Is The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan overrated?

Adventure C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980) ranked 18 on Dungeon magazine’s list of the “30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time.” Compiled “with help from an all-star panel of judges including Ed Greenwood, Christopher Perkins, Bruce Cordell, and Monte Cook,” the list appeared in Dungeon 116, published November 2004. In 2011, Wizards of the Coast sent a promotional copy of the Shrine updated for fourth edition—more evidence that the adventure ranked as a classic.

Hidden Shrine of TamoachanAs you may know from my posts lauding tournament modules, I love modules stemming from competitions, especially those complete with scoring information—not that I ever keep score. The best tournament adventures focus on a series of challenges that demand player ingenuity. Both Escape from Astigar’s Lair and the Fez series feature an array of clever obstacles. Also, I love adventures with keyed illustrations for the players. The Hidden Shrine comes from the D&D tournament run at the Origins Game Fair in 1979, and includes point sheets and wonderfully evocative illustrations. Between the reputation and the scoring sheets, the Shrine seems like a certain classic in my book.

Except soon after the Shrine’s release, I started reading the adventure with an eye to running it, but lost interest, mired in the mud, slime, and rubble of the first level.

In the wake of the accolades, I figured that I my first look at the module must have stopped before I reached the good bits. Then I saw the shrine ranked #3 on Willmark’s list, “The Five Worst AD&D Modules of All Time and discovered that someone seemed to share my impression.

Inside the Hidden Shrine

Opinions of this adventure seem mixed. Based actual play, folks who enjoyed this adventure combined the detachment that comes from using red-shirted, pregenerated characters with a brisk pace enforced by the poison gas—and perhaps a convention’s 4-hour time slot. Players who probed the Shrine as a traditional dungeon crawl tended to brand the adventure as a slog. For the best game, you play the Shrine as designed, as a race against time to escape a death trap.

I had to read the adventure to the end. Does the The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan stand as a classic or an overrated dud?

Classic Overrated dud
Background. The Hidden Shrine draws from a caricature of Aztec and Mayan culture, just as traditional D&D draws from a caricature of the European middle ages. In a retrospective, James Maliszewski wrote, “The Mesoamerican flavor gives the whole thing an ambiance quite unlike other D&D modules. The whole thing has an ‘alien,’ exotic quality to it, which I think adds greatly to its appeal.” The background leads the adventure to pit the characters against monstrous snails, crayfish, and hermit crabs. While exotic, these creatures seem more suited to meeting Dora the Explorer than to menacing adventurers.
Locations. The Shrine features some unforgettable locations and cunning predicaments. In a ranking of classic modules, Loren Rosson III cites locations such as, “The Chapel of the Feathered Servant (one player fights an imaginary foe while the others are forced by a winged serpent to solve a puzzle), the Hall of the Smoking Mirrors (look into them if you dare), and the Hidden Room of the Alter-Ego (a statue duplicates the looks of one of the players and comes to life while that player turns to stone).” I love the immense room spanned by a miniature city, and featuring a duel with a doppelganger behind a curtain of flame. Dungeon’s 30-greatest list marks this as the Shrine’s defining moment. Particularly on the first level, the good moments seem overwhelmed by locations where PCs clear rubble, slog through silt and slime, and spring hidden traps. Too few of the adventures challenges require much ingenuity to surmount, threatening to turn the shrine into a tiresome struggle of attrition.
Illustrations. In “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations,” I wrote, “I first saw keyed illustrations in the Hidden Shrine and I became enchanted. The illustrations transported me into the Shrine more vividly than any text description could. The pictures showed detail that would have required all of those hypothetical 1000 words, and the details tantalized me with potential clues to the mysteries of the Shrine. 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 Shrine, the designers loosed their imaginations, and it showed in the pictures.” The battle with the fire-breathing bat creature on the cover never takes place in the adventure.
Authors Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason reached beyond Aztec and Mayan culture for inspiration. In Jeff Dee’s illustration of the miniature city, the dragon boat in the room’s center looks oddly Chinese. The idea for the room and the boat comes from the article, “China’s Incredible Find,” in the April 1978 issue of National Goegraphic. The article features a fold-out picture of the sepulcher of China’s first emperor. A dragon boat bearing the copper coffin floats in a river of mercury at the center of a miniature recreation of the empire. The description notes that “invaders would have had to pass booby traps of hair-trigger crossbows to reach this prize.”
Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan may just rank as a classic, but like another classic, The Tomb of Horrors, players must tackle the Shrine with a time limit and a party of red shirts. Otherwise, the adventure can serve as inspiration. I have ideas for my own dungeon room featuring a miniature city.

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Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Kill the wizard

In fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, enemy spellcasters brought the same mix of encounter and recharging powers as every other monster of the same level. They posed the same threat, but with spell-flavored powers.

In fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, spellcasters have spells powerful enough to turn an combat into a quick victory. To balance this offensive power, PCs must make limited spell slots last through an adventuring day. But enemy spellcasters suffer no reason to pace themselves. As long as they remain in the fight, they can blast away.

In fifth edition, I have pitted a lot of evil spellcasters against groups of players, and I often see the PCs fail to give special attention to the casters. Big mistake.

In combat, in any edition, your party should focus attacks on one enemy at a time. By concentrating damage and eliminating enemies, you reduce the number of counterattacks your foes can mount. The fourth-edition Player’s Strategy Guide included a figure that showed the benefits of this tactic.

The advantages of focused fire

All this still holds, but the target with the most offensive power deserves special attention. That’s the guy raising a staff and speaking eldrich oaths. Find a way past the goons and hit the wizard with everything you have. Take him out fast. And stay out Lighting Bolt formation.

Protect the wizard

Smart monsters may use the same tactics against the party, so parties must work to protect their vulnerable wizards from attack. Is I explained in “Revisiting three corners of the new D&D rules,” the new rules for opportunity attacks rules can enable monsters to circle your front line and strike at the wizard in the middle. When possible, your wizard should stand three squares behind your melee characters.

Reaching the wizard without provoking a single attack

Reaching the wizard without provoking a single attack

If you play a wizard, then you must begin your adventuring day by casting Mage Armor on yourself. The spell lasts 8 hours and does not require concentration. Other defensive spells that do not require concentration include Mirror Image and Fire Shield.

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Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Do not horde your spell slots

From behind my dungeon masters screen, I keep seeing players hording their spell slots. Even as the wizard’s allies fall dying, even as the monsters bunch in a cluster ripe for a burning hands, he or she opts for another icy blast. Why?

Some of the reluctance comes from unfamiliarity with the spells. Fourth-edition character sheets listed powers and their effects right on the sheet; fifth-edition sheets offer no such descriptions. Many fifth-edition spells trace back to 1974, but to fourth-edition players, they all seem new. So instead of puzzling over Spiritual Weapon, the cleric chooses Sacred Flame again. None of this applies to you, because if you read D&D blog posts, you read your spell descriptions.

Defiance in Phlan at Gen Con 2014

Defiance in Phlan at Gen Con 2014

Even when players know the spells, fifth edition changes Dungeons & Dragons’ resource-management game, and so players struggle to decide when to spend a spell slot.

Fourth-edition characters had 3 types of resources: (1) encounter powers and other resources that renewed after every battle, (2) healing surges that characters virtually never exhausted, and (3) daily powers. In an easy fight, or even in a typical encounter, PCs rarely needed to reach past their renewable or barely-limited resources to tap daily powers. (For more on the changes to the frequency and scale of encounters, see “Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D Next to fourth edition.”)

In general, long-time 4E players used daily powers when either (1) a string of bad luck turned the odds to the monsters, or (2) the boss appeared for the adventure’s climax. In other words, you only use a daily to swing a fight that turns bad, or because your day ends with the current fight. If you spent daily powers early, you risked trading something you could not recover today for hit points and encounter powers that you would get back in five minutes.

To a player coming to fifth edition from fourth, a spell slot looks a lot like a daily power. These players learned to save their dailies for the boss. Meanwhile, the horde of creatures flooding the battlefield seems no more threatening than a group of minions. But fifth-edition adventures include fewer final bosses and no minions—that horde may kill you.

In a fifth-edition battle, feel free to spend your spell slots early, whenever you see a chance to get maximum effect. Cast them when you spot a way to target a multiple enemies with an area effect or to lock down the most dangerous foe early. Don’t worry about squandering a spell on a fight that you could have won anyway. Unlike in 4E, even easy fights tax your party’s resources. If your spell wins a quick victory, then your party emerges fresher for the next battle.

Obviously, don’t just fire at will, because you may need something for the next fight. Still, fifth-edition battles can go sour much faster than before. In 4E, even low-level parties brought ample hit points and healing. If the rogue got surrounded, the wizard locked in melee, and the cleric dropped, you still had extra time to change strategy, use daily powers, and turn the tide. That margin is gone. Use your spells now to keep your party from ever reaching such a perilous situation.

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Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Look at things

Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons emphasized combat encounters at the expense of role playing and exploration. The Dungeon Master’s Guide encouraged, “Move the PCs quickly from encounter to encounter and on to the fun!” (p.105) Not-fun aspects of the 4E game included overlooking treasure the PCs needed to keep pace with the game’s math, and failing to spot clues leading to the next encounter. In 4E, no one needed to find the fun because adventures put everything in plain sight, or at least within reach of a group perception check. As I wrote in “Is it noticed? How to run alertness,” if everyone can attempt a perception check, someone invariably succeeds.

magnifying glassThis approach trained players to chase obvious leads without examining anything. Meanwhile, DMs wind up hinting that someone might want to check the bodies because apparently the loot doesn’t just drop from your kills video-game style.

The fifth edition designers recognized that exploration makes as big a part of D&D as combat. Clues and treasure may be hidden. You have to look for them, and you must tell the DM where you look. The basic rules say, “In most cases, you need describe where you are looking in order for the DM to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Wisdom (Perception) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success.” Do not step into a room, make a great perception roll, and assume you found everything. Instead, look for interesting features, and tell the DM that you want to examine them.

Hidden traps make a return too.

Back in “Fourth edition gives traps a new design,” I described how 4E attempted to replace old-school traps with battlefield traps that worked like monsters—immobile, indiscriminate monsters. Although a few hidden traps slipped into the 4E game, they dealt inconsequential damage. As you move from fourth to fifth, you may be surprised, and killed, by the deadly snares hidden in fifth-edition adventures. Forget about blundering from room to room until the dungeon master launches a skill challenge or drops a battlemap. Start by checking for traps in obvious places such as doors, chests, and the jewel eyes of demon idols. Hint: In adventures published so far, kobolds and goblins favor trapped passageways and stairs.

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Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Choose your battles

Over the last few months, I have introduced fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons to lot of folks who have only ever played fourth edition. In the new game, these players tend to make assumptions likely to get their characters killed. For players whose D&D experience starts with 4E, and those who picked up some dangerous habits, I have some advice that will help your character survive.

Choose your battles

Most public-play adventures open with a scene where a patron asks the characters to undertake some mission. The players may talk money, but whatever the terms, they always take the job. The scene is a formality. The characters took the job as soon as their players sat to play D&D. Sometimes I think fourth edition turned the combat encounters into the same sort of obligation. If an adventure budgets 1½ hours for a combat encounter, you may as well roll initiative, because you already chose to play. Certainly my D&D Encounters players tended to that outlook. More than once, I heard someone say, “Why are we talking to these guys? You know we will just have to fight them.” In public play, combat encounters so dominated game time that adding or skipping one upended a session’s pacing.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Dragon HatcheryFourth edition’s published adventures funneled characters from one encounter to the next, each presented with a little map that showed monster starting positions and a start area for the players. Sometimes my players broke this careful staging by sneaking, or talking, or simply walking around a wilderness encounter. In every case, the adventure’s designer completely overlooked the possibility that someone might choose to skip a fight. The game encouraged dungeon masters to craft encounters too precious to skip.

Fifth edition adventures encourage players to avoid some fights.

Fifth edition jettisons all this. A 5E encounter description consists of a monster name in bold. Adding or skipping a 20-minute fight won’t undermine the session.

You’re free. Avoid a fight by sneaking, or talking, or simply walking around it. Avoiding fights qualifies as smart play. Don’t worry about skipping past the adventure; plenty of monsters remain to fight, and your characters will reach them fresher.

As for the PC start areas, fifth edition drops those too. If you choose to enter a fight, try to start at an advantage. Set fire to the tents. Turn the tables. Hit and run. Surprise the DM. (I know you could do all that in 4E, but most of us just took a place in the start area.)

Despite this freedom, the new game offers new challenges.

Fourth edition proscribed strict recipes for building an encounter. Every combat encounter delivered just enough enemies for an lively fight, but never so many that a character might die. The next room never housed more monsters ready to storm in and tip the odds in favor of a total party kill where everyone dies. (Those of us who started playing before 4E, when such a thing could happen, sometimes abbreviate to TPK.)

Fifth edition encourages you to be wary.

None of this remains true in fifth edition. My Encounters group has started Horde of the Dragon Queen, I find myself starting every session with a warning that the adventure offers fights that the characters cannot win. I do this to discourage the players from, say, making a frontal assault on the raider camp based on faulty assumptions learned in 4E. All the 5E adventures I’ve seen include situations that invite reckless players to a TPK. Do not storm the feast hall of a hill giant steading.

Fifth edition monsters no longer have starting positions keyed on a map. The adventures return to presenting dungeons as dynamic places with creatures that move about. When monsters hear a clash of swords, they can join a battle. You may face enemies prepared to raise an alarm, or to retreat to join allies. Do not let the orcs sound their warhorn. Do not tease the drakes until their enraged roars summon a swarm of kobolds, then retreat into a cavern full of stirges. I do not want a repeat of last Wednesday night.

If you find yourself over your head, you can run away. The withdraw action and the limit on opportunity attacks makes fleeing much less risky than in fourth edition.

Next: More fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players

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A quick look at the Tyranny of Dragons miniatures

The last prepainted Dungeons & Dragons miniature set, Lords of Madness, reached stores in 2010. Since then, I have grown eager for a new source of plastic miniatures. The Pathfinder miniatures line included some good figures, but they come mixed with lots of characters and monsters unique to their adventure paths.

So the release of the new Icons of the Realms Tyranny of Dragons collectible miniatures excited me. This set of 44 miniatures comes in boxes of 4 randomly-assorted miniatures that retail for $15. The price continues a decade of steep increases. In 2003, Harbinger boosters only cost $9.99 for 8 figures. My desperation for new plastic helps overcome the sting of paying so much per figure.

Don’t complain about the random assortment. If you want to buy specific figures from the sets, plenty of vendors sell them individually. Unless you crave the splashy rares, and the excitement of cracking a box, you get a better deal buying singles.

The set’s big draw comes from dragons and other flying creatures posed in flight atop clear plastic pillars. In the past, only a few bats and stirges received this treatment.

Pegasus - Tyranny of Dragons (large uncommon)

Pegasus – Tyranny of Dragons (large-sized uncommon)

Harpie - Tyranny of Dragons (medium rare)

Harpie – Tyranny of Dragons (medium-sized rare)

If you handicap your dragons by making them fight on the ground, then the new flying dragons won’t suit you. Plenty of grounded dragons have appeared already, and you can still buy them from resellers. I’m eager to pit some players against a green dragon just so I can swap figures when the creature takes off. Yes, I know this is a shameful indulgence.

Green dragons - 2008 D&D Starter Set vs. new flyer

Green dragons – 2008 D&D Starter Set vs. new flying  green

The set’s other splashy feature comes from invisible character miniatures molded from translucent plastic. Most rare figures feature a lot of costly, painted details. To WizKids, these invisible rares must seem like an ideal combination of zero painting (cheap!) with the sort of collectability that entices buyers. Did the idea for these minis start as a board-room joke about selling empty boxes full of “invisible” figures? If you buy singles, don’t complain. Premium figures like these make the others more affordable, because resellers can charge $30 for an invisible Drizzt, and then use the profit to offset the cost of all the ordinary figures they opened to find him.

Invisible Human Female Ranger and Drizzt

Invisible Human Female Ranger and Drizzt

The Red Wizard may rate as my favorite figure. I love the magical fire sculpted from translucent plastic around his hands. Too bad this guy arrived too late represent some of the enemies in Dead in Thay.

Red Wizard - Tyranny of Dragons

Red Wizard – Tyranny of Dragons

The Rock Gnome Female Wizard and Stout Heart Halfling Female Bard rank as the set’s two most welcome additions to my collection. Past D&D miniatures sets presented gnomes and halflings with the same proportions as humans, making the figures look like tiny humans—15mm-scale mistakes. None of these figures satisfied me. The new gnome and halfling look good.

micro-human Lidda, Halfling Rogue from Harbinger (2003) flanked by a new Gnome and Wizard

micro-human Lidda, Halfling Rogue from Harbinger (2003) flanked by a new Gnome and halfling

Apparently, miniature sculptors cannot agree on what a wyvern looks like. The new set’s flying wyvern looks puny compared to the specimen from the Pathfinder Battles Savage Star set, and emaciated compared to the one in the 2004 Aberrations set.

Pathfinder, Tyranny, and Aberrations Wyverns

Pathfinder, Tyranny, and Aberrations Wyverns

In the things-that-bother-nobody-but-me department, I continue to be annoyed by miniatures that seem out of scale. This set’s offense comes from the Orog, a new candidate for the worlds largest medium-sized creature. Check out this oversized orc posed next to the undersized Storm Giant from Against the Giants and the new Frost Giant figure.

Orog, Storm Giant, and Frost Giant

Orog, Storm Giant, and Frost Giant

You will need these to read the writing on  the bases

You will need these to read the writing on the miniatures’ bases

An ideal set of random miniatures matches the rarity of figures to the number game masters will probably need. Goblins and skeletons can be common because you can always use more. Dragons and mind flayers can be rare, because you probably just need one. Mostly, this set aligns rarity with usefulness. The flying bases push the rarity of some flyers higher than they should be. I would be happy with several flying gargoyles, but I have yet to open a single one of these rares. Also, as much as I like the Gnome Wizard and Halfling Bard, I only need one of either common figure.

I have opened 3 uncommon green dragons, but no uncommon shadow dragons, 3 uncommon frost giants, but no uncommon stone giants. This means it is time to stop buying random boxes and turn to buying singles from resellers to fill out my collection.

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My first impression of inspiration proved wrong

In an earlier post, I leveled criticism toward the inspiration mechanic based on Mike Mearls’s preview in “Roleplaying in D&D Next.” I listed two gripes:

  • Awarding inspiration seemed to put the dungeon master in an uncomfortable role. Mearls wrote about awarding inspiration for “describing your action in an interesting way, acting out your character’s dialogue, or otherwise helping to bring the game to life by adding some panache to your play.” All this made inspiration seem like an award for showmanship. As a DM, I have enough to do without adopting the role of some sort of competition judge who rates players’ panache.
  • Inspiration seemed like a distracting, metagame intrusion. The preview suggested  inspiration would be awarded frequently, and said it faded quickly (no longer true). This painted inspiration as a common distraction. You could spend inspiration, bank for later, or pass on to another player (still true). This painted inspiration as a gamey resource that represented nothing in the game world. Such dissociated mechanics force attention away from the characters’ world and prevent players from making choices while immersed in character.

When I read the actual rules, I realized that the inspiration mechanic revives action points, a mechanic I have enjoyed. My harsh judgements were wrong. The preview mislead me, and the sun got in my eyes.

Inspiration is exactly like action points, except (1) with a different name, (2) with a different purpose, and (3) without points. Perhaps I should explain.

The action point entered the D&D game in the Eberron Campaign Setting as a bit of genre emulation. According to the campaign guide, “The setting combines traditional medieval D&D fantasy with swashbuckling action and dark adventure.

“To help capture the cinematic nature of the swordplay and spellcasting, we’re added action points to the rules mix. This spendable, limited resource allows players to alter the outcome of dramatic situations and have their characters accomplish the seemingly impossible.” (p.9)

Characters in Eberron started with a bank of 5 action point that they could spend to kick d20 rolls with an extra d6. In theory, this meager bonus enables characters to accomplish the impossible. In practice, it adds a resource that forces players out of character.

The fourth-edition designers chose to keep action points, but they no longer needed to emulate Indiana Jones in D&D. In 4E, action points became an incentive aimed at discouraging the 15-minute adventuring day. Presumably, players would look ahead to a fresh action points and decide to press on to their next encounter, rather than resting to regain powers, hit points, and, well, action points. To sweeten the incentive, and to keep “action” in the name, action points now granted an extra action.

While action points failed to quash the 15-minute day, they proved fun for players. The additional action provides a more precious benefit than a mere d6 boost. They remain a gamey resource that you cannot manage while immersed in character. But with a mechanic as innocuous as action points, the drawback seems light enough. You need not step out of character for long.

Many aspects of the fourth edition design brought unintended consequences. For example, the fourth-edition design suffered from the unintended consequence of costing most of its designers and planners their jobs at Wizards of the Coast. (Too soon?)

Fourth-edition action points often turned climactic encounters into one turn of nova attacks followed by slow grinds against crippled enemies. This came because action points allowed characters to double their opening salvos of daily and encounter powers, multiplying the potency of their first turns. By the time a guy like Juiblex, demon lord of slimes and oozes, gets a chance to act, he’s prone, immobilized, dazed, suffering -4 to all attacks, and has his pants around his ankles. (In fourth edition, even oozes are subject to the pants-round-ankles condition.) See “As a player, I enjoy action points, so why do I dislike them as a dungeon master?

So fifth edition scrapped action points.

Meanwhile, the 5E designers worked to improve the role-playing pillar of D&D. They started by inviting players to flesh out characters with a bond and a flaw. “Your bonds are your character’s ties to the world, people, places, or things that are meaningful to your character in some way,” Mearls previewed. “Your flaws are your character’s weaknesses.”

Neither bonds nor flaws count as new to role playing. In games like Champions (1981) and GURPS (1986), you can give your characters flaws and bonds too. Adopting such disadvantages buys points that you can use to strengthen your character in other ways.

The 5E designers may have considered character-creation rewards for bonds and flaws, but once you reap any character-creation benefits, nothing in play encourages you to hold to your liabilities. So instead of adding incentives to character creation, they added an incentive to bring bonds and flaws into play.

In a Ready, Set, Play seminar, Designer Rodney Thompson explained, “Whenever you allow your flaw or your bond to impact your character negatively, maybe by making a decision that isn’t so great for the party but totally is in keeping with your characters flaw, the dungeon master can award you inspiration. And basically this is a reward that the DM can give you to say, hey, you have roleplayed out your character’s flaw even though it may not have been the best and most optimal decision. Here’s your reward in the form of inspiration.”

Although Mike Mearls may award inspiration for panache, I feel more comfortable for Rodney Thompson’s more objective standard. If following your character’s weaknesses drives you into a worse situation, then you gain inspiration. I can spot those situations and feel good about rewarding them.

Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

Inspiration shares a lot with action points. Like the Eberron points, players trade inspiration to boost a die roll. Like the 4E points, inspiration bribes players to do things that improve play. Since inspiration neither supports “swashbuckling action” nor grants additional actions, the “action” had to go.

The term “points” goes too. Unlike action points, inspiration doesn’t come in points. Inspiration works more like a status; your character can have the inspired status or not. Once you spend your inspiration, you have to earn it again. The terminology helps show that your character cannot have more than one inspiration to spend.

As a status, inspiration even gains a gloss of game-world association. Mearls wrote, “By demonstrating that the events in the game are critical to your character’s goals and beliefs, you can allow your character to tap into reserves of energy and determination to carry the day.” By acting true to themselves, characters become inspired without a word from the bard. Mearls even explained how a transfer of inspiration could work in the game world. “In this case, your character’s determination serves as an inspiration for the other party members.”

Only one problem remains. When a character’s flaws drive a player to make suboptimal decisions, the player gains inspiration. But D&D works as a game of teamwork. Often the rest of the party suffers for one character’s bad choice. Sometimes, only the rest of the party suffers. See “Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.”

I’ve seen no end to problems created by players who make choices that cause grief for the other players. “Because that’s what my character would do,” they explain. I hate hearing “that’s what my character would do” as a form of apology. No one explains what their character would do when they don’t screw the party. As a game master, I feel no urge to reward grief with an incentive.

The D&D designers thought of this aspect too. Rodney Thompson explains, “Maybe you did something that the other players at the table weren’t super thrilled about, but you can give them that inspiration as a way of saying sorry.”

The next time I reward inspiration for a choice that caused trouble for the party, I will ask the player to pass the inspiration to another player for a key roll.

As a player, how can you gain the most from inspiration? I suggest saving inspiration for critical saving throws against things like the dragon’s breath or the lich’s disintegrate spell. Also, remember that a single advantage from inspiration can cancel any number of disadvantages, so use inspiration when the odds are stacked against you.

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How cover and tool proficiency reveal choices in fifth-edition design

In order to create a simpler, more elegant, version of Dungeons & Dragons, the designers eliminated most of the situational modifiers that appeared in earlier editions. See “How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game.” While these modifiers appealed to players who favored simulation, they slowed play and were often forgotten. Besides, simulation has never been D&D’s strength.

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

In fifth edition, when someone gains an edge, they gain advantage. When someone suffers a handicap, they suffer disadvantage. Most of the rarely-meaningful and frequently-forgotten pluses and minuses disappear.

But as the designers worked to purge situational modifiers, D&D, thieves tools presented a problem. In earlier editions, Rogues used thieves’ tools because they granted a +2 bonus thievery checks. But this new design had no room for that +2 bonus. Still, thieves’ tools have appeared in equipment lists since the early days. I’m certain the designers felt compelled to keep the tools in the game. But without a bonus, why should a rogue bother spending for the toolkit?

The designers arrived at an ingenious solution: tool proficiencies. By making the use of thieves’ tools a proficiency rather a skill, rogues still need to buy the tools to pick locks and disable traps.

When the designers worked so hard to eliminate the +2 for tool use, why did they bother preserving the +2 and +5 bonuses to AC gained by cover? These bonuses stand as virtually the only situational modifiers in the game. Why not just give disadvantage to someone attacking a target behind cover?

The modifiers remain because they combine with disadvantage. Multiple instances of disadvantage do not stack. If you suffer disadvantage from two sources you still only have one disadvantage. So if an archer suffered disadvantage because she targeted someone behind cover, and if she also suffered disadvantage from long range, she would still only suffer one disadvantage. The fifth-edition designers favored simplicity over simulation, but they weren’t ready to make hitting someone behind cover at long range exactly as hard as hitting someone just at long range.

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Dungeon masters: Why your players might not love theater of the mind as much as you do

Before the introduction of third edition Dungeons & Dragons in 2000, virtually everyone played the game in the theater of the mind—without battle maps, miniatures, or other markers. In an effort to focus on imagination and roleplay, the fifth-edition designers created a new game that welcomes that old style of play.

an overcorrection?

An overcorrection

In the run-up to Gen Con, in the group where  judges discussed the upcoming event, many of the judges touted how their masterly use of the theater of the mind eliminated their need for battle maps. When performed by a skilled dungeon master, theater of the mind apparently allows a DM to speed play and work without the burden of tokens and battle maps. Players can exercise their imagination and enjoy a game unencumbered by counting squares.

Perhaps.

Shadows Over the Moonsea at Gen Con 2014

Shadows Over the Moonsea at Gen Con 2014

Theater of the mind is a tool just like a battle map. Even though I strongly prefer running fights on battle maps, if the players just want to eliminate a sentry, I run theater of the mind. But if you boast that you’re so awesome at running theater of the mind that you never need a map, I think of a carpenter boasting that he doesn’t need a saw because he is so awesome at hammering.

After the convention, in reviewing the players’ feedback forms, judge coordinator Dave Christ surmised that some judges who favored theater of the mind may have suffered lower feedback scores because they ran games for players who dislike the technique.

In short, some judges favored theater of the mind, but overestimated how much their players shared their affection for the technique.

So why do some dungeon masters love theater of the mind?

The preference begins with an urge for easy preparation and fast play. The dungeon master doesn’t need to prepare maps or gather miniatures. For a DM, less preparation leads to more flexibility. Unlike the drudge working with tiles and minis, theater-of-the-mind dungeon masters have no stake in where players go because they paint entirely with words. And then when a fight starts, theater of the mind avoids pausing to set up. You don’t have to draw or lay out a map or place figures. In an elementary fight, players can operate faster too. No one needs to count squares of move figures.

Also, theater of the mind grants the dungeon master an extra measure of control over the game. I’m sure this urge to control comes from a good place. Theater-of-the-mind DMs want to tell stories. They want to say yes. On the battle map, everyone can see that a jump from the balcony to the dragon’s back spans 50 feet, but in the theater of the mind, only the DM knows. “Well sure, that’s a cool stunt. You jump to the dragon’s back.” These dungeon masters don’t want their creative wings clipped by the mundane battle map. It’s all about telling stories, right?

Plus, theater of the mind makes writing adventures easier. Often an adventure’s author can avoid drawing maps and let the dungeon master improvise. Where fourth-edition adventures included maps of encounter areas, fifth-edition adventures often just include a list of creatures.

So why might your players love theater of the mind less that you do?

Wait, what? I know you explain every scene so vividly that no one misunderstands, but in some games—not yours—players struggle to grasp every nuance of the DM’s mental picture. In these games, the fighter charges to engage the beholder, and then the DM explains, again, that the creature floats 20 feet above the battlefield, on the far side of a deep crevasse. Now the frustrated player must rethink her turn.

What’s happening again? I know your players pay rapt attention every moment, even during the other players turns, but in some games—not yours—players may let their attention lapse. In public play, I’m lucky if the players can hear everything. And the battlefield situation changes with each turn, so dungeon masters wind up explaining the situation over and over.

Mother may I? Players enjoy feeling like they have direct and complete control over their characters. They want their available actions revealed before them. They want the potential outcomes of their actions to be predictable, something I call resolution transparency.

Some players even have less interest in seeing their characters featured in the DM’s story than in tackling the challenges of the game world. If a story happens to emerge, all the better.

These players want to play D&D, not some version of Mother May I where they have to ask if their proposed actions match up with a map locked in the DM’s head. “If I use my lightning bolt, how many gnolls can I hit?” “How far do I have to jump to cross the crevasse?” “Can I reach the cultist without provoking?”

In theater of the mind, these players cannot plan their turns in advance because so many options require the DM’s consultation and approval. The dungeon master’s attention becomes a bigger bottleneck. As the dungeon master keeps describing the evolving battlefield and answering questions about what players can do, playing a round of combat without a map takes longer.  In an angry rant on theater of the mind, the Angry DM gives some advice on running without a map. “Be repetitive, repeat yourself, and use repetition.” Good advice, but the repetition shrinks the time saved by skipping the map. Eventually, time saved in setup gets lost. Fights over a certain size take longer to resolve in theater of the mind.

Of course, not all players enjoy the details of combat. To make theater of the mind work, Angry DM advises, “Don’t force the players to be too specific about the targets they are firing at and don’t keep too much track of which target has how many hit points. Just keep a vague idea of things. Then, apply attacks and damage to the places that make the most logical sense for the combatants.” This advice plays well if your gaming group cares little for detail because they see combat encounters as a means to reveal character or advance the story, rather than as a tactical challenge.

Theater of the mind could be the perfect match for your group, but DMs must avoid assuming your players share your love.

Way back in “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons,” I describe how the introduction of third edition brought a quick and overwhelming switch from theater of the mind to battle maps. The third edition rules continued to support theater of the mind, but they now supported maps better than past editions. For most players, the introduction of combat on maps provided a revelation. For all but the simplest encounters, maps provide a better play experience.

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Revisiting three corners of the new D&D rules

In two posts, I answered some common rules questions about fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons from dungeon masters and players. I added some extra comments on the answers because that’s what I do here.

Reaching 0 hit points, as shown in my DM screen

Rules for reaching 0 hit points, as shown on my DM screen

Since posting my answers, more game play has sparked some new observations.

What spells can I cast? As I introduced players to the game, the what-spells-can-I-cast question was asked a lot. I struggled to find a concise explanation until I arrived at this metaphor: The spells you prepare become the menu of spells that you can order from through the day. Your spell slots tell how many items you can order from the menu. If you really like Magic Missile, and you have it on your menu of prepared spells, order as many as you like until you reach your limit of slots.

How do opportunity attacks work? You only provoke opportunity attacks when you move out of an enemy’s melee reach. This change seems minor, but it alters tactics.  Your front line becomes less sticky than in earlier editions. Concentrating attacks becomes easier as characters in a party’s middle ranks grow more vulnerable. An attacker can circle your tank and potentially attack the wizard in the next row without provoking any opportunity attacks.

Can I delay? No. Back in my year-old post of D&D next questions and answers, I commented on the lack of a delay action in the rules. I even asked Mike Mearls about the absence and he thought the lack might even be an oversight—the product of playtest rules in flux. I predicted that the delay action would return to the final rules. I was wrong; delay is gone. For a while, I puzzled over the omission, but then a player at my table got paralyzed by a Hold Person spell, and the designers’ motives became obvious.

Delay may seem trivial, but the ability to delay forces the game to add rules for how delay interacts with effects that end during a player’s turn. On several occasions, I’ve seen fourth-edition players try to salvage their turn by asking if they can delay until, say, a stunned condition lifts. Fourth prohibited such shenanigans by including rules for how delay interacts with conditions that continue to end of turn.

Fifth edition potentially added another layer of complexity by adding concentration. For example, Hold Person requires concentration. This means that someone held can potentially delay, saving their turn and hoping that their allies can break the caster’s concentration. By removing delay, 5E prevents such tricks and eliminates some complicated rules.

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