The best poster battle maps published for D&D

Soon, I will post a catalog of the poster maps printed for Dungeons & Dragons products over the years. As I compiled the catalog, some maps stood out, either because of the design, or because the maps proved useful beyond the adventure that they accompany.

The Gates of Firestorm Peak adventure supported Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics with color battle maps. Artist David Martin painted these maps in a hallucinogenic palette rather than the more earthy colors of current maps. See “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons” for more on Firestorm Peak.

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (2)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (2)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (3)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (3)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (4)

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (4)

Does the next map look familiar? The moathouse from The Temple of Elemental Evil returns as a map in the Village of Hommlet promotional adventure (of course), and also in the Against the Cult of Chaos Encounters season and the Shattered Keeps map pack.

The Village of Hommlet - 2009 promo (2)

The Village of Hommlet – 2009 promo (2)

Three map sets included double maps that fit together into a single large location. Both Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin and Shattered Keeps feature a sprawling ruined castle. The Vaults of the Underdark map pack includes a river and bridge that may be underground, but could also be out in the badlands.

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin - Keep of Fallen Kings I

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin – Keep of Fallen Kings I

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin - Keep of Fallen Kings II

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin – Keep of Fallen Kings II

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (3)

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (3)

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (6)

Vaults of the Underdark map pack (6)

Before Wizards of the Coast started packaging battle maps in every adventure, they published maps intended for D&D miniatures battles. The underground maps include broken walls, which make them unsuitable for dungeon crawls but good for big battles. Of the miniatures maps, I favor the neon colors of Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow.

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Drow Enclave

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Drow Enclave

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Fane of Lloth

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Fane of Lloth

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Tomb of Queen Peregrine

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Tomb of Queen Peregrine

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow - Mithral Mines

Fantastic Locations: Fane of the Drow – Mithral Mines

If you spot a copy of the third-edition adventure City of Peril for sale, snap it up. This adventure comes stocked with maps of a town square, an inn, rooftops, and sewers.

City of Peril (1)

City of Peril (1)

City of Peril (2)

City of Peril (2)

City of Peril (3)

City of Peril (3)

City of Peril (4)

City of Peril (4)

Recently I stumbled on a StackExchange question asking why used copies of the fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Kit cost so much. I suppose some buyers covet the monster tokens, but for me the maps are the real draw. I have used the castle wall in at least 8 sessions.

Dungeon Master’s Kit (1)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (1)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (2)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (2)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (3)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (3)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (4)

Dungeon Master’s Kit (4)

I love the waterfall and magic circles included “Forest Cliff Lair” map included in Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto and Keep on the Shadowfell. This map fires my imagination more than any other.

Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto - Forest Cliff Lair

Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto – Forest Cliff Lair

Unlike later adventures with a single poster map, Keep on the Shadowfell included three. In addition to the “Forest Cliff Lair,” the package includes the useful “King’s Road” map, originally from Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin.

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin - The King’s Road

Fantastic Locations: Fields of Ruin – The King’s Road

Most of the Lair Assault adventures include specialized maps, but Kill the Wizard includes a three-story house and Talon of Umberlee features a ship.

Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard (1)

Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard (1)

Lair Assault: Talon of Umberlee (2)

Lair Assault: Talon of Umberlee (2)

I have reused the waterfront map from Lost Crown of Neverwinter in more than one session.

D&D Encounters 06 Lost Crown of Neverwinter (5)

D&D Encounters 06 Lost Crown of Neverwinter (5)

The village map in King of Trollhaunt Warrens and War of Everlasting Darkness strikes me as particularly eye catching. I wish it connected with the similar map in the third-edition adventure Red Hand of Doom.

P1 King of Trollhaunt Warrens (2)

P1 King of Trollhaunt Warrens (2)

Red Hand of Doom (1)

Red Hand of Doom (1)

A map in Storm over Neverwinter turned the graphic assets from the Castle Grimstead dungeon tiles set into a grand palace.

D&D Encounters 13 Storm Over Neverwinter (2)

D&D Encounters 13 Storm Over Neverwinter (2)

Of all the seasons of D&D Encounters, the Web of the Spider Queen featured the most memorable encounter site: a hollowed out stalactite with bridges connecting three levels.

D&D Encounters 09 Web of the Spider Queen (6)

D&D Encounters 09 Web of the Spider Queen (6)

Finally, I have two mystery maps that must have been included with Dungeon or Dragon magazines around 2006. I can’t figure out what magazine issues included these maps. If you can help, please comment.

2006 Magazine Map

2006 Magazine Map

Dungeon Magazine Map

Dungeon Magazine Map

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Organized play versus random ability scores

Legacy of the Green RegentWhen fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons arrived, many players saw an attempt to bring the play style of computer role-playing to the tabletop. That may be true, but I saw an effort to create a game that delivered a consistent public-play experience. By the end of third edition, Living Greyhawk, Legacy of the Green Regent, and similar organized-play campaigns dominated the game to the extent that third-party books of character options no longer sold because their options were not legal in organized play.

Unlike, say, a Magic the Gathering tournament, the players’ enjoyment of a public D&D game hinges on the quality of the DM.

Perhaps aiming to deliver a consistent, fun organized play experience, the fourth-edition designers created a game that minimized a dungeon master’s influence on the game. When you sat at a Living Forgotten Realms table, players could count on the same experience no matter who took the dungeon master’s chair, at least in theory. Potentially, a 4E DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For actions outside of combat, 4E presents the skill challenge, where the DM only has to decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance. For more, see “D&D Next empowers DMs; players stay empowered.”

A focus on organized play extends to character creation too. Fourth edition became the first D&D edition that presented a point-buy system as the standard method of rolling—make that creating—a character’s ability scores. For the first time, the standard characters worked for public play.

So nothing about the fifth edition surprises me as much as the return to rolling ability scores as the standard method. This reversal shows the designers aiming to bring the game back to its roots, to create a game for the kitchen table first, and then offering public play as an alternative.

Too bad the game does random abilities scores wrong.

In fifth edition D&D, players generate abilities scores by rolling 4d6 and add the three highest dice to generate each of 6 scores, and then they assign these 6 scores to the 6 abilities in any order.

Plenty of history backs this method. It first appeared as the first recommended method in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. The method carries through second and third editions.

The best quality of random character generation comes from the interesting but not quite optimal characters created. Random ability scores can create characters that feel organic—that break the optimal recipes of good ability scores and dump stats. For example, your randomly-generated fighter might have a high intelligence and a weaker constitution. These unusual combinations can fuel both role-playing and play strategy.

Allowing players to assign scores to any ability keeps the worst part of rolling characters—uneven character power. Then the method throws out the best part of rolling—interesting and organic characters.

I get the method’s purpose: Players can assign rolls to suit their chosen class. While some old-schoolers may find this decadent, the game should allow enough latitude to choose a class. Even in original D&D, where the referee rolled the characters, players could choose from a pool of candidates.

Rather than allowing players to shuffle rolled ability scores into any order, I suggest players roll scores in order, and then swap two scores. This system keeps characters organic and interesting, while giving players flexibility to choose a class. Plus, new players only have one decision to make. If you want to compensate for the less-flexible scores, allow players to reroll one bad score. That’s decadent enough.

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The D&D fifth edition Basic Rules Introduction

The toughest part of writing the core rules for a role-playing game comes on page one, when duty and tradition force the author to describe how to play a role-playing game. When you sit at a table and see a RPG played, it makes sense, but try describing the activity to someone who has only seen chess and Monopoly.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Quest The Introduction to Role-Playing Games

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Quest – The Introduction to Role-Playing Games

Although most new players enter the RPG hobby through Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D books tended to do the worst job on explaining role playing. In the brown books, Gary Gygax did not even bother. In the first basic game, J. Eric Holmes devotes two paragraphs to convincing you to play and to shop for more TSR products. The original game had to spread gamer to gamer, like the best con crud ever. Since then, the how-to-play section in D&D has gone something like this: “Players, you create a character. Dungeon masters, you create a dungeon. Now read this long glossary.” Other games work a bit harder, typically by making some comparisons to children’s make believe and then replacing the glossary with an explanation of funny dice. Among D&D releases, the second edition First Quest box does the best of explaining the game. Third edition consciously delegated the chore to the starter set, which offered a offered a programmed adventure rather than an explanation.

The Introduction in the D&D’s fifth edition Basic Rules does a far better job of describing how to play a tabletop role-playing game than any other introduction I’ve seen. This is the Mona Lisa, Beethoven’s ninth, and Die Hard of the seldom appreciated-genre of “How to play an RPG.” Instead of dumping a two-thousand word example of play, this introduction explains the game with a couple of concise examples. Instead of “create a character and then tell the DM what you want to do,” the “How to Play” section explains play in three numbered steps. At last, a D&D writer thinks like technical writer to help players.

The introduction explains, “There’s no winning and losing in Dungeons & Dragons.” To gamers who grew up immersed in World of Warcraft and Minecraft, this may seem like an odd point to make. In the late 70s, when I started playing, the the first question folks asked me about D&D was, “How do you win?” Back then, a game had to be a competition. If a game failed to produce a winner and a loser, what was the point? Such questions, more than anything else, reveal the gulf between now and how people thought of games in 1974. Such questions show just how revolutionary D&D was. For more, see “But how do you win?

Now, almost everyone has seen a video game where you play a character and finish rather than win. Virtually every computer game owes a debt to D&D. Almost everyone has seen D&D played on The Big Bang Theory or Community or in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. We hardly need an introduction this good. But they could really use it in 1974.

Three more observations:

  • The “Worlds of Adventure” section seems like a nod toward the strategy that elevates D&D from a mere tabletop role-playing game to a multi-platform brand for stories and worlds. You may grumble, but we can credit this effort to sell D&D as a brand for the resources and patience Hasbro has granted to developing the fifth edition.
  • The “Game Dice” section explains how to roll a d100. Fourth edition eliminated percentile dice, but apparently they make a return in fifth.
  • Even pages of the basic rules are labeled V0.1, while odd pages are 1.0. This means that if you want to play the official game, you can only use rules on odd pages.
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Dungeons & Dragons fifth-edition Basic Rules, an annotated page 1

Wizards of the Coast has released the Dungeons & Dragons basic rules as a free download. I have yet to read past the first page, but even that invites comments.

The July 3 basic rules are labeled, version 0.1, but that does not mean that the playtest has restarted. It indicates that more basic rules will come. In “A Bit More on the Basic Rules for D&D,” lead designer Mike Mearls wrote, “As the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide near completion, we’ll add to the basic rules with more material to grow it into a complete game. Our goal is to continue to make updates to the basic rules for D&D until the end of the year, at which point it will be feature complete.

In “Five ways to create more usable game books,” I mentioned the love game publishers have for tiny, 8-point text. True to form, the PDF features tiny, 8-point text, presumably to save pages. In a PDF. Speaking to the page-layout staff on behalf of those of us in the reading glasses and bifocal demographic, I say, “Your time will come.” That’s way nicer than what I considered saying.

As for page layout, the staff at Wizards continues to make me doubt their competence. The original download included a parchment-colored background to pointlessly tax your ink or toner supply. Wizards has since added a printer-friendly version. Even in this version, if you duplex print, the page numbers and chapter titles appear on the inside of the page rather than on the outside where they can be easily spotted.

The credits cite contributors throughout the history of D&D. You probably know of E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the game’s original creators. Brian Blume, Rob Kuntz, and James Ward served as co-authors on the four supplements to the original game. Don Kay was Gary’s original partner at Tactical Studies Rules, later known as TSR.

The disclaimer on the first page is a hoot.

Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for the consequences of splitting up the party, sticking appendages in the mouth of a leering green devil face, accepting a dinner invitation from bugbears, storming the feast hall of a hill giant steading, angering a dragon of any variety, or saying yes when the DM asks, “Are you really sure?”

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

The great, green devil from Tomb of Horrors

The leering green devil face refers to the face of the great, green devil from the original Tomb of Horrors.

The dinner invitation refers to The Keep on the Borderlands, which featured this location:

BUGBEAR LAIR: The group of bugbears is not numerous, but what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in strength and cunning. There are signs beside the entrance cave in kobold, orcish, goblin, etc. Each says: “Safety, security and repose for all humanoids who enter — WELCOME! (Come in and report to the first guard on the left for a hot meal and bed assignment.)”

The feast hall refers to the great hall in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, which includes the following monsters:

Chief Nosnra & wife: HP.: 65, 41 (he fights as a frost giant, she as a male hill giant)
Sub-chief: HP.: 49
Cloud giant: HP.: 63
3 Stone giants: HP.: 51, 48, 43
22 Hill giants: HP.: 44, 3 x 40,39,5 x 38,5 x 37, 3 x 36, 33, 30, 2 x 27
8 Ogres: HP.: 31, 29, 3 x 28, 27, 26, 20
Cave bear: (beneath chiefs table) HP.: 43

Hint: Do not storm the great hall without a very good plan.

Just last week, I asked a player at a D&D Encounters table, “Are you really sure you want to do that?” The younger players at the table failed to see the warning, but their fathers sure noticed it.

That covers page 1. When I started this blog, I worried that I would run out of things to write about.

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Character roles appear in 4th edition D&D, disappear in 5th

In original D&D, thieves ranked as the least effective character on the battlefield. However, when the party explored, thieves took the biggest role. Early D&D players spent most of their time exploring, so who cared if thieves only rarely saw a chance to backstab?

In fourth edition, such a trade off would never suffice. The edition was optimized to allow characters to show off stunts and powers in dynamic fights. Designer Rob Heinsoo wrote of the perspective he gained playing a 3E bard and “singing from offstage, reminding everyone not to forget the +1 or +2 bonuses.” Heinsoo resolved to keep all 4E characters onstage. In the Design & Development article PC Roles, he wrote, “When Andy (Collins), James (Wyatt), and I put together the basic structure of 4th Edition, we started with the conviction that we would make sure every character class filled a crucial role in the player character group.”

This goal led to the creation of character class roles.

Wizards Presents Races and ClassesIn Wizards Presents Races and Classes, Rich Baker wrote, “One of the first things we decided to tackle in redesigning D&D’s character classes was identifying appropriate class roles. in other words, every class should have all the tools it needs to fill a specific job in the adventuring party.”

To make sure that all characters could succeed at their roles, the designers created formulas for each role that determined things like damage output, expected armor class, and healing capacity. Then they built the classes to meet these specifications.

Through the life of the edition, these parameters proved a bit off, revealing some roles as more useful than others. Fourth edition showed that only the striker role really mattered, because nothing prevents damage as well as killing monsters quickly, and no condition hampers enemies as well as dead.

Roles succeeded at one thing: They told players what each class did best in combat. By choosing a role, players decided what they would do in a fight—healing, damaging enemies, or protecting allies. Without roles, a 4E novice might wrongly suppose that a warrior would do a lot of damage, and fail to select a nature-loving ranger or a sneaky thief for maximum damage output.

Rob Heinsoo wrote, “4th Edition has mechanics that allow groups that want to function without a Leader, or without a member of the other three roles, to persevere. Adventuring is usually easier if the group includes a Leader, a Defender, a Striker, and a Controller, but none of the four roles is absolutely essential.” For the first time in D&D, an effective party could make do without a cleric or other healer. Also, healers could heal and still use their standard actions to attack, something every D&D player enjoys. Healers in 4E never feel torn between using actions and spells to heal, and using them to smite evil. This counted as a win for the 4E design, and counts as a virtue lost in the fifth edition.

Ironically, while roles sharply defined the tactical job of each class, 4E’s design made the classes interchangeable off the battlefield. The fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide encouraged DMs to skip to the good parts of the game by building adventures from a series of combat encounters and skill challenges. Characters’ roles shape their place in combat, but have no effect on skill challenges, or any other part of the game.

Outside of combat, all 4E characters contribute by making skill checks. Your character’s favored skill checks may differ from the next guy’s, but the rules advise dungeon masters to allow a wide variety of skills so every character can help. To guarantee that everyone contributed, the original skill challenge had players rolling initiative and taking turns. That rule soon fell by the wayside, but it shows the designers’ commitment to making all classes play alike off the battlefield. To further level play, most 4E spellcasters lack magic that helps outside of combat, a big change from previous editions.

D&D’s fifth edition dispenses with formulaic roles and with classes designed to measure up to a role’s target numbers. This affects the new game less than it would 4E. In the new edition, combat encounters no longer dominate time spent playing. D&D’s fifth edition bolsters the game’s interaction and exploration pillars to balance with combat. With more time to shine at diplomacy, the bard may not mind a reduced role in combat. With time to lead in exploration, the rogue might not mind retiring as the damage-per-round champion.

The real benefit of roles came from helping players understand what their character would do best in combat. This benefit can come without formal roles. The class descriptions simply need to make each classes’ tactical strengths and weaknesses clear.

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Five ways to create more usable game books

In my last post, I accused Wizards of the Coast of showing increasing indifference to making game books usable at the game table. Now I have five suggestions for creating more usable documents.

Break the content into short, labeled chunks

When readers try to find something in a game book, they often flip pages and scan for the nugget they need. This works best when the book breaks the information into concise, labeled chunks. The chunks must be stick to a single idea, so nothing important gets stranded without a label. The labels must stand out for easy scanning. Color headings jump out. Mixed case reads quicker, even though misguided designers seem to favor all upper-case titles. Hanging titles serve particularly well, but as much as game publishers love tiny, 8-point text, I’m certain the prospect of adding white space would send them in a paroxysm of weeping.

When I read an adventure to run, I will write my own labels in the margins of any copy I can mark. This way, when I must find some fact at the table, I can easily scan the pages.

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

What goes wrong? Some authors and editors eschew frequent sub-headings because they dislike “wasting” space that could be devoted to burying more words in unbroken columns. I get it. Everyone passionate about writing, myself included, loves every precious word from their keyboard. Also, the discipline of labeling chunks of can introduce a uncomfortable rigor to the creative process. It can be a pain.

Nonetheless, your readers benefit. Plus, the process helps you organize. Adding a label atop a description of the villain’s plan could help you notice that the tidbit belongs somewhere else. Game authors, repeat after me: I do not create worlds. I write technical documentation.

DragonQuest appeared in 1980 with now-obsolete numbered headings, but remains more usable than new books

DragonQuest appeared in 1980, but remains more usable than most new books. The obsolete numbered headings existed to enable cross references in an era when publishers literally pasted strips of type into a page layout. Note the use of red to highlight titles.

Use lists, tables, and graphics to communicate

When you page through a text book, what seems more approachable: (a) column after column of gray text, or (b) lists, tables, and graphics? Lists help readers see organization. Tables establish patterns and communicate them visually. You can see me use the power of tables in “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads” and “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?” And we all  know that a graphic may be worth a thousand words.

With the Ptolus source book, Monte Cook took inspiration from travel guides. Note the cross references and use of color to highlight.

With the Ptolus source book, Monte Cook took inspiration from travel guides. Note the cross references, white space, and the use of color to highlight. You can find what you need to know.

What goes wrong? Many authors of game books come from writing fiction, or from journalism, or just from writing reports. None of these backgrounds emphasize using tables and other visual tools to communicate.  For example, when USA Today first appeared, critics disparaged it for dumbing down journalism with bullets and graphics. Most authors seldom consider alternatives to paragraph text.

Also, tables can trigger problems with publishing. Your typical game author submits manuscripts as Microsoft Word documents, the poor bastard. (What’s wrong with Word? I could spell out the application’s shortcomings, but author Charlie Stross, creator of the Githyanki, brings a delicious savagery to the job.) After editing, someone converts Word to an application like InDesign, a process that may make hash of tables, and then someone jams the tables into a new page layout. Everything goes much smoother if everyone sticks to plain text.

Meanwhile, the graphic people work in another department. Better to just muddle through with words.

Add cross references linking content to related information

Ambitious adventures like those offered for this year’s Dungeons & Dragons Encounters seasons feature an intertwined cast of characters, locations, and events. As I prepared for a week’s session of Scourge of the Sword Coast, I found myself endlessly flipping pages, chasing related information. I spent nearly as much time searching as reading. A generous number of cross-references would have made the book immensely more usable. To be fair, Scourge includes a few cross references, as rare a four-leaf clovers. The book needed 10 times as many.

What goes wrong? So many things. If the authors compose in Word, any cross references they create will probably die in translation to InDesign. If more than one author contributes to a work, they cannot cross reference each other’s material. By the time the editing and layout folks have an opportunity to add cross references, they face a closer deadline, and probably have as hard a time finding content as I did.

Include an exhaustive index

Allow me to make an outrageous proposal: Adventures should have indexes. This may seem outrageous because adventures have never featured indexes. But the early adventures never exceeded 32 pages, and a list of keyed locations hardly merited one. Modern adventures that mix locations, characters, and a plot all in a 100-page sandbox must do better.

Meanwhile, everyone agrees that a core game book deserves an index, but their indexes have shriveled. As a general guideline, a typical game book should feature a index equal to 7% to 10% of the length of its content. Instead, core rule book indexes wither to a shameful 0.3%.

Book Percent of pages for index
Player’s Handbook, second edition 2%
Player’s Handbook, 3.5 edition 1%
Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook 1%
Player’s Handbook, fourth edition 0.3%

The 4E Player’s Handbook includes such a disgraceful index that someone who calls himself the Propagandroid created a custom index to supplement the book. The index remains tucked in my PH, another symbol of Wizards of the Coast’s disdain for their customers in 2008.

We have yet to see the fifth-edition players handbook, but the over-under stands at an embarrassing 0.5% of pages devoted to the index.

What goes wrong? Start with the same technical road blocks and deadline crunch that dooms cross references, and then add a big dose of misplaced priorities. In an interview promoting Ed Greenwood Presents Elminster’s Forgotten Realms, Ed spoke about the book’s lack of an index.

“My original outline that was approved for the book had a four page index at the end, and [the editors] said, ‘Four pages on an index? Come on! That’s four pages of stuff!’” Ed is not so misguided as Wizards staff. He goes on to say, “I would have rather had the index.”

By trading index pages for content, editors may have their readers’ interests at heart, but they only serve readers who never use their products in play. Should game books be intended for play, or just to be browsed and forgotten?

Create play aids

A play aid can include anything ranging from a timeline and a list of characters for the dungeon master, to player’s handouts and maps. Scourge of the Sword Coast seemed so desperate for a player’s handout that I created one. Why should I have to? In a PDF-only product, the editors cannot blame a limited page count. In the early days of the hobby, virtually every game included reference sheets, but they rarely do now. Living Forgotten Realms adventures, authored by volunteers, typically do better job of including player handouts. Could this be because the volunteer authors spend more time running their own adventures than the pros?

What goes wrong? Authors get no glory for creating play aids, unless they write for organized play and join the game masters who bring their adventures to the public game table.

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User hostile: How to make a good game book painful to use

Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Sword Coast has the seeds of a solid adventure. While characters visit the town of Daggerfall, they investigate mysteries like a theft and a suicide. Leads take them to a variety of dungeon sites in the region, mostly overrun with evil humanoids. At the conclusion, they can learn the secrets that tie the threads together. Recently, I finished running the adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. See “Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D next to fourth edition” for more.

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast

As an adventure, Scourge of the Sword Coast may be solid, but the product plumbs a low for usability in play.

When I reach a such a damning conclusion, I begin to question my adequacy as a dungeon master. Perhaps, an adequate DM can spend a couple of hours perusing the 75 pages, understand all the nuances, and recount details 10 weeks later when players uncover answers.

But I am not alone in my conclusions.

Ace convention DM Ed Kabara writes, “As a GM I felt things were too cluttered with important information being mixed with bits of encounters. I felt like the story needed a diagram to really help me to organize my thoughts regarding the plot.”

On the The Tome Show podcast, the round-table reviewers ask for more attention to formatting and organization, cite the need for a more help running the adventure, and suggest adding a timeline.

For a taste of what makes Scourge so difficult to run, imagine your players finish a key encounter, and you face this line on page 63, “If the characters save Shalendra, they can learn the story of Baazka and the specific location of Bloodgate Keep.”

First, you cannot actually reveal the specific location of Bloodgate Keep, because that lies in the next adventure. If you look for something more specific than “in the Forlorn Hills,” then you will waste time.

Page 15 from Scourge of the Sword Coast. Can you find anything?

Page 15 from Scourge of the Sword Coast. Quick! Find Baazka’s story.

Second, suppose you cannot remember all the details of Baazka’s story, so you page back through the text looking. Page 23 includes a “Baazka” subhead, but not his story, so you keep paging back. Meanwhile, you have lost your players attention. On page 15, you face this page with a “Shalendra Floshin” heading atop a column of undifferentiated text. Perhaps that hides the information she tells the players. Should your start skimming, or try the adventure background on page 3? Quick, find Baazka’s story before you lose everyone to their smartphones or to chatter.

I wish my example came from a single bump, but every time I reference this text, I find myself hunting. Every time, I wind up thinking that I remember seeing more about that, but I have no idea where.

Some of the challenge stems from the authors’ ambition. Scourge combines a sandbox with a plot, as multiple villains scheme even as the characters adventure. Like any sandbox, the text organizes around locations and characters, but all the details of the story lay threaded through these descriptions. This is why reviewers keep pleading for diagrams and timelines and advice on running the adventure.

I wish Scourge of the Sword Coast stood out as an anomaly, but it just represents another low as Wizards of the Coast grows increasingly indifferent to the usability of their products. The adventures that preceded it were just as bad. Dead in Thay mostly consists of keyed dungeon locations, but piecing together the information for my players’ handout seemed like a detective’s job.

How does Wizards of the Coast take perfectly good game content and make a book that creates hassles at the table? I suspect they focus on cramming as much content as possible into a book’s page budget, without allocating pages to indexes or other usability improvements, without scheduling the necessary drudgery of adding cross references, play aids, and index entries. I think the authors and editor approach game books as they might a novel, something to be read from start to finish. I think the typesetters and designers approach game books as a magazine that must lure potential buyers at a newsstand. Neither group of artists seems to have accepted a bitter truth. You produce technical documentation. Your stories will only come alive if you create documents that enable players to bring them to life at the table.

Next: Five ways to create more usable game books

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Is it found? How to handle a search

Speed through the obvious by summarizing simple search efforts

Game masters often speed past the uninteresting parts of the game—the parts with few decisions or obvious decisions—with a simple summary of activity. Most game masters will use a summary to skip past a search of a place containing nothing of interest, but the technique also works during the players’ first examination of a cluttered laboratory or dusty crypt.

When you conduct the routine parts of a search, summarize the obvious actions the party might take to perform a quick, initial search. This summary from the game master brings two advantages:

  • You, as the game master, and the characters in the game world have a clearer picture of the location than the players.
  • You can summarize the results of the most simple, obvious search efforts without slowing play with back-and-forth discussion as the players describe their actions.

In your summary, mention the obvious items in the location and any simple steps required to search around and inside them. You might also mention things the characters don’t do, either because the actions could be risky or time consuming. For example, “As you look, you leave the books on the shelves and the furniture in place.”

Parable of the Hidden Treasure by Rembrandt

Hidden Treasure

Avoid giving the results of this summary, in case the players wish to change some the actions that you outline. For example, “No, none of us go near the dark altar.”

This description will give the players a more vivid picture of the contents of the room, and will suggest things that deserve further checking.

Once you finish a summary of an initial search, the players can agree to proceed, you can share the outcome, and then the players can describe anything they want to do to take a closer look.

This method only works if you limit your description of the party’s search to obvious efforts. Do not make the players feel usurped by the game master. If the players enter the Garden of a Thousand Stings, where any misstep brings painful death, have them spell out every action. If the players enter Acererak’s throne room, and they prefer to describe every nuance of their search, they can—they should.

Search procedure

When the players ask to search a location, and they have limited time to search, use the following method:

  1. Ask if the characters will touch, move or open things as they search. If traps seem plausible, ask how the characters divide the responsibilities of opening and moving. If the room appears on a battlemap, you can ask the players to place their figures in the region they intend to search. During this step, you establish which characters could possibly trigger any traps or hazards that may exist.
  2. Summarize the obvious actions the party might take to perform a quick, initial search. This description will give the players a more vivid picture of the contents of the room, and will suggest things that deserve further checking.
  3. If the players have no objections, then tell the result of their initial search. The characters might find the keys on the bodies, coins in the sofa, and the monsters under the bed. They will find anything in plain view. If they open and move objects, they will also find anything not carefully hidden.If you feel uncertain whether something hidden would be noticed in this first, quick search, call for a search check from the entire group, but only consider the result from the character searching the area with the hidden object. Many things in the location may still need a closer look or more actions to find.
  4. If the players think some features deserve more thorough investigation, let them describe closer checks. For example, “I want to check that empty chest for hidden catches or compartments.”“I wonder what’s behind the bookcase. Is it built into the wall?”
“In most cases, you need to tell the DM where you are looking in order for him or her to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Intelligence (Search) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success.” – Dungeons &Dragons Next playtest

In step 4, the characters’ specific search actions may call for search checks, or they may yield discoveries without a roll. As the characters’ search actions grow more specific, they may make some or all search rolls irrelevant. If the ceiling contains a hidden trap door and someone starts rapping the ceiling with a 10′ pole, just tell about the hollow-sounding spot that reveals the door.

Searching and tedium

This search procedure typically applies when the characters face some time constraints, when they must decide whether to keep searching, or whether to press on before, say, a patrol comes or the dark ritual begins.

When characters can search without time pressure or risk, but you, as the game master, make the players either roll or narrate their search process, you can introduce frustration. The players know if they waste enough real-world time rolling checks or describing how their characters probe, sift, and break down every object, they will eventually find everything that can be found. The search’s success hinges on the players’ patience for drudgery.

In the classic dungeon expedition, the threat of wandering monsters discouraged this sort of grind. In original Dungeons & Dragons, searching a 10 foot section of wall for a secret door required a 10-minute turn. Each turn, the referee checked for wandering monsters, and the players faced a 1 in 6 chance of attack. Players focused their searches on the most promising features, and then moved ahead. See “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play” for more.

Third edition acknowledged the tension between tedious play and exhaustive searches by introducing the option to take 20. Taking 20 allows players to find everything the characters could possibly find, without testing anyone’s patience.

Searching without game-world time limits

Fourth edition and D&D Next both dropped the rule for taking 20, while old-school games include no rules for checks at all. However, the players don’t need to say, “We take 20,” for you to cut past tedium.

Anytime players can search without time pressure, they will find everything that can be found.

If players search without time constraints, and they’re determined to finding whatever can be found, let them find it. Skip the rolls and skip the rote recitals of how and where they look. Just tell the players everything they’re capable of finding.

Although this guideline lets you provide a search’s outcome in seconds, the guideline applies when the players wish to invest what could be hours of game-world time in an exhaustive search. If the players show no particular interest in a thorough investigation, then just summarize the outcome of a simple search and let them follow up as they choose.

In unusual cases, the characters may not be capable of finding everything. For example, a perfectly concealed door may require a search DC higher than 20 plus the search skill of the party’s best searcher.

Time and search

Most versions of Dungeons & Dragons tend to leave the time demanded by a search to the discretion of the dungeon master. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons offers the best guidelines: “mapping, and casually examining a 20’×20’ area” requires a 10-minute turn, and then thoroughly searching the 20’×20’ area after the initial examination requires another 10 minutes. Actual time varies depending on the amount of stuff in the area. Characters must spend much more time to finish an exhaustive search that finds everything that can be found, and rules out any possibility of missing something.

Newer versions of the game calculate search times with an interest in making searching feasible during combat. Third edition lets you search a 5’×5’ area as a full-round action. Pathfinder lets you search it as a move action. I can’t even find my keys in a 5×5 inch basket that fast. These times only seem applicable to a relatively empty battlefield square, and not a wizard’s junk drawer.

“Time spent searching for anything (secret passages, hidden treasure, etc.), loading treasure, listening, ESPing, hiding, will be adjudged by the referee as to what portion of a turn will be used by the activity.” -Dungeons & Dragons Underworld and Wilderness Adventures p.8

In play, when time matters, keep a rough accounting of the time characters invest in a search, and share the totals with the players. You may need to keep them appraised of the risks of spending more time.

How to run listen.

This one is easy. Everyone forms a line and takes turns putting an ear to the door, and then rolling. Meanwhile, the dungeon master rolls to see who is listening when something awful comes through the door. For instance, Beholders can drift soundlessly and open doors with telekinesis.

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How to run an ambush

Group checks and the ambush

In “How D&D Next almost made knowledge count” and in “Is it noticed? How to run alertness,” I discussed the inevitable success that comes when a group rolls to gain one success. The reverse of this phenomenon appears when a group makes a check and just one failure can drag down the effort. The designers of d20 role-playing games mostly ignore these issues.

Credit the fourth edition Dungeon & Dragons designers for introducing a group-check rule for some tasks. From a game-play perspective, I like 4E’s group-check rule because it makes some group tasks possible. From a realism perspective, I fail to understand how three stealthy party members cover the racket from the clanking dwarf and paladin. In this post, I ignore the 4E rule, which I’ve never seen applied to perception anyway.

No situation highlights the problems of group checks more than the ambush. Using the simplest interpretation of the rules, everyone in a group setting an ambush must roll to hide, giving all a chance to doom the effort with a single bad roll. When the targets of the ambush arrive, every target gets a chance to spot that worst hider.

Based on real life, you might suppose that ambushes typically work. The group setting the ambush has the advantage of planning, preparation, and surprise. They just sit out of sight until their targets arrive. Unless someone sneezes or the targets have x-ray vision, the ambush works.

Based on the game, the word “ambush” describes a imaginary event that can never happen.

In “Is it noticed?” I suggested a fix. I advised assuming that the targets of an ambush take-10 to spot it. In effect, you set the DC for the ambushers’ hide check based on the targets’ lowest take-10 to spot. While this enables one creature to set an ambush, it still fails when a group prepares an ambush and everyone must roll to hide. My method only gives a group a chance of setting an ambush if the GM either (a) requires just a single hide check from the worst hider or (b) relies on 4E’s group check rules for the attempt to hide.

In a comment, Sr. Rojo suggested a method for handling ambushes that I like better.

How to run an ambush

To run an ambush, follow these two steps:

  1. Allow the group setting the ambush to take-20 in their effort to hide.This reflects their time advantage, which lets them pick a good site and then arrange themselves for maximum concealment. When you set an ambush, you have time to work out the best hiding place you can muster.
  2. When the targets reach the ambush site, ask them to roll to spot. The DC to spot the enemy equals 20 plus the ambushers’ worst hide bonus.Unless the ambushers stink at hiding, the DC to spot the ambush may be unattainable for some targets, and will present a challenge to the rest. Unlike most group spot checks, this check presents a reasonable chance of failure. Rather than assuming the targets of the ambush take 10 on their spot check, you can let them roll, and still give the ambushers a fair chance.

As with any spot check, you can limit the check to those characters keeping watch and in position to notice. If the party wants to an ambush a company, only the few soldiers on watch get a spot check, not all 100 enemies.

Take 20 and the rules

“When you have plenty of time, you are faced with no threats or distractions, and the skill being attempted carries no penalties for failure, you can take 20.” – Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, p.86

Some rules lawyers might argue that the hide attempt does not qualify for a take-20, because it carries a penalty for failure. I disagree. Unlike climbing or disabling a trap, the act of perfecting a hiding spot carries no penalty for failure. Your best hiding place may not be good enough, but that comes later.

Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition and fifth edition both lack a take-20 rule, so this method requires some latitude with the rules as written. In practice, if the players set an ambush and you tell them they automatically roll a 20 on their hide check, no one will gripe.

If the players walk into an ambush, you, as the game master, set the DC they must reach to spot the ambush. Even in a game without a take 20 rule, a DC equal to the ambushers’ worst hide bonus plus 20 makes a good target.

Next: Is it found? How to handle a search

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Is it noticed? How to run alertness

Introducing the spot check

In this post, I cite “spot checks” to refer to third edition’s Spot checks, Next’s Wisdom (Perception) checks, and tests of awareness made with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception skill.

The Spot skill and its descendents rate a character’s ability to notice something while doing other things like traveling, fighting, or resting. Before Spot entered the game, unless you searched, you noticed the things the game master decided you noticed. A thief might hide from you, but their success depended on their roll to hide, not on your ability to spot.

Spot the spider

Can you see me?

When the game master simply decides what the characters perceive, the game plays fine. After all, the game master adds things to an adventure to enrich the adventure. If you let the dice say that the PCs fail to catch a scent of brimstone, or fail to spot the cloud of bats erupting from the cliffside, then the game suffers.

Nonetheless, when Spot skill entered the game, game masters and designers dutifully worked spot checks into every situation. Whenever the party opened a door or topped a hill, everyone made a new round of spot checks. At some game tables, every bit of information had to be earned with a spot check.

I will explain why you should skip many spot rolls, reserving the spot check for a small number of specific circumstances.

Passive perception and taking 10

Fourth edition attempted to rein in spot rolls by introducing passive perception. In principle, a dungeon master could skip perception rolls and use the characters’ passive perception to determine just what they notice as they explore.

“Passive perception checks help you set the scene. They tell you right away how much of the details of a room or encounter area the characters notice.” – Fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide p.26

Passive perception extends the mechanic of taking-10. Instead of players stating that they take 10, the game master assumes it.

Passive perception avoids putting the players on alert by asking for a roll when they see nothing. And it avoids interrupting the narrative for all those rolls.

What’s not to like?

The problem with passive perception

Passive perception forces the dungeon master to do the extra work of tracking all the passive perception scores and of setting perception DCs. Typically, this extra effort only yields a process that amounts to the DM deciding in advance what the PCs will notice. Seem familiar?

Most DMs running for regular groups know the approximate perception bonuses of the PCs. If you bother to create something interesting or something that advances the adventure, would you hide it behind a DC that prevents the group from ever seeing it? Never. Not even authors of published adventures will hide things that enrich the adventure beyond the perception of a typical party.

Secrets add fun to the game, but only when uncovered. If the players overlook the secret door, it’s just another wall. – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

But suppose a virtuous DM devises an adventure that gives keen-eyed parties a significantly different experience than unwary parties. The players still never know that their keen-senses paid off. The work of managing perception stays in the DM’s head, its effects unnoticed by the players, extra work, arguably for nothing.

If you would set the DC required to spot something within the reach of the PCs’ passive perception or take-10 value, then skip the DC. They spot it. The players will not ask you to show your work.

As a diceless method of resolving spot checks, passive perception falls short, but it still works as a way to set a difficulty class. More on that later.

The play value of rolling to spot

None of this means that you must always decide in advance what the players see. Random rolls can add an element to the game.

  • Unpredictability makes role-playing games interesting, mainly for the game master. The printed adventure cannot surprise the GM. Only the players actions and the random luck of the die add surprises to the game.
  • Randomness helps the game master keep some distance from the characters’ fates. The players should see the course of the game determined by their choices and by the luck of the die, not by the GM’s whims and mood.

Ask for spot checks (a) when success is uncertain, and (b) success hinges on keen senses in the game world.

Group perception checks almost always succeed

The outcome of group perception checks is rarely uncertain enough to merit a check.

Anytime every player can attempt a spot check, someone will succeed. Suppose a party of five adventurers, all with +0 to their check, passes something that requires a spot DC of 15, what D&D Next considers a moderate DC. If one person rolls, the chance of success is 30%. If everyone rolls, each has a 30% chance of success, which means the odds of someone succeeding grows to 83%. This supposes that no one is particularly good at spotting—everyone has a +0. One alert character pushes the chance of success closer to 90%.

When the odds of everyone missing something amounts to a rare fumble, does stopping the action to roll make sense? With some groups, absolutely. In particular, younger players love to roll, so group rolls create excitement despite the minimal chance of failure. Let them roll.

“Listen or Spot checks can get repetitive and dull if players have to make them over and over, especially when it usually only takes one success out of the whole group to succeed, making their success typically a foregone conclusion. Think twice before asking for such checks. They’re interesting when the PCs are trying to find a hiding or invisible foe, but get dull fast when they’re walking through the woods and you ask for them for every hour of travel.” – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

For most groups, you can consider any ordinary group perception check an automatic success. Skip the pointless activity, tell them what they see, and move on.

When you devise adventures, never mistake a group perception task difficulty for a challenge. On the rare occasions a group fails to spot something, they fumbled. This certainty is not a bad thing. In most cases you want the players to spot the “hidden” things in your adventure, either because these interesting things enrich the adventure, or because they advance the plot.

Hard checks change the equation. These checks impose DCs so high that only one or two members of the party can even hope to succeed. That’s the water elemental stirring the reeds under the bridge, or the key glimmering below the school of silvery fish. In these cases, allow a roll. You must be comfortable with the likelihood that no one will spot the ambush or the key.

If your players have become accustomed to calling for group perception checks, you can tell them not to waste their time, or you can let them have their fun, knowing that their success is virtually certain.

Individual perception checks may merit a roll

Of course, many spot checks can only be attempted by a character or two. This gives you a chance to add an element of uncertainty, and gives your players a potential reward for investing in perception.

Sometimes a spot task may be limited to the characters…

  • leading the party in marching order.
  • with darkvision or another requisite ability
  • spending an action the heat of battle to look
  • with applicable talents such as the ability to spot traps or arcane phenomena
  • taking the role of lookout

The D&D Next exploration system turns some of these limitations into specific rules: “When a character chooses to keep watch as an exploration task, the character makes a Wisdom (Perception) check to detect hidden creatures and an Intelligence (Search) check to detect hidden objects (such as traps and secret doors) as the group travels during the current exploration turn.”

D&D Next writes this as a rule, but it applies to other games too. In many situations, only a few members of the party can make perception checks. Their skills pay here. Keeping watch is a task akin to mapping or tracking.

“Don’t be afraid, in some cases, to only allow one or two characters to make the check. It’s with in your prerogative to rule that most of the party is preoccupied in other activities while one character is more or less ‘keeping watch.’ This isn’t covered in the rules, but in a case-by-case basis, you can decide that only a character who’s trying to listen or keep an eye out has a chance of making a check.” – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

Group perception checks guarantee success, so individual checks like these represent a chance for players who invested in perception skills to reap benefits.

Even if only one or two characters can possibly notice something, you might ask all the players to make the roll, and then only consider the checks from those able to notice. This avoids giving clues about, say, the location of the breeze coming from the unseen exit.

Favor search over spot

Before you ask for a spot check, consider whether a search makes more sense. In most cases, this comes down to the circumstances, see “Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation.” Sometimes, you may be tempted to give someone a chance to spot something hidden, but hypothetically visible to spot. Favor making the players search. Searching plays better than spotting for a couple of reasons:

  • Searching engages the characters in action, forcing them closer for a look.
  • Searching invites the players to make decisions about when, where, and how to search, and how much time to risk.

If someone steps into a room, aces a die roll, and sees the key at the bottom of the fountain and the odd scratches on the floor behind the chest, you have replaced the interaction and decision making demanded by a search with an abstract roll.

Hiding and sneaking

When one creature attempts to hide from others, do not ask for spot or listen checks. Instead, use passive perception or take-10 scores to set the DC to sneak or hide. Pit the active creature’s stealth check versus the highest applicable take-10 score. In the case when a group could roll to spot, this method makes hiding possible, because group perception checks virtually always succeed.

In combat, if someone chooses to look for a hiding creature, they can spend an action and roll versus the hiding creature’s check. In Pathfinder and 3E, active looking takes a move action. In 4E, active looking takes a standard action.

The same system works for ambushes. If someone hides to ambush, they roll to hide. Later, when the ambush springs, compare the hide check against the highest passive perception or take-10 score of the targets.

While this procedure may not follow your game’s written rules, it makes sense because the targets of the ambush are busy traveling and, by default, taking 10 on perception.

Five questions to ask before calling for a Spot check

The game master almost always asks players to make spot checks, except when players take an action in combat to look for something.

As a game master, before you ask for a check, consider these five questions:

  1. Is something sneaking or hiding? Skip the spot check. Instead, use the party’s best take-10 (passive perception) scores to set the DC for the hide or sneak attempt.
  2. Can the thing to spot be noticed from the character’s vantage? If not, wait for the players to search.
  3. Does noticing something fall within the take-10 value of the most perceptive PC? Do not roll. Something is noticed.
  4. Does everyone in the party have a chance to notice something? Do not roll. Something is noticed.
  5. Are only one or two characters in position to notice something? Ask for a perception check.

Next: How to run an ambush

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