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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How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software

You can play Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder battles on a sketch, playing on a colorful, printed map raises  your game’s visual appeal.

Many of the artists who draw maps for adventures sell downloadable images of those maps. But these computer graphics never come scaled so that they print with a 1-inch grid sized for miniatures. Even when you solve the scaling, the images can’t fit on a single page from your printer.

Purpose

This post gives procedures for scaling graphic map files so they appear with a 1-inch grid, and then printing the map tiled onto multiple pages.

Contents

This post includes the following sub-procedures:

Before you begin

You must have the free programs GIMP and PosteRazor installed on your PC.

GIMP provides an image editor similar to Adobe Photoshop.

PosteRazor splits graphic files too big for a single page into multiple, printable pages, which you can assemble into a poster-sized map.

Opening the map graphic

To open your map graphic in GIMP, do the following:

1 Click File > Open.
2 In the Open Image dialog box, select the graphic file that will become the backdrop for your battle map, and then click Open.

Scaling an image to print

Battle maps in Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder feature a grid of 1-inch squares. To print your map image so each square spans 1-inch, adjust its scale so the image’s dots-per-inch matches its number of dots-per-square.

Start by measuring how many dots now span a square on your map.

Note: If your map image lacks a grid, I’ll explain how to add one in Adding a grid to a map image. For now, this procedure refers to 5-foot plots on your map as squares, even if the lines don’t appear yet.

Measuring the dots-per-square on a map image

To measure the dots-per-square on a map image, do the following:

1 Find two landmarks or marks on the map where you know the distance separating them.

If… Then…
the map includes visible grid Pick two parallel grid lines far apart on the map. Count the squares separating the lines.
the map includes a scale Pick the ends of the scale. Read the distance from the scale.
the map lacks a measure of scale Look for features that can establish a scale.
Example: If the map includes 10-foot wide halls, the distance between walls can serve as a scale.
the map lacks any measurable features Estimate a distance between two landmarks that suits play.
2 Click Tools > Measure.
3 Measure the shortest line between your landmarks.

Click one landmark, press and hold the right mouse button, and then drag to the second landmark.

As you drag, the angle of your line appears at the bottom of the window. When you measure a vertical or horizontal separation, drag a 0° or 90° line.

Release the mouse button.

Result: The distance in pixels appears at the bottom of the window.

scale-measuring

4 Calculate the width of a square in pixels.

If in step 2… Then…
you found a distance in squares Divide the measurement in pixels by the number of squares. The result is the width of each square in pixels.

Example: If you measured 330 pixels between grid lines 6 squares apart, then each square is 55 pixels wide.

you found a distance in feet Divide the measurement in pixels by the number of feet. Multiply this result by 5 to get the width of each square in pixels.

Scaling the map image

Once you know the number of dots per square on your map image, scale the image so its dots-per-inch and matches its dots-per-square.

To scale the image, do the following steps:

1 Divide 10000 by the number of dots per square.

Result: This gives the percent scaling needed to make each square 100 pixels wide.

2 Click Image > Scale Image.
3 In the Scale Image dialog box, set these controls:

  • Set the scaling drop-down menu to %.
  • For Width, enter the percentage calculated in step 1. Height will change to match.
  • Set the X resolution value to 100 pixels/in. Y resolution will change to match.

scale-scale

4 Click Scale.

Result: The image scales so each square becomes 100 pixels wide.

Cropping the map image

Most graphics suitable for battle maps include border areas that you don’t need to print. Remove these unnecessary areas by cropping.

To crop a map graphic, do the following:

1 Click Tools > Transform Tools > Crop.
2 Point the cursor to the upper-right corner of part of the image you want in your map, press and hold the right mouse button, drag the pointer to the lower-left corner of your map, and then release the mouse button.

Result: A rectangle highlights the part of the image that will remain after the crop.

3 If you want to adjust the size of the rectangle, point inside its corners or edges, press and hold the right mouse button, and then drag the edge or corner to its new size.
4 Double click the rectangle.

Result: GIMP trims the image to the rectangle.

If your image already includes a grid, skip the next procedure for adding a grid.

Adding a grid to a map image

If your map image lacks a grid, you can add one.

To add a grid, do the following:

1 If you want your grid to align with a vertical feature such as a wall, measure the distance from left edge of the graphic to the wall.

Click Tools > Measure.

Click on the left edge of the graphic, press and hold the right mouse button, and then drag to wall.

As you drag, the angle of your line appears at the bottom of the window. Drag a 90° line.

Result: The distance in pixels from the top of the graphic to the wall appears at the bottom of the window.

2 Calculate the vertical offset by noting just the 10s digit and the 1s digit measured in step 1.

Example: If you measured 123 pixels between the edge of the graphic and a vertical wall, then the vertical offset is 23 pixels.

3 If you want your grid to align with a horizontal feature, repeat steps 1 and 2 to calculate a horizontal offset, but now measure a 0° line from the top of the graphic to the feature.
4 Click Filters > Render > Pattern > Grid.
5 In the Grid dialog box, set these controls:

  • Enter a Width of 3 px.
  • Enter a horizontal and vertical Spacing of 100 px.
  • If you calculated an offset in steps 1 to 3, click the chain links under the Offset setting, and then enter the calculated offsets.
  • If the map features dark colors and a white or gold grid would be more visible, click the first color box and select a lighter color.

scale-gridClick OK.

Result: A grid appears over the map image.

Saving the map image

To save the map image, do the following:

1 Click File > Export As.
2 Select JPEG image from the drop-down menu.
3 Enter a file name that ends with the .jpg extension.
4 Click Export.

Splitting a graphic file too big for a single page into multiple, tiled pages

Most battle maps won’t fit a single sheet of paper. To print a larger map, you must split it into tiles that can print on separate pages.

To split a graphic file into multiple, tiled pages, run Posterazor and do the following:

1 Open a map image by clicking the open folder icon beside the Input image field, selecting the image file, and then clicking Open.

scale-posterazor-1Click Next.

2 Make the following settings:

  • Select a paper format from the drop-down menu. North America typically uses Letter format, while the rest of the world typically uses DIN A4.
  • Enter 0.3 for all the borders. This values limits the map to the printable area of most printers.

Click Next.

scale-posterazor-2

3 Choose the amount of overlap where two edges of one tile repeat on the next page. Choose from two settings:

  • Setting overlaps of 0 saves paper, but forces you to trim pages exactly to avoid white space or missing map. The lack of overlap at the seams between pages makes your map easier to fold.
  • Setting overlaps of 0.25 lets you make imperfect cuts when you trim the pages, because you can align a cut with the overlapping edge of the next page.

Click Next.

scale-posterazor-3

4 Set a Size in percent of 100, and then click Next.

Hint: Posterazor shows a preview of the graphic with the overlap areas marked in red. Count the number of pages shown in the preview image, and then back up to step 2. Switch the page orientation to Landscape, and then advance back through the procedure. Use whichever page orientation uses the fewest pages.

scale-posterazor-4

5 Click the disk icon under Save the Poster, and then select a filename and location for a PDF version of the map.

Result: Posterazor saves a multi-page PDF version of your map that you can print.

scale-posterazor-5

6 Print the map from your PC’s PDF viewer.
7 Cut the 0.3-inch unprinted edges from your pages and tape them together into a map.

Related

Mike Schley sells his map graphics for many of the current Dungeons & Dragons adventures.

Jarod Blando sells his maps for Out of the Abyss.

NewbieDM explains how to scale maps using PhotoShop.

Posted in Dungeon master's tools | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

1981: Adventures at My First Gen Con

In 1981, Dungeons & Dragons was surging in popularity, but you could not tell from my school. When my buddy Mike and I asked our friend Steve whether he wanted to join our next session, he declined. As if warning us of an unzipped fly or of some other mortifying social lapse, he confided, “Some people think that D&D isn’t cool.” Without the athletic prowess of the sportos and too mild for the freaks, Mike and I kept gaming.

The May 1981 issue of Dragon magazine previewed the upcoming Gen Con convention. “The 14th annual Gen Con gathering, to be held on Aug. 13-16, is larger in size and scope than any of its predecessors,” the magazine boasted. “E. Gary Gygax, creator of the AD&D game system, will make other appearances, such as being the central figure or one of the participants in one or more seminars concerning the D&D and AD&D games.”

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

I lived an hour south of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the site of Gen Con. For four days in August, this building near Lake Geneva would became holy ground. I vowed to reach nerdvana.

In my high-school circle, no parents objected to loosing their teens on a convention an hour from home. Modern parents might fear child-snatching psychos; 80s parents might fear devil worship fostered by D&D. Our parents must have realized that fear of Satanists would keep the psychos away. One can’t be too careful.

I couldn’t drive, so I had to find a way to reach the convention. Mike’s dad volunteered to drive, but Mike had made a terrible first impression on my parents, who wanted me to find a better class of friends. Mike was a year younger and struck them as flighty. They forbade me from going alone with Mike.

Joel, a former member of our gaming group, also planned to go. Joel was old enough to drive, but also old enough not to want to spend a day with kids 1 and 2 years younger. If you thought playing D&D was uncool, imagine nearly being a senior and hanging out with children. No way. (Picture a geeky alternative to a John Hughes movie. The time fits well enough and the place matches. Hughes graduated from my high school. Legend says that the sweet Mrs. Hughes staffing the school store in 1981 was his mom.)

So Gen Con hung in the balance. A shaft of golden light pierced the clouds just north of home, possibly illuminating Saint Gary Gygax himself. So I fibbed and told my parents that Joel would drive, even as I agreed to ride with Mike.

Thursday and Friday, the plan worked. Mike and I gamed nonstop. Meanwhile, Joel spent the con shoplifting from the dealers in the exhibition hall. Mike felt as appalled as I did, demonstrating my parents’ poor judge of character in friends for their son.

The convention revealed aspects of the hobby I had never seen. Niche games. Sprawling miniature landscapes. Girls who liked D&D. It all seemed impossibly wonderful.

At Parkside, a wide, glass corridor stretched a quarter mile, linking the five buildings of the campus. Open-gaming tables lined the hall’s longer spans. Every scheduled role-playing session got its own classroom, so no one needed to shout over the clamor. Players circled their chairs around the largest desk. The lack of tables posed no problem, because in those days, everyone played in the theater of the mind.

All the event tickets hung from a big pegboard behind a counter. If you had keen eyes, you could browse the available tickets for a game you fancied.

We played Fez II and had a blast. In “Little-known D&D classics: Fez,” I told how the game transformed how I played D&D.

Titan game advertisement

Learn to play Titan from McAllister & Trampier – an advertisement from the program book

One of the designers of Titan recruited us to learn and play his game. I liked it enough to buy, but I lacked the ten bucks. So the demo led to a purchase thirty years later on ebay. Eventually, I learned that Dave Trampier, my favorite game artist, had co-designed Titan, but I suspect that co-designer Jason McAllister showed us the game.

We entered the AD&D Open tournament and played an adventure written by Frank Mentzer that would become I12 Egg of the Phoenix (1987).

ICE advertisement

Introducing Arms Law and now Spell Law

We ran a combat using Arms Law, the new system that boasted more realism than D&D. I remember how our duelists exhausted each other until the fight reached an impasse. I still took years to learn that realism doesn’t equal fun.

At Gen Con, you could find any game you wished to play, any players you needed to fill a table. D&D was cool. I had reached gaming bliss.

As for my ride the to con, my scheme imploded on Saturday night. Mike’s dad called my dad who repeated my lie: No one needed to drive north to pick up the boys, because Mike and I were riding home with Joel. Oblivious, Mike and I waited outside for his dad.

By midnight, all the gamers had left. A campus official warned us to leave the premises. We assured him that our ride would come soon.

(Young people: Once upon a time, we lacked cell phones. All plans needed to be arranged in advance. Folks grew accustomed to waiting. If Mike’s dad had left home as we thought, no one could have contacted him.)

So we waited in the dark and empty parking lot. Miles of dairy farms and cornfields surrounded us. No one lived near but cows and probably psychos.

After midnight, we tried to find a pay phone, but now all doors were locked. The nearest shabby, murder-hotel was miles away. Worse, we had been told to leave, so now we were trespassers.

By 1am, a maintenance man found us and achieved surprise. Some details may have grown in my memory, but our hands shot into the air as if he were a trigger-happy cop looking to beat up a couple of punks before slamming them in jail.

Instead, he mocked our skittishness and let Mike inside long enough to call. At 2am, Mike’s dad finally pulled into the lot. Forget Saint Gary, I now realize that the true saint was Larry, Mike’s dad.

In 1981, Gen Con reached an attendance of 5000. Dragon magazine speculated, “It’s logical to assume that at some point in its history, the Gen Con Game Convention and Trade Show will not get any larger.” So far, the convention defies logic: In 2015, Gen Con drew 61,423 gamers.

I still have the program to my first Gen Con. You can see it.

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Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?

Eventually, every game master winds up guilty of illusionism: You offer the players a choice that seems to matter, and then rearrange the game world so all the options lead to the same outcome.

An illusionist GM prepares an encounter that pits the characters against an ogre on the road. Then, whether the players take the low road or the high road, they face that same ogre. If they opt to stay home for tea and cakes, the ogre fancies a bite.

426px-Sandys,_Frederick_-_Morgan_le_FayIn the early days of role-playing games, when players tried to beat dungeons and game masters acted as something between referee and adversary, such illusionist deceptions resembled cheating. Chivalry & Sorcery (1978) advised the GM to set out a dungeon’s details in advance so he could “prove them on paper should an incredulous group of players challenge his honesty or fairness.

As the game changed into a way to engage players in a story, illusionism became a tempting strategy for GMs. Deception appealed to GMs who wished to steer players through a particular story, but also to GMs who needed to prepare a game without preparing for every possibility.

GMs running campaigns aim for three targets: player freedom, world detail, and ease of preparation. Those of us who must keep a day job can only choose two. Illusionism seems like a way to cheat by dropping player freedom while making the players think they remain free. If the players believe their choices count, what does it matter if they don’t?

The ogre encounter seems innocent. Dungeons & Dragons players expect to stumble on monsters, and that ogre could appear on either route as a wandering monster. But what if the players must guess whether the Dread Baron travels the low road or the high road? Do you base the villain’s travel plans on whether your story calls for a showdown today?

Many GMs feel that offering an illusion of choice robs players’ of real control over their characters’ fates, so illusionism is unfair on principle. While writing about illusionism, John Arendt concludes, “The DM is obligated to administer the setting in a way that ensures player choice is meaningful, in accordance with the previously established facts.” Courtney Campbell adds, “I think illusionism is abhorrent in both D&D-style games, and story-based, plot-arc games.

I admire the principle, but players don’t join your game because they admire your unwavering game theory.

In every RPG session, players sacrifice some of their characters’ freedom for fun. When they join the game, they silently agree to band their PCs together, to cooperate, and to have their PCs award the magic item to whoever rolls highest on the great d20 in the sky.

The price of illusionism comes from another angle. Much of the fun of games come from making interesting choices and then experiencing the consequences. For more, see “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.”

In a role-playing game, good choices come with enough information to make illusion difficult. The sort of choices that let you easily fake illusionary consequences tend to be dull choices based on scant facts. When you serve players such vague options, they hardly enrich the game. High road or low road? Flip a coin.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, then either choice could lead to the same wandering ogre. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the thief a favor. Ogres could wander either route, but now the choice becomes interesting because each road takes the adventure on a different spin.

The best choices lead to consequences too specific to fake with illusion. If the players spurn a town that pleaded for help against raiders, the town burns. If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies.

You could contrive circumstances that spares players from the expected consequences: A storm delays the raiders until the players arrive. Lady Redblade blames a rival for stealing the artifact that the players took for themselves. But whenever a convenient break spares your story from the players’ actions, your game world loses credibility. If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Illusionism isn’t a cheat; it’s a compromise. Illusion may save a great encounter or contribute to an impression of freedom, but it bears a price. Whenever you serve an illusion of choice, you miss a chance to offer the sort of real choice—the sort of dilemma—that enhances the game.

Should you use to illusionism at your table? The game is yours. Every game master knows the benefit of deception. Now you understand the cost of a lost opportunity. Interesting choices carry a price.

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How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices

As a game master, my favorite moments during session come when I sit idle as the players’ debate the tough choices open to their characters. Each option balances hope with a price. All the options lead to consequences that will spin the game in a different direction. Watching these discussions, I know the game world has come alive. No one tries to metagame what they’re supposed to do. Later, when those same players wonder what might have happened if they had chosen the other path, I bask in that moment.

If players just wanted to follow a story, they could have read a book. In role-playing games, much of the players’ fun comes from making choices and then experiencing the consequences as the game spins into a new direction. A hard choice lets players reveal their characters, reminds players that they control their characters’ fates, and turns the game world into a vibrant place that reacts and changes.

Occasionally tough choices spring naturally from the twists of your game, but you can plan your game to pose more dilemmas for players.

What makes a good dilemma?

Dilemmas have consequences

Much of the fun of making game choices comes from seeing the effects. If the adventurers get a call for help from a fishing town threatened by raiders, the hard choice comes when they learn of a far more lucrative job: The cunning Lady Redblade wants a magical curiosity retrieved before her rivals can snatch it. When the curiosity proves to be a dangerous artifact, the hard choice comes when the players must decide whether to hand it over. Every GM can tell such choices matter, but the consequences must ripple into the game. If the players spurn the town, it burns (even if you prepared for a rescue session). If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies (even if your plot assumed she would remain an ally). If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Still, consequences don’t make a good game. If you put a dracolich behind door number 1 and a pile of +5 swords behind door 2, you just offered a choice with consequences. But your players will still drop out of your crummy game.

Dilemmas require information

Let's Make a DealIf you play Dungeons & Dragons long enough, you hear of a Monty Haul dungeon master who loads treasure on players. The name comes from the Monty Hall, host of a game show called Let’s Make a Deal. He handed out so much treasure that every bumblebee and Raggedy Ann left his studio with a vorpal sword. Sometimes, Monty offered contestants a choice of whatever lay behind three doors that concealed prizes ranging from a toilet plunger to a Chrysler Cordoba. Guess a door makes a dull decision, but Monty’s game entertained by creating dilemmas.

After a contestant picked door 1, but before revealing its prize, Monty might open door 2 to reveal the plunger. “Now,” he would ask, “Do you want to stay with door 1, or do you want to switch to door 3?” Monty added information to the choice and it grew interesting. (The reason you should always switch is fascinating.) Once the player picked door 3, Monty would offer a wad of cash in exchange for the unseen prize. Now players faced a dilemma.

Interesting choices start with information.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, the choice only merits a coin flip. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the thief a favor. Now the choice becomes interesting. Players can expect their choice to take the adventure on a different spin.

Menus of choices like these let players reveal their characters or steer the game toward their own preferences. I like offering such options near the end of each game session so I can prepare for the road ahead.

Dilemmas defy correct answers

Sorry Monty, but choices with one right answer don’t count as dilemmas.

Such choices might serve as puzzles. Suppose the PCs want to pursue the Dread Baron, but wonder whether to follow the low road or the high road. If they see he left his fur boots in his tower or if they find an invitation from Auntie Boil tied to a bird in the rookery, then they know which road to take.

Puzzles like this enhance your game, especially if you occasionally allow the players to miss the clues. Virtually every adventure spins clues and other leads into the threads that draw players along. But such clear answers only offer a choice between continuing the adventure or dropping out. If players know which road to take, they gain no sense of freedom.

In a dilemma, every option brings a price

In the choice between the high road and the low road, each option brings a price: The high road means calling a giant’s dept and hoping a he will honor it; the low road requires some wicked deed.

“To craft a good dilemma,” Wolfgang Baur advises, “Don’t give the players any good options.” (See “Dungeoncraft – Temptations and Dilemmas” in Dungeon issue 148.)

Clever players may still find good options—players relish the chance to crack an unsolvable problem, but you don’t need to hand them a solution. And definitely don’t hand them a fight. Usually, a good dilemma puts PCs between forces too strong for an assault. If you make Auntie Boil or those giants look like a problem that just needs a few smacks with a warhammer, you created skirmish rather than a dilemma.

Creating dilemmas

The limits of loyalty and time can easily create dilemmas for players.

As player characters gain in renown, powerful non-player characters will begin to request or demand their loyalty. If Lady Redblade and the Master of Eyes both want the players to retrieve the same magical curiosity, then the players choose more than an ally—they choose an enemy.

The limit of time can create many torturous dilemmas. The players must understand that accepting Lady Redblade’s job means risking that besieged town.

We DMs tend to offer quests with no particular urgency. This spares us from having to rework a mission because the game world moved on. The fishing town perpetually waits on the verge of doom until the players arrive to save it.

Sometimes though, time must force the players to choose which fires to fight. This does more than test the players. Such dilemmas make the game world seem like a dynamic place that moves and changes even when the PCs turn away.

Let’s Make a Deal

Suppose you know that the paladin in the party would never spurn the townsfolk for Lady Redblade’s bounty. Now you can play Let’s Make a Deal. The heart of Monty’s game came when he started counting off the hundred-dollar bills that he would exchange for whatever prize lay behind door number 3.

For the paladin’s help, the Lady can offer that magic sword he covets. “So armed, imagine the good you could do.” If she offers to send her own men to aid the town, will the party take her job? After closing a deal, what happens when the party learns that the man assigned to rescue the town is corrupt and possibly incompetent? Do you betray the Lady and your word, or do your leave the townsfolk to their uncertain fate?

Let players feel powerful sometimes

Don’t turn every decision into test of the characters’ limits. A few tough choices add to the game, but people also play to feel powerful enough to sweep away trouble with an stroke of the blade and a fireball. Read the mood of your players.

Still, even if you work to put players in dilemmas, hard choices can be hard to create. That’s what makes them so delicious.

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5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1978-2000

Tomb of Horrors (1978)

In the early days, I enjoyed plenty of time to create my own adventures, so I had little interest in playing the published ones. But I still drew inspiration from them. Nothing inspired like Tomb of Horrors.

tomb-of-horrors-1e-coverBefore the tomb, dungeons tended to lack personality. Dungeon masters followed the examples in the rule books, serving players bland tunnels, square rooms, and monsters waiting to be killed.

The tomb overflowed with the personality of its fictional creator and its real-world author. Gary Gygax admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The tomb brought a menace unmatched by other dungeons. Its legend still draws players, despite its reputation for dead characters and tedious play.

The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations. The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.”

For more, see “Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain.”

Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980)

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.

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits CoverStart 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. 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 unlocking these planes, the adventure made the world of Greyhawk and its kin seem like specks floating an a sea of creation.

Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk, but 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.

Lolth’s spider-ship, the  Demonweb, and its portals suggested a D&D game with a scope that felt breathtaking.

For more, see How Queen of the Demonweb Pits opened Dungeons & Dragons to the multiverse

Escape from Astigars Lair (1980)

In 1980, Judges Guild published Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a slim module that sold for just $2. The adventure so charmed me that after I ran it, I created a similar challenge of my own to unleash on players.

Escape From Astigar's LairThe action starts when the wizard Egad dons a cursed helm and becomes possessed by the evil spirit of the mighty Astigar. Players take the roles of the druid Danier and the ranger Therain, who begin shackled to a wall in Astigar’s dungeon complex. The escape encourages shrewd problem solving. How can you cross a chamber swarming with flying lizards as voracious as piranha? How can you force Egad to remove the cursed helm? The obstacles in the lair inspired challenges that I would add to my own game.

I loved how Escape from Astigar’s Lair showed that combining oddball powers with ingenuity could prove more fun than blasting away.

For more, see “Little-known D&D classics: Escape from Astigar’s Lair.”

Fez (1980-1985)

In 1981, my buddies and I, at our first Gen Con, stumbled into the Fez tournament and had a blast, more fun than we had in that year’s AD&D Open. For several years, even as our interests wandered from AD&D to other role-playing games, Fez remained the Gen Con event we most eagerly anticipated.FezI The Wizard’s Vale was originally printed as Fez I Valley of Trees

In this blog, I’ve shown how a reliance of skill checks tends to encourage players to focus on their character stats and to lose interest in the game world. When a skill check solves any problem in the game world, the details of the problem become unimportant.

When I played Fez, little seemed to demand a roll. Behind the dungeon master’s screen, Fez was a D&D game complete with AC and HP. From my perspective, Fez factored rules out of the game, making immersion the game world all important. Normally, I would not want to play battles without character stats, but in Fez, the objective seemed to be to avoid fights.

Fez featured a play style different from the typical D&D game, and it blew my impressionable mind.

For more, see “Little-known D&D classics: Fez.”

Dungeons & Dragons third edition (2000)

Game historian Shannon Appelcline calls D&D’s original design chaotic modeling, with inconsistent game systems handling different parts of the game world. So strength has a range of 3-17, and then 18/01 to 18/00, while other attributes range from 3-18. Thieves roll under a percentage to gain success, attackers try to roll high on a d20, and (in some versions) ability checks require a d20 roll under an ability score. “The fact that the game couldn’t even keep its core range straight (was it yards or feet?) says a lot.”

3E edition launch shirtIn Thirty Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, Steve Winter wrote, “By 1987, the science and/or art of roleplaying game design had progressed significantly since AD&D’s first appearance. Games such as Runequest, The Fantasy Trip, Chivalry & Sorcery, Paranoia, Pendragon, Warhammer Fantasy, Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, and many others showed that there were innumerable ways to build a quality, innovative RPG.”

Second edition designers Steve Winter and David “Zeb” Cook did their best to sort out D&D’s “ugly little systems that didn’t integrate with each other,” but the system’s core remained mired in the RPG stone age. In a D&D podcast episode examining the second edition, Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in third edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.” So D&D held to chaotic modeling.

In 1997, Wizards of the Coast took over TSR and new head Peter Adkison set the direction for a new edition of D&D. In Thirty Years of Adventure, he wrote, “After twenty-five years D&D was due for a major overhaul, but that the changes to the game should make the games rules more consistent, more elegant, and support more possibilities for different styles of play.” Adkison gave lead-designer Jonathan Tweet and the rest of his team the freedom to bring 25 years of innovation into D&D. The centerpiece of the revamp came in the form of the d20 core mechanic that became the name of the game’s foundation.

Future_of_D+DIn addition to the chaotic rules, D&D’s characters suffered from limitations Gary had created either for game balance or just to make humans the dominant race. “My biggest beef with the older rules were the consistent limitations on what characters could become,” Adkison wrote. “Why couldn’t dwarves be clerics. Why could wizards of some classes only advance to some pre-determined level limit? Why couldn’t intelligent monster races like orcs and ogres pick up character classes? In my mind these restrictions had no place in a rules set but should be restrictions established (if at all) at the campaign-setting level.”

I shared Peter Adkison’s beefs. When Wizards of the Coast made their big announcement leading to the third edition, they produced a shirt giving a taste of the barriers that the new edition shattered. For me, this shirt showed how third edition would embrace 30 years of role-playing game design ideas, and how it swept away senseless limitations. After years often away from D&D, playing other games, third edition welcomed me back.

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5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1977-1978

Holmes Basic Set (1977)

The blue box of the 1977 Holmes Basic Set introduced me to D&D. To ninty-nine percent of Dungeons & Dragons players, the edition that introduced them to the game stands as their most important. Why should I be different?

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetPlayers who came later never saw how revolutionary the game and its brand of fantasy seemed in the 70s.

Then, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. These games offered minimal choices. In them, the winner became obvious well before the end, yet they took forever to finish.

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

So in a mere 48 pages, the 1978 basic Dungeons & Dragons rule book edited by J. Eric Holmes shattered my notion of what a game could be.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N.

For more, see “4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.”

City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977)

When I discovered D&D, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. For a break from dungeon adventures, the original rules suggested wandering the hex map packed in Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game and rolling encounters.

City State of the Invincible OverlordSo when the City State of the Invincible Overlord reached me, the scope of my game exploded. The $9 setting included 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.

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.

Instead of adopting the entire City State, I cherry picked stuff I liked. My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting my favorite bits. The best inspiration came from the rumors seeding every location. Now we would call them adventure hooks. In an era when most players just wandered, these ideas suggested a way to steer the game from aimless looting to plot.

For more, see “A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

Arduin (1977).

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Dave Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in 3 little, brown books named after his world, The pages of the Arduin Grimoire teemed with fresh ideas. When I discovered the books, I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of a map paired with encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later.

The Arduin TrilogyDave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. He preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” He wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. His specific rules hardly mattered. The message mattered: Hargrave encouraged me to own the rules and my games and to create a game that suited me and my players.

For more, see “Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games.”

Melee (1977) and Wizard (1978)

Over my first years years of playing D&D, the fun of the game’s battles waned. My games drifted away from the fights, and toward exploration and problem solving.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardGame designer Steve Jackson understood the trouble. In Space Gamer issue 29, he wrote, “The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.” Steve turned his desire for better battles into elegant rules.

In the late 70s, ads in Dragon magazine convinced me to spend $2.95 on Jackson’s combat game Melee and $3.95 on the magic addition Wizard. I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters.

I loved playing the games so much that they changed the way I played D&D.

The revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at Gen Con, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.

I failed to realize how limited we were by theater of the mind. Without a map, nobody can really follow the action unless things stay very simple. In practice, you could be in front, swinging a weapon, or behind the fighters, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”

Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.

For more, see “Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map.”

Runequest (1978)

With Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax invented the role-playing game. With Runequest, Steve Perrin and Ray Turney showed how to design a role-playing game.

Runequest second edition

Steve Perrin first entered the hobby when he distributed his D&D house rules, “The Perrin Conventions,” at DunDraCon in 1976. This led to Runequest, a game that replaced every aspect of D&D with more flexible, realistic, and simpler alternative: Skills replaced the confining class system. Experience came from experience, not from taking treasure. Armor absorbed damage from blows that landed. Combat simulated an exchange of blows, dodges and parrys. Damage represented actual injuries. Rather than a hodge-podge of mechanics, Runequest introduced the idea of a core mechanic that provided a way to resolve every task. Rather than the game setting implied by all of Gary’s favorite fantasy tropes, Runequest supported Glorantha, a unique world built as a consistent, logical setting.

Suddenly, D&D’s rules seemed as dated as gas lights and buggy whips. I enjoyed an occasional D&D game, but I switched to electric lighting until D&D adopted much of the same technology for third edition.

Today, simulation seems less important than in 1978. I now see that rules that made D&D unrealistic also added fun by enabling the game’s combat-intensive dungeon raids. For more, see “The brilliance of unrealistic combat” and “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”

However, elegance remains as important as ever. Aside from earlier editions, D&D’s current design owes more to Runequest than any other game. Third-edition D&D’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet called Runequest the role-playing game that taught how to design RPGs. Actually, Runequest taught everyone how.

Jonathan Tweet credits Runequest with a long list of innovations that reached D&D.

  • prestige classes (rune lords, rune priests, and initiates)
  • unified skill-combat-saving-throw system
  • ability scores for monsters
  • 1 in 20 hits are crits
  • ability scores that scaled up linearly without artificial caps
  • a skill system that let anyone try just about anything
  • armor penalties for skill checks and spellcasting
  • creature templates
  • faction affiliations
  • hardness for objects
  • chance to be hit modified by Dexterity and size
  • iconic characters used in examples throughout the rule book
  • rules for PCs making magic items.

Next: 1978-2000

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Gaming at the Winter Fantasy Convention

Imagine taking the Dungeons & Dragons track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with a D&D designer or two, the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, and dropping it into a convention of its own.

The Winter Fantasy convention has always been tied to Dungeons & Dragons. The convention started in 1977, in D&D’s hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The co-dungeon master in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign, Rob Kuntz, organized the first Winter Fantasy. For five years, the convention even switched names to D&D Experience.

Winter Fantasy boasts as many D&D Adventurers League games as much larger conventions. Unlike Gen Con, players without advance tickets can always find a open seat. Unlike Gen Con, most tables seated six players rather than squeezing in a seventh.

dmdavid at winter fantasy

Teos “Alphastream” Abadia snapped this picture, which included me, on the far left, playing Hillsfar Reclaimed

The convention occupies a single exhibition hall in the Grand Wayne Convention Center.

With a return to the Winter Fantasy name, and free of the Wizards of the Coast corporate umbrella, the convention embraces other games.

Pathfinder Society

Pathfinder Society

Collectible card games

Collectible card games

board games

The same vast lending library of board games available at the big conventions

Who wants to visit Fort Wayne, Indiana in February, when the small city suffers snow and frigid temperatures? The slow season means that the cozy convention can afford a first-class facility. Rooms in the hotels connected to the convention center come with off-season prices.

Grand Wayne Convention Center

Grand Wayne Convention Center

The convention debuted a new D&D Epic adventure, Reclamation of Phlan, which followed nearly all the advice I gave in “How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever.” Players could choose missions. They could seek harder encounters in their quest for glory. The event fostered interactivity by letting parties both unlock areas of the map and win benefits for other tables. Did Will Doyle, the epic’s designer, read my post? Probably not, but he surely drew inspiration from some of the same Epics and Battle Interactives that informed me. The effort and imagination Will put into this adventure stunned me.

D&D Tables

D&D games

For me, this Epic’s design ranked with the best. Plus the game dominated the hall, so players could hear most of the announcements and see a projected display of the battle’s progress.

Reclamation of Phlan - librarians vs. devils

Reclamation of Phlan – librarians vs. devils

This adventure featured the shtick of having a boss monster tour tables, trading attacks at each stop. That mechanic still failed to win me over. The dragon never visited my table, and my players clearly felt robbed of a final battle that never reached them. They waited for a climax that never came, only hearing about it from a distant part of the room. Organized play leaders must have an outsize love of this gimmick because they tour with the dragon, so they catch all the fun and none of the letdown. To be fair, the mechanic probably works with from three to five tables per boss.

Winter Fantasy attracts D&D’s most enthusiastic fans. Players tend to bring their best characters to the Epic adventures, so the tables skew to higher tiers. Of more than 30 tables seated for Reclamation of Phlan, only two played the low tier. I ran an high-tier table, giving me my first chance to pit PCs against an archmage with spells like Time Stop. Luckily for characters, I did not pick the wizard’s spells.

Szith Morcane Unbound - Dengor’s palace

Szith Morcane Unbound – Dengor’s palace

Much of the convention, I ran Robert Adducci’s adventure Szith Morcaine Unbound. This adventure inspired my post on the value of random chance in a role-playing game session. The expedition proved as fun as I hoped, with lots of paths for the players. Among the passionate fans at Winter Fantasy, I met many who play adventures more than once, and Szith Morcaine Unbound offers variety for multiple runs. In the adventure, the fire giants and their allies did better job of challenging mid-tier characters than the foes in earlier adventures. Robert told me that as the Adventurers League team sees more play, they’ve become better at calibrating challenges for higher-level characters. As expected, the four-hour convention slot required me to steer some of the encounter rolls to finish on time. In a looser setting, the adventure offers enough options for twice the game.

My version of the Forge of Surtr

Dengor faces a shapechanged druid in the Forge of Surtr. (I changed maps.)

At Gen Con, players who chose the D&D Experience track felt the extra hundred dollars they spent gained little more than a table of six rather than seven. The organizers heard the complaints and strove for a more premium experience. This time, my friends in the Experience liked extra perks such as sessions run by Adventurers League administrators and designer Mike Mearls. John “Radiating Gnome” Jones shared his impressions with me. “The author-only adventures we played were all awesome—challenging, a little different, and playing with the adventure’s writer is a real treat. We had great DMs for all of our D&D Experience games.

It was also nice to not have to worry about mustering. We had an assigned table for the whole weekend and always knew where we would be playing. We had access to a steady supply of bottled water and snacks, and could take advantage of a volunteer to help coordinate food delivery if we wanted it. (We never used that service, but saw others doing it.)

That’s all for Winter Fantasy 2016. I hope to see you all there next year.

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Forsaken Lands Maps of Mastery review

Maps of Mastery creates poster and cardstock maps scaled for miniature battles. About two-thirds of their maps show space stations and other science-fiction locations. The rest feature natural encounter locations on a 1-inch grid, a perfect stage for fantasy battles in Dungeons & Dragons and similar games.

As proven by my map galleries, I collect printed battle maps, so when Maps of Mastery kickstarted new and reprinted maps in their Forsaken Lands series, they tempted me. I tried to remain sensible. At $12 per poster, the price seemed high compared to Paizo’s plastic-coated flip-mats. The pictures looked nice, but many outfits sell poster battlemaps that consist of geometric shapes flooded with coarse patterns. Many look better than I could do, but still appear homemade. After weighing my choices, I ordered 3 posters rather than all 4. I should have purchased them all.

Maps of Mastery - Forest Glade

Maps of Mastery – Forest Glade

The online pictures fail to capture the color and detail of these maps. These Forsaken Lands maps look stunning.

Forsaken Lands DUNGEON ODYSSEY

Forsaken Lands DUNGEON ODYSSEY

The Forest Glade ranks as the best. At 22×34 inches, it offers a feast for the eyes. I love the rays of sun crossing the glade and the mist rising from the waterfall. For encounters call for a smaller venue, the maps feature distinct areas like glade’s waterfall and faerie circle. On your table, you can frame the area in play. Plus, five of the maps join edge to edge to create a 170-inch-long odyssey. I need a bigger table.

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Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain

In his notes to the dungeon master, author Gary Gygax promises that the Tomb of Horrors “is a thinking person’s module.” He warns, “If your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy.”

tomb-of-horrors-4e-coverTo back his claim, Gary starts the Dungeons & Dragons adventure with a 19-line poem that promises to lead through the dungeon to the tomb of Acererak, the demilich. In a bit of wishful thinking, players tend to hope that Acererak plays fair and that his clue will help them. They hope that Gary gives thoughtful players a sporting chance to evade all the death traps.

The promise of the adventure seems appealing, but do not feel tempted to play Tomb of Horrors. The adventure defies much of what we consider fun now.

Acererak’s poem tests the player’s puzzle solving ability less than promised. Gary’s son Luke Gygax calls the poem as much a trap as a clue. It tempts players deeper, but contains so many ambiguities that some lines remain unclear even to students of the dungeon’s text.

Rather than testing puzzle-solving skill, the tomb tests other skills: painstaking caution and a psychopathic disdain for hirelings’ lives. It works as resource management challenge, where the resources are henchmen and divination spells.

tomb-of-horrors-1e-coverGary did not design a tomb that let a clever group destroy the villain and survive intact. He devised the tomb so an ingenious group could win a battle of attrition and escape richer.

When Gary first introduced the tomb to his own group of players, they relied on masses of disposable hirelings to shield their player characters. “Rob Kuntz, in his game persona as a 13th-level (evil) lord [Robilar] went through the entire tomb in four hours actual time. He took 14 orcs and a couple of the low-level flunkies with him. He lost all the party, but his character personally looted the lich’s tomb and escaped with the goodies.

In those days, adventuring parties included many more characters than now. When Gary used the Tomb for a D&D tournament in 1975, each party of 15 played with the same characters, ranging from a level 12 magic user to a level 4 fighter.

tomb-of-horrors-2e-coverOne of the tournament’s players, Mark Swanson, wrote a first-hand account of the event for the September 1975 issue of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Mark’s war of attrition began when two of his party’s fighters died before they even found the true entrance. Thanks for playing.

Divination spells represented another resource to manage. Many of the traps in the tomb seem capricious. The poem invites players to seek “night’s good color,” probably black. So how could players know that jumping into the black maw of the green devil face leads to annihilation, while stepping through nearby arch teleports them deeper into the dungeon? These challenges tested players ability to use spells wisely. For instance, after one henchman gets sucked into the maw of the green devil face, a wizard might cast Locate Object to determine if his employee’s red shirt remains near. Players in that 1975 tournament could gain help from spells like Find the Path, Locate Object, Divination, Find Traps, Clairvoyance, and Commune. By the time the adventure reached print, many more spells offered aid.

Even with unlimited spells and henchmen, the tomb demands a lot of painstaking investigation to see the end. Locating Acererak demands finding 15 hidden and concealed doors. Those secret passages make as much of a barrier to claiming the gold as the traps. Mid-way through, the tomb tries to fool players into thinking they reached the end. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of the story seems unthinkable.)

When Gary wrote Tomb of Horrors, nobody thought of D&D as a way to make stories. Players aimed to beat the dungeon and they kept score in gold. The tomb defies our newfangled expectations of story.

The adventure makes destroying the arch-villain Acererak nearly impossible. (See “Player skill without player frustration.”) When Ernie Gygax’s PC Tenser reached Acererak, he scooped all the treasure he could bag and he ran. That qualified as good play.

Mark Swanson lamented the effort his party wasted preparing spells for wandering monsters that never appear. Unlike most dungeon crawls, Tomb of Horrors lacks wandering monsters. Potentially, Players can use their unlimited time to counter the tomb’s traps with painstaking caution. This winning strategy accounts for the Tomb’s reputation for slowing to a punishing slog. While some players may enjoy excavating the Tomb like archaeologists, for most players, such caution amounts to pure tedium.

Gary never battled slow play. Players in his home group honored a social contract to keep the brisk pace that let Rob Kuntz finish in 4 hours. Later, players explored under the real-time pressure of a D&D tournament.

In Mark Swanson’s account, he draws a sharp contrast between the emerging play style evolving in the pages of Alarums & Excursions and the play style shown in the Gygax’s tournament. “Play a Gygax game if you like pits, secret doors, and Dungeon Roulette. Play a game such as in A&E if you prefer monsters, talking/arguing/fighting with chance-met characters, and a more exciting game.

tomb-of-horrors-book-coverEven though I consider Tomb of Horrors unplayable by today’s standards, I still love it. I am not alone. The tomb’s popularity led to official third- and fourth-edition updates, the boxed sequel Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and a hardcover sequel that shares the original’s name. The tomb appears in my DMDavid banner.

While I don’t want to play the tomb, I love the dungeon. I love the atmosphere. I love the inspiration it provided. Gary admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations.

The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.”

Long before I ever read the adventure, I knew the tomb by its reputation and by those illustrations.

Tomb of Horrors features the best villain in Dungeons & Dragons. The villain isn’t Acererak’s jeweled skull. The villain is the tomb.

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

This villain issues a challenge that reaches the real world. Even in the late 70s, a legend for killing characters surrounded the tomb. Among my circle of players, no one dared risk a character to it.

The tomb greets intruders as the skull face on the hilltop, then appears in the guise of the great green devil face. The tomb flaunts a menace and cunning that matches any other villain in the game. When the tomb offers help, it taunts and teases. “Acererak congratulates you on your powers of observation. So make of this [poem] whatever you wish, for you will be mine in the end no matter what.” The poem is more trap than clue; this villain deceives. The soul-stealing skull is only the end of the players’ battle.

Gary called the game Dungeons & Dragons, and the game’s greatest villain is a dungeon.

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