For 25 Years, D&D Put Saving Throws In Groups Made For Just 3 Creatures and 2 Spells

Today, Dungeons & Dragons of matches saving throws to ability scores. But for most of the game’s history, D&D grouped saving throws by 5 sources: spell or staff, wand, death ray or poison, turned to stone, and dragon breath. These categories and the game’s saving throw table made me wonder: What made clerics so resistant to poison? Of all possible threats, why set aside a specific save for being turned to stone? (Also, “stone” isn’t even a source, just shorthand for a list of creatures.) Dragon breath seemed overly specific too, but at least the game’s title featured dragons. And how could the remaining 3 types of save cover every other hazard in a fantastic world?

Gary Gygax based his Chainmail rules on a 1966 pamphlet by Tony Bath titled Rules for Medieval Wargames. In those rules, attackers make a roll to hit, and then defenders roll a “saving throw” to see if their armor protects them. The heavier the armor, the easier the save.

Attack rolls in Dungeons & Dragons combine Bath’s to-hit roll and saving throw. But Gary reused the name “saving throw” for another, similar purpose. This rework begin in Chainmail, the mass-battle rules that formed the basis for D&D. In Chainmail, creatures lacked hit points, so successful attacks destroyed units. But with extraordinary individuals like heroes, wizards, and dragons, a saving throw allowed a last chance to survive. For example, the rules say, “Dragon fire will kill any opponent it touches, except another Dragon, Super Hero, or a Wizard, who is saved on a two dice roll of 7 or better.”

Chainmail’s rules for spells, magical attacks, and similar hazards led to saving throws in original D&D. The first Dungeon Master’s Guide explained the concept. “Because the player character is all-important, he or she must always—or nearly always—have a chance, no matter how small, of somehow escaping what otherwise be would be inevitable destruction.”

“Someone once criticized the concept of the saving throw as ridiculous,” Gary wrote. “Could a man chained to a rock, they asked, save himself from a blast of red dragon’s breath? Why not? I replied. Imagine that the figure, at the last moment, of course, manages to drop beneath the licking flames, or finds a crevice in which to shield his or her body, or succeeds in finding some way to be free of the fetters. Why not?” Saving throws grant a last chance, but they leave the details of why a save worked to the storytelling of the player and DM. The brilliance of hit points comes from their abstraction, and in original D&D saves are just as abstract as hit points.

Chainmail only includes saves for 4 effects: dragon breath, basilisk gaze, spider poison, and spells (just fireball and lightning). Original D&D turned those 4 saves into categories, and then added “wands” as a 5th.

The detailed numbers in the saving throw table suggest that Gary set saves to simulate nuances of the game world. However, the original saving-throw table reveals no nuances and few patterns. Fighters grow to become the best at dragon slaying. Wizards gain the best spell saves and so become best at dueling other spellcasters. But why, say, should magic users boast the best resistance to petrification? And why does the death ray from a Finger of Death spell get grouped with poison rather than staying in the tougher spell category? Apparently, when Gary Gygax told players to save or die, he also gave them a break. Go figure.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the revamped saving-throw matrix reveals more patterns.

Clerics show the best saves versus paralyzation, poison, and death magic. Perhaps divine favor helps spare them from death.

Magic users start with the best saves and end with the worst. Did Gary intend to help low-level mages and to balance high-level wizards?

Fighters start with the worst saves and end with the best. Was this designed to balance the class, or just to simulate the resilience of a front-line survivor?

Although the saving throw categories lasted 25 years, these types proved clumsy.

As D&D added countless threats, the designers folded them into the same 5 categories descended from Chainmail. For dungeon masters, these peculiar categories made guesswork of choosing the right save for a new effect.

In AD&D, characters with high wisdom or dexterity gained bonuses to saves that demanded willpower or agility. But neither bonus matched a saving-throw category. The bonuses could apply to some saves in multiple categories. Remembering these bonuses—and sometimes gaining the DM’s approval to use them—added a awkward extra step.

Third edition switched to grouping saving throws by the aptitude needed to survive the danger. Now a high wisdom or dexterity cleanly benefited will or reflex saves. Finally, a high constitution helped shake the effect of poison.

The switch made saving throws simpler, but they became less abstract. The odds of someone chained to a rock using quick reflexes to survive dragon fire seemed lower than ever—low odds that fifth edition simulates by imposing disadvantage on a restrained character’s dexterity save.

When I imagine someone making a reflex or dexterity save, I picture someone leaping and tumbling from rushing flames. Then I look at the battle map and see a figure in the same square. In my overly-complicated version of D&D, evasion would make targets move out of an area of effect.

Next: Fourth edition proved D&D works without saving throws, so why did they come back?

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Dungeons & Dragons and the Dream of the Grand Campaign

The original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide included an instruction that seemed pointless to most readers, even though Gary Gygax shouted it in caps. In AD&D, he explained, “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.” DMs needed to work with players to record every character’s use of campaign time.

Few dungeon masters bothered with such bookkeeping. The 2nd edition explains the reason. “Time passed in previous adventures has little of no effect on the current session. Next game session, the DM announces, ‘A week or so has passed since you last went out.’ An entire campaign can be played this way.”

When I first read Gygax’s declaration, no one I knew tracked campaign time. Still, thanks to the The Arduin Grimoire, I aspired run a campaign that marked time. In a trilogy of little, brown books, Dave Hargrave explored his Arduin campaign’s lore and house rules. See Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games. For me, the most inspiring passage revealed the scope Dave’s game.

“The Arduinian Campaign has been running about as long as D&D and related role-playing games have existed. Game time has been more than 11 years (of 453 days each). Over 480 player characters have been permanently killed in that time, and many more have had to retire due to wounds or afflictions acquired in campaigning. On the other hand, two characters have become Dukes of the realm and half a dozen are Barons (three landed and collecting taxes. raising troops, etc.). One even managed to woo the youngest daughter of the king and just this ‘end year’ all Arduin celebrated their nuptials. So, even though it is a hard and dangerous world, the rewards are usually more than a bold player can ever expect.”

Unlike Arduin, my campaign featured a mere series of adventures for a single party. To most gamers now, that’s a campaign. But Hargrave, Gygax, and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson ran grand campaigns on a scale I dreamed to achieve. Someday, maybe.

When Arneson and Gygax made the original game, they ran campaigns for player communities who floated in and out of frequent game sessions. The original rules suggested one DM and “from four to fifty players” in a single, fantastical campaign. “The referee to player ratio should be about 1:20.” Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign hosted weekend sessions for up to 20 players, but most parties included fewer players. During the week, Gygax let players drop in for spontaneous sessions. Often, he ran D&D for a single player.

The megadungeons under Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor helped make those campaigns work. Every game session mounted a new expedition into the dungeon, so the particular cast of characters never mattered. See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.

Once character’s left the dungeon, they needed to heal at a rate of just one hit point per day. “The stricture of time is what makes recovery of hit points meaningful.” Recovery aside, characters involved themselves in projects like castle building, magical studies, and training. “All of these demands upon game time will force choices upon player characters, and likewise number their days of game life.” Campaign strategy involved spending your characters’ time.

Much of this resembles modern D&D’s downtime system, but with the time spent matched to days on the campaign calendar. A character could not leave for a month of training, and also join tomorrow’s dungeon crawl. The campaign calendar forced regular players to keep a variety of characters. TSR’s first employee, Tim Kask, explains, “If my currently-favorite Fighting Man was laid up recuperating, but word had just come at the tavern that a new menace was in the offing with a promise of loot, I played my next-best-for-the-situation character.”

Time in these campaigns advanced in step with real-world time, keeping all the campaigners on the same schedule. “The recommend time period for individual adventure campaigns is roughly on a one to four basis, with one real week equal to one Game Month.”

Arneson and Gygax’s players mostly stuck to dungeon and wilderness adventures, but other early games imply a bigger canvas. The scope of what players achieved in Dave Hargrave’s Arduin campaign awed me.

In the ideal grand campaign, a bunch of individuals and groups don’t just play in parallel—their actions affect all the other players. Groups change over time. As parties form and reform, characters share information. Rumors from the local inn tell the news of the day. Some players develop rivalries. For instance, Ernie Gygax and Rob Kuntz raced to be the first to retrieve the Magic User’s Crown from under Castle Greyhawk. Sometimes players unite against common threats.

To describe Arduin, Hargrave seemed to channel Stan Lee. “The Arduinian multiverse has been rocked to its very cosmic core by revolutions, wars, assassinations, royal marriages, and the nearly complete and utter entropic destruction of the entirety of it all in one cataclysmic confrontation between utter evil and everyone/thing else that wanted to survive!”

Actually, Stan Lee may inspire more than just Hargrave’s bombast. Much of the secret sauce that made Marvel comics so successful was that events could ripple between comic book titles. In the corner of panels, little notes from the editor revealed the connections. In the early days, Lee would even coordinate each hero’s schedule between books. By those early standards, if Captain America traveled to Europe, he couldn’t spend the same month with Iron Man in New York.

The title “grand campaign” comes from the first page of Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), a game that aimed to beat D&D by supporting a grand style. Designers Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus wrote that C&S emerged when “a degree of dissatisfaction emerged over the limited goals that were available to our [D&D] characters. The solution was to develop an all encompassing campaign game in which dungeons and wilderness adventures were just a small part of the action.”

In 1978, C&S boasted the “most complete rules ever published.” The game covered everything from mass combat, to tournaments, to courtly love—everything that fit in 128 pages of 6-point text.

In the grand campaigns suggested by C&S and Arduin, every player controlled a cadre of characters, including dungeon crawlers, but perhaps also nobles, traders, courtiers on so on. All gain space to follow their goals, and some will reach them. In response to all their actions, the campaign world changes and develops.

In my post on C&S, I had some fun at the game’s expense. Unlike D&D, where players join in parties to adventure, C&S and the grand campaign offers fewer reasons to gather at a table and play together. This limits the style’s practical appeal.

But the biggest limit to the grand campaign comes from the DM’s time. DMs hosting grand campaigns must run a few group sessions a week, plus 1-on-1 sessions for the exploits of nobles, soldiers, and thieves. Then add time for preparation. Who needs sleep?

I do. I have regular games to play and another post to write. Still, the dream of the grand campaign feels as compelling as ever.

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Rules vs. Immersion, Assistance, Aurania and More From the Comment Section

When I launched, I considered disabling the comments. I worried that the comment section would fill will stupid and insulting responses. I’ve heard that can happen on the Internet. Still, I left comments on, and they proved one of most rewarding parts of writing this blog. My readers made smart and insightful replies. Sometimes commenters who disagreed with my posts swayed my opinions. Often I learned.

I used to join the discussions more than I do now. I used to make time to write a post, warm up by replying to a few comments, and then run short of time. My posting schedule lapsed, and I felt disappointed. Still, I want to reply. So today, I try a solution. The post features replies to some recent reader comments. It won’t lure casual readers from Facebook with a provocative headline, but perhaps loyal readers will enjoy it. I’ve subscribed to magazines where I most enjoyed the letters section and the editor’s replies. I hope to capture some of that.

Tell me, would you like to see future dips into the comments section?

Rob Paul Davis wrote:

I do require a roll for Assists. Succeed, and the player gets a +2 on the roll, fail and it’s a -2.

When new fifth-edition players learn the rules for advantage and disadvantage, they tend to assume that cover imposes disadvantage. The advantage/disadvantage rule’s elegance leads to that assumption, and that reveals the brilliance of the rule. But the designers wanted degrees of cover and wanted cover to stack with advantage and disadvantage, so cover imposes a -2/-5 penalty.

I wonder if a similar approach would improve assistance. After all, experienced players tend to assist frequently, and that makes other advantages disappear. Most situations merit a +2 bonus, while extraordinary aid could gain a +5 bonus.

alphastream wrote:

For assisting, I often find players will test out a DM the first time. With a new table I’ll usually look for them to give me a reason for why they are offering help. If it’s just another set of eyes, I’ll say that in this situation additional persons won’t provide advantage. After that, it’s easier to involve them and not have it become an assumption. And, I think that the more players assume it will usually be just an individual, the more that individuals are getting the spotlight. Otherwise, it can feel like everyone is always jumping on top of the person who proposed doing something and taking away the spotlight. A common example is where someone says, “does this look magical,” and another player yells, “I’ll make an Arcana check.” That’s a prime case where I’ll say to the second person, “Hold on, the first player is already doing that.” Over time, the table learns that they don’t have to jump onto someone else’s idea… they will get their own time to shine later if they stay engaged.

Assisting and especially checks that anyone can attempt all tend to take attention from players who deserve it. We’ve all seen a high roll let a character, say, with an 8 intelligence steal the spotlight from the party’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Players who invest in talents deserve to flaunt them, but when everyone rolls, a lucky result tends to win. I always work to find reasons to limit checks to fewer players. As you suggest, players eventually learn not to jump in.

Something I’ll often do when a second player wants to help is ask them how they are doing so, and then have both players roll. I’ll take the highest die roll, but the primary player is making the check – basically rolling with advantage but the helping player is rolling the second die. It lets more people roll and gives that feeling of helping.

Brilliant! Many times, I’ve seen long-time players rise to assist, start to roll, and then realize that unlike in past editions, assistance requires no roll. The helper visibly deflates. People like to roll. Letting the helper roll the advantage die turns the help into a tangible deed.

Daniel Boggs wrote:

Rules are Boring.

When I run games for my home group or at conventions I try to build an atmosphere of suspense and exploration, and avoid talking numbers and rules except when needed. Usually that means the only time numbers are discussed are in combat, usually the player telling me the result of a roll or a particular stat on their sheet. The advice I try to follow – and I can think of no better guide – is that given by Jaquays in her Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, especially chapter 3, Pacing and Theatrics.

This comment led me to take the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide from my shelf. The book features cover-to-cover DM advice co-authored by Jennell Jaquays. To lure buyers, TSR felt willing to give the guide a misleading title, and still somehow settled on something stuffy and dull. The title never convinced me to read the book. Don’t judge me until you read all your game books. Now, I’ve decided to read the guide ASAP.

As for rules and immersion, see the next comment.

Ilbranteloth wrote:

All too often I find an experienced player joining my campaign “playing to the rules.’ That is, they expect the rules to tell them what they can do, and don’t consider that there are lots of other options. The new players, though, aren’t constrained by that. And most of the time I find that it’s the new players that “teach” the experienced players that I don’t limit you to what the rules say you “can do.”

Some of the joy of playing with newer Dungeons & Dragons players comes from seeing them engage the game world without thinking of rules. All of us old grognards need to foster that approach. Your style encourages immersion and freedom.

Every interview with a D&D personality seems to start with, “How did you start playing?” Almost always, the person tells of being handed a character sheet and dropping in a game with no knowledge of the rules. They can hardly follow the game, but they still have the time of their lives. Part of the D&D’s magic is that you can play it—and love it—without knowing any rules. The dungeon master describes a situation, and you just imagine what your character would do. If a goblin attacks, just say, “I hit him with my axe.” You can immerse yourself in your character without thinking of the rules.

I found lots to like in fourth sedation, but to me, the edition faltered when it required mastery of the rules to play a character. See Immersive vs. Gamey in D&D Next, the score is 1-1.

That said, the game’s numbers help communicate the game world to the players. Knowing the rules lets players understand the likely outcomes of their actions, and that helps players act with confidence.

alphastream wrote:

We can see many players trying to gain advantage (not sneak attack) on every single attack even though they have emerged from hiding to attack. That confusion extends even to many of the game’s designers when you ask them about it!

Correct me if I’m wrong about this: The fifth-edition designers judged that hiding, and then popping up to attack from range qualifies as attacking while hidden. This gains advantage. The attack reveals the rogue, but rogues can drop down and hide again for their next turn. Meanwhile, moving from hiding to make a melee attack reveals the rogue, foiling the advantage of hiding.

How much do the designers love ranged attackers? Attacking from range offers an intrinsic advantage. Plus, the game grants benefits to ranged attackers, and then offers feats that erase any disadvantages. Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert would be strong without erasing cover and penalties for ranged attacks from melee. Don’t get me started.

Daniel Boggs traced the the thief class to it’s origin:

Just as an FYI, Switzer didn’t invent the class. it was actually Daniel Wagner, who played in the same group as Switzer. Wagner is one of the authors of The Manual of Aurania. There’s a pretty in depth discussion on the topic with Mr. Wagner here:

In 1976, a game group attached to Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica gathered new monsters, treasures, races, and classes from their Aurania campaign into a booklet they sold for 3 dollars. The book probably rates as the first unofficial, published supplement for D&D. The manual’s introduction states that “several ideas” from Aurania “were outright stolen and soon appeared in published form.” When Switzer shared Daniel Wagner’s thief idea, Gary Gygax still held to the wargaming culture where everyone in a tiny community shared ideas and no one made more than lunch money. Gary first presented the thief in an amateur zine and there he tried to give credit. Between 1974 and 1976, the estimated value of the thief idea climbed.

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“I Assist” Isn’t an Improved Guidance Cantrip that Anyone Can Cast

In episode 124 of the Down with D&D podcast, hosts Shawn Merwin and Chris Sniezak discussed a scene that reoccurs at my tables too. “In a lot of games that I’ve run, everyone is always assisting every check they possibly can,” Shawn explains. “Someone tries to do something, and someone will just pipe up, ‘I assist.’”

This pattern brings advantage to every check, trivializing the game’s challenges. Because no one needs to engage with the game world to gain an edge, routine assistance discourages ingenuity.

Chris Sniezak offers a potential remedy: “When someone says that they want to help, the first question that the dungeon master should ask is, ‘How do you help?’”

Ask players to describe how they assist, and then grant—or deny—advantage based on whether the assistance could help. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “You decide whether a circumstance influences a roll in one direction or another, and you grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result.” Rather than making “I assist” a real-world incantation that grants advantage, judge assistance as a circumstance that might merit advantage.

Photo by Mykola Swarnyk

If a character tries to climb from a frozen river onto the ice, a hand up will probably help. Encouragement shouted from the shore probably won’t.

Describing the assistance immerses players in the game world and helps the story come alive.

Specific actions to assist might expose a helper to danger. Offering a hand out of that river would mean crawling onto the cracking ice. Often, assistance means coming in range of a potential trap.

Unlike past Dungeons & Dragons rules, fifth edition lets characters assist without a required check. Nonetheless, the actions made to assist might require a check. Suppose a helper chooses not to risk the thin ice and opts to throw a rope instead. Casting a rope to a sinking character’s flailing hands might require a dexterity check.

In an ideal game, players describe their actions and DMs respond by calling for ability checks. This protocol extends to assisting. The player describes how they help, and then the DM grants advantage. Typically, I don’t insist on this order, so I happily ask players how they help. But during role-playing interaction, I stick to the protocol.

After a player acts in character to persuade a non-player character, I don’t let bystanders volunteer to assist the check. Only characters with speaking parts—the characters who contributed to a scene—get to assist. When two or more characters contribute to an interaction, I typically grant advantage without a player request. Sometimes I accept a reminder.

The D&D rules offer two alternatives to assistance.

Group checks come when everyone might need to make at a check. The rule assumes skilled characters assist the rest, so only half the group needs to succeed.

The second alternative is letting everyone make an attempt. After all, helping someone search a room amounts to two separate searches. Rolling two separate lockpicking attempts makes more sense than letting one character assist by encircling the rogue from behind to guide her hand like a creepy golf instructor.

Unless time, skill, or other circumstances limit an attempt to a couple of party members, separate roles usually offer better odds. But consider this: If everyone in the party enjoys time to make a check in safety, why even bother making the check? Do you just want to give everyone a chance to roll?

Sometimes I do that. Everyone likes to roll. I wonder how many players liked the old assistance rules better just because the helper gets to roll?

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The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

Of the 4 iconic classes in Dungeons & Dragons, only 3 appeared in the game’s original rules.

Just a few months after D&D’s initial release, in the May 1974 issue of a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter, Gary Gygax presented the thief class. In his introduction, Gary tells how the class was suggested by Santa Monica gamer Gary Switzer. “He mentioned that his group was developing a new class of character—thieves. Gary [Switzer] gave me a few details of how they were considering this character type, and from these I have constructed tentative rules for the class.” See The Thief Addition (1974) for more. In 1975, Supplement I: Greyhawk made the class official.

Thieves brought abilities that could shine in exploration and treasure collection. Too bad low-level thieves suffered from miserable chances of success. The thief class featured the ability to “remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)” At level 1, the thief boasts a 10% chance! So when your new thief says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” the party should dive for cover. Original thieves enjoy no special ability to detect traps. Keep your hirelings in front.

Near level 10, a thief’s abilities improved enough to finally work reliably. Too bad wizards and clerics could now cast spells like Detect Traps, Invisibility, Levitate, and Fly. Most anything the thief did, a spell did better.

Thieves could “strike silently from behind” for +4 to hit and extra damage, but the game lacked rules for maneuvering to strike, so the stunt relied on a dungeon master’s favor.

The original thief lacked a dexterity bonus to armor class. Thieves suffered from the same 1d4 hit dice as wizards. Sneaking in for a backstab proved riskier for thieves than for their targets. Gary explained, “This class is different from any of the others. Thieves are generally not meant to fight.”

D&D players like characters handy in combat, so the thief should have proven as popular as the Sage, but players found the class so compelling that Thief took a place with the Magic User, Fighter, and Cleric. Even in the 70s, many players shied from running clerics, but someone always brought a thief.

The thief class offered 4 advantages that let it thrive.

1. An early monopoly on skills

The thief boasted the only abilities resembling skills. When thieves gained the ability to climb walls or find traps, fighting men, clerics, and magic users implicitly—or sometimes by rule—lost the ability to try similar feats.

In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. Low-level thieves may have sucked, but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusabable abilities.

2. A compelling archetype

Adventure fiction features many heroes that thieves or rogues. Gary Switzer and Gary Gygax drew inspiration from fantasy icons such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, Fritz Leiber’s The Gray Mouser, and Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever.

We all sometimes feel bound by the restrictions of everyday life. Roguish characters let us escape that feeling and savor some vicarious disdain for society’s rules.

Players loved the Thief class, but many complained that the concept fostered conflict between players because the class title encouraged theft. Players stole from other party members and dragged parties into fights with the town guard. So D&D’s designers backed away from the class’s emphasis on stealing. See Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins. Second edition made the thief a type of Rogue in name and spirit. The new Player’s Handbook touted the rogue’s heroic archetypes. “Many famous folk heroes have been more than a little larcenous—Reynard the Fox, Robin Goodfellow, and Ali Baba are but a few.”

3. A reason for a solo spotlight

Even in the 90s, D&D rule books told players to elect a caller to speak for the party. Outside of Lake Geneva, D&D parties rarely assigned callers, but most tables settle on a leader who dominates attention. Until a fight comes, other players get less time in the spotlight. But rogues could often sneak and scout and play solo while other classes waited for a turn. Players like going rogue.

4. Fast leveling with no demi-human caps

Unlike classes in modern D&D, the original classes advanced at different rates. Thieves required less experience than anyone else, so they often rose a couple of levels above their party.

Few players chose a class based on the experience needed to level, but everyone who considered an elf or dwarf weighed the demi-human level limits. The original D&D rules stopped non-human characters from rising beyond certain levels, making the most powerful characters human. However, non-human thieves suffered no level-limits.

Gary introduced these level limits to explain human domination of D&D’s fantasy world. “A demi-human is unlimited in thief level only,” Gary explained, “as this is a class not destined to control the fate of major groups or states.” Also, the limits created a game that featured as many human characters as the fantasy fiction that D&D emulated.

Transforming the rogue

Third-edition fully renamed the thief class to the rogue. This name change matched a broader concept that embraced sneaky backstabbers and dashing swashbucklers. Rogues gained the ability to choose their skills. They could favor charm or acrobatics over theft. The new skill system finally gave low-level rogues a decent chance of success.

The transformation also made rogues a battlefield threat. When Backstab became Sneak Attack, thieves could easily maneuver for their special attack, and they could repeat it.

The rebirth of the thief as a rogue fits the archetype better than a character not meant to fight. Leiber described the Gray Mouser as one of the best swordsmen in the world. Robin Hood ranks as an expert archer. Gary Gygax said Robin’s climactic sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) influenced on D&D’s combat system.

In fourth edition, every class needed a way to contribute to the game’s two main activities: combat encounters and skill challenges. By design, every character, and so every class, needed to contribute to skill challenges. That ended the old order of rogues who brought useful skills to exploration but nothing to a fight. For challenges, every class needed skills. On the battlefield, rogues needed to kick as much ass as anyone else.

But rogues did more than hold their end. Strikers came to dominate fourth-edition combat. See Which two D&D roles are too effective. When the designers put rogues in the striker category, the characters came to kick more ass than fighters, wizards, and clerics.

Fourth edition completely inverted the thief’s original role. A class that could barely fight now dominated the battlefield. A class that monopolized the closest thing original D&D had to a skill system was now limited to equal turns in skill challenges.

Fifth edition dials back the class’s combat dominance, but the new game leaves the rogue in a good spot. A d8 hit die and a dexterity bonus to armor class makes rogues stouter than the original thief. New class features let rogues excel at skill checks. Sneak attack still deals ample damage. The latest rogue fits the archetype better than Gary’s original ever did. You can even choose a Thief archetype. For my next character, I think I will.

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Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?

Have you heard of dungeon masters who keep character sheets from players and who make all the die rolls? Instead of revealing hit points, these DMs say, “Your character feels badly injured and close to death.”

To improve a TV audience’s immersion and to avoid numbers, the Dungeons & Dragons games on Community adopted this style. The creator of Community, Dan Harmon, brought this style to his HarmonQuest live-play show. For performance, the style makes sense.

Some real DMs also took the style for simulation and immersion. They explained that the characters’ don’t know their numbers, so why should their characters? In theory, hiding the mechanical guts of the game lets players focus on the game world and on immersing themselves in their characters.

In practice, when a DM takes such measures, players see a control freak. Players worry that the DM will fudge numbers to force a plot. But even when players trust their DM’s impartiality, the hidden numbers create discomfort. The game rules serve as the physics of the characters’ world. When the DM hides numbers and mechanics, the players lose some ability to make good choices for their characters. They feel robbed of control.

Also, everyone likes to roll their own dice.

Aside from performing D&D for an audience, most stories of DMs hiding the game’s numbers date from role playing’s early days. Then, gamers experimented with styles of play that no longer seem appealing. In White Dwarf issue 75 from 1986, an article titled “Gamemanship” recommended preventing players from reading the game rules. “Players who haven’t read the rules will be unable to spring anything ‘new’ on you.” The author, Martin Hytch, aims for better role playing, but he seems like a control freak.

Nowadays, tales of DMs who hide the game’s numbers from players seem like legend. Any DMs committed to the style probably wonder why no one wants to join their game.

But every DM weighs how many game numbers to share with players. My research turned up contemporary game masters willing to hide a character’s hit points from their players.

Martin Hytch would approve. “Telling a fighter he has lost eleven hit points can have a totally different effect if the DM says, ‘The beast strikes you in the face, breaking your nose.’” I suspect few players share Martin’s devotion to immersion.

A mere description of damage leaves players confused about their characters’ conditions. The broken-nose example falls particularly short. In the DM’s estimation, does the injury leave a character halfway to death, or just a little battered? The DM knows. In the game world, the fighter knows. Only the player feels baffled.

The characters see, hear, smell, and touch the game world. They sense more of their world than even the most vivid description shows the players. The characters bring years of training and experience. They know nothing of hit points, but hit point numbers provide a measure to bridge the information gap between a character living the battle and the player at the table.

DMs rarely hide hit-point and damage numbers from players, but most DMs conceal difficulty classes. Until recently, I kept DCs to myself, but now I typically share them.

As with hit points, the difficulty class number helps span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and a player learning from a DM’s description. When a rogue decides whether to climb a wall, she can see the bricks, mortar, and slick condensation. She can compare to walls she has climbed. At the kitchen table, a DC just sums a character’s experience.

Some folks object to sharing DC numbers because they feel numbers hinder immersion. But hiding the DC leaves plenty of immersion-foiling game in the check. The player still looks up numbers on the character sheet. They still roll a dice and add the result to a number on their character sheet. What’s another number?

In games like Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and GURPS, players make checks by rolling under a skill number. These games put a chance of success on the character sheet and make hiding difficulties cumbersome. These games still thrive. Even though players almost always know their chance of success, no one accuses Call of Cthulhu of undermining immersion.

Characters might have more trouble telling the odds of making a saving throw than the difficulty of a jump or climb, but the benefits of revealing save DCs encourage me to reveal them too.

Especially with a high-stakes save, revealing a DC heightens the drama of a die roll. When a character’s fate rests on a roll, when a roll seizes the table’s attention, a player can figure the number they need before throwing the die. A known DC tells players that the DM can’t fudge the line between success and failure. Then the moment the die lands, everyone knows the outcome without asking the DM for an interpretation. By revealing a DC, the DM sides with the players. No one sees where the next roll will take the game. Only the dice decide.

As a DM, revealing a DC frees me from any urge to nudge the narrative by moving a hidden target to land a success or failure. My transparency shows players that their characters’ fate rests on their choices and the luck of the die rather than on a DM’s whims.

Revealing DCs also speeds those situations where several players need to make a roll. Instead of forcing each player to report their role to learn an outcome, just announce DC and let them figure the result.

None of this applies when the characters can’t know the difficulty of a task. Don’t reveal DCs for checks…

  • made to gain information using skills like Insight and Perception.
  • involving a non-player character’s state of mind, such as with Persuasion and Deception.
  • where characters know too little to estimate a difficulty.

The rest of the time, try sharing DCs. I think it makes my game better.

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How Running Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan Reversed My Opinion of It

Three years and a day ago, I asked if C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan was overrated. While I enjoyed the dungeon’s flavor, I felt the adventure owed its classic reputation more to nostalgia than to quality.

But when I passed that judgement, I had never run the adventure. Recently, the Shrine’s conversion in Tales from the Yawning Portal convinced me to run it. I half expected a slog through a flooded museum filled with gotcha traps. Playing the adventure proved me wrong.

In this post, I revisit my old review and explain what playing the Shrine revealed.

The 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 the years to follow,
Wizards of the Coast released versions of the shine for 4th and 5th editions—more evidence that the adventure ranked as a classic.

Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

As 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. Players who probed the Shrine as a traditional dungeon crawl tended to brand the adventure as a slog. Folks who played with  red-shirted, pregenerated characters and a brisk pace enforced by the poison gas tended to enjoy the adventure. So for the best game, you play the Shrine as designed, as a race against time to escape a death trap.

Some reviewers of the Shrine paint the dungeon as an deathtrap. That fit its origin as a tournament adventure intended to grind up characters and reveal a winner. In competition, parties consisted of just 3 characters, so the dungeon must have proved unforgiving. But at my table, the adventure posed a fair challenge to a group of 5, fifth-level characters. Nobody died. One character will sleep for the next 5000 years unless the party pays to lift his curse.

I started the adventure with characters trapped at the lowest level, racing to escape the poisonous red fog. The device worked brilliantly. The players felt  urgency and peril, but they could afford short rests, so they never saw their resources exhausted. 

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.
Dora jokes aside, the creatures seemed exotic rather than silly. At a table filled with longtime players and kids who read the Monster Manual for kicks, the unique creatures created a dash of wonder. The players enjoyed the challenge of deducing each monster’s abilities and temperament.

As a dungeon master, I wished that the text explained more of some creatures’ motives. The adventure seemed to default to the outdated assumption that everything in a dungeon attacks on sight.

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 adventure’s challenges require much ingenuity to surmount, threatening to turn the shrine into a tiresome struggle of attrition.
I fretted that the Shine might turn into a tiresome slog, but play proved me wrong. The adventure’s text lavishes description on every room, including the mud and slime. Perhaps the chore of digesting all the verbiage fooled me into thinking that playing the adventure would also prove tiresome. 

Not every test of ingenuity requires a grand set-piece along the lines of a living chess room or frictionless hall. The Shrine mixes some grand tests with more mundane barriers. My players devised surprising and inventive solutions for obstacles big and small, and I loved watching their plans unfold.

Some reviewers joke that the secret to escaping the Shrine is don’t touch anything. Sure, if you don’t like treasure. Every corner of the Shrine includes includes items that inspire curiosity and lure characters into touching. The dungeon packs so many interesting features that my players’ exploration took more sessions than I expected. 

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.
The pictures still enrich the adventure. I wish the adventure had included illustrations for areas 42 and 45. I wish I had noticed that the original adventure included maps for areas 42 and 45. They would have helped me.
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 earns its place as classic. Run it as a race to escape and enjoy the Shrine’s wealth of flavor and detail. Savor the Shrine’s ingenuity and the ideas it draws from your players.

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Making the Best of the 5-Minute Adventuring Day

In dungeon crawls, Dungeons & Dragons character classes offer an elegant balance. Spells can dominate one fight, but casters need to save spells for the rest of day. Martial characters lack the peak firepower of spells, but they make a steady threat in every fight.

Wilderness adventures differ from dungeon crawls in a key way: Adventurers travel at their own pace and can often rest after an encounter. For example, the sandbox portion of Storm King’s Thunder lets characters roam freely, exploring without urgency. At my table, Fireballs and Hypnotic Patterns ended most encounters before martial characters even reached their foes. Nobody needed the cleric. After winning a fight, characters would rest and recuperate. Even the hardest encounters from the book proved easy for a fully rested party.

Whenever possible, the characters worked a 5-minute adventuring day.

Narrative adventures typically follow players as they take a hook, encounter obstacles, defeat the villain, and claim the treasure. Often, narrative adventures move at the same easy pace as wilderness expeditions. In Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract, I explained how adventures work better with time pressure. In a D&D game without time pressure, all the risk and adventure disappears.

Many, perhaps most, narrative adventures lack time pressure. When players expect fewer fights in a day, spellcasters show more power. Over the years when D&D shifted from dungeon crawls to narrative adventures, characters gained more chances to rest and wizards seemed to gain power—and mid- to high-level wizards hardly needed a boost.

Adventures with the grand scope of the fifth-edition hardcovers add time pressure from threats that build over weeks or months. But pressure on such scales leaves plenty of time for 5-minute adventuring days—especially when spells like Leomund’s Tiny Hut let groups rest in safety.

When characters spends days roaming the wilderness, a few techniques prevent the game from turning too easy.

  • Increase the difficulty of a typical encounter. Sometimes I let spellcasters shine, by say, clearing the field of easy-burning blights or hypnotizing a few giants at once. Other times I contrive encounters that limit spellcasters. Spread out foes and let them attack from multiple directions. Make attacks in waves. Let the first battle attract a second group of monsters hoping for weakened prey. Spellcasters tend to use their best spells early, so when a second batch of monsters comes, rogues and fighters gain a chance for heroics. Plus that second wave lets me adjust difficulty on the fly.
  • Add side treks that feature multiple encounters. In Storm King’s Thunder, I devised side-trek style mini-adventures that forced players to brave a series of encounters to succeed. These sequences injected some urgency into an adventuring day. This blog presented two of my side treks: To Steal a Primordial and The Giant Ship.
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Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons, adventurers selected a difficulty level by deciding how deep they dared to go. As the game matured, DMs started to design or select adventures for a party’s level. Players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level.

Of course the game always allowed a style of play that offered no such guarantees.

Gary Gygax liked monster populations that fit a habitat for a logical reason. In early D&D, the wilderness monster tables did nothing to match monsters to character levels. Skeletons appear as often as vampires. This approach made outdoor adventures particularly risky. The original rules cite the high-level task of scouting for castle sites as the best reason for wilderness expeditions.

Realistically, creatures and adventure locations in the wild would not come sorted by difficulty. At best, characters might learn about a site’s hazards by reputation.

Tomb of Annihilation follows such a natural order. “By design, the adventure locations are not tailored to characters of a specific level. If the adventuring party is relatively weak, it’s up to the players to choose whether to flee instead of fight, negotiate instead of attack, or surrender instead of die.”

This is old-school player agency at its best. Players make the choices and then bear the repercussions of those choices.

The fifth-edition hardcover adventures often let characters roam. The random encounter tables serve deadly and weak threats. Each location aims to challenge a particular level of character, but the adventures rarely steer characters to a suitable challenge. For instance, a table in Curse of Strahd lists locations and their difficulty levels. But if a party happens to find sites that match their level, then their DM nudged them along.

And DMs running Curse of Strahd and its kin probably did some nudging.

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Even an adventure like Tomb of Annihilation has a story to tell and heroes to protect. “It’s up to you as the DM to be flexible and keep the story moving forward as best you can. If an encounter is going badly for the adventurers, you can have the monsters suddenly withdraw, demand the party’s surrender, or deal nonlethal damage.

“In short, there is always a way to turn the party’s misfortune into a fighting chance of survival.”

Turning a total party kill into a complication can save a campaign while adding spice. If characters make a narrow escape, they earn a tale to tell. When they level up and return for a rematch, they relish their new power. A capture takes the story interesting places. When you try to take characters captive, players notice you steering the game to force an outcome. But if players ignore the warning signs, press a fight even after they should retreat, and still get captured, they know they had it coming. Still, sparing characters with a “lucky” intervention works best as a rare twist.

When threats don’t always match the party’s power, D&D can become more exciting. But we value balanced encounters for a reason. They mix a fun challenge and a strong chance of success.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire locations that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level location, they can only fight to escape. If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout.

Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored, and I’m not alone. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge.

When characters lack challenges to face, time should pass in summary. So if high-level characters gearing up to storm the gates of hell meet some bandits on the streets of Hillsfar, skip the dice. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

Despite a preference for challenging locations, an open world can still feature sites in a mix of threats, from the Caves of Chaos to the Tomb of Horrors. Deadly locations promise future adventure and make players look ahead with eager anticipation. But rumors and clues must help players measure the dangers ahead. If a bunch of new adventurers start poking around a skull-topped hill, they’re in for a nasty surprise. Princes of the Apocalypse skipped such signals and shocked a lot of players. They could easily descend from a challenging dungeon level to an overwhelming one.

Leading characters to the right mix of challenges presents a tough problem for designers of hardcover adventures. But most DMs just dream up their own content for their next game, and they probably do encounters right already. If that’s you, then you make most encounters fit the characters at your table, at least broadly. And even if you aim for just the right challenge, you create some uneven matches. Fourth edition made devising balanced encounters easy, but 5E delivers less consistent results. Even when encounters come tailored for a particular character level, some will become romps, and a few might prove unexpectedly hard.

Most fifth edition DMs tend use guesswork to create encounters—the building guidelines hardly improve on it. And that guesswork serves up a pretty good mix of difficulties.

When I design encounters, I mix some guesswork with quick, encounter-building guidelines. Sometimes, I create intentionally deadly foes because they can enrich the game. They force players to use diplomacy, or guile, or stealth. In fourth edition, when I planted a deadly foe, I chose something obviously overwhelming to overcome the expectation that every foe must be beatable. Such metagaming still leads players to underestimate threats, but I will relay what their characters know from living in the game world. “You believe this fight may kill you.”

I avoid intentionally designing easy encounters, because aiming for balance still yields plenty of easy fights.

D&D head Mike Mearls aims for flavor. “I copy down a few stat blocks and make notes on what makes an area interesting. I don’t use the encounter building rules. Fights are as tough as is appropriate to the location and situation.” I’ll bet Mike’s encounters still broadly suit the characters, if only because new adventurers probably spend more time in Hillsfar than storming the gates of hell.

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The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat

In the sprawling dungeons of the 70s, Dungeons & Dragons players enjoyed an agency they rarely see now. They could choose their difficulty level. Plus, the game world offered a logical reason for that freedom. By fourth edition, players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level, and they learned to ignore the impossible luck of it.

Through the years, D&D’s approach to pitting characters against monsters changed. Each change brought benefits, problems, and something to learn.

In the early D&D game, dungeon explorers chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level underground 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—by delving deeper.

This system gives players a choice that rarely get now, and it added a element of strategy. To lure characters to danger, the game doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. Because most experience came from gold, players needed to delve as far down as they dared to rise in level. For more, see When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons and Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.

The concept of the mythic underworld provides a game-world explanation for greater threats appearing at deeper levels.

For campaigns seeking maximum player agency, such designs still work, even outside a dungeon. For example, in 2009, the online Dungeon magazine launched a series of 31 adventures set in the Chaos Scar. The editors called the series a “sandbox setting” in the spirit of Keep on the Borderlands.

The series started with a compelling concept: Long ago, a meteor carrying some malignant force carved the long, wide valley called the Chaos Scar. “Over the centuries, creatures of evil spirit have been drawn to this beacon. The meteor’s dark sentience spurred competition among them so that they fought with one another. The weak were killed or pushed to the edges of the meteor’s influence, while the strong and cruel rose to the top of the pecking order.” The ingenious background explains why the Scar’s dangers increase closer to its center.

“This is a campaign designed from ground zero to be about player choice,” editor Chris Youngs wrote. “The players have the opportunity in this campaign, unlike many others, to really choose their fate. Do they go into a tough cave or an easier one?” The Chaos Scar let characters roam until 11th level.

For the megadungeon under Castle Greyhawk, Gary Gygax relied on terse notes and improvisation to capture a constantly changing underworld. The dungeon defied capture in print. So when he learned that dungeons would sell, he published the adventures he designed for tournaments. These smaller dungeons lacked space to cover a span of difficulty levels. Instead, the adventures aimed to challenge a roster of pregenerated characters. In print, they recommended a party level and size. DMs started selecting or constructing adventures to suit their players’ characters.

This led a trend where players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level. Lucky! Although this happenstance defies a game world explanation, we’ve learned to accept the artifice. Balanced encounters combine a fun challenge with a strong chance of success. As players turned from dungeons to missions launched by hooks and patrons, matching threats to the characters’ power became key.

Even in adventures aimed at a certain party level, Gary and other DMs included harder and easier encounters, but the practice became less common. By third edition, most players became used to always facing threats tailored to their characters. The Dungeon Master’s Guide advised DMs aiming for a natural mix of threats to warn players in advance.

Fourth edition perfected encounter balance. The edition had to because fights took significant preparation and hours at the table. No DM wanted to squander so much time playing out a romp. Players learned to expect balance. The instigators who rush around the dungeon, opening doors and attacking with slight provocation, thrived because encounter balance protected them from the natural consequences of their recklessness.

But some players missed a natural imbalance, and not just players who valued cautious or thoughtful play. Some players missed the highs and lows and surprises that D&D once provided.

Next: Fifth edition, wilderness adventures, and the 5-minute adventuring day

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