated play as much as combat. In the original example of play, the referee—dungeon master had not been coined yet—spends half the game reciting dimensions.

Did anyone ever think translating distances to graph paper added fun? Or was mapping another way to thwart players who tried to steal the quasi-adversarial referee’s treasure. (In the same example, the Caller finds hidden loot, and the Referee responds by “cursing the thoroughness of the Caller.” Rules question: Must the Referee curse aloud or can he just twirl his mustache?)

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax relished any chance to frustrate mappers. The original rules’ half page of “Tricks and Traps” lists nothing but slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to waste graph paper. In this game, the dwarf’s slant-and-shift sense became essential. If you wanted to survive, someone played a cleric; if you wanted your game to not suck, someone played a dwarf.

The text described dungeons as “mazy.” Gary wasn’t kidding.

Original D&D described dungeons as “mazy.” Gary wasn’t kidding.

The original example of play should have included this addition:

Mapper: I cannot believe the referee teleported us into another goddamn Maze.

Caller: I suppose a mountain of fun games will be invented in the next 40 years, but for now the only alternative is Monopoly.

Mapper: Sigh. I search for secret doors.

To be fair, the sloping floors and trick staircases made more than a nuisance. In the megadungeons of the era, greater threats prowled on lower levels, so tricks that lured PCs deeper threatened their lives. Traps that blocked a mapped escape from the dungeon prevented players from resting and re-equipping.

Deathmaze 5000 offered a true test of map keeping

Deathmaze 5000’s revolutionary first-person view offered  mappers a true test

Perhaps Gary also thought map-keeping let players practice the skills of imaginary dungeon explorers. But explorers would see the place they mapped. From a first-person view, mapping is entirely different than translating spoken descriptions. I learned this playing Deathmaze 5000 long before computer programmers went soft and made dungeon games with automatic mapping, or saved games, or that players enjoyed.

By 1976, Palace of the Vampire Queen included player’s maps to spare players the chore of transcribing dimensions. By fourth edition, labyrinths had turned from mapping challenges to skill challenges. Such mazes were no more fun, but they saved graph paper.

For years, mapping formed a part of D&D that players tolerated, but that few questioned. Then, this revolutionary game seemed so fresh and intoxicating that even duties like mapping found love, just a lot less than the game’s actual fun parts.

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9 facts about D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen

Before Curse of Strahd and Ravenloft came Palace of the Vampire Queen, a dungeon written by California gamers Pete and Judy Kerestan and distributed by TSR Hobbies.palace_of_the_vampire_queen_folder

1 Palace of the Vampire Queen may count as the first Dungeons & Dragons adventure module published, but only after a few disqualifications.

Book 3 of the original D&D game devoted two pages to a dungeon level, but the sample falls short of a complete dungeon. Supplement II Blackmoor (1975) includes Temple of the Frog, but that location plays as a Chainmail scenario rather than a dungeon. As Palace reached print in June 1976, Paul Jaquays published Dungeoneer issue 1. The magazine including a dungeon called F’Cherlak’s Tomb. So Palace of the Vampire Queen rates as the first standalone D&D adventure in print.

2 D&D co-creator Gary Gygax thought no one would buy published dungeons, because dungeon masters could easily create their own.

The key to Palace makes dungeon creation seem trivial, so you can see Gary’s point. Each room appears as a row on a table with a monster quantity, a list of hit points, and a line describing the room’s contents. Anyone with enough imagination to play D&D could create similar content as quickly as they could type.

palace_of_the_vampire_queen_key

3 TSR Hobbies distributed Palace because they found success reselling blank character sheets from the same authors.

In February 1976, Strategic Review announced the Character Archaic, a set of character sheets for D&D and Empire of the Petal Throne.

4 Palace came as a collection of loose 8½ by 11 pages tucked into a black folder with a copyright notice taped inside the cover.

Adding to the low-budget feel, TSR fixed missing pages in some kits by adding Xerox-streaked duplicates from the office machine.

5 Most of the adventure’s text comes in a 1-page background.

The page tells of a beloved queen, slain by a vampire, and entombed on the dwarvish island of Baylor. She rises to bring terror to the night.

In addition to launching the standalone adventure, Palace gives players their first shot at rescuing the princess. The vampire queen has abducted the king’s only daughter. “The people wait in fear at night. The king wanders his royal palace, so empty now without his only child. Neither the king nor his people have hope left that a hero or group of heroes will come to rid them of the Vampire Queen. For surely the Vampire Queen lies deep within the forbidding mountains, protected by her subjects, vengeful with hate for all truly living things and constantly thirsting for human blood on which to feed.

In the early days of the game, when players raided dungeons for treasure and the experience points it brought, this qualified as an unprecedented dose of plot.

6 Palace shows a dungeon designed before anyone worried about making things plausible.

Even though the dungeon’s background presents it as a tomb for a queen-turned-vampire, it features assorted monsters waiting in rooms to be killed. In any natural underground, the creatures would wander away for a meal. And the bandits in room 23 would search for a safer hideout near easier marks. And the Wizard selling magic items in room 23 would find a store with foot traffic that doesn’t creep or slither.

7 In 1976, nobody worried about dead characters much.

When someone opens a chest on level 2, a block drops and kills the PC and anyone else in a 3×6’ space. No damage rolls, no save—just dead.The dungeon’s threats escalate quickly. Level 2 includes orcs and a giant slug; level 5 includes 35 vampires and a Balrog.

Despite these menaces, players in 1976 stood a better chance than they would now. The Balrog was just a brute with 2 attacks and 41 hit points, not the modern Balor with 262 hit points and a fire aura. Vampires suffered significant disadvantages: “Vampires cannot abide the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of cross. They will fall back from these if strongly presented.” Level 4 even includes a Garlic Garden so players can stock up.

When the players reach the vampire queen’s tomb, she flees their garlic and crosses, and tries to take the dwarf princess hostage.

8 In 1976, no one knew how to present a dungeon—or agreed on how to play the game.

palace_of_the_vampire_queen_mapThe key sketches just the most essential information: a quantity of monsters, their treasure, and an occasional trick or trap. The text lists no stats other than hit points, but lists them as Max Damage. Apparently, D&D’s terminology remained unsettled. Back then, DMs rolled hit points, so pre-rolling counted as a time saver.

In one room, a PC can adopt a lynx kitten as a pet, which lets him “add 3 to his morale score.” D&D lacked morale rules for player characters, but in those days popular house rules spread though regions. Folks writing about D&D regularly confused their regional practices for canon.

Each level of the dungeon includes a keyed and unkeyed map. “The Dungeon Master may give or sell the player map to the players to speed game play.” Even in 1976, players saw mapping as a chore.

9 The dungeon master needed to work to bring the Palace to life.

Palace of the Vampire Queen isn’t called a “module” or “dungeon adventure,” but a “Dungeon Masters Kit.”

The authors realized that dungeon’s brief descriptions fell short of adventure. “Feel free to use your imagination for dialog or any extra details you feel would add to more exciting play. The kit itself is only a basic outline—you can make it a dramatic adventure.

The kit uses fewer words to describe 5 levels than some modern adventures lavish on a single room. Nevertheless, it presents some charming bits. On level 4, PCs find a petrified Lammasu missing a jewel eye. Replacing the eye causes the creature to come to life as an ally.

Room 24 holds 3 sacks of sand. Room 25 says, “Sand alarm rings in room 26 when door is opened.” I searched the web for “sand alarm” to determine if it were some kind of widely-known trick, perhaps requiring a supply of sandbags. Finally, I realized room 25 holds a sound (making) alarm.

One room holds an Invisible Chime of Opening. I have no clue how the PCs might find the thing unless they literally sweep the floor. Just for kicks, I would have put a broom in the room.

Just a couple of years after Palace of the Vampire Queen reached gamers, the D&D community forgot about it. But this first adventure showed Gary that adventure modules could attract buyers, so he rushed to publish the giant series.

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