The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons

In my last post on tracking initiative, I surveyed every tracking technique I knew, from apps to combat pads. Five years later, I feel ready for a stronger statement:

If you don’t use card stock tents to track initiative, you are doing it wrong.

Sure, you can still run a fun game, but with initiative tents, your game will become a bit better.

Initiative tents enable two tracking methods that both work well. If you track initiative wrong, you can choose which improvement suits you best. One technique puts names on the cards, the other uses numbers.

To use numbers, create a set of tents numbered from 1 up. When initiative starts, the players compare numbers and take the card the matches their place in the order. The highest takes 1, second highest 2, and so on. The DM takes cards for the monsters’ place in the order. Everyone sets the numbers at their spot at the table so everyone can see their place.

Initiative tents

To use names, each player puts their character name on a card. When initiative starts, the players roll and write their scores on their card. Someone collects the cards, and lines them up in initiative order where everyone can see. I let a player sort the cards before I drape them in order atop my DM screen.

These tracking methods boast two advantages: They make the initiative order visible to everyone, and they let the dungeon master delegate tracking to the players.

When players can see the tents and initiate order, they can see when their turn is coming and plan their actions. This speeds play. Plus, the visible initiative invites players to remind less-attentive people of their turns. It prevents DMs from accidentally skipping someone’s turn.

Numbered tents do a better job of keeping players aware of their place in the order, because everyone collaborates to establish the order and everyone displays a numbered tent.

Delegating DM chores to the players leads to better games. Typically, game masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the DM’s attention. A DM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck created by the game master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain tasks to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative.

Named tents do a better job of delegating initiative, because the DM can ignore the entire process of establishing the order.

Tracking with numbers

Dungeon master and D&D freelance author Teos Abadia champions tracking with numbers. You can read more about this method in his blog.

To make numbered tents, fold index cards and use a marker to write numbers on either side. Twelve cards should be enough for every player and type of monster. White cards work fine, but colored ones offer more visibility at the table. You can reuse numbered tents.

Tracking with names

For a minimal initiative tent, use index cards. Cutting a card lengthwise yields two tents suitable for draping across a DM’s screen. Cut from top to bottom for three, smaller tents suitable for standing on the table. I like using colored index cards and giving each player a unique color, so they can identify the color from across the table. All my monsters get white stock. Before a game session, pass out the cards and have players write a name on each side. When initiative starts, everyone rolls and writes their score on their card.

I prepare the monsters’ tents in advance. This lets me write the monster names and either pre-roll their initiatives or just use static initiatives that set all the monsters at 10 plus their dexterity bonus. Static initiatives rely on the players’ rolls for a random element. Skipping the monsters’ rolls saves time, but tends to cluster the monsters’ turns.

Many DMs who drape initiative tents on their DM screen use something to mark the current place in the turn order. A binder clip on the active character’s tent works well enough.

Although tents with just names and scores work well, I add extra information to my tents. With the tents draped across my DM’s screen, I gain a quick reference. For instance, I have players write their characters’ armor class and passive perception scores on their tents.

Some DMs who use initiative tents just give players blank tents, show a sample, and ask everyone to follow the example. But I’ve created formatted tents with spaces to write in. Download my formatted tents here.

My monster tents show armor class, the three most common saving throws, and include spaces for attacks and other information. On the player-facing side of the monster tents, I added a big box for armor class. Sometimes, when a fight went long enough for the characters to figure armor classes, I used to mark the ACs where everyone could see. This sped turns a bit.

Now, I save the monster tents so I can reuse them. This discourages me from writing ACs where players can see. Also, this encourages static initiatives. I can write an initiative score of 10 plus dexterity modifier and reuse it in every fight.

Some of my tents have initiative scores I rolled a year or more ago. Is it wrong if I reuse a year-old roll? Have you ever wondered why my shambling mounds always prove quick to act while my bugbears never get a drop on anyone? I should probably cross out those rolls.

My player tents include spaces for AC and passive perception, plus space for up to 8 separate initiative scores. As an extra time saver, I have players pre-roll initiative. During the a game session, I never slow for initiative. When an encounter starts, I hand all the tents to a player for sorting, and then I drape the folds on my screen.

Some eager helpers won’t wait for initiative. At the end of every encounter, they re-order the tents. I never have to call for initiative. While this skips a dramatic moment, it also blends the line between combat and the rest of the game. I suspect that’s better. What do you think?

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D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes

Last summer, I played in the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Hecatomb. The multi-table event put numerous parties on a massive battlefield. Our characters scrambled to destroy arcane obelisks while fighting monsters. To start the event, the dungeon master pointed to the empty grid, “There’s your part of the battlefield,” then he set markers for the obelisk and monsters. Now fight.

I’ve played countless battles on that same featureless grid. Sure, sometimes the blank space represents an open cavern, a desert, or a hilltop, but in every case, the empty field adds no interest to the scene. At least we had squares to count.

The dull setup turned duller when we realized that our party’s sharpshooter could safely destroy the obelisks and the monsters lurking two maps over, without ever letting threats come close enough to strike back. Our melee characters could only “ooh” and “ahh” like an audience for Annie Oakley.

In D&D, the empty grid has an equally humdrum opposite: the square dungeon room with doors on either end. I’ve played that map countless times, and I know how that goes as well. If the monsters win initiative, they crowd the door and nobody moves again. If the players win initiative, fireballs and hypnotic patterns cull the weak, while the sharpshooter drops the boss. Only the monsters who make saves get to crowd the door.

Perhaps some of these combat scenes prove fun. Sometimes players enjoy a chance to revel in quick victory. Mostly, they make DMs consider dismissing the fight with a quick visit to the theater of the mind or they consider altogether fewer fights. This makes me sad because while I enjoy exploration and role-playing, I also enjoy dynamic, tactical battles.

To map locations that lead to exciting battles, take my suggestions:

Monsters deserve cover

In a fantasy world with D&D sharpshooters and fireballs, combatants would hunker down in trenches like soldiers at the Somme. Melee fighters would advance under cover of Fog Cloud. Such tactics probably lack the heroic flavor you want, but you can give monsters a fighting chance without getting too tricky. Just add some total cover, and play creatures with the good sense to duck between their turns. This hardly counts as high strategy. If you throw a rock at a rat, it runs for cover. Faced with melee and ranged attacks, many foes will stay out of sight and let intruders come into reach. That usually works. By reputation, treasure hunters are bloodthirsty and undisciplined.

Such tactics encourage characters to move to engage. Melee fighters get more to do. They deserve to shine.

Total cover takes just few columns or stalagmites.

One caution: Newer players can find foes that duck behind total cover frustrating. You may need to dial down the tactic or explain the rules for readying actions.

Start some monsters out of sight—especially the boss

In the typical D&D battle, all the party’s foes start in plain sight. This makes the strongest monster an easy target for focused fire. Too often the mastermind dies before acting, or even before finishing a monologue. The players never learn of the fiendish plan that will end their pitiful lives. Consider starting that climactic battle with the main foe out of view. Let the characters spread out to attack the guards and lieutenants, and then have the biggest threat appear on its turn. In D&D, villains must fight and monologue at the same time.

When some lesser foes begin out of view, fights benefit. First, this gives some total cover. Plus the battle feels more fluid; the situation more uncertain. As characters move into the room, they spot unseen foes. As monsters emerge, the players wonder what other surprises wait.

Give flyers some air

Cover plus room to fly makes a good lair for a beholder

I find beholders irresistible. Who doesn’t? But just about every showdown against a beholder that I’ve played or run ended in disappointment. Too often, scenarios put them in a room with low ceiling, letting melee attackers rush in and smack them like t-balls. Any beholder worth its 17 intelligence finds a lair with a high ceiling and elevated places that provide total cover. A hole in the roof or some high columns will do. Between flying and antimagic, Beholders should frustrate every do-gooder.

What works for beholders works for every other flyer. Don’t ground flyers under a low ceiling. Let them fly over the melee ranks and bite the lightly-armored spellcaster attempting to concentrate.

Let the monsters intrude for a change

In an earlier post, I suggested an easy way to make dungeons feel vital. The method reverses the tired pattern of monsters that seem to wait in rooms for their chance to be slain. Pick a room where you would normally put monsters. In a published adventure, the room might already include some. Then assume the monsters have temporarily left the room. As the characters interact with other features of the room—the fountain or the bookcase—the monsters return. This trick begins fights with characters spread out instead of in a defensive formation. Characters who avoid melee may land in harm’s way. Some character may be surprised. The dungeon feels active.

Watch Counterspell range

Counterspell ranks as one of the 4 most annoying spells in fifth edition. Any encounter centered on an enemy spellcaster threatens to turn into a Counterspell duel where the foe does nothing. All that nothing amounts a boring encounter. Spellcasters can avoid Counterspell two ways: Either cast outside the spell’s 60-foot range or cast from out of sight. So place enemy casters in locations big enough for more the 60 feet of distance, and then favor spells that work from that distance. Fireball delivers again. After casting, duck behind total cover and let the melee characters come for a taste of shorter-ranged spells.

As for casting from out of sight, non-player spellcasters typically lack Greater Invisibility, but a few of their buff spells can be cast from total cover.

Love the small loop

The opposite of the static, bottlenecked encounter comes from encounter areas built around at least one tight, looping circuit through the dungeon. Such a layout enables foes to circle around and bring the battle to characters in the back—the characters who so rarely enjoy the chance to face foes up close. Meanwhile, melee characters rarely resist the temptation to chase skirmishers. The layout invites active battles.

Make encounter areas from clusters of rooms

D&D brings a long tradition of dungeons filled with square rooms with a door. Once upon a time, that game felt new enough to make even the 20-by-20 room a fitting battlefield. In today’s game, that worn setup rarely works. Don’t just draw a big square on a grid and call it a battlefield. Dynamic encounters demand more thought.

Rather than confining encounter areas to a single room, consider building sites from clusters of small rooms with one or more paths that circuit the location. Groups of rooms add places for total cover and for hidden foes. They encourage characters to pursue enemies, adding movement and excitement. On these maps, make the distances small enough so characters can move from room to room, and from attack to attack, with a single move.

Out of marching order

I pity players who favor melee characters. Fifth-edition D&D delivers too many advantages for ranged attackers. Spellcasters get fireball and hypnotic pattern. Ranged rogues can more easily attack from hiding. Archers get sharpshooter and crossbow expert. In addition to getting the best feats, ranged attackers get to fight out of harm’s way.

But battles with movement end cover tend to play to the strengths of melee characters. The monk finally gets to flaunt her speed! The backstabber gains places to dash, disengage, and reasons to engage. The paladin can drive foes from hiding. Sure, these sort of encounters may frustrate and threaten sharpshooters, but that just adds an extra benefit.

Don’t follow this advice for me. Do it for the beholders. Those characters won’t disintegrate themselves.

Related: In my side trek “To Steal a Primordial,” the party attempts to intercept a group of drow before they can escape to the Underdark. To foster a moving battle, I designed the scenario’s last map using much of my advice here.

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Four Ways the New D&D Adventurers League Rules Reshape the Campaign, and One Way They Don’t

The new Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League campaign rules change treasure from a prize for looting to an award for the real hours players spend pursuing an adventure’s goal. This change aims to reward more styles of play, to balance the power characters gain from magic items, and to offer players a better choice of items. While the new rules promise improvements, they reshape the campaign in unexpected ways.

1. Treasure does much less to drive exploration and tempt characters to take risks.

D&D started as a game where characters plundered dungeons and kept score in gold. The rules awarded as much of 80% of experience points for gold, so no one missed the game’s point. Tomb of Horrors stands as co-creator Gary Gygax’s earliest dungeon to reach print, and its villain has no grand plot, just a knack for killing grave robbers. In Gary Gygax’s home games, his players beat the tomb by snatching the treasure while ignoring the demi-lich.

Modern D&D adventures still use treasure to tempt and motivate players. Recently, my players in the Tomb of Annihilation landed in a classic Dungeons & Dragons situation: They entered a room with a deadly monster and heaps of treasure. The monster caught them unprepared, so they fled, and then they debated whether the treasure merited the risk of battle.

Does this predicament still have a place in the D&D Adventurers League?

Single-session League adventures usually rely on loot as a symbolic motivation for players. In the first scene, a patron might offer a reward, but also a job that does good. To finish within a set time, these adventures avoid treasure-hunting tangents. Authors contrive these adventures so a well-behaved do-gooder will win as much treasure as grave robbers and thieves. I have never played or run a single-session League adventure where players lost treasure because they failed to find it or failed to slay a monster. The new rules for treasure awards won’t change how these scenarios play.

The hardcover adventures stay closer to D&D’s tradition: Treasure drives exploration and tempts characters to take the risks that make D&D exciting. The new League rules for treasure undermine some of the rewards that propel these adventures. Characters probably won’t choose to risk a battle for a promise of gold.

To be fair, the new rules offer a sliver of motivation for grave robbers and treasure hunters. Characters who find a magic item don’t just keep it, but they do unlock the ability to spend treasure points for the item.

Still, few players will feel lured to a risky fight by treasure, and I’ll miss that predicament. On the other hand, my players spent hours looting the seemingly endless crypts under Castle Ravenloft. I won’t miss another grind like that.

The flavor of treasure points takes some adjustment. In my mind’s eye, heroes open a chest and a golden glow lights their faces as they look down in wonder at a treasure point.

2. Tables will stop fighting for imaginary items.

By the old League rules, players seeking the best magic items worked to take as few magic items as possible. A low count of items meant your character could claim an adventure’s permanent item. It also might mean that another character particularly suited to the item lost it. In a way, this made sense. In the imaginary world of the game session, only one wand exists. By delivering only one wand each time an adventure runs, the campaign imposes some scarcity. But the League’s campaign world might include thousands of the same item. A character who claimed a “unique” wand might spend their next adventure with 2 other characters wielding the same wand.

Why should a particular character be denied the item just because another character who happens to play at the same table wants the item too? The new League rules still impose scarcity, but not in a way that capriciously denies some characters the magic items they want.

3. Scarce gold imposes tight limits on healing potions, spellbooks, and material components.

In most D&D campaigns, characters get tons of gold, but have nowhere to spend it. That applies to fifth-edition games that award hoards by the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and to the first 7 seasons of the League. All that gold meant characters could easily afford enough healing potions to enter every fight a full health. From level 11 up, parties with a cleric would always split the 1000 gp cost for Heroes’ Feast and laughed at poison and fear effects—and at assassins, yuan-ti, and green dragons. Power-hungry, teen-level wizards brought simulacrums and, in one case, soured an adventure by winning D&D for me. Of all the classes, only wizards might run short of gold. They bore the cost of adding spells to their books. At conventions, when wizard players shared a table, they snapped photos of each others spell lists, and then spend gold and downtime to share spells. Avid wizards collected every spell.

By delivering a fraction of the gold to players, the new League rules rebalance the campaign’s economy. Level 11 through 16 characters who sink all their gold into healing potions can still only afford 11 per level. Simulacrums come at a cost few will pay. Heroes’ Feast becomes a luxury rather than an automatic buff.

The limitations tax wizards most. Forget collecting all the spells; now you face difficult choices. Eleventh-level wizards can add Contingency to their spell books, but even if they save every gold piece, they can’t afford the material component until level 12.

Meanwhile, in a campaign without gold for unlimited healing potions, Healing Spirit now stands as the key to starting every encounter at full health.

4. Characters don’t get magic weapons until level 5.

By the old League rules, a party of new characters will probably find a permanent magic item during their first adventure. By the time the party reaches level five, about half the group will own a magic item. By the new rules, only characters who opt for colorful trinkets like a Bag of Holding will gain permanent items in levels 1 through 4. Characters who rely on weapon attacks will save their points and, at level 5, buy the most useful item: a +1 weapon.

This changes how monsters resistant or immune to non-magical weapon attacks play. For instance, wererats make a popular foe in low-level urban adventures. They boast immunity to non-magic weapons that aren’t silvered. With scarce gold, few characters will lavish 100 gp on a silvered weapon. So until level 5, only spellcasters can hurt a humble wererat. Then, at level 5, everyone grabs a magic weapon and the immunity becomes meaningless. In the new League, resistance to non-magical attacks becomes impotent at level 5. I miss the grades of resistance in third edition.

5. Most characters will select distinctive sets of magic items.

Just like with the old campaign rules, players intent on optimizing their characters will seek adventures that unlock choice items. Every bard will still play that adventure that unlocks the Instrument of the Bards. Now, an all-bard party can play and everyone gets one! I’ll pass on that table, but I will watch that session’s movie version. In my imagination, it’s the D&D movie staring Fred, Ginger, Gene, and a tone-deaf actress voiced by Marni Nixon.

Beyond optimizers, most characters will still carry a unique mix of magic items.

For one, characters of the same type will tend to play different mixes of adventures, unlocking different sets of magic. Few items prove as compelling to a class as that violin for bards.

Also, the point costs encourage variety. A character will earn 48 treasure points advancing through tier 2, levels 5-10. By rule, those points must be spent on items available to a tier 2 character. Some characters may select three uncommon, 16-point items from table F. Others might choose rare items from table G for 20 points, and then have points remaining for curios and wonders. They could choose 2 rares and an irresistible item like an Alchemy Jug or an Immovable Rod. I expect many players to select items that catch their fancy or fit their character’s personality. The hardcover adventures even include unusual, permanent items available for just 2 treasure points.

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How to Create Wire Spell Templates for Dungeons & Dragons

Nothing stalls a fight on a grid like a circular or conical area-effect spell. Everyone waits while someone counts and recounts squares, and then figures angles like a pool shark. For fireballs and other circles, macrame rings trim minutes from the process. The rings come in variety of sizes, so you can get an 8-inch ring for Fireball, a 6″ ring for Darkness, and a 4″ ring for Antimagic Field.

ArcKnight’s sets of flat-plastic templates include conical templates, but I favor wire templates. Rigid patterns make measuring easier and wire can often be set on a map without moving any miniatures. No one manufactures wire cones that work as well as macrame rings, so I made my own.

My cones along with circular macrame rings

 

Materials

These templates require these components:

Home-improvement stores sell all these components, including the heat-shrink tubing.

Tools

To make the templates you need these tools:

Steps

To create a 6-inch-cone template and a 6-inch extension, do the following steps:

  1. In the corner of a large sheet, use the protractor to mark a 60° angle. Extend the angle 12 inches and then mark each line at 6 inches. Rotate the ruler at 6 and 12 inches to draw circular arc between the branches.

    I drew cones on a paper folder.

  2. Clean the steel rods.
  3. Use the pliers bend the rod to match the shape of the 6-inch cone.

    Shaped 6-inch cone

  4. Using the hacksaw, cut the rod where the wire overlaps.
  5. Bend and trim the remaining wire to the shape of the 6-inch extension.
  6. Connect the ends of each template with heat-shrink tubing, and then use the heat gun to shrink the connection.

    Heat-shrink tubing

  7. Paint the templates.

    Painted cone

These templates approach the quality of macrame rings.

Finished cone and extension

Posted in Dungeon master's tools | Tagged | 5 Comments

If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”

As I wrote last week’s post about players who gamed the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League rules, I feared misleading folks. Years before I started participating in organized play, players told me stories about the Living City and Living Greyhawk campaigns. Sometimes they boasted of their character’s unbeatable combination of magic items and the ingenious ways they won their gear; sometimes they complained about another player’s overpowered cheese and the metagame exploited to collect it. Either way, I drew the same lesson: Don’t join the campaign, because the play style won’t suit you.

I drew the wrong conclusion. If I had only played, I would have had fun.

I have played and run 100s of Dungeons & Dragons organized play sessions in third though fifth edition and even in the Alternity Living Verge campaign. Gamers seldom talk about all the game sessions where a bunch of strangers sat at a table and enjoyed a few hours playing D&D, but those sessions come almost every time we play. No, we talk about the unusual: The rare games spoiled by an annoying player. The characters that stretch the rules to the breaking point.

The new Adventurers League campaign rules aim to reward more styles of play, to give characters a better selection of magic, to level power between characters, and to free players from bookkeeping. The Adventurers League is already fun and welcoming. If successful, the changes will make the league a bit more of both.

Despite all the ways gamers play the campaign rules to win, I have never seen this metagame spoil my fun as a player or DM.

In all those organized play games I have joined, another character has only interfered with my fun two times.

As a DM for the fourth-edition Living Forgotten Realms campaign, one player brought an optimized, high-level defender. In this edition, defenders filled their role too well. This character featured maximized defenses that no level-appropriate monsters could hit on less than a natural 20. With an action, he could mark every foe on the map. His mark imposed such severe penalties that the monsters could only target him. So for hours of play, the monsters could only paddle uselessly at the defender while serving as bags of hit points for target practice.

If his play style could talk, it would say, “I won D&D for you. You’re welcome.”

For me as DM, none of those combats offered enjoyment, but I can also draw fun from players having fun. Did they enjoy being an audience for one player’s 4-hour character demonstration? I couldn’t tell. Maybe they enjoyed target practice.

Fifth edition no longer enables characters who can lock down every foe. I still see characters with armor classes or hit point totals that say, “no one can hurt me.” If a player enjoys a sense of invulnerability, they can get sell out for it. But still, every fifth-edition character suffers some weak saves. And no defender can shield every ally.

The second bad game came years later, when I played a fifth-edition convention session. One wizard brought a simulacrum, a duplicate able to act as a second wizard. The double meant that one player effectively took the turns and actions of two characters. Normally, such a character makes a minor nuisance. This time, the monsters proved badly overmatched. Meanwhile, my plodding cleric kept rolling low initiatives. Through every combat in the adventure, my character never contributed. The wizard and simulacrum blasted, and then the battle would end before I reached my first turn. Obviously, the DM could have dialed up the difficulty, but the wizard’s player drew my ire. Every fight, he played two turns for my none.

“I won D&D for you. You’re welcome.”

DM Tom Christy has run over 300 Adventurers League sessions, more than half for strangers on the Internet. “I ask that players avoid bringing extra, action-consuming creatures.” This helps grant each player equal time to act in combat. The request extends to simulacrums, golems, shield guardians, and charmed creatures, but not to class-feature-specific sidekicks like familiars, animal companions, and mounts. By league rules, the request is purely voluntary. “So far, all players have been understanding of that and happily agreed.” The new adventurers league rules bar shield guardians and slaad control gems, but such restrictions need to go further.

I wish I had more stories of other people’s characters ruining my fun, because a post filled with such tales would draw readers. After years of Adventurer’s League, I just have two accounts. Mostly in Adventurers League new and experienced players, strangers and friends, optimizers and storytellers just join at a table and have a great time playing D&D. Oh well. I suppose non-bloggers prefer it that way.

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The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win.

Starting on August 30, the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League will introduce a sweeping overhaul of the campaign rules. These changes affect how characters in the campaign advance levels, gain gold, and win magic items.

The new level-advancement system aims to reward players who enjoy guile or roleplaying as much as monster slaying. The change seems obvious. The old system centered on killing foes, so a new method based on hours of play encourages more styles of play.

The new treasure rules also base awards on hours of play. The change seeks to help players gain items that suit their characters, partly by offering a bigger choice of items.

D&D started as a game about raiding dungeons for magic and gold, so the old league rules gave characters the loot they claimed in the course of an adventure. The new rules turn away from the in-game treasure grabs, and that makes a dramatic change.

What went wrong with the old way of awarding treasure?

The campaign rules extend the core D&D rules. To no one’s surprise, when tens of thousands of gamers face a set of game rules, some will play to win. Players sought the most, and most powerful items for their characters. When this quest for power meant braving traps and facing evil, everyone won—except evil. When the quest for power led to other shenanigans, the players who ignored the game-within-a-game lost. For instance, items one character might prize could be claimed by someone else for “trade bait.”

For insight, I turned to Thomas Christy, who has logged over 16,000 hours prepping and dungeon mastering on Roll20. Currently, he runs 2 Adventurers League games a week online, and serves as a DM at conventions. Tom opens about half of his games to any player who cares to sign up. About 20% of his players come from outside the United States.

Bearer of unwanted magic items

Tom rarely minds if everyone in a party brings powerful magic, “I can tailor the difficulty.” But he favors treasure rules that balance character power so every player can contribute. “I want a casual player with only one PC who has never traded a magic item or played the great loot-dropping, companion-gaining adventures to have as much time in the limelight as a prolific player with a dozen characters.”

A player with a catalog of PCs can trade magic among them, ensuring that each gets the best matched items. “Trading causes a large differential in power levels between characters of prolific players and those of casual players. I will be happy to see that go away if possible.”

While trading brings characters the power to occasionally overshadow others, it does help items reach the characters best able to use them.

Trading meets both the rules and the spirit of the campaign. But some practices that follow the letter of the rules could cause characters to miss out—or lose out—on the fun magic items can bring to D&D.

Players interested in winning the best loot would track the items available in adventures. As a misdeed, this ranks with peeking at presents before Christmas. As long as you don’t misuse insider knowledge and you act surprised, no one loses.

Sometimes players would come upon the treasure information honestly. They would play an adventure with one character, spot an item another of their characters could use, and then replay the adventure with the second character. These players would show up at my convention table and passively sit through four hours just so they could legally claim a magic item. Have you wondered what a lawful neutral alignment looks like in real life? A chaotic player would just fake their logs.

Some questionable tricks emerged because hardcover authors seemed oblivious to how their treasure awards would affect play in the Adventurers League.

Curse of Strahd grants a particularly powerful item to players who do something impulsive and foolhardy. In a world of death traps, I’m not snatching things that appear in the air. An improbably high number of players proved reckless enough to win the prize. Or maybe they either snooped or they played with Monty Haul. (My players claimed the item. Call me Monty.)

Many hardback chapters included too few magic items to interest players who looked to boost their characters. A few chapters offered legendary items and boons more powerful than anything in the League’s single-session adventures. So aggressive players just ran the chapters with the best loot. “It was getting really bad with a certain chapter of Storm King’s Thunder and a certain ability bump from a chapter of Curse of Strahd.”

Tom resorted to asking players not to bring certain dodgy items unless the character played the majority of the hardback. Even though Tom understands that campaign rules allow players to bring any legal items, most players prove very understanding of the request.

The old treasure rules brought some perverse incentives that sometimes hurt the campaign.

League rules grant first choice of items to the character with the fewest items. This made players avoid taking fun or useful items that lacked combat power. At most tables, nobody wants the helm of comprehend languages. Driftglobes may as well be cursed. Better to wait for something that kills monsters.

I’ve seen a few characters who give up on keeping a low item count—and magic of their choosing. These players take every item other characters spurred for being unworthy of their count. If it weren’t for all their bags of holding, these collectors could never haul all their magical trinkets.

In the hardcovers, players would avoid taking a perfectly useful +1 weapon in chapter 1 so they could be guaranteed the belt of giant strength or staff of power 6 months later. Tom asks players in his campaigns to agree to allocate treasure based on rarity, so players don’t skip the useful uncommon items in hope of getting a very rare item at the end.

Characters who want to lower their magic-item count can’t just donate unwanted items. So what do you do with a +1 sword after you gain a +2 blade? The rules block giving away treasure or equipment. Even if a character destroys an item, it still counts toward total items. To unload items, players seek trades for limited-use items like Keoghtom’s ointment, the chime of opening, elemental gems, and Quaal’s feather token. Once you traded your unwanted loot for a limited-use item, you could expend the item and lower your magic item count.

In addition to changing how characters earn magic items, the upcoming league rules remove some items from the campaign. Characters with these banned items must trade them for other treasure. Many of these problematic items served the story in a hardcover and should never have left that adventure. For instance, the elemental weapons in Princes of the Apocalypse were meant to be destroyed at the adventure’s conclusion.

Some items bring role-playing baggage that prove hard for DMs to track and enforce. For example, when a character brings the mighty sword Hazirawn to a convention table, the DM may be unaware that the sentient blade acts as an non-player character, bending its owner toward evil. DMs running games for strangers have enough on their plate.

The league also removed the sentient blade Dawnbringer. While not murderous or evil, this sword brings its own role-playing challenges. Dawnbringer sheds bright sunlight, useful in battles against light-sensitive undead and drow. But if a party includes a drow, the blade might foster conflict.

Once when Tom served as DM at a convention, someone brought Dawnbringer to his table. Unfortunately, the party included a drow rogue. Unfortunately, the drow rogue brought Dawnbringer.

Some players excel at portraying the quirks and drawbacks of their items, but many just become blinded by power.

When the drow’s adult player attempted a sneak attack, Tom told him he couldn’t. Rogues can’t sneak attack while they suffer disadvantage, and Dawnbringer’s bright light imposed disadvantage on all the drow’s attacks. When the rogue tried to sneak ahead, Tom reminded him that carrying a sliver of sunlight made stealth impossible. “Fine,” the player fumed. “I’ll turn it off.” Tom reminded the player that Dawnbringer is afraid of the dark. By now, the player was seething, but he offered to leave Dawnbringer behind. Tom reminded the player that Dawnbringer suffers a fear of abandonment.

Unlike Tom, most DMs don’t know the details of every unique item in the campaign—nobody should have to. Few DMs would steadfastly enforce the drawbacks of an item in the face of a angry player—nobody should have to, but I admire Tom’s lawful DM style.

By the way, Adventurer’s League administrator Claire Hoffman had joined this session as a player. She didn’t intervene then; Tom ran the game. As the administrators discussed removing items from the campaign, I wonder if she told the tale of the drow rogue who wielded Dawnbringer.

Tom streams his online D&D sessions on Twitch and then posts them on YouTube. You can follow Tom on Twitter @d20play. For a schedule of his upcoming games, see his web page.

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Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points?

In a typical fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure, characters will reach every battle with full hit points. Healing comes too easily to enter a battle at less than full health. Above level 10 or so, spells like Aid and Heroes Feast mean parties routinely pass their day with hit point totals above their ordinary maximums.

By the time characters near level 10, few monsters inflict enough damage to seem threatening. Except for a few outliers like giants, foes lack the punch to dent characters at maximum hit points. If round of combat results in a gargoyle hitting a 90-hit-point character 6 damage, then the fight seems like a bookkeeping exercise. “At this rate, I can only survive 14 more rounds!”

The fifth-edition design limits the highest armor classes so weaker monsters can attack stronger characters and still hit on rolls less than a natural 20. This design aims to enable hordes of low-level monsters to challenge high-level characters. In practice, the hits inflict such pitiful damage that the hero would feel less pain than the bookkeeping causes to the player. It’s the pencils that suffer the most.

The obvious fix to high-level creatures and their feeble damage is to make monsters’ attacks hurt more. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea routinely makes creatures inflict maximum damage on every hit.

But what if the solution doesn’t come from the monsters? What if characters at double-digit levels just have too many hit points?

If high-level characters had fewer hit points, high-level monsters with their puny attacks would suddenly become a bit more threatening. Lower-level monsters could pose more of a threat high-level heroes without becoming too dangerous to low-level characters. High-level PCs would still rip through weak foes, but the survivors could deal enough damage to seem dangerous rather than laughable.

D&D no longer focuses entirely on dungeon crawls where characters judge when to rest based on their remaining store of hit points and spells. The game’s move to storytelling means characters often face just one fight per day. Healing comes cheap and easy, so characters start fights at full hit points. Lower hit points at high levels would suit the reality that characters enter every fight at maximum health. In more battles, foes would seem like credible opponents.

Of course, no one has ever argued that low-level characters sport too many hit points. New characters feel as fragile as soap bubbles. Before level 5, don’t get too attached to your hero. As characters near level 10, they begin to seem stout. They rarely go down in anything short of a slugfest, so they feel like superheroes, but not invulnerable.

But in double-digit levels character hit points keep rising at the same steep rate until DMs resort to letting monsters routinely deal maximum damage. D&D might play better if, somewhere around level 10, characters stopped gaining so many hit points.

When I first considered this notion, I dismissed it as too big a break from the D&D’s conventions. For nearly two decades, characters have gained a full die worth of hit points at every level.

Except for most of D&D’s history, somewhere around level 10, characters stopped gaining so many hit points.

From the original game through second edition, when D&D characters reached level 9 or so, they started gaining hit points at a much slower rate. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, fighters rising above 9th level gained 3 hit points per level with no bonus for constitution. Other classed gained even fewer points. Continuing to let characters gain a full hit die plus constitution bonus at every level defies D&D’s origins.

The original limits to hit dice served as co-creator Gary Gygax’s way of putting a soft level cap on D&D. The cap kept the game’s link to the Chainmail mass-combat rules, where the best fighters acted as “superheroes” who could match the power of 8 soldiers. Gary wanted a game where crowds of orcs or goblins could still challenge the heroes.

Admittedly, when I started playing D&D, I disliked how characters’ hit points topped out. Gary and his hit-dice tables seemed to punish players of high-level characters—especially fighters.

Although the soft cap on hit points lasted 25 years, the cap on the other perks of leveling started to disappear as soon as the first Greyhawk supplement reached gamers. While the original box topped out at 6th-level spells, Greyhawk included spells of up to 9th level. Gary never intended player characters to cast the highest-level spells, but that didn’t stop players.

By the time designers started work on third edition, they aimed to deliver perks to every class at every level from 1 to 20. The soft cap on hit points must have seemed vestigial. The designers felt the game’s math could handle a steep rise in hit points past level 10. The design abandoned any aim of making groups of low-level mooks a match for high-level heroes. Besides, a steady rise in HP made the multi-classing rules simpler.

Today’s D&D game does a fine job of awarding every class—even fighters—perks at every level. Nobody leveling into the teens gets excited about another helping of hit points. Reverting to smaller hit point advances doesn’t spoil anyone’s fun.

Fifth edition keeps levels and monsters at power levels broadly similar to those in original game. This loose compatibility makes adventures written during D&D’s first 20 years continue to work with the new edition. In theory, a DM can just swap in monster stats from the new game and play. In practice, higher-level characters have more hit points, more healing, and the creatures fail to do enough damage to keep up. Story-centered adventures make the mismatch worse.

Suppose Gary Gygax had hit points right all along. Would D&D play better if characters stopped gaining so many after level 9?

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How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games

When home computers seemed like rare gadgets, a killer app was a program so compelling that people purchased the computer just to run the application. VisiCalc became the Apple II’s killer app, and then Lotus 1-2-3 drove customers to the IBM PC.

Dungeons & Dragons came with a killer app baked in—the dungeon crawl. The dungeon provided such a powerful setting for the first role-playing game that I suspect the game’s success owes as much to this setting as to the invention of the role-playing game. (For a taste of fantasy role playing without the dungeon crawl, read my post, “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?”)

From Gauntlet to Diablo, the dungeon crawl is now such a popular video game convention that it stands as its own genre. Even folks who think tabletop games are all like Monopoly and see video games as unworthy of attention, know of Indiana Jones, the Tomb Raider movies, and the Mines of Moria. The D&D dungeon may seem conventional by now, but in the early 1970s, nothing exactly like it existed in the popular imagination.

The dungeon has developed such a huge role in popular culture that we struggle to imagine how novel and compelling dungeon crawls were 40 years ago.

In 1977, when I first overheard kids at my new school talking about Dungeons & Dragons, I managed to learn just two things about the game, but these hints electrified me. In D&D, you played a person in the game who grew in power through experience, and you explored dungeons filled with monsters, hidden secrets, and treasures—often magical. I went home, opened the yellow pages, and called countless hobby shops in Chicagoland, searching for one that stocked this astounding game. When I finally located a copy at the distant Hill’s Hobby, I coaxed my mom into providing a ride—but not until the weekend. Still excited, but facing a torturous wait, I sat down with some graph paper and speculated on how a game of dungeon exploration might play.

My enthusiasm was not unique. The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Dave Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit. Dave Megarry of the Blackmoor game wanted to capture the dungeon experience during Arneson’s down time, so he created the Dungeon! board game.

Even when the first role-playing games left medieval fantasy, they kept dungeons or sites that played like dungeons.

Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.”

Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

Dra'k'ne Station

Dra’k’ne Station

Traveller (1977) brought an entire universe to play in, but for years all the game’s published adventures featured derelict space ships, alien and abandoned research stations, and other location-based adventures resembling dungeons in space.

  • Dra’k’ne Station (1979) is “a vast alien research station hollowed out of an asteroid…still protected by its automated defense systems and one surviving alien.”
  • Darthanon Queen (1980) consists of deck plans for a 600 ton merchant ship along with a crew and a passenger roster. The adventure suggests a few scenarios to stage on the ship, including one cribbed from Alien.
  • Adventure 2: Research Station Gamma (1980) describes an arctic laboratory that players must infiltrate.
  • Adventure 3: Twilight’s Peak (1980) takes characters to a location with “many of the elements of a haunted house,” and then to an alien base complex.
Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

The dungeon crawl offers several essential advantages:

  • Ease of play – The dungeon’s walls limited options, making the game master’s job manageable. In a Gamespy interview Arneson said, “Dungeon crawls were, I think, the easiest things to set up because all you had to do was draw a grid map and didn’t have to worry about the great outdoors and setting up trees and stuff. People also couldn’t go wandering off where you didn’t have a map because it was solid rock.” More than anything, the wide-open space of Traveller drove designers to attempt to duplicate the dungeon experience in space.
  • Group play – Dungeon exploration provided an activity for a party with divergent skills. A host of role-playing games ranging from Chivalry & Sorcery to every spy game ever struggled to find reasons for characters to work together.
  • Obstacles – Dungeons provided an excuse for monsters, tricks, and traps. Their inevitably-insane architects gave dungeon masters free reign to create a funhouse environment.
  • Goals – The treasure underground gave a reason to explore, and a gave players a common goal.
  • Flavor – Dungeons provided an evocative setting full of secrets and ripe for exploration. For me, the most evocative illustration in the blue box was the underground cross section. I wanted to crack the mysteries of just such an underground complex.

Nowadays, some D&D players dislike dungeon crawls and that’s fine. Forty-some years of evolution have taken D&D to villages, forests, palaces, and across the planes of the great wheel. Dungeon masters no longer prepare for play by following the instructions from the 1974 brown books. “First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his ‘underworld.’” If you dislike dungeons you can still like D&D. (If you don’t like dungeons or dragons, then you probably just play to seem cool.)

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How to Get D&D Players to Make Unforgettable Character Introductions That Take a Minute or Less

Whenever I serve as a dungeon master for strangers at conventions, I learn things that improve my game. But the games where I play Dungeons & Dragons teach me too.

I try to start convention games by giving players a chance to introduce their characters, but sometimes I forget. Not long ago, my lapse hardly seemed to matter. Most character introductions seem forgettable anyway. If you’ve seen one 6th-level barbarian, you’ve seen them all, right? Would anyone notice if I skipped the routine and let the characters reveal themselves in play?

Yes. Playing taught me that I notice.

This year at the Origins Game Fair, I played in several D&D games where the DM skipped character introductions.

In these sessions, learning about the party members could take hours. In my mind’s eye, I would fight alongside faceless placeholders, learning nothing more than that they rolled a hit and scored damage. Three hours in, someone would volunteer to heal and their placeholder would reveal a class. Only by the end of the slot would my comrades in arms come into focus.

I missed the character introductions.

Still, introductions where everyone just recites name, race, and class hardly seem worth the time. I won’t remember those labels, and I suspect names disappear from other players’ memory as quickly as they slip mine.

Instead of stating names, give each player a note card to fold into a tent. Have the players write their character’s name, race, and class on each side. Now everyone can see each character’s essentials.

These race-class descriptions give nothing to inspire interaction between characters, so consider asking players to write one more detail—something visual that invites interaction. I suggest asking players to write one aspect of your character that people can see and that someone might find curious. “During the idle moments at the table, your character may want to ask their companions about these unusual features.”

Before your game, make a sample tent that shows the format you want.

A good spoken introduction presents a character so vividly that it proves unforgettable. It reveals a hook that invites interaction with the character. And it shows a character quickly enough to leave time for 5 or 6 other introductions, plus time to actually play the game.

I’ve wondered how ask players to make such a strong, brief introduction in the moments available. By Origins, I knew the answer. When I played at Teos Abadia’s table at Winter Fantasy, he demonstrated an elegant technique. He asks players to think of the opening credits of 80s TV shows like the A-Team or T.J. Hooker. These sequences show each character in action, and then end with a name flashed across the screen. Teos asks each player to describe their D&D character in such a montage. “Players get concept because they’ve seen those kind of TV shows, and usually they’ll do something that’s really cool.” The format encourages players to describe brief, vivid scenes that demonstrate what makes their character special. To prompt ideas, ask a question like, “Describe a moment from another adventure when your character used their talents to save the day.” The scene doesn’t have to come from game play. Montages can pull clips from later in the season or unaired pilots.

As players first reach your table, and before they even unpack dice, start them thinking about their character’s introduction. Most players appreciate a few minutes to dream up their scene.

Begin the introductions with a player who shows signs a being an enthusiastic role player. Choose the person who brought their own table tent complete with a character portrait, or who already told a story about their character, or just seems outgoing.

If you can spare extra time for introductions and want to encourage interaction, make a second turn around the table where players tell how their character knows another party member. In a post on encouraging role playing, I recommended having players invent a reason their character feels loyalty, friendship, or trust toward another character at the table. Among strangers gathering for a 4-hour game, this seems like a daunting exercise. Instead, ask each player to explain why they trust that another character can help the party. Reluctant players can just restate something revealed during the cinematic montage, but the word “trust” leaves room for enthusiastic role players to invent deeper bonds.

For more from Teos on character introductions, see his post Using Cinematic Montages in RPGs, and this appearance on NewbieDM’s Minicast.

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D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose

In the original Dungeons & Dragons game, ordinary monster attacks inflicted just 1d6 damage. Yet characters still died, frequently. Clerics gained far fewer spells and much less healing than today, so most damage took a trip out of the dungeon to heal. Heroes mounted dungeon expeditions, fought as many battles as they dared, and then hoped their mapper could lead them to safety and healing.

To threaten full-strength characters in a climactic fight, monsters needed unique attacks that did massive damage, like a dragon’s breath weapon, or save-or-die effects like a beholder’s eye rays.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons granted clerics more healing spells, so characters entered more fights at full hit points, but damage still taxed resources that only a rest could regain. If the cleric squandered spells on something other than cures, the party hollered.

Third edition changed that equation. Without anyone ever needing to rest for spells or healing, characters could regain all their hit points after every fight.

A 2nd-level character who had gained the 900gp of treasure recommended in the Dungeon Master’s Guide could buy a 50-charge Wand of Cure Light Wounds for 750gp. At 2nd level, the party might share the cost. In just a few levels, characters gained enough gold to make buying in bulk a minor expense. Of course, dungeon masters could limit the purchase, but by 5th level, PCs stopped needing a magic shop. A cleric could take the Craft Wands feat and make wands at half price.

Third edition’s Living Greyhawk organized-play campaign enabled PCs to craft and purchase healing wands. Most characters bought Wands of Cure Light Wounds and loaned them to the party cleric for healing between battles.

In a standard third-edition campaign, savvy characters stopped needing rest to recover hit points.

Third edition’s designers probably overlooked how the low cost of healing wands would erase D&D’s 25-year-old limits on hit points and healing. The fourth-edition designers noticed. Their edition kept magic healing available for purchase, but also limited healing between rests. Rested characters gained a limited number of healing surges, and then healing magic let characters trade surges for healing. For example, healing potions just let characters spend a surge in the heat of battle. Fourth edition’s treatment of hit points and healing ranks as one of the edition’s best innovations.

At a glance, fifth edition seemed to keep D&D’s tradition of limiting hit points and healing between rests. This presumed limit made the introduction of the spell Healing Spirit seem like a game breaker. With a mere 2nd-level spell, everyone in the party could regain 10d6 hit points in just 1 minute. Casting at higher levels increases the healing, so a 3rd-level spirit could restore 20d6 to every PC in the party.

Blogger Merric Blackman summarized the concerns, “One of the major objections to the healing spirit spell is that it turns all the assumptions of hit point recovery in 5E on their head; suddenly we’re in a 3E-style game of ‘hit point loss isn’t important’ rather than the 5E-style of ‘hit point lost drains resources.’”

While Healing Spirit outshines other out-of-combat healing spells so much that druids need sunscreen, the spell doesn’t shatter any standing limits on healing. When the Player’s Handbook offered healing potions for sale for 50gp, the fifth-edition rules freed characters of any need to rest for healing or hit points. Unlike in early D&D, characters can buy potions. Unlike in fourth edition, potions work without a limit imposed by healing surges. Characters who gain a typical amount of treasure can easily afford all the potions they need. Most PCs gain tons of gold and have nowhere else to spend it.

Savvy characters can recover hit points without ever resting.

Dungeon masters who want to capture D&D’s original limits on hit points and healing between rests need to limit both healing potions and Healing Spirit. Such limits restore hit points and healing as a resource to manage through an adventuring day.

If you want to keep healing potions readily available for 50gp each, I suggest adopting a version of the fourth-edition limit: Drinking a potion lets characters spend a Hit Die for healing as if they had rested. To avoid doses that just heal a point or two, make potions heal an extra 1d4 hit points per Hit Die spent. Stronger potions spend more Hit Dice. With this house rule, make stronger healing potions for sale at higher prices. Although these potions spend hit dice, they still bring the advantage of granting healing in the heat of battle.

Potion of Healing
Potion, rarity varies

When you drink this potion, you spend hit dice up to the maximum listed on the Potions of Healing table. For each Hit Die spent in this way, the player rolls the die plus an extra 1d4, and then adds the character’s Constitution modifier to the rolls. The character regains hit points equal to the total.

Whatever its potency, the potion’s red liquid glimmers when agitated.

Potions of Healing

Potion of … Cost Spend up to …
Healing 50gp 1 Hit Die
Healing Moderate Wounds 300gp 2 Hit Dice
Healing Serious Wounds  750gp 3 Hit Dice
Healing Critical Wounds  1400gp 4 Hit Dice

Potions of Greater Healing, Superior Healing, and Supreme Healing can remain unchanged as long as they keep their rarity and only appear in treasure. These potions bring the precious advantage of healing without costing Hit Dice.

James Haeck listed a couple of house rules for limited Healing Spirit. For instance, designer Jeremy Crawford suggests having the spell end once it restores hit points a number of times equal to twice the caster’s spellcasting ability modifier.

Of course, none of these house rules apply to organized play. Authors who write adventures for the Adventurers League should expect characters to enter every fight at full health and to never run short of healing between battles.

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