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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: How psionics accommodated D&D’s critics

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Do You Know that Good DM People Talk About? I Hate that Guy

Do you know that good DM everyone always talks about? I hate that guy. Actually, the guy could be a gal. We’ve never met. I just imagine a guy so I can picture myself punching him. Does that make me a bad person?

I’m sure plenty of good dungeon masters read this blog. I love you folks. I hope I play at your table.

The DM I hate is some guy people keep talking about. Shut up about a good DM.

Apparently, we DMs have to put up with grief because a good DM can fix it.

If an adventure suffers from poor organization, lapses in logic, dull encounters, weak hooks, or any other faults, a good DM can fix it. Any of us who struggle with it obviously don’t measure up to a good DM.

That good DM must think he’s so great.

When it comes to role-playing games, a good DM is willing to forgive any lapse and eager to fix any fault. No amount of extra effort is too much for the guy.

Has a rule ever caused trouble in your game? A good DM just patches problems with house rules. His players never mind stumbling across extra rules locked in a good DM’s head. A good DM apparently never runs a table for strangers in organized play.

To a good DM, broken character features don’t exist. If anything consistently lets one character outshine the others, a good DM just designs encounters to single out and thwart the overpowered character. A good player doesn’t mind.

I suspect a lot of companies print adventures with a good DM in mind. They know that he reads a 256-page adventure like a novel and masters every word. A good DM hates white space and headings. Cram more text on the page! A good DM doesn’t need an index.

When a good DM uses a published adventure, he prefers sandboxes that lack hooks that draw characters through a narrative. Such hooks might lead players to think that, say, questing for the sun sword stands as a more valid choice than opening an inn in Barovia. That’s too close to railroading!

I think good improvisation skills help a DM, but a good DM improvises as much as possible. Game prep only tempts bad DMs to limit their players’ options. To a good DM, my game preparation must seem unsavory.

A good DM hates boxed text. How dare a writer put words in his mouth? For some reason, a good DM can fix anything but boxed text.

So you can see why a good DM gets my goat. Any time I have trouble in my game, someone tells me why a good DM never suffers the same problems. Any time I claim that a role-playing product could be better, someone always tells me that good DM would just fix it. I can’t measure up.

I wonder if auto mechanics enjoy driving unreliable cars because they know a good mechanic can replace the parts that fall off.

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What Could be Better than Wandering Monsters?

In a D&D game without time pressure, all the risk and adventure disappear. Players gain time for painstaking caution. After every 5-minute adventuring day, characters can recuperate. As locked doors fall to axes and walls fall to picks, dungeon obstacles disappear.

Every adventure needs a source of time pressure. In the original D&D game, time pressure came from the threat of wandering monsters. But wandering monsters suffer drawbacks. The threat of wandering monsters speeds the game, but a random fight against 1d4 basilisks just stalls the narrative. See Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract.

As D&D matured, characters found bigger goals than “loot the dungeon.” Dungeon masters gained another source of time pressure: A race against time or against enemies. Escape the Hidden Shrine before poison gas chokes you. Retrieve the Rod of Seven Parts before rivals. Chase a crazed Derro through tunnels. Slay a giant lord before reinforcements arrive.

In the best adventures, whenever players consider whether they can rest, they must weigh the cost of stopping. But when a goal takes days or weeks to achieve, little of that urgency drives the characters in the dungeon. When characters face months campaigning against evil, a little extra time in the dungeon hardly matters.

How can a dungeon master make dungeon adventures feel tense and active? In this post, I share 4 classic techniques. Then I tell a secret: the lazy way to make stopping in a dungeon feel like a risk.

Make random encounters better

Not every dungeon brings the urgency of poison gas or a midnight summoning. Sometimes players just need to feel that every moment they delay brings a risk of attack.

For random encounters to shape behavior, the players need to understand the danger of standing still. In You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (And So Do I), I recommend explaining the risk of random encounters, and then making the rolls in plain sight. If you track time, keep the tally in view too. Check off the hours, 10 minutes at a time, on the squares of your battle mat. Seeing the time advance will inspire players to keep a steady advance.

Wandering monsters in G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

Gary Gygax’s first adventure in print, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978) hints at some other ways to improve wandering monsters.

  • Reduce the frequency. In original D&D, monsters had a 1 in 6 chance of appearing every 10 minutes, but Gary’s published adventured kept lowering the frequency. The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests rolling every hour and starting an encounter on a d20 roll of 18 or higher.
  • Make the monsters fit the location. Bigger dungeons tend to feature areas ruled by factions and areas that fit a theme. Random encounters should fit the neighborhood.
  • Give monsters a reason to wander. Gary said that good modules should have a reason for everything. When monsters have a purpose, you can imagine how they react, what they carry, and other things that make them more interesting than 4d4 orcs. Most importantly, the dungeon stops feeling random and starts feeling like a place where things happen even when no adventurers see.

Prepare random encounters in advance

Random encounters work better when you prepare them in advance because you gain time to embellish them. At the table, roll to see whether an encounter occurs, but then use a prepared encounter.

When you run a published adventure with encounter tables, you can roll in advance or just pick your favorite to prepare. Then decide why the monsters wander and think what they carry and how they will act. See Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want. Consider taking treasure, a clue, or a story element from another part of the dungeon and assigning it to the wanderer.

If you create your own adventure, skip random encounter tables. Prepare one wandering encounter per area. If your hourly roll prompts a random encounter, use the one you prepared.

Real time pressure

In 1975, GaryGygax brought Tomb of Horrors to the Origins convention to serve as a tournament adventure. Teams of 15 players (!) competed to thwart Acererak’s deathtrap. Despite the tomb’s lack of wandering monsters, a 4-hour time slot turned the adventure into a race against time. Since then, real time limits provide the most exciting source of time pressure. Players need to do more than press ahead; they must play quickly. Real time pressure makes the D&D Open so thrilling. Real time limits fuel the best multi-table Epic adventures. I love these games, but they feature players racing for high scores or for glory against other tables. Can a real time limit work when a table plays alone? Today’s players would expect their DM to adjust an adventure to fit the time. I doubt one table could match the urgency of a competition.

Beyond wandering monsters

DMs tend to run dungeons as static places where nothing happens until the characters reach a keyed location. I’m as guilty as anyone. The players deserve most of our attention, leaving little thought for the monsters lurking in other rooms.

Despite our tendencies, dungeons play best when players feel at risk even when they stand still. Not every dungeon relies on wandering monsters to create this feeling.

Organized resistance

Some dungeons feature organized resistance. When adventurers arrive, factions of monsters can sound an alert and organize a defense. Parties that stand still come under siege.

While exciting, such dungeons challenge DMs. To manage the resistance, we must remember the monsters in a faction, their locations, and figure their responses to the players. I run these adventures by marking the monsters and locations on the dungeon map. Without such a reference, my evil pets wouldn’t stand a chance.

Scheduled movements

Map showing my notes for an organized resistance to a party entering from 1

In dungeons like the Sacred Stone Monastery in Princes of the Apocalypse, the monks eat meals, perform training, and so on according to a daily schedule described in the key. In theory, a DM should somehow account for the time of day and the denizens’ movements. (All creatures in dungeons are denizens. Only Gary knew why.) I admire the ambition of such dungeons, but never bother paying much attention to the schedule. In practice, the monks could gather in the shrine at dusk, or they could just happen to be in the shrine when characters arrive. No player will notice the difference.

The lazy way to pressure dungeon explorers

Let me share a secret: Even if your dungeon lacks organized resistance, and you skip wandering monsters, and you never track scheduled movements, you can still make stopping feel perilous.

To make players feel at risk even when they stop, attack them sometimes when they stop.

Players grow accustomed to dungeons where nothing happens until characters enter a new location. An occasional attack that breaks this pattern makes players realize the dungeon isn’t a safe place to linger. Plus the dungeon and it’s denizens will seem active—a place where things happen beyond the characters’ current location. These sorts of encounters contribute to immersion.

When you devise a dungeon, plan an unkeyed encounter or two that fits the theme.

Sometime as the characters stop to search, investigate, or collect treasure, start the encounter. Have monsters enter from a direction that fits the logic of the place. Perhaps the monsters sneak in for a surprise attack. Perhaps the monsters stumble on the characters.

I find the notion of monsters busting in on the heroes for a change appealing. With the characters scattered around the room, such reversals create unusual, and fun, tactical situations.

In published adventures, you can create similar encounters by just pulling the monsters from a location until after the characters arrive. Pick a room with monsters and some interesting features that might occupy the players’ time. Then assume the monsters have temporarily left the room. As the characters interact with the fountain or the bookcase, the monsters return.

Suddenly nothing in the dungeon feels safe. That’s how I like my underground deathtraps.

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Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract

In 1980, Dungeons & Dragons players at my high school traded stories that confirmed Tomb of Horrors as the HARDEST DUNGEON EVER. Then someone told me how to beat it. Just hire a bunch of guys with shovels to excavate the tomb from the skull-faced hilltop down. A laborer worked for as little as 1 gp per month. The excavation takes months in the game world, but only a moment in the real world. Digging out the tomb avoids most of its perils. Most. I don’t think the job site’s days-without-an-accident sign will often count past 0.

In a D&D game without time pressure, all the risk and adventure disappear.

In the original D&D game, time pressure came from the threat of wandering monsters. At the end of every 10-minute turn, the dungeon master checked for wandering monsters. On a d6 roll of 6, monsters appeared and probably attacked. These fights punished delay by forcing adventurers to risk death fighting for pocket change—if that. Most monsters lack pockets.

When a dungeon lacks wandering monsters, players can slow the game by taking meticulous care, searching everything, checking everything, accomplishing nothing. If characters have ample time, many dungeon obstacles disappear. Locked doors fall to axes; walls fall to picks. The Tomb of Horrors stands no chance against a bunch of guys with time and shovels.

Wandering monsters made dungeons work

The threat of random attacks forces urgency on players. Instead of slowing down for painstaking caution, and instead of stopping to dig around obstacles, characters have to keep moving.

In 1974, wandering monsters did little to diminish D&D’s fun. Even the most routine fights still seemed fresh and exciting.

The original rules made timekeeping easy. Combat aside, most actions in a dungeon took a 10-minute turn and every turn brought a chance of an encounter.

Exploring dungeons did take characters a surprising amount of time. In a 10-minute turn, a typical party could explore just 60 feet of tunnel. “Mapping and casually examining” a 20×20 foot room took 10 minutes, then a search took another 10. For every hour in the dungeon and after every battle, characters required a 10-minute rest. By the rules, searching and mapping took much longer than anyone but Gary Gygax figured.

All the while, wandering monsters kept coming, depleting precious spells and hit points.

Keeping time

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules challenged DMs to do more timekeeping. “It is essential that on accurate time record be kept so that the DM can determine when to check for wandering monsters and in order to keep a strict check on the duration of some spells,” Gary explained in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. “Keep a side record of time on a separate sheet of paper, marking off the turns as they pass.”

While timekeeping and wandering monsters kept dungeon crawls moving, players came to dislike the bookkeeping and the interruptions.

Timekeeping created a chore with little payoff. Besides, figuring the passage of time in the game world seemed like guesswork.

Wandering monsters work better when they remain only a threat

The threat of wandering monsters speeds the game, but the actual monsters just stall the narrative. As D&D players began focusing on stories, wandering monsters seemed like a distraction. Nobody wanted to pause their quest to battle 1d4 random basilisks.

Even Gary seemed to lose interest in wandering monsters. His introduction to the Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed DMs to skip them to maintain excitement. “The rules call for wandering monsters, but these can be not only irritating—if not deadly—but the appearance of such can actually spoil a game by interfering with an orderly expedition.” Gary made wandering monsters easy to skip. In the AD&D rules, he forgot to explain when or how to roll for wandering monsters. Nobody noticed.

By fourth edition, D&D eliminated wandering monsters. DMs built encounters according to a precise recipe that required planning, and not the whim of the dice. And because each encounter took an hour or more to play, the game could hardly spare time for random delays that fail to advance the narrative.

The fifth-edition designers returned random encounters to the game, but without much enthusiasm. The Dungeon Master’s Guide warns, “You don’t want to spend time distracted by random encounters that add nothing to the adventure narrative or that interfere with the overall pace you’re trying to set.”

Even though wandering monsters fell from favor, few players saw a sudden rise in tedium.

Action and D&D’s social contract

To keep a brisk pace, many D&D games just rely on the game’s social contract. Players recklessly advance their characters through the dungeon because stopping would bore everyone. Even Gary recommended using social pressure to discourage plodding. The Dungeon Master’s Guide, he advises DMs to mock “over-cautious behavior as near cowardice.”

Tomb of Horrors has no wandering monsters and no time pressure, but when Gary ran it at home, his players finished quickly. Rob Kuntz finished in 4 hours.

Characters can hire crews with shovels, but nobody wants to play that way.

Tomb of Horrors heads a long list of published D&D adventures that lack time pressure. Even when adventures press characters to finish in days, the pressure never trickles down into the dungeon. If the characters fight a long campaign against evil, a few extra days spent in a dungeon hardly matter.

Thanks to the social contact, these dungeons still work, but real time pressure improves adventures.

Too often, players realize that they can rest and resupply after every 5-minute adventuring day. Suddenly they must choose whether (a) to press recklessly ahead for no good reason or (b) to follow a safe and tiresome strategy. No game—no adventure—thrives by forcing players to choose between fun and an optimal strategy.

Next: What could be better than wandering monsters?

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The best of D&D’s Appendix N: The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Appendix N lists the books that inspired Gary Gygax in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. Gary cites three books by Poul Anderson.

Of the titles, D&D fans tend to give Three Hearts and Three Lions the most attention because it contains the roots of the paladin, the troll, and of law and chaos. But as a read, Three Hearts and Three Lions pales next to Anderson’s finest fantasy, The Broken Sword.

Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword 1971 edition

Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword 1971 edition

With The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson writes a book inspired by the same Norse sagas that fired Tolkien’s imagination. But while a nostalgia for an idyllic past colors Tolkien’s work, The Broken Sword hews closer to the bleak reality of history. The heroes of The Broken Sword see murderous viking raids as an ordinary summer, and enslaving thralls as the prerogative of the strong. Here, the elves and other “good” faerie folk seem as dangerous and amoral as the trolls and goblins—all well suited for frightening a skald’s listeners around the fire. If you think fey creatures lack menace, then the The Broken Sword becomes required reading. Both gods and faerie bring doom to the mortal men unlucky enough to cross paths.

The story turns on a witch’s entirely-justified quest for revenge. No fairy tale plot of poison apples or spinning wheels, her plan relies on cunning and dark bargains. The story adds a changeling, an apocalyptic war between elves and trolls, forbidden love, and a demon-haunted runesword. The Broken Sword jams more passion and emotion in a slim volume than modern fantasies work into a fat trilogy. The tale’s villains earn nearly as much sympathy as the heroes. As the story hurtles forward, both heroes and villains call on ever more dangerous means to achieve their ends, knowing they draw closer to doom, but unwilling or unable to stop.

The book’s demonic runesword and growing sense of doom echo Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga because The Broken Sword provided half of Moorcock’s inspiration for Elric, and set the tone for Moorcock’s other fantasies. (The second half of Elric’s inspiration came from the notion of reversing Conan’s qualities, turning a mighty, barbarian warrior into a sickly, ultra-civilized sorcerer.)

Originally published in 1954, The Broken Sword quickly dropped out of print until 1971, when the success of the Lord of the Rings  opened the door for paperback reprints of other fantasies. For the 1971 printing, Anderson took the unusual step of revising the book. He drew on 16 years of additional writing experience to make it “more readable.” You can find an excellent account of the differences between the two editions in Broken In Two: Poul Anderson’s two versions of The Broken Sword.

About 20 years ago, I read the 1971 version. Recently, I read the 1954 original version. The original cuts closer to the flavor of the mythic sagas, complete with more ornate, more poetic language. Still, I favor the leaner prose of the revision. I suspect that, like me, most modern readers will find the 1971 edition “more readable.”

The Broken Sword ranks with Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana as my two, favorite single-volume fantasy books.

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Three Traits that Good Dungeon Masters Need to Shine in Convention Games

At game conventions, I like to wander the Dungeons & Dragons game tables, watching dungeon masters in action. I see plenty of skills worth copying. Nearly all DMs bring enough from their home games to run a fun session. But sometimes I see weaknesses too. All of us have areas to improve. By far, the most common flaws stem from traits seldom practiced at a kitchen table or at a friendly little game store. Convention games demand extra skills.

Project your voice. At home, you can look down at your papers while speaking like a golf announcer. At a convention, the din of 50 tables means conversational speaking gets lost. Players feel reluctant to stall the game, so they rarely ask you to repeat. Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon, played his first D&D game at Gen Con in 1974. He only heard half what the DM said, so he felt “completely bewildered.” Today’s players react the same way. They sit politely, lost and hoping to catch up. At a convention, look at the players as you speak, and then project your voice to the next table over. When I DM, I like to take the seat nearest to the wall so players facing me don’t hear extra noise from a table behind me. It can’t hurt.

Own the adventure. At a convention, most DMs work from an adventure written by another author. We probably don’t even get to choose which adventures we run.

A few dungeon masters muddle through such adventures with the enthusiasm they would bring to reading assembly instructions to someone with a screwdriver. Perhaps they apologize for aspects they don’t like, or share a monologue on their interpretation of the text, or meditate aloud on a non-player character’s motives. Stop that. When you run another author’s work, adopt it and find a way to love it as your own. If you need to make a few tweaks, then make them, but keep the adventure’s essentials intact. Some of the fun of organized play comes from sharing a common experience with folks who played the same adventures as you.

For an example of how I tweaked an adventure to suit me, see Running Shackles of Blood: Making the good adventure into a great session.

Fill the available time with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When I DM convention games, I often check my watch. I worry that players might suspect I have somewhere I would rather be, but really I’m tracking our progress. When folks sit down for a convention game, they want to experience a beginning, a middle, and an end. Also, they paid about $10 for the slot, so they want the game to fill most of the time.

To pace a convention adventure, you must estimate how long the finale will take. As you play through the middle, if scenes run long, plan short cuts that can take the characters to the end. Perhaps this means the players reach the final scene without meeting every challenge in the adventure. Or maybe the monsters in a drawn-out combat suddenly have 1 hit point. See How to end combat encounters before they become a grind.

In episode 3 of the DM’s Deep Dive podcast,  Shawn Merwin gives more advice on pacing D&D under time constraints. For the story of my struggle stretching a 2-hour adventure into a 4-hour slot, see What Murder in Balur’s Gate Taught Me About Engaging Players in Role Playing.

If you ever DM in public, mind your volume, enthusiasm, and the clock. All three skills come more from attention than from special expertise. These three small additions to your game will let your players see the talent you bring to your home game.

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Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve

The original Dungeons & Dragons game featured some activities that most players didn’t enjoy and eventually came to skip. I already wrote about mapping. Unless your group plays D&D in a deliberately old style, you don’t draft a player as a mapper who struggles to translate room dimensions to graph paper.

Spells with punishing side-effects qualify as another nuisance that D&D players learned to skip.

With some spells, players could simply avoid the side effects. The risk of instant death tends to limit teleportation to safe, familiar locations. And when Polymorph Other threatened system shock or a loss of individuality, party members never volunteered to fight in the form of a dragon.

Sometimes, avoiding side effects meant avoiding the spells. I’ve never seen anyone cast Contact Higher Plane. Apparently, few players like risking their character to a random chance of insanity.

Wish brought a mini-game where the dungeon master to tried grant the letter of the wish while perverting its spirit. Players countered by attempting to phrase their wishes to avoid any punishing interpretations. By third edition, players could skip the mini-game by selecting a wish from a menu of approved options.

A few irresistible spells included punishing side effects that DMs often ignored.

Haste aged its target a year, which forced a severe downside on humans, but an insignificant one on elves—and on humans in casual games without either bookkeeping or a reckoning of calendar years.

Lighting bolts could hit a wall and double back on the caster. When players started treating bolts as billiard balls and demanded to hit every foe using a trick shot, I suspect many DMs gave up on the bounce-back rule.

Fireball proved most popular and suffered the worst side effects. The original version risked blow back. “Fire Ball will generally conform to the shape of the space (elongate or whatever).” This meant a Fireball confined to small dungeon places could easily blow back and damage player characters. This drawback not only threatened PCs, but it also weighed the game with complicated volume calculations. D&D blogger and college mathematics lecturer Delta dutifully did the math. “After years of applying this, let me offer a heartfelt mathematician’s ‘Aaaarrgghh!!!’”

Worse than damage, Fireball destroyed treasure. “Besides causing damage to creatures, the Fireball ignites all combustible materials in the burst radius, and the heart of the Fireball will melt soft metals such as gold, copper, silver, etc. Items exposed to the spell’s effects must be rolled for to determine if they are affected.” Hitting PCs with collateral damage hurt enough, but players hated seeing treasure within their grasp destroyed.

Gary Gygax saw the the gotchas as a test of player skill and relished enforcing the punishments. His son Ernie recalled casting Fireball and how his father “would always let you know whatever cool thing you had destroyed. Normally it was difficult to figure out what anything was, but once it was destroyed, my dad would share. ‘Oh, it’s a real shame.’”

Few others saw the fun. Ernie Gygax found the lost treasure so bothersome that his wizard Tenser developed the spell Cone of Cold specifically to avoid the drawbacks of Fireball.

Faced with Fireball’s volume calculations, with item saving throws interrupting the game, and with the protests of players, many DMs just ignored Fireball’s side effects.

But without the gotchas, Haste, Lightning Bolt, and especially Fireball offered much more power. By Gary Gygax’s calculation, Cone of Cold—a replacement for Fireball without the punishing side effects—rated as a 5th-level spell.

The 5th-edition rules rewrite Haste, Lightning Bolt, and Fireball without the downsides. Haste now requires concentration and just targets one creature, so it loses some of its old power. Wizards seldom prepare Lighting Bolt because Fireball overshadows it. But Fireball keeps all the punch of a 5th-level spell with none of the downsides of its 3rd-level origin. When wizards gain the ability to cast Fireball, they leap in power.

Rather than dropping the power of the best spell available to 5th-level wizards, the designers of 5th edition gave every class some new ability that matches the Wizard’s leap in power. Fighters gain a second attack, Monks gain Stunning Strike, Rogues gain Uncanny Dodge, and so on. For more, see The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before. I suspect the designers boosted Hypnotic Pattern from a average 2nd-level spell to an powerful (and annoying) 3rd-level spell so Bards could match that leap in power.

By the way, Cone of Cold isn’t the only spell made to avoid a part of D&D that players preferred to skip. Originally, some of D&D’s strategy came from the job of hauling coins out of the dungeon. Players hired bearers and bought mules to help. Still, no one found encumbrance fun or baggage trains heroic, and Gary must have noticed. He created Tenser’s Floating Disk on behalf of Ernie and every other player who wanted a painless way to recover every last copper from the dungeon.

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Origins 2017: Choose Your Own Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

This year at Origins, I split my time between serving as a dungeon master, and playing in Dungeons & Dragons games. Remember the disappearing McFly family photo from Back to the Future? It gave Marty McFly a look at his progress toward setting his future right. This year at Origins Game Fair, I ran an epic adventure that made me think of that photo. More on that later.

For many gamers, the Origins Game Fair feels just the right size. Unlike Winter Fantasy, the convention offers diversions beyond non-stop D&D. Unlike Gen Con, you don’t face a city and a convention center crowded to the limit. In 2015, Gen Con brought 61,423 unique visitors to Indianapolis. Origins 2016 brought 15,479 unique visitors to the similarly-sized city of Columbus. At Origins, you can reserve a hotel room without winning a lottery and you can pay for it without winning a lottery.

Goblins and scenery from Tomb of Annihilation

Elmwood adventures

I arrived with two convention-created adventures on my DM schedule. ELMW 2-1 Tendrils in the Fog and ELMW 2-2 Mists of the Moonsea read well. They land characters in vibrant scenes that promise to excite players. Both adventures feature a good mix of role-playing, investigation, and combat challenges. ELMW 2-1 takes players to villages and hideouts along the Moonsea, before ending in a small dungeon. ELMW 2-2 features battles on and under the sea, and ends with an ambush spanning a series of rope bridges. Both adventures pit the players against a group of adventurers cursed by evil. The foes resemble any number of morally questionable parties, perhaps dialed one notch darker. I loved these villains. ELMW 2-2 proved as fun as I anticipated.

An introduction to Tomb of Annihilation

I never ran ELMW 2-1 because the marshals needed an extra hand to run the introductory adventures for Tomb of Annihilation. I ran these adventures cold, reading one step ahead of the players. Each of this set of 5 missions plays in hour and a half or so. These adventures take characters to the jungle of Chult and the exotic Port Nyranzaru. Chult substitutes dinosaurs for shining knights and blood-sucking vines for wizards in pointy hats. Players feel like Indiana Jones in a lost world.

Most of the folks who come to play D&D at Origins rank as passionate players who bring a quiver of characters and who may play adventures more than once. The introductory adventures draw a different mix of players. First-timers and gamers who haven’t played since THAC0 join the D&D enthusiasts. The new and returning players bring a fresh enthusiasm that I savor. In the past, I haven’t volunteered for these introductory adventures, but next year, I plan to.

At conventions like Origins, where the dungeon masters belong to the Heralds Guild, we get scored based on players’ feedback. Running the introductory adventures cold lead to a dip in my score for preparation. I can’t argue with the accuracy, but seeing a drop in my overall judge scores disappointed me.

Hecatomb

This year, Origins hosted all three of the epic adventures that accompany Tales from the Yawning Portal. I played in Hecatomb, an epic for tiers 3 and 4.

Hecatomb’s author ramped up the difficulty of this adventure, even for tier 4. I love a challenge, so I welcomed the threat. I heard tales of tables practically wiped out. Meanwhile, at my table, two characters died, rose as undead, and attacked surviving players at other tables. One of the DMs administering the event went from table to table with a group of players running their now-undead PCs. The dead took revenge on the living. This “interaction” beats just having some evil champion roaming from table to table.

Hecatomb landed all the players on massive battlefield, scrambling to destroy arcane obelisks while fighting monsters. Presumably, our comrades in arms fought on battlemaps next to ours, facing other battles for other obelisks. By social convention, everyone agrees not to seek out the folks at the next table to form a party of 12.

Our party featured a crossbow expert/sharpshooter character—number 1 on my list of character types absurdly good at one thing. Even folks who play the combination find it overpowered. After taking casualties, our table changed strategy. We realized that the sharpshooter could safely destroy the obelisks and the monsters lurking two maps over, without ever letting threats come close enough to strike back. In this optimal strategy, my magic user’s best contribution was to cast Haste on the sharpshooter. Our melee characters could only “ooh” and “ahh” like an audience for Annie Oakley. Encounter designers need to consider sharpshooting just as they might consider something like flying. If you design an encounter where characters can engage foes from 500-yards away, then for parties with sharpshooters, the monsters resemble infantry crossing no-man’s land.

Return to White Plume Mountain

I ran Return to White Plume Mountain as a dungeon master. This epic accommodated both tier-2 and 3 characters. The tier-3 PCs fought to thwart a sacrificial ritual, while the tier-2 PCs attempted to distract the monsters, drawing them away from the main assault.

Return to White Plume Mountain worked hard to foster interaction. Some of its methods fascinated me.

A twist that required communication. Return gave each party a sending stone linked with another table. In many epics, such stones enable communication, but Return also included a clever trick that could foil groups who failed to communicate. In my session, some tables treated messages as a distraction and failed to notice the essential information. If more solutions come from messages between tables, the design would work even better.

Scoring that affected encounters for both tiers. Return featured a push-pull dynamic where each tier’s efforts drew monsters away from the other tier. Potentially, this could force tables to agree on a strategy that raises enough of a distraction to ensure success without drawing all the monsters into a deadly encounter. In practice, tier-2 tables just saw a distraction score that they could raise. Like any good gamers, they put all their energy to reaching a high score. Tables marched through the dungeon making more noise than a parade, without seeing the danger. In the end, tier 2 faced all the monsters.

The push-pull feature would work better if, instead of a rising score, the players saw the additional monsters in their future. Suppose some divination magic gives the PCs visions of their near future. This idea made me think of the McFly family photo—a vision of the future that results from the players’ current actions. I wanted a line of miniature figures that showed the monsters to come, but a scorecard handout would work as well. Back in How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever, I recommended letting players choose their own difficulty. In Return, a more visual push-pull mechanic would help.

Every table joined in the same battle. In the finale, all the tier-2 parties enter a massive dungeon room where they spot the ritual at the far side. An army of tier-3 monsters defend the ritual. As intended, the tier-2 parties stay on their side of the room and work to rescue sacrificial victims until tier 3 arrives near the heavy hitters to thwart the ritual. This works so long as the Tier-2 groups stay in their lane and avoid any bold ideas that might interfere with the ritual.

Step aside, pipsqueaks. I’ll finish this.

When I ran, my tier-2 group had little reason to stay in their lane. Before entering the final room, tier-2 table captains gather to share resources. Somehow, my table’s captain returned from the meeting with an allied planetar summoned by a tier-3 table. So a party clustered around level 7 added a challenge-rating-16 powerhouse with a fly speed of 120. I spent days wondering what part of the adventure let tier-3 tables share such resources with tier 2. What did I miss? The event’s one administrator was doing a job intended for three people, and I think he overlooked this extra interaction. But at the time, I figured the planetar came approved by the boss.

When my group entered battle arena and saw the ritual on the far side, they wondered whether to send their planetar to intervene. In one round, the celestial could have flown across the entire room, engaged the villain, and dealt lethal damage, while using innate Truesight to foil the Contingency intended to keep the villain alive. Before 6 tables even reached the final encounter, the event administrator could have stood and announced the abrupt victory to all 12 tables. “Now everybody has an extra hour for lunch. You can thank table 3 on the way out.”

Dungeon masters, choose your own adventure. In this situation, do you…

  • Tell the players you don’t care what anyone says. They can’t bring a planetar. (But the planetar came from the boss, and I can’t believe you’re saying “no” to your players.)
  • Let the planetar cross the room, then invent reasons that it fails to thwart the ritual. (You’re just abusing your power as a DM just to make the players fail.)
  • Pass the planetar back to the overextended event administrator and let him figure out what to do with it. (Just say, “Excuse me. I know that you’re already doing 3 jobs, but I can’t handle a little trouble at my own table.”)
  • Let the planetar solve the epic for all 12 tables. (Everybody, you’re welcome!)
  • Suggest that the players stay in their lane and use the planetar to help themselves. (Why should players have to meekly follow the author’s intent?)

My players stayed in their lane. I’m not particularly happy with the way I handled the situation. How would you do it?

D&D Open

In eight hours, the D&D Open aims to combine the fun and community of a battle interactive, with a measure of the competition of the old tournaments. The Open’s all-star team of authors, Teos Abadia, Shawn Merwin, and Sean Molley, capture all the challenge that made the original event such a blast. This year, I played as groups ventured to the jungle land of Chult to rob the tombs of dead gods. Monsters native to this lost world provided a unique flavor.

The event added a room of physical and mental challenges for Players—something like dungeon carnival games. Everyone seemed to enjoy this short break from the table.

The adventure also added the shtick of having a wandering monster roam from table to table to trade attacks. I only like this trick when the wandering menace comes from now-undead PCs. In a quasi-competitive event where players race against time, I disliked the gimmick more than usual. Fortunately, the interruption only takes a few minutes.

The event’s finale featured clever twist and a thrilling race to escape. The escape encouraged even faster play and set an objective other than kill everything. Once again, the D&D Open delivered the year’s best D&D game.

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Challenging Your Players’ Skill Without Risking Frustration

The Zork II computer game from 1981 includes a locked door that you can open by solving a clever puzzle. The door has the old-fashioned sort of lock that lets you look through the keyhole and see the other side. Except here, the key is in the other side of the lock. You slide a mat under the door, and then poke the key out onto the mat. When you pull the mat back, you have the key.Zork II Box Art

Back when Dungeons & Dragons consisted of the original brown box, before skills, before rogues, before thieves, all the obstacles in the game invited that style of play. You overcame obstacles by immersing yourself in the game world, making decisions, and problem solving. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

This style of play suffers from the same problem as the puzzle in Zork. When Zork II came out, I had only ever seen that sort of old-fashioned lock in my grandma’s house. And if you’ve never examined that kind of lock, the door puzzle simply leaves you stuck and frustrated.

In the old computer adventure games, when you became stuck and frustrated, you had to send money for a hint sheet, and then wait for it to arrive in the mail.

Fourth edition attempted to eliminate such frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. During this era, Dungeon magazine’s submission guidelines warned authors to create challenges for the characters, not the players. When every obstacle has a DC and multiple skills, then no one gets frustrated. If you find a locked door, you can pick the lock with Thievery, or break the door with Athletics.

No one gets frustrated, but no one feels engaged either. When the game only challenges character skill, the players never need to make meaningful decisions or engage the game world. They just look at their character sheet for the best applicable skill. This improves on playing guess-the-solution-I-thought-of with an inflexible DM, but the picking a skill and rolling is less fun than D&D can be.

The fourth-edition designers must have know this, but they emphasized selecting skills and rolling outcomes for a two reasons:

  • To add weight to the choices players make when they build characters. See The Pros and Cons of D&D’s Ability Checks.
  • To prevent inflexible DMs from hurting the game. Fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland wrote, “In the early days, DMs all too often felt compelled to demonstrate their cleverness and punish players for making ‘wrong’ choices—even a choice as simple and random as which passage to explore.”

Such inflexible, punitive DMs neared extinction decades ago. When Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea asked players to cite the traits of a good DM, flexible ranked first.

Dungeon masters can challenge players without risking player frustration, because DMs can allow creative solutions.

Have you ever noticed how the Tomb of Horrors makes the demi-lich only vulnerable to a short list of curiously-specific attacks?

The demi-lich Acererak’s skull can be harmed only as follows:

      • a forget spell will force the skull to sink down without taking a soul
      • a shatter spell thrown at it inflicts 10 h.p. of damage
      • a power word, kill pronounced from the an astral or ethereal magic-user will destroy it.
      • only a fighter with a vorpal blade, a ranger with a sword of sharpness +5, or a vorpal weapon, or a paladin with the like or even a +4 weapon can inflict damage on the skull
      • an exorcise spell will cause it to sink as a forget does
      • a dispel evil spell inflicts 5 h.p. of damage
      • a holy word pronounced against it will inflict 20 h.p. of damage
      • a thief slinging one of the large gems in the crypt will inflict 1 h.p. of damage per 10,00 g.p. of value, i.e. 1, 5,, or 10 h.p. of damage, but the gem is thereby shattered

A power word, kill does nothing, unless you happen to be ethereal or astral! How would anyone think of that? Also, the demi-lich is vulnerable to the destruction of very expensive gems. That messes with the players in the best(?) old-school tradition. Only someone immersed in that tradition would even consider the gem attack.

Once, I thought that this list exposed Gary Gygax as an inflexible DM working to punish players. After all, he devised the tomb to challenge—and frustrate—those “fans who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game.”

Now, I see the list differently. I suspect Gary created Acererak with no vulnerabilities in mind, but as he ran the adventure, players invented attacks. If Gary judged them reasonable, he allowed them to work. When Gary wrote the adventure for publication, he listed the attacks he had allowed so far.

Gary Gygax had the wisdom to allow a creative solution. In the Foreword to Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Gary wrote, “In one tournament use of the setting, a team managed to triumph by using the crown and scepter found earlier as the ultimate tool against the demilich. As Acererak’s skull levitated, one PC set said crown firmly upon the bony pate; another tapped the regal adornment with the ‘wrong’ end of the scepter. Poof! Scratch one demilich, and give the tournament’s first place to the innovative team of players who thought of this novel solution. Russ Stambaugh, the DM for the group, was stunned. ‘Could that work?’ he asked. I shrugged, admitted I certainly hadn’t thought of it and that it was a stroke of genius that deserved a reward.

When I DM, I love to be surprised. One of the great joys of being a DM is crafting some trap or obstacle, leaving a couple ways to overcome it, and then watching as the players crack the problem with a third way. I’ve run campaigns for groups who proved so good at coming up with unexpected solutions, that I stopped worrying about planning any solutions. I just sat back and watched the players come of with something.

I have three bits of advice for refereeing game-world obstacles that demand player skill to overcome.

  • Watch the players for signs of frustration. Be prepared to let he characters uncover a new clue, or to just have something on the other side of that locked door come and open it.
  • It’s good to say yes, but avoid being too quick to accept implausible solutions. If a couple of players are deeply engaged in a predicament, and you allow any dumb idea to work, they just get annoyed. The last thing you want is a player arguing that something you allowed should fail.
  • Watch out for clever, repeatable ideas that break the game. I remember a player who regaled me with a story that he remembered fondly. His party defeated a dragon by enclosing it in a wall of force shaped like a giant fishbowl, complete with an opening on top too small for escape. Next, they created water above the opening, filling the fishbowl and drowning the dragon. I suspect that no version of Wall of Force ever actually allowed such shenanigans, but as a one-time trick, the stunt created a moment the players’ loved. I wonder what the DM decided to do when the players kept trying to repeat it. If you can use this trick on a dragon, the dungeon becomes your aquarium.
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The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition

Dungeons & Dragons players have seen five editions plus a few versions that fall outside the count. We tend to see the release of a new Player’s Handbook as a clean break from the last, but each new edition received a preview in a book or two that appeared for the prior edition.

In a convention appearance, TSR designers Dave “Zeb” Cook and Steve Winter talked about how the first-edition books that reached print in 1985 led to 2nd edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”

From Oriental Adventures and the Dungoneer’s Survival Guide to 2nd edition

Oriental Adventures brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer.

“One of the things dreadfully lacking from AD&D was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills,” Cook wrote. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”

Ability checks reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide previewed rules innovations that appeared in 2nd edition. The non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success. For more, see Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D.

From Gamma World and Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics to 3rd edition

In a D&D podcast episode examining the 2nd edition, Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in 3rd edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with 2nd edition.”

TSR’s management required that AD&D stay broadly compatible with the original version, but other games allowed more innovation. Gamma World took D&D’s play style into a post-apocalyptic Earth. Crumbling buildings replaced dungeons, mutant powers replaced spells, mutated creatures replaced monsters, and so on. The 1992 edition of Gamma World took the current D&D rules and made changes from the 2nd-edition designers’ wish list:

  • Ascending armor class
  • Skills called skills
  • Attribute checks
  • Attribute modifiers similar to those that would appear in 3rd edition
  • Health and Mental Defense saves that resemble 3rd edition’s Fortitude and Will saves

This 4th edition of Gamma World set half of the blueprint for 3rd edition D&D. The other half came from Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics (1995).

Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics introduced the gridded battle map to D&D. In the Foreword, Skip Williams promises that, “You will find plenty of ways to make combat more than a dice-rolling contest or an exercise in subtracting hit points from your character’s total.” Combat & Tactics reads like an early draft of the 3rd edition combat rules, complete with rules for opportunity attacks, reach, cover, and critical hits. Combat & Tactics probably scared more players away from battle maps than it converted. The supplement moved deep into wargame territory, with over 250 pages of rules for facing, fatigue, and things like direct and indirect bombardment. However, the 3rd-edition designers chose the best of the innovations.

From Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords to 4th edition

In 2005, work on 4th-edition D&D started as a project codenamed Orcus. In Wizards Presents Races and Classes, lead designer Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Our instructions were to push the mechanics down interesting avenues, not to stick too close to the safe home base of D&D v.3.5.” The project team developed eight classes built around powers and giving every character some interesting action to choose each round.

Early in 2006, designers Rich Baker, Mike Donais, and Mike Mearls “translated current version of the Orcus I mechanics into a last-minute revision of Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords. It was a natural fit, since Rich Baker had already been treating the Book of Nine Swords as a ‘powers for fighters’ project.”

Tome of Battle: Book of the Nine Swords presented new martial classes for 3rd-edition D&D. The additions blended the unreal, cinematic stunts of Far-East action games and movies with a typical D&D game. Warriors gained maneuvers that worked like encounter powers in 4th edition.

Now, used copies of the Book of Nine Swords command high prices, a scarcity which might stem from meager sales in 2006. Nonetheless, the book offered a prototype for 4th edition.

From the D&D Essentials red box to 5th edition

Many fans of D&D felt the 4th edition no longer resembled the game they loved. A few years after the edition’s release, sales of the 3rd-edition D&D spinoff Pathfinder surpassed D&D. In an interview, Mike Mearls said, “No one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said ‘Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them,’ that was never the intent. With 4th Edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say ‘hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.’”

Aside from a barely-noticed sample in the Book of Nine Swords, 4th edition came from a secret project. Rather than ask D&D fans what they wanted in D&D, the design team made assumptions and built a game based on them.

When Mike Mearls took control of the D&D team, he worked to reverse course. “We want D&D to be the best roleplaying game it can be. We’re always open to change, to reacting to what people say. The past is in the past, there’s nothing we can say or do. If you are a disgruntled D&D fan, there’s nothing I can say to you that undoes whatever happened 2 years ago or a year ago that made you disgruntled—but what I can do, what’s within my power is going forward, I can make products, I can design game material, I can listen to what you’re saying, and I can do what I can do with design to make you happy again.”

Just two years after 4th edition’s release, Wizards of the Coast couldn’t ask players to adopt another new edition. Instead, the D&D team tried to win back some unhappy players with the D&D Essentials line. A new, red-box starter set built on nostalgia for the game’s most-popular introduction. Essentials aimed to recapture “that core of what makes D&D D&D, what made people fall in love with it the first time, whether it was the Red Box in 83, the original three booklets back in 74 or 75 or even 3rd edition in 2004. Whenever that happened, to get back to what drew you into D&D in the first place and give that back to you.”

When Mearls gained time to create a 5th edition, he stuck with the same strategy of listening to the game’s fans. In another interview, he explained that he launched the open playtest “to get a sense of what people actually wanted out of D&D. The only real mandate was to make sure that we captured the essence of D&D. It was important that anyone who had played D&D in the past could play the new edition and have a clear sense that this was D&D.

“We were also committed to analyzing and using the playtest feedback to guide our decisions. Those might seem like fairly simple mandates, but it can be difficult for game designers to take a step back from their work and treat it with a cold, ruthless editorial eye.”

Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition hardly resembles 4th edition, but Essentials showed the way to the current game’s success.

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