Making the Best of the 5-Minute Adventuring Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filling a map with Dungeons & Dragons adventure

When the first Dungeons & Dragons players wanted a break from the dungeon, their characters could explore the wilderness “in search of some legendary treasure.” In original D&D, a quarter of finds on the magical treasure tables consisted of treasure maps. Surely some led to those legendary treasures available in the wild.

For wilderness adventures, Gary Gygax recommended adopting the hex map from the Outdoor Survival board game and replacing the catch basins with castles. “The terrain beyond the immediate surroundings of the dungeon area should be unknown to all but the referee.” Players started with a blank map, and charted the terrain as they moved. Mainly, they met wandering monsters, but castles worked as penalty squares. Lords and Patriarchs demanded tolls and tithes. Magic users would cast Geas to compel trespassers to bring treasure.

Back then, even aimless wandering and senseless fights felt bold and fresh. Now, computer games can deliver random monsters with better graphics. At the table, exploration-based D&D sessions need maps stocked with potential adventure.

Seed opportunities

In How to Start a Sandbox Campaign, I explained how a dungeon master must arm new characters with enough knowledge for players to chose a direction that suits their goals. In his influential West Marches campaign, Ben Robbins never started players empty handed. “Every time I introduced a batch of new players, I gave them a very basic treasure map that vaguely pointed to somewhere in the West Marches and then let them go look for it.

As exploration continues, characters must keep finding things that suggest their next destination.

“A good sandbox has scenario hooks hanging all over the place,” Justin Alexander explains. “The successful sandbox will not only be festooned with scenario hooks, it will also feature some form of default action that can be used to deliver more hooks if the players find themselves bereft of interesting options.” Players should know that something like buying a round of drinks at the inn will lead to rumors, and that patrons always seek adventurers for hire.

In the original game, all those treasure maps worked as hooks for every character. In a modern campaign, characters can adopt many goals, so the hooks either help players toward the campaign’s ultimate goal or to appeal to characters’ individual interests.

Here, the sandbox portion of Storm King’s Thunder fell flat. Once the adventure showed the menace of the giants, it left characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters could only run errands until they reached the adventure’s true start. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either needed to completely rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expected it.

Open worlds offer freedom, but if players only ever face one hook at a time, they never feel that liberty. During each session, characters need to uncover more than one possibility for their next foray.

Connect the dots

In an open world, the connections between locations, non-player characters, and factions become as important as their place on the map. Characters rarely just wander. Rumors and other bits of information draw them from place to place. When players need information to guide them toward their characters’ aims, the secrets they learn can prove as rewarding as gold.

To start exploring, players need some information to make their choices interesting. By the time they learn the fate of the last doomed expedition and find that lost city on the plateau, they need new clues to investigate and new mysteries to unravel.

When you devise an open world, spend more time inventing connections than drawing terrain. The connections could range from alliances and rivalries, to rumors and clues that link locations on a map to others. Chris Kutalik makes such connections a big focus of his Hill Cantons campaign. “Each site’s mystery or theme has to have a connection with either another site’s or a larger setting one.

Reveal secrets

Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea offers advice for sowing information that helps players “build out the story as they choose courses of actions.” He calls these tidbits secrets.

A secret is a piece of information previously unknown to the PCs that, when revealed, gives them a tweet-sized bit of useful and interesting information. Secrets aren’t an entire story. They’re not complete pictures. They’re a single point of data in a large pool of undiscovered information.” Before a game session, Mike creates a pool of 10 secrets. During the game, characters uncover some of the secrets. He improvises the details of when and how characters uncover the secrets.

Secrets enhance an exploration game’s strength: the joy of freedom and discovery.

Secrets reward players with something more interesting than learning that the next hex contains forest.

Unlike full hooks, secrets give players more latitude to follow the threads that spark interest. “We don’t use secrets to steer the direction of the PCs. We use secrets to give them interesting information that helps them come up with their own directions.

Include many chances for interaction

In D&D’s original rules for wilderness adventure, most encounters ended in fight or flight. Today, wilderness adventures still tend to emphasize D&D’s combat and exploration pillars, even though 60% of D&D players enjoy interaction the most.

In Game of Thrones, the lands beyond the wall give George R.R. Martin plenty of chances for exciting battles and exploration. But when members of the Night’s Watch range beyond the wall, Martin devotes as much attention to visits to Craster’s Keep. The keep offers chances for interaction and to explore character.

Your sandbox needs non-player characters that run the gamut from friend to foe. Friends rarely challenge characters and foes tend to die, so NPCs in the middle foster the most interesting interaction. For example, Craster offers an indispensable ally who happens to be morally offensive. Plus his daughter-wives present a dangerous temptation to the men in black.

Perfect opportunities for interaction come from NPCs or groups either too dangerous or too useful to murder, who pursue goals that don’t always align with the players’ aims.

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How to Start a Sandbox Campaign

Dungeons & Dragons players don’t love sandbox adventures as much as they think, but such adventures can still offer fun. After I took aim at sandbox adventures, some dungeon masters running thriving open-world campaigns offered counterpoints. Michael S has run such a campaign for 9 years, outlasting the West Marches campaign that inspired him by 7 years.

Sandboxes can work. This post and my next will reveal the secrets. Once you read all these requirements, you may decide a fully-realized sandbox demands more time and energy than you can spare. Michael’s “crazy” world uses a database just to track NPCs and a “big” wiki for bookkeeping. (Of course, rather than filling your sandbox in advance, you can cheat. More on that next time.)

The hardcover adventures published for 5th edition have all tried to include some of the freedom of sandbox adventures. None of the hardcovers check all the requirements on this list. If the hardcovers proved frustrating to run, the missing requirements explain why. If they played fine for you, then you, as a good DM, improvised and reworked to fill in the gaps. You may have enjoyed the extra effort or, like me, you may have done it reluctantly. I have a D&D blog to write.

The sandbox archetype casts characters as explorers on the verge of a unmapped frontier, perhaps the shore of The Isle of Dread or descending from the Yawning Portal into the Undermountain megadungeon. When Out of the Abyss stranded the party in the Underdark, the hardcover followed the exploration model. The authors of the other hardcover adventures touted sandbox-like design, which ranged from player-led tours of the Sword Coast to simply including dungeons that could be visited in different orders.

My advice starts with this exploration model in mind, but these requirements apply to campaigns that stray from the prototype.

Set long-term aims

In the sandbox archetype, players start with a incomplete hex map like the ones in The Isle of Dread or Tomb of Annihilation and explore to fill the blanks. Such games can become unsatisfying grinds. The Angry GM explains, “The only rewarding part of the exploration is when you actually find anything. And the vast majority of the hexes have nothing to find. There is nothing interesting about yet another forest of hexes. And random encounters—dinosaurs waiting to jump out of the forest and kill you—are interesting, but they are the painful, dangerous kind of interesting. That’s not a reward.

The 5E hardcovers all avoid this pitfall by setting a campaign objective from the start. In Tomb of Annihilation, players seek the source of a world-spanning curse. In Out of the Abyss, players explore to find an escape from the Underdark. The other adventures reveal some overarching menace in the opening scene.

Most players want to aim for an ultimate campaign goal. Throughout the game, they want clear options that take them closer to achieving their long-term aim. In Curse of Strahd, the players start far from defeating Strahd, but they can explore Barovia and gather the magic items they will need.

Not every campaign leads to some ultimate villain. Instead, for instance, a party could aim to find a lost heir and put her on the throne.

D&D adventures either set an ultimate goal for characters or assume they quest for treasure. (An adventure that omits any goal becomes a campaign setting.) Players seldom mind adopting a goal so long as they get to do D&D things like collecting treasure and smiting evil. When I ran Murder in Balder’s Gate though, my players rebelled. The adventure assumed characters would support one of three patrons who vied for power. The patrons start unsavory and, as they gain power, become worse. My players wanted no part of it. My Murder In Baldur’s Gate became something entirely different from the book.

If you introduce a long-term aim before character generation, your players can craft characters tied to a chosen aim. For example, Princes of the Apocalypse suggested players tie their character to an adventure-specific hook.

In a homebrew campaign, you start with the players’ characters and invent a long-term aim just for them. Perhaps a someone wants to play a member of a hiding royal family. Who can say how close she is to the lost heir?

Give enough information to start

Imagine a party shipwrecked on the coast of a lost continent. If they know nothing, they can only trudge inland and explore aimlessly. Perhaps a wandering monster will interrupt the drudgery.

Robert Conley’s Bat in the Attic blog focuses on sandbox play. He writes, “Picking one of the six surrounding blank hexes is not a choice with meaning. So work on the initial situation so that it is interesting and give the players enough information to make some valid decision of what to do.

If that shipwrecked party has an explorer’s letter, a ciphered treasure map, rumors a lost city on a plateau, and so on, then the group knows enough to plot a course. Once you tie the lore into the characters’ goals, the clues will inspire action. Remember though, if you give one player a clue, they might not share it. Spread any secrets that you need players to share.

You can also launch a sandbox with a conventional adventure that starts with a patron in a bar. No one said your campaign requires a consistent model.

Out of the Abyss launched the characters’ explorations by pairing them with Underdark natives to serve as guides. See The surprising benefits of giving an adventuring party a guide.

Next: Running a sandbox campaign

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Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes as Much as They Think

Many role-playing gamers set sandbox adventures as an ideal. We all agree that railroads make bad adventures, so do sandboxes offer all the virtues that railroads lack?

In role-playing adventures, sandboxes and railroads fall on ends of a spectrum. Railroads offer players no options. Sandboxes allow complete freedom, including freedom to choose a goal. If a character favors a bartending in Barovia over vampire hunting, they still get a place in the campaign.

Boxes of sand let kids choose their own goals. They can make sand castles, bake sand cakes, anything. And when they grow up, they can stage miniature battles.

Some games deliver all the freedom of a box of sand. Minecraft lets you play a survival game, but it owes its success to all the other things you can do: Some players build forts or replicas of the seven wonders. Some create a circuits from redstone. Players make their own goal.

D&D used to force a goal on characters

Original Dungeons & Dragons never started as pure sandbox, because the rules included a goal: Take treasure from dungeons and the wilderness. By rule, characters who won treasure gained experience and power. They won D&D. See The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.

When the original D&D characters reached high, name level, the game turned into a sandbox where players chose a new goal for their characters. Stronghold building offered fighting men an obvious goal, but some other classes lacked anything as clear. What do you want for your bard or druid? Should a wizard build a tower or start a school? Apparently, many high-level wizards go mad and build dungeons. Where else could the living-chess puzzles and reverse-gravity rooms come from? Endless possibilities await!

Instead of embracing the freedom of a high-level sandbox, players returned to dungeons.

Sandboxes can overwhelm players with choices

In Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon and How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success, I described the attraction of dungeons. Among other advantages, dungeons limit the characters’ options. This doesn’t just help dungeon masters prepare, it helps players.

Common wisdom suggests there is no such thing as too many choices, but psychologists conclude that people flooded with options become paralyzed by them.

When dungeon masters offer a true sandbox and come willing to improvise any course their players choose, they confound players. Once the players stop wondering what they’re supposed to do, they struggle to choose from boundless possibilities. Whatever they finally decide, they leave the table with a nagging feeling that they chose wrong.

The value of limited options

In D&D, dungeons, patrons, and hooks all limit the options that players’ face. Such tropes give players direction. A little direction improves the game.

Make no mistake. Players still want options. Every game session should leave players wondering what might have happened if they followed a different course. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea recommends that giving players three plus infinite choices. DMs should offer three known options that take characters closer to their goal, while being open to anything players want to try.

Many sources of DM advice suggest seeding a sandbox setting with hooks—opportunities for players to land in stories of their choosing. Exactly. Those hooks help players narrow all the options of an open world to a sweet spot of three plus infinite choices. They nudge the game a bit closer to the railroad end of the dial. Some railroad-phobics might even argue that such hooks show a DM working too hard to push players through a story. Their ideal game only works with perfectly spherical, frictionless players. The real players at your table want hooks.

The sandbox dungeon

D&D’s mega-dungeons limited players’ choices, but many fans still tout multi-level dungeons as sandboxes. Sure, characters need to adopt the goal of seeking treasure, but they never need to dutifully follow a story arc planned by a DM. Plus, players could chose a difficulty level by deciding how deep they dared to delve. A few D&D players still favor that style of play.

Embracing story and fewer options

Despite the freedom of a dungeon sandbox, most D&D players craved story and deeper motivations. The D&D game changed to provide. When Tracy and Laura Hickman penned a series of classic modules including Ravenloft and the Desert of Desolation trilogy, they led the change. Their introduction to a self-published version of Pharoah gives D&D adventures four, new requirements:

  1. A player objective more worthwhile than pillaging and killing.
  2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself.
  3. Dungeons with some sort of architectural sense.
  4. An attainable and honorable end within one or two sessions of playing time.

When characters explore Castle Ravenloft, they quest for more than loot. They aim to free the land from the menace of Lord Strahd. Adopting the goal of a story takes a measure of freedom from players. Now the their options narrow to the choices that lead to the magic items that will help defeat Strahd. Few players mind. They see clear options that take them closer to achieving their characters’ aims. As the adventure progresses, the players’ paths narrow to a railroad that leads to a final confrontation.

Of course, at any time, the characters could leave the railroad and open a tavern in Barovia, but that never happens. Partly because D&D players like doing D&D things such as smiting evil and winning treasure. Partly because players follow D&D’s social contract by honoring the DM’s preparation. Mostly because players enjoy stories in D&D and they willingly abandon the freedom of a sandbox to foster them.

Too often, D&D fans tout sandboxes as the pinnacle of adventure design. Dungeon masters and adventure authors aim for the freedom of a sandbox, but just leave players feeling adrift. Players enjoy D&D most when they see a few, clear options that take them closer to achieving their characters’ aims.

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Four Essential Qualities of a 4-Hour Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

Running adventures by other authors has raised my Dungeons & Dragons game. As a dungeon master for organized play, I have prepared adventures that seemed like duds. Sometimes, at the table, I followed an author’s script and saw that their adventure worked despite my concerns. When I had little experience with adventures other than my own dungeons, I found lots of pleasant surprises. I learned a lot.

Those surprises happen less often now. I feel confident judging which 4 elements I always want in something like a 4-hour Adventurers League session.

I have the voice of authority to back me up. The book Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games by Lawrence Schick includes a list of adventure tips from legendary designer Jennell Jaquays. Goodman Games publisher Joseph Goodman listed advice for penning a good adventures to accompany How to Write Adventures that Don’t Suck. This post features select tips from the experts’ lists. Believe them.

All 4 qualities in my list resist easy adjustments at the table. This post’s draft included, “Give it the villains a fighting chance,” but I cut it. If an adventure puts a beholder in a tiny room where the heroes can make it into a piñata, I can adjust at the table. If an adventure fails to include a variety of challenges, only a rewrite will help.

In every 4-hour adventure, I want 4 qualities:

1. A variety of challenges. This ranks as my number 1 by a wide margin. Typical D&D groups bring varied tastes, and few players like 4 hours of the same. Any session should include (1) a social scene, (2) a combat encounter, and either (3a) a thinking problem or (3b) a secret to investigate.

To qualify, the social scene must start with a goal and pose an obstacle. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure. Social scenes that dump purposeless characters into a banquet or marketplace confound most players.

“Make sure some role-playing interaction with other sentient beings is necessary for success.” – Jaquays

A typical 4-hour adventure features two or three battles, and I like variety in the combat encounters. When I ran the D&D Encounters program and saw the adventure for a new season, I eagerly scanned the pages, noting which monsters would appear. A variety of foes excited me. (I remain easily amused.)

At Gen Con 2017, I ran adventures set on the streets of Hillsfar. Typically, city adventures suffer from recurrent fights against thugs, thieves, and assassins. Same fight, different alley. The authors of this Hillsfar series imagined ways to pit players against a variety of monsters, and that made me happy.

“Pace it well. Long, tiresome combats should be followed by quick rooms. Thought-provoking puzzles should be followed by bloodbaths. Slow, trap-filled hallways should be followed by a rousing fight.” – Goodman

2. A fast start. When players sit for an organized-play adventure, their characters land in the the adventure too. I like adventures that speed through the chore of getting the characters to agree to the mission their players already accepted. DDEX03-14 Death on the Wall by Greg Marks includes a favorite hook: Someone fleeing pursuit dumps a pack containing a message on the characters. Bang! We’re off!

“Always begin a new adventure with action: a fight, a chase, a breathtaking escape, a witnessed crime, and so on.” – Jaquays

Nothing vexes me more than an adventure that challenges players to uncover the secret of their goal for the adventure.

Most organized-play adventure hooks should also promise a reward in gold early on. Not all characters aim to do good or to seek adventure. Players will take adventures without seeing the rewards ahead, but on behalf of their characters, they still wonder why are we doing this?

“Maintain a ‘cut to the chase’ feeling—start with a bang and get to the action fast.” – Goodman

Some critics argue that starting an adventure with a fight ranks as a cliché. Ignore them. For many D&D players, the game only starts when they start rolling dice. At my weekly D&D game, the kids can sit without a battle, but at least one parent pines for action. (Not me. Well, not just me.)

3. A choice. Players accept that a 4-hour time limit leaves no room for open worlds, but when an adventure shunts the party through a fixed sequence of scenes, players notice—and they grumble. Every adventure should feature an option that leaves players wondering what would have happened if we had….

I love DDEX2-13 The Howling Void by Teos Abadia and DDEX03-15 Szith Morcane Unbound by Robert Adducci for offering players unusual freedom. Both also demand more from a DM than a typical session. Some overwhelmed convention DMs bridle at the prospect of prepping many encounters that may not occur.

In practice, just a couple of choices satisfy players. But avoid false choices that could lead to the same scene. Players should know enough about their options to expect a different outcome from each possibility. See Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?

4. A dash of the fantastic. In D&D, authors sometimes reserve the mind-bending fantasy for high-level characters. But I like every adventure—even that 1st-level strike against bandits—to include a fantastic element. Have the goblins uncovered some lost bit of magic that lets them do something wondrous?

I remember a D&D adventure that relied on a bomb as a threat, and how that made me sad. In the fantastic world of D&D, could the most interesting threat really be a bomb? I turned the bomb into a magical box that opened a door to the spirit world and lured vengeful souls onto the material plane.

Not all the fantastic elements need to be dangerous or useful. Interesting trinkets and strange phenomena can create the same wonder. The magic fountain feels tired by now, but you can create fresh wonders that put enhantment into your world.

“Convey a sense of the fantastic. Convey this through encounters, descriptions, and most importantly, magic. The fantastic is what makes D&D so much fun, and that has to come across in the adventure.” – Goodman

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D&D Adds Psionics: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

While editing the third Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Eldrich Wizardry, Tim Kask developed D&D’s first rules for psionics. He loved psionic combat and threw his enthusiasm into the task.

His rules answered D&D’s biggest critics. First, they stood separate from unrealistic notions of class and level. Second, they adopted a point system similar to the spell points touted by critics of Vancian casting.

Kask balanced and tested psionics to perfection. But when Eldrich Wizardry and its new psionics rules reached fans, some liked the topic, but few liked the rules.

Few players cared to learn the intricacies of psionic combat with all its tables and charts. Some players liked adding the extra powers onto their characters, but hardly any DMs allowed psionic characters in their game. The new rules mostly ignored D&D’s system of class and levels. They unbalanced play.

Tim Kask balanced psionics for a setting where intellect devourers, brain moles, cerebral parasites and other creatures sensed psionic users and sought them as prey. He loved psionics and imagined a game-world that fostered mental duels against psychic creatures.

In practice, nobody played D&D Tim’s way.

Psionics suffered from more than imbalance. Psionics grafted an complicated new game onto D&D. Virtually nothing in the new rules resembled rules already in D&D. By creating rules that answered D&D’s critics, Kask created rules that failed to match the rest of the game.

Role-playing games without character classes and with spell points can work brilliantly in a game like Runequest (1978), but the incompatible rules fared badly in D&D.

Perhaps the failure of psionics taught Gary Gygax some things.

In the July 1978 issue of The Dragon, Gygax would defend D&D’s character classes from critics. “If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character. Not only would this destroy the variety of the game, but it would also kill the game, for the super-character would soon have nothing left to challenge him or her, and the players would grow bored and move on to something which was fun.”

Gygax also defended Vancian casting against point-based systems. “Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game.”

Now, game designer see value in keeping game rules concise and applying a simple rules broadly. Fifth-edition designer Mike Mearls wrote, “You’re more likely to introduce elegance to a game by removing something than by adding it.” But in 1975, folks were still figuring out RPG design. So designers like Kask felt free to graft a psionics game onto D&D. Whenever Kask talks psionics now, he explains that he would design them differently.

Even as Eldrich Wizardry went to press, I suspect Gygax understood some points he would argue later. So why did Gygax open D&D to a psionics system that ignored classes and that used points? Because during the development of Eldrich Wizardry, Gygax still held to his a long habit of collaboration. If a collaborator like Tim Kask felt passion for some addition to the game, Gygax opened the way. Many of these “official” rules never entered Gary’s Greyhawk game. Still, he welcomed other dungeon masters to pick and choose, to shape their own games. (Over time, Gygax would become more protective of D&D’s rules. For much more on his evolving attitudes, see Basic and Advanced—Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions.)

Psionics became unpopular because it added 70s parapsychology and an entirely different sub-game onto D&D. The concept only lasted because the notion of psychic powers resonated with players.

In the years to come, designers found ways to make psionics at home in D&D. They would integrate psychic powers into settings like Dark Sun, and they would express psionics using D&D’s core rules. For example, when David “Zeb” Cook updated psionics for 2nd edition, he created a mental version of THAC0. Potential psionic rules for 5th edition use character classes and even revive the name of Steve Marsh’s Mystic class.

Gary Gygax experimented with psionic characters to offer players a defense against the terrible power of mind flayers. Eventually, his original justification for psionics moved from the real world into the game world. In 4th edition lore, psionics manifested in the prime material plane to help its inhabitants battle intruders from the Far Realm—intruders like mind flayers.

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How Psionics Accommodated D&D’s Critics

In 1966, Gary Gygax fielded a personal ad in the General seeking gaming opponents. He included the line, “Will cooperate on game design.” In the years to follow, Gygax proved a zealous collaborator. Aside from teaming with other designers, he wrote a flood of articles proposing variants and additions to existing games. In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax brought the same spirit to D&D. He published rules and ideas from the gamers in his circle, and figured that players could use what suited their game. In the Blackmoor supplement, Gygax wrote, “All of it is, of course, optional, for the premise of the whole game system is flexibility and personalization within the broad framework of the rules.”

D&D owes its psionics rules to this spirit.

Just after D&D’s publication, future-TSR-designer Steve Marsh started corresponding with Gygax. Marsh sent many of the aquatic monsters that would appear in the Blackmoor supplement. Also, he proposed a Mystic character class based on the mental powers attributed to Indian mystics. Always the collaborator, Gygax saved the class for later attention.

Gary credited this cover with inspiring the mind flayer

D&D’s psionics started with the mind flayer, which first saw print in Strategic Review #1 in spring of 1975. The creature’s mind blast sent a “wave of PSI force” that could easily incapacitate a party. The monster terrified players. TSR employee Tim Kask recalls, “monsters with psionic powers like Mind Flayers were too horrible even in a fantasy game as they wielded an unstoppable weapon.”

The mind flayer’s power inspired Gygax to draft a countermeasure. “I should have left well enough alone; but no!” Gygax experimented with mental powers for D&D. He created a Divine class that boasted psionic attacks and defenses, and then sent the class to players in his circle.

“I soon hated the whole business, but Len Lakofka and his group in Chicago loved the concept,” Gygax wrote, “and Tim was enthused about the addition as well.”

“Yes, I probably lobbied for their inclusion in AD&D,” Kask recalled. “No, Gary did not love them as I did. But he was wise enough to know that for D&D to continue the phenomenal growth, we had to offer stuff that others might like even if one or more of us didn’t.”

The classes from Gygax and Marsh both reached a big bowl where Gygax collected ideas for D&D. When Tim Kask earned the job of editing D&D’s next supplement, Eldrich Wizardry, he took the bowl.

Gygax’s Divine class (and author Sterling Lanier) provided the notion of psionic attack and defense modes. Marsh’s Mystic class inspired the psionic abilities. Marsh also took the blame for denying elves psi powers. “I was 5’2” at the time and built like a wrestler, because I was a wrestler, and had more sympathy with dwarves than elves.”

Kask brought an enthusiasm. He wanted psionics to inject a new vigor in the game. In Eldrich Wizardry, he explained the goal. “The introduction of psionic combat is bound to enliven games grown stagnant. It opens up untold possibilities for both players and the DM, and in so doing recognizes one of the favorite topics of science fiction and fantasy writers: the unknown powers of the mind.”

When Tim Kask devised the psionics rules, he made two decisions that seemed to answer D&D’s biggest critics.

Critics disparaged D&D’s class system as unrealistic and confining. Rather than limit psionic abilities to a class, Kask separated psionics from D&D’s classes. Anyone could be psionic (except for elves). Steve Marsh recalls, “I wanted a character class, but [Tim Kask] decided that the abilities belonged available to everyone.”

To D&D’s critics, the process of memorizing and forgetting spells seemed unrealistic. They argued for a spell point system. Rather than patterning psionics after D&D’s spell casting system, Kask adopted a point system.

Separating psionics from D&D’s system of class and level threatened to create overpowered characters. Kask saw this potential and worked to inject balance. Characters who added psionics paid a price. Fighters gave up strength and potential followers, magic users lost spells, and so on.

None of these drawbacks fully offset power of psionics, so Kask added a second disadvantage. Intellect devourers, brain moles, cerebral parasites and other creatures sensed psionic users and sought them as prey. When dungeon masters single out psionic characters as targets for attack, the game becomes balanced.

The mental combat system added another new element to D&D. “I LOVED psionic combat and had great fun devising it with all of its tables and charts,” Kask recalls.

“I hammered and twisted those psionic rules forever, and inflicted play-testing on the gang until they got sick of them.”

So Tim Kask created psionic rules that answered D&D’s biggest critics, rules that he tested to perfection. What could possibly go wrong?

Next: Psionics: What could possibly go wrong?

RelatedGary Gygax Loved Science Fantasy, So Why Did He Want Psionics Out of D&D?

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Gary Gygax Loved Science Fantasy, So Why Did He Want Psionics Out of D&D?

In the fall of 1985, just as Gary Gygax left TSR, Dragon magazine issue 103 revealed his suddenly obsolete plans for second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Not all his plans featured additions and enhancements. He aimed to remove two parts of the game. Both items on Gygax’s hit list appeared in original D&D. Both struck Gygax as poor fits with D&D’s medieval fantasy.

Gygax’s first target, the monk, rode in on the same craze for kung-fu action that fostered a TV show, comic books, and the 20th-highest-selling single of all time. Gygax wanted monks moved to an oriental-themed add-on.

As for the second target, psionics, Gygax wanted to “remove the concept from a medieval fantasy role-playing game system and put it into a game where it belongs—something modern or futuristic.” But Gygax freely mixed elements of science fiction with medieval fantasy. He wrote Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the adventure with a ray gun on the cover.

In the years before D&D, many popular fantasy series started with medieval worlds and added psionics to include something that worked like magic. Gygax included Andre Norton on his Appendix N list of inspirational authors. Her most popular series, Witch World, mixed psionics and magic. The Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz started in 1970 and centered on a race of humans with magical and psychic abilities. Marion Zimmer Bradley started her Darkover series 1958 and wrote it for decades. Set on a lost colony planet, Darkover mixes medieval technology and psi powers that work like magic.

In the 70s more than today, people saw psychic potential as a frontier of science that merited serious investigation. By using psionics to create a sort of magic, science fiction authors reframed their worlds from an impossible fancy to places that could exist someday, somewhere. Many science fiction fans enjoyed the step toward reality.

D&D’s notion of psionic attack and defense modes comes from another book featured in Appendix N, Hiero’s Journey by Sterling Lanier.

Gygax enjoyed a dash of sci-fi in his fantasy, but the flavor of psionics in D&D lacks the feel Appendix N. The flavor shares more with the 70s popular culture and pop psychology that brought psychic aura readings and biorhythms. The concepts may come from appendix N, but names like “Ego Whip” and “Id Insinuation” draw terms from psychology.

D&D’s psionic rules injected modern science into a fantasy world. The rules come rife with scientific terms: “Mass Domination,” “Probability Travel,” “Energy Control,” and so on. Why would someone in a D&D world call a psionic power “Molecular Rearrangement” rather than Shapechange? How would they know about molecules? When I first read the psionics rules, names like “Intellect Fortress” and even “Id Insinuation” inspired me, but too much of the jargon failed in a D&D setting.

Aside from a flavor that evoked 70s parapsychology and pop psychology, D&D’s psionics suffered a second problem: The actual rules owed more to the critics of D&D than to the original game.

Next: How psionics accommodated D&D’s critics

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