Basic and Advanced—the time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games (Part 1)

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetIn the fall of 1977, I found a copy of the blue, Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set and devoured the rules. The game electrified me, but one thing also baffled me. The rules kept sending me to ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS for more rules, classes, spells, monsters, and on and on. I wanted to feast on ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS right now—except it did not exist yet. A few months later, the new AD&D Monster Manual reached the hobby shop alongside a “Collector’s Edition” of the original D&D rules. The Monster Manual proved as exciting as the Basic Set, but the original rules puzzled me. Their explanations rarely made sense. What did Outdoor Survival or Chainmail have to do with anything? The old rules wasted pages on castle construction, naval combat, and other things that never came up in the game. At least the box included some higher-level spells. For the highest-level spells, I learned that I needed to buy more books.

The AD&D Player’s Handbook would not reach stores until the next summer. That book collected all the game’s classes and spells, but lacked most combat rules. For those, D&D fans needed to wait another year, until the summer of 1979. Until then, we blended the rules sets, combining the combat system in that Basic Set with the monsters and characters in AD&D with the magic items in the original books.

All these rules mixed together well enough that I failed to notice the seams. When Gary Gygax printed an editorial in the June 1979 issue of The Dragon, his claims baffled me. “ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a different game. Readers please take note! It is neither an expansion nor a revision of the old game, it is a new game.”

After almost two years blending three sets of D&D rules, I could not imagine why Gygax chose to argue this point, but he kept at it.

“It is necessary that all adventure gaming fans be absolutely aware that there is no similarity (perhaps even less) between D&D and AD&D than there is between D&D and its various imitators produced by competing publishers.”

To me, Gygax’s claims seemed silly. Even though his editorial reached me at about the same time as the Dungeon Master’s Guide, my friends kept playing as before. Nobody played AD&D by the book; we picked the rules that suited us.

Years later, I would learn the reasons for Gygax’s puzzling insistence.

Next: D&D’s new audience versus its original rules

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What game masters (and their monsters) should say during a combat encounter

defending_against_frost_giantsDuring a combat encounters, I focus on keeping play moving. A faster tempo means players spend less time waiting between turns. Waiting never adds fun.

Despite my focus on tempo, I do more than count initiative and tell players when they hit. I try to describe enough of the action to make the scene vivid. I speak for the villains. Still, I worry that some player will think, Quit blabbing so I can take my turn, so I aim to add color without slowing the game.

In combat encounters, my monsters and I talk about three sorts of things:

1. Villainous monologues

Speaking dialog for your villains transforms them from bags of hit points into enemies. In comics, villains mock the fools that oppose them, and we hate them for their contempt, arrogance, and cruelty. Some of the fun Dungeons & Dragons comes from crushing evil. Good dialog makes your villains seem more real, more detestable, and more satisfying to crush.

Also, I reveal the monsters’ tactics through dialog. The ogre might say, “You hurt Grug, so I smash you.” The necromancer might say, “Barbarian, I have just the enchantment for weak-willed cretins like you.” This reframes the battle from the us verses the game master into us verses the monsters. I want players invested in their characters, but when I single out their character for attack, sometime it feels personal. If the monsters explain themselves, the GM starts to disappear.

2. Summary

At the end of a turn, if a PC does something noteworthy, give a short, vivid description of the event—or invite the player to describe it. Some GMs ask players to describe their kills. D&D includes a lot of kills, so for my taste, describing them all becomes tiresome and too gruesome. Especially with kids at the table. Especially when those kids loose their imaginations. Instead, focus on describing the big spells, stunts, transformations, setbacks, and feats of valor. The summary should only take a few seconds.

3. Urgency and exigency

After the summary, call the next player to act, and then tell them the biggest crisis on the battlefield. This advice comes from the Angry GM. “A player’s turn in combat needs to have both urgency (there’s an emergency that needs to be dealt with) and exigency (if you don’t take action right now, you will lose your opportunity). That’s what makes combat scary and that’s what keeps it running forward.” For example, say “Agnes, the wolves have knocked Kedric to the ground and look ready to gut him. What do you do?” Such transitions call the player to attention, focus them on the game, and increase their sense of urgency.

4. Exposition

Screenwriters cannot pad a movie fight scene with dialog without strangling the pace. But in a role-playing game, you can fit dialog into a fight. If you want to compare RPG fight scenes to another medium, compare them to comics. In comic-book fights, battles stretch time. I’ve seen Captain America deliver 50 words on freedom in the span of a single punch.

Similarly, I’ve seen D&D players squeeze a 5-minute strategy conference into a 6-second round. (If the players enjoy tactics and they’re not just telling the new player what to do, I just assume that yesterday, at the campfire, the PCs planned tactics for situations like this.)

Most adventures need some exposition: essential information needed to make sense of events, or clues the that lead to the next scene. Sometimes all GMs find themselves relaying some essential bit of background while the players grow impatient. Their expressions say, “Blah, blah, blah. Just tell us what to kill.”

Why not add exposition while the players know what to kill? You never have a better hold on their attention. Unlike in a movie, your villains can monologue during a fight, revealing their history, exposing their plans, and so on. “My father defeated the demon Chirix to win that staff, you shall not have it.” Just don’t recite more than a few lines at a time, stalling play. The players might allow themselves a 5-minute strategy conference, but your villain cannot unfold a page and say, “As a free action, I would like to read a statement.”

Do as a I say and try to do

I have a confession to make. I aim to enhance all my fights with colorful dialog and descriptions, but sometimes I lose myself in the business of keeping the turns moving and planning my monsters’ next move. If you ever happen to find a seat at my game table, you’ll see how well I’m doing.

When you serve as game master during a combat encounter, what do you say?

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How much description should a dungeon key include?

The conventional Dungeons & Dragons adventure includes a dungeon key describing numbered locations on a map. When D&D co-creator Gary Gygax created his first dungeon under Castle Greyhawk, he usually wrote a 1-line note for each room. These notes served as more than just Gary’s reminders to himself. He and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz shared the notes. For more, see “When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.”

Early published D&D adventures such as Palace of the Vampire Queen adopted the same terse style.

Tegel Manor and minimal descriptions

Tegel ManorWhen Judges Guild founders Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen published Tegel Manor (1977), its rooms featured minimal descriptions:

B8 25’x16’x20’H Picture on south wall depicts living battle scene. Arrow flies out of picture every 4 r. Arrows stuck everywhere.

B9 25’x24’x20’H Dire wolves head E Wall has Ring of Mammal Control in nose. Stuffed Elf, Giant Ant, boar, etc.

In 1978, my friend Gordon tried running Tegel Manor, but the campaign fizzled after his first session. Young Gordon lacked the experience to turn a list of creatures, clutter, and spooky effects into something fun. His manor played as a dreary slog.

In Dragon magazine issue 27, Bob Bledsaw wrote, “Originally we had some bad feedback which indicated that judges felt that the actual description of dungeons was their ‘domain’ and all they desired was a very skeletal framework with the more time-consuming level details worked out. We learned quickly and now design to allow the judge to delete (or modify) that which doesn’t suit the tenor of his play.

Gary Gygax sets the standard

Gary started publishing adventures with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). He included generous descriptions for every location, even the rooms with little to interest players.

CHIEF’S CHAMBER: This room is hung with rugs and skins and there are hides on the floor. There is a bed, 2 chairs, a small table with a tun of cheap wine on it, an old shield and some of the chief’s weapons (in the corner), a chest with his clothing, and other clothing hanging on pegs. A thick chain (for his cave bear) is set into one wall. Nothing of value is in the place.

Gary’s longer descriptions set the pattern for virtually every adventure to follow.

Longer descriptions

When Gamescience updated Tegel in 1989, they expanded the descriptions. The bedroom with the battle scene gets the following description:

B8 BEDROOM (25’x16’x20’H): Opening into the side hallway that leads from the Master Gallery to the Whistling Hall, this room would appear to have been trapped, and to have claimed a victim already. The door stands ajar and a corpse sprawls partway out into the hall, with an arrow protruding from its skull. Two more arrows are lodged in the wall beyond. Any who examine the room further will find a fascinating sight: The wall opposite the door is entirely covered by a vast depiction of a fearsome battle scene—and the picture is alive! Not only does it continue to move, but every fourth turn another arrow flies out of the picture in a random direction. The other walls of the room bristle with arrows stuck in the woodwork, the bedding, other pictures (one of which—a portrait—is bleeding!).

Longer descriptions free DMs from a need to invent details at the table. Even if you have a knack for description, the ideas that spring to mind first will steer toward the obvious—likely the most familiar and blandest ideas.

The update turns the curiosity of the arrow-shooting picture into a possible trap for players to investigate. The bleeding portrait adds another spooky detail. The fuller description makes the room more fun than the version Gordon ran.

On the other hand, the description of the taxidermist’s bedroom adds some color, but little play value.

B9 BEDROOM (2S’x24’x20’H): Entering this room off the Master Gallery, one is immediately overcome by the strong animal musk that clings to the chamber. A stuffed elk stands in one corner, while heads of boar, dire wolf, great cats and other fierce beasts fill the walls, along with hunting bows and spears, all heavily layered in dust. How one could sleep in such a room without keeping a bonfire going is questionable, especially since the eyes of all heads seem to glimmer and follow you around the room.

This description takes a good, middle sentence and pads it like a school paper stretched to an assigned length. The custom of longer description encourages authors to write something even when they have little to add. The format makes authors feel obligated to describe the shelves and pegs in an empty closet. I have quotes from published adventures. Don’t force me to include them.

Matching description to a location’s purpose

A location’s purpose in the game should also figure into the length of its descriptions. If the player characters meet the sheriff about a wanted poster, no one needs an item-by-item inventory of her kitchen. Even the kitchen in the giant chief’s steading only merits a sentence. In the unlikely event that players care about pots and pans, Gordon can improvise.

The Curse of Strahd adventure lavishes detail on every location. The homes of notable NPCs get pages of room descriptions. To be fair, players might explore some of these rooms and author Chris Perkins fills them with creepy, moody details. But unless your players treat social calls like dungeon crawls, they will never enter the Burgomaster’s scullery, much less care about his spooky spatula. As I read the adventure, many locations interested me until I considered how players might experience them. Often then, I  realized that nothing would bring players to the location. I wonder if any DMs led players to explore village houses like dungeons because the places’ descriptions seemed to invite that mode of play?

An avalanche of description does more than squander page count. It buries many great details might actually enter play. For example, in my Curse of Strahd game, every time I needed to find information about the players’ ally Victor Wachter, I needed to find him buried in the page-long description of his workroom in the 5-page description of his father’s mansion. (I have an idea: Trade 2 pages of mansion for 2 pages of index.)

Boxed, read-aloud text

Even though I seldom read-aloud text verbatim, boxed text consolidates and identifies features that require description. I like box text, but not every location needs it. Curse of Strahd includes it for every location. The descriptions are evocative, but DMs who dutifully present the box text for all the empty rooms in a place like the Argynvostholt dungeon will bore players.

Clearly, writing box text for the endless, gloomy rooms in Curse of Strahd caused Chris Perkins to collapse weeping into his keyboard. His follow-up, Storm King’s Thunder, omits almost all read-aloud text. Find a happy middle, Chris.

For more on boxed text, see “Picturing the dungeon – boxed text.”

The influence of one-page dungeons

A few modern adventures skip long room descriptions. Michael Curtis, author of the well-reviewed Stonehell megadungeon follows a style pioneered for one-page dungeons. Curtis explains that the format provides “the minimum amount of information needed to run the dungeon, allowing the referee to customize the adventure to his own (and his players’) tastes.”

stonehell level 1AStonehell dungeon presents each level on 2-page spread, with most rooms getting a just a couple of lines. Features that deserve special attention get descriptions in sidebars. (You can download a free, 6-page sample of Stonehell.)

Even a novice DM could run Stonehell cold, but I wonder if the sparse details offer enough to bring the adventure to life.

The ideal dungeon description

My ideal dungeon description would adopt the best of both worlds. I want a map overlayed with notes and matched with an abbreviated key on the same page. At the table, the short key offers an easy reference. The latrines, empty bedrooms, and such can get the one line they deserve. More interesting locations can break out into a second, expanded key.

The length of descriptions should match the way players will engage a location. If sofas, throne-like chairs, and urns appear in the kindly widow’s salon, skip the box text. If they appear in the Tomb of Horrors, keep typing.

Descriptions should focus on telling details and plot-critical information—details I can use in play. Don’t bury the evocative bits in lavish descriptions of sleeping pallets and rubbish. If your kitchen description seems like the first thing a typical DM would imagine at the table, you may as well rely on the typical imagination.

How much description do you want in a dungeon key?

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Never split the party—except when it adds fun

Everyone who plays role-playing games learns the Dungeons & Dragons adage never split the party.

In the hobby’s early days, when dungeon masters were referees and players chose difficulty by dungeon level, never splitting the party always made good strategy. Parties found safety in numbers.

defending-the-bridgeThe danger of splitting the party

In a dungeon stocked with encounters suited for a full party, splitting the party jeopardizes everyone. But despite the adage, players sometimes find reasons to split the party. New players and kids always seem tempted.

Faced with a divided group, some dungeon masters will scale the challenges for smaller groups. Typically, I don’t. I usually only shrink the challenges for those new players and kids.

Experienced players who split up know they’re taking an extra risk. They feel a sense of jeopardy that the usual game can’t match. They use stealth and cunning in ways they might not with a full group, when they assume they can defeat any monsters set before them. I don’t want to lose that sense of peril, or to block their chance to approach the game differently. In a way, adjusting threats steals the players’ agency by nullifying the consequences of their actions.

Why split the party?

In today’s game, player characters do more than assault dungeons. Sometimes the elf and wizard must persuade the elven emissary, the thief and warlock need to infiltrate a manor house, and the bard and noble paladin need to charm guests at a ball. They could work better separately, but players insist on keeping the party together. So the dwarf insults the emissary, the paladin’s chainmail racket alerts the manor guards, and a motley band of killers sours the ball. Then midnight tolls and evil triumphs.

Game masters often avoid challenges suited to split parties, but I invite them. Sometimes I relish a chance to split a party.

Splitting the party can give soft-spoken players a chance in the spotlight. Player characters gain unique chances to reveal their character’s personality and talents.

Way back in a post on skill challenges, I suggested using time pressure to force each PC to participate. “If the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute.” Formal skill challenges are gone, but forcing a party to divide and conquer still invites everyone to contribute.

One limitation of role-playing games is that even when the entire party participates in a role-playing scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes players find themselves overshadowed by players with more forceful personalities. Splitting the party gives more players a solo. Meanwhile, the thief finally gets to sneak. The wizard finally gets to cast Sending.

If done well, splitting the party creates more spotlight time for every player at the table. More on that later.

Why keep everyone together?

Never split the party started as good strategy, but now it feels like part of the game’s social contract. Even when splitting the party seems logical, players keep the group together for three metagame reasons.

1. Players fear encounters designed for a full party.

Players expect combat encounters designed to challenge a group of 4 to 7 characters. If they split up before a fight erupts, then an undermanned party becomes overmatched.

But that happens less often that you think, because you, as a game master, see the situations that invite splitting the party and can plan challenges for smaller groups.

2. Players stay together as a courtesy to the game master.

By staying together, players avoid forcing the GM to juggle two separate narratives.

For the GM, balancing two threads can be fun—in the right situation. For a split to work, either (1) it cannot take more time than the idle players need to grab a snack, or (2) each subgroup needs to meet separate challenges. You can’t leave half of the party inactive for more than 5 minutes.

So the trick of handling a split party comes from devising situations that keep each part of the group busy. If someone goes to scout while the party rests, either the scouting should be finish by the time the idle players grab a drink, or something better stumble into the campsite.

3. Players stay together to keep everyone involved in the action.

A split party inevitably forces some players to wait until the spotlight returns to them. To minimize the problem of downtime, use two techniques.

Cut between scenes

Cut from one group to the next every 2-4 minutes. Some GMs advise setting a timer for about 4 minutes. If you tend to lose track, then a timer helps, but I prefer to use my own sense of time and pacing to switch scenes.

Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the GM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. While players debate their next move, I cut to the other half of the table. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Instead of waiting for decisions, I can give more players time in the spotlight. The tempo of the game feels faster.

If I can’t switch scenes on a decision point, I switch on a moment of tension, ideally a cliffhanger.

Delegate the monsters to the idle players

Depending on your players’ dispositions, you might recruit idle players to run monsters in a battle. This works especially well in a simple fight where you expect the PCs to win. If the foes bring complicated abilities or motives, or if their power threatens to slay characters, I would avoid giving up control. When a GM kills a character, it comes in the line of duty, but a player should not take the heat for killing a PC.

If half the party lands in a fight, then the split plays best if the other half finds a battle too. You can run two fights on two maps with the same initiative count.

If you run simultaneous fights and let the players run the monsters, then you can leave the room for a drink. Your greatest GM triumphs often come when you have nothing to do.

Game master Rich Howard goes beyond letting players run foes. He casts idle players as the non-player characters who interact with the rest of the party. I admire the approach, but I feel unready to surrender so much of the game world.

Splitting the room

Even when you split a party, players tend to remain at the same table. This lets inactive players watch the story and lets the GM switch easily from one subgroup to another.

While sharing a table, the spectators learn things that their characters don’t. Most players take it as a point of honor not to use their unearned knowledge. If not, remind them to play in character based on what their character knows.

Separating players to different rooms can add fun though. No player has access to hidden information, so decisions become more interesting. Everyone feels an added sense of peril and concern for their missing comrades.

If you do separate players, you still need to switch groups every 2-4 minutes, so the groups should be as near as the kitchen and the dining room. Make the separation temporary. Your players came to play together.

Back when phones featured dials, I would separate players to sow suspicion about what other party members could be plotting. This fit the early game, when players betrayed each other for loot. Now such mind games only fit Paranoia sessions. Now I insist that my D&D players contrive reasons to cooperate.

Split the party

So split the party. For a GM running a divided party, the second hardest trick comes from finding situations where all the subgroups remain engaged. The hardest trick? Encouraging the players defy protocol and split up when splitting makes sense.

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How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons

In Dungeons & Dragons, if you play a rogue, the class description describes your key powers. All rogues make sneak attacks, cunning actions, and use evasion. If you play a spellcaster, your powers sprawl into the spell list. Every wizard tends to prepare the same powerful spells on the list. Once wizards reach fifth level, they all start casting fireball. Spells also appear as a monster powers, turning some spells into foundational abilities that span the game.

magic-circleI’ve asked D&D players and dungeon masters what spells they find the most annoying or the least fun in play. Four spells dominated the list of annoyances.

All of the annoying spells offer enough power to make them common in play once characters can cast them. Like sneak attack, these tend to appear in most fights, but unlike sneak attack, these spells sap a little bit of the fun out of play.

Some readers will ask, “So what? Just ban the spells from your game.” But DMs in the Adventures League cannot ban anything. At best, authors of adventures can concoct ways to discourage the spells. In Barovia, Banishment fails. In the D&D Open, players lose points for using spells like Hypnotic Pattern.

Curiously, none of the 4 annoying spells bothered players of previous D&D editions. I wondered why. When I investigated the origins of these 4 spells, I discovered that all introduced critical changes that turned them from forgettable to aggravating. None of these spells even appeared in the playtest documents. Now they’re enshrined in the official rules.

So what are the 4 spells and what makes them so irritating?

Hypnotic pattern

What makes it so annoying?

Hypnotic Pattern forces every creature in its area of effect to make a Wisdom save to avoid being incapacitated. Few monsters boast good Wisdom saves. With half or more of their foes incapacitated, a party can focus fire on the few that still pose a threat, picking off the outnumbered monsters. By the end of the encounter, player characters go from one beguiled victim to the next, raining attacks on the defenseless pinatas. As a DM, I may be biased, but I think the least fun scenes in the game come when PCs beat helpless foes to death.

Why did it work before?

Hypnotic Pattern started as the Illusionist class’s answer to the Sleep spell. Like Sleep, an ally could break a victim’s stupor. Like Sleep, Hypnotic Pattern only affected a limited number of total hit dice. The spell never proved more troublesome than Sleep.

Third edition tinkered with the spell a little. Victims could no longer be roused, but the caster needed to concentrate—and in 3E, concentration demanded a standard action.

Where does it go wrong?

The fifth-edition designers removed the hit-die limit. Perhaps someone decided on a simulationist approach: If everyone in an area sees the pattern, they all should save. Now every creature in the area of effect faced a Wisdom save to avoid becoming incapacitated. Few monsters boast good Wisdom saves. As with the original spell, allies or damage can rouse hypnotized creatures, but those allies face an entire party working to block them. The spell still requires concentration, but concentration in 5E costs no action.

How should it have worked?

The spell should have followed the pattern of Sleep and kept a hit-point limit.


What makes it so annoying?

Part of the fun of Dungeons & Dragons comes from casting imaginary spells to bring down terrible foes. Part of the game’s challenge comes from facing evil wizards that rock the battle with spells. Counterspell drains the fun out of those confrontations. Instead of casting spells, you don’t. Instead of battling against spell effects, nothing happens.

Meanwhile at the table, everyone gets mired in a rules dispute over whether the wizard who just had his spell countered can counter that Counterspell. (Yes, wizards casting a spell can counter the Counterspell that counters their spell.)

Why did it work before?

Up to fifth edition, D&D lacked a spell named Counterspell. Instead, Dispel Magic could counter spells. In the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, Dispel Magic can “counter the casting of spells in the area of effect.” But the game offered no clue how countering would work in play. Rather than inventing rules for readied actions or reactions decades early, players did the sensible thing and ignored countering.

Third edition introduced the readied action—the foundation players needed to use Dispel Magic as a counterspell. To counter, spellcasters readied a counterspell action and watched for something to counter. If the round passed without anyone starting a spell worth blocking, you wasted an action. In practice, wizards never tried to counter. Better to just cast a spell of your own.

Where does it go wrong?

The counterspell function of Dispel Magic hardly fits the spell’s disenchant role. By splitting Counterspell into a separate spell, the 5E designers let the spell work as a reaction. Instead of reading an action to counter, wizards could counter any time, even on their own turn, even as they cast another spell.

Countering spells turned from a process that demanded one or more standard actions, to something wizards could do without losing time for another spell.

For the first time ever, D&D introduced the Counterspell duel. Instead of doing something, dueling spell casters do nothing. Turns out nothing isn’t much fun.

Sly Flourish worked to salvage some fun from Counterspell by adding colorful descriptions. He’s still making chicken salad out of something other than chicken.

How should it have worked?

In 5E readying a spell such as Dispel Magic costs the spell slot even when the spell goes unused. If Counterspell were gone, and if Dispel Magic worked as it did in 3E, no one would counter spells. I think everyone would be content with that.


What makes it so annoying?

The Banishment spell forces targets to make a Charisma save to avoid being sent to another plane.

Banishment lets players split combat scenes into two parts. In part one, the wizard or cleric banishes the toughest foes so their party can gang up on the outnumbered mooks in a one-sided romp. In the second part, the banished creatures spring back into reality and the party ambushes them. A potentially compelling fight turns into a rout followed by a dreary murder scene.

Once 7th-level players gain access to Banishment, it becomes a key factor in encounter design. If any monster enters the battle looking like a boss, he’s sure to be banished. Every boss now needs one or more allies of similar power.

Why did it work before?

In The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players, I told of Gary’s tendency to add every magical effect from fantasy to his game. This urge led him to include a spell that banished creatures to whatever hell they came from. Unearthed Arcana introduced the 7th-level spell Banishment along with a 4th-level version called Dissmissal. Because the spells only worked on visitors from another plane, they both rated as weak. Unlike Dismissal, Banishment capped the number of hit dice it could affect, but it offered ways to reduce the target’s save. Banishment and Dismissal served a narrow use, so they seldom reached play.

Where does it go wrong?

Someone on the D&D design team must have fancied the notion of banishing enemies from the battlefield. They championed changes that turned Banishment from something no one ever casts into an inevitable opening move. Not only does the spell drop into Dismissal’s 4th-level slot, but it also banishes natives from their own plane. I suppose the designer figured that if these banished creatures bounce back after a minute, then the spell would be balanced. Nope. The return just gives one-sided battles an ugly coda.

How should it have worked?

D&D thrived for 11 years without Banishment. The game would have thrived without it.

The 5E version of the spell might be fun if banished creatures returned in 1d8 rounds at a point of their choice within line of sight of their last location. This change would add enough uncertainty to avoid the pinata treatment.

Conjure Animals

What makes it so annoying?

Conjure Animals belongs to a class of annoying spells including Conjure Minor Elementals and Conjure Woodland Beings. The spells imply the caster gets to choose which creatures appear. This invited broken options. For example, conjuring 8 challenge rating 1/4 elk created an instant stampede. Eight challenge rating 1/4 pixies might cast at-will spells like Fly and Phantasmal Force for you.

In a clarification, designer Jeremy Crawford wrote that players only select the number of creatures to summon. The DM chooses the specific creatures, selecting creatures appropriate for the campaign and fun for the scene.

Nonetheless, as soon as Timmy summons 8 of anything, the game screeches to a halt. Suddenly Timmy manages his own actions and those of 8 proxies, taking more actions than the rest of the table combined.

Why did it work before?

Summoning spells came as a recent addition to the game. Originally, druids outdoors could call creatures from the wood, but then the Druid still had to make friends. None of this worked in a fight. At least the forest friends could tidy a cottage during the span of a musical number.

Third edition added actual summoning spells, but none created more than 1d4+1 creatures. Instead of 8 woodland friends, Timmy got about 3. Still, the problem of Timmy taking so much time on stage prompted the 4E designers to avoid summoning spells.

Where does it go wrong?

Somehow in the process of striking all traces of 4E from the D&D, the 5E designers forgot the problem of summoning spells.

How should it have worked?

Spells like Conjure Animals should never bring more than 4 creatures, and the options should favor single creatures.

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Confidence game: Why faking confidence makes you a better game master

Some game masters boast unshakable confidence in their skill, even though their games only attract players because no one else wants the DM’s chair. Confidence leaves these GMs blind to their flaws.

I should know. As a GM, I have been that confident, and it led me to run bad games.

bills_tableNow I know that my skills can always stand improvement. That my next session could be a dud. That however well my last game went, I can find ways to do better. When I finish running a game, I reflect back on the session and wonder how I can recreate the moments that went well and fix any missteps.

My lack of confidence makes me a better game master. Don’t tell my players. I need to seem confident.

When expert GMs name the qualities of a good GM, they often cite confidence. I agree 100%.

As a game master, you channel an imaginary world to your players. When you seem uncertain about what happens in that world, it yanks the players out of their imagination and reminds them that you just make things up.

In a confidence game, a con man schemes to gain someone’s trust in order to rob them. As a game master, you don’t chase anyone’s retirement savings, but your game still needs trust. If you speak of the game world with confidence, players trust you as their eyes into it. They throw their alter egos into an imaginary world and trust that it will react in ways the make sense.

For game masters like me who sometimes lack confidence, this insight should feel encouraging.

If you lack confidence, you can fake it. No game master always feels confident. You just need to pretend enough to show authority. No problem. As role players, we all practice pretending.

Even though you can fabricate confidence from pure bluster, I prefer to reach the table armed with the real thing. You do not need 10,000 hours of GM experience to build the sort of confidence that helps at the table. You just need to master the sliver of your game world that players will see. By doing the preparation you probably already do, you can reach the table with confidence.

As a game master, you may worry that someone at your table will know the rules better than you do. Don’t let this shake your confidence. Someone usually knows more, and that doesn’t matter. In the 4th-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, designer James Wyatt wrote, “When I started working at Wizards of the Coast, it took a long time before I felt comfortable running a game for any of my coworkers, even though I used to always DM for my friends back home. They all knew the rules better than I did, and I didn’t want to get caught in a stupid mistake. Eventually, I got over that.”

You need to know enough of the rules to keep your game moving, but you do not need to match the rules lawyer. You can delegate mastery of the rules. Have someone look up that spell for you. Let the lawyers explain the corner case. They relish the chance.

“The DM is the person who prepares adventures, plans a campaign, and runs the monsters and NPCs,” Wyatt wrote. “I don’t want to be a referee or judge, and my players don’t expect me to.”

Of course, the rules leave many decisions to the GM’s judgement.

Confidence—or an imitation of it—lets you make these rulings with authority. If your rulings seem to rely on the players’ approval, you encourage them to quibble. They start to lobby for favorable rulings. I’ve sat at tables where players see the GM as unsure. They try to wheedle advantages and the game lurches along. Despite the merits of saying yes, compelling stories require obstacles. Immersion requires a game world that doesn’t change as the GM waffles. Listen to the players, make a confident ruling that seems fun and fair, and then move on.

The secret to projecting confidence at the table lies in role playing. Play the character of a confident, expert game master. A game master much like you. If you come prepared to bring a sliver of your game world to life, playing the role should come easy. You can run a great game. Your players sat to roll some dice and have fun. They want you to succeed.

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How to end combat encounters before they become a grind

Every Dungeons & Dragons player experiences a battle that drags near the end, when the monsters have spent their best attacks and lack the numbers to threaten the PCs. As a dungeon master, I want to cut to the next scene, but thanks to focused fire, the remaining monsters stand near full health. Players won’t spend any resources on a fight that seems won, so they chip away with cantrips and basic attacks. The battle wears on.

briar_wood_buscot_park-1After a battle’s outcome becomes obvious, the game can drag. I have had many chances to test ways to move on. Some of my schemes have worked better than others.

Plan an out

The best combat encounters feature an objective different from kill all the monsters. PCs attempt to stop a ritual, defend a wall, close a dark portal, destroy an artifact, steal the brain in the jar, or accomplish some other task. Often, completing the objective ends the battle. Either the PCs escape or the summoned/dominated/animated defenders stop fighting.

In scenes where the players can win by slaying the necromancer or summoner who controls all the monsters, make sure the mastermind makes a difficult target. A typical dark lord won’t last a round fighting toe-to-toe with a rogue and barbarian. See The evil wizard’s guide to defense against murderous treasure hunters.

Dave “The Game” Chalker wrote more about The Combat Out.

Alternate goals make engaging combat encounters, but not every battle can turn on one.

Call the fight

When a winner becomes obvious, some DMs recommend calling the fight. Just sweep the monsters off the map. This fix seems tempting, but too many players hate the practice.

As a DM, you know more about the monsters’ conditions than the players. You may see an obvious win, while the players still feel tension.

Even when everyone sees the inevitable, your intervention jars the players out of their immersion in the game world. It leaves players feeling robbed of a victory they earned.

Only call a fight when a convention slot or other limit brings a severe time crunch—when you must move on or risk leaving an adventure unfinished. If you do call a fight, use narration to ease players out of the scene and give some sense of victory. Describe the characters’ final strikes—or invite the players to tell the tale.

Let monsters flee or surrender

Some argue that monsters would possess a sense of self preservation. That in the face of death, they would flee or surrender. I used to agree, but then I learned that bloodthirsty treasure hunters never show mercy.

Having monsters flee or surrender seems like a quick way to end a battle, but neither tactic saves time. PCs always pursue fleeing monsters, resulting in a chase. Only have monsters flee when you want a chase, or when the PCs simply cannot follow.

Surrender leads to a ugly interrogation scene followed by the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Finally, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. (If you have never run these scenes, welcome first-time dungeon master!)

Sometimes, a surrender can lead to an interesting role-playing scene, or a real dilemma. Usually this requires foes who can (a) trade for their lives or (b) offer a good reason they should be freed. Nonetheless, surrender never saves time.

With either a chase or a surrender, you spend 30 minutes to save 5.

I suspect that in the monster community, word has spread about murderous treasure hunters and their rogues and paladins. Better to fall in battle than to die on your knees or with a knife in your back.

Turn monsters into minions

You can bring a fight to a quick end by silently deciding that all the monsters stand at only 1 hit point. The next hit kills. I’ve done it, but I never feel proud of it. I like a game where the players’ actions and the dice seem to decide the PCs fate. Even in a battle that seems won, if the players notice my meddling, they lose some sense that they control their destiny.

Still, as battles wane, when a blow nearly slays a monster, I may round the damage up to dead.

Everyone roll

Near the end of a battle, typically only one type of monster remains. These survivors all act on the same initiative count, then all the players act. This situation permits my favorite way to close a battle: everyone roll at once. By now, the outcome has been decided, so no one would waste a spell slot. No player’s action requires my full attention. I announce the monsters’ armor class and invite everyone to roll their attacks and damage at once. If you need to move, just do it. Then I call out names and tally damage. In the time usually spent on one turn, all the players act. During these fast forwards, I used to ignore initiative and go around the table, having players call off their damage totals. But I learned that some players care about earning the kill, if only for the glory. So now I call names in initiative order.

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If you want to write games for everyone, game with everyone

In the 80s into the 90s, I would see convention panels or magazine interviews where game professionals said that their game writing left them no time for game playing. Those writers might admit to an occasional session of Call of Cthulhu—that was the role-playing game the pros played once they felt too mature for bashing monsters in dungeons. But writers of the era’s countless setting books rarely seemed to play their own games much anymore.

fameFor many of the game products of the time, play experience mattered less. People bought game books to read. RPG writers could succeed by satisfying game readers more than players. See “How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books.”

After D&D’s headquarters moved West from Lake Geneva, more designers played, but with a small cadre of friends and co-workers.

Speaking in an episode of the Misdirected Mark podcast, veteran RPG freelancer Shawn Merwin said, “One of the criticisms I’ve had in the past of [D&D] staff, especially through 3rd and 4th edition, was that they would sit in Renton, Washington and create this game, but they never really got out and saw how the game was played by the different kinds of fans, or the fans that may play a little bit differently than their own home games or their games within their company.”

At the 2016 Dungeons & Dragons Open, D&D designers served as celebrity dungeon masters. The star power added excitement for players, but it also should benefit the designers. Speaking in the podcast, prolific adventure author Teos “Alphastream” Abadia said, “This is a really important thing for Wizards to do. To meet with players and see how players play [the designer’s] game in this kind of environment.”

If you want to write games and adventures for strangers to play, then you benefit from playing with strangers.

In a convention game, you will join players who may play differently. “You’re just randomly dipping into the pond to see who ends up at your table and to see how they play the game that you create. And I think that’s very important,” Teos said. “For me as a fan, I want to see Wizards involved with fans in this kind of way as much as possible.”

How does a private game among RPG professionals and their friends differ from the convention games I frequent? I can think of two likely differences: The players in the designers’ private groups act more predictably and they favor more role playing.

Play style and predictability

Every regular group settles into a play style. Do they play recklessly or cautiously? Heroically or ruthlessly? How do they settle conflict between PCs that pull in opposite directions? Regular groups seek activities they all enjoy. A group’s style makes them predictable. When we play long enough in one style, we tend to forget other ways.

DMs who operate in public eventually see groups that defy even the most common customs of D&D. New players love to split the party.

Organized play adventures tend to come from veteran convention dungeon masters who branched into writing. I think these authors do better at anticipating what random players might do, and do better at accounting for players who veer off the path.

The foibles of full-time designers

In general, full-time professionals do worse at predicting how players will act, and they seem less interested in helping DMs account for unexpected actions.

The pros play their own material. They enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than anyone can gain from the text. This mastery makes improvising changes and additions easy. If their players go off book, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot printed in the adventure’s next 5 chapters. So pros underestimate the difficulty other DMs face when ad-libbing changes to a published adventure.

Organized play authors understand the challenges of running an adventure from a text. Their adventures sometimes even include troubleshooting sidebars that help DMs account for actions that threaten to break an adventure.

What do the pros do better? In general, their adventures feature more polish and a greater mastery of the game’s rules, history, and lore. When the designers add new monsters and magic, the additions work without upsetting game balance.

The joy of role playing

Remember the first time you sat down and played? How you had such a blast rolling dice and killing monsters? Remember the time you stayed up all night doing it? Every day, new players discover D&D and find just as much fun in monster slaying. On the other hand, many new players find speaking in funny voices odd and potentially embarrassing.

Meanwhile the pros have faced every monster countless times. Routine combat scenes lack their former excitement. Between those past battles, the pros learned to love playing make-believe in the guise of a fairie-tale creature. They relish a chance to role play. They play with folks who share this passion.

In my post on preparing to run adventures, I grumbled about how the authors of Hoard of the Dragon Queen assume that PCs will spend weeks traveling with cultists and wagons loaded with treasure instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold like every D&D player ever.

But obviously not like every D&D player. The authors’ groups saw a chance to travel with the cultists, uncover their secrets, and savor a session full of role playing and intrigue. Authors Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur read their groups’ tastes and catered to them. I rarely get to play with groups with the same patience for intrigue, so a strategy that seemed inevitable to Steve and Wolfgang struck me as far-fetched.

Every group is different. You can’t play with everyone, but if you want to write for everyone, you benefit from reaching out to game with random strangers.

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Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons worlds seem split in two. In the towns and hamlets, players exercise charm and guile. In dungeons and lairs, every creature attacks on sight and battles continue to the death.

When TSR printed Dungeon magazine, the most common room description must have included a passage like this: “The room has five orcs. They attack immediately!”

I remember when every dungeon denizen attacked because they were monsters in a dungeon. Over time, adventure writers came to assume the they-attack part. Even modern adventures often assume, because what else? Since when do creatures or adventurers in dungeons want to talk?baba lysagas hut

Sometimes, players in role-playing games choose to role play in the oddest situations. I know. They surprise us all.

Sometimes the author of an adventure adds a routine fight, complete with an implied “they attack immediately.” But at the table, the players decide to talk. So I say “yes” instead of “roll initiative.” I scramble to improvise an interesting scene that challenges the players without handing them the keys to the dungeon. And I think unkind shots about an author who failed to account for role playing. Yes, some of the fun of being a dungeon master comes from making stuff up. Nonetheless, am I wrong to think that perhaps the adventure’s author could come up with something better? Am I wrong to ask the author to inspire me?

In your home game, if you assume a monster exists to attack immediately, you can’t annoy me, but you might miss a chance to create a more interesting encounter.

If heroes and monsters decide to stake their lives on a fight over a 10-foot room, both sides need a reason. The players decide for their heroes, but you choose for the monsters.

Spend a moment thinking about what your monsters want. Often they just hate all that live, or they thirst for blood, or they want to fatten children for dinner. That’s okay. If you have a combat-focused game, players seldom look for more.

If inspiration finds you, the monsters motives may surprise you. If goblins stand watch for the tribe, why would they fight to the death? They might run as the players spot them. Now the players face a dilemma. Give chase and risk blundering into a trap, continue carefully and risk a prepared foe, or find another route? What if the monsters try to negotiate to save their skin? Do the players trust them? Perhaps the orcs are only raiding because they want to retrieve a lost totem. Do the characters help the orcs, perhaps stopping the raids? Or do the PCs just destroy one war band of many? You can create an extra dimension by imagining monsters that want something unexpected, perhaps even noble.

When you understand what your monsters want, fewer encounters end with one side dead. Encounters may end—or start—with monsters fleeing or bargaining. If the players all drop, and you know the monsters intentions, you may see a way to fail forward. (I recommend Sly Flourish’s post Failing Forward on a Banshee TPK.) Fewer encounters turn into grinds. More develop into interesting choices.

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Spells that let players skip the dungeons in Dungeons & Dragons

In today’s Dungeons & Dragons game, player characters gain experience by overcoming obstacles and defeating monsters. In the original game, PCs got most of their experience for claiming treasure. (For more, see “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”) Back then, if you skipped monsters and traps on your way to the loot, all the better.

dungeon miniatures dragon statueOf course, Gary Gygax never let players cart away gold without a challenge. His game included a few spells that allowed clever players to skip obstacles, but none that let players skip the dungeons or the dragons.

As the play style of D&D grew beyond the dungeon and focused on story, designers introduced spells that let players skip past dungeons to treasure vaults or dragon hoards. More than any other class of spell, these tend to vary with edition, revealing the changing fashions of play. When designers focus on setting books and novels, they overlook the potential of Find the Path. When they seek D&D’s roots, they notice the power of walking through walls.


(introduced in the original game, 1974)

Gary’s original game included rules for wilderness encounters, but his players preferred to explore under Castle Greyhawk. Underground, the 3rd-level spell Fly never rates above another fireball.

As soon as D&D left the dungeon, Fly shaped play. Every dungeon designer toys with the idea of turning a ruined city into a sort of open-air dungeon. Then they remember that the wizard can cast Fly. Every dungeon master eventually sees flying PCs turn a carefully-prepared challenge into a joke. The PCs soar over obstacles or strafe helpless foes. Players relish their prowess; DMs never overlook Fly again.

As soon as players gain access to Fly, the spell frees players from challenges they can fly past. But Fly carries a key limit: it only works on one character. This makes a spell that can both leap obstacles and create interesting complications. When just one person can scout ahead, they can fly into a heap of trouble with no help—a memorable game moment. When a spell takes an entire party, obstacles disappear.

Find the Path

(introduced in the original game, 1974)

Once, the 6th-level cleric spell Find the Path focused on escape. “By means of this spell the fastest and safest way out of a trap, maze, or wilderness can be found.” In the original books, the sample tricks and traps focus on getting PCs lost in the dungeon. When Gary’s shifting rooms and unnoticed slopes made the PCs hopelessly lost, Find the Path offered a way out.

As means of escape, Find the Path just keeps PCs alive, so in AD&D, Gary felt safe creating a spell that told players the “actions to take” on a path. Second edition explained, “For example, with concentration the spell enables the subject to bypass tripwires or the proper word to bypass a glyph.”

Some players had the bright idea of finding a path to something like “a hoard of platinum pieces.” Second edition specifically banned looking for objects or creatures.

When players stopped looting megadungeons and DMs introduced stories into their games, Find the Path gained game-breaking potential. If players aimed to capture the master of the thieves guild, the spell could take them safely to his hideout. If they needed to find the Gate of the Hidden Ways, the spell guided past any wards. By third edition, DMs were visiting message boards, pleading for ways to cope.

The fifth-edition designers realized that Find the Path offered more than escape from Castle Greyhawk. The latest version no longer reveals actions to take. It promises the shortest path, but not the safest.


(introduced in the original game, 1974)

Gary combed fantasy stories for spells to include in his game. He even added odd spells like Sticks to Snakes and Magic jar. Of course his wizards had to get Teleport. But a 5th-level ticket past every trap and monster would spoil the game, so wizards teleporting into unfamiliar locations suffered a chance to miss, perhaps fatally.

As long as PCs could not safely spy on locations from a distance, Teleport’s limitations worked. Teleport seemed too hazardous for anything but going home to rest.

Astral Spell

(introduced in Greyhawk, 1975)

Astral Spell serves as the ultimate spying spell. An astral wizard can move at will to anywhere on the prime material plane and observe undetected. They can’t bring their body, but after getting a good look, they can return to their body and teleport themselves and their pals. In the original game, magic users and clerics gained Astral Spell at 17th-level, beyond the levels that Gary expected for PCs. (See “The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players.”) We know better now. In today’s game, players with access to Astral Spell move out of the tier of dungeons and into the league of foes with True Seeing and Planer travel. (See “The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before.”)


(introduced in 3rd edition, 2000)

Third edition’s designers forgot the risks of giving PCs both Teleport and a safe way to spy. They added the 5th-level Scrying spell. Unlike Clairvoyance and Clairaudience, which targeted a familiar location, Scrying could target a creature. It worked with Teleport to make villains vulnerable to the scry-buff-teleport system of ambush, also known as scry and fry.

The target of the Scrying spell gets a save, but even if the spell fails, the caster can make another attempt—or just scry Igor or minion #3. The best defense against Scrying used to be a DM with the chutzpah to fudge an improbable number of saves.

Fifth edition still includes both Scrying and Teleport, but the new game changes Teleport enough to spoil the combination. First, Teleport jumps from 5th level to 7th. The error-proof Greater Teleport used to be a 7th-level spell. Now it’s gone. Second, the risk of missing a carefully-studied target jumps from 6% to 24%. With those odds, infiltrating the villain’s fortress through the sewers seems like a valid strategy.

Plane Shift

(introduced in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1978)

Ethereal travel can threaten to take dungeons right of the game. In 1st-edition AD&D, any cleric with the 5th-level Plane Shift spell could take seven friends ethereal, allowing them to waft through the dangerous dungeon stuff and go straight for the treasure. AD&D attempted to limit the problem by populating the ethereal with tough wandering monsters and the random Ether Cyclone. Apparently that failed to deter enough adventurers because Tomb of Horrors includes this note: “Character who become astral or ethereal in the Tomb will attract a type I-IV demon 1 in 6, with a check made each round.” Second edition closed Plane Shift’s game-breaking potential by ruling that the spell “rarely works with pinpoint accuracy.” In 5E, you appear 5 to 500 miles from your intended destination.

Now that Plane Shift drops PCs wherever the DM fancies, it becomes useless except as a save-or-goodbye attack. If the game requires the PCs to go to Hades, fate (the DM) will provide a way.


(introduced as a spell in Planescape – A Guide to the Ethereal Plane, 1998)

Etherealness began as a feature of magical armor or oil, items the DM could limit. Then it became a psionic power. When DMs allowed psionics, etherealness ranked as the least of their troubles.

A Guide to the Ethereal Plane opened the plane to a pair of spells. The 5th-level spell Lesser Etherealness took the caster and 3 friends ethereal for at least 4 hours. The 7th-level spell Greater Etherealness worked on 1000 pounds. Three strong, skinny friends could probably carry off more loot with the lesser spell.

A party with such easy access to the ethereal could loot half the dungeons on the prime material. But as long DMs kept Planescape to planer adventures, Lesser Etherealness stayed balanced. The third-edition designers recognized these spells’ power. When they brought the renamed versions Ethereal Jaunt and Etherealness into the Players Handbook, they raised each spell by 2 levels.

In fifth edition, the 7th-level spell Etherealness takes the caster to the ethereal plane, where they can waft alone into a heap of trouble. To take 2 friends, cast the spell at 8th level. At 9th, take the whole party.

The 6th-level spell Forbiddance protects an area from planer travelers and teleporters. When cast 30 days in a row, Forbiddance becomes permanent. In practice, most tombs, vaults, or fortresses that interest 13th-level characters will be guarded by Forbiddance.


(introduced in Tome and Blood, 2001)

By the time third edition came around, some designers had become so immersed in the story slant of D&D that they forgot how broken insubstantial travel could be. How else can we explain Ghostform, a spell that makes the target insubstantial? Just add invisibility to Ghostform and you can phase through any dungeon. Ghostform appeared at 5th level and rose to 8th in errata! The 3-level revision stands as a record. Fifth edition drops the spell.

The fifth-edition designers studied D&D’s history, playing every edition of the game. They managed to look beyond a single play style and address the problems with a category of spells that sometimes bedeviled dungeon masters.

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