Four Essential Qualities of a 4-Hour Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

Running adventures by other authors has raised my Dungeons & Dragons game. As a dungeon master for organized play, I have prepared adventures that seemed like duds. Sometimes, at the table, I followed an author’s script and saw that their adventure worked despite my concerns. When I had little experience with adventures other than my own dungeons, I found lots of pleasant surprises. I learned a lot.

Those surprises happen less often now. I feel confident judging which 4 elements I always want in something like a 4-hour Adventurers League session.

I have the voice of authority to back me up. The book Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games by Lawrence Schick includes a list of adventure tips from legendary designer Jennell Jaquays. Goodman Games publisher Joseph Goodman listed advice for penning a good adventures to accompany How to Write Adventures that Don’t Suck. This post features select tips from the experts’ lists. Believe them.

All 4 qualities in my list resist easy adjustments at the table. This post’s draft included, “Give it the villains a fighting chance,” but I cut it. If an adventure puts a beholder in a tiny room where the heroes can make it into a piñata, I can adjust at the table. If an adventure fails to include a variety of challenges, only a rewrite will help.

In every 4-hour adventure, I want 4 qualities:

1. A variety of challenges. This ranks as my number 1 by a wide margin. Typical D&D groups bring varied tastes, and few players like 4 hours of the same. Any session should include (1) a social scene, (2) a combat encounter, and either (3a) a thinking problem or (3b) a secret to investigate.

To qualify, the social scene must start with a goal and pose an obstacle. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure. Social scenes that dump purposeless characters into a banquet or marketplace confound most players.

“Make sure some role-playing interaction with other sentient beings is necessary for success.” – Jaquays

A typical 4-hour adventure features two or three battles, and I like variety in the combat encounters. When I ran the D&D Encounters program and saw the adventure for a new season, I eagerly scanned the pages, noting which monsters would appear. A variety of foes excited me. (I remain easily amused.)

At Gen Con 2017, I ran adventures set on the streets of Hillsfar. Typically, city adventures suffer from recurrent fights against thugs, thieves, and assassins. Same fight, different alley. The authors of this Hillsfar series imagined ways to pit players against a variety of monsters, and that made me happy.

“Pace it well. Long, tiresome combats should be followed by quick rooms. Thought-provoking puzzles should be followed by bloodbaths. Slow, trap-filled hallways should be followed by a rousing fight.” – Goodman

2. A fast start. When players sit for an organized-play adventure, their characters land in the the adventure too. I like adventures that speed through the chore of getting the characters to agree to the mission their players already accepted. DDEX03-14 Death on the Wall by Greg Marks includes a favorite hook: Someone fleeing pursuit dumps a pack containing a message on the characters. Bang! We’re off!

“Always begin a new adventure with action: a fight, a chase, a breathtaking escape, a witnessed crime, and so on.” – Jaquays

Nothing vexes me more than an adventure that challenges players to uncover the secret of their goal for the adventure.

Most organized-play adventure hooks should also promise a reward in gold early on. Not all characters aim to do good or to seek adventure. Players will take adventures without seeing the rewards ahead, but on behalf of their characters, they still wonder why are we doing this?

“Maintain a ‘cut to the chase’ feeling—start with a bang and get to the action fast.” – Goodman

Some critics argue that starting an adventure with a fight ranks as a cliché. Ignore them. For many D&D players, the game only starts when they start rolling dice. At my weekly D&D game, the kids can sit without a battle, but at least one parent pines for action. (Not me. Well, not just me.)

3. A choice. Players accept that a 4-hour time limit leaves no room for open worlds, but when an adventure shunts the party through a fixed sequence of scenes, players notice—and they grumble. Every adventure should feature an option that leaves players wondering what would have happened if we had….

I love DDEX2-13 The Howling Void by Teos Abadia and DDEX03-15 Szith Morcane Unbound by Robert Adducci for offering players unusual freedom. Both also demand more from a DM than a typical session. Some overwhelmed convention DMs bridle at the prospect of prepping many encounters that may not occur.

In practice, just a couple of choices satisfy players. But avoid false choices that could lead to the same scene. Players should know enough about their options to expect a different outcome from each possibility. See Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?

4. A dash of the fantastic. In D&D, authors sometimes reserve the mind-bending fantasy for high-level characters. But I like every adventure—even that 1st-level strike against bandits—to include a fantastic element. Have the goblins uncovered some lost bit of magic that lets them do something wondrous?

I remember a D&D adventure that relied on a bomb as a threat, and how that made me sad. In the fantastic world of D&D, could the most interesting threat really be a bomb? I turned the bomb into a magical box that opened a door to the spirit world and lured vengeful souls onto the material plane.

Not all the fantastic elements need to be dangerous or useful. Interesting trinkets and strange phenomena can create the same wonder. The magic fountain feels tired by now, but you can create fresh wonders that put enhantment into your world.

“Convey a sense of the fantastic. Convey this through encounters, descriptions, and most importantly, magic. The fantastic is what makes D&D so much fun, and that has to come across in the adventure.” – Goodman

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D&D Adds Psionics: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

While editing the third Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Eldrich Wizardry, Tim Kask developed D&D’s first rules for psionics. He loved psionic combat and threw his enthusiasm into the task.

His rules answered D&D’s biggest critics. First, they stood separate from unrealistic notions of class and level. Second, they adopted a point system similar to the spell points touted by critics of Vancian casting.

Kask balanced and tested psionics to perfection. But when Eldrich Wizardry and its new psionics rules reached fans, some liked the topic, but few liked the rules.

Few players cared to learn the intricacies of psionic combat with all its tables and charts. Some players liked adding the extra powers onto their characters, but hardly any DMs allowed psionic characters in their game. The new rules mostly ignored D&D’s system of class and levels. They unbalanced play.

Tim Kask balanced psionics for a setting where intellect devourers, brain moles, cerebral parasites and other creatures sensed psionic users and sought them as prey. He loved psionics and imagined a game-world that fostered mental duels against psychic creatures.

In practice, nobody played D&D Tim’s way.

Psionics suffered from more than imbalance. Psionics grafted an complicated new game onto D&D. Virtually nothing in the new rules resembled rules already in D&D. By creating rules that answered D&D’s critics, Kask created rules that failed to match the rest of the game.

Role-playing games without character classes and with spell points can work brilliantly in a game like Runequest (1978), but the incompatible rules fared badly in D&D.

Perhaps the failure of psionics taught Gary Gygax some things.

In the July 1978 issue of The Dragon, Gygax would defend D&D’s character classes from critics. “If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character. Not only would this destroy the variety of the game, but it would also kill the game, for the super-character would soon have nothing left to challenge him or her, and the players would grow bored and move on to something which was fun.”

Gygax also defended Vancian casting against point-based systems. “Spell points add nothing to D&D except more complication, more record keeping, more wasted time, and a precept which is totally foreign to the rest of the game.”

Now, game designer see value in keeping game rules concise and applying a simple rules broadly. Fifth-edition designer Mike Mearls wrote, “You’re more likely to introduce elegance to a game by removing something than by adding it.” But in 1975, folks were still figuring out RPG design. So designers like Kask felt free to graft a psionics game onto D&D. Whenever Kask talks psionics now, he explains that he would design them differently.

Even as Eldrich Wizardry went to press, I suspect Gygax understood some points he would argue later. So why did Gygax open D&D to a psionics system that ignored classes and that used points? Because during the development of Eldrich Wizardry, Gygax still held to his a long habit of collaboration. If a collaborator like Tim Kask felt passion for some addition to the game, Gygax opened the way. Many of these “official” rules never entered Gary’s Greyhawk game. Still, he welcomed other dungeon masters to pick and choose, to shape their own games. (Over time, Gygax would become more protective of D&D’s rules. For much more on his evolving attitudes, see Basic and Advanced—Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions.)

Psionics became unpopular because it added 70s parapsychology and an entirely different sub-game onto D&D. The concept only lasted because the notion of psychic powers resonated with players.

In the years to come, designers found ways to make psionics at home in D&D. They would integrate psychic powers into settings like Dark Sun, and they would express psionics using D&D’s core rules. For example, when David “Zeb” Cook updated psionics for 2nd edition, he created a mental version of THAC0. Potential psionic rules for 5th edition use character classes and even revive the name of Steve Marsh’s Mystic class.

Gary Gygax experimented with psionic characters to offer players a defense against the terrible power of mind flayers. Eventually, his original justification for psionics moved from the real world into the game world. In 4th edition lore, psionics manifested in the prime material plane to help its inhabitants battle intruders from the Far Realm—intruders like mind flayers.

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How Psionics Accommodated D&D’s Critics

In 1966, Gary Gygax fielded a personal ad in the General seeking gaming opponents. He included the line, “Will cooperate on game design.” In the years to follow, Gygax proved a zealous collaborator. Aside from teaming with other designers, he wrote a flood of articles proposing variants and additions to existing games. In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax brought the same spirit to D&D. He published rules and ideas from the gamers in his circle, and figured that players could use what suited their game. In the Blackmoor supplement, Gygax wrote, “All of it is, of course, optional, for the premise of the whole game system is flexibility and personalization within the broad framework of the rules.”

D&D owes its psionics rules to this spirit.

Just after D&D’s publication, future-TSR-designer Steve Marsh started corresponding with Gygax. Marsh sent many of the aquatic monsters that would appear in the Blackmoor supplement. Also, he proposed a Mystic character class based on the mental powers attributed to Indian mystics. Always the collaborator, Gygax saved the class for later attention.

Gary credited this cover with inspiring the mind flayer

D&D’s psionics started with the mind flayer, which first saw print in Strategic Review #1 in spring of 1975. The creature’s mind blast sent a “wave of PSI force” that could easily incapacitate a party. The monster terrified players. TSR employee Tim Kask recalls, “monsters with psionic powers like Mind Flayers were too horrible even in a fantasy game as they wielded an unstoppable weapon.”

The mind flayer’s power inspired Gygax to draft a countermeasure. “I should have left well enough alone; but no!” Gygax experimented with mental powers for D&D. He created a Divine class that boasted psionic attacks and defenses, and then sent the class to players in his circle.

“I soon hated the whole business, but Len Lakofka and his group in Chicago loved the concept,” Gygax wrote, “and Tim was enthused about the addition as well.”

“Yes, I probably lobbied for their inclusion in AD&D,” Kask recalled. “No, Gary did not love them as I did. But he was wise enough to know that for D&D to continue the phenomenal growth, we had to offer stuff that others might like even if one or more of us didn’t.”

The classes from Gygax and Marsh both reached a big bowl where Gygax collected ideas for D&D. When Tim Kask earned the job of editing D&D’s next supplement, Eldrich Wizardry, he took the bowl.

Gygax’s Divine class (and author Sterling Lanier) provided the notion of psionic attack and defense modes. Marsh’s Mystic class inspired the psionic abilities. Marsh also took the blame for denying elves psi powers. “I was 5’2” at the time and built like a wrestler, because I was a wrestler, and had more sympathy with dwarves than elves.”

Kask brought an enthusiasm. He wanted psionics to inject a new vigor in the game. In Eldrich Wizardry, he explained the goal. “The introduction of psionic combat is bound to enliven games grown stagnant. It opens up untold possibilities for both players and the DM, and in so doing recognizes one of the favorite topics of science fiction and fantasy writers: the unknown powers of the mind.”

When Tim Kask devised the psionics rules, he made two decisions that seemed to answer D&D’s biggest critics.

Critics disparaged D&D’s class system as unrealistic and confining. Rather than limit psionic abilities to a class, Kask separated psionics from D&D’s classes. Anyone could be psionic (except for elves). Steve Marsh recalls, “I wanted a character class, but [Tim Kask] decided that the abilities belonged available to everyone.”

To D&D’s critics, the process of memorizing and forgetting spells seemed unrealistic. They argued for a spell point system. Rather than patterning psionics after D&D’s spell casting system, Kask adopted a point system.

Separating psionics from D&D’s system of class and level threatened to create overpowered characters. Kask saw this potential and worked to inject balance. Characters who added psionics paid a price. Fighters gave up strength and potential followers, magic users lost spells, and so on.

None of these drawbacks fully offset power of psionics, so Kask added a second disadvantage. Intellect devourers, brain moles, cerebral parasites and other creatures sensed psionic users and sought them as prey. When dungeon masters single out psionic characters as targets for attack, the game becomes balanced.

The mental combat system added another new element to D&D. “I LOVED psionic combat and had great fun devising it with all of its tables and charts,” Kask recalls.

“I hammered and twisted those psionic rules forever, and inflicted play-testing on the gang until they got sick of them.”

So Tim Kask created psionic rules that answered D&D’s biggest critics, rules that he tested to perfection. What could possibly go wrong?

Next: Psionics: What could possibly go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: How psionics accommodated D&D’s critics

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

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

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

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

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

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

That good DM must think he’s so great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Could be Better than Wandering Monsters?

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

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

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

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

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

Make random encounters better

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

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

Wandering monsters in G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

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

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

Prepare random encounters in advance

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

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

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

Real time pressure

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

Beyond wandering monsters

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

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

Organized resistance

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

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

Scheduled movements

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

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

The lazy way to pressure dungeon explorers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wandering monsters made dungeons work

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping time

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

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

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

Wandering monsters work better when they remain only a threat

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

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

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

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

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

Action and D&D’s social contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: What could be better than wandering monsters?

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

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

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

Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword 1971 edition

Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword 1971 edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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