Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games

When creators dream up imaginary worlds, they can go in two directions. They can build their world from a curated set of ideas, and then fit these pieces together into a logical and consistent manner. In a fantasy gaming, these creators worry about how magic affects society and culture, and then wind up with worlds like Glorantha or Tekumel.

Dave 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. If Tekumal is a museum, with treasures for contemplation, then Arduin is a dragon’s horde, with everything shiny heaped to the walls.

Dave Hargrave pictured in Different Worlds issue 31

Dave Hargrave pictured in Different Worlds issue 31

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in a little, brown book named after his world, The Arduin Grimoire. In 1977, his unofficial supplement to Dungeons & Dragons debuted at California’s DunDraCon II convention. The book’s success led to the sequels Welcome to Skull Tower (1978) and The Runes of Doom (1978).

In a look back on the trilogy, Ryk Spoor called Arduin “one of the most absolutely concentrated essences of the fun of roleplaying games ever made.” Jonathan Tweet, the lead designer of third-edition D&D, called Arduin the “the coolest RPG book ever.”

The Arduin TrilogySometime in 1979, I found the series on the shelves of The Hobby Chest in Skokie, Illinois. The pages teemed with fresh ideas. The author suggested strange pairings of science and fantasy. He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. It all seemed a little subversive. I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read. At first I thumbed through the books at random, discovering gems, then I turned to page one and read. (Due to the books’ random organization, both reading orders felt the same.) As Hargrave wandered through Arduin lore and free-associated RPG wisdom, I learned three lessons.

Fantasy gives freedom to imagination.

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

As D&D’s audience exploded, in the days before Appendix N, most new players’ experience with fantasy started with Tolkien and ended with a few imitators. The sort of science-fantasy found in say, Jack Vance, seemed wrong. To us, Hargrave 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,” Hargrave 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)

Evidence of his creative abandon appears everywhere, from the “Multiversal Trading Company” to descriptions of the world’s 21 hells. For instance, the 17th plane of hell features blasted futuristic cities and space ports under a blue-black, moonless sky. Most vegetation is petrified. This hell’s most common inhabitant is The Black Wind, a fog of shifting shadows, lit by crackling, blue lighting bolts. The wind envelops and attacks psychically, taking over the body, and “forever making it alien.”

Hargrave welcomes a variety of character types. “Do not be a small player in a small world, embrace the whole Alternity and give different types a chance. I think you will find that the world your game is in will become a lot more fun if you do.” (Twenty years later, Dave Hargrave’s portmanteau “Alternity,” from alternate eternities, would become the name of a Wizards of the Coast RPG.)

The rules belong to players.

Jonathan Tweet noted the weakness of the Hargrave’s rules. “The Arduin system is usually unbalanced and often unbelievably complicated.” Still, some mechanics would fit a modern game. For example, he offers rules for touch attacks and a hit point system that resembles fourth edition’s. But the specific rules hardly mattered. Hargrave encourages players to own the rules and their games, to tinker, to playtest. On presenting his magic system, Hargrave advises readers to “take whatever I have that you like, use the old established fantasy gaming systems…and put together whatever you like in a magic system. Who knows, it may end up with such a good system that people will want to publish your fantasy world.” (Vol. I, p.30)

Detail makes game worlds come to life.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of the Wilderness Survival map and some encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later. According to Ryk Spoor, “One of the strongest and most powerfully attractive parts of the Arduin series was that, within and around the game mechanics, the statistics for demons and items and spells, Dave Hargrave wove tales and hints of his campaign world, giving us a look at the life of a world that didn’t exist, but … perhaps… could, elsewhere.”

The impact of Arduin

To gamers today, Arduin’s three lessons seem banal. New games seek freshness by colliding genres, so cowboys meet the undead, magic meets cyberpunk, and so on. Endless setting books lend detail to world building. When the fifth-edition designers explain their hesitancy to tweak the published rules, they say the rules belong to the players now. Arduin’s Phraints seem to have become Dark Sun’s Thri-Kreen.

After reading the books in 2008, James Maliszewski mused that most of Arduin “generated a resounding ‘meh’ for me,” mostly because its better ideas “were readily accepted and incorporated into gaming.” He concludes, “It’s nearly impossible to read the Arduin Trilogy now and see any of its ideas as original as they once were.” True, but in 1978, Arduin’s lessons demolished barriers that would never stand again.

Gary Gygax versus The Arduin Grimoire

In the 70s, Gary Gygax resented products that rode his and D&D’s coattails. The man had 6 children to feed! Arduin aped the little, brown books and tore down D&D’s rules, so the grimoires earned particular ire. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gary added the Vacuous Grimoire (p.155) as a dig at The Arduin Grimoire. Read it and lose 1 intelligence and 2 wisdom. In the pages of The Dragon, Gary attacked spell points, critical hits, and other rules that Hargrave offered as improvements.

TSR issued a cease and desist letter to Hargrave, who responded by blanking references to D&D. My printing splices in mentions of “other popular systems” and “old established fantasy gaming systems” where D&D was mentioned. Hargrave took to calling Arduin a completely different game, although it skipped essential rules that readers must find elsewhere (in D&D). Rules sections are labeled as changes or revisions to an unnamed game (still D&D).

Over the years, Hargrave created the missing rules needed to make a stand-alone game. But no one cared about his rules. Dave Hargrave never realized that his rules hardly mattered.

His feverish invention mattered. Arduin’s lessons mattered—and they changed role-playing.

Related: For an affectionate and funny tour of the first Arduin Grimoire, read “Arduin Grimoire cover to cover” from the first post at the bottom of the page.

Emperors Choice Games offers Arduin products for sale. The original trilogy now appears in a single volume, although the price seems high for anyone but a passionate student of RPG history.

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In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The cash-poor, big-score campaign

empty_chestGary Gygax devised Dungeons & Dragons to motivate player characters to chase treasure, but the game matured in 40 years. Now player characters adventure to smite evil, to redeem their name, to recover lost knowledge, to reach endless other goals. This development makes obsolete the game’s old practice of motivating PCs by handing out gold hoards that double every few levels.

So why not stop?

The pulp-fantasy heroes than inspired Gary Gygax rarely strike it rich. Even when they scored big, they lost their gains before they retired from adventure and deprived readers of another yarn. If you, as a dungeon master, rob or tax gold away, players will howl. If you never give PCs more gold than they need, few players will care.

In the cash-poor campaign, you avoid awarding more gold than the PCs can spend on mundane expenses and consumables. PCs gain as much magic treasure as ever. Those few PCs still motivated by treasure can still chase the big score—just like the pulp heroes, but that score comes at the end of the campaign. When PCs chasing wealth get rich, they retire, realistically. These PCs don’t risk their lives to fill a second Scrooge-McDuck-style pool of loot.

Advantage

The cash-poor campaign keeps gold meaningful by never awarding much. The game’s economy matches the pulp-fantasy settings that inspired it. If players score big at the end of a campaign, it feels like a climax—and a reason for a character to retire.

The cash-poor campaign lets the dungeon master focus on other aspects of play. DMs can avoid contriving a magical market. The can worry less about awarding gold, which no one spends anyway.

Disadvantage

The gold that accumulates on D&D character sheets, unspent, still feels like an achievement. The Forbes 400 teems with real-world billionaires with more money than they can ever spend, still chasing a higher score. (How much gold do you need to win D&D?) For some players, a cash-poor campaign may feel like a game without enough rewards. You will need to calibrate expectations and be sure players feel comfortable with it.

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In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The game within a game

The baseline Dungeons & Dragons game offers player characters plenty of chances to gain treasure and few chances to spend it.

When Dave Arneson opened the dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor, Chainmail miniature battles served as a game within his game of dungeon crawling (or technically vice versa). Player characters spent gold to raise armies, launch fleets, and build castles.

Since then, various rules for clashing armies have complimented D&D’s editions. For more, see Dungeoneering and the Art of War by Shannon Appelcline. Few D&D players care to trade their characters’ adventures for a miniature wargame, so none of these war games within D&D lasted. Without the miniature game, PCs could still buy strongholds, but their clubhouses entered play about as much as a fancy hat drawn in a character portrait. Some players happily feather their characters’ caps, but most players will not chase simple trophies.

Instead, players favor investments that factor into play. Magic items affect the game’s core of adventuring, so they make a popular way to spend. To create a campaign where players eagerly spend on more than magic, expand the campaign’s scope beyond dungeon crawling and dragon slaying. Follow Dave Arneson and add a game within the game.

If you want to create a war game within your campaign, fifth edition D&D offers a set of mass-combat rules. The spirits of Dave and Gary will smile down on you as you play D&D as they always intended.

However, unless your group features a rare bunch of grognards, you probably need a secondary game that better suits roleplayers.

In this post, I review some history of the game within the D&D campaign and show how the story leads to 5 lessons.

D&D expands beyond fighting men

When D&D grew, many new classes did not suit the original goal of building castles and commanding armies. Perhaps thieves could build a hideout, but druids could only plant a tree. The original, stronghold-building game unraveled.

Lesson 1: The game within a game must match the players’ characters and their goals.

You need not tailor a game for each character, although you can. As a dungeon master, when you start a campaign, you can establish a goal for it. For example, the PCs must fight to free their homeland or scheme to raise a princess to the throne against her rivals and their shadowy supporters. The players can decide how their characters come to share the campaign goal, but they all need a reason to join together and work toward that goal.

A game within the D&D campaign should let players advance their characters’ goals.

D&D Companion Rules

TSR1013_Dungeons_&_Dragons_-_Set_3_Companion_RulesThe best attempt at a game within a game came when Frank Mentzer wrote the D&D Companion Rules (1984), supporting play from levels 15 through 25. These rules included Dominion rules to drag the PCs’ strongholds into the game. The rules give players something to do with their domains, even if it’s mostly bookkeeping.

PCs start with a county, build a castle, and watch its population and economy grow. Players do the calculations. When I read the rules, I admired the design, but the activity seemed colorless. The dominion rules seem like tending an aquarium, with more paperwork.

Lesson 2: Losing must seem possible.

Now imagine that the PCs hold a dominion at the last bastion on a hostile border. Imagine the PCs defending their subjects with shrewd administration, diplomacy, and typical PC heroics. This dominion game becomes compelling. Once defeat seems possible, the dominion turns from a bookkeeping activity into a game.

D&D War Machine rules

The D&D Companion Rules also included a War Machine mass-combat system that let players resolve battles without building a basement sand table. “To use the system, all you need is a pencil and paper, plus some knowledge of simple arithmetic.”

Lesson 3: The game within a game typically must to be simple, because the players sat to play D&D .

Traditionally, adding mass combat to a D&D campaign meant adopting another game—almost another hobby. When Frank Mentzer and Douglas Niles created the War Machine mass combat system, they made a key insight: For their game within D&D to work, it needed to be simple enough not to distract from the usual D&D adventures. If anything, War Machine brings too much realism. Most D&D players would happily adopt something as simple as the Risk rules.

Lesson 4: Players must see how their choices will lead to outcomes.

The pursuit of a simple rules might tempt you to reduce the game within a game to DM fiat. Instead of inventing some simple rules, you just rule on an outcome. Don’t make this mistake. Relying on DM fiat will rob the players of their agency: their sense that they control their destiny in the game. Players will wonder if your ruling just follows whatever narrative you dreamed up at the start.

Instead, the players should understand understand the rules of the secondary game well enough to plot strategy. They should know how their bribes will affect diplomacy rolls, and how the mercenaries they hire will swing the battle.

Battle Interactives and Epics

Some of my favorite games within a D&D game only spanned a single session: the convention games known as Battle Interactives or Epics. These games gather hundreds of D&D players into a ballroom, where they cooperate to reach a common objective. While players at each table race to win battles, the event’s organizers create a game within the game to track progress toward winning—or losing—the war. For more, see “Living Forgotten Realms Battle Interactive.”

These events work best when the organizers use a projector to display progress: battles won and lost, territories claimed, and so on. The players may not know the rules of the game within the game, but they see how its outcome turns on their actions.

Lesson 5: Show players their progress toward success.

Good games within a game tend to focus on a game board. This board might show provinces freed from the dread emperor’s rule, or it could just list electors and show their willingness to support the princess’s claim to the throne.

Advantage

In the typical D&D game, PCs wander the game world, looking for troublemakers to kill while increasing their battle prowess.

The game within a game helps transform your game world from a backdrop to something vibrant. It can transform PCs from drifters into people with a home. PCs can use their wealth to extend influence and change the world—and not just by murdering the troublemakers.

Disadvantage

Even the simplest game within a game demands a lot of work. Some players just want to slay monsters.

Next: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The cash-poor, big-score campaign

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In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The limited magic-market campaign

The easiest outlet for wealth comes from trade in magic items. However, for reasons that I spelled out in “Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains,” fifth-edition Dungeons and Dragons lacks the free magic economy of fourth edition.

Even without an open market, your campaign can still allow some trade. A limited, magical marketplace empowers players to purchase magic you select, so the market avoids the drawbacks of granting total access. This campaign style keeps magic items rare and extraordinary, like works of fine art. A market for magic exists, but buyers and sellers connect by rumor, personal connections, and agents.

In most campaigns, D&D players seek rumors and patrons for the jobs that lead to adventure. In a limited-market campaign, PCs extend their network to find contacts with magic for sale. Perhaps a merchant knows a noble family on hard times, or a temple gained a magic sword from a benefactor. In this model, some items still come from monsters in the cellar, but as many come from willing sellers.

Creating the market campaign

In the market campaign, you, as DM, reduce the number of permanent magic items available in treasure hoards, and then enable players to purchase a similar number of items.

What items become available for sale? Unlike fourth edition, which encouraged players to shop for items in the Player’s Handbook, characters shop in the game world. Contacts offer selections of items for sale. This gives DMs the authority to choose which items enter their game. Players gain a choice over the magic they buy. In a baseline 5E game, unless you take player requests for the items that might coincidentally appear in a horde, players have no choice in the magic their characters get. In a market campaign, you can gather magic want lists from the players in game. Just have a dealer in magical curiosities ask the PCs what sort of items might interest them.

The reduction in magic available in hoards means that adventuring parties may need to divide treasure differently. Players who do not claim magical treasure should get a bigger share of the gold. They will need the cash to buy their own magic.

If you prefer not to spend game sessions letting PCs ask NPCs about magic for sale, you can allow PCs to spend downtime locating items for sale. Let the players spend 10 days of downtime and then make an Intelligence (Investigation) check to give a sense of the number and rarity of items available for sale. The player can suggest the sorts of items they want, but you decide exactly what items become available and at what price.

Regardless of the way the PCs locate magic for sale, some of the items should cost more than they can pay right away.

You can add some adventure to the magic-item market by creating transactions more colorful than a simple sale. For example, PCs could spend gold to pay craftsmen or enchanters to repair a broken item, or they could be contacted be thieves offering to steal an item from someone who the players cannot rob themselves. Perhaps the most interesting transactions double as adventure hooks. For example, players could discover chances to make these deals:

  • Buy a map showing the location of an item.
  • Pay sages or diviners to find the location of a lost, legendary item that the players can retrieve.
  • Pay miners or laborers to excavate the buried entrance of a site housing a legendary item.

All of these lead PCs to more adventure while giving players interesting ways to spend. Especially with deals that include hooks, dangle the opportunity well before the players have enough gold, so you can weigh interest and prepare as needed. The players must feel free to pass on any deal.

How much do the items cost?

When game designers price magic items, they need to consider relative power and the game’s economy. That’s hard. As a DM, when you price magic items, it is easy. Remember that you ordinarily give players magic for free.

spell_compendiumTo price magic items, use your position as DM to keep track of how much gold the players have. Estimate the amount of gold the PCs could win in their next adventures. Then set prices for the items you’re willing to allow based on the PCs’ wealth. If you want to gain a better sense of the relative value of items, check some of your old, third-edition books containing lists and prices of magic items. New copies of the Premium 3.5 Edition Dungeons & Dragons Magic Item Compendium remain available for about $30. The exact 3E prices do not apply to 5E, but the values give a sense of the relative prices of similar gear.

Advantages

The magical economy adds fun because every player happily spends gold on magic. Castles and titles and ships only appeal to a few, but everyone loves a new magic item. Dungeon masters can use the economy to lure players to adventure.

Disadvantage

Creating a magical economy demands creativity and preparation that you might want to devote to other aspects of the game. Some players may see commerce as an unwelcome distraction from dispensing justice and such.

Next: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The game within a game

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In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? Three principles of granting gold

The early play style of Dungeons and Dragons led to a tradition of awarding player characters more treasure than they could spend. This tradition carries into fifth edition.

Fill with healing potions. Win D&D!

1. Fill with healing potions. 2. Win D&D!

In 5E, what can high-level player-characters spend their wealth on? Mundane gear? After a few levels, PCs can afford all that they can carry. Permanent magic items? This edition lacks a magic-item economy. Healing potions? PCs can stock up on healing potions, but as PCs rise in level, the action to drink stops justifying the proportionally smaller gains in HP. (Healing potions could break the game if gnome tinkers simply invented the CamelBak pack. I think gnomes want to thin the ranks of adventurers to create a fitter breed.)

In most fifth-edition campaigns, the PCs’ wealth will probably remain on character sheets, an unspent score of success. However, campaigns grow better when players eagerly hunt for gold that they can spend enriching their characters or advancing their goals.

To make gold awards enhance your game, I recommend awarding treasure in accord with three principles:

Players should be able to anticipate exciting ways to spend their gold. Countless video games, from Diablo to Plants Vs. Zombies give players a way to spend coins on enhancements and buffs. Typically, these games offer items for sale before you can afford them. These rewards lure you to keep playing to gain that next prize, even when you should be eating or sleeping. Likewise, in a D&D campaign, players need to see things they could purchase before they can afford them.

Treasure, and the pursuit of treasure, should lead players to make choices. Compared to books and movies, role-playing games hold one big advantage: game players can make decisions. At a minimum, players choose how to spend their loot. In some games, the pursuit of treasure can factor into strategy. When early dungeon crawlers found a way to a lower level, they could choose that path to more treasure and more danger.

Players should understand how their choices will affect the game. For a choice to be interesting, players must expect the options to lead to different outcomes. Interesting decisions demand more than guesswork, so players must see how their options lead in different directions. When players choose to buy magic items, their choices bring clear differences. Other expenditures could affect a game within the game, as when the Blackmoor players spent treasure to fund armies.

In my next few posts, I will suggest ways to put these principles into play with a few campaign styles: the limited magic-market campaign, the cash-poor, big-score campaign, and the game within the game. Although I’ll explore the styles separately, you can combine strategies from all three in your game.

Next: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The limited magic-market campaign

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What is the typical amount of treasure awarded in a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign?

The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide advises dungeon masters, “You can hand out as much or as little treasure as you want.” The new Dungeons & Dragons game offers DMs the freedom to create a gritty, low-magic campaign without any “intrinsic bonuses” that fix the math. It allows legendary campaigns where parties fly like superheroes and challenge the gods. All good, but most of us want a campaign that feels like D&D. Most will seek a middle path.

lossy-page1-399px-Dokumentation,_utställningen_'Silver_och_smycken_till_vardag_och_fest'_år_2006_-_Hallwylska_museet_-_85820.tifFor this baseline, the DMG lists random treasure hoards and suggests how many hoards to award through a tier of adventure.

Obviously, you can award treasure without rolling a random hoard. I suspect most DMs prefer to imagine their own treasure parcels and to award them as they see fit. In this post, I unpack the random hoards and find the middle path behind the random tables. If you skip the hoards, but aim to match the typical treasure awards, this post provides the targets that the DMG lacks.

Q: How many treasure hoards will the PCs win?

The DMG offers this guideline: “Over the course of a typical campaign, a party finds treasure hoards amounting to seven rolls on the Challenge 0-4 table, eighteen tolls on the Challenge 5-10 table, twelve rolls on the Challenge 11-16 table, and eight rolls on the Challenge 17+ table.” (p.133)

Q: How many encounters must a PC complete to level?

At levels 1 and 2, PCs will typically complete 6 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

At level 3, PCs will typically complete 12 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

From level 4 to 9, PCs will typically complete 15 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

From level 10 to 19, PCs will typically complete 10 medium-difficulty encounters to gain a level.

In any case, each hard encounter counts for about 1½ medium encounters. In actual play, the numbers will vary. For instance, many DMs award experience for non-combat challenges.

Throughout all tiers of play, PCs will collect 1 treasure hoard per 5 medium encounters. If you typically finish 5 encounters per play session, players get 1 hoard per session.

Q: How much gold will PCs gain over their career?

The following table shows the wealth a party will gain over their career, to be divided among the PCs. The hoard values come from averages calculated at blog of holding and Dreams in the Lich House. The value of a hoard at a tier tends to be 10 times the value of the prior tier. This fits with D&D’s tradition of steep increases in treasure. See “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.” All treasure values are in gold pieces.

Level Hoards at level Encounters
at level
Hoard value Gold at level Cumulative gold at start
1 1 6 376 376 0
2 1 6 376 376 376
3 2 12 376 752 751
4 3 15 376 1,128 1,504
5 3 15 4,545 13,635 2,632
6 3 15 4,545 13,635 16,267
7 3 15 4,545 13,635 29,902
8 3 15 4,545 13,635 43,537
9 3 15 4,545 13,635 57,172
10 3 17 4,545 13,635 70,807
11 2 10 36,200 72,400 84,442
12 2 10 36,200 72,400 156,842
13 2 10 36,200 72,400 229,242
14 2 10 36,200 72,400 301,642
15 2 10 36,200 72,400 374,042
16 2 10 36,200 72,400 446,442
17 2 10 336,025 672,050 518,842
18 2 10 336,025 672,050 1,190,892
19 2 10 336,025 672,050 1,862,942
20 2 336,025 672,050 2,534,992
Wealth at end of career: 3,207,042

Unlike Third- and fourth-edition, this edition offers no obvious outlet for the PCs’ wealth at higher levels. Earlier editions empowered PCs to buy magic items. PCs spent their gold on equipment that enhanced their power. The DMGs showed the wealth that PCs required to beat the monsters. Too much gold meant that PCs romped through dungeons, dropping monsters like pinatas; too little meant total-party kills. The new game sets no such requirements.

Q: How many magic items will each PC gain?

This table shows the magic items each member of a party of 4 will gain when they
score the typical number of treasure hoards. To keep pace, parties with more than 4
PCs will need to gain magic items from other sources such as more hoards, fallen enemies,
or a magic item market.

Level Consumable items Permanent items
1 1 common 1st uncommon
2 1 common
3 1 common
4 1 common
5 1 common 2nd uncommon or a 1st rare
6 1 uncommon
7 1 uncommon
8 1 uncommon 1st rare or 2nd uncommon
9 1 uncommon
10 1 uncommon
11 1 rare 2nd rare or a 1st very rare
12 1 rare
13 1 rare
14 1 rare 1st very rare or a 2nd rare
15 1 rare
16 1 very rare
17 1 very rare 1st legendary
18 1 very rare
19 1 very rare
20 1 legendary

Update: Andy Pearlman presents an exhaustive analysis of the treasure tables in this post on Magic and the Math of 5E. He concludes that PCs will claim about 5 items over the course of their career rather than the 6 listed in my table. Also, his analysis shows that +3 and other legendary items start trickling into the PCs’ hands at level 11.

This table only shows the magic PCs gain in a typical game, not the magic they require. In earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, higher-level characters required magic items that increased accuracy, which is a character’s chance of hitting. Without these accuracy enhancements, a PC could hardly hit, only flail away, hoping for a natural 20. In fifth edition, PCs can hit without magical accuracy bonuses, so they do not require magic just to play. Obviously, magic items still make PCs more powerful, but at any level, a PC without magic can contribute.

Still to come: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? Choosing a campaign style

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Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains

In “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it,” I showed why Dungeons & Dragons player characters get tons of gold through their career:

  1. Originally, D&D awarded experience points for gold to motivate players to act like Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and the other picaresque heroes of Appendix N.
  2. D&D lured players to more challenging dungeon levels by roughly doubling the treasure and experience available for each level deeper.
  3. The riches of the dungeon gave PCs enough wealth to become leaders who raise armies, launch fleets, and build castles.

Swords Against WizardryThis plan unraveled when nobody chose to abandon the dungeon-crawling fun of their D&D game to put their characters in a different, miniature-battle game. Characters never spent their wealth on armies, fleets, and castles.

In the pulp-fantasy adventures that inspired Gary Gygax, heroes who came upon a windfall tended to spend it on debauchery or lose it to “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar.” This put the heroes back on the road to adventure, chasing their next score.

When Gary saw no players retire to stronghold building, he sought to restore D&D worlds to match Appendix N—and to economic sense. In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), he wrote, “It is important in most campaigns to take excess monies away from player characters,” AD&D’s XP-for-gold system meant Gary couldn’t just impose the obvious solution: Stop giving characters so much loot.

Stronghold Builders GuidebookSo Gary found ways to take gold away. For characters ready to level, AD&D requires weeks for training accompanied by massive expenses. A master thief must spend 2,000 gold per level per week on training, just for tools and equipment. Master thieves demand pearl-encrusted crowbars. If these expenses fail to take enough, Gary suggests taxes. Remember that Conan yarn where the Cimmerian paid taxes? Nope. Few dungeon masters levied taxes because the punishing tedium of tax payments sucks the fun out of the game more quickly than it drains PCs of excess monies. Gary spent a page arguing that taxes add realism, forgetting that no sensible tax collector targets a powerful band of killers, especially if they sometimes prove useful finding missing heirs, thwarting attempts to summon demon gods, and whatnot.

Ultimately, none of the revenue-draining schemes lasted, because D&D players hate losing cash with nearly as much venom as they hate losing magical gear.

Richie Rich DiamondsBy third edition, the game had lost all the original reasons for awarding PCs tons of gold. Nonetheless, the designers followed tradition, so the game still awarded players enough loot to pile Richie Rich-style mountains of diamonds. The Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook tried to raise enthusiasm for the end game, but even the authors write, “Lounging about the stronghold day and night, engaging in the domestic dramas of daily life isn’t the sort of thing that stirs the blood of great heroes.” At least the heroes enjoy pampered luxury; players just experience hiring, expenses, and building management. A few players liked it, but I prefer not to work that hard without a dental benefit plan.

The fourth edition designers decided to deal with the problem of wealth by letting characters spend freely on magic items. Instead of hiring caravans of armored wagons, epic-level players could spend gold on a +6 sword. In this new spirit of player empowerment, magical gear appeared in the Player’s Handbook. Now when an epic-level adventurer wanted to upgrade from a +5 weapon to a +6, she could trade in her old blade and an extra 125 tons of gold for the new item. Call ahead. Ye Olde Magick Shoppe might need to special order some less popular weapons. In fourth edition, a single level-30 weapon matches the value of a fleet of 312 ships or 41,660 horses, a quantity typically referred to as “all of them.” And epic-level characters need more than a single weapon; they require protective gear and other magic with a value comparable to 1,000 ships.

The prices may seem silly, but they worked in play. Epic-level items are best described as priceless, because no one in a game world could pay cash for them. The prices just exist as a game measure for exchange.

Most players ignored the mind-bending economics, but a magic-item trade creates other problems:

Loss of wonder. In the original D&D, Gary meant to restrict descriptions of magic items to dungeon masters so their players could enjoy the thrill of discovery as they found items and learned their powers. Of course, players read all the rules, making this plan untenable. As magic items moved from being secret, to items awarded by the DM, to commodities in the Player’s Handbook, magic items changed from sources of wonder to appliances.

Power creep. When more and more fourth-edition books saw print and PCs gained options and access to more combinations, the game’s balance of power tilted to the players. When one appliance—or combination—proves best, everyone buys it. Soon, dungeon masters yearned for the days when they could limit characters by limiting the magic that entered their game.

Design limitations. In an Escapist interview, Mike Mearls explained D&D Essentials’ magic-item rarities. “If players can buy anything, it really limits the design space you can put out there.” Fourth-edition designers avoided creating magic items that would change the style of the game by, for example, allowing every character to fly or teleport. “If the entire party can fly, it’s much easier to dominate encounters or dungeons or adventures.” Players empowered to buy any item can transform the game. “It turns the game into almost a superhero game. Which is fine, if that’s your style, but it’s not necessarily the default.”

Mike notes that limiting items can put PCs in more interesting predicaments. “If one character can fly, you’re more likely to get in more trouble that you can’t get out of when you can fly ahead of the rest of the party and get surrounded by ogres or something.”

In light of these problems, fifth edition abandoned the magic-item trade. The rules explain, “Aside from a few common magic items, you won’t normally come across magic items or spells to purchase. The value of magic is far beyond simple gold and should always be treated as such.”

Still, D&D’s tradition led players to expect mountains of gold. These riches originally lured players deeper into multi-level dungeons that few ran anymore. These riches built to an end game that no one ever played.

The fifth-edition game holds to the tradition of making PCs rich, so DMs running campaigns and organizers of public play face the challenge of making gold good for something—or breaking tradition.

Next: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? Choosing a campaign style

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Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return

As a kid playing sports, I had no role other than the goat—the guy who screwed up and caused everyone to lose. When people talk about the magic of youth sports, about how they build teamwork and character and leaders, I want to wretch. All those people touting the magic of sports have one thing in common: They were good at sports. They never realize how much their talent contributed to their glowing feelings. For klutzes like me, being part of a team competition meant humiliation and scorn. “Thanks for making us lose. You suck.”

By the time I discovered Dungeons & Dragons, I had experienced all the losing I could stomach. Some of what drew me to D&D was that I could play without losing. In D&D, you can join some friends, roll some dice, and have fun. Everyone won and I liked it.

A typical D&D game stacks the odds to assure the players victory. Dungeon masters select and adjust the monsters to give the players fights they can win. DMs shy away from player-killing tactics like focusing fire. Some DMs secretly guarantee victory by making hidden rolls that they can fudge. In the interest of story, some DMs never let characters die without their players’ agreement.

I like story and I like seeing characters succeed, so I enjoy this style of play. Through a year of D&D, all the games I play will stack the odds for the player.

Except for one glorious event.

Now I will tell you how wonderful team competition can be.

Between 1977 through 2013, Gen Con featured an event originally called the D&D Open and renamed the D&D Championship. The Championship runs as a tournament, with teams of players racing to complete objectives while surviving a difficult adventure. Successful teams advance to later rounds until one team wins.  Classic adventures such as the Vault of the Drow and the Against the Slave Lords series came from this competition. Every year I played, the Championship ranked as the most fun I had playing D&D all year.

What makes the Championship such a blast? It starts with the fun of D&D,  then adds elements that most D&D games lack: challenge, high stakes, and urgency.

In the Championship, challenge is high because the odds favor the monsters. A Championship DM can do things that would cause hard feelings in a regular game. Focus fire. Single out healers and spellcasters. Coup de grâce. Championship DMs are expected to finish fallen characters. No hard feelings. In the Championship, I don’t care how tough a DM plays the monsters. Bring it on! All I care is that the DM plays efficiently.

Never tell me the odds!

Never tell me the odds! The finals of the 2012 Championship.

This challenge makes the threat of failure real, and it offers a reward: When you triumph against long odds rather than against a stacked deck, the victory tastes so much sweeter.

Yes, PCs fail sometimes. Luckily in D&D, failure can be fun too. My teammates still tell stories of some characters’ deaths.

The competition creates high stakes in the real world. At the start, everyone wants to perform well to earn a spot in the next round. By the final round, everyone plays for the glory of a win. These stakes create more suspense than anyone feels in a typical game.

Because a fast pace enables teams to complete more objectives, the Championship rewards efficient play. Players in the Championship show an urgency that casual games lack. No one disappears into their phone. No one rouses on their turn, and then makes everyone wait while they examine the map and ruminate. The event’s pace makes the game hurtle ahead. Everyone spends more time playing.

I’m no D&D-playing star, but unlike those sports teams where I found humiliation, I can join a D&D party and contribute. At last, I get a sense of what the jocks always blathered about. Sitting on a team and contributing to success to can be glorious.

You can succeed in the Championship without bringing a team. I know multiple players who have joined a bunch of strangers, and then reached the finals. On two occasions, that was my story.

Championship DMs rank as the best of the best. They must master the rules and play quickly and fairly. Only the elite can handle the intense demands of the event. We players benefit.

Last year, for the first time since 1977, the D&D Championship was not held. The Championship’s elite DMs became a reason for its demise. When Wizards of the Coast launched fifth edition, they wanted these proven dungeon masters to help run the D&D All Access program.

The organizers wanted to push the Adventurers League over the older, tournament-style play. Ironically, when Wizards launched a version of D&D that aimed to embrace all the play styles of D&D, they killed the game’s oldest style of public-play.

We saw an audience that had been divided by differences in editions and play styles, and wanted to design a version of D&D that all players could experience and enjoy.” – Mike Mearls, co-designer of fifth-edition D&D

Will the Championship return? Perhaps. It doesn’t appear among the official D&D events sponsored by Wizards of the Coast. They seem content to keep the Championship dungeon masters for the All Access event. Rumors say that some of the Championship’s long-time organizers are working to bring back the event. In light of Wizards’ tepid support and their eagerness to commit DMs to All Access, D&D’s oldest event faces a difficult chapter.

Do you love the D&D Championship? Have you played or run it? Do you want to try this thrilling event for the first time?

Related: Gen Con 2013 recap and the D&D Championship visits the Lost City Little-known D&D classics: Fez

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Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it

The original Dungeons & Dragons game awarded characters an experience point for each gold piece they claimed from the dungeon. See “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.” This provided a simple method of awarding non-combat experience and motivating players to loot dungeons—the activity that made the game fun. The success of awarding XP for gold rested on three premises of the early D&D game.

  • Adventures always occur within the dungeon or wilderness.
  • Players choose the difficulty of the challenges they dared to face.
  • Characters will find ways to spend their riches.

By the time second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, none of these premises remained true.

Premise: Adventures stick to the dungeon. When D&D adventure expanded beyond the dungeon into civilization, players felt tempted to treat towns and cities as massive gold and experience farms. Why bother facing terrors and traps underground when the local townsfolk offer sources of wealth, and the XP it brings? For more, see “Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

This problem invites an easy solution: By the 1981 Basic Set, characters needed to recover gold from a dungeon or similar adventuring location to gain experience for it.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess, a recent game with an old-school XP-for-gold system, lists many sources of gold that do not count for XP.

The following may gain the characters wealth, but they do not count for XP purposes:

    • Coins looted from bodies outside of adventure locations
    • Rewards
    • Selling equipment stripped from foes
    • Selling magical items that have been used by a PC or retainer
    • Tax income
    • Theft of wealth from mundane merchants, rulers, and citizens
    • Trade, commerce, and other business activity (including selling of mundane items stripped from foes)

If you want XP, you must earn it.

Premise: Players set the challenge. In most modern D&D campaigns, dungeon masters devise adventures that will challenge their players without proving too difficult. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes pages of budgets and formulas aimed providing just enough challenge.

In the early D&D game, players chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level of the dungeon corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—as they went deeper.

This system gives players a choice that they lack now, and it added a element of strategy.

When Gary created this aspect of the game, he needed to find ways to entice players deeper into the dungeon. If a cautious party could gain nearly as much loot on an easy dungeon level as on a deeper one, why go down? Gaining experience could become a safe—and dull—grind.

To lure characters to danger, Gary doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. To rise in level at a tolerable rate, players needed to delve as far down as they dared.

Doubling both experience requirements and rewards offered a second benefit: First-level characters could join a higher-level party and catch up quickly. This gave new players a boost, and made dead characters easier to replace. Also, the quicker advancement made level draining a bit less punishing.

Premise: Players have meaningful ways to spend their riches.

Before 2E, most of the experience players gained came from gold. For example, in the 1981 D&D Basic Rulebook (p. 45), Tom Moldvay wrote that characters could expect to gain 3/4 or more of their XP from treasure. With experience requirements roughly doubling at each level, players needed tons—as in thousands of pounds—of gold to advance. In an evaluation of the basic-expert rules set, Blackrazor calculates that to advance from 8th to 9th level, a party of characters must claim 40 tons of gold.

In a real world, such a bounty would cause runaway inflation and threaten an economic collapse. Luckily, PCs typically leave these bounties unspent, keeping a tally on the character sheet instead. No DM makes the party round up the 80 Bags of Holding needed to carry 40 tons of loot.

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge #254Of all the versions of D&D, these basic-expert rules present a worst case, but every edition serves up enough gold to fill Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pools.

In Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign, players could spend their riches in an end game. In Blackmoor, player characters served as leaders and champions in series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. PCs explored dungeons to gain wealth that could enable them to raise armies, build fleets, and erect strongholds.

Gary had designed the Chainmail miniature rules that Dave used, so a progression from green adventurer to battlefield champion to baron seemed natural to both men. The original D&D game includes prices for castle structures and ships, along with costs for the men at arms and sailors needed to build a kingdom. The game served up riches, but the wealth led PCs out of the dungeon and onto the miniature battlefield.

This scheme suffered one problem: Almost no one went on to the stronghold-building, army-raising part of the game. That sort of play made sense to miniature players like Dave and Gary, but the game’s new players had no experience with sand tables and lead figures. The price lists for barbicans and medium horsemen puzzled us. Even the miniature grognards kept going back to the dungeon. The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Dave Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit.

So D&D characters gained riches fit for kings, but they kept returning to the dungeons for another score.

Next: D&D stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains.

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The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold

When Dave Arneson ran a session of his Blackmoor dungeon for Gary Gygax, two innovations impressed Gary the most: “The idea of measured progression (experience points) and the addition of games taking place in a dungeon maze.” (See The Dragon issue 7.) For just about everyone captivated by D&D, those two elements would stand out. In Playing at the World, while describing D&D’s reception, Jon Peterson shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players.

Fantasy Games Unlimited Wargaming magazine number 4D&D co-creator Dave Arneson explained how he awarded experience in the Blackmoor game that led to D&D. “Each player increase in the ability in a given area by engaging in an activity in that area. For a fighter this meant by killing opponents (normal types of monster), their ability to strike an opponent and avoid the latter’s blows was increased.” (See Wargaming issue 4.)

By awarded experience for practice, Arneson simulated our world. As Gary Gygax turned the Blackmoor play style into a game, he made experience points (XP) into an incentive to chase gold. When Merric Blackman commented that the XP system promoted the gaining of treasure above all else, Gary agreed, “Indeed, wealth was featured—most realistically if one considers human motivations. If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more that the lure of riches?”

In the original game, characters earned much more experience for gold than for monster slaying. This rewarded players for engaging in exactly the dungeon exploration that made the original game so much fun.

Suppose Gary had opted for a more natural simulation. If PCs gained, say, spellcasting ability through endless hours of practice and study, players would face choosing between the fun of exploring dungeons and the drudgery of practicing to increase ability. Sure, in a role-playing game, practice becomes a bookkeeping activity, but it remains dull.

In the pursuit of realism, Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) took study so far that the authors argue that magic users shouldn’t leave their labs at all. “What real ‘experience’ is to be had in a dark, damp dungeon?” The game says that magical effects are often too difficult to permit any “Magick User” the luxury going down into a dungeon. For more, see “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?

In addition to rewarding players for seeking fun, the XP-for-gold system offered another benefit: it created a simple way to award experience points for succeeding at non-combat challenges. As a new PC in the original game, potentially with 1 hit point, you had little chance of leveling through combat. Players joke that D&D is about killing things and taking their stuff, but in the original game, you were better off using your wits to take stuff. So long as your cunning led to gold, you got experience.

The XP-for-gold system struck players everwhere as unrealistic. In the original Arduin Grimoire (1977), Dave Hargrave wrote that in his game, “[Experience] points are given for many reasons, but NOT for gold or other treasure. After all, it is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience.” In 1989, with the second edition, D&D would follow suit. The game would never award XP for gold again.

Without XP for gold, only killing monsters earned concrete experience awards. Of course, DMs can reward players for completing quests and overcoming challenges, but print adventures rarely do. If your adventure plays like a published example, then PCs win experience in battle.

When second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, D&D superficially became more of a game of killing than ever—except people played differently. Adventures spun stories. When players joined a game, they joined an unspoken pact to follow the plot threads that the DM offered. The original game required no unspoken pact. To succeed, players just followed the money, and the experience it bought. The classic play style offered a lot of freedom, but only one goal. Then, every PC chased treasure; now, PCs adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure.

Next: The 3 elements that made XP-for-gold work in D&D that are now out of the game.

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