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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Improved fifth-edition dungeon master screen and initiative tents

When the first set of fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons basic rules arrived, I created dungeon master screen inserts. I put these pages in my mini screen from Hammerdog Games. Others have attached them to screens of their own creation. As I have used my screen, I noticed that I never reference some panels, and that some questions still often lead me to the books. Based on experience, I revised my screen inserts.

Download the updated dungeon master screen inserts.

The new PDF includes all the pages in the old set, but adds some new pages, and tweaks the old pages. Choose which pages to use.

Mini dungeon master's screen on table

I never looked at my screen’s list of skills and tool proficiencies, so I replaced this panel. Instead, I added an insert for encounter building. When I improvise an encounter, I typically reference the Experience Thresholds by Character Level table. This table helps me avoid creating an easier or harder fight than I want. Also, the table offers a handy guide for awarding experience for non-combat encounters.

My screen will also lose the insert for movement types. I don’t need a whole page to tell me that slower forms of movement cost an extra foot for each foot moved.

I still wanted the table of typical difficulty classes and the jump distances, so I copied those items to a new panel. This replacement adds the effects of cover and the DCs for tracking and concentration checks.

Everyone knows you can use an action to cast or attack, right? In place of these obvious entries, the table of Actions in Combat adds rules for grappling and shoving .

Finally, my existing screen had no rules facing the players, only pictures. I yanked one of the pictures and added the table that shows experience points needed to level. I hope players stop asking me how many points they need to level up.

Initiative tents

Initiative tents

I also updated my initiative tents for fifth edition. The player tent loses the insight score and adds a place for armor class. The monster tent replaces the various defenses with the three most common saving throws. On the player-facing side, I added a big box for armor class. Sometimes, I speed combat by marking the AC where everyone can see. You can set these tents on the table or hang them atop your DM screen. For more on using the tents, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Download the initiative tents.

Posted in D&D fifth edition, Dungeon master's tools | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Dungeon master’s tools and miniatures update

In this post, I offer additions to my dungeon master’s tools, notes on miniatures, and some tavern decor.

Gaming Paper

In October 2013, when I presented my photo guide to dungeon master’s tools, I still ran fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, which meant the combat encounters typically featured poster maps or dungeon tiles. Fifth edition’s quicker, more numerous fights mean I’m sketching most encounters on a grid. In addition to using dry- and wet-erase battle maps, I sometimes draw dungeons on Gaming Paper. This paper resembles gift wrap, except rather than balloons or Santas, it features a 1-inch square or hex pattern. Unlike erasable maps, the paper offers permanency, so you can store and pack the maps without rubbing marks away. Plus, you can draw a bunch of maps before a game without running out of flip-mat.

Drawing a dungeon as it's explored on gaming paper

Gaming paper can reveal a dungeon as it’s explored

Giants, size, and miniatures

Fifth edition changed giants from large size, as in third and fourth, to huge size. I approve. Giants needed a boost over ogres and trolls. The stone and frost giant miniatures in the Tyranny of Dragons compare in size to earlier huge figures, such as the titans in the old D&D miniature line. Despite the growth, the new giants continue to use large-size bases, probably so the figures fit in the retail box. The 5E designers seem to fear that the size change will enrage collectors of giant figures on undersized bases, so the Dungeon Master’s Guide states, “If the miniature you use for a monster takes up an amount of space different from what’s on the table, that’s fine, but treat the monster as it’s official size for all other rules.”

Large storm giant and huge frost giant, both on large, 2" by 2"  bases

Large storm giant and huge frost giant, both on large, 2″ by 2″ bases

Do not accept this compromise. For fifth edition, set giant figures on huge-size, 3-inch bases so these monsters take the proper amount of space on the battle map. I’ve used the large-to-huge expansion rings that came in the old Monster Vault, but this only saves me the five minutes needed to cut 3-inch disks from cardboard.

Attack wing flying miniatures

Every time a new line of randomly packaged miniatures reaches stores, gamers protest the random assortments. Many people insist on buying exactly the figures they need and believe that the blind packages prevent them from getting what they want. But they can avoid the random packs by getting figures as singles from internet resellers. If you want common figures rather than the splashy rares, then singles come cheaper. When a new set arrives, I typically buy some boxes to start a collection, then buy singles to fill gaps and to get groups of useful figures.

The D&D Attack Wing Starter Set includes 3 dragons

The D&D Attack Wing Starter Set includes 3 dragons

For Tyranny of Dragons, I wound up short some of the flying dragon figures. The dragons look great, but I balked at their steep prices as singles. So the Attack Wing Miniatures Game Starter Set seemed like an ideal purchase. The box packs 3 dragon figures like the ones from the Tyranny of Dragons miniature set. These would cost much more as singles. Plus the box includes the game.

Attack Wing Red and Tyranny of Dragons dragon

Attack Wing red dragon on its short post compared to Tyranny of Dragons green dragon

The drawback: The Attack Wing versions only fit atop shorter posts intended to work with the game’s bases—bases too big for D&D’s one-inch grid. The good news: The short posts fit the Tyranny of Dragons bases. Your players will only notice how cool the Attack Wing dragons look, not that they fly an inch closer to the table.

Update: The Attack Wing posts fit together to create extensions. You can use the extensions to show a creature’s altitude. This makes the Attack Wing figures more versatile than the ordinary miniatures.

Spell Cards

When I first saw pictures of Game Force Nine’s fifth-edition Spellbook Cards, the cards seemed like a strained effort to find something to sell for the new edition. After all, friendly neighborhood game stores everywhere still have fourth-edition power cards gathering dust, marked 50% to 75% off.

D&D Spellbook Cards - Arcane

D&D Spellbook Cards – Arcane

My assessment changed. I plan order the Spellbook Cards at my FLGS. My new outlook stems from my post on not hoarding spells, the new players at my D&D Encounters table, and my wish to avoid total party kills. Battles keep turning against players, while their spellcasters choose cantrips over the spells that could win victory.

In fourth edition, complete power descriptions appeared every character sheet, so players never failed to use their dailies and encounter powers. Now the spell descriptions stay locked in the Player’s Handbook. Players skip their unfamiliar spells and spam Firebolt.

I plan to hand new spellcasters a few spell cards that can help them tap their character’s potential. I hope to avoid dead characters and reduce the need to coach from behind the DM screen.

The cards may help me too. I will pull spell cards for enemy casters and clip them to my DM screen. No more pausing the action so I can search for a spell description.

Dungeon Decor

I collect miniature figures for unarmed non-player character, from royalty to beggars. Setting them on the map helps set the scene in a tavern, street, or throne room, plus the figures discourage players who tend to think every NPC with a miniature represents an enemy to fight. In addition to miniatures for non-combatants, I’m enchanted by miniature-scale props that sit on a battle map and make the game more vivid.

Tavern Dugeon Decor

Tavern Dungeon Decor

The Kickstarter for the Dungeon Decor Tavern set suits me perfectly. I added on to my pledge for extra tables and chairs. Players often move their characters over tables and chairs printed on a map as if they present no more obstacle than a rug. Your armored dwarf is not so light on his feet. If my next bar brawl includes 3-D tables and chairs, I’m certain the players will treat them as terrain rather than as a colorful pattern.

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Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord

In my last look back at Judges Guild’s 1977 City State of the Invincible Overlord, I avoided mentioning the product’s oddest quirk: Every non-player character has an adventuring class and almost anyone worthy of a name has 4 or more levels, mid-level for the era. Did everyone in the city begin as an adventurer, and only later settle down to become a candlestick maker?

In some cases, yes.

In some cases, yes.

All the fighting men and magic users seem weird now, but in 1977, they revealed potential answers to two questions no one asks anymore.

In the 70s, a player at my table asked, “Since townsfolk should be weak, what stops us from looting the town rather than the dungeon? They could never hit our magic armor. A bunch of shopkeepers and even the town’s militia would rout against a few fireballs?”

As a dungeon master the time, I would not dream of limiting a characters freedom by telling them they could not do something. The game allowed characters to attempt anything. By the ethos of the day, any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. (For more, see “Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.”)

So I wondered what I would do if the players upended the game by targeting the townsfolk. The player characters’ combat abilities overwhelmed the 0-level citizens and their 1d4 hit points—a single blow from a house cat would slay many of them. I could launch human wave attacks on the players, but I had no stomach for such imaginary slaughter, and the PCs would still win. I would need to summon high-level do-gooders from afar to pit against the players, now in the role of super villains. The game would degenerate into a total-party kill or a succession of escalating face offs.

Thankfully, my players honored the game’s social contract and stuck to the dungeon. Still, the question and my lack of an answer unnerved me.

As D&D adventures expanded beyond the dungeon, DMs everywhere faced the problem of how to counter players who saw towns as easier targets than dungeons.

In his Alexandrian blog, Justin Alexander observed that Gary Gygax seems to have designed early village settings in B2 Keep on the Borderlands and T1 The Village of Hommlet to punish players who target citizens. “The underlying assumption here (and in a lot of early city modules) seems to be that some significant percentage of PCs are going to be murder hobos: B2 deals with that by specifying centralized legal repercussions. T1 assumes that the PCs will succeed in looting a house or two (and therefore specifies the loot), but also lays out a comprehensive social network that’s going to come looking for their blood.”

The City State of the Invincible Overlord reached players in 1977, years before T1 or B2. Authors Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen faced more potential for murderous looting than Gary. Most players who sit to play an adventure will follow the plot threads, but the City State offers a sandbox, which gives players free reign. Why bother leaving town for gold and the experience points that it brings?

While the city doesn’t encourage adventurers going from store to store, murdering the proprietors for their cashboxes, it allows for it. Every location includes an account of coins and other treasure, usually hidden, often trapped. The treasure stashes in town match the loot available from the dungeon.

So what stops players from treating the city as a sprawling gold and experience farm?

First, the City State features an even more robust legal system than the Keep on the Borderlands. The initial guidelines devote with two pages to crime, trial, and punishment. With enough bribes, a murderer might escape execution, but the price in treasure offsets any gains. Even an ordinary foot patrol consists of 2-24 level-3 guards and the Overlord can call knights and wizards to challenge greater dangers.

orcus in box

In case of loan default, open box.

Second, some citizens posed greater threats than they appeared. As I mentioned in my last post, any shopkeeper could be a polymorphed Ogre Mage or Dragon. Worse, a loan shark might have a way to counter thieves and scofflaws with Orcus the Demon Prince.

I think I’ll try Lending Tree.Last, the NPCs create a balance of power. In the City State, every inhabitant gets combat stats, and the local baker could be a badass—actually he probably is. For example, the silver smith is a level-6 fighter aided by the (fighter 4) tinsmith next door. Even the lowly (fighter 5) tanner pays a troll to guard the cashbox.

Although the City State’s population seems dangerous, in the Judges Guild world, it ranks as a lower-level city. Its follow up, City State of the World Emperor, warns that its NPCs tend to be a level or two higher.

In games today, player characters have reasons to behave that do not stem from the threat of a weaver kicking their ass. Most campaigns require players to adopt non-evil alignments. The D&D Adventurers League typically requires non-evil characters. The campaign allows PCs in the Zhentarim faction to be lawful evil, but warns, “Just because a player has a character with a darker side doesn’t mean that player has a license to make the game less fun for others at the table.” More, D&D’s social contract has shifted away from allowing players free reign as long as they act in character. Today’s players respect their DM’s preparation by following the threads of the adventure, and avoid actions that ruin other players’ fun. For example, the Adventures League guide says, “If a DM or another player feels as though a player is creating an uncomfortable situation through the excuse of ‘it’s what my character would do,’ the DM is free to give the offending player a warning for disruptive behavior.” I will flatter myself by imagining the authors cribbed my post, “A role-playing game player’s obligation.”

All those fighters and mages in the City State reveal a possible answer to another question no one asks anymore. “In a D&D world, what character class do ordinary people belong to?”

In the era of the City State’s 1976 development, D&D products had only showed characters in a dungeon or on a battlefield, so everyone fit the game’s character classes. This led players to ask what classes unseen townsfolk fit in. People toyed with a few possibilities:

Stuck at level 0. Even with experience, ordinary folk never rise to distinguish themselves. Gary Gygax adopted this approach for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and it carries to fifth edition. D&D casts player characters as special—extraordinary individuals capable of gaining levels and rivaling heroes of legend.

Advantage: Players feel heroic and powerful. Because few rival their potential, they take center stage in the game world.

Disadvantage: Power corrupts. Players feel tempted to behave without a realistic sense of the consequences their actions.

A level-20 tailor creates the world’s finest trousers. Everyone has a class that advances as their skills improve. These non-adventuring classes gain experience differently than adventurers. Dave Arneson experimented with this approach when he created the Sage class, adulterated in the Blackmoor supplement. Such specialized classes peaked with third edition’s Expert and other NPC classes.

Advantage: Both NPCs and PCs in the game world operate according to the same rules, creating a mechanical consistency. I’m a level-3 blogger and a level-2 dungeon master. If I collected g.p. for this, perhaps I would gain XP faster.

Disadvantage: Character classes weigh NPCs with rules, calculations, and bookkeeping that rarely makes the game more fun.

Curiosity: In third edition, a high-level, expert tailor gained hit points and became harder to kill, suggesting that some hit points come from plot armor.

If you only have Fighting Men, everyone looks like a fighting man. Ordinary folk take the same few classes as shown in the game’s little brown books. The authors of the City State adopted this approach.

Advantage: Everyone poses a potential challenge to PCs, forcing them to behave with a realistic caution. This prudence reflects the reality that even the most dangerous warrior can be overwhelmed by a mob or slain by an arrow in the back.

Disadvantage: Making everyone a match for PCs seems implausible. If player characters must complete long and dangerous adventures to become mid-level fighters and magic users, then how did everyone in town gain similar levels? A city full of such dangerous dyers and wheelwrights defies the game’s logic.

Also, powerful NPCs can diminish the role of the player characters. If everyone has power comparable to the player characters, then what makes the PCs the heroes of the game world? The potter and the carter can just grab a few buddies and slay the dragon themselves.

Some of the joy of role playing comes from the chance to feel powerful, to seize the spotlight. People play D&D to act without the compromise and frustration of the real world. Making everyone an adventurer makes the PCs common.

In the era of the City State, players could feel common without diminishing play. PCs did not need to be central to the game’s story, because any story was purely accidental. Players chased gold and the experience it brought, end of story. Then, powerful NPCs either served as bystanders or obstacles.

As D&D became less about chasing treasure and more about thwarting evil, NPCs changed from potential sources of loot into folk to protect from the closing darkness.

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