Do Dungeons & Dragons Players Hate Linear Adventures? Not When DMs Avoid Two Pitfalls

A linear adventure is written, or at least planned, so every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. In Dungeons & Dragons, linear dungeons set the pattern, with walls and doors that channel players along a single route. Without walls, a linear adventure only ever shows players one course of actions to a successful end.

At best, critics accuse linear adventures of robbing players of choices between scenes. At worst, critics say linear adventures require dungeon masters to abuse their power to shunt players along a railroad. Instead of steering the adventure, players follow a fixed story.

Despite the criticism, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as DMs think. We tend to judge harshly because we see the lack of options. But in a successful adventure, players never see the walls.

When the walls become plain, players may complain about a lack of freedom. Linear dungeons, with their obvious walls, always risk criticism. Adventures without walls can also flaunt a lack of options. Imagine an adventure where players follow a patron’s plan or a commander’s orders from scene to scene. Unless catastrophe upsets the plan—or assassins reach the commander—the adventure would feel scripted and less satisfying.

Linear adventures work best when success in each scene brings the clues that lead to the next scene. Then, for all the players know, a different choice in the scene or unseen clue could have spun events in a different direction. To players, each success leads to the clues needed to set a new objective. Players favor one choice over an overwhelming number of choices, and certainly over feeling stuck without a direction.

Make no mistake, players still like to face a few, clear choices. Linear adventures grow better when they include decision points that pose options. (Of course, such adventures no longer qualify as linear.)

For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to developing content that reaches play. No DM with an ingenious dungeon room wants players to miss it.

The limits of a convention time slot makes linear adventures particularly common in programs like the D&D Adventurers League. Linear adventures can consistently fit in a convention time slot. Players in organized play tend to forgive the limits imposed by a 4-hour session, but some do complain when adventures reveal a lack of choices.

But organized-play adventures with more options draw complaints too.

Adventurers League administrator Claire Hoffman explains that when adventures offer more choices, some DMs gripe about prepping content that may not reach play.

Most DMs understand the value of extra prep, but some players fuss too. Those who enjoy the accomplishment of clearing a dungeon or of completing every quest feel frustrated when an adventure teases them with more options than they can explore. The Howling Void by Teos Abadia sets a brilliant example of a 4-hour adventure with a wealth of options. In an elemental node, Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players must choose which to visit. Teos explains that some players left the adventure disappointed because they could not explore every location. The adventure proved so fun that players wanted it all. Still, adventures shouldn’t cater to completists. Better to leave players wanting more.

Linear adventures may fall short of an ideal, but if they avoid flaunting their limits, players seldom mind. One exception bothers players. When the only choice suggests a style of game that players dislike, they will resist.

During these rebellions, the players telegraph what the want to do in the game. In a podcast, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea explained, “If the king is speaking, and the barbarian charges him, maybe you ought to start the players in the dungeon.” Clearly players crave a fight. “I’ve seen it the other way too, where in my DM-head I’m thinking, now they’re going to fight 12 orcs, and the players are doing everything they can to negotiate with the orcs. ‘Just fight the orcs!’ But the players are telegraphing their desire to have an interaction.”

If your players dislike intrigue, and the next clue in a linear adventure suggests they infiltrate a masquerade, that’s when they rebel.

You can avoid such problems by setting up situations tailored to the style your players favor. If you know your players, such tailoring probably becomes natural. If not, then an ideal episode lets players choose styles. Let players enter the castle by infiltrating the masquerade, sneaking over the walls, or battling through a secret entrance into the dungeons below.

Players don’t hate linear adventures; players hate being driven into a style of game they dislike. Players who read gaming blogs may resist by accusing your adventure of railroading, but the rest will start a fight at the masquerade.

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The Fun Thing D&D Players Love that No One Mentions and that the Game Almost Lost

Game mastering advice tends to lavish attention on what players enjoy. Things like playing a role, enjoying a sense of power, plotting strategies, and so on.

Another pleasure of role-playing games ranks just as high, even though the folks who offer game mastering advice rarely mention it.

Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world. Humans love finding order in a jumble. The impulse drives scientists, detectives, and conspiracy theorists.

In Dungeons & Dragons, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions—call them traps and toys.

The joy of figuring things out led to a type of adventure that didn’t exist during the first years of role playing. Investigation adventures now rank as one of the most popular styles. Much of the fun of an investigation or mystery comes from connecting the dots between clues. The challenges come along the way.

For example, players investigating missing magical reagents might start with the guild alchemist. He stole the reagents to help a secret lover out of a jam. Under pressure, the alchemist explains that his lover hasn’t been seen since getting the reagents, but that the couple used to meet at an particular inn. This leads to the innkeeper, who saw someone with the lover’s description meeting with someone wearing a flower that only grows at the royal arboretum. One clue leads to the next. Investigations ask player to make connections and figure things out.

Before investigations, player still found pleasure in figuring things out. Tomb of Horrors is packed with things to figure out. Taunting clues, secret doors, false endings, and so on. This abundance leads to some of the Tomb’s lasting appeal. But the tomb also set a terrible example.

In the Tomb, players figure things out to advance or to survive. Too often, D&D adventures have forced players to figure out puzzles to continue. For example, countless adventures include a magic portal that requires just the right activation to open. If players fail to figure out the key, they reach a dead end. Or in the case of the Tomb, they’re dead, the end. About everything in the Tomb works that way.

This sort of design gave puzzles—D&D’s original thing to figure out—a bad rap. No one likes to feel stuck or frustrated or stupid.

To avoid such bad feelings, fourth edition’s designers emphasized character skill over player skill. They aimed for a D&D game where no player felt forced to figure anything out. Accidentally, they nearly lost a source of fun.

Nonetheless, adventures that force players to solve a puzzle risk a bad D&D session. But players still love to figure things out, and the best adventures give them lots of chances to indulge—if the players like.

When you create adventures, rather than forcing players to puzzle out something that blocks their way, add more toys to figure out. For instance, imagine a magic fountain that the players can ignore. Scattered coins lie under its clear water. A bag of coins hangs from a hook. Tossing in a coin causes the waters to cloud and show a room somewhere. At the far end stands a statue of a king. The vision fades. Dropping a second coin reveals the same room from a different angle. This time a statue of a queen faces the viewer. Players can move on, but interacting with the puzzle reveals something interesting to figure out.

Fun adventures come sprinkled with things to figure out.

The best traps challenge players to figure something out. Puzzle traps hint at their presence. The fun comes from either deciphering clues to locate the trap or from working out a method to evade the trap, or both. Players rarely disable a puzzle trap with a quick check, rather they figure out the game-world steps required to avoid the threat.

I used to think that the fun of figuring things out came from the thrill of beating a difficult puzzle. The harder the challenge, the greater the thrill of victory. I was wrong. Part of the fun of figuring things out comes from feeling smart and successful. When players stall on a confounding problem, they just feel thwarted. The best puzzles serve just enough challenge so players suppose that they succeeded where others might fail.

Examining the coins reveals the faces of kings and queens. When the players toss in the queen’s coin, they see the king’s statue, and vice versa. Any party could figure out the fountain’s operation, especially if tossing another coin reveals a familiar place. Casting a coin temporarily reveals a view from a royal statue depicting the figure on the coin. Still, figuring out the fountain will bring fun.

Once players figure things out, they appreciate rewards that validate their success. Sometimes insight leads to treasure or an easier encounter. At first, the alchemist pretends to know nothing of the missing reagents, but if the players find a hidden love letter and make the connection, he cracks. That fountain could reveal some secrets in the adventure ahead.

In investigations, figuring advances the plot, but the same joy can come from spotting and making connections that don’t affect an outcome. Movie Easter eggs bring this pleasure.

The chance to figure things out provides a painless way to deliver backstory to the players—if they care. Start with the story and add ways to reveal it to the players. Avoid using journal entries. Think of subtler clues that reveal history in bite-size chunks. In Tomb of Annihilation, the Garden of Nangalore reveals its story in clues scattered throughout the site. Success here even leads to a reward: At the end, players who figure out the story can fare better when they meet the queen.

The next time you dream up an adventure, add things for your group’s actors and tacticians, but also add something to figure out.

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3 Pieces of Dungeon Masters Gear I Love and 1 Failed Experiment

Whenever I unpack my dry-erase maps and tiles, I reveal the remains of past games. Today, this residue includes the usual battlegrounds drawn in 5-foot squares, but also names like Syndra Silvane and Ytepka, experience numbers, damage totals, a sketch of the Chapel of Kukulkan from Tamoachan, and a rough map of the Nangalore in Chult.

As much as dungeon masters serve as a referees and facilitators, we need to act as communicators. So I use my dry-erase grids as white boards to help reveal the game world to the players, to remind players of place and character names, to emphasize key details, and so on. At any Dungeons & Dragons table, I’m never the only one who tends to think visually.

This habit led me to discover an advantage interlocking gaming tiles boast over the conventional battle mats. I can pick up one tile, write or draw, and set tile back down. No more struggling to write “Ytepka” upside down for the players to see.

Compared to a conventional battle mat, interlocking, dry- or wet-erase tiles bring other advantages. You can draw tiles in advance, and then reveal them as characters explore. As characters travel, adding tiles extends your map. Characters and their miniatures can roam without leaving the table.

Dry- and Wet-Erase Interlocking Tiles

Two companies now sell dry- or wet-erase interlocking tiles with either 1-inch grids or hexes.

Gaming Paper’s tiles consist of heavy cardboard like the board in your Monopoly game, but thicker. I can hold a rigid tile in 1 hand and draw with the other. The glossy surface takes dry-erase markers. The 8×11 size fits with your game books in a bag or on a bookshelf. The construction makes the boards inexpensive, but it means that careless erasing will peel the paper surface from the boards.

I haven’t seen the tiles from Role 4 Initiative. They come on 1/8-inch-thick chipboard, so they should prove more durable than cardboard. The tiles work with both wet- and dry-erase markers. Dry erase marks lift without water, but they tend to smear during transport or storage. Wet-erase marks stay sharp. These tiles come in both 10×10 and 5×5 sizes, which makes packing a bit more awkward, but which helps DMs fit dungeon walls within tile borders.

Wire Templates

Nothing stalls a fight on a grid like an area-effect spell. Everyone waits while someone counts and recounts squares, and then figures angles like a pool shark. For fireballs and other circles, my macrame rings trim minutes from the process. To make 30-foot cones just as simple, I shaped 12-gauge, aluminum craft wire and electrical tape into a template. For Cone of Cold, I bent an 30-foot extension.

For improved versions, I would like to find stiffer wire. My wire holds up at the table, but packing requires care. I nestle the pieces under the flat cover of my compartment case.

Bags for Games Masters

I used to think that scrapbooking served as lonely fun, but scrapbookers gather together to craft. And companies design amazing bags suited for their ventures. We DMs lack the same market clout, but a bag made for scrapbooking holds my Dungeons & Dragons gear so well that only an embroidered ampersand would improve it.

The 360 Crafters Rolling Bag from We Are Memory Keepers holds a compartment case full of miniatures alongside a stack of hardcovers. Pockets cover the bag inside and out, offering a place for everything. Plus, mesh reveals each pockets’ contents, so I can find things without digging. Plus, the bag stands open beside my DM’s chair, keeping everything in easy reach. I can start a game without unpacking.

Admittedly, the selection of cheerful colors and breezy patterns hardly says killer DM, but I can add my own green, devil patches.

Wet-Wipe Chalk Marker

Until technology brings me a video display that I can unroll at a convention table, I’m stuck using paper maps. To bad, because I dream of using electronics to show a map and reveal only the features within the characters’ sight. I experimented with a low-tech alternative.

  1. Set a players’ version of a dungeon map under the Lexan sheet I sometimes use to keep battlemaps flat.
  2. Conceal the map with a wet-wipe chalk marker—the sort of marker a school’s homecoming committee uses to decorate the windows of businesses on Main Street.
  3. As players explore, wipe away the chalk marks, revealing the map.

Unfortunately, the chalk coating proved too hard to remove. Scraping caused it to flake off in ragged patches, revealing too much and leaving a blizzard of white powder. A wet paper towel left white smears and also lacked precision. I count wet chalk as a failed experiment, so I’m back to waiting for a packable, 30-inch display.

Related: Photo Guide to Dungeon Masters Tools

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7 Best Classes to Add to Multiclass a Dungeons & Dragons Character

During the unveiling of third-edition Dungeons & Dragons, I saw a member of the design team say multiclassing offered tempting options for every character, but that every class offered enough rewards to make the choice to multiclass tough. Ideally, D&D multiclassing strikes that balance. In play, third edition fell short of balancing multiclassing. Classes tended to stack extra features at level 1 and sometimes suffered “dead levels” offering few benefits, so multiclass characters tended to outshine their single-class peers.

In fifth edtion, multiclassing isn’t so optimal. The first level of an additional class delivers fewer proficiencies. Every class level delivers new features or at least more spell slots. So while each class brings goodies, characters that multiclass lose some advantages of focus.

Spellcasters pay the biggest price for multiclassing. The top level in each separate spellcasting class limits the highest level of spell a character can know or prepare, so every level of a multiclass slows progress to higher-level spells. Characters reach spell slots based on the sum of their spellcasting classes, so they may gain slots of a higher level than any spell they know. At most, they can use those slots to boost a lower-level spell. Spellcasters who veer from their main class for more than 3 levels will never gain 9th-level spells.

Most classes leap in power at 5th level. Barbarians, fighters, paladins, and rangers all get a second attack. Wizards and sorcerers gain Fireball. Bards and warlocks gain Hypnotic Pattern. Monks gain Stunning Strike. When single-class characters reach level 5, multiclass characters will fall behind until their main class hits level 5.

At level 4, every class delivers a +2 ability score boost. Until a character’s attack or spellcasting ability reaches 20, these ability boosts stand to improve almost every to-hit roll and to hinder every foes’ save. Multiclassers who stop leveling a class at 1, 2, or 3 miss a key upgrade.

Despite the offsetting drawbacks of multiclassing, just a level or two of a class can enrich a character. For some players, multiclassing yields the flexibility to match a character’s story concept. Other players just want power. Many players seek a unique concept.

Whatever your aim for your character, this list reveals the top 7 classes to add as a multiclass.

7. Barbarian

Generally, barbarian makes a poor second class. Few martial characters want to avoid armor. Spellcasters can’t cast while raging. Despite the limitations, 2 levels of barbarian make a gimmicky combination with rogue. The Reckless Attack feature lets your rogue gain advantage for Sneak Attack.

6. Cleric

For spellcasters aiming to become much more durable, two cleric domains make a good start.

A character who starts as a Tempest cleric gains heavy armor proficiency. At 2nd level, the domain grants Destructive Wrath, which lets a cleric use Channel Divinity to deliver maximum lighting or thunder damage. Most spellcasters can find use a for that.

The Forge domain also grants new clerics heavy armor proficiency. At 1st level, these clerics can use Blessing of the Forge to add a +1 bonus to your armor or to a martial party member’s weapon.

Update: In the comments, Rooneg raises an important point. Heavy armor demands Strength scores higher than any spellcaster needs, so most characters only benefit from the medium armor proficiency granted by every cleric domain.

Unlike other classes that grant armor proficiency, a level of cleric keeps spellcasters on pace as they gain spell slots. As a drawback, your spellcaster will gain little benefit from the 13 Wisdom required to multiclass as a cleric.

5. Bard

At first level, bard delivers light armor proficiency, a skill, and Bardic Inspiration. Most multiclassers continue to gain Jack of All Trades at level 2. This adds half your proficiency bonus to every ability check where you lack proficiency.

Levels of bard combine easily with charisma-based spellcasters.

4. Warlock

Characters dip into warlock for 2 levels to gain 2 Eldritch Invocations. For charisma-based casters, the Agonizing Blast invocation upgrades Eldritch Blast from an ordinary, weak, cantrip attack to a powerful option. Devils Sight makes a dangerous combination with the Darkness spell. Mask of Many Faces lets a deceptive character scheme past obstacles and break a few adventures. Ignore the shell-shocked look on your dungeon master’s face; they love it.

When you calculate a multiclass spellcaster’s spell slots, Warlock levels don’t add to other caster levels. Still the warlock class combines especially well with sorcerer. See 7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing.

3. Sorcerer

Many of the Sorcerous Origins bring appealing perks at level 1. The Divine Soul’s Favored By The Gods feature lets you add 2d4 to a failed save. I like mobile characters, so the Storm Sorcerer’s Tempestuous Magic strikes my fancy. Before or after casting a spell, the feature lets you fly 10 feet without provoking.

Multiclassers add sorcerer to gain the 2 metamagic options available at level 3. Quickened Spell, Twined Spell, and Heightened Spell may rank as the best. Subtle Spell helps in adventures that feature role play and intrigue.

Characters rising in other spellcasting classes can trade spell slots for the sorcery points that fuel metamagic options. Except in the sort of dungeon crawls that exhaust spell slots, most mid- to high-level casters rarely use all their slots anyway.

2. Fighter

The first level of fighter ranks as the most useful single level in fifth edition. Characters who start as fighters gain heavy armor proficiency.

Level 1 also delivers a fighting style. The Archery style brings a +2 to ranged weapon attacks and benefits every sharpshooter. The Defense style grants +1 AC and keeps your spellcaster from harm. The Protection style helps save your allies. Protection lets a shield-bearing character impose disadvantage on an attack against a character within 5 feet. First-level fighters also gain Second Wind.

Levels 2 and 3 bring fewer rewards, but the features suit players who enjoy bringing big damage spikes. At 2nd, Action Surge lets fighter take an extra action once between rests. At 3rd, the Champion archetype scores critical hits on a roll of 19 or 20. This combines brilliantly with the paladin’s Divine Smite feature. If you stick with fighter through level 3, you should probably stay with the class to level 5 for the ability score boost and the Extra Attack feature.

1. Rogue

At 1st level, the Rogue class delivers Sneak Attack, but the Expertise feature may benefit dabblers more. Expertise doubles your proficiency in two skills. Second level brings Cunning Action, the best prize for multiclassers. Use a bonus action to Dash, Disengage, or Hide.

As a bonus, characters who start as a rogue gain 4 skills while most other classes just get 2.

A level or two of rogue fits with most multiclass characters.

What’s your favorite multiclass combination?

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Fourth Edition Proved D&D Works Without Saving Throws, So Why Did They Come Back?

Fourth edition dropped saving throws in favor of to-hit rolls and showed that D&D works without saves.

Mathematically, to-hit rolls and saving throws just flip the numbers so that a high roll benefits the person casting the die. Rather than having a lightning bolt trigger saves, why not just let wizards make lightning attacks against their targets? Why not just have poison attack a character’s fortitude?

By dropping saving throws, the fourth-edition designers eliminated a redundant mechanic. The change added consistency and elegance to D&D. Wizards finally got to cast spells and to make attack rolls.

If banishing saving throws made D&D more elegant, why did fifth edition bring them back? After all, the fifth-edition designers made elegance a key goal for their design. See From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance.

Until fourth edition, saving throws survived based on tradition and feel.

The tradition dates to when Tony Bath had toy soldiers saving verses arrows. (See my last post.) The fifth-edition designers aimed to capture tradition, but also the best qualities of earlier editions. Why not capture some of the elegant design of fourth edition?

The feel comes from a sense that the player controlling the most active character should roll the dice. D&D could drop to-hit rolls in favor of saves versus swords, but that feels wrong. On the other hand, characters seem active when they resist a charm, shake off a ghoul’s paralysis, or spring away from rushing flames. Sure, a wizard is saying magic words, a dragon is exhaling, but the action focuses on the heroes escaping the flames.

Plus, the saving throw mechanic tends to send a few more rolls to the players. Players like to roll dice, especially when the roll decides their character’s fate. When attack rolls replaced saving throws, spellcasters got to make more attack rolls, but most characters lack spells. Without saving throws, players flamed by dragon breath never get to take fate in their hands and roll a save. Instead, they just subtract damage.

So saving throws returned to D&D.

If saving throws and attack rolls share a common place in the game, what makes them different from each other?

As a dungeon master, have you ever asked a player dodging a trap’s darts to make a dexterity or reflex save? I have. I handled it wrong. Don’t fault me too much. A save gives a character a chance to escape. Characters springing away from darts or scything blades or falling stones seem to deserve a save. But that intuition is wrong. Such traps should make attacks. The Dungeon Master’s Guide never spells out this distinction.

Just as the reflex defense and AC in fourth edition defended against different sorts of attacks, in fifth edition, dexterity saves and armor class apply to different hazards. The difference comes from armor. D&D’s lead designer Mike Mearls explains that to determine whether to use an attack roll or a save, ask “Would a suit of plate mail protect from this?” Armor protects against darts, scythes, and so on, so traps using such hazards make attacks. Poisonous fumes, lightning, and mind blasts all ignore armor, so targets make saves. I would rather face a fireball protected by plate, but the rules emphasize the agility needed to escape the flames.

Originally, Tony Bath’s saving throws represented the value of armor. Now, saving throws only apply when armor can’t help.

Mearls confesses that the D&D rules don’t always make this save-or-attack distinction consistently. Plate mail certainly protects against falling rocks, and the falling-rock traps in the third-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide all make attacks. But the falling-rock traps in Lost Mine of Phandelver prompt dexterity saves. Better to leap from harm’s way, I suppose.

One area of inconsistency irks me.

Why should plate armor protect against the incorporeal, life-draining touch of creatures like specters and wraiths? Here, tradition and feel led the D&D designers to use attack rolls in a place where saving throws make more sense. If insubstantial creatures forced a target to make a dexterity saving throw, their life draining would imitate third edition’s touch attacks without a single extra rule. Plus, these undead would play like more distinct and interesting threats. Forget the feel of a to-hit roll, incorporeal creatures should force saving throws.

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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 DMDavid.com, 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: http://odd74.proboards.com/thread/9279/manual-aurania

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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