A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord

In December of 1975, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. Blackmoor’s Temple of the Frog qualified as the only published adventure, although the armies inside the temple made it unsuitable for dungeon crawls and limited it to the sort of sand-table battles that evolved into Dungeons & Dragons.

So when Decatur, Illinois gamers Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen visited TSR that December, they brought a new idea. Bob asked TSR for authorization to make a line of play aids for D&D players and judges.

Shannon Appelcline, author of Designers & Dragons, recounts what happened next. “Bledsaw told them about his ideas for gamemaster supplements…and the result was laughter. The TSR staff explained to Bledsaw and Owen that gamers wanted games, not supplements, and told them they were more than welcome to publish D&D supplements (and lose money) if they wanted to.”

A quarter of the city map

A quarter of the city map

City State of the Invincible OverlordBledsaw turned his drafting skills to map a huge city that would become the City State of the Invincible Overlord. He brought the poster maps to Gen Con in 1976. There he canvassed the convention goers, sold out of maps, and offered memberships to the Judges Guild, a subscription to future play aids. Shortly after Gen Con, charter subscribers received a package including the Initial Guidelines Booklet I (I as the Roman 1). The next package included Guidelines Booklet J (J as the letter after I). The guidelines supported the City State with encounter charts, information on social tiers, supplemental rules, and descriptions of a few streets.

In 1977, a retail version of the City State reached stores. The $9 package includes a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.

A baker

A baker

The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each. The locations offer a treasury of fantasy names. Just the roster of the Mercenaries Guild provides 20 names, and the city has 300 more locations.

The City State resembled the dungeon adventures of the time, densely packed locations with little natural order. The place has 5 bakers, but lacks a miller, brewer, fuller, glazier, wheeler, cooper, fletcher, mason, as well as many other popular boys’ names. Humans dominate the population, but trolls, ogres, and other monsters hold jobs. A shop’s proprietor could be a shapeshifted ogre mage or dragon. The undertaker employs undead. A god lives at his local temple.

Have you found god?

Have you found god?

Even though a modern product with similar scope might sprawl over 500 or more pages, the City State’s descriptions take fewer than 80 pages. The terse descriptions provide seeds for improvisation rather than details.

Despite the product’s tremendous scope—or perhaps due to it—I struggled to figure out how center a game around the City State. I looked for guidelines booklets A though H, but never found them. Did I need them? Also, I grappled with  the question of how to conduct play in the sprawling city.

Nowadays, city adventures tend to be narrative based, with clues leading characters from one location or NPC to the next. This allows a focus on key locations. In 1977, no one played D&D that way. Instead, players entered the dungeon or wilderness to explore room by room, hex by hex. The rule books explained how to conduct dungeon and wilderness adventures, water and aerial adventures, but nothing about cities. Cities served as a base to heal and gather supplies before you left for the next adventure. Cities were for bookkeeping.

So how did a DM run a game in the City State? The guidelines seem to imply that characters will wander the city, either shopping for adventuring gear or pursing rumors that will lead to their next adventure. In the course of wandering, they can trigger random encounters, often keyed to the neighborhood.

Basing a night of gaming on shopping or rumor gathering presents a lot of difficulties, mostly for reasons I described in “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” Typically these activities offer the players few challenges—except for the rare cases where a level-6, chaotic-evil butcher attacks the party’s dwarf.

A butcher

A butcher

The optimal session in the City State finds the players quickly uncovering a rumor and chasing it to a dungeon, or to a plot hook involving a giant, hairy stalker.

The best—and most intimidating—part of the City State came from the rumors. So many provided exciting invitations to adventure. Every storefront seemed like a launching point for an adventure.

As a dungeon master, the rumors made the city even more challenging to run. All the rumors inspired, but they led to adventures that demanded either preparation or more improvisation than I care to attempt. Every rumor promised an adventure that the DM needed to make good. In the Pig & Whistle tavern players learn that a mountain disappeared 120 miles south of the city. I want to play that adventure, but if I’m DM, I don’t want to ad lib it.

For all the product’s creative energy, its seamy side disagreed with my tastes. Even the map shows a goblin reservation. I prefer my monsters dangerous, rather than downtrodden. I certainly do not want to invite analogies between wicked monsters and real human beings who suffered a history of mistreatment.

In addition to a slave trade and many bordellos, the city has a Park of Obscene Statues (no kidding) and Naughty Nannies (still not kidding).

I'm not kidding

I’m not kidding

Even the book had a seamy side: It includes tables to determine womens’ measurements. The text makes distinctions between amazons, vixens, houris, and courtesans. I know Amazons, although not personally. I still don’t understand the rest. I guess I’ll never understand women.

Still not kidding

Still not kidding

My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting elements I liked. I cherry picked the material I liked from the city state. I toned down the patchwork insanity and the sordid bits. For instance, I still like the idea of launching an adventure based on the story behind the two people the undertaker managed to shrink to 6 inches tall and now keeps in a silver cage. The text calls the two captives Amazons, but I would not keep that detail. I think I know that story, and I don’t want to bring it to my game table.

Despite the product’s challenges, as an outstanding map and a trove of ideas, it scored. As the first role-playing setting, the City State of the Invincible Overlord became a hit. That proved a mixed blessing: In a year, TSR would reverse its stance and demand licensing dollars from Judges Guild.

Next: The candlestick maker

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How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D

In my last post, I described the how Dungeons & Dragons tended to break once players gathered too many magic items or certain combinations of items. Earlier editions included several rules that worked to prevent the problem, but fifth edition’s attunement rule and rarity system provide the best measures yet.

Of course not all game-breaking magic comes from magic items. Spells can create problems too. Gary Gygax invented virtually all of D&D’s familiar spells when folks played in a much narrower style: Player characters kept to the dungeon. Non-player characters attacked on sight. Plots never developed. Characters died or retired (mostly died) before they could cast spells above sixth level. As the game blossomed, many spells that seemed fun, or that only appeared on scrolls, started spoiling games.

In “Spells that ruin adventures,” I wrote about individual spells that tended to disrupt play. In “Scry and fry,” I explained how a climactic battle can become a quick ambush. And in “Designing for spells that spoil adventures,” I told D&D Next’s designers how to design around problem spells. In a future post, I will look back at my advice.

Spell combos

Not every problem comes from an individual spell, play can suffer when players stack spells. In third edition, higher-level parties might enter a fight blanketed with spells like Haste, Invisibility, Fly, Blur, Polymorph Self, Resist Elements, and on and on. These parties would fly to the dungeon’s treasure vault, invisible and in ghostform. Parties traveled optimized by maximized ability buffs. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while the DM struggled to create any challenge.

Combined spells did more than allow character to float past adventures, spell combos could also buy a cheap victory. Just lock down a battlefield with Evard’s Black Tentacles, and the clear it with Cloudkill. Used in one fight, this strategy makes a memorable story; repeated, the other players wonder why they showed up.

Of course, third edition could remain playable at high levels, but only when players chose not to use strategies that strained the system’s limits.

Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme Annual Vol 1 2Some players argue that a dungeon master can counter these measures by pitting players against villains able to use dispel magic and a suite of magical countermeasures. While true, this approach suffers drawbacks:

  • DMs can no longer challenge parties with published adventures, or really any monsters other than spellcasters.
  • DMs will know the players’ magical tricks, so the villains’ countermeasures will invite the players to suspect that the DM used privileged information to thwart them.
  • Mainly though, D&D stops feeling like D&D and starts to resemble a superhero game, with characters flying around, ignoring walls, untouched by mundane threats. Most folks who want the feel of a superhero game, play a superhero game.

To avoid the problem, fourth edition either rewrote or dropped the spells that caused problems. This worked. Even at epic levels, the game never mutates into a chess match between the Sinister Spellcasters and the Legion of Fantasy Heroes. However, 4E’s lack of familiar spells fueled the accusations that 4E no longer resembled D&D.

When fifth edition’s designers faced the problem of overlapping magical effects, they knew that earlier solutions had proven flawed. They returned familiar spells and they adopted an ingenious new fix: concentration.

Concentration

Many spells now require their caster to maintain concentration to keep their magic going. Critically, a spellcaster can only concentrate on one spell at a time. Now rather than layering Haste, Invisibility, Fly, Blur, Resistance, and a few others, a caster must pick one. Wizards who really want to be blurry and invisible, need a second spellcaster’s help. To combine black tentacles and a poison cloud, parties need two spellcasters, and neither will cast while flying invisible over the battle. To the design team, this counts as teamwork rather than, “I beat another encounter for you. You’re welcome!”

Concentration limits the power of high-level spellcasters. In earlier editions of the game, the Vancian magic system awarded advancing wizards far more power than characters in other classes. They gained more spells per day, of greater power, plus even their lower-level spells increased in power. Concentration stands as one way fifth edition keeps wizards in line with their peers.

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Too much magic kept breaking Dungeons & Dragons—how fifth edition fixes it

Part of the fun of Dungeons & Dragons comes from increasing your character’s power. Some of that added power comes from magic: spellcasters gain more and more powerful spells and everyone gains magic items.

He's just my characters henchman

He is just my character’s henchman

From the beginning, the game’s designers struggled to grant players magical powers without making them so powerful that the game lost its challenge. In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax mocked PCs who gained too much magic. “These god-like characters boast and strut about with retinues of ultra-powerful servants and scores of mighty magic items, artifacts, relics adorning them as if they were Christmas trees decked out with tinsel and ornaments.” Still today, gamers compare over-equipped characters to Christmas trees.

As a remedy, Dungeons & Dragons imposed a few limits on what magic items could combine effects. For example, rings of protection did not stack with magical armor. Mostly though, Gary asked dungeon masters to award fewer magic items. In practice, DMs rarely noticed that their players had gained too much magic until the game broke.

Even shrewd DMs might overlook problems caused by the right combination of items. In second edition, a girdle of giant strength could add its strength bonus to another bonus from gauntlets of ogre power. (Note to new players: A girdle is a belt, and 5E now includes a belt of giant strength, depriving new players of the obvious, juvenile gags that we old-timers relished.) The combination turned dart-throwing fighters into living Maxim guns. A dart just inflicted 1-3 damage, so even though characters could throw three darts in an attack, darts seemed weak. However, a fighter could use their multiple attacks to throw a lot of darts, and they added their strength bonus to each dart’s damage. If a fighter gained a few strength enhancements, every encounter became the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. The Dungeon Master’s Guide even hinted at the combo. “Gauntlets [of ogre power] are particularly desirable when combined with a girdle of giant strength and a hurled weapon.” The exploit just required DMs as careless as the game’s designers and fighters able to tolerate the embarrassment of relying on darts.

In third edition, the designers added a fix: they cut the rate of fire for darts. Plus, they worked for wider improvements.

Typed bonuses

Combinations like the girdle and gauntlets showed how stacking bonuses could break the game’s math. The old fix would add the girdle—now belt—and gauntlets to a list of items that did not combine, right after rings of protection. The designers recognized that such a case-by-case treatment would create problems as the game grew. Instead, third edition introduced a system of typed bonuses. Bonuses of the same type never added, so an enhancement bonus would add to a morale bonus, but not another enhancement bonus. Now the belt and gauntlets both added enhancement bonuses, which did not add.

Players needed vigilance to notice that, say, a bonus from a spell overlapped with a bonus from a magic item. Even well-meaning players occasionally made mistakes when they applied bonuses. Few players liked to keep track of it all.

In 3E, the scheme could have worked better if the designers had managed to settle on a small set of bonus types, and then stick to them. But as the game expanded, the number of bonus types grew too. Each new type opened another opportunity for min-maxers.

Despite the flaws of typed bonuses, the system worked well enough to reappear in the fourth edition. Presumably, the designers pledged to hold to a short list of types.

Item slots

One limitation reduced the decorations on Christmas-tree PCs by limiting magic items to one per body part. This restriction relied on common sense until third edition’s Magic Item Compendium quantified body parts as item slots.

Fourth edition reduced the number of item slots and linked types of enhancements to specific slots. For example, any enhancement to armor class had to come from armor, while items in the neck slot improved other defenses. The ring of protection became the neck slot’s amulet of protection, but amulets could no longer enhance AC. The game added cloth armor so Wizards could gain an AC bonus.

Item slots worked perfectly, but once players added boons from powers and abilities, the game allowed extreme optimizations. I once ran a convention game for a paragon-tier table that included a defender optimized for maximum defense. Monsters could only hit him on a roll of 20. Even their lucky blows dealt negligible damage. The battles all started with the defender using a power to lock down all the monsters, forcing them to thrash uselessly at his invincible defenses. The rest of the party could attack with impunity. As the adventure continued, I added enemies to the battles, but utterly failed to challenge the party. Did anyone have fun? A few players enjoy D&D games that fail to challenge them. They relish the chance to step into a character able to steamroll any opposition. Certainly the defender’s player felt he had triumphed over D&D. I could only hope that the other players enjoyed a chance to romp through combat encounters, but I doubt they all did. Does a player deserve any blame for bringing a character that makes the game less fun for other party members?

Scarcity

In 1979, Gary told dungeon masters to limit the magic items players gained, but he offered nothing more than tough love. The game needed a simple way for DMs to assess the power of the items they gained.

“Third Edition replaced loosey-goosey guidelines with very clear ones—clear almost to the point of being rules,” James Wyatt wrote. “There was an expected progression of treasure for characters, expressed as gold piece value but translating directly to magic item value.”

DMs tracked the cash value of the treasure they awarded. In principle, DMs never had to worry about which magic items players owned, just their total value.

Fourth edition was optimized for players who enjoyed customizing characters and then showing off their abilities on the battlefield. For maximum customization, players had to control every aspect of character building, including magical equipment. Magic items moved to the Player’s Handbook and became easy to buy and trade. The designers supposed that if players held to the item budgets, gameplay would remain balanced. Eventually, the burgeoning 4E game broke the budget system. As new magical catalogs reached stores, PCs gained options and access to more combinations. Soon, dungeon masters missed the days when they could limit characters by limiting the magic that entered their game.

D&D Essentials added a rarity system to 4E’s original scheme. Players still picked common items, but the DM controlled rare items. In organized play, the rarity system offered a simple way to limit the number of powerful, rare items owned by a single PC.

Fifth edition’s solutions

When fifth edition’s designers faced the old problem of saving the game from too much magic, they knew that earlier solutions had proven flawed. So they scrapped typed bonuses and item slots. Instead, they revisited item rarities and adopted an ingenious new fix: attunement.

Attunement

Powerful magic items require characters to create a magical bond called attunement with the item. Without becoming attuned, characters only gain an item’s mundane benefits, so that ring of invisibility just dresses up your finger. A item can be attuned to only one character at a time and the character can be attuned to more than three magic items at once.

Attuning an item takes as long as a short rest, reducing any temptation to carry golf bags of magic swords or staffs.

The three-item limit deters combinations of magic items from breaking the game. For example, rings require attunement, so even if you dress all 10 fingers in Rings of Protection, you can only benefit from three, yielding a +3 bonus to armor class. Three items may allow some combinations, but the designers learned from past mistakes. You can attune both gauntlets of ogre power and a belt of giant strength, but each pegs your Strength at a fixed number. And darts no longer have a rate of fire.

The attunement system eliminates a need for strict item slots. Instead the Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “Use common sense to determine more than one of a given kind of magic item can be worn.” See page 141.

The attunement system prevents the game from breaking under the weight of too many magic items. As long as designers avoid putting game-breaking combinations of items into the game, it works.

Rarity

In fifth edition, attunement limits the number of powerful magical items that benefit a character, but many items work without attunement. A player who stacks enough items can strain the game’s math. To help dungeon masters avoid problems, the game adopts a version of fourth edition’s rarity system. In a game with a typical amount of magic, the rules suggest that players not gain any very rare items until they reach level 11.

How does this work in play? With unlimited access to magic, and three items attuned, a character could gain a 29 armor class from equipment: +3 plate (very rare), +3 shield (very rare), +1 ring of protection (rare, attunement), +3 defender weapon (legendary, attunement), +1 ioun stone (rare, attunement).

The 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide never spells out how much magic characters should get, but on page 38, the Starting Equipment table offers a suggestion.

In a game with a standard amount of magic, a new, 17th-level PC will own one rare magic item. Even in a high-magic game, that PC gets two rare items and one very rare +3 item. The legendary defender weapon ranks above very rare—an extraordinary find in a high-level, high-magic game. If any DMs allow a player to gain the five items needed for a 29 AC, their game has mutated into the gonzo of Neutronium Golems and the Dread Vampusa. (Can I sit in on that game?)

The Dungeon Master’s Guide provides few guidelines for how much magic to award. On page 135, a table suggest the levels PCs should reach before they gain items of a particular rarity. The book never tells how many items PCs should be getting as they level. Perhaps the authors felt any suggestions would be received as rules, and preferred to leave quantities to a DM’s taste. Perhaps the authors just ran out of time. Either way, I hope the designers move to fill the gap.

Next: Another way magic breaks D&D

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How Queen of the Demonweb Pits opened Dungeons & Dragons to the multiverse

In Dragon magazine issue 8, published July 1977, Gary Gygax proposed the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology, a great wheel of planes surrounding the prime material. The existence of infinite planes “will vastly expand the potential of all campaigns which adopt the system—although it will mean tremendous additional work for these DMs.”

planes in Dragon magazine number 8

Diagram of planes from Dragon magazine number 8

The countless planes showed how D&D could go beyond the dungeon and the wilderness and into new worlds. The system revealed exciting potential, but Gary set an ambitious goal. “Different planes will certainly have different laws and different inhabitants (although some of these beings will be familiar). Whole worlds are awaiting creation, complete invention, that is.” The outer planes offered so many possibilities that setting an adventure in them made a formidable challenge. Players would wait years for any product to go beyond the prime material.

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits CoverIn 1978, Gary published module D3, Vault of the Drow. At its conclusion, the players locate a strange mural. “The mural itself is a scene resembling a starry sky, but a tunnel of webs stretches into space.” This vortex is a gate “to the plane of the Abyss, where Lolth actually dwells.” The text explains that this journey to the Abyss will be handled in module Q1, Queen of the Demonweb Pits. (For those who do not plan to play the sequel, Gary suggests that characters passing the gate be considered slain. Suggested dialog: “You could be taking your character on another thrilling adventure, but it’s not released yet. So instead, you’re dead.” In 1978, Gary could be capricious when he drew the line between the correct action and, “Wrong move—you’re dead!”)

Rereading Gary’s promise of letting PCs travel to the Abyss to confront Lolth, I remember the anticipation I felt in 1978.

But Gary seemed deterred by his own ambitious goals for planar adventures. Instead of completing Queen of the Demonweb Pits, he set the project aside “until a considerable period of time could be spent addressing it.” Soon, work on the Dungeon Master’s Guide demanded all his time. For two years, characters entering Lolth’s gate faced summary execution.

The Demonweb

The Demonweb

The delay ended when artist David C. Sutherland III pitched his own finale. Gary wrote that the adventure “was taken out of my hands by [TSR executive Brian Blume] when Sutherland discovered the ‘Demonweb’ pattern in a hand towel and talked Brian into using it as the main theme for the concluding module. I had no creative control over it.” (Although many sources report that the Demonweb pattern came from a placemat, Sutherland confirmed that his inspiration was a towel.)

The adventure reached print in 1980. Now players could venture to Lolth’s own level of the Abyss—the Demonweb. For the first time, TSR demonstrated adventure on the outer planes.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits gets some criticism for its execution. The creatures in the Demonweb—even those in Lolth’s stronghold—fail to match the setting. Players encounter ogres, trolls, ettins, bugbears, and even a roper, but no drow. In an rpg.net review Lev Lafayette describes her stronghold as a “boring zoo.” In the god-slaying finale, any dungeon master who makes cunning use of Lolth’s abilities will annihilate parties in the module’s recommended levels. On the other hand, she only has 66 hit points, so a careless DM could see her slain in a round. The module spends pages describing changes to the effects of spells cast on the Abyss, but no one liked dealing with all the changes.

You can fault some details in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but not its big ideas. This adventure took the scope of Dungeons & Dragons and blew it wide open.

Start with the Demonweb, a web of pathways floating through impenetrable fog. The material of the path moves slightly. “Close examination will reveal faces, twisted and tortured, pressed against some invisible barrier, silently mouthing screams and howls.” These are the lost souls of the Abyss. The Demonweb captured an unsetting and chaotic feeling that suited the demon queen of spiders.

Along the path, unsupported doors open into extradimensional spaces. At first, these doors lead to Lolth’s creatures. On the last level of the web, the doors open on alternate material planes that she targets for attack or other schemes. In a look at the module, James Maliszewski wrote, “A key to portraying planar travel effectively is grandeur—the sense that one’s home world is just a tiny speck floating on a giant ocean and you’ve only just begun to plumb its unknown depths.” The Demonweb and its portals delivers this sense of grand scope.

In the Abyss, some spell effects change in evocative ways. For example, restoring an arm with the Regenerate spell may regrow a limb demonically twisted.

Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. If Wild Wild West producer Jon Peters were cool enough for D&D, I might suppose he took his obsession with giant mechanical spiders from the spider queen. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk. I loved it. A diet of Michael Moorcock books and Arduin had already shattered my reservations about mixing such elements. The spider-ship seemed like a fitting creation for a goddess whose power spanned a multiverse. The ship’s inscrutable purpose and destination suited her chaos.

The adventure’s plot may not have matched Gary’s plan, but I suspect the Demonweb surpassed any of Gary’s ideas for the setting. In 1980, before the Manual of the Planes, before Planescape, Queen of the Demonweb Pits showed the way to the planes. Fans of Planescape can find its roots in the Demonweb.

Are you still curious about Gary’s original plan for the adventure? He wrote, “My concept was that Eclavdra was aiming at dominance of the drow through using the Elder Elemental God to replace Lolth. She, as the chief priestess of the elemental deity, would then be the mistress of all. The final scenario was to have been one in which the adventurers got involved in the battle between the evil entities and made it so that both lost and were tossed back to their own planes, relatively powerless in the Mundane world for some time to come.” Gary had an ambitious plan, heavy on intrigue, but without the vision—and hand towels—that led to the Demonweb.

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What things do I need to play Dungeons & Dragons?

If you have seen the Dungeons & Dragons played on TV or in a live play video, you might suppose that playing requires a lot of maps, miniatures, props, and other gear. While many players enjoy using the accessories, D&D is a game of imagination that requires dice and virtually nothing else. Many players prefer to keep play in their imagination, unburdened by gear.

The things you need for a Dungeons & Dragons game depends on your game’s style and how much you wish to spend.

Required: Rules and Dice

To start, all you really need rules and dice.

Start with the free-to-download Basic Rules. Print some blank character sheets from the one that appear at the end of the basic rules.

D&D uses an unusual set of dice, each with a different number of sides.

d4 d6 d8 d10 d12 d20

4-sided 6-sided 8-sided 10-sided 12-sided 20-sided

d100The ten-sided die shows a 0 on one side, but that counts as a 10. Some dice sets include a second 10-sided die numbered from 00 to 90. To generate a number from 1-100, you add a roll on this die with a roll on the other d10 , with a roll of all zeroes counting as 100.

Ten-sided dice with just 10 sides first appeared for sale in 1980. Before that, players rolled a twenty-sided die numbered from 0 to 9, twice. Those rounder d10s roll better, so I prefer them over the modern version, but I stopped using them. Whenever I made a damage roll with my 20-sided d10s, my players would panic. What sort of monster rolls d20s for damage! I will happily interrupt a post for a gaming history lesson, but not a combat encounter.

You just need one of each die, but many rolls add more than one result from the same size die. If you buy extra dice, you can make these rolls faster by throwing several dice a once. Veteran players tend to collect bags of dice.

More rules options

You could play D&D for years without anything more than the basic rules, but most players eventually seek even more options.

The Player’s Handbook expands your character options and makes a good first purchase.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the Dungeon Master (DM) acts as the games referee and storyteller. If you want to be a Dungeon Master, the Monster Manual adds monsters beyond those in the free Basic Game. The Dungeon Master’s Guide can wait until you’ve run a few games and feel an urge for more advice, options, or magic items.

Some DMs prefer to start with a published adventure. The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set includes the adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver which ranks as an excellent adventure and a good start for new DMs. Of course, many DMs prefer to dream up their own adventures.

Optional: Battle map

Unlike some earlier editions, the latest version of Dungeons & Dragons enables you to play combats in the theater of the mind, a fancy way of saying in your imagination.

Theater of the mind works well for small battles, but for most encounters, I favor playing on a grid of 1-inch squares called a battle map. Blank, reusable battle maps let you draw walls and other features, and then wipe them clean.Doomvault Golem Foundry

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

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

Even if you choose to run some fights on a battle map, you do not need to invest in miniatures. Instead, just use any tokens that you can tell apart. For example, a lot of convention judges use Starbust candies to represent creatures on the battle map. They come in a variety of colors, and players like to eat the monsters they slay. You can also use 1-inch washers or game pieces from other games. NewbieM explains how to create tokens from inexpensive materials. D&D is a game of imagination first.

Optional: Dungeon Master Screen

Many DMs prefer to work without a screen that divides them from the group, but I favor a screen.

Mini dungeon master's screen on tableIn my very first post, I listed five reasons I use a DM screen. Mainly, I like keeping my notes secret. Most players avoid snooping, but with a screen no one has to worry about catching sight of a spoiler. If you decide to use a screen, you can purchase one, use my rules inserts, or make your own screen.

Even if you usually opt for a screen, you do not always have to use it. Sometimes when an adventure reaches an interactive section, I lay my screen flat and portray non-player characters without a barrier.

Accessories

For more gear options, see my “Photo Guide To Dungeon Masters Tools.”

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Deciding what backstory to print and what to cut

When I write these posts, I occasionally offer advice aimed a folks creating adventures and game materials for print. I realize that this represents a minuscule number of readers, so I fret about writing to an audience of no one. On the other hand, I post for kicks, so here I go again. If you lack interest, this won’t appear on the test. My next post will move to a different topic. You may be excused.

In “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory,” I complained about written adventures loaded with backstory that cannot possibly enter play. When I prepare to run a published adventure, I want only as much information as I need, when I need it. I know that this is an unreachable goal. Adventure authors must prepare me for actions my players won’t choose. Nonetheless, the goal stands.

Edmund Leighton - Tristan and Isolde - 1902

“Let me tell you about my campaign.”

When writing an adventure, save the “Adventure Background” section for last. Instead, write descriptions of backstory in the locations and scenes where players can discover it. An adventure may offer several ways to learn some essential backstory. You can repeat that background wherever it surfaces. I want information when and where I need it.

If backstory never comes up in a location or scene, that either means it’s not important or that you must find a way to communicate it to the players during play. For more, see “How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session.”

Some authors feel tempted to stuff backstory into descriptions of non-player characters, but appending backstory to an NPC fails to do enough to put it into play. This approach tempts authors to pair NPCs with backstories that die with the NPC in 3 rounds. You can pair backstory with a character description, but only if you offer a way for players to learn the story.

As a dungeon master, I do appreciate a big picture look, so that “Adventure Background” does help me. When you finish writing your locations and scenes, go back and look at the history that gets revealed. You can then compile the subset that will enable the DM to understand the adventure. The telling details and sense of wonder can stay in the scenes and locations. If you finish your compilation and realize that some essential piece of background doesn’t appear in your compilation, then you know you failed to offer a way to communicate that background to the players. Dream up a few ways that the players can learn the background, then drop the element into the adventure.

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How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session

Adventures should focus on the present, but they can still draw from your game world’s past. Exposing players to a little backstory makes the world feel more connected and vibrant. The imaginary seems more real.

I prefer to reveal backstory through dialog. This lets the players learn as they interact. They can role play their characters’ reactions. Players can ask questions, and feel clever when the answers lead to more insights.

Creating a source of backstory

Bound and unbound books and manuscripts on shelves and a table (Leiden, 1630)Backstory can come from more sources than a hoary sage or captured henchman. People hear things, and in fantasy your sources can be something other than people. Your players can get information from a range of sources that add flavor and even launch plotlines.

  • a local busybody or snoop.
  • a fortune teller whose insights come from a network of gossips rather than anything supernatural.
  • servants and slaves, ignored by their masters, but privy to intimate conversations.
  • an immortal creature or a ghost bound to a particular location or object.
  • a thief who discovered something in the course of a crime.
  • a shapeshifter who spies in animal form.

Opening a dialog

The best time to reveal backstory is when players seek it because they have questions to answer. See “When to introduce backstory in a role-playing adventure.” For example, if a party stops a pig farmer’s shack to ask about a strange light, and they notice that he flies the banners of the lost kingdom, someone will ask about the banners.

If you cannot lead the players to ask the right questions, then you can have a non-player character (NPC) volunteer essential background, but keep the dose small. The players will tolerate a pig farmer who mentions that the last king ascended to the heavens from atop yon hill. They won’t listen to the king’s lineage.

When you make an NPC stand out, or put her in the path of adventure, players may decide to talk. Aim to let curiosity drive the the players. If you lavish too much attention on a bystander, players will metagame and assume that the spotlight obligates them to approach. No one likes to feel steered.

Sometimes NPCs will approach the players. In a world without mass communications, locals will seek wanderers with news from afar, and will bring gossip to share. If the players decide the pig farmer is not worth their time, then perhaps he wants to to know if anyone saw his lost sow. “She likes the berries that grow on yon hill. It’s special, you know.” Remember: small doses.

Revealing backstory in writing

Of course, sometimes no one knows the information the players need. At times, I’ve resorted to letting characters uncover a bunch of backstory written in a letter, or a journal entry, or an old book page. This tactic lets players learn from a dead or missing source. It avoids the risk that players will kill someone who knows something essential. It lets me create a prop.

But this approach suffers from serious drawbacks:

  • Reading a page loses the interaction players gain when they speak to a non-player character.
  • No one wants to stop participating to read. Often players’ handouts languish on the table
  • Only one player can read at once, unless you print copies. You can enlist someone to read aloud, but listening to someone drone never seems compelling.

If you must offer written backstory, make it short. The chance to inform without spending time at the table tempts some DMs to cast pages of backstory as a tome or journal, and then to dump them on the players. This only works if players can study between sessions, and many—perhaps most—players will skip the homework.

When did you last see a movie or TV show that expected you to read something to understand the story? I can answer that. When did you last see a Star Wars movie? Even in 1977, the introductory text seemed quaint. George Lucas wanted to evoke the movies he saw as a kid. If you can think of another movie that requires reading, I suspect it’s black and white, perhaps even silent. Contemporary movies find a way to communicate though dialog and images rather then text, and a game should aspire to more interaction than a movie.

Written backstory works best when it supports interaction. First players meet with the sage, then they get a copy of the lecture notes. If you have a journal or tome for the players, put it in the hands of an NPC who has read it. The NPC can tell what it says and contribute extra information to the discussion. When the discussion ends, the players have a text to reference.

Iceberg adventures

Although I dislike trudging through pages of adventure background just to run a published adventure, I hate when authors imagine nuggets of evocative backstory, put them in print, and then fail to offer any way for players to discover them.

Some adventures resemble icebergs, with a background that could make the game world come to life submerged and doomed to stay hidden. Of course, most adventure backgrounds drown the flavorful morsels with cruft the author could not bear to cut. For more, see “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory.”

When I run a published iceberg, I aim to break the ice. After I finish reading, I return to the background and look for all the interesting bits of history and scheming, motive and magic that might enhance play, if only I can bring them to the table.

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Five new or different rules in the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons game

With the launch of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the designers hosted panels at Gen Con 2014 introducing the game to new and returning players. You can listen to designers Rodney Thompson and Greg Bilsland at one of these sessions recorded by the Tome Show Podcast.

During the discussions, the designers listed 5 new or different things in the new edition. This post recaps that list.

First though, the designers explained the game’s core: Whenever a character’s action has an uncertain outcome, you roll a twenty-sided die (d20), add a bonus, and try to reach a target number. If your roll plus your bonus equals or exceeds the number, you succeed. In the game, players make three types of d20 rolls following this mechanic.

  • When your character tries to strike an enemy in combat, an attack roll determines whether the attack hits. To succeed, an attack roll must equal or exceed a foe’s armor class.
  • When your character attempts a task with a chance of failure, an ability check determines success. To succeed, an ability check must equal or exceed a difficulty class.
  • When your character resists a spell, trap, poison, disease, or similar danger, a saving throw determines whether the character succumbs. To succeed, a saving throw must equal or exceed a difficulty class.

As players make these d20 rolls on behalf of their characters, the dungeon master makes these rolls for the monsters.

These mechanics existed in earlier editions, but the fifth edition makes five, key additions:

1. Advantage and Disadvantage

When something in the game world improves your chance of hitting, succeeding at a task, or avoiding a threat, you gain advantage on your d20 roll. When you have advantage, you roll two twenty-sided dice and use the highest of the two die rolls. For example, when your foe cannot see you and properly defend, you might gain advantage on an attack . Similarly, when circumstances hurt your chance of success, you suffer disadvantage. When you have disadvantage, you roll two d20 and use the lowest of the two rolls.

Advantage and disadvantage don’t multiply. Even if you gain advantage from more than one source, you never roll more than two d20 dice. You cannot stack advantages. Likewise, If you suffer disadvantage from two sources, you still just roll two d20 and take the lowest. If you both gain advantage and suffer disadvantage on the same roll, they cancel and you roll one d20. Any number of sources of advantage and disadvantage cancel each other out, leading to rolling one d20. This spares players from having to count advantages and disadvantages.

Advantage and disadvantage replace most of the pluses and minuses that appeared in earlier editions, but the mechanic does not apply to cover. A target with half cover gains a +2 bonus to AC and dexterity saving throws. A target with three-quarters cover gains a +5 bonus to AC and dexterity saving throws. For more on this design choice, see “How cover and tool proficiency reveal choices in fifth-edition design.”

Reason for change. Third-edition D&D featured long lists of pluses and minuses that applied when the situation affected an attack or check. While these modifiers added realism, they slowed play, seldom made a difference, and were often overlooked. Fifth edition drops all the fussy calculation for advantage and disadvantage. While less of a simulation than a tally of pluses, the new mechanic plays quickly and eliminates math and memory demands.

“I just invented a new D&D term: Sadvantage. That’s when you have advantage and still can’t hit.” – Greg Bilsland.

2. Spellcasting and spell slots

Except for Rangers and Paladins, every spellcaster knows a number of cantrips. Cantrips can be cast at will, as often as desired. More powerful spells cost spell slots to cast.

Every spellcaster has a number of spell slots they spend to cast spells. As Rodney Thompson explains, slots are the fuel characters burn to cast spells. Spell slots have a level and you can spend them to cast a spell of equal level or lower. For example, you can spend a second-level slot to cast either a first or second level spell.

Many spells become more powerful when cast with a higher-level spell slot. For example, the first-level Magic Missile spell shoots another missile when cast with a second-level slot. Unlike in third edition, spells never grow more powerful simply because a higher-level caster throws them. Only spending a higher-level slot boosts their power.

Characters regain spell slots after a long rest.

Preparing spells. Characters in most classes must prepare spells before they can cast them. When you cast a spell, you spend a spell slot, but the spell remains prepared. Unlike in earlier editions, you can cast a prepared spell more than once, as long as you still have slots to spend. After a long rest, you can change the spells you have prepared.

Bards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks don’t prepare spells. They know spells that they can cast whenever they have slots to spend. You choose which spells your character knows as you gain levels.

Reason for change. This system grants casters an extra measure of flexibility. It spares players the risk of preparing spells that prove useless, resulting in a bad day of adventure.

3. Concentration

Many spells require their caster to maintain concentration to keep their magic going. These spells list durations such as “Concentration, up to 1 minute,” meaning that if the caster concentrates, the spell lasts a minute.

Losing concentration. A spellcaster can concentrate on just one spell at a time. You can cast other spells that do not require concentration without breaking concentration. You can end concentration on a spell at any time, without an action. This ends the spell’s effects, but lets you cast a new spell that demands concentration.

When casters maintaining concentration take damage, they must make a Constitution saving throw to keep their spell going. The DC equals 10 or half the damage suffered, whichever is higher.

Combining magical effects. When different spells’ overlap, the effects add together. The effects of the same spell cast multiple times don’t combine. Only apply the one spell with the most potent effect, such as the highest bonus. If that spell ends, then less potent spells may show their effects.

Reason for change. In earlier editions, higher-level parties might enter a fight blanketed with spells like Haste, Invisible, Fly, Blur, Polymorph Self, Resist Elements, and on and on. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while the DM struggled to create any challenge. Then when the evil mage casts dispel magic, buffs disappear and all the numbers need recalculation. Concentration simplifies the game by limiting the magical effects in play.

Concentration forces the min-maxers to search harder for broken combinations of spell effects. Multiple spell casters can still combine effects, but the designers see this as teamwork, not as a single character dominating the game.

Concentration also opens tactical options. Casters become targets for foes aiming to break concentration and stop spells. For more, see “Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Kill the wizard.”

Not all spells with durations require concentration. A few spells such as Mage Armor, Mirror Image, and Fire Shield offer protection without concentration.

4. Proficiency

Characters have proficiency in the things they do well. A character can be proficient in armor, skills, saving throws, weapons, and tools.

Proficiency grants a bonus to the d20 rolls you make for attacks, saving throws, and checks. The proficiency bonus starts at +2 at level 1 and rises to +6 at level 19. Proficiency appears throughout the system.

  • When characters are proficient with a weapon, they add their proficiency bonus to the attack roll. When characters lack proficiency, they do not gain this bonus.
  • When characters cast a spell that requires an attack roll, they add their proficiency bonus to the roll. Spellcasters always gain proficiency with spells they can cast.
  • When characters make an ability check covered by one of their skills, they add their proficiency bonus to the check.
  • When characters are proficient with tools used to make an ability check, they add their proficiency bonus to the check. You never add a proficiency bonus for both a skill and a tool to the same check.
  • When characters are proficient with a type of saving throw, they add their proficiency bonus to those saves.

Proficiency with armor works differently from proficiency with everything else. Rather than granting a proficiency bonus, armor proficiency grants the ability to wear armor without disadvantage. This difference may confuse new players, but earlier editions handled armor proficiency in a similar manner.

Reason for change. Earlier editions of D&D featured countless tables showing bonuses for attack rolls and saving throws, and added additional bonuses for skills and proficiencies. The fifth-edition proficiency bonus simplifies by sweeping all these tables and rules into a single rising bonus. For more, see “How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game” and “Proficiency and bounded accuracy in D&D Next.”

5. Bonus actions

Characters take just one action on their turn. Some class features, spells, and other abilities let you take an additional action called a bonus action. Three key limitations apply to bonus actions.

  • To gain a bonus action, something like a special ability or spell must state that you get a bonus action to do something. Otherwise, you get no bonus action. For example, when you take an attack action to attack with a light melee weapon in one hand, you can use a bonus action to attack with a second light melee weapon in your other hand.
  • You can only take one bonus action. For example, at second level, the Rogue’s Cunning Action class feature grants a bonus action to Dash, Disengage, or Hide. If your rogue also wields two weapons, then you must choose between using your one bonus for your Cunning Action or for a second weapon strike.
  • You can only take bonus actions on your turn. For example, your rogue cannot interrupt another turn to take the bonus action granted by Cunning Action.

Reason for change. Fourth-edition characters could gain numerous extra actions, which helped the game earn a reputation for long turns. Bonus actions speed play by limiting the number of extra things someone can do during a turn.

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When to introduce backstory in a role-playing adventure

In my last post, I groused about authors who write thousands of words under an “Adventure Background” heading, without bothering to limit the history lesson to the elements that enter play. This leads to a question: What adventure background should enter play?

Some players will happily devour any background and history you share at the game table. These folks read the appendixes at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and then finished The Silmarillion. I love these folks, but they’re unusual. Every public library has copies of The Silmarillion with 100 well-read pages and 100 never-read pages.

Anyone can reach the DM’s pet. What backstory do the other players want to know?

Shadow on the Moonsea shipsIn some adventures, players need to know some background to make sense of what would otherwise seem like an assortment of random events. At Gen Con 2014, I ran the Adventurers League scenario Shadow on the Moonsea five times. This adventure comes packed with flavorful elements: infernal pirates, ghost ships, creepy and incestuous villagers, and a secret that ties everything together. I enjoyed running this one. At the start of the con, I told Community Manager Robert Adducci that I would be running Shadow. He advised me to look for ways to expose the adventure’s backstory to the players. As I ran Shadow for the first time, the players strove to make sense of the adventure’s moving pieces—a good sign that the game engaged them. However, as written, Shadow on the Moonsea only offers players one route to learning the secret that links everything. My players would not take that route. If I stuck to the script, then the session would end in a bewildering clash of apparently unrelated elements. I wanted to finish with the satisfaction of a mystery solved, so I adjusted. As the adventure neared its climax, a village girl the PCs had befriended relayed a conversion she had overheard. The secret became clear. The adventure’s threads tied into a satisfying end.

Even when a piece of information makes sense of an adventure, the players may not care. Sometimes I find myself relaying some essential bit of background while the players grow impatient. Their expressions say, “Blah, blah, blah. Just tell us what to kill.” Some players do not come to the game table for a consistent work of story or worldbuilding. They will never care.

More often, when you relate backstory and the players lack interest, you are providing answers before the players know the questions. Most players care little for backstory unless it solves a problem or explains some mystery that raised their curiosity.

In order solve a problem, we must understand it.

If all the obstacles in your game invite obvious solutions, then your players will never have a reason to learn anything. But if they need to learn who committed the murder, where the treasure lies, or just what to kill, they become curious. Shadow on the Moonsea begins with the characters seeking to stop a series of raids by phantoms on a ghost ship borne by storms. As players work to identify the source of the raiders, the task becomes a mystery. During this adventure, players take an interest in such dry lore as the nature of some old bones and weather patterns on the Moonsea.

When players work as investigators, their appetite for information lets you serve backstory that would otherwise bore them, even if it does not lead anywhere. Some of the fun of investigation comes from sorting clues from unimportant details. But avoid feeding information that leads in the wrong direction. Red herrings create confusing and frustrating role-playing adventures. Players have enough difficulty pursuing clues that lead through an adventure without having to sort through clues that mislead.

If you run an investigation and players still don’t care about the facts, then you are running the wrong sort of adventure for the table.

Something doesn’t add up.

Even if the players do not need answers to solve a problem, an unexplained situation may fire their curiosity.

During the course of their quest, players in Shadow on the Moonsea find themselves in a creepy, isolated village that may be the target of the raiders’ imminent attack. But lots of things in the village seem odd. The village may be a target, but it seems to have no other links to the raiders. Nonetheless, the place’s secrets will raise the players’ curiosity. The players wind up meddling in search of the village’s secret—in search of backstory.

This sort of curiosity has sustained television shows such as Twin Peaks and Lost. Both kept viewers tuning in by spawning unexplained events that teased curiosity. The puzzles propelled the shows for years, even though neither shows’ writers proved interested in delivering satisfying answers.

The nature of a fantasy world makes creating the unexplained difficult. We have the Twilight Zone; Faerûn has Tuesday—second-day. Magic explains much. But if you manage to create a game world that seems consistent and interconnected, then players will spot the things that defy explanation, and they may dig for answers.

We want to know more.

Sometimes, players immersed in the game world will take an interest in backstory that neither helps solve a problem, nor explains something puzzling. Some favorite moments as a dungeon master have come at these moments see imagination come alive. These times, as a dungeon master, I win D&D.

Next: Deciding what backstory to print and what to cut

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The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory

When I got my copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I first looked at topics that overlap with posts I plan for this blog. If the DMG already said it, I will work on something else. Turns out, as good as the book is, I still have things to add.

In chapter 3, “Creating Adventures,” the book lists “Elements of a Great Adventure.” The list covers familiar ground, but one entry surprised me. Great adventures should put a clear focus of the present. “Instead of dealing with what happened in the past, an adventure should focus on describing the present situation.” The author wisely lists positive elements to aim toward, rather than negatives to avoid, but I see the negative: backstory. Avoid weighing your adventure with history and background that players either cannot see or don’t care about. This surprised me because Dungeon magazine once ranked as the number one perpetrator of excessive backstory.

Dungeon magazine 25For a paragon of superfluous backstory, see this room description from Dungeon 25. “Trophy Room. This room once contained trophies of war. Swords, spears, and armor of all kinds were dedicated here to the everlasting glory of the fallen orc leaders. Centuries ago, the walls were draped with elven banners, dwarves sigils, gnome heraldry, and the flags and standards of men, goblins, and various orc tribes. The moonorc leaders have stripped the room of anything useful in order to outfit the tribe. The weapons and armor were quickly divided among the warriors, while the flags and banners were torn down and used for blankets or ripped apart and resewn into bags, sacks, and clothing. The room now contains only refuse and rusty, unusable equipment.” The description could just list “refuse and rusty, unusable equipment,” but adds 100 words of fluff that cannot possibly come into play.

The quote comes via Bryce Lynch’s crabby, entertaining reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures on tenfootpole.org.

Of course, most backstory appears in the front of adventures under the heading “Adventure Background,” and starting with the words, “A century ago…,” followed by three more pages of background. For anything more complicated than goblin raiders, authors feel obligated to start their background a millennium ago.

Some backstory improves a game. Anyone building a world—or just a dungeon—must imagine the history of the place to make it consistent. Creating a backstory can inspire ideas. When players notice a little history, the game world feels more connected and vibrant.

But adventures never arrive light on backstory. I feel annoyed when an adventure makes me trudge through pages of phony history to run a game session. Judging by Bryce Lynch’s reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures, I feel pretty sure backstory killed his parents.

Why do authors weigh down adventures with superfluous backstory? I count three reasons:

  • Forgetting that adventures exist to be played. Unnecessary backstory seemed to peak in the era of the campaign setting, what James Maliszewski calls D&D’s Bronze Age (1990-1995). During this era, TSR seemed to produce products to be read more than played. They published seven campaign settings supported by mountains of supporting material and novels. Nobody could play a fraction of it all. If an adventure exists more to be read than played, then backstory adds as much as playable content.
    I have the theory that the folks who write role-playing adventures do it because they like to write. I know, crazy. You would think they would do it for the cash and girls. Some writers seem to discover that simply writing RPG products scratches the same creative itch that once led them to play role-playing games. Over time, the writing assignments pile up, their gaming buddies move on, and these writers find themselves writing for role-playing games, but not playing them. During this same bronze age, I seem to recall a lot of designers admitting that they no longer played the games they wrote for.
  • An obligation to justify the elements of the adventure. Dungeons have changed from the original monster hotels peppered with rooms plucked from a lethal funhouse. Even in a fantasy world, players and DMs expect things to make sense. In Backstory and Adventure Design, Gus L writes, “One of the best parts of wonder, strangeness and exploration is figuring out why and how something is in the game world and how it connects to the rest of that world. Without context, a dungeon is just a series of puzzles, rewards and enemies.” In this spirit, I offered “5 reasons someone might build a dungeon filled with clues and tests.”
     
    Remember when your math teacher insisted that you show your work? I’m a DM. I just want answers—just the history that enhances play. I appreciate if you can justify every detail of an adventure with some torturous back story, but you can keep most of it to yourself. I don’t need the history of Krypton to enjoy a Superman tale.
     

     
    When your creative process leads you to create an elaborate history that the players will never learn, the game will still benefit. An unseen backstory will inspire telling details that make the game world more vivid. That history will lend the setting and characters a consistency that they would otherwise lack. 
  • A desire to share the creative work that led to the adventure. Most authors who create a detailed history as part of their creative process cannot bear to leave it untold. So they write thousands of words under “Adventure Background” and force me to sift the nuggets that will enter play. Like every writer, adventure authors must murder their darlings. (Or at least put them in colored insets as I do.)

Next: When and how to introduce backstory

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