The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory

When I got my copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I first looked at topics that overlap with posts I plan for this blog. If the DMG already said it, I will work on something else. Turns out, as good as the book is, I still have things to add.

In chapter 3, “Creating Adventures,” the book lists “Elements of a Great Adventure.” The list covers familiar ground, but one entry surprised me. Great adventures should put a clear focus of the present. “Instead of dealing with what happened in the past, an adventure should focus on describing the present situation.” The author wisely lists positive elements to aim toward, rather than negatives to avoid, but I see the negative: backstory. Avoid weighing your adventure with history and background that players either cannot see or don’t care about. This surprised me because Dungeon magazine once ranked as the number one perpetrator of excessive backstory.

Dungeon magazine 25For a paragon of superfluous backstory, see this room description from Dungeon 25. “Trophy Room. This room once contained trophies of war. Swords, spears, and armor of all kinds were dedicated here to the everlasting glory of the fallen orc leaders. Centuries ago, the walls were draped with elven banners, dwarves sigils, gnome heraldry, and the flags and standards of men, goblins, and various orc tribes. The moonorc leaders have stripped the room of anything useful in order to outfit the tribe. The weapons and armor were quickly divided among the warriors, while the flags and banners were torn down and used for blankets or ripped apart and resewn into bags, sacks, and clothing. The room now contains only refuse and rusty, unusable equipment.” The description could just list “refuse and rusty, unusable equipment,” but adds 100 words of fluff that cannot possibly come into play.

The quote comes via Bryce Lynch’s crabby, entertaining reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures on tenfootpole.org.

Of course, most backstory appears in the front of adventures under the heading “Adventure Background,” and starting with the words, “A century ago…,” followed by three more pages of background. For anything more complicated than goblin raiders, authors feel obligated to start their background a millennium ago.

Some backstory improves a game. Anyone building a world—or just a dungeon—must imagine the history of the place to make it consistent. Creating a backstory can inspire ideas. When players notice a little history, the game world feels more connected and vibrant.

But adventures never arrive light on backstory. I feel annoyed when an adventure makes me trudge through pages of phony history to run a game session. Judging by Bryce Lynch’s reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures, I feel pretty sure backstory killed his parents.

Why do authors weigh down adventures with superfluous backstory? I count three reasons:

  • Forgetting that adventures exist to be played. Unnecessary backstory seemed to peak in the era of the campaign setting, what James Maliszewski calls D&D’s Bronze Age (1990-1995). During this era, TSR seemed to produce products to be read more than played. They published seven campaign settings supported by mountains of supporting material and novels. Nobody could play a fraction of it all. If an adventure exists more to be read than played, then backstory adds as much as playable content.
    I have the theory that the folks who write role-playing adventures do it because they like to write. I know, crazy. You would think they would do it for the cash and girls. Some writers seem to discover that simply writing RPG products scratches the same creative itch that once led them to play role-playing games. Over time, the writing assignments pile up, their gaming buddies move on, and these writers find themselves writing for role-playing games, but not playing them. During this same bronze age, I seem to recall a lot of designers admitting that they no longer played the games they wrote for.
  • An obligation to justify the elements of the adventure. Dungeons have changed from the original monster hotels peppered with rooms plucked from a lethal funhouse. Even in a fantasy world, players and DMs expect things to make sense. In Backstory and Adventure Design, Gus L writes, “One of the best parts of wonder, strangeness and exploration is figuring out why and how something is in the game world and how it connects to the rest of that world. Without context, a dungeon is just a series of puzzles, rewards and enemies.” In this spirit, I offered “5 reasons someone might build a dungeon filled with clues and tests.”
     
    Remember when your math teacher insisted that you show your work? I’m a DM. I just want answers—just the history that enhances play. I appreciate if you can justify every detail of an adventure with some torturous back story, but you can keep most of it to yourself. I don’t need the history of Krypton to enjoy a Superman tale.
     

     
    When your creative process leads you to create an elaborate history that the players will never learn, the game will still benefit. An unseen backstory will inspire telling details that make the game world more vivid. That history will lend the setting and characters a consistency that they would otherwise lack. 
  • A desire to share the creative work that led to the adventure. Most authors who create an detailed history as part of their creative process cannot bear to leave it untold. So they write thousands of words under “Adventure Background” and force me to sift the nuggets that will enter play. Like every writer, adventure authors must murder their darlings. (Or at least put them in colored insets as I do.)

Next: When and how to introduce backstory

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Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons spell, special ability, and rules reference sheets

When I run fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons games, I find myself constantly turning to the Player’s Handbook to see if some spell requires an attack roll or a save. Then I close the book and realize that I forgot to check the damage. At the end of the session, I tally experience and every player wants to know how much they need to level. Back to the book.

quick reference thumbnailAce dungeon master and D&D Championship teammate Tom Christy comes to the rescue with a set of compact reference sheets. One pair of sheets covers spells and special abilities. Another sheet somehow includes every rule in the game, with space remaining for a list of Forgotten Realms holidays. (I’m not kidding about the holidays; I may be exaggerating about all the rules, but I cannot be certain.)

You can download the sheets here.

D&D 5E spell and special ability reference (PDF)

D&D 5E quick reference (PDF)

The sheets include the following abbreviations:

B = bonus
C = concentration
S = self
T = touch
cr = creature
obj = object
D = duration
AD = advantage
DA = disadvantage
lv = level
/ = or
+ = and
Neg = negates
Thp = temp hp
SS/DS/… = Strength Save, Dex Save, etc.
SC/DC/… = Strength Check, Dex Check, etc.

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How knowing the difference between a setting book and an adventure helps craft better adventures

What makes an adventure different from a setting book? Both start with maps, locations, and characters, but what extra ingredients turn a source book into an adventure? You might name story or plot as that essential extra bit, but early adventures lacked anything like a story. Many players favor adventures without plots, where you can enjoy as much freedom to play as a sandbox.

Not an adventure

Not an adventure

The fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “An adventure typically hinges on the successful completion of a quest.” The word “quest” adds some gravity to what could just be a search for loot, so I say “goal.”

Adventures start with a goal that leads to obstacles. The first dungeon adventures presents characters with the simple goal of retrieving treasure from the dungeon, and obstacles like monsters and traps that stand in the way. Forty years later, characters may chase other goals—they may never enter a dungeon, but the essential ingredients of goals and obstacles remain.

Even the most primitive D&D adventures assume the game’s default goal of gaining treasure to enhance your character’s power. The early game made this goal explicit by awarding characters experience points for treasure.

Setting books can include maps to explore, non-player characters to interact with, and perhaps even a monster lair, but without goals and obstacles, they fail to qualify as adventures.

The designers of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons focused their design on supporting three pillars of play: combat, exploration, and interaction. Adventure creators rarely struggle to create goals and obstacles for the combat and exploration pillars, but they often fail to properly support the interaction pillar.

A combat encounter features a built in goal—to survive—and ready obstacles, the monsters. Great combat encounters may feature more interesting goals, hazards, and traps, but no one ever built a combat encounter by pitting characters against butterflies and rainbows.

To support exploration, adventures pair maps with number keys. Adventure designers create maps for locations that players have a reason to explore and that presents obstacles. If the players decide buy horses, you do not need a map of the stables keyed with a description of what’s on the floor of each stall. Sometimes adventures include maps and keys for ordinary buildings with mundane contents, but most authors know better.

When adventure authors try to support interaction, they often falter. They devise non-player characters who the players have no reason to interact with—NPCs who do not fit a goal. See “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” They create NPCs who present no obstacle to the PCs’ progress. (Certainly a few NPCs can simply provide flavor or exposition, but most NPCs should do more.) NPCs best fit into an adventure when players encounter them in pursuit of a goal, and when they present some obstacle. By obstacle, I do not mean that NPCs must serve as creatures to fight. NPCs can act as obstacles in countless other ways.

But many adventures see print larded with NPCs that fail to support interaction. The authors devise rosters of colorful characters, but stop short of devising ways to put them in the paths of the PCs’ goals. Authors lavish text on some shopkeeper’s aspirations and home life just so he can sell rope.

For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen describes 22 NPCs who join the PCs on a two-month journey, but few of these NPCs entice the players to interact, and none act as obstacles. If I want to use any to “spice up the journey, or bring the trip to life,” I need to find ways to put them in scenes with the players. When I ran Hoard, I did this work. But designers Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur claimed a bit of my money while working as RPG designers—a dream job. I paid them to do the work for me. Instead they dumped a load of parts, and then left the work to me. Ironically, the dragon cultists on the same journey, who may serve as obstacles, get no description at all.

Not enough for interaction

Not enough for interaction

Adventure designers fail when they suppose that character descriptions alone provide enough basis for interaction. Like maps and monster stats, NPC descriptions cannot stand alone in an adventure. Scenes provide the true basis for interaction.

Scenes require at least one of these three elements: a goal, an obstacle, and a lead. The best have all three elements.

The goal for a scene stems from what the players think they can accomplish by meeting a non-player character. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Strike a deal with the troll to let you pass. Discover why the beggar keeps staring at the party. Whenever the players must persuade an NPC to provide help or information, they have a goal.

Scenes without goals begin when NPCs approach the PCs. These scenes can provide flavor or exposition. For example, the players may help a merchant who speaks of the ghost ship raiding the coast, or a beggar who explains how the wizard looks just like a legendary tyrant. Most scenes without a goal establish one when an NPC explains what they offer, and then what obstacles the PCs must overcome to gain cooperation.

If an NPC only provides flavor without advancing the PCs’ goals, the players may enjoy a brief interaction, but soon they will wonder why you judged the NPC worth bringing on stage. “Who is this guy? Did we miss something that should make us care?”

A scene’s simplest obstacle comes when players must devise the right questions to get information they need from a willing source. Greater obstacles appear whenever an NPC in a scene proves unwilling or unable to help. For more, see “22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.” Scenes without obstacles tend to play short. Once players get the bit of information or assistance they need, they tend to grow impatient, ready for the next challenge.

Even if an NPC helps the players, when a scene presents no obstacles, players will lose interest. If you devote too much time to colorful shopkeepers when the players just want gear, they will gripe. Perhaps not to you, but to me. I’ve heard them. A lack of obstacles means that an adventure’s denouement, where the PC’s patron grants treasure and ties up loose ends, never seems very compelling.

Most scenes end with at least one lead, some clue or item that directs the players to their next step. For example, a lead could be the identity of the burglar who stole the Casket of Wrath, or the key to the vault. The best scenes end with a choice of leads to follow.

Fourth edition Living Forgotten Realms adventures often supported interaction with scenes rather than just characters. The fifth-edition adventures I’ve seen lapse back to just listing NPCs. Why? I suspect the 5E designers associate scenes with railroading. They wish to break from the tight-plotting of 4E adventures, where players moved between encounter numbers 1-2-3, in order. Instead, they list characters, and so force me to give players a reason to meet them in scenes.

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

Scenes in the Living Forgotten Realms Adventure ELTU3-1 Good Intentions

The plots and NPCs in recent adventures like Hoard of the Dragon Queen and especially Murder in Baldur’s Gate show true ambition. I suspect the designers aimed for the role-playing equivalent of the n-body problem with the players and NPCs scheming, acting, and reacting in ways too dynamic for the constraints of scenes and encounters. So the authors delegate keeping track of all the threads to the dungeon master. We must become George R. R. Martin, except instead of getting years to hash out the details, we must improvise. To add to the challenge, these adventures still expect dungeon masters to adhere to an overall story, so I find myself choosing whether to use DM mind tricks to nudge the players back on course or to allow them to stray completely off text.  For me, the ambition of these adventures works better in scenarios I create, when I have a complete understanding of moving parts that I created. Published adventures work best when the DM can operate without mastery of entire storyline and its many, moving parts. They work best when they hold to encounters, locations, and scenes—with ample, meaningful choices for the players to choose a course from scene to scene.

Scenes do not contribute to railroading any more than dungeon walls. Railroading comes when adventures fail to offer players choices. If every scene ends with exactly one lead, then you have a railroad. If each scene ends with a few leads that offer interesting, meaningful choices, then you have adventure.

Related: For an example of my struggle to injecting more interaction into an adventure, see “What Murder In Baldur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing.”

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My recommendations for fifth-edition D&D spellcasters and components

In my last post, I looked for an official way to make the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons rules for for spell components and free hands match the way players operated at the table—with little attention to what characters have in hand.

This may soon become obsolete, and that makes me happy. Alphastream, who has earned a much greater stature in the Dungeons & Dragons community than I have, gave my gripes a boost that garnered the attention of designer Jeremy Crawford.

alphastream-jeremy_crawfordIf needed, I am prepared to take 100% of the credit for spurring Jeremy to act, although he probably had the article planned before I posted.

As I wrote my original post, I created the following suggestions for rulings and house rules, so you, dear reader, get them despite their brief relevance.

Doomvault Golem FoundryFirst, I suggest allowing the characters with the War Caster feat to use a weapon as a spellcasting focus. This small change offers a path that lets most martial-spellcasters to operate without headaches.

For many classes, I have a suggested rulings and additional house rules. The rulings steer close to the rules as written, while the house rules introduce small changes that makes classes work as players expect.

Class Suggested Ruling House rule
Bard Bards need a free hand for components or their musical instrument. For El Kabong, the instrument doubles as a weapon. Bards in the College of Valor may use a melee weapon as a bard spellcasting focus.
Cleric For clerics, brandishing a worn holy symbol or one on a shield satisfies the need for both somatic and material components.
Druid Druids who wish to carry a shield can opt to use staff as a spellcasting focus in the other hand. The staff doubles as a weapon. Druids may use visibly worn mistletoe, holly or totemic objects as a focus that satisfies the need for both somatic and material components.
Fighter – Eldritch Knight Eldritch knights may cast while holding a two-handed weapon in one hand. Those who wish to carry a shield should plan on taking the War Caster feat. Eldritch knights may use their bonded weapon as a spellcasting focus.
Paladin For paladins, brandishing a worn holy symbol or one on a shield satisfies the need for both somatic and material components.
Ranger Rangers who opt for the two-weapon fighting style should plan on taking the War Caster feat. Rangers who choose the two-weapon fighting style may use a melee weapon as a ranger spellcasting focus.

 

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Lawful DM and Chaotic DM answer questions about spellcasting and free hands

When I saw the fifth-edition basic Dungeons & Dragons rules, I concluded that the designers wanted to make the rules match the way players obviously want to play—with little concern for time spent swapping weapons and spell components. For example, the rules allow clerics and paladins to cast with a holy symbol worn or emblazoned on a shield. The text never connects the dots and says that a cleric or paladin can cast with a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, but we should know they can because clerics and paladins always have.

But the Player’s Handbook made me doubt the designers had given much thought to the matter. The full rules prompted more questions on hands and spellcasting than any other topic. Then the  designers’ answers made the game convoluted. For exhibit A, see this September 5 tweet from Jeremy Crawford.

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

To follow Jeremy’s suggestion, players of clerics and paladins must sheath their weapon, cast the spell, and then wait until next turn to draw their weapon, but only for spells that just require somatic components. For the first time, players must account for components during ordinary play.

The rules seem just as awkward for dual-wielding rangers, shield-bearing druids in the College of Valor, and eldritch knights. These characters must sheath their weapon, cast the spell, and then wait until next turn to draw their weapon.  In the past, similar character types never forced players to endure such friction. Even players careful enough to spend actions to switch gear would rather not play that game.

An ideal D&D game would allow characters that combine martial prowess with spellcasting to operate as they always have—without a worrying about stowing weapons to free a hand to cast.

Some dungeon masters will simply adapt and interpret the rules to suit a vision like mine, but those of us running games at conventions and stores lack that option. We must stick to the official rules. When players sit at my table, I want their dual-wielding ranger to play the way their intuition and past experience suggests.

Drizzt Do'Urden statueThe War Caster (p.170) feat could have let that dual-wielding ranger operate more freely, but it just adds complexity.  The feat lets someone cast without a hand free for somatic components, but not material components.  So dual-wielding rangers, shield-bearing druids, and eldritch knights now need to keep track of which spells require material components, and to swap gear to cast these spells. Good grief.

How should the game work? For answers, I scoured the rules and the advice of sages, but I failed to find any definitive answers that I can pass on. So I turned to my two imaginary fiends, Lawful DM and Chaotic DM, for answers. I will support their answers with responses tweeted by the designers. You can reference the tweets among many others on thesageadvice.wordpress.com. Although the tweets come from the designers, they represent unofficial, off-the-cuff guidance.

Question Lawful DM Chaotic DM
Can you cast a spell that uses somatic components if you wield a two-handed weapon? No. (Mike Mearls, August 2) Allowing this  favors martial-spellcasters with a two-handed weapon over those with a shield. The game should not encourage more greatsword-wielding, spellcasting, chaotic Elric wannabes. Yes. A two-handed weapon needs two hands to be used, but not  two to be carried. (Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford, September 28)
Can the arcane or druidic focus staff double as a quarterstaff? Yes. (Mike Mearls September 9)
Can a cleric or paladin cast a spell while wielding a weapon and brandishing a holy symbol worn or emblazoned on their shield? Yes. Thankfully Jeremy Crawford’s answer does not represent an official ruling that players must follow. Instead, defer to 40 years of tradition. Yes. (Mike Mearls September 9 and the entire history of the game from 1974 on.)
Can a Druid,  Ranger, Eldritch Knight, or a Bard with shield proficiency cast spells while bearing a shield and wielding a weapon. No. The character must take the War Caster feat (p.170) to gain some of this ability. Druids and Eldritch Knights may opt to use a staff that doubles as a weapon and focus, but Knights wielding staffs risk having Barbarians make fun of them. Yes. Just stow that weapon in the shield hand for a moment. (Mike Mearls, August 28)
Can a character cast spells while wielding two weapons? No. The character must take the War Caster feat (p.170) to gain some of this ability. Wizards have never dual-wielded daggers, and they should not start now. Yes, because Rangers have cast spells while wielding two weapons since second edition in 1989. (But not since Drizzt first appeared in The Crystal Shard in 1988, because Drizzt doesn’t cast. He has a DM who respects the rules. – Lawful DM)
What if my dual-dagger-wielding wizard carries a lot of daggers and drops them when he needs a free hand to cast? Okay, but your parents did not spend all that money on wizarding school so you could walk around with bandoliers of daggers like a common thief.

While Lawful DM and Chaotic DM may not help much, in my next post, I have some recommendations for your game.

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What must D&D spellcasters do with their hands?

In my last post, I discussed how expanding options and shrinking rounds turned what Dungeons & Dragons characters had in hand into something that mattered. I showed a mindset that avoids making gear in hand into a distraction at the table, but I dodged the area of the fifth-edition rules that leads to the most questions. What must a spellcaster have in hand to cast spells?

In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, no one worried what magic users could do with their hands. That changed when someone captured an enemy mage—or was captured themselves. Now players wondered if their imprisoned magic user could still cast. The 1977 Basic Set gave an official answer: A magic user “can then throw the spell by saying the magic words and making gestures with his hands. This means that a magic-user bound and gagged can not use his magic.”  The set credits Eric Holmes as editor, but the rules came from Gary Gygax and previewed things to come in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

The Compleat Enchanter

The Compleat Enchanter

By requiring wizards to speak and gesture, D&D enabled plots involving captive and helpless wizards, but Gary elected to go further. In The Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague deCamp and Fletcher Pratt, a character explains, “The normal spell consists of several components, which may be termed the verbal, somatic and material.” Even though material components seldom affected play, Gary added them, probably because he relished inventing witty spell components. For example, the Fireball spell requires bat guano because guano once served as a source of saltpeter, an ingredient in gunpowder. Aside from tickling Gary’s fancy, material components only occasional saw play, and then only as a story device. For example, the second-edition Dark Sun setting turned material components into one of many resources players struggled to find in a resource-poor world.

By fourth-edition, material components only applied to rituals, and then only as a means to cap ritual use by attaching a gold cost.  Of all the new changes that sparked protests, no one seemed to morn the loss of material components. Even the most hidebound players happily continued to ignore material components. Nonetheless, as a nod to tradition, fifth edition included material components. Many casters will opt to substitute a spellcasting focus instead.

Class Spellcasting alternative to material components
Bard Musical instrument (Player’s Handbook p.53)
Cleric Holy symbol (PH p.151). Can be worn or emblazoned on a shield.
Druid Druidic focus (PH p.151). May be a staff, which doubles as a quarterstaff weapon.
Fighter – Eldritch Knight Arcane focus (PH p.151).
Paladin Holy symbol (PH p.151). Can be worn or emblazoned on a shield.
Ranger No focus, so Rangers require material components to cast.
Rogue – Arcane Trickster Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Sorcerer Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Warlock Arcane focus (PH p.151)
Wizard Arcane focus (PH p.151)

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ignored the issue of how dual-wielding rangers and multiclassed elves could access material components while fighting with sword and shield. The game used minute-long combat rounds, and a first-level spell only took 6 seconds to cast, leaving plenty of extra time to gather components, repack a bag, and savor a juice box before the start of the next round.  The second-edition Player’s Handbook grants even more wiggle room. “The caster must…have both arms free.” Not hands, arms. It’s all in the wrists.

Players imagine a round as an exchange of blows, making the 1-minute round seem ludicrously long. So in third-edition, the round shrank to a mere six seconds. This seemed more plausible, but suddenly players needed to account for time needed to switch weapons and to being spell components to hand. Mialee, third edition’s iconic elf wizard, wore practical garb covered with pockets for easy access to spell components. (Plus, the midriff-baring outfit can be worn throughout pregnancy.) As a product of the shorter round, drawing or sheathing a weapon became a move action. In practice, few players paid much attention to what their characters held, with no more concern to freeing hands for spell gestures and components than in 1974.

Next: Lawful DM and Chaotic DM answer questions about spellcasting and free hands

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How I learned to care (a little) less about what PCs have in hand

Until the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, players hardly worried about what their characters had in hand during battle. Since then, the game’s designers have tried and failed to free players from needing to keep track. What your character held only started to matter when a expanding number of options met a much shorter combat round.

Expanding options

When Dungeons & Dragons appeared in 1974, no one worried about what characters had in their hands. Two-handed weapons dealt the same 1d6 damage as lighter arms, so you may as well carry a shield if you could. The rules presented no options for wielding two weapons. No one needed to worry about how their elves managed to cast spells while wielding a sword and shield, because elves could only switch from fighting man to magic user “from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game.” Besides, the requirement to speak and gesture would not enter the game for three more years.

In 1975, the Greyhawk supplement distinguished weapons with different damage dice. Now fighters could opt to use a two-handed sword for greater damage or to keep their shield and wield a regular sword. Gary Gygax presumes his audience of grognards will know that a halberd, for example, requires two hands. Even today, the rules do not mention that you cannot equip a shield and wield a two-handed weapon, because the designers assume everyone knows. (Although, they mention that you can only benefit from one shield at a time.)

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary introduced the option to fight with a weapon in each hand, but with penalties to each attack. Then in 1985, Unearthed Arcana opened the way for drow player characters. “Dark elves…may fight with two weapons without penalty provided each weapon may be easily wielded in one hand.” In the wake of Unearthed Arcana, author R. A. Salvatore created the ranger Drizzt, who could wield two blades due to his drow heritage.

The Crystal ShardI’m convinced that between Drizzt’s first appearance in The Crystal Shard (1988) and the introduction of second-edition AD&D in 1989, the two-weapon fighting ability jumped from drow to rangers, with Drizzt as the carrier. Second-edition author David “Zeb” Cook disagrees, “I’m not sure where the ranger took shape, though I know it wasn’t an imposition because of Drizzt. It was more to make them distinct and it fit with the style and image.”

But while Zeb led the second-edition design, many others contributed. A two-weapon ranger lacks any fictional inspiration other than Drizzt. Most likely, someone introduced the two-weapon style to rangers to put Drizzt within the rules, without realizing that his ability sprang from the drow race. Or perhaps, some designer simply liked how Drizzt’s scimitars fit the ranger class’s “style and image.”

The 6-second round

In AD&D, no one paid attention to how a spellcasting, two-weapon ranger managed to free a hand to cast, or how much time he needed to sheath both swords and draw a bow. Combat rounds lasted a full minute, and offered plenty of time to exchange gear. On page 61 of 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary wrote, “One-minute rounds are devised to offer the maximum of play choice with the minimum of complication. The system assumes much activity during the course of each round.”

The Adventures of Robin HoodGary modeled the round after the feints, maneuvering, and unsuccessful attacks seen in the climactic sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Still, players imagined rounds as a simple exchange of blows. One minute seemed far too long for that, and no one could explain why a bowman could only fire once per minute. In response, Gary devoted half of page 61 to defending the minute-long round.

Nonetheless, Basic D&D always held to 10-second rounds, and then third-edition D&D shrunk the round to 6 seconds. This fitted what players imagined, but it offered far less time to maneuver. As a product of the shorter round, drawing or sheathing a weapon became a move action.

In actual play, few players paid much attention to what their characters held. For example, they typically ignored the two move actions required to swap a bow for a sword. The actions may have better simulated the activity of a 6-second round, but the accounting added no fun.

Making the rules match play

Surely, the fifth-edition designers noticed that few players bothered tracking the
actions required to switch weaponry, spell components, and so on. They noticed that players who performed the accounting found no fun in it. So the designers attempted make the rules match the way players obviously wanted to play—with little concern for time spent swapping weapons and gear. In addition to your move and action, “You can also interact with one object of feature of the environment for free, during either your move or your action.

If you want to interact with a second object, you need to use your action.

The “free” action to manipulate one object may seem the same as fourth edition’s minor action, but if offers one important advantage: it plays faster. In fourth edition, players learned to tick off their actions as they used them. When they reached the end of their turn, they often realized that they still had a minor action to spend. Somehow, that unspent minor action seemed precious. It’s an action and I only get one! So they would pause to think of some way to spend it. I will never get back the hours I wasted watching players try to find dream up uses for their minor actions. Turning a minor action into something “free” makes it something players can ignore without angst.

But the one, free action fails to offer enough latitude to let players do things like sling a bow, draw a sword, and then make an attack, all in one turn. On September 9, designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “Without a special feature or feat, an Attack action could include sheathing or drawing a weapon, not both.” I understand the need for such a strict interpretation. I never want to hear, “Every turn, after I fire an arrow, I draw my sword in case I have a chance to make an opportunity attack.”

In practice, most players will switch weapons without a thought to the actions required, and without trying to pull any shenanigans. As a dungeon master, you have two choices: You can attempt to enforce a strict action economy, and tolerate the eye-rolling of players who dislike pedantic lectures on the rules. Or you can grant players some latitude and assume that perhaps the ranger saw the approaching goblins and slung her bow on her last turn, before drawing her blades on the current turn. We all know that turns exist to make the continuous action of the round playable. Perhaps the activity of the last turn blurs a bit with the next. However, when rules lawyers want to use a reaction, they have the same weapons in hand as when they ended their turn.

Related: Sky Roy at Bright Cape Gamer follows up on this subject and suggests a bit of “cinematic flexibility.”

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Is The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan overrated?

Adventure C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980) ranked 18 on Dungeon magazine’s list of the “30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time.” Compiled “with help from an all-star panel of judges including Ed Greenwood, Christopher Perkins, Bruce Cordell, and Monte Cook,” the list appeared in Dungeon 116, published November 2004. In 2011, Wizards of the Coast sent a promotional copy of the Shrine updated for fourth edition—more evidence that the adventure ranked as a classic.

Hidden Shrine of TamoachanAs you may know from my posts lauding tournament modules, I love modules stemming from competitions, especially those complete with scoring information—not that I ever keep score. The best tournament adventures focus on a series of challenges that demand player ingenuity. Both Escape from Astigar’s Lair and the Fez series feature an array of clever obstacles. Also, I love adventures with keyed illustrations for the players. The Hidden Shrine comes from the D&D tournament run at the Origins Game Fair in 1979, and includes point sheets and wonderfully evocative illustrations. Between the reputation and the scoring sheets, the Shrine seems like a certain classic in my book.

Except soon after the Shrine’s release, I started reading the adventure with an eye to running it, but lost interest, mired in the mud, slime, and rubble of the first level.

In the wake of the accolades, I figured that I my first look at the module must have stopped before I reached the good bits. Then I saw the shrine ranked #3 on Willmark’s list, “The Five Worst AD&D Modules of All Time and discovered that someone seemed to share my impression.

Inside the Hidden Shrine

Opinions of this adventure seem mixed. Based actual play, folks who enjoyed this adventure combined the detachment that comes from using red-shirted, pregenerated characters with a brisk pace enforced by the poison gas—and perhaps a convention’s 4-hour time slot. Players who probed the Shrine as a traditional dungeon crawl tended to brand the adventure as a slog. For the best game, you play the Shrine as designed, as a race against time to escape a death trap.

I had to read the adventure to the end. Does the The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan stand as a classic or an overrated dud?

Classic Overrated dud
Background. The Hidden Shrine draws from a caricature of Aztec and Mayan culture, just as traditional D&D draws from a caricature of the European middle ages. In a retrospective, James Maliszewski wrote, “The Mesoamerican flavor gives the whole thing an ambiance quite unlike other D&D modules. The whole thing has an ‘alien,’ exotic quality to it, which I think adds greatly to its appeal.” The background leads the adventure to pit the characters against monstrous snails, crayfish, and hermit crabs. While exotic, these creatures seem more suited to meeting Dora the Explorer than to menacing adventurers.
Locations. The Shrine features some unforgettable locations and cunning predicaments. In a ranking of classic modules, Loren Rosson III cites locations such as, “The Chapel of the Feathered Servant (one player fights an imaginary foe while the others are forced by a winged serpent to solve a puzzle), the Hall of the Smoking Mirrors (look into them if you dare), and the Hidden Room of the Alter-Ego (a statue duplicates the looks of one of the players and comes to life while that player turns to stone).” I love the immense room spanned by a miniature city, and featuring a duel with a doppelganger behind a curtain of flame. Dungeon’s 30-greatest list marks this as the Shrine’s defining moment. Particularly on the first level, the good moments seem overwhelmed by locations where PCs clear rubble, slog through silt and slime, and spring hidden traps. Too few of the adventures challenges require much ingenuity to surmount, threatening to turn the shrine into a tiresome struggle of attrition.
Illustrations. In “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations,” I wrote, “I first saw keyed illustrations in the Hidden Shrine and I became enchanted. The illustrations transported me into the Shrine more vividly than any text description could. The pictures showed detail that would have required all of those hypothetical 1000 words, and the details tantalized me with potential clues to the mysteries of the Shrine. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the Shrine, the designers loosed their imaginations, and it showed in the pictures.” The battle with the fire-breathing bat creature on the cover never takes place in the adventure.
Authors Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason reached beyond Aztec and Mayan culture for inspiration. In Jeff Dee’s illustration of the miniature city, the dragon boat in the room’s center looks oddly Chinese. The idea for the room and the boat comes from the article, “China’s Incredible Find,” in the April 1978 issue of National Goegraphic. The article features a fold-out picture of the sepulcher of China’s first emperor. A dragon boat bearing the copper coffin floats in a river of mercury at the center of a miniature recreation of the empire. The description notes that “invaders would have had to pass booby traps of hair-trigger crossbows to reach this prize.”
Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan may just rank as a classic, but like another classic, The Tomb of Horrors, players must tackle the Shrine with a time limit and a party of red shirts. Otherwise, the adventure can serve as inspiration. I have ideas for my own dungeon room featuring a miniature city.

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Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Kill the wizard

In fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, enemy spellcasters brought the same mix of encounter and recharging powers as every other monster of the same level. They posed the same threat, but with spell-flavored powers.

In fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, spellcasters have spells powerful enough to turn an combat into a quick victory. To balance this offensive power, PCs must make limited spell slots last through an adventuring day. But enemy spellcasters suffer no reason to pace themselves. As long as they remain in the fight, they can blast away.

In fifth edition, I have pitted a lot of evil spellcasters against groups of players, and I often see the PCs fail to give special attention to the casters. Big mistake.

In combat, in any edition, your party should focus attacks on one enemy at a time. By concentrating damage and eliminating enemies, you reduce the number of counterattacks your foes can mount. The fourth-edition Player’s Strategy Guide included a figure that showed the benefits of this tactic.

The advantages of focused fire

All this still holds, but the target with the most offensive power deserves special attention. That’s the guy raising a staff and speaking eldrich oaths. Find a way past the goons and hit the wizard with everything you have. Take him out fast. And stay out Lighting Bolt formation.

Protect the wizard

Smart monsters may use the same tactics against the party, so parties must work to protect their vulnerable wizards from attack. Is I explained in “Revisiting three corners of the new D&D rules,” the new rules for opportunity attacks rules can enable monsters to circle your front line and strike at the wizard in the middle. When possible, your wizard should stand three squares behind your melee characters.

Reaching the wizard without provoking a single attack

Reaching the wizard without provoking a single attack

If you play a wizard, then you must begin your adventuring day by casting Mage Armor on yourself. The spell lasts 8 hours and does not require concentration. Other defensive spells that do not require concentration include Mirror Image and Fire Shield.

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Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Do not horde your spell slots

From behind my dungeon masters screen, I keep seeing players hording their spell slots. Even as the wizard’s allies fall dying, even as the monsters bunch in a cluster ripe for a burning hands, he or she opts for another icy blast. Why?

Some of the reluctance comes from unfamiliarity with the spells. Fourth-edition character sheets listed powers and their effects right on the sheet; fifth-edition sheets offer no such descriptions. Many fifth-edition spells trace back to 1974, but to fourth-edition players, they all seem new. So instead of puzzling over Spiritual Weapon, the cleric chooses Sacred Flame again. None of this applies to you, because if you read D&D blog posts, you read your spell descriptions.

Defiance in Phlan at Gen Con 2014

Defiance in Phlan at Gen Con 2014

Even when players know the spells, fifth edition changes Dungeons & Dragons’ resource-management game, and so players struggle to decide when to spend a spell slot.

Fourth-edition characters had 3 types of resources: (1) encounter powers and other resources that renewed after every battle, (2) healing surges that characters virtually never exhausted, and (3) daily powers. In an easy fight, or even in a typical encounter, PCs rarely needed to reach past their renewable or barely-limited resources to tap daily powers. (For more on the changes to the frequency and scale of encounters, see “Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D Next to fourth edition.”)

In general, long-time 4E players used daily powers when either (1) a string of bad luck turned the odds to the monsters, or (2) the boss appeared for the adventure’s climax. In other words, you only use a daily to swing a fight that turns bad, or because your day ends with the current fight. If you spent daily powers early, you risked trading something you could not recover today for hit points and encounter powers that you would get back in five minutes.

To a player coming to fifth edition from fourth, a spell slot looks a lot like a daily power. These players learned to save their dailies for the boss. Meanwhile, the horde of creatures flooding the battlefield seems no more threatening than a group of minions. But fifth-edition adventures include fewer final bosses and no minions—that horde may kill you.

In a fifth-edition battle, feel free to spend your spell slots early, whenever you see a chance to get maximum effect. Cast them when you spot a way to target a multiple enemies with an area effect or to lock down the most dangerous foe early. Don’t worry about squandering a spell on a fight that you could have won anyway. Unlike in 4E, even easy fights tax your party’s resources. If your spell wins a quick victory, then your party emerges fresher for the next battle.

Obviously, don’t just fire at will, because you may need something for the next fight. Still, fifth-edition battles can go sour much faster than before. In 4E, even low-level parties brought ample hit points and healing. If the rogue got surrounded, the wizard locked in melee, and the cleric dropped, you still had extra time to change strategy, use daily powers, and turn the tide. That margin is gone. Use your spells now to keep your party from ever reaching such a perilous situation.

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