Improved fifth-edition dungeon master screen and initiative tents

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

Download the updated dungeon master screen inserts.

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

Mini dungeon master's screen on table

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

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

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

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

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

Initiative tents

Initiative tents

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

Download the initiative tents.

Posted in D&D fifth edition, Dungeon master's tools | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Dungeon master’s tools and miniatures update

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

Gaming Paper

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

Drawing a dungeon as it's explored on gaming paper

Gaming paper can reveal a dungeon as it’s explored

Giants, size, and miniatures

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

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

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

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

Attack wing flying miniatures

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

The D&D Attack Wing Starter Set includes 3 dragons

The D&D Attack Wing Starter Set includes 3 dragons

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

Attack Wing Red and Tyranny of Dragons dragon

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

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

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

Spell Cards

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

D&D Spellbook Cards - Arcane

D&D Spellbook Cards – Arcane

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

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

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

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

Dungeon Decor

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

Tavern Dugeon Decor

Tavern Dungeon Decor

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

Posted in Dungeon master's tools, Miniatures | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

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

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

In some cases, yes.

In some cases, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

orcus in box

In case of loan default, open box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Role-playing game history | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord

In December of 1975, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. Blackmoor’s Temple of the Frog qualified as the only published adventure, although the armies inside the temple made it unsuitable for dungeon crawls and limited it to the sort of sand-table battles that evolved into Dungeons & Dragons.

So when Decatur, Illinois gamers Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen visited TSR that December, they brought a new idea. Bob asked TSR for authorization to make a line of play aids for D&D players and judges.

Shannon Appelcline, author of Designers & Dragons, recounts what happened next. “Bledsaw told them about his ideas for gamemaster supplements…and the result was laughter. The TSR staff explained to Bledsaw and Owen that gamers wanted games, not supplements, and told them they were more than welcome to publish D&D supplements (and lose money) if they wanted to.”

A quarter of the city map

A quarter of the city map

City State of the Invincible OverlordBledsaw turned his drafting skills to map a huge city that would become the City State of the Invincible Overlord. He brought the poster maps to Gen Con in 1976. There he canvassed the convention goers, sold out of maps, and offered memberships to the Judges Guild, a subscription to future play aids. Shortly after Gen Con, charter subscribers received a package including the Initial Guidelines Booklet I (I as the Roman 1). The next package included Guidelines Booklet J (J as the letter after I). The guidelines supported the City State with encounter charts, information on social tiers, supplemental rules, and descriptions of a few streets.

In 1977, a retail version of the City State reached stores. The $9 package includes a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.

A baker

A baker

The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each. The locations offer a treasury of fantasy names. Just the roster of the Mercenaries Guild provides 20 names, and the city has 300 more locations.

The City State resembled the dungeon adventures of the time, densely packed locations with little natural order. The place has 5 bakers, but lacks a miller, brewer, fuller, glazier, wheeler, cooper, fletcher, mason, as well as many other popular boys’ names. Humans dominate the population, but trolls, ogres, and other monsters hold jobs. A shop’s proprietor could be a shapeshifted ogre mage or dragon. The undertaker employs undead. A god lives at his local temple.

Have you found god?

Have you found god?

Even though a modern product with similar scope might sprawl over 500 or more pages, the City State’s descriptions take fewer than 80 pages. The terse descriptions provide seeds for improvisation rather than details.

Despite the product’s tremendous scope—or perhaps due to it—I struggled to figure out how center a game around the City State. I looked for guidelines booklets A though H, but never found them. Did I need them? Also, I grappled with  the question of how to conduct play in the sprawling city.

Nowadays, city adventures tend to be narrative based, with clues leading characters from one location or NPC to the next. This allows a focus on key locations. In 1977, no one played D&D that way. Instead, players entered the dungeon or wilderness to explore room by room, hex by hex. The rule books explained how to conduct dungeon and wilderness adventures, water and aerial adventures, but nothing about cities. Cities served as a base to heal and gather supplies before you left for the next adventure. Cities were for bookkeeping.

So how did a DM run a game in the City State? The guidelines seem to imply that characters will wander the city, either shopping for adventuring gear or pursing rumors that will lead to their next adventure. In the course of wandering, they can trigger random encounters, often keyed to the neighborhood.

Basing a night of gaming on shopping or rumor gathering presents a lot of difficulties, mostly for reasons I described in “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” Typically these activities offer the players few challenges—except for the rare cases where a level-6, chaotic-evil butcher attacks the party’s dwarf.

A butcher

A butcher

The optimal session in the City State finds the players quickly uncovering a rumor and chasing it to a dungeon, or to a plot hook involving a giant, hairy stalker.

The best—and most intimidating—part of the City State came from the rumors. So many provided exciting invitations to adventure. Every storefront seemed like a launching point for an adventure.

As a dungeon master, the rumors made the city even more challenging to run. All the rumors inspired, but they led to adventures that demanded either preparation or more improvisation than I care to attempt. Every rumor promised an adventure that the DM needed to make good. In the Pig & Whistle tavern players learn that a mountain disappeared 120 miles south of the city. I want to play that adventure, but if I’m DM, I don’t want to ad lib it.

For all the product’s creative energy, its seamy side disagreed with my tastes. Even the map shows a goblin reservation. I prefer my monsters dangerous, rather than downtrodden. I certainly do not want to invite analogies between wicked monsters and real human beings who suffered a history of mistreatment.

In addition to a slave trade and many bordellos, the city has a Park of Obscene Statues (no kidding) and Naughty Nannies (still not kidding).

I'm not kidding

I’m not kidding

Even the book had a seamy side: It includes tables to determine womens’ measurements. The text makes distinctions between amazons, vixens, houris, and courtesans. I know Amazons, although not personally. I still don’t understand the rest. I guess I’ll never understand women.

Still not kidding

Still not kidding

My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting elements I liked. I cherry picked the material I liked from the city state. I toned down the patchwork insanity and the sordid bits. For instance, I still like the idea of launching an adventure based on the story behind the two people the undertaker managed to shrink to 6 inches tall and now keeps in a silver cage. The text calls the two captives Amazons, but I would not keep that detail. I think I know that story, and I don’t want to bring it to my game table.

Despite the product’s challenges, as an outstanding map and a trove of ideas, it scored. As the first role-playing setting, the City State of the Invincible Overlord became a hit. That proved a mixed blessing: In a year, TSR would reverse its stance and demand licensing dollars from Judges Guild.

Next: The candlestick maker

Posted in Role-playing game history | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D

In my last post, I described the how Dungeons & Dragons tended to break once players gathered too many magic items or certain combinations of items. Earlier editions included several rules that worked to prevent the problem, but fifth edition’s attunement rule and rarity system provide the best measures yet.

Of course not all game-breaking magic comes from magic items. Spells can create problems too. Gary Gygax invented virtually all of D&D’s familiar spells when folks played in a much narrower style: Player characters kept to the dungeon. Non-player characters attacked on sight. Plots never developed. Characters died or retired (mostly died) before they could cast spells above sixth level. As the game blossomed, many spells that seemed fun, or that only appeared on scrolls, started spoiling games.

In “Spells that ruin adventures,” I wrote about individual spells that tended to disrupt play. In “Scry and fry,” I explained how a climactic battle can become a quick ambush. And in “Designing for spells that spoil adventures,” I told D&D Next’s designers how to design around problem spells. In a future post, I will look back at my advice.

Spell combos

Not every problem comes from an individual spell, play can suffer when players stack spells. In third edition, higher-level parties might enter a fight blanketed with spells like Haste, Invisibility, Fly, Blur, Polymorph Self, Resist Elements, and on and on. These parties would fly to the dungeon’s treasure vault, invisible and in ghostform. Parties traveled optimized by maximized ability buffs. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while the DM struggled to create any challenge.

Combined spells did more than allow character to float past adventures, spell combos could also buy a cheap victory. Just lock down a battlefield with Evard’s Black Tentacles, and the clear it with Cloudkill. Used in one fight, this strategy makes a memorable story; repeated, the other players wonder why they showed up.

Of course, third edition could remain playable at high levels, but only when players chose not to use strategies that strained the system’s limits.

Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme Annual Vol 1 2Some players argue that a dungeon master can counter these measures by pitting players against villains able to use dispel magic and a suite of magical countermeasures. While true, this approach suffers drawbacks:

  • DMs can no longer challenge parties with published adventures, or really any monsters other than spellcasters.
  • DMs will know the players’ magical tricks, so the villains’ countermeasures will invite the players to suspect that the DM used privileged information to thwart them.
  • Mainly though, D&D stops feeling like D&D and starts to resemble a superhero game, with characters flying around, ignoring walls, untouched by mundane threats. Most folks who want the feel of a superhero game, play a superhero game.

To avoid the problem, fourth edition either rewrote or dropped the spells that caused problems. This worked. Even at epic levels, the game never mutates into a chess match between the Sinister Spellcasters and the Legion of Fantasy Heroes. However, 4E’s lack of familiar spells fueled the accusations that 4E no longer resembled D&D.

When fifth edition’s designers faced the problem of overlapping magical effects, they knew that earlier solutions had proven flawed. They returned familiar spells and they adopted an ingenious new fix: concentration.

Concentration

Many spells now require their caster to maintain concentration to keep their magic going. Critically, a spellcaster can only concentrate on one spell at a time. Now rather than layering Haste, Invisibility, Fly, Blur, Resistance, and a few others, a caster must pick one. Wizards who really want to be blurry and invisible, need a second spellcaster’s help. To combine black tentacles and a poison cloud, parties need two spellcasters, and neither will cast while flying invisible over the battle. To the design team, this counts as teamwork rather than, “I beat another encounter for you. You’re welcome!”

Concentration limits the power of high-level spellcasters. In earlier editions of the game, the Vancian magic system awarded advancing wizards far more power than characters in other classes. They gained more spells per day, of greater power, plus even their lower-level spells increased in power. Concentration stands as one way fifth edition keeps wizards in line with their peers.

Posted in D&D fifth edition, Role-playing game design, Role-playing game history | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Too much magic kept breaking Dungeons & Dragons—how fifth edition fixes it

Part of the fun of Dungeons & Dragons comes from increasing your character’s power. Some of that added power comes from magic: spellcasters gain more and more powerful spells and everyone gains magic items.

He's just my characters henchman

He is just my character’s henchman

From the beginning, the game’s designers struggled to grant players magical powers without making them so powerful that the game lost its challenge. In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax mocked PCs who gained too much magic. “These god-like characters boast and strut about with retinues of ultra-powerful servants and scores of mighty magic items, artifacts, relics adorning them as if they were Christmas trees decked out with tinsel and ornaments.” Still today, gamers compare over-equipped characters to Christmas trees.

As a remedy, Dungeons & Dragons imposed a few limits on what magic items could combine effects. For example, rings of protection did not stack with magical armor. Mostly though, Gary asked dungeon masters to award fewer magic items. In practice, DMs rarely noticed that their players had gained too much magic until the game broke.

Even shrewd DMs might overlook problems caused by the right combination of items. In second edition, a girdle of giant strength could add its strength bonus to another bonus from gauntlets of ogre power. (Note to new players: A girdle is a belt, and 5E now includes a belt of giant strength, depriving new players of the obvious, juvenile gags that we old-timers relished.) The combination turned dart-throwing fighters into living Maxim guns. A dart just inflicted 1-3 damage, so even though characters could throw three darts in an attack, darts seemed weak. However, a fighter could use their multiple attacks to throw a lot of darts, and they added their strength bonus to each dart’s damage. If a fighter gained a few strength enhancements, every encounter became the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. The Dungeon Master’s Guide even hinted at the combo. “Gauntlets [of ogre power] are particularly desirable when combined with a girdle of giant strength and a hurled weapon.” The exploit just required DMs as careless as the game’s designers and fighters able to tolerate the embarrassment of relying on darts.

In third edition, the designers added a fix: they cut the rate of fire for darts. Plus, they worked for wider improvements.

Typed bonuses

Combinations like the girdle and gauntlets showed how stacking bonuses could break the game’s math. The old fix would add the girdle—now belt—and gauntlets to a list of items that did not combine, right after rings of protection. The designers recognized that such a case-by-case treatment would create problems as the game grew. Instead, third edition introduced a system of typed bonuses. Bonuses of the same type never added, so an enhancement bonus would add to a morale bonus, but not another enhancement bonus. Now the belt and gauntlets both added enhancement bonuses, which did not add.

Players needed vigilance to notice that, say, a bonus from a spell overlapped with a bonus from a magic item. Even well-meaning players occasionally made mistakes when they applied bonuses. Few players liked to keep track of it all.

In 3E, the scheme could have worked better if the designers had managed to settle on a small set of bonus types, and then stick to them. But as the game expanded, the number of bonus types grew too. Each new type opened another opportunity for min-maxers.

Despite the flaws of typed bonuses, the system worked well enough to reappear in the fourth edition. Presumably, the designers pledged to hold to a short list of types.

Item slots

One limitation reduced the decorations on Christmas-tree PCs by limiting magic items to one per body part. This restriction relied on common sense until third edition’s Magic Item Compendium quantified body parts as item slots.

Fourth edition reduced the number of item slots and linked types of enhancements to specific slots. For example, any enhancement to armor class had to come from armor, while items in the neck slot improved other defenses. The ring of protection became the neck slot’s amulet of protection, but amulets could no longer enhance AC. The game added cloth armor so Wizards could gain an AC bonus.

Item slots worked perfectly, but once players added boons from powers and abilities, the game allowed extreme optimizations. I once ran a convention game for a paragon-tier table that included a defender optimized for maximum defense. Monsters could only hit him on a roll of 20. Even their lucky blows dealt negligible damage. The battles all started with the defender using a power to lock down all the monsters, forcing them to thrash uselessly at his invincible defenses. The rest of the party could attack with impunity. As the adventure continued, I added enemies to the battles, but utterly failed to challenge the party. Did anyone have fun? A few players enjoy D&D games that fail to challenge them. They relish the chance to step into a character able to steamroll any opposition. Certainly the defender’s player felt he had triumphed over D&D. I could only hope that the other players enjoyed a chance to romp through combat encounters, but I doubt they all did. Does a player deserve any blame for bringing a character that makes the game less fun for other party members?

Scarcity

In 1979, Gary told dungeon masters to limit the magic items players gained, but he offered nothing more than tough love. The game needed a simple way for DMs to assess the power of the items they gained.

“Third Edition replaced loosey-goosey guidelines with very clear ones—clear almost to the point of being rules,” James Wyatt wrote. “There was an expected progression of treasure for characters, expressed as gold piece value but translating directly to magic item value.”

DMs tracked the cash value of the treasure they awarded. In principle, DMs never had to worry about which magic items players owned, just their total value.

Fourth edition was optimized for players who enjoyed customizing characters and then showing off their abilities on the battlefield. For maximum customization, players had to control every aspect of character building, including magical equipment. Magic items moved to the Player’s Handbook and became easy to buy and trade. The designers supposed that if players held to the item budgets, gameplay would remain balanced. Eventually, the burgeoning 4E game broke the budget system. As new magical catalogs reached stores, PCs gained options and access to more combinations. Soon, dungeon masters missed the days when they could limit characters by limiting the magic that entered their game.

D&D Essentials added a rarity system to 4E’s original scheme. Players still picked common items, but the DM controlled rare items. In organized play, the rarity system offered a simple way to limit the number of powerful, rare items owned by a single PC.

Fifth edition’s solutions

When fifth edition’s designers faced the old problem of saving the game from too much magic, they knew that earlier solutions had proven flawed. So they scrapped typed bonuses and item slots. Instead, they revisited item rarities and adopted an ingenious new fix: attunement.

Attunement

Powerful magic items require characters to create a magical bond called attunement with the item. Without becoming attuned, characters only gain an item’s mundane benefits, so that ring of invisibility just dresses up your finger. A item can be attuned to only one character at a time and the character can be attuned to more than three magic items at once.

Attuning an item takes as long as a short rest, reducing any temptation to carry golf bags of magic swords or staffs.

The three-item limit deters combinations of magic items from breaking the game. For example, rings require attunement, so even if you dress all 10 fingers in Rings of Protection, you can only benefit from three, yielding a +3 bonus to armor class. Three items may allow some combinations, but the designers learned from past mistakes. You can attune both gauntlets of ogre power and a belt of giant strength, but each pegs your Strength at a fixed number. And darts no longer have a rate of fire.

The attunement system eliminates a need for strict item slots. Instead the Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “Use common sense to determine more than one of a given kind of magic item can be worn.” See page 141.

The attunement system prevents the game from breaking under the weight of too many magic items. As long as designers avoid putting game-breaking combinations of items into the game, it works.

Rarity

In fifth edition, attunement limits the number of powerful magical items that benefit a character, but many items work without attunement. A player who stacks enough items can strain the game’s math. To help dungeon masters avoid problems, the game adopts a version of fourth edition’s rarity system. In a game with a typical amount of magic, the rules suggest that players not gain any very rare items until they reach level 11.

How does this work in play? With unlimited access to magic, and three items attuned, a character could gain a 29 armor class from equipment: +3 plate (very rare), +3 shield (very rare), +1 ring of protection (rare, attunement), +3 defender weapon (legendary, attunement), +1 ioun stone (rare, attunement).

The 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide never spells out how much magic characters should get, but on page 38, the Starting Equipment table offers a suggestion.

In a game with a standard amount of magic, a new, 17th-level PC will own one rare magic item. Even in a high-magic game, that PC gets two rare items and one very rare +3 item. The legendary defender weapon ranks above very rare—an extraordinary find in a high-level, high-magic game. If any DMs allow a player to gain the five items needed for a 29 AC, their game has mutated into the gonzo of Neutronium Golems and the Dread Vampusa. (Can I sit in on that game?)

The Dungeon Master’s Guide provides few guidelines for how much magic to award. On page 135, a table suggest the levels PCs should reach before they gain items of a particular rarity. The book never tells how many items PCs should be getting as they level. Perhaps the authors felt any suggestions would be received as rules, and preferred to leave quantities to a DM’s taste. Perhaps the authors just ran out of time. Either way, I hope the designers move to fill the gap.

Next: Another way magic breaks D&D

Posted in Role-playing game design, Role-playing game history | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

How Queen of the Demonweb Pits opened Dungeons & Dragons to the multiverse

In Dragon magazine issue 8, published July 1977, Gary Gygax proposed the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology, a great wheel of planes surrounding the prime material. The existence of infinite planes “will vastly expand the potential of all campaigns which adopt the system—although it will mean tremendous additional work for these DMs.”

planes in Dragon magazine number 8

Diagram of planes from Dragon magazine number 8

The countless planes showed how D&D could go beyond the dungeon and the wilderness and into new worlds. The system revealed exciting potential, but Gary set an ambitious goal. “Different planes will certainly have different laws and different inhabitants (although some of these beings will be familiar). Whole worlds are awaiting creation, complete invention, that is.” The outer planes offered so many possibilities that setting an adventure in them made a formidable challenge. Players would wait years for any product to go beyond the prime material.

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits CoverIn 1978, Gary published module D3, Vault of the Drow. At its conclusion, the players locate a strange mural. “The mural itself is a scene resembling a starry sky, but a tunnel of webs stretches into space.” This vortex is a gate “to the plane of the Abyss, where Lolth actually dwells.” The text explains that this journey to the Abyss will be handled in module Q1, Queen of the Demonweb Pits. (For those who do not plan to play the sequel, Gary suggests that characters passing the gate be considered slain. Suggested dialog: “You could be taking your character on another thrilling adventure, but it’s not released yet. So instead, you’re dead.” In 1978, Gary could be capricious when he drew the line between the correct action and, “Wrong move—you’re dead!”)

Rereading Gary’s promise of letting PCs travel to the Abyss to confront Lolth, I remember the anticipation I felt in 1978.

But Gary seemed deterred by his own ambitious goals for planar adventures. Instead of completing Queen of the Demonweb Pits, he set the project aside “until a considerable period of time could be spent addressing it.” Soon, work on the Dungeon Master’s Guide demanded all his time. For two years, characters entering Lolth’s gate faced summary execution.

The Demonweb

The Demonweb

The delay ended when artist David C. Sutherland III pitched his own finale. Gary wrote that the adventure “was taken out of my hands by [TSR executive Brian Blume] when Sutherland discovered the ‘Demonweb’ pattern in a hand towel and talked Brian into using it as the main theme for the concluding module. I had no creative control over it.” (Although many sources report that the Demonweb pattern came from a placemat, Sutherland confirmed that his inspiration was a towel.)

The adventure reached print in 1980. Now players could venture to Lolth’s own level of the Abyss—the Demonweb. For the first time, TSR demonstrated adventure on the outer planes.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits gets some criticism for its execution. The creatures in the Demonweb—even those in Lolth’s stronghold—fail to match the setting. Players encounter ogres, trolls, ettins, bugbears, and even a roper, but no drow. In an rpg.net review Lev Lafayette describes her stronghold as a “boring zoo.” In the god-slaying finale, any dungeon master who makes cunning use of Lolth’s abilities will annihilate parties in the module’s recommended levels. On the other hand, she only has 66 hit points, so a careless DM could see her slain in a round. The module spends pages describing changes to the effects of spells cast on the Abyss, but no one liked dealing with all the changes.

You can fault some details in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but not its big ideas. This adventure took the scope of Dungeons & Dragons and blew it wide open.

Start with the Demonweb, a web of pathways floating through impenetrable fog. The material of the path moves slightly. “Close examination will reveal faces, twisted and tortured, pressed against some invisible barrier, silently mouthing screams and howls.” These are the lost souls of the Abyss. The Demonweb captured an unsetting and chaotic feeling that suited the demon queen of spiders.

Along the path, unsupported doors open into extradimensional spaces. At first, these doors lead to Lolth’s creatures. On the last level of the web, the doors open on alternate material planes that she targets for attack or other schemes. In a look at the module, James Maliszewski wrote, “A key to portraying planar travel effectively is grandeur—the sense that one’s home world is just a tiny speck floating on a giant ocean and you’ve only just begun to plumb its unknown depths.” The Demonweb and its portals delivers this sense of grand scope.

In the Abyss, some spell effects change in evocative ways. For example, restoring an arm with the Regenerate spell may regrow a limb demonically twisted.

Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. If Wild Wild West producer Jon Peters were cool enough for D&D, I might suppose he took his obsession with giant mechanical spiders from the spider queen. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk. I loved it. A diet of Michael Moorcock books and Arduin had already shattered my reservations about mixing such elements. The spider-ship seemed like a fitting creation for a goddess whose power spanned a multiverse. The ship’s inscrutable purpose and destination suited her chaos.

The adventure’s plot may not have matched Gary’s plan, but I suspect the Demonweb surpassed any of Gary’s ideas for the setting. In 1980, before the Manual of the Planes, before Planescape, Queen of the Demonweb Pits showed the way to the planes. Fans of Planescape can find its roots in the Demonweb.

Are you still curious about Gary’s original plan for the adventure? He wrote, “My concept was that Eclavdra was aiming at dominance of the drow through using the Elder Elemental God to replace Lolth. She, as the chief priestess of the elemental deity, would then be the mistress of all. The final scenario was to have been one in which the adventurers got involved in the battle between the evil entities and made it so that both lost and were tossed back to their own planes, relatively powerless in the Mundane world for some time to come.” Gary had an ambitious plan, heavy on intrigue, but without the vision—and hand towels—that led to the Demonweb.

Posted in Role-playing game history | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What things do I need to play Dungeons & Dragons?

If you have seen the Dungeons & Dragons played on TV or in a live play video, you might suppose that playing requires a lot of maps, miniatures, props, and other gear. While many players enjoy using the accessories, D&D is a game of imagination that requires dice and virtually nothing else. Many players prefer to keep play in their imagination, unburdened by gear.

The things you need for a Dungeons & Dragons game depends on your game’s style and how much you wish to spend.

Required: Rules and Dice

To start, all you really need rules and dice.

Start with the free-to-download Basic Rules. Print some blank character sheets from the one that appear at the end of the basic rules.

D&D uses an unusual set of dice, each with a different number of sides.

d4 d6 d8 d10 d12 d20

4-sided 6-sided 8-sided 10-sided 12-sided 20-sided

d100The ten-sided die shows a 0 on one side, but that counts as a 10. Some dice sets include a second 10-sided die numbered from 00 to 90. To generate a number from 1-100, you add a roll on this die with a roll on the other d10 , with a roll of all zeroes counting as 100.

Ten-sided dice with just 10 sides first appeared for sale in 1980. Before that, players rolled a twenty-sided die numbered from 0 to 9, twice. Those rounder d10s roll better, so I prefer them over the modern version, but I stopped using them. Whenever I made a damage roll with my 20-sided d10s, my players would panic. What sort of monster rolls d20s for damage! I will happily interrupt a post for a gaming history lesson, but not a combat encounter.

You just need one of each die, but many rolls add more than one result from the same size die. If you buy extra dice, you can make these rolls faster by throwing several dice a once. Veteran players tend to collect bags of dice.

More rules options

You could play D&D for years without anything more than the basic rules, but most players eventually seek even more options.

The Player’s Handbook expands your character options and makes a good first purchase.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the Dungeon Master (DM) acts as the games referee and storyteller. If you want to be a Dungeon Master, the Monster Manual adds monsters beyond those in the free Basic Game. The Dungeon Master’s Guide can wait until you’ve run a few games and feel an urge for more advice, options, or magic items.

Some DMs prefer to start with a published adventure. The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set includes the adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver which ranks as an excellent adventure and a good start for new DMs. Of course, many DMs prefer to dream up their own adventures.

Optional: Battle map

Unlike some earlier editions, the latest version of Dungeons & Dragons enables you to play combats in the theater of the mind, a fancy way of saying in your imagination.

Theater of the mind works well for small battles, but for most encounters, I favor playing on a grid of 1-inch squares called a battle map. Blank, reusable battle maps let you draw walls and other features, and then wipe them clean.Doomvault Golem Foundry

The Pathfinder flip-mat works with both wet- and dry-ease markers and folds for easy storage. When laid out, the mat tents a little at the creases.

The Chessex Battemat rolls out and lays flat, but the rolled map is harder to carry. This vinyl map limits you to wet-erase markers.

Even if you choose to run some fights on a battle map, you do not need to invest in miniatures. Instead, just use any tokens that you can tell apart. For example, a lot of convention judges use Starbust candies to represent creatures on the battle map. They come in a variety of colors, and players like to eat the monsters they slay. You can also use 1-inch washers or game pieces from other games. NewbieM explains how to create tokens from inexpensive materials. D&D is a game of imagination first.

Optional: Dungeon Master Screen

Many DMs prefer to work without a screen that divides them from the group, but I favor a screen.

Mini dungeon master's screen on tableIn my very first post, I listed five reasons I use a DM screen. Mainly, I like keeping my notes secret. Most players avoid snooping, but with a screen no one has to worry about catching sight of a spoiler. If you decide to use a screen, you can purchase one, use my rules inserts, or make your own screen.

Even if you usually opt for a screen, you do not always have to use it. Sometimes when an adventure reaches an interactive section, I lay my screen flat and portray non-player characters without a barrier.

Accessories

For more gear options, see my “Photo Guide To Dungeon Masters Tools.”

Posted in Advice, Dungeon master's tools | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Deciding what backstory to print and what to cut

When I write these posts, I occasionally offer advice aimed a folks creating adventures and game materials for print. I realize that this represents a minuscule number of readers, so I fret about writing to an audience of no one. On the other hand, I post for kicks, so here I go again. If you lack interest, this won’t appear on the test. My next post will move to a different topic. You may be excused.

In “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory,” I complained about written adventures loaded with backstory that cannot possibly enter play. When I prepare to run a published adventure, I want only as much information as I need, when I need it. I know that this is an unreachable goal. Adventure authors must prepare me for actions my players won’t choose. Nonetheless, the goal stands.

Edmund Leighton - Tristan and Isolde - 1902

“Let me tell you about my campaign.”

When writing an adventure, save the “Adventure Background” section for last. Instead, write descriptions of backstory in the locations and scenes where players can discover it. An adventure may offer several ways to learn some essential backstory. You can repeat that background wherever it surfaces. I want information when and where I need it.

If backstory never comes up in a location or scene, that either means it’s not important or that you must find a way to communicate it to the players during play. For more, see “How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session.”

Some authors feel tempted to stuff backstory into descriptions of non-player characters, but appending backstory to an NPC fails to do enough to put it into play. This approach tempts authors to pair NPCs with backstories that die with the NPC in 3 rounds. You can pair backstory with a character description, but only if you offer a way for players to learn the story.

As a dungeon master, I do appreciate a big picture look, so that “Adventure Background” does help me. When you finish writing your locations and scenes, go back and look at the history that gets revealed. You can then compile the subset that will enable the DM to understand the adventure. The telling details and sense of wonder can stay in the scenes and locations. If you finish your compilation and realize that some essential piece of background doesn’t appear in your compilation, then you know you failed to offer a way to communicate that background to the players. Dream up a few ways that the players can learn the background, then drop the element into the adventure.

Posted in Advice | Tagged | Leave a comment

How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session

Adventures should focus on the present, but they can still draw from your game world’s past. Exposing players to a little backstory makes the world feel more connected and vibrant. The imaginary seems more real.

I prefer to reveal backstory through dialog. This lets the players learn as they interact. They can role play their characters’ reactions. Players can ask questions, and feel clever when the answers lead to more insights.

Creating a source of backstory

Bound and unbound books and manuscripts on shelves and a table (Leiden, 1630)Backstory can come from more sources than a hoary sage or captured henchman. People hear things, and in fantasy your sources can be something other than people. Your players can get information from a range of sources that add flavor and even launch plotlines.

  • a local busybody or snoop.
  • a fortune teller whose insights come from a network of gossips rather than anything supernatural.
  • servants and slaves, ignored by their masters, but privy to intimate conversations.
  • an immortal creature or a ghost bound to a particular location or object.
  • a thief who discovered something in the course of a crime.
  • a shapeshifter who spies in animal form.

Opening a dialog

The best time to reveal backstory is when players seek it because they have questions to answer. See “When to introduce backstory in a role-playing adventure.” For example, if a party stops a pig farmer’s shack to ask about a strange light, and they notice that he flies the banners of the lost kingdom, someone will ask about the banners.

If you cannot lead the players to ask the right questions, then you can have a non-player character (NPC) volunteer essential background, but keep the dose small. The players will tolerate a pig farmer who mentions that the last king ascended to the heavens from atop yon hill. They won’t listen to the king’s lineage.

When you make an NPC stand out, or put her in the path of adventure, players may decide to talk. Aim to let curiosity drive the the players. If you lavish too much attention on a bystander, players will metagame and assume that the spotlight obligates them to approach. No one likes to feel steered.

Sometimes NPCs will approach the players. In a world without mass communications, locals will seek wanderers with news from afar, and will bring gossip to share. If the players decide the pig farmer is not worth their time, then perhaps he wants to to know if anyone saw his lost sow. “She likes the berries that grow on yon hill. It’s special, you know.” Remember: small doses.

Revealing backstory in writing

Of course, sometimes no one knows the information the players need. At times, I’ve resorted to letting characters uncover a bunch of backstory written in a letter, or a journal entry, or an old book page. This tactic lets players learn from a dead or missing source. It avoids the risk that players will kill someone who knows something essential. It lets me create a prop.

But this approach suffers from serious drawbacks:

  • Reading a page loses the interaction players gain when they speak to a non-player character.
  • No one wants to stop participating to read. Often players’ handouts languish on the table
  • Only one player can read at once, unless you print copies. You can enlist someone to read aloud, but listening to someone drone never seems compelling.

If you must offer written backstory, make it short. The chance to inform without spending time at the table tempts some DMs to cast pages of backstory as a tome or journal, and then to dump them on the players. This only works if players can study between sessions, and many—perhaps most—players will skip the homework.

When did you last see a movie or TV show that expected you to read something to understand the story? I can answer that. When did you last see a Star Wars movie? Even in 1977, the introductory text seemed quaint. George Lucas wanted to evoke the movies he saw as a kid. If you can think of another movie that requires reading, I suspect it’s black and white, perhaps even silent. Contemporary movies find a way to communicate though dialog and images rather then text, and a game should aspire to more interaction than a movie.

Written backstory works best when it supports interaction. First players meet with the sage, then they get a copy of the lecture notes. If you have a journal or tome for the players, put it in the hands of an NPC who has read it. The NPC can tell what it says and contribute extra information to the discussion. When the discussion ends, the players have a text to reference.

Iceberg adventures

Although I dislike trudging through pages of adventure background just to run a published adventure, I hate when authors imagine nuggets of evocative backstory, put them in print, and then fail to offer any way for players to discover them.

Some adventures resemble icebergs, with a background that could make the game world come to life submerged and doomed to stay hidden. Of course, most adventure backgrounds drown the flavorful morsels with cruft the author could not bear to cut. For more, see “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory.”

When I run a published iceberg, I aim to break the ice. After I finish reading, I return to the background and look for all the interesting bits of history and scheming, motive and magic that might enhance play, if only I can bring them to the table.

Posted in Advice | Tagged , | 2 Comments