The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons

The first Arduin Grimoire starts by explaining how to play Dungeons & Dragons. Sure it claims to be an explanation of how to play “a fantasy game,” but in 1976, when Dave Hargrave penned the tutorial, the range of fantasy games included D&D, D&D set in a world called Tékumel, and a game designed under the generic name of D&D until it reached stores as T&T.

Gamers needed the how-to. The original D&D rules read as a summary for people who already knew how to play. D&D arrived as a companion to a miniature battle game called Chainmail, and the rules built on a foundation of turns and moves. Gary Gygax’s peers felt comfortable with rules for inches of movement and for how many 10-foot squares a character could search in a 10-minute turn. To Gary’s audience, D&D made sense. But the rule books confused folks accustomed to rolling dice to see how many squares a wheelbarrow could move.

Hargrave’s how-to amounts to this: move, roll for monsters, repeat. If monsters appear, roll for distance, surprise, reaction, and then initiative.

As hard as D&D proved to grasp, this “sequence of play” isn’t too different from Risk. Aside from the referee, the game seems nearly as constrained as Clue—except D&D features a hidden board like Battleship.

Ken St. Andre wrote T&T—Tunnels & Trolls—because he found the D&D rules “nearly incomprehensible.” He describes T&T as having the same relationship to D&D as “Chevrolet does to Ford.” His explanation of how to play T&T worked for D&D too. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon.” In 1975, games needed boards. (See 4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.)

There exist numerous enchanted tunnel complexes (call them dungeons or underworlds if you wish) that are liberally loaded with many types of treasure, and abundantly guarded by every imaginable form of monster, magic, and trap. Generally speaking, the greatest treasures and most powerful monster are found further below the surface. Brave men and women arm themselves and venture within the tunnels at risk of body and soul to seek treasure and experience.

In 1975, games also needed a way to win. St. Andre explained how. “Every time your character escapes from a tunnel alive, you may consider yourself a winner. The higher the level and the more wealth your character attains, the better you are doing in comparison to all the other players.” (See But how do you win?)

Neither D&D’s original rules nor interpreters of those rules describe the loose play of D&D today. They describe a tightly-focused game where treasure hunters enter dungeons, spend turns moving and fighting, and keep score in gold.

From 1974 through the 80s, the evolution of role-playing games marks a move from D&D’s medieval fantasy to universal systems like GURPS, the HERO System, and Basic Roleplaying. In the early 90s, universal systems peaked, and the hobby started moving toward games optimized for one genre or even a narrow range of activities. You could play Kung-fu or vampire campaigns in GURPS, but for many players, optimized systems like Feng Shui and Vampire the Masquerade offered a more compelling experience.

D&D followed the same evolution. Original D&D didn’t aim for the same scope of a modern D&D campaign. The 1974 game arrived laser-focused on dungeon expeditions—and not even on naturalistic lairs, strongholds, and tombs. Original D&D assumed multi-level undergrounds with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. (See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die in dungeon crawls.

Almost everything in the little, brown books supports dungeon expeditions. Sure, the books included rules for wilderness adventures, but as a way for characters to find castle sites. The rules for castles and followers only build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. Few players crossed that bridge. Even subsequent editions of D&D largely ignored it.

As a focus, the dungeon crawl proved a massive success. Dungeons provided an evocative environment with built-in threats and rewards. Plus, dungeons kept characters on that secret board behind the DM’s screen. The walls made the game manageable for new DMs, and all but two DMs were new. (See How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.)

Even though the D&D’s turns and hidden boards felt familiar to gamers in 1974, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured the imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. Hardly anyone held to the rigid structure or stayed in the dungeon. A city, The City State of the Invincible Overlord, became the first setting for D&D. (See A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.) By 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery offered rules for everything in a medieval fantasy world, from kings to peasants, and from jousting to courtly love. That game stemmed from a D&D campaign where players had tired of dungeons and embraced the larger world. (See Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun? Newer games with more realistic combat systems even made dungeon crawls too lethal to be a campaign’s focus. (See The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points.)

As the role-playing hobby broadened, D&D’s scope grew too. By 2000, third edition arrived late to the universal system party. D&D became a branch of the d20 system, which extended to modern settings and Star Wars role playing.

By 2007, the trend toward systems optimized for a narrow range of activities reached D&D and its fourth edition. This version returned to the narrow focus of the original game, but with a completely different choice of optimal activities. Now the game focused on designing characters capable of dynamic battlefield stunts, and then showing them off in combat encounters. Dungeon expeditions became an interchangeable backdrop for combat encounters and skill challenges. This new focus drew criticism from players who felt that a miniature skirmish game, or perhaps a video game, had replaced the original role-playing game. Sure, most players knew you could run fourth edition in the same wide-open style as the prior editions, but plenty saw the new focus as a sign that D&D no longer invited role playing.

Today, D&D returns to a comfortable balance between the sharp focus of the original game and the sprawl of d20. Rather than optimize a system for a narrow focus, the game seeks to embrace three pillars of exploration, combat, and interaction. The game is bigger, but you can still dungeon crawl in the original style—as long as you can live without 10-minute turns.

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My Scheme to Draw Dungeon Battle Maps Without Counting Squares

For my game, I like to draw battle maps of key locations in advance. I use gaming paper or easel pads marked with a 1-inch grid. When I copy an adventure map to a big sheet, I hate counting squares, but I’m too fussy to fudge and settle for close enough. My taste for precision makes winding caverns a particular nuisance. Sometimes I print map graphics as battle maps, but that requires more printer ink, cutting, and pasting than I want to lavish on a huge map. See How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software.

After my weekly group managed to end a session by alerting an entire dungeon, the next session promised a running battle spanning the site. I needed a big map. How could I draw it without wasting time counting squares and recreating that underground river? If only I could just trace a 50-by-50-inch map from my computer monitor.

Inspiration struck. I have a projector. And a wall.

Post-it Super Sticky Easel Pad, 25 x 30 Inches, 1-Inch Grid

How to draw adventure maps on 1″ grids without counting squares.

What you need

For this procedure, you need the following items:

On the wall

Steps

  1. Connect the computer to the connector.
  2. Open the map image in the computer.
  3. Project the map image on the wall.
  4. If the map includes a 5-foot-per-square grid, zoom the map image until the squares projected on the wall measure 1-inch across. Otherwise, zoom the map image until 5 feet on the map spans 1 inch on the wall.
  5. Stick a gridded sheet on the wall so the squares on the sheet align with any squares on the projected map. If you want to stick the sheet with a long side up, use removable tape.
  6. Trace.

For me, this method proved far faster and easier than counting squares.

Off the wall

Once I finished the map, I cut it into sections that I could lay out as characters explored. Having pre-drawn maps increased the pace of the next game session. The missing gaps behind doors and around corners seemed to encourage players to scatter and open doors, escalating the mayhem of battle.

I suspect I’ll use this trick often.

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Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff

Before I wrote this post, I scoured the Internet for help encouraging Dungeons & Dragons players to role play.

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons players tell me of a session where no one rolled a die because everyone role played for the entire night. Imagine this: On a flight to Los Angeles, I gain a free upgrade to first class, get seated next to Deborah Ann Woll, spend the flight talking D&D, show the wood-grained first printing I scored at a garage sale on the way to the airport, and then get invited to sit in a super-secret Hollywood D&D game. Later, my story of the day still couldn’t capture the rapturous tone of the folks who tell me about their sessions of pure role-playing.

We all know that acting in character adds fun, but role playing enhances D&D for everyone at the table. Role playing heightens the drama and the humor. It raises the stakes by making goals, successes, and setbacks personal. It fosters relationships between characters.

I’ve never reached the pure rush of a session focused entirely on role playing. Perhaps I just favor a balance of combat and exploration with role playing. Perhaps I’ve never played with a group who threw themselves into character with enough zeal. Nonetheless, stories of dice-free sessions fill me with a sense of inadequacy. Could my dungeon master skills lack some essential quality that nurtures role playing?

Ready to improve my game, I turned to my stack of gamemaster guides and then to the Internet for advice. How do I encourage players to role play?

In Internet discussions, lots of gamers ask this question. Most of the replies offer weak advice. Some of the older discussions had recommendations for things now baked into fifth-edition D&D: Encourage players to develop backgrounds, ideals, and flaws for their characters. Offer benefits such as inspiration for good role playing.

Beyond this sound but conventional advice, many DMs suggested ways to pressure uncomfortable or uninterested players to role play. Don’t do that. Other DMs require written descriptions of character backgrounds. To most folks, a writing assignment will make role playing seem like a chore. The players who do enjoy the homework need no encouragement.

How else can a dungeon master encourage role playing?

Create ties between characters

Traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws provide a foundation for role playing a character, but these aspects miss an essential ingredient: a character’s relationship to rest of the party. In any book or movie featuring an ensemble, their interactions create the humor and drama. The group’s interplay reveals their personalities. By inventing relationships between their characters, players gain a way to role play among themselves.

When starting a new group of characters, ask each player to invent a reason their character feels loyalty, friendship, or trust toward another character at the table. Both players must negotiate so the connection suits their characters. Every player should invent a new bond so most characters feel tied to two others.

In the official D&D podcast, Shelly Mazzanoble remembered this exercise. “It forced us to find each other, to interact with each other. ‘I want to be connected to you. Here’s our story.’”

For even stronger interaction, have players invent a source of friction between their character and another. Unlike the strong, positive bonds of trust and loyalty, make these notes of discord relatively mild, even humorous. They should foster amusing banter, not genuine rancor.

Portray non-player characters as you want players to portray their characters

As a dungeon master, you set the style of interaction at your table. To encourage role playing, make your non-player characters come alive by portraying their tone, mannerism, and speaking patterns.

Even if you struggle with character voices, body language can make NPCs come alive. “Your physicality can completely change a character without having to do silly voices,” Matt Mercer explained on the DM’s Deep Dive. “If they’re more of a sly character, steeple your finders and drop your shoulders a bit and just sort of be that sly sneaky character. If they’re a welcoming persona, put your palms up in front of you in a very open and welcoming position and smile. These are all things that you don’t have to have any performing experience to do, but it really makes a difference in embodying an NPC and changing how your players perceive them. Even if you just shift your physicality a little bit, you’re players will know that you’ve become a different character in that scene.”

Speech patterns also make NPCs distinct. Recently I played at a table run by DM Brittany, and the way she portrayed an older, male character struck me. After a relating each fantastic or tragic event in a long tale, she deadpanned, in character, “Well, that happens.” Without a silly voice, she made the character memorable and amusing.

Ask “How would your character say that?”

Don’t pressure players into character, but when they say they persuade, intimidate, or otherwise interact, invite them to show how their character acts. “Gently try and remind them to respond in character,” Matt Mercer suggests. “Like ‘Great, how would Dermans ask that question to me, the jailer?’ Or ‘Sure, and as those angry thoughts fill her mind, how would Layla express that verbally?’”

Single out specific characters for interaction

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. Singling out characters gives more players a solo. “Make direct eye contact,” Matt Mercer says. “Lean in and gesture, or point to them when asking a question of their character. Let them know that they are in the moment and that this is their moment to seize.”

Whenever you introduce NPCs, ask yourself if they would feel an affinity for a member of the party—especially one who deserves time in the spotlight. Perhaps the NPC and the character share a class, background, or allegiance. Have the NPC focus on the character who shares a kinship.

Your players develop characters with exciting qualities. Try introducing an NPC who appreciates one of these unique traits or who admires a character’s reputation. Such regard lends characters a sense of importance, keeps players engaged, and lets them bask in a little glory.

You can encourage more players to interact by making characters tackle separate role-playing scenes simultaneously. For instance, 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.

Have non-player characters ask personal questions

Rather than limiting interaction to persuasion and intimidation, let your NPCs indulge in a little small talk. Personal questions feel especially natural from a character who admires or feels kinship toward someone in the party. On the official D&D podcast, Matt Colville suggests, “Have an NPC ask a player an introspective question like, ‘Why are you a adventurer?’ or, ‘Why did you become a paladin?’ There’s nowhere on your character sheet where you can find the answer. You’ve got to come up with the answer in your head. It’s often the first time the player has ever wondered those things.”

I’m still working to improve my game. How do you encourage players to role play?

Related: A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens

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The Stories (and 3 Mysteries) Behind D&D’s Iconic Monsters

Like every other kid who discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the late 70s, the Monster Manual suddenly became my favorite book. I studied the pages, and then turned to books of mythology to learn more about cyclopses, manticores, and harpies. But not all the monsters came from myth. Some started with Gary Gygax and other D&D contributors. Of these original monsters, Wizards of the Coast reserves the most evocative as part of D&D’s product identity:

  • beholder
  • gauth
  • carrion crawler
  • displacer beast
  • githyanki
  • githzerai
  • kuo-toa
  • mind flayer
  • slaad
  • umber hulk
  • yuan-ti
Signed Greyhawk Cover

The Original Beholder

The leap of imagination required for some monsters seems short. When Gary needed “something new” to populate the underworld, he imagined fish men and called them koa-toa. When Dave “Zeb” Cook needed memorable foes for an overgrown, forbidden city in the jungle, he made snake men called yuan-ti. D&D features a long history of frog men, but Charles Stross says a literal fever led him to imagine the extra-planar, chaotic slaad.

The gauth just offers a junior beholder to pit against lower-level adventurers. But where did the beholder come from?

Many of D&D’s classic monsters have better stories behind their inspiration.

Beholder

One of D&D’s original players, Rob Kuntz eventually joined Gary Gygax as co-dungeon master in the Greyhawk campaign. Rob credits his brother Terry with a wild imagination and the idea for the beholder, originally called the eye of doom. Terry provided most of the game stats. Before the creature appeared in the Greyhawk supplement, Gary explained that “All I needed to do was a bit of editing to make it a great addition to the terrible monsters to be found in the D&D game.”

Bugbear

Bugbear, Ghoul and Friends

In the original D&D books, the bugbear sports a pumpkin head. Gary recalls describing the creature as having a fat, oval head like a pumpkin, which led the artist to draw an actual pumpkin head.

Carrion Crawler

In the early days of D&D, Gary hosted games 7 days a week. During weekends, adventuring parties included as many as 20 players with their characters, hirelings, and henchmen. Rob Kuntz ran sessions too. All these expeditions delved the mega-dungeon under Castle Greyhawk. “When the encounter was eliminated I simply drew a line through it, and the place was empty for the foreseeable future. I’d give Rob the details of any session he was not at and vice versa.” Rather than imagining a dungeon piled with rotting corpses of monsters and adventurers, Gary conceived dungeon scavengers like the carrion crawler. “I needed something nasty for the clean-up crew, so I thought this one up.”

Displacer Beast

Cover by Gil Kane

Although Wizards includes the displacer beast in D&D’s product identity, the monster owes its appearance to an alien in the 1939 story “The Black Destroyer” by author A. E. Van Vogt. In the tale, a character describes a thing called a “coeurl” that looks like “a big cat, if you forget those tentacles sticking out from its shoulders, and make allowances for those monster forelegs.” The beast first appeared in the Greyhawk supplement, but the coeurl lacks the displacer beast’s defensive power. That power comes from the Displacer Cloak, which appeared in the original D&D books.

Mystery: The cloak and beast’s displacement power seems like a defense that Gary could have taken from a golden-age science fiction story. Did Gary invent the notion, or did he adopt it?

Drow

The first hint of dark elves comes in D&D’s fourth supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes (1976), by James Ward and Rob Kuntz. “These elves dwell beneath the earth, and cause trouble for anyone wandering through their territories. They live and cause evil upon Svartalfheim.” Perhaps inspired by the mention, Gary offered more hints in the first Monster Manual. “The ‘Black Elves,’ or Drow, are only legend. They purportedly dwell deep beneath the surface in a strange subterranean realm. The Drow are said to be as dark as faeries are bright and as evil as the latter are good. Tales picture them as weak fighters but strong magic-users.” The word “drow” comes from Scots dialects and refers to a sort of malevolent being. Gary remembered pulling the name from an old, unabridged dictionary. In Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978), the drow made their first appearance. Gary gave them powers “to highlight their unique nature and potency.”

Mind Flayer

Inspiration for the land kraken, but not the mind flayer

Gary credits the form of the mind flayer to the cover of the Brian Lumley book, The Borrowers Beneath. “The cover made me think: Now what sort of nasty bastard is that? So without a qualm I made up the Illithid, the dread mind flayer, so as to keep the players on their toes—or to have their PCs turn theirs upwards.”

Mystery: A few year back, this tale led me to search for the The Borrowers Beneath, and I found a cover featuring a humanoid, tentacle-faced creature that closely resembled a mind flayer. Now, the same search just reveals a cover of tentacles erupting from the ground and a few images of Cthulhu. But in another reminiscence, Gary said the cover that inspired him showed a humanoid creature. What cover actually inspired the mind flayer?

Githyanki

Although Wizards claims githyanki as part of D&D’s product identity, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has a claim to them too. For D&D, science fiction author Charles Stross took the name githyanki and a bit of backstory from Martin’s SF novel Dying of the Light. “I’ve always felt slightly guilty about that,” Stross said. “Credit should be given where credit’s due.” Martin’s githyanki never develop beyond an unseen threat with limited intelligence. But like the D&D monsters, the originals were living, psychic weapons and former slaves of an alien race. Stross credits another legendary author with additional inspiration. “The Illithid/Githyanki relationship probably slid into my mind as a result of reading Larry Niven’s The World of Ptavvs, which features a psionic master/slave race relationship far in the past that nearly killed all the sapients in the galaxy when it turned hot.”

Bulette

Before D&D, Gary’s Chainmail games required miniatures. Back then, no one sold fantasy figures for gaming, so he improvised. He converted a plastic stegosaurus into a dragon. “I haunted the dime stores looking for potential additions and eventually found figures to represent ogres, elementals, etc.” Some of the improvised figures came from bags of assorted, plastic critters sold in those dime stores. The labels marked the toys as “Prehistoric Animals” but few resembled anything from natural history or even mythology. For pictures of the creatures and their packages, see a post by artist Tony DiTerlizzi.

When Gary’s gaming group switched to D&D, they stopped using miniatures, but the strange creatures remained as inspiration.

Gary and his fellow gamers probably never saw the Ultraman television show produced in Japan in 1966-1967, so they never knew the likely basis of the creatures. Most of the toys were knock offs of Kaiju, giant monsters from Japanese entertainment.

Inspiration for the Bulette toy probably came from the creature Gabora, which appeared in episode 9 of Ultraman, “Operation: Uranium.”

In the Greyhawk dungeons, the beast made a couple of cameo appearances, charging down a hall and bowling over adventurers. The players called it a landshark after its back fin and a current series of Saturday Night Live sketches where a “landshark” knocks on doors to deliver a “candygram.”

When editor Tim Kask needed content to fill a page in the first issue of The Dragon, Gary told Tim to write stats for the landshark. The name puts a French spin on the creature’s bullet shape. As for the monster’s appetite for halflings and their ponies, Tim was showing a bit of spite for players who always played hobbits and favored ponies named Bill.

Umber Hulk

Ultraman episode 7, “The Blue Stone of Vallarge,” featured another burrower named “Antlar.” A knock off toy for this Kaiju probably led Gary to devise the umber hulk. The creature’s crude, insectile eyes inspired the monster’s signature confusing gaze.

Owlbear

Some have tried to find a Kaiju that resembles the owlbear toy, but even the closest match takes blurred vision and a big leap of imagination. The toy’s bowl-shaped hair stands out as its most distinctive feature. As badly as the toy resembles an owl or a bear, it also badly resembles a Kappa from Japanese mythology.

Owlbear Toy and Kappa by Toriyama Sekien

Rust Monster

No creature resembles its dime-store inspiration more than the rust monster. The toy lacks teeth and claws, so when Gary made it a monster, he needed another way to menace adventurers. In the original game, powerful undead drained “life energy levels” when they hit. Life draining terrorized players, and Gary saw the power as a test for clerics, ranged attackers, and players too reckless to run. “I don’t agree with those wimpy whiners who are afraid of a few living dead,” he teased. The toy’s tentacles led Gary to imagine a way to threaten something players prized even more than their levels—their magic weapons and armor.

Mystery: Of all the toys, the rust monster ranks as the oddest. How did a four-legged bug with a propeller tail wind up bagged with kaiju and mythological creatures? Did a Hong Kong designer aim for pure whimsy or imitate some other creature?

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Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?

Adventure paths reveal their linear design in the name: They follow a path. In a linear adventure every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to content that reaches play.

Adventure paths are episodic campaigns that look linear from a distance. Such adventures offer choices in each episode or chapter, but at the end of each chapter, the path leads to the next chapter. This device enables an entire campaign to fit into a book.

Adventure paths serve dungeon masters by making a campaign with a story arc that leads from start to finish easy to run from a book.

In 2003, the Shackled City adventure path in Dungeon magazine led the format to prominence. Shackled City and its successors proved so popular that Paizo made adventure paths the foundation of their publishing strategy, and the inspiration for the name of their Pathfinder role-playing game.

In the classic adventure path, each episode ends with clues or hooks that lead to the next episode. This arrangement dates to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). The steading’s treasure room contains a map of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magic chain capable of transporting 6 to the site.

When the designers of the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons paired a line of hardcover adventures to the game, they aimed to grant players more freedom than a classic adventure path allows. Each book finds ways to break from the adventure-path model.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures avoided hooks connecting the adventure into a narrative. Perhaps the designers felt the lack of threads benefited the adventures by adding some of the freedom of a sandbox. Explaining his design for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Steve Winter said, “There are specific tasks characters should undertake and a sequence in which they happen, but we don’t hand the DM a script.”

Many reviewers judged this design strategy harshly. Bryce Lynch wrote that the designers of Hoard of the Dragon Queen “clearly have an idea of how the adventure should proceed, but are terrified of being accused of railroading.”

The adventures that followed Hoard of the Dragon Queen avoided a specific sequence of tasks. Most chapters described locations and the designers invited players to roam.

While these adventures experimented with sandboxes, they still expected a good dungeon master to prepare or improvise leads for players who need a nudge.

The 2nd adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse, poses as a sandbox with strongholds to raid and ruins to explore. But the “character advancement” sections on page 41 and 75 reveal a problem with granting so much freedom. Each note lists the character level best suited to the dungeons and sites on the pages to follow. For example, one site is “appropriate” for 6th-level characters; another “works best” for 9th level characters. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford explained, “For a lot of our published adventures, we’ll have broad difficulty targets for different parts of the adventure. For example, we might decide that one chapter of one of our adventures is really designed to be not too much trouble for characters of 6th level. Characters of any level can go into that chapter, but really what we’re doing is we want to ensure when an optimal group is there, it’s not too much trouble.

In Princes of the Apocalypse, players can stumble into areas too dangerous or too easy for their characters. “If characters aren’t careful, they can definitely ‘dig too deep,’ going down into dungeons for which they are woefully underpowered,” Mike “Sly Florish” Shea wrote. “Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a fourth-level dungeon to an eighth-level dungeon with just a few steps.”

Jeremy Crawford and the D&D team see such design as a feature. “Our starting assumption in 5th edition is that the game is pretty open ended and sandboxy, and we often like—particularly in our published adventures—dangling out the possibility that you might wander into a fight that you can’t win. We don’t view the game as a series of combat encounters that you are expected to face in a predictable way and then march off with a set amount of experience points and treasure. We view the game as a set of potential combat encounters, some of which you might not turn into combat encounters at all.”

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire dungeons that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level dungeon, they can only fight to escape. No player enjoys fleeing a dungeon, and then starting a quest for weaker foes—especially if the dungeon seemed like the best route to reaching their aims.

If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout. Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored—and I’m not alone. Mike Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge. See Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

Like its predecessor, the 3rd adventure, Out of the Abyss, featured loosely-tied locations, each designed to suit characters of a particular level.

In a guide to Out of the Abyss, Sean “Powerscore” McGovern wrote, “This adventure thinks it is a sandbox, but really it is a railroad in serious denial.” To Tim “Neuronphaser” Bannock, the lack of story threads made Abyss resemble “a sourcebook disguised as an adventure.”

The adventure leaves connecting the locations to the DM. “Be ready to build quest threads and hooks between each of the big areas so the players have one to three clear paths to take as they explore the Underdark,” Mike Shea explained.

Such requirements make designers seem blind to plight of DMs running a 256-page adventure. The designers wrote the book. When they play their own material, they enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than any DM can gain from the text. This mastery makes adjustment and improvisation easy for them. If they need a hook, they know just the walk-on character on page 167 who can offer it. If their players go off book in chapter 2, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot assumed in chapter 7.

The designers seem to assume that DMs resist a written playbook as an unwelcome limitation, but most DMs appreciate the help. If a hook or clue doesn’t suit their game, DMs know to ignore or adapt it.

The 4th adventure, Curse of Strahd, ranks as the most successful “sandboxy” design. The Tarokka card reading brings one advantage by hinting at the means to Strahd’s defeat and providing clues that might guide the adventure. The card reading assigns destinations, but as Sean McGovern explains, “it’s up to the DM to figure out how to get the group to these places, and new DMs are going to have a hard time with that. The hooks that take you from one area to another are buried deep in each chapter.” To complicate the challenge, DMs must deal with hooks likely to lead inexperienced characters to their deaths.

The 5th adventure, Storm King’s Thunder, starts with sandbox exploration and finishes as a linear adventure. In between, the adventure leads through 1 of 5 possible strongholds. On the plus side, the choice of giant strongholds gives the adventure unusual variation. As a minus, the strongholds stand as a highlight, but most groups will only explore one. (Still, a party at my local game store chose to battle through them all.)

Of the fifth-edition hardcover adventures, Storm King’s Thunder suffered the second-lowest rating among reviewers on enworld. Reviewers praised the strongholds while criticizing the sandbox chapters.

To start, the adventure shows the menace of the giants, but leaves characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters run errands until they reach the adventure’s true beginning. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either need to rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expects it. Mike Shea advised DMs to “Be ready to fill in a lot of blanks with your own stories, quests, motivations, and dungeons; particularly early on.”

Weak hooks and blank spots can leave DMs to struggle. “I’ve been running Storm King’s Thunder and the first three chapters of the adventure presented nothing but trouble for me,” Snazzy wrote in comments on this site. “I basically did what the book recommended, trusting that it would make sense and my players would want to do what the book suggests. And it turns out that it doesn’t really work. Which is disheartening! I’m a pretty new DM and so when the campaign book I spent all this money on has issues which require significant patching in the very beginning, it shakes some confidence in the product. The whole point of me buying a campaign was so I could game with less prep time required.”

Many experienced DMs share this dissatisfaction. Sean “Power Score” McGovern writes guides that help DMs running the adventures. “My guides to these adventures are by far the most popular articles on my site. To me, that says that DMs need help with these books. That should not be the case! The point of a published adventure is to make it so that the DM does not have to do a lot of work!

“I still think they should be organizing these adventures like Pathfinder adventure paths—linear. If you want a sandbox, It’s not hard at all to make a sandbox out of a [linear adventure]. But it is very time-consuming to turn a sandbox into a path.

“Every single 5e adventure requires a ridiculous amount of homework and I think that is a shame.”

McGovern wrote those words in the wake of Curse of Strahd. But Storm King’s Thunder presents a flow chart to help DMs, and the latest book, Tomb of Annihilation, scored higher with reviewers than any of its predecessors. Is the fifth-edition D&D team helping DMs more? Perhaps. The hardcover line shows consistent improvement and Tomb of Annihilation rates as the entry that best serves DMs. Some of that success comes because Tomb draws from proven styles of play. The first half offers a hex crawl patterned after  Isle of Dread (1981). The second half lays an adventure path through chapters inspired by classic adventures from Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) to Tomb of Horrors (1978). The authors Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter deserve some credit too. Will Doyle once said,  “Adventures are playbooks not novels.”

Still, I’ve heard nothing from the D&D team that suggests they share Will’s insight. Too often, the designers seem to think DMs who read a 256-page adventure can match its author’s comfort and mastery. Sometimes, the designers have hidden linear designs like a stain of dishonor. But an adventure path offers players plenty of choice and freedom within its chapters. And besides, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as designers think.

As works of imagination, the fifth-edition hardcovers contain the some of the best D&D adventures ever. They teem with vivid characters, fantastic locations, and unforgettable scenes that few DMs could match—especially throughout a campaign. But too often they work better as books to read and admire than as blueprints for DMs to run games at the table.

Posted in D&D fifth edition, Role-playing game design | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Inside the Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated Boxes

When the new Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated sets reached stores, they came in the same boxes and the same dungeon, wilderness, and city themes as the old Dungeon Tiles Master Sets. I figured that new covers dressed the same content as the Master sets. I supposed wrong.

In Dungeons & Dragons, things reincarnate into something different and sometimes better, depending on the die roll. According to old legend, some characters killed themselves over and over until the party wizard successfully reincarnated them as something better than, say, a miserable human.

The tiles returned differently too. On a scale from lowly kobold to powerful ogre mage, how do the new tiles rate?

Like prior tile sets, these sets picture underground, outdoor, and urban terrain on the same sort of thick cardboard as a game board. This tiles punch out of their sheets into pieces that you can arrange into battlegrounds with a 1-inch grid.

The reincarnated collections include 16 tiles, up from 10 in the old boxed sets. They mix tiles from the master sets with tiles from the original sets, including those that followed the master sets.

Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated – Dungeon

The dungeon collection includes the only new tile in any of the 3 boxes. While the Master Dungeon box focused on classic halls and rooms, the new assortment adds caves and rounded tower walls. This variety means the set pairs with the dungeon-themed Master box without fewer duplicates.

Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated Dungeon 1A
Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated Dungeon 1B
DT7 Fane of Forgotten Gods 3A
DT7 Fane of Forgotten Gods 3B
DU4 Arcane Towers 1A
DU4 Arcane Towers 1B
DU4 Arcane Towers 2A
DU4 Arcane Towers 2B
DU4 Arcane Towers 3A
DU4 Arcane Towers 3B
DU4 Arcane Towers 4A
DU4 Arcane Towers 4B
DU1 Halls of the Giant Kings 4A
DU1 Halls of the Giant Kings 4B
DN4 Cathedral of Chaos 4A
DN4 Cathedral of Chaos 4B
DT5 Lost Caverns of the Underdark 1A
DT5 Lost Caverns of the Underdark 1B
DT5 Lost Caverns of the Underdark 5A
DT5 Lost Caverns of the Underdark 5B
DT5 Lost Caverns of the Underdark 6A
DT5 Lost Caverns of the Underdark 6B
DU3 Caves of Carnage 4A
DU3 Caves of Carnage 4B
DN5 Urban Underdark 1A
DN5 Urban Underdark 1B
DN5 Urban Underdark 3A
DN5 Urban Underdark 3B
DN5 Urban Underdark 5A
DN5 Urban Underdark 5B
DN5 Urban Underdark 6A
DN5 Urban Underdark 6B

Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated – Wilderness

The reincarnated Wilderness set expands on the Master set by adding battlefield, swamp, and desert tiles into the old mix of forest and plains. 12 of the set’s 16 tiles never appeared in the Master set.

DN7 Ruins of War 1A
DN7 Ruins of War 1B
DN7 Ruins of War 4A
DN7 Ruins of War 4B
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 1A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 1B
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 3A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 3B
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 4A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 4B
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 8A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 8B
DU5 Sinister Woods 1A
DU5 Sinister Woods 1B
DU5 Sinister Woods 6A
DU5 Sinister Woods 6B
DU7 Desert of Athas 1A
DU7 Desert of Athas 1B
DU7 Desert of Athas 2B
DU7 Desert of Athas 2B
DU7 Desert of Athas 3A
DU7 Desert of Athas 3B
DU7 Desert of Athas 4A
DU7 Desert of Athas 4B

Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated – City

Wizards of the Coast published only one original collection of city tiles—far fewer than any other theme. So most of this collection duplicates tiles from the City Master set. This box even includes 2 pairs of duplicate tiles. To fill the collection, the set reprints 3 tiles from the Harrowing Halls assortment of building interiors.

Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 1A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 1B
DU2 Streets of Shadow 2A
DU2 Streets of Shadow 2B
DU2 Streets of Shadow 3A
DU2 Streets of Shadow 3B
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 5A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 5B
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 6A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 6B
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 7A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 7B
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 8A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 8B
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 9A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 9B
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 10A
Dungeon Tiles Master Set - Dungeon 10B
DU2 Streets of Shadow 2A
DU2 Streets of Shadow 2B
DU2 Streets of Shadow 3A
DU2 Streets of Shadow 3B
DU2 Streets of Shadow 4A
DU2 Streets of Shadow 4B
DU2 Streets of Shadow 5A
DU2 Streets of Shadow 5B
DU6 Harrowing Halls-1A
DU6 Harrowing Halls-1B
DU6 Harrowing Halls-2A
DU6 Harrowing Halls-2B
DU6 Harrowing Halls-3A
DU6 Harrowing Halls-3B

In short, I rate the reincarnated sets as a solid dwarf. If you already have the Master sets, the Wilderness and Dungeon boxes will enhance your collection. If you have most of the original sets, this new collection adds nothing new.

Related: A complete list and gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets
Complete guide to using Dungeon Tiles

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

5 Situations That Tempt Every Dungeon Master to Railroad Their Players

If you believe countless Dungeon & Dragons adventure reviews, nothing ruins an scenario as quickly as a linear design. In a linear adventure every group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. At best, critics accuse linear adventures of eliminating the players’ choices between scenes. At worst, critics say linear adventures require dungeon masters to abuse their power to shunt players along a railroad. Instead of steering the adventure, players follow a fixed story.

In my last post, I explained that players don’t hate linear adventures as much as reviewers and dungeon masters think. We tend to judge harshly because we see the lack of options. In a successful adventure, players never see the walls.

Many gamers conflate linear adventures with railroading, but that mistake tars decent adventures. Players seldom mind linear adventures, but few players tolerate railroading. DMs who railroad deserve player complaints.

“Railroading is not linear prep,” Phil Vecchione from Gnome Stew explains. “Railroading is the game master’s reaction to a player’s action, in an effort to drive the game in a specific direction. That reaction is to typically negate, reverse, or shut down a player’s action, in order to get the game moving in the GM’s desired direction.”

A successful linear adventure invites certain choices and makes assumptions about outcomes, but it never forces a result. Some of the success of an adventure depends on the designer’s ability to predict choices and outcomes. (See Actions Players Always Take and Choices Players Never Make.) When the predictions fail, adventures tempt DMs to railroad.

In some game situations, when the players veer from the plan, the temptation to railroad becomes nearly irresistible. These situations appear in nearly every DM’s career. Instead of succumbing to temptation, what should we do?

1. When an action leads in a direction you never anticipated, improvise.

Every DM eventually faces a player decision that nullifies all the planning that prepared for a game. “If you can’t improvise, you’ll eventually hit a wall you can’t climb over, or find yourself trapped in a corner and unable to talk your way out,” D&D senior producer Chris Perkins writes.

“Improvisation demands equal measures of intuition and confidence. DMs who lack sufficient intuition or confidence tend to have trouble improvising at the game table. The good news is that DMs, being creative souls, rarely fall short in the intuition department. They know a good story from a bad one, a well-developed character from a cardboard cutout, and so forth. However, confidence is a far more rare commodity, and DMs who lack the confidence to trust their intuition often have trouble improvising behind the DM screen. I know because I’ve been there.”

Entire books aim to help game masters improvise, but often the trick comes down to making a leap into the unknown–or unprepared. If you find yourself stuck, call for a break, spend a few minutes finding inspiration, and then go with the idea that seems most fun.

2. When an action may deliver an easy win that cuts an adventure short, reward the ingenuity and then add complications.

Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea likes to note that we DMs match our one brain against the players’ six brains—a serious mismatch. Sometimes players invent a plan that threatens to skip the middle of an adventure and deliver an easy victory.

As one possible response, DMs can grant players an easy win. Players relish a chance to thwart the villain (and the DM) with an ingenious plan. Perhaps the characters built around deception or infiltration get to shine.

But an easy win can’t cut a 4-hour convention adventure to a half-hour assassination. If you want to spare more of your preparation, reward ingenuity with some success, and then add reasonable complications that make the plan unravel. Perhaps the players reach the throne room, but discover that the lich-king has left to sow terror and whatnot. Now the players must decide how long they dare to wait in the heart of an enemy stronghold.

Many ingenious plans start with the players impersonating the villains’ cohorts and seeking a free pass to the boss’s war room. In those scenes, I seek ways to help the heroes while also stirring trouble. Often some of the party must pass as prisoners or foreign allies. What if guards demand to take prisoners to the dungeons and allies to the rest of their delegation? Sometimes I add tests of loyalty. “We’ll take you to the Prince of Murder, but first help us execute your prisoners.” Even when a deception succeeds, such tests suggest that smart foes hold some natural suspicion.

3. When players try to start fights during an interaction scenes, pause the action.

Sooner or later, every dungeon master sees players stop a role-playing scene to start a fight. As the party talks with a scheming queen, a player blurts out, “I hit her with my axe!” Picking a fight during such an interaction typically causes problems because the adventure expects the queen to bridge the way to the rest of the adventure. The attack burns the bridge and leaves players running from her heir and her army.

These scenes tempt me to add a hidden pit trap between the charging barbarian and the queen. Actually, that makes some sense. If I were boss of some D&D land, my throne room would feature a trap door.

If the archer or warlock launches a ranged attack, every DM feels tempted to turn the queen’s guards into invincible minor minions who crush the party. Then the queen threatens to hang the characters unless they continue the scheduled adventure. Steal from the classics.

A better, non-railroad response includes 3 steps: (1) pause the attack, (2) learn the root cause of the attack, and (3) reroute the adventure.

Instead of letting the instigator roll damage, pause the action.

If only one player wants the fight, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains how he lets the party intervene in-game. “I’ll freeze time. ‘Everyone can see that your character is about to kill this person. Everybody has a chance to stop this. What do you all want to do?’” Teos makes it clear that the single player stands alone against everybody else in the party. See What To Do When A Player Interrupts A Role-Playing Scene To Start A Battle.

If the whole party seems eager for battle, look for the root cause of the attack.

Perhaps the players see the queen as a bad ally, so when the adventure leads to an alliance of convenience, the players rebel. Murder in Baldur’s Gate assumed characters would support one of three patrons who vied for power. The patrons start unsavory and, as they gain power, become worse. My players wanted no part of it. I needed to find a more agreeable patron.

Often, the players see the queen as a villain they will fight eventually. Why not solve the problem now? As DM, tell the players how their characters’ lifetime of experience in the game world reveals flaws in the players’ plan. “The reputation of the queens’ knights leads you to believe that they can easily defeat you.” If the players attack anyway, finish the fight, and then find another patron.

4. When plot features recurring villains, but the party blocks their escape, plan for escape, but prepare for a new villain.

Every DM loves a recurring villains. But to establish one, you need to introduce the villains and then somehow invalidate the players’ decision to murder them.

Typically, DMs underestimate the players, and so potential recurring villains die during their first scene. Our odds stand at 6 brains to 1. As a slim advantage, we have time to plan. Don’t make a potential recurring villain the most threatening target in an encounter. Don’t leave the villain exposed between their turns. Plant a potential barrier along the escape route. (I’m not above an escape via spinning bookcase.) Start the escape while minions remain to block pursuit and while the villain still has enough hit points to survive the players’ biggest attacks. Accept the (probably) inevitable premature death. Prepare to call another foe from the bench.

In the interest of story, Monte Cook’s acclaimed adventure Dead Gods requires villains to escape the players. “It’s crucial to the story that some of the cross-trading khaasta escape with the thief of charms and some of the stolen beauty. If necessary, the DM can increase the number of khaasta in the encounter or rule that some of the creatures have already escaped through the portal by the time the PCs arrive in the alley (and make it clear to the heroes that this has happened). The latter option foils the use of a gate ward or surelock spell to stop the khaasta.” Unfortunately, once the DM sees the need for such measures, it’s probably too late.

5. When the story includes the players’ capture, but the players win instead, wait for another chance.

The most egregious crime of railroading comes when a DM wants players taken captive. In adventure fiction, heroes get captured regularly. So DMs dream up similar stories, and then try to force a capture despite the players’ determination to never get taken alive.

Notoriously, A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords starts with the players’ capture. This adventure originated as a tournament adventure where players adopted pre-generated characters already imprisoned. When the authors adapted the adventure for home campaigns, they anticipated complaints. “It is likely that [the players] will be angry at the DM for putting them in such an ‘unfair’ situation.”

The Adventurers League adventure Shackles of Blood depended on players getting captured. Some players went along for the ride, but others resented it. I tweaked the adventure so players who thwarted capture could choose to become captives as a heroic gambit. No one resisted that.

To engineer a capture, DMs needs to hide an encounter’s threat to the players, block the characters’ attempts to flee, beat any signs of an unexpected rally, and so on. During all this, if the players see signs of their DM bending the odds to thwart their escape, they will feel railroaded. You can’t plan for a capture.

None of this means your players’ characters will never be captives.

Use capture as an alternative to a total party kill. Save your escape-from-the-dungeon scenario for a time when players ignore warning signs, make bad choices, suffer setbacks, and ignore any chance to run. Those times happen—trust me. Then, instead of rolling new characters, have the old characters wake in chains. The players will feel grateful for a second chance.

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Do Dungeons & Dragons Players Hate Linear Adventures? Not When DMs Avoid Two Pitfalls

A linear adventure is written, or at least planned, so every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. In Dungeons & Dragons, linear dungeons set the pattern, with walls and doors that channel players along a single route. Without walls, a linear adventure only ever shows players one course of actions to a successful end.

At best, critics accuse linear adventures of robbing players of choices between scenes. At worst, critics say linear adventures require dungeon masters to abuse their power to shunt players along a railroad. Instead of steering the adventure, players follow a fixed story.

Despite the criticism, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as DMs think. We tend to judge harshly because we see the lack of options. But in a successful adventure, players never see the walls.

When the walls become plain, players may complain about a lack of freedom. Linear dungeons, with their obvious walls, always risk criticism. Adventures without walls can also flaunt a lack of options. Imagine an adventure where players follow a patron’s plan or a commander’s orders from scene to scene. Unless catastrophe upsets the plan—or assassins reach the commander—the adventure would feel scripted and less satisfying.

Linear adventures work best when success in each scene brings the clues that lead to the next scene. Then, for all the players know, a different choice in the scene or unseen clue could have spun events in a different direction. To players, each success leads to the clues needed to set a new objective. Players favor one choice over an overwhelming number of choices, and certainly over feeling stuck without a direction.

Make no mistake, players still like to face a few, clear choices. Linear adventures grow better when they include decision points that pose options. (Of course, such adventures no longer qualify as linear.)

For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to developing content that reaches play. No DM with an ingenious dungeon room wants players to miss it.

The limits of a convention time slot makes linear adventures particularly common in programs like the D&D Adventurers League. Linear adventures can consistently fit in a convention time slot. Players in organized play tend to forgive the limits imposed by a 4-hour session, but some do complain when adventures reveal a lack of choices.

But organized-play adventures with more options draw complaints too.

Adventurers League administrator Claire Hoffman explains that when adventures offer more choices, some DMs gripe about prepping content that may not reach play.

Most DMs understand the value of extra prep, but some players fuss too. Those who enjoy the accomplishment of clearing a dungeon or of completing every quest feel frustrated when an adventure teases them with more options than they can explore. The Howling Void by Teos Abadia sets a brilliant example of a 4-hour adventure with a wealth of options. In an elemental node, Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players must choose which to visit. Teos explains that some players left the adventure disappointed because they could not explore every location. The adventure proved so fun that players wanted it all. Still, adventures shouldn’t cater to completists. Better to leave players wanting more.

Linear adventures may fall short of an ideal, but if they avoid flaunting their limits, players seldom mind. One exception bothers players. When the only choice suggests a style of game that players dislike, they will resist.

During these rebellions, the players telegraph what the want to do in the game. In a podcast, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea explained, “If the king is speaking, and the barbarian charges him, maybe you ought to start the players in the dungeon.” Clearly players crave a fight. “I’ve seen it the other way too, where in my DM-head I’m thinking, now they’re going to fight 12 orcs, and the players are doing everything they can to negotiate with the orcs. ‘Just fight the orcs!’ But the players are telegraphing their desire to have an interaction.”

If your players dislike intrigue, and the next clue in a linear adventure suggests they infiltrate a masquerade, that’s when they rebel.

You can avoid such problems by setting up situations tailored to the style your players favor. If you know your players, such tailoring probably becomes natural. If not, then an ideal episode lets players choose styles. Let players enter the castle by infiltrating the masquerade, sneaking over the walls, or battling through a secret entrance into the dungeons below.

Players don’t hate linear adventures; players hate being driven into a style of game they dislike. Players who read gaming blogs may resist by accusing your adventure of railroading, but the rest will start a fight at the masquerade.

Posted in Advice, Role-playing game design | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Fun Thing D&D Players Love that No One Mentions and that the Game Almost Lost

Game mastering advice tends to lavish attention on what players enjoy. Things like playing a role, enjoying a sense of power, plotting strategies, and so on.

Another pleasure of role-playing games ranks just as high, even though the folks who offer game mastering advice rarely mention it.

Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world. Humans love finding order in a jumble. The impulse drives scientists, detectives, and conspiracy theorists.

In Dungeons & Dragons, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions—call them traps and toys.

The joy of figuring things out led to a type of adventure that didn’t exist during the first years of role playing. Investigation adventures now rank as one of the most popular styles. Much of the fun of an investigation or mystery comes from connecting the dots between clues. The challenges come along the way.

For example, players investigating missing magical reagents might start with the guild alchemist. He stole the reagents to help a secret lover out of a jam. Under pressure, the alchemist explains that his lover hasn’t been seen since getting the reagents, but that the couple used to meet at an particular inn. This leads to the innkeeper, who saw someone with the lover’s description meeting with someone wearing a flower that only grows at the royal arboretum. One clue leads to the next. Investigations ask player to make connections and figure things out.

Before investigations, player still found pleasure in figuring things out. Tomb of Horrors is packed with things to figure out. Taunting clues, secret doors, false endings, and so on. This abundance leads to some of the Tomb’s lasting appeal. But the tomb also set a terrible example.

In the Tomb, players figure things out to advance or to survive. Too often, D&D adventures have forced players to figure out puzzles to continue. For example, countless adventures include a magic portal that requires just the right activation to open. If players fail to figure out the key, they reach a dead end. Or in the case of the Tomb, they’re dead, the end. About everything in the Tomb works that way.

This sort of design gave puzzles—D&D’s original thing to figure out—a bad rap. No one likes to feel stuck or frustrated or stupid.

To avoid such bad feelings, fourth edition’s designers emphasized character skill over player skill. They aimed for a D&D game where no player felt forced to figure anything out. Accidentally, they nearly lost a source of fun.

Nonetheless, adventures that force players to solve a puzzle risk a bad D&D session. But players still love to figure things out, and the best adventures give them lots of chances to indulge—if the players like.

When you create adventures, rather than forcing players to puzzle out something that blocks their way, add more toys to figure out. For instance, imagine a magic fountain that the players can ignore. Scattered coins lie under its clear water. A bag of coins hangs from a hook. Tossing in a coin causes the waters to cloud and show a room somewhere. At the far end stands a statue of a king. The vision fades. Dropping a second coin reveals the same room from a different angle. This time a statue of a queen faces the viewer. Players can move on, but interacting with the puzzle reveals something interesting to figure out.

Fun adventures come sprinkled with things to figure out.

The best traps challenge players to figure something out. Puzzle traps hint at their presence. The fun comes from either deciphering clues to locate the trap or from working out a method to evade the trap, or both. Players rarely disable a puzzle trap with a quick check, rather they figure out the game-world steps required to avoid the threat.

I used to think that the fun of figuring things out came from the thrill of beating a difficult puzzle. The harder the challenge, the greater the thrill of victory. I was wrong. Part of the fun of figuring things out comes from feeling smart and successful. When players stall on a confounding problem, they just feel thwarted. The best puzzles serve just enough challenge so players suppose that they succeeded where others might fail.

Examining the coins reveals the faces of kings and queens. When the players toss in the queen’s coin, they see the king’s statue, and vice versa. Any party could figure out the fountain’s operation, especially if tossing another coin reveals a familiar place. Casting a coin temporarily reveals a view from a royal statue depicting the figure on the coin. Still, figuring out the fountain will bring fun.

Once players figure things out, they appreciate rewards that validate their success. Sometimes insight leads to treasure or an easier encounter. At first, the alchemist pretends to know nothing of the missing reagents, but if the players find a hidden love letter and make the connection, he cracks. That fountain could reveal some secrets in the adventure ahead.

In investigations, figuring advances the plot, but the same joy can come from spotting and making connections that don’t affect an outcome. Movie Easter eggs bring this pleasure.

The chance to figure things out provides a painless way to deliver backstory to the players—if they care. Start with the story and add ways to reveal it to the players. Avoid using journal entries. Think of subtler clues that reveal history in bite-size chunks. In Tomb of Annihilation, the Garden of Nangalore reveals its story in clues scattered throughout the site. Success here even leads to a reward: At the end, players who figure out the story can fare better when they meet the queen.

The next time you dream up an adventure, add things for your group’s actors and tacticians, but also add something to figure out.

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3 Pieces of Dungeon Masters Gear I Love and 1 Failed Experiment

Whenever I unpack my dry-erase maps and tiles, I reveal the remains of past games. Today, this residue includes the usual battlegrounds drawn in 5-foot squares, but also names like Syndra Silvane and Ytepka, experience numbers, damage totals, a sketch of the Chapel of Kukulkan from Tamoachan, and a rough map of the Nangalore in Chult.

As much as dungeon masters serve as a referees and facilitators, we need to act as communicators. So I use my dry-erase grids as white boards to help reveal the game world to the players, to remind players of place and character names, to emphasize key details, and so on. At any Dungeons & Dragons table, I’m never the only one who tends to think visually.

This habit led me to discover an advantage interlocking gaming tiles boast over the conventional battle mats. I can pick up one tile, write or draw, and set tile back down. No more struggling to write “Ytepka” upside down for the players to see.

Compared to a conventional battle mat, interlocking, dry- or wet-erase tiles bring other advantages. You can draw tiles in advance, and then reveal them as characters explore. As characters travel, adding tiles extends your map. Characters and their miniatures can roam without leaving the table.

Dry- and Wet-Erase Interlocking Tiles

Two companies now sell dry- or wet-erase interlocking tiles with either 1-inch grids or hexes.

Gaming Paper’s tiles consist of heavy cardboard like the board in your Monopoly game, but thicker. I can hold a rigid tile in 1 hand and draw with the other. The glossy surface takes dry-erase markers. The 8×11 size fits with your game books in a bag or on a bookshelf. The construction makes the boards inexpensive, but it means that careless erasing will peel the paper surface from the boards.

I haven’t seen the tiles from Role 4 Initiative. They come on 1/8-inch-thick chipboard, so they should prove more durable than cardboard. The tiles work with both wet- and dry-erase markers. Dry erase marks lift without water, but they tend to smear during transport or storage. Wet-erase marks stay sharp. These tiles come in both 10×10 and 5×5 sizes, which makes packing a bit more awkward, but which helps DMs fit dungeon walls within tile borders.

Wire Templates

Nothing stalls a fight on a grid like an area-effect spell. Everyone waits while someone counts and recounts squares, and then figures angles like a pool shark. For fireballs and other circles, my macrame rings trim minutes from the process. To make 30-foot cones just as simple, I shaped 12-gauge, aluminum craft wire and electrical tape into a template. For Cone of Cold, I bent an 30-foot extension.

For improved versions, I would like to find stiffer wire. My wire holds up at the table, but packing requires care. I nestle the pieces under the flat cover of my compartment case.

Bags for Games Masters

I used to think that scrapbooking served as lonely fun, but scrapbookers gather together to craft. And companies design amazing bags suited for their ventures. We DMs lack the same market clout, but a bag made for scrapbooking holds my Dungeons & Dragons gear so well that only an embroidered ampersand would improve it.

The 360 Crafters Rolling Bag from We Are Memory Keepers holds a compartment case full of miniatures alongside a stack of hardcovers. Pockets cover the bag inside and out, offering a place for everything. Plus, mesh reveals each pockets’ contents, so I can find things without digging. Plus, the bag stands open beside my DM’s chair, keeping everything in easy reach. I can start a game without unpacking.

Admittedly, the selection of cheerful colors and breezy patterns hardly says killer DM, but I can add my own green, devil patches.

Wet-Wipe Chalk Marker

Until technology brings me a video display that I can unroll at a convention table, I’m stuck using paper maps. To bad, because I dream of using electronics to show a map and reveal only the features within the characters’ sight. I experimented with a low-tech alternative.

  1. Set a players’ version of a dungeon map under the Lexan sheet I sometimes use to keep battlemaps flat.
  2. Conceal the map with a wet-wipe chalk marker—the sort of marker a school’s homecoming committee uses to decorate the windows of businesses on Main Street.
  3. As players explore, wipe away the chalk marks, revealing the map.

Unfortunately, the chalk coating proved too hard to remove. Scraping caused it to flake off in ragged patches, revealing too much and leaving a blizzard of white powder. A wet paper towel left white smears and also lacked precision. I count wet chalk as a failed experiment, so I’m back to waiting for a packable, 30-inch display.

Related: Photo Guide to Dungeon Masters Tools

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