Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

Dungeons & Dragons makes ability checks a key part of play, but these checks took years to enter the game. How did ability checks advance from house rule, to optional rule, to a foundation of fifth-edition D&D?

Before D&D added ability checks, players found a style that mostly avoided a need for such rolls. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. Even so, characters tried things that the rules didn’t cover. For many of these actions, success or failure hinged on a character’s ability scores. Gary Gygax told dungeon masters to guess the odds of success and roll for it. But DMs and players wanted more consistency and less guessing.

In 1976, issue 1 of The Dragon printed “How to Use Non-Prime-Requisite Character Attributes” by Wesley D. Ives. The article proposes a sort of ability check before anyone coined a name for it.

This first ability check suffers from a mechanic so baroque that it reads like a gag.

To determine an action’s success, perform these actions:

  1. Roll d100, add the ability score, and then use this result to determine which die to roll in step 2. On a result of 1-20 roll a d4; on 21-40 roll d6; on 41-60 roll d8; 61-80: d10; 81-100: d12. To cope with results higher than 100, create a house rule for this house rule.
  2. Roll the die determined in step 1 and multiply the number by the attribute. This result becomes the chance of success.
  3. Roll a d100. If the result is less than or equal to the probability from step 2, you succeed!

The method requires three rolls, multiplication of double-digit numbers, and a table. But if that seems too simple, the article offers optional rules accounting for character level and class. All this yields an outcome barely more realistic than a coin flip.

To settle on an ability-check mechanic that required so much fuss, the author must have seen checks as a rare undertaking.

Despite the tortured mechanic, the idea of ability check marks a major innovation. None of the few role-playing games available in 1976 featured anything like the concept. In a few years, every RPG would build on the idea.

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1978), Gary invented a playable ability check for the Dig spell. “Any creature at the edge (1’) of such a pit uses its dexterity score as a saving throw to avoid falling into the hole, with a score equal to or less than the dexterity meaning that a fall was avoided.

By the late 70s, the method found in the Dig spell turned into common house rule: To make an ability check, players tried to roll under an attribute on a d20.

The 1980 D&D basic rules by Tom Moldvay made this house rule official. “The DM may want to base a character’s chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.

Meanwhile, other role playing games advanced the state of the art. Traveller (1977) introduced skills and a single mechanic for skill checks. Runequest (1978) boasted skills and “attribute rolls” that multiplied an ability by 5 to set a percentage chance of success.

In games with skills, the skills cover most tasks a player might attempt, so ability checks blur into skill checks. Fifth edition intentionally makes skills an addition to ability checks.

For AD&D, Gygax showed little interest in ability checks. Improvised rulings worked fine for him. (When the DM is E. Gary Gygax, no player quibbles with a ruling.)

As for skills, Gygax preferred to keep D&D’s class archetypes pure. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but the narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes. Oriental Adventures (1985) extended the concept to create non-weapon proficienciesskills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities.

After Gary left TSR in 1985, his successors on the AD&D team lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. Nonetheless, their additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

Ability checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success.

The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, but suffered a few drawbacks:

  • Class abilities already covered most of a character’s actions, so non-weapon proficiencies rarely came up in play.
  • The phrase “non-weapon proficiency” proved unwieldy. The term evolved from Gary’s own work on D&D, but it forced a lot of extra syllables on players just to avoid contaminating D&D with anything called skills.
  • Roll-under ability checks confused players and designers.

For D&D’s other d20 rolls, players aimed high, but for ability checks they aimed low. This simple difference fostered confusion. The original ability-check rule said, “The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.” That meant a bonus subtracted from the roll—an ugly break from intuition.

A cleaner method adds the bonus to the attribute, so players roll under a higher number.

By now, some Internet critics might scoff at my notion that adding roll-under checks to D&D confused people. I imagine an argument heaping contempt on idiots who clearly lack the intellectual capacity for RPGs. Go back to Candyland. Who would let roll-under checks trip them up?

The D&D team at TSR.

Sometime during playtesting, the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide apparently switched its method of applying modifiers, but the book reached print with an incomplete change. The “Sage Advice” column in Dragon issue 118 tried to sort out the mess. “OK, OK, OK, already! You’re right—there is something wrong with the DSG non-weapon proficiency system.

We went through the manuscript and thought we had caught all the places where the text needed to be changed. We missed a couple of simple ones, and this caused a tremendous problem in the system.

TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included a corrected version of non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary.

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained leeway to correct old drawbacks. Ability checks flipped so players aimed for high rolls. Skills embraced the actions characters actually did in the game. And no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

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A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons includes three types of d20 rolls: saving throws, attack rolls, and ability checks. Saves and attacks come from the original game, but ability checks first got a name 12 years later. Ability checks began as an obscure rule where players tried to roll low on a d20. In second edition, the rule for ability checks only appears as one paragraph in the glossary. Today’s style of check finally arrived in 2000.

Modern D&D players make ability checks throughout the game, so a D&D game without checks seems stunted. But before ability checks, D&D players found a style that mostly avoided a need for such rolls.

In A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, Matthew J. Finch describes this original style. “The players can describe any action, without needing to look at a character sheet to see if they ‘can’ do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens.

You don’t have a ‘spot’ check to let you notice hidden traps and levers, you don’t have a ‘bluff’ check to let you automatically fool a suspicious city guardsman, and you don’t have a ‘sense motive’ check to tell you when someone’s lying to your character. You have to tell the referee where you’re looking for traps and what buttons you’re pushing. You have to tell the referee whatever tall tale you’re trying to get the city guardsman to believe. You have to decide for yourself if someone’s lying to your character or telling the truth.

To players who still favor D&D’s early versions, the lack of ability checks counts as a feature. Faced with an challenge, players must observe and interact with the game world. Instead of scanning their character sheet for solutions, players rely on their wits and ingenuity. Without checks, the game tests player skill more than character stats.

The absence of checks encouraged dungeon masters to assume that characters brought enough competence to succeed at ordinary tasks. For example, if characters wanted to bind a prisoner, they tied him up. But in third edition, characters relied on Use Rope skill, which often painted heroes as ridiculously inept at knots. I once played a convention game where a DM stretched Use Rope failures into hours of tiresome gaming. DMs can always skip a check for a simple task, but the presence of a skill tended to encourage checks.

Early characters could tie knots and they found pits by tapping on the floor with a 10-foot pole, but they still attempted actions that defied common-sense resolutions.

In the original game, common tests of an ability each brought a separate rule. To see if characters perceived a secret door, the dungeon master rolled a d6. Typical feats of strength relied on two different mechanics: Bending bars and lifting gates required a percentage roll, but bashing doors required a d6 roll.

If a situation came less frequently, the game offered no rules. So how could a dungeon master decide whether a character crossed a tight rope?

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax describes his approach. “Allow the dice to control the situation. This can be done by assigning reasonable probability to an event and then letting the player dice to see if he or he can make that percentage.” Gygax made up rulings on the spot to suit whatever seemed “correct and logical.”

This approach led to the jumble of the original D&D rules. Faced with a game situation, Gygax tended to invent a roll that settled the outcome. If the situation came up enough, the method become a rule.

Many dungeon masters felt uncomfortable embracing Gary’s improvisation. D&D players frequently try things that test a characters’ ability scores, and DMs wanted a fair and easy way to decide the outcome. Their players wanted consistency too. Rules become the laws of physics in the game world. If a rule exists for an action, players understand how it’s resolved and their chance of success. Players enjoy that transparency.

The first ability check mechanic reached print in 1976, but ability checks would take decades to become a foundation of D&D.

Next: Ability checks—from the worst design in role-playing game history to a foundation of D&D.

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Running Scenes and Summaries that Invite Choices and Reveal Characters

My last post explained how scenes and summaries allow game masters to speed past uneventful time in the game world and focus on the action. This post offers more advice on running scenes and doing summaries.

Running a scene

Before starting a scene, you need two essential ingredients: (1) characters with a goal and (2) an obstacle that stands in their way.

To start a scene, set the scene. Describe the time and place. Make the description vivid. Finish your description with the thing that will spur the players to action. In a classic Dungeons & Dragons game, the call to action comes from the monster in the room. Mention the monster last, because otherwise your players will plan their attack and ignore your description of the bas-relief, the incense, and the patter of dipping liquid.

A monster will launch some scenes into motion, but other triggers could be the duchess asking why the characters intruded on her battle council, birds crowding the rooftops to silently watch the players, or anything that invites players to act. A good call to action hardly needs the usual follow up question: “What do you want to do?” Nonetheless, characters might ignore the call. The party might see the gathering flocks as a threat, or the druid might want to have words, or perhaps they count the birds as an omen and move on.

The rules of most role-playing games dwell on the scenes, leaving little need for more explanation.

How to do a summary

A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time. It begins when the scene ends—when players look at the scene’s outcome and decide what to do next. Often, they choose a goal that carries them to their next scene.

During a scene, the players’ choices tend to focus on overcoming an immediate obstacle. But during a summary, the players’ choices tend to drive the adventure. If players pass too many summaries without a choice to make, your game may start feeling like a railroad.

In a summary, damage is healed, resources replenished, and so on. Players can describe as much of the activity as the game master.

“We go to the docks and find the captain of the Salt Mist, and then hire her to sail north to the City of Sails. Does anything happen along the way?”

“No. After 3 days at sea, you dock in Luskan on the Open Shore.”

If the passage of time presents new developments that might change the players’ plans, then mention the events and give players a chance to interrupt the tale and make new choices. Perhaps something happens on route. “On your second day at sea, you spot a thick column of smoke rising from inland, just beyond a hill.”

You might remind the players what makes their new options interesting. “As you talk about investigating, the captain seems too willing to put you ashore, and you suspect she may be eager to leave you behind.”

When a summary takes players someplace new, add enough description to give the flavor of the experience, and a sense of the passing time.

A summary can include colorful moments that inspire players to act in character. For example, if the party spots a live stag with an arrow in its flank, does the druid heal the beast, or does the ranger finish it and host a feast? Such moments usually lack the ingredients of a scene, but they offer hooks that let players reveal their characters.

Accelerating the pace

When a summary covers familiar ground, shorten the narrative. That first journey to the City of Splendors deserves some color. The third can pass in a sentence.

As players approach their ultimate goal and the climax of the adventure, they will lose patience for long summaries. When adventurers first reach Barovia, players may enjoy stately trips from town to town. But when the party stands ready to confront Strahd, cut directly to the gates of Ravenloft.

A cut eliminates all the narrative between scenes. The players might say, “We want to question the longshoreman to see if anyone saw the Salt Mist.”

“Okay, now you’re in the Siren’s Call as the place fills with thirsty roughnecks.”

Cuts rush past the flavor of the game world, and short circuit the players’ chances to make choices. Early in a campaign, avoid cutting between scenes.

Near the end of a long campaign, cuts grow more welcome. When few choices remain and when players feel eager for the story to reach a climax, cuts accelerate the pace.

Letting players take the narrative

In How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke, I talked about how the GM bears responsibility for the game’s challenge. Often, a GM must control the narrative so players face meaningful obstacles. But in a summary, no obstacles block the characters’ progress. This makes a summary the ideal time to let players tell their characters’ tales. For example, if the players spend 10 days waiting on town, ask each player for their character’s story of the downtime.

At the end of the adventure, when the characters return to the town they saved, let them tell of their hero’s welcome. Who celebrated with the fetching Sheriff? Or maybe keep that to yourself. This is a family table.

During a summary, when players take the narrative, characters gain chances to reveal their personalities. Plus, you get a break while they do the talking. That’s how you win at Dungeons & Dragons.

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How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure

This started as a post on pacing until I checked other game masters’ advice on pacing and discovered that nobody discussed the same topic. Some “pacing” advice helps GMs run at a brisk tempo. For that, see my posts on initiative, delegation, and how to end a battle. Some explained story beats, dramatic tension, and the three act structure. I’m not clever enough to finesse such narratives without my players noticing a loss of freedom.

So this post covers scenes and summaries.

Have you seen the image that explains Dungeons & Dragons as the game where a 3-hour walk takes 5 minutes, but a 5-minute battle takes 3 hours? That sentence tells the difference between scene and summary.

Game mastering advice rarely talks about scene and summary because game masters tend to manage the two by feel. Mostly, feel works okay, but often not. Although scenes feature the game’s excitement, dull role-playing sessions start when a GM tries to make a scene from time that should pass in summary. On the other hand, a bad summary makes player feel rushed and railroaded.

Scene

In a role-playing game, scenes focus attention on the times when players fight a battle, talk to an non-player character, or search a chest for secret compartments. In a role-playing game session, scenes show all the action. During scenes, players make every decision for their characters. In combat scenes, game time expands so players can focus on small decisions and use the game rules to determine outcomes.

Summary

A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time. Summary speeds past the times when players travel a safe road, search a library, or collect a reward from a patron.

A good summary leaves players with a sense of passing events and with chances to pause and make decisions. During a summary, characters heal damage, tally and replenish resources, weigh their options, and make the choices that lead to the next scene.

When to run a scene

To start, a scene needs two ingredients: characters with a goal and an obstacle that stands in their way.

Goals

The classic D&D scene starts with the goal of treasure and the obstacle of a dragon. Sometimes, monsters attack and the party goal becomes to survive. (In those cases, especially, think about the monsters’ goal. See Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want.) The most interesting encounters often feature a goal different from kill all the monsters.

A goal needs enough stakes to merit a scene. If the party goes to the fletcher for arrows, the chance to save a few silver hardly calls for a negotiation scene.

Typically, role-playing scenes combine a goal of gaining help or information, with the obstacle of an uncooperative non-player character.

When characters lack a goal and a GM launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering they are supposed to do. See A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.

Obstacles

The obstacle in a role playing scene comes from any NPC reluctant to help anyone who asks. For help creating the obstacles needed for compelling role-playing scenes, see 22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.

A true obstacle must bring a chance of failure. If players face a locked wooden door, but they have unlimited time and an axe, the door fails as an obstacle. On the other hand, if the crash of an axe into boards could bring monsters, players face a dilemma and the scene has an obstacle.

Exploration

When players explore, they have a goal—perhaps only find the treasure—but they may face unknown obstacles. The unseen hazards make the players’ choices important and make the exploration work as a scene. If a scene continues for too long with unknown obstacles, players may lose interest. Add a reminder of nearby peril. Perhaps strange sounds echo through the stones, or a chill passes the corridor.

In exploration, when no obstacles lurk nearby, the game master can rely on summary. “You look through all the rooms in the cellar and find a polished, black ring among the rubbish.”

Exposition

Sometimes game masters start a role-playing scene without a goal or obstacle because they want exposition. At the start of an adventure, players tolerate such scenes. The implied goal becomes, learn our goal. Scenarios often add a minor obstacle by introducing a patron who needs the right questions to provide extra help and information. However, such weak scenes typically work better in summary.

I used to make the mistake of trying to conclude adventures with a scene where characters meet their patron to collect payment and tie any loose ends. I learned that as a scene, denouements never hold attention. While players tally their loot, just summarize the medal ceremony.

Exception: Scenes that work as a reward

When a game master announces treasure, players tend to pay careful attention to their reward. Likewise, role-playing scenes that reward players with information can hold attention even when the scene lacks an obstacle. These scenes feature players with questions and a colorful NPC ready with answers. Crucially, these scenes still feature a goal. Players must want the information enough to have fought for it and won. Don’t dump unwanted backstory and call it a scene. See How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session.

When to do a summary

Whenever an game session lacks the ingredients for a scene, a goal and an obstacle, you can rely on summary. If you feel unsure about switching to a summary, ask the players. “Do you want to do anything special, or should we move forward?”

During a summary, as game time speeds along, players can feel like they lose some control over their character. Among other things, my next post will explain how to do a summary without making players feel like passengers on a railroad.

Next: Running Scenes and Summaries that Invite Choices and Reveal Characters

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How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures For Good

When Dungeon issue 116 ranked the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God landed at number 19. Ed Greenwood summed the 1982 adventure as, “Detective work, hunting for villains, some monster-bashing, and a settlement detailed enough to use beyond the scripted adventure; a quiet little gem that has it all!”

The adventure’s creation began when Kevin Hendrix wrote an encounter with a reptile cult to serve as an episode in Len Lakofka’s adventure L1 The Secrets of Bone Hill (1981). Lakofka chose not to include the cult, so Hendrix began expanding the idea into a full adventure. In 1981, TSR layoffs claimed Hendrix’s job. The core concept and title reached Douglas Niles for completion. When the module saw print, TSR management felt wary of helping designers gain the clout of name recognition, so Hendrix, now an employee of Metagaming Concepts, received no author byline.

Tracy Hickman and his Dragonlance adventures get credit (and sometimes blame) for moving D&D from aimless dungeon crawls to a story focus. But N1 came first, and it includes a stronger narrative than any of TSRs’ earlier adventures. Niles explained, “I liked settings that allowed the characters to play out a story.” N1 features a story with rising tension and a climactic showdown, but the plot still turns on the players’ choices.

A 1983 review in Imagine issue 3 praised Against the Cult of the Reptile God and touted its “innovative touches.” What made N1 innovative?

Early town adventures tended to stumble

The original Dungeons & Dragons rules say that if a referee makes a map of a town close to the dungeons, “players can have adventures roaming around the bazaars, inns, taverns, shops, temples, and so on.” Because imaginary revelry offers scant fun, roaming town typically focused on shopping and gathering “rumors, information, and legends,” which “lead players into some form of activity or warn them of a coming event.”

Actual town adventures tended to stumble. Typically, the party visits the market and someone tries to haggle: Best case, one player saves a few coppers while everyone gets bored—even the shopper. Later, the players gripe about the tiresome D&D session when the dungeon master stubbornly limited players to shopping.

That’s the best case. Usually, a restless thief picks someone’s pockets, leading to party strife or to a confrontation with the city guard. Such trouble drove D&D designers to rename thieves to rogues. See Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.

In the worst case, the players realize the townsfolk have no chance against a band of experienced killers, leading to murder and looting. See Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.

The gulf between towns and the sites of adventure

When Gary Gygax wrote T1 Village of Hommlet (1979), he prepared for the worst case. Gygax lists the treasure found in shops and homes, and then discourages looting by inventing a social network able to punish murder hobos.

Gary populated Hommlet with colorful characters who might foster role playing, but I suspect most groups paid them little notice. The real action lay in the Moathouse, because for most players, the heart of D&D lies in crushing evil and winning treasure, not necessarily in that order. In town, evil keeps hidden and gold belongs to a rightful owner.

Unless some goal drives players to talk to villagers, most players have nothing to discuss. In D&D, as in fiction, the really interesting action happens when the characters have both an objective and an obstacle that stands in their way. See A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.

After Gygax, other D&D authors tried to connect towns to adventure. L1 The Secrets of Bone Hill provided another home base. U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh suggests that some villagers might be involved with the sinister events at a haunted house, but leaves creating the town as homework for the DM. When I played U1, the DM dropped us at the door to the haunted house and Saltmarsh remained unseen.

N1 entwined a town into the adventure

In Against the Cult of the Reptile God, the characters investigate disappearances in the village of Orlane. Fear and suspicion grips much of the town, while other folk behave oddly. Players need to interact with townsfolk to solve the mystery. A wrong move in town could bring peril.

To modern players, the setup may seem conventional, but N1 became the first D&D scenario to feature an investigation and to bring adventure into town. Before Against the Cult of the Reptile God, a gulf separated towns from the wilderness and dungeons that offered adventure. Until N1 bridged that gap, players found little reason to interact with townsfolk.

Lesson: To capture players interest in role-playing, pair colorful NPCs with a goal that invites interaction.

N1 introduced the event-based adventure

Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or of adjacent hexes. See Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon.

N1 introduced an event-based scenario where active NPCs affect the course of adventure. The 1983 review spotted the change. “A noteworthy feature is that the unknown adversaries do not tamely wait for the players to come and get them. They are active.” In Orlane, the kidnappings continue as time passes. Party members can even be abducted and compelled to spy for the cult.

This advance marked another milestone. Before Against the Cult of the Reptile God, when players weren’t watching, non-player characters only did one thing: They refilled dungeon rooms emptied by adventurers. In N1, even if the players do nothing, things still happen.

As in one of pulp fantasies that inspired D&D, the sinister events in Orlane lead to a rising sense of peril. Tension increased toward a climax.

Lesson: To make the villains come alive, let them act offstage, and then show their actions in the game world.

Making the most of N1 today

Early D&D adventures like Against the Cult of the Reptile God can still work with today’s rules. Just replace the printed monster stats with numbers from the fifth-edition Monster Manual.

Against the Cult of the Reptile God plays best when the its tension builds over days of game time. To get a sense of passing days, characters need to keep busy. If they focus on rooting out the cult, they tend to solve the mystery before pressure rises. To work best, develop the events of N1 alongside a second adventure that can dominate the characters’ attention. For example, while the PCs make a few forays to the Caves of Chaos, let the disappearances and weirdness in Orlane reach a boiling point. The Encounters-program adventure Against the Cult of Chaos (2013) took exactly this approach by combining elements of N1 with T1 Village of Hommlet and B2 Keep on the Borderlands (1981).

Some critics fault N1 for requiring a 1st-through-3rd-level party to ally with a 7th-level wizard for the final showdown with the cult’s “reptile god.” The wizard overshadows the PCs, but without the ally, the party may die to a single fireball. The adventure itself suggests a solution: Have the wizard give the party a scroll of Globe of Invulnerability for protection during the showdown. Make the elderly wizard too frail to venture into the swamp, but let his familiar guide the party. For more on the risks and benefits of allies, see The Surprising Benefits of Giving and Adventuring Party a Guide.

Among the greatest adventures

Based on quality, N1 merits the standing, but based on achievements, I might rate it higher. N1 set two milestones for published D&D adventures. Thirty-five years later, it still offers lessons to dungeon masters.

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Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon

The Dungeons & Dragons game’s original 1974 version offered two types of adventure: dungeons and wilderness. In such site-based adventures, players’ decisions about where to go set the course of the adventure. These adventures revolve around on a map with a key detailing important locations. When characters enter a location, they trigger encounters.

Today’s D&D scenarios mix places to explore, with events, and with clues to follow, but adventure authors took years to stretch beyond numbered lists of locations.

In the years after D&D’s release, every role-playing adventure to reach print was site-based. This extends beyond D&D. Until 1980, a keyed list of locations drove every published adventure for every role-playing game.

The first role-playing games all recreated the dungeon-crawl experience of D&D. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.” Tunnels & Trolls (1975) recreated the D&D experience with simpler rules. Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

By 1977, designers began to see the potential of role-playing games. By then, if you asked RPG designers what characters in their games would do, the designers would probably answer, “Anything.” Designers of the newer games strove to model game worlds as thoroughly as possible. This led to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), “the most complete rule booklet ever published,” with rules for everything from mass combat, to courtly love, to the One Ring. C&S offered a game so open ended that a table of players with randomly generated characters might fail to find any common activities that their characters could do together. In Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun, I had some fun at the expense of C&S. I showed how the game downplayed the dungeon crawl, but struggled to find a fun, group activity to serve as a replacement.

In 1978, after I found Traveller, I failed to imagine what players would actually do in a game without dungeons. Traveller opened the door for anything, anywhere in the universe, but nothing in particular. I concocted a scenario where a villain abducted the travelers and dropped them in a space ship filled with death traps.

Professional authors could do no better. Even though new role-playing games aspired to take characters out of the dungeon, authors of adventures created dungeons…in space. Science fiction games like Traveller (1977) featured players raiding or exploring space ships, star bases, or alien ruins. Sometimes travelers crossed an alien wilderness. Superhero games featured assaults on villains’ lairs. Horror games featured haunted houses. From a distance, they all looked like dungeon or wilderness adventures.

In every single one, the decisions that drove the adventure all amounted to a choice of doors (or to a choice of which hex to visit next).

In a Gamespy interview, D&D co-creator Dave 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.”

Like dungeons, site-based adventures limited characters’ choices, and this made them easy to write and easy to run. Adventure authors relied on numbered locations until they found new ways to limit players to a manageable number of choices.

Borderlands (1983) has players doing a series of jobs for their patron, a Duke

Traveller opened a galaxy of choices, so the rules recommended matching characters with patrons. “Patrons could specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task,” the rule book explained. “Some tasks may be ordinary in nature, such as hired guards or escorts; other tasks may be for the location and procurement of items of great value.” A patron’s task often led characters to an adventuring site, but not always. The first scenarios without location keys tended to rely on simple jobs.

Traveller casts patrons as an employer, but a patron can be anyone able to persuade the players to help. Once players selected a task, it limited players to the choices that brought them closer to their goal.

In the 70s, D&D players never needed patrons. By awarding characters with an experience point for each gold piece won from a dungeon, D&D built a goal into the rules. But games from Traveller to Runequest used patrons to match players with goals.

Eventually, even D&D players grew weary of just chasing loot, and D&D characters began meeting patrons too. D&D players began entering dungeons for more than treasure, they sought to thwart giant raids or to rescue the princess from the vampire queen. Nowadays, the cloaked figure in a bar who offers a job ranks as cliché.

The Traveller adventure Twilight’s Peak (1980) took another step away from site-based adventures. Here, the characters begin as crew on a starship that needs a costly repair. As they journey from system to system, hauling cargo and seeking a big score, they investigate clues that may lead to the lost base of an advanced civilization.

Twilight’s Peak ends as a site-based adventure, but it starts as the first investigation adventure where the players chase clues that author Marc Miller calls rumors. “The rumor is ultimately the source of all information for adventurers. Once they have been pushed by a rumor, they may look longer and harder in that direction and thus be moved closer to their goal. But without the initial impetus of the rumor the adventurers will find they have little reason for adventuring.”

In Twilight’s Peak, all the rumors lead to the same destination, but clues can drive a non-linear adventure too. When a scene or encounter gives more than one clue worth chasing, players face a decision that takes players in different directions. Do we check out the hunting lodge shown on the map, or go to town to question the jeweler who made the murder weapon?

Whether called rumors, clues, or leads, the technique’s introduction offered a new way to take players through an adventure.

Related: How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success

Next: A D&D module makes the next step away from site-based adventures.

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What I Wish the Player’s Handbook Had Explained About Some More D&D Spells

In my last post, I offered some extra explanation for common spells that called for it. This post covers more spells.

Hex

Until Hex ends, the caster deals an extra d6 damage every time they hit the hexed creature with an attack. Some players hope that spells like a Magic Missile qualify for extra damage, but no. Actual attacks include an attack roll. Hex rewards casters capable of rolling lots of attacks from spells like Eldritch Blast.

The target of a hex suffers disadvantage on ability checks made with an ability of the caster’s choice. This penalty does not affect saving throws, so the disadvantage rarely comes into play.

Hypnotic Pattern

Creatures outside the 30-foot cube spanned by a Hypnotic Pattern see the pattern, but don’t suffer its effects.

When creatures become hypnotized, their intelligent allies typically focus their attacks on breaking the spellcaster’s concentration.

Creatures with advantage on saves against being charmed also gain advantage saving against Hypnotic Pattern. Creatures immune to charm cannot be affected.

Hypnotized creatures can’t take actions, but they can still evade attacks. Neither the victims’ AC nor their saving throws suffer penalties.

Suggestion

Players dream of casting Suggestion unnoticed, but observers will spot the enchantment. In addition to the usual gestures, casting Suggestion requires a verbal component of mystic words. The verbal component includes more than just the suggestion itself.

A suggestion must seem reasonable, so many suggestions include a bit of context. Jeremy Crawford offers some plausible suggestions:

“Flee! A dragon comes.”

“Don’t attack; I intend no harm.”

“Your sword is cursed. Drop it!”

In most cases, giving the king a suggestion like “execute the queen because she plots against you” would fail. Designer Mike Mearls says that the suggestion would seem too unlikely and too obviously harmful. “Context is really key. If the queen was already on trial, then it might work to push king to a guilty verdict.”

Wall of Force

Although a wall of force blocks spells just like in past editions, the new text fails to make this obvious. The description of Wall of Force only says that nothing can “physically pass” through the wall.

Designer Jeremy Crawford explains that a wall of force grants total cover, and that spells cannot target things behind total cover. (See page 204 in the Player’s Handbook.) Also. total cover blocks areas of effect from extending from their point of origin into the wall of force. This means that the wall blocks virtually all spells and their effects.

Spells like Teleport and Misty Step can pass a wall of force. These spells target the creatures who teleport, not the destination. Misty Step only requires the caster to see a destination in range. This interpretation fits D&D tradition, which says that creatures who teleport travel through the astral plane and that walls of force do not extend to the astral plane.

In the past, a wall of force could not block gaze attacks. This still applies to monsters, because they have gaze attacks that only require a victim who sees the eyes. However, the Eyebite spell implies that the caster targets victims.

When a caster creates a wall of force consisting of ten 10-foot panels, all the panels must form a single flat surface with a side of each panel connecting to another panel’s side. The wall cannot include checkerboard-style, corner-to-corner links.

Spells where the affected can’t see the areas of effect

For spells like Silence and Darkness, marking the spell’s area of effect on a map steals the uncertainty experienced by characters under the spell. Creatures in a Fog Cloud cannot see whether a step takes them deeper into the cloud. Creatures in Hunger of Hadar cannot see a path out and desperately want to find it.

A Silence spell that affects some characters can create a fun situation. Instead of marking the silence on the map, tell the characters who can no longer hear. Those players may not talk to other players, nor can the other players talk to them. Nobody sees the bounds of the silence, but they know who can’t be heard. If someone wants to help lead the characters out of the silence, they must point and gesture.

Spells like Darkness and Fog Cloud effectively blind characters, leaving them with no knowledge of the spells’ reach.

If a spell leaves out some of the party and enables them to see the area of effect, handle the spell in the easiest way: Mark its area on the battle map and let everyone take advantage of the perfect information. This assumes that characters shout directions to guide their blinded allies. Also, this assumes that everyone gives and follows directions perfectly. As long as players and their foes sometimes benefit from the assumption, it seems fair.

If a spell blinds everyone in a party, ask all the players how they intend to act and where they plan to move. Then go back to taking turns. When someone leaves the spell’s area, you can mark it the battle map. But until the next round, you can hold the players to their declared actions without being unfair. Everyone in a round takes their actions in the same six seconds. Any character who found a way out was too busy getting there to guide anyone else.

If a spell blinds monsters, then as the dungeon master, you must take the familiar job of reacting as the creatures would. Outside of a spell’s area, smart creatures might shout instructions to guide allies. Inside, smart creatures might spread out, assuming the caster aimed to blind as many creatures as possible. Aggressive creatures might charge the spellcaster. Cautious creatures back away until they can see. If more than one action seems equally likely, roll a die. Whatever the monsters do, explain their rational. Players should feel that the monsters act on something other than the DM’s perfect knowledge.

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What the Player’s Handbook Should Have Explained about 6 Popular D&D Spells

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons features popular spells like fireball that leave little room for interpretation, but others that require extra help. Some spells only become clear after you chase rules in other parts of the book, others make key points easy to overlook, and some just call for tips to run at the table.

Animate Objects

The Animate Objects spell description never mentions that casters always choose to animate a handful of sling stones or similar tiny objects. I suspect the designers never realized the spell would play this way, and that makes me sad. I want a spell that causes tables, chairs or, best of all, statues to spring to life and attack. In fantasy, that scene appears everywhere. It resonates.

Instead, casters choose to use Animate Objects to make make 10 tiny rocks fly up bonk the victim. Visually, the spell looks just like Telekinesis. Except Animate Objects features an attack at the upper limit of the power curve. If I ever expand my list of 4 most annoying spells, Animate Objects ranks number 5 based on failed potential. The ten attack rolls also slow play, and that just adds to the sadness.

Animate Objects never matches the popular imagination because the spell works best with 10 tiny objects, which together deal more damage than any other option. I want a spell that forces casters to animate furniture in a room, but D&D delivers a spell that only forces a caster to carry a handful of copper pieces to animate.

When animated objects lack legs, they can fly. Because the spell turns objects into creatures, I would rule that a large-sized object could carry a medium-sized rider. This allows, say, a large flying carpet able to carry someone for a minute. Animated brooms lack the size to carry a rider, but halflings can fly medium-sized surfboards.

Banishment

When Banishment sends a creature back to their native plane, the banishment makes a popping noise.

If fighting temporarily stops, and then banished creatures return to the battlefield, reroll initiative. This makes the restart of battle more interesting than just letting every player ready an attack for their foe’s return. Plus, the banished creature’s return rates as a game situation that calls for initiative. Everyone stands ready. The best initiative proves quickest to attack.

For more on initiative, see What to do When a Player Interrupts a Role-Playing Scene to Start a Battle.

Counterspell

The game lacks an official way for spellcasters to identify spells to Counterspell. As a DM, you could require a Wisdom (Perception) check to see the casting, and then a Intelligence (Arcana) check to identify the spell. Nobody dislikes Counterspell enough to impose such hurdles.

Instead, use designer Jeremy Crawford’s house rule: If the spell exists on your spell list and you can see the caster, then you can identify the spell. You know the spell’s default level, but not whether the caster has raised the spell to a higher level.

Counterspell targets the caster of a spell. Characters cannot target someone they cannot see or someone behind total cover. Whenever possible, enemy spellcasters will work their magic out of sight or beyond the 60-foot range of Counterspell.

Force Cage

Force Cage brings enough power to turn many showdowns into one-sided beatdowns. The spell imposes one limitation: The spell’s material components cost 1,500 gp. If the material components for a spell have a price, casting the spell consumes the components. I suspect the designers think the price of a Force Cage limits the spell more it actually does. By the time 13th-level characters can cast the spell, they typically gain 229,242 gp worth of loot.

Globe of Invulnerability

Players rarely cast Globe of Invulnerability, but enemy casters might. Spells of level 5 and lower cannot pass into the Globe of Invulnerability, but Dispel Magic can target and dispel the globe.

Guidance

If a player stands at a threshold of potential fight and wants a d4 bonus to initiative, they can cast Guidance. Initiative counts as a Dexterity ability check, so Guidance helps. Some players always want this boost, so they claim their clerics spend every minute casting Guidance like a nervous tic.

This tactic creates three side effects:

  • Guidance includes a verbal component, so casting creates noise.
  • Because the cleric spends every moment either casting Guidance or concentrating on Guidance, their passive perception suffers the -5 penalty imposed on passive ability checks made with disadvantage.
  • The first time a party member grows tired of the constant incantations and demands silence, I award the player inspiration.

Next: Suggestion, Wall of Force, and more

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How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke

In my last post, I explained how challenging myself to say yes to players made me a better dungeon master, even though I sometimes said no.

Sometime in the 90s, I returned gaming conventions after more than a decade away. Some folks played Dungeons & Dragons differently than I remembered. I played with a DM who said yes to more gifts than Santa Claus. Any time a player wanted to try some lame scheme, the DM would permit it—and grant a big bonus for creative thinking. His game held no challenges. It only existed for his players to show off.

My DM’s habit of saying yes should have created a collaborative story that enchanted me, but instead I felt bored.

Some folks equate saying yes with good storytelling. From this perspective, characters are the foundation of story. Players control the characters. Only bad DMs keep the storytelling to themselves. Saying yes to the players lets them contribute to a shared story.

Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique abilities. In one convention game, a water genasi monk’s fast swim speed let her breeze through this encounter.

Except good storytelling rests on characters who face obstacles. If you make obstacles that just enable characters to demonstrate how great they are, then you create a certain, notoriously dull sort of story. Your story features a Mary Sue who can only impress everyone by being wonderful.

In D&D, players never ask a DM to say yes to something that adds obstacles. Players ask for advantages. Players see a high Performance skill on their character sheet, and then ask to sing a cave-in away because maybe the right note starts a landslide. Saying yes isn’t the route to compelling stories.

But D&D isn’t really a storytelling game. Nobody wants to hear a story about your D&D character. The fun of D&D comes from playing the game. For most of us a big part of that fun comes from a chance to feel wonderful and impressive in our character’s shoes.

I often meet players who want to win D&D when they devise a superior character. The play at the table, for them, just offers a victory lap.

So does my desire for a game that challenges me and my characters make me an oddity?

For most players, credible obstacles help make role-playing games compelling. Call of Cthulhu typically ends in insanity or death, but you still get to thwart a dark god against overwhelming odds. Your characters’ losses make them more heroic than the D&D characters who always come out of scrapes better than before.

Nobody sits at a D&D table for vicarious insanity or death. In D&D, characters improve by gaining experience and magical gear. That steady improvement makes the game addictive. D&D players relish chances to show off.

I suspect most players crave a mix of challenges, chances to show off, and chances to feel powerful by overcoming real challenges.

Case in point: My friend Tom is a by-the-book DM with stronger mastery of the rules than anyone I know. Some have called him a dick DM, and he wears that label with a note of pride. He doesn’t try to win against players, but he won’t say yes to a brazen attempt to use Performance. Tom is an expert at running monsters so they make tough, canny foes. Sometimes Tom kills characters. He killed one of mine. If D&D players favored DMs who simply let characters show off, then Tom would rate as a bad DM. Not Tom. As a DM, he reached an elite, level-4 ranking in the Heralds Guild of DMs. This means Tom served a DM at conventions for table after table of strangers, and earned nearly perfect scores on their feedback forms. In his games, when characters show off, they earned it.

D&D works best when DMs find a balance between credible challenges and letting each player feel like a bad ass.

NFL star Cam Newton dominates pee-wee football

Sometimes finding the right mix just requires the players and DM to focus on their roles: Players work to make their characters awesome, while their DM takes charge of posing challenges. In this role, the DM acts as the characters’ biggest fan. As a fan, I want the characters to triumph against real tests. I want a 6’5” 250 pound NFL quarterback to face elite athletes rather than pee-wee football players. Let the Fantastic Four beat Doctor Doom rather than Paste-Pot Pete.

So as a DM, when the players ask you to say yes to something that ruins a challenge, you can say no without feeling like a bad DM who refuses to share the game with players. They have their part, you have yours.

Sometimes, your role as fan of the characters might call for a yes. I can think of three perfect occasions:

1. Say yes to inventive solutions.

When I started as a DM, I followed Gary Gygax’s model. I pitted my players against the most devious deathtraps I could invent. I would build in ways for the players to surmount the obstacles, but the players’ solutions rarely matched mine. The 6 or more brains across the table always proved more clever than me. Soon I stopped including solutions to the predicaments. The players across the table still escaped every impossible pinch. Their invention surprised me and I relished it.

I don’t recommend pitting players against impossible situations, but I do recommend learning to love an ingenious solution. Some DMs grow so attached to a “correct” solution to a predicament, that they reject their players’ ingenuity.

For more, see Player Skill Without Player Frustration.

2. Say yes to stunts and exploits that go outside the rules.

A few years ago I ran the Confrontation in Candlekeep delve at Gen Con. At the end, a dragon flies from Candlekeep tower to tower, table to table, exchanging attacks. At one stop, a character jumped atop the dragon and rode it table to table. After the event, the player giddily recounted the tale to anyone who would listen. He wasn’t alone. Players loved riding the dragon so much that DMs made it part of the adventure. Designer Teos Abadia remembers, “The result was great fun, a nice mechanic for players ending up at other tables, and some really spectacular falls!”

In Mike Shea’s post, A Collection of Awesome Events, he asks players to recount an awesome D&D moment, and then reaches a surprising conclusion: Players love it when they get to break the game. Riding the dragon steps outside the usual exchange of blows in a D&D battle. The Player’s Handbook offer no rules for it. But for players of Candlekeep, it created unforgettable moments.

When players suggest a bold or clever idea that ends a big encounter or that wrecks a major villain, I feel tempted to reject it. I worked to set the stage and a sudden end feels like a waste of effort. But for players, an ordinary battle can’t match the excitement of that one time when they broke the game.

3. Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique qualities.

At a convention, I ran an adventure where a pack of wolves confronted the characters. One player tried to make friends with the beasts and I asked for an Animal Handling check.

The player showed his character sheet. “My background happens to be Raised by Wolves.”

“Turns out, you know these wolves.”

Obviously, if some unique quality grants an advantage that threatens to regularly upstage the other characters, you can still say yes, once. After that, the wolves the player meets might be rivals.

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Sometimes I Tell Players No, but “Say Yes” Made Me a Better Dungeon Master

As the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax set an example that seemed to encourage dungeon masters to battle players. As soon as players gained an edge, Gygax created something to foil them. When players started listening at doors, He created ear seekers. When they collected too many magic items, he invented magic-item saving throws. When players boasted about their invincible characters, he created Tomb of Horrors.

Until D&D, games were adversarial, so the DM-versus-player model felt natural to the first D&D players. Gary and his players enjoyed the battle of wits brought by his style of play, but other dungeon masters too the style too far. Too many DMs played to defeat the players and their characters.

For decades, most tales of bad D&D games started with DMs abusing their power, punishing players so the DM could “win.”

Thankfully, role-playing matured. Gamers began to see the dungeon masters as something between a neutral facilitator and collaborator sharing an equal role in a shared storytelling.

This spirit of collaboration tells DMs to say yes.

The notion of saying yes comes from improvisational comedy. “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES,” Tina Fey writes in Bossypants. “When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt.”

As a DM, saying yes accepts the players as collaborators. If they want to attempt a battlefield stunt, say yes and make it exciting. If they have a character idea, say yes and make it special. If they want to visit the school of magic in a town without one, invent a secret school that was there all along.

Sly Flourish’s analysis of his dungeon master survey took thousands of bits of DM advice and distilled the 7 most-common nuggets. Number 6: “Say yes.”

The fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Book touts the benefits of saying yes. “As often as possible, take what the players give you and build on it. If they do something unexpected, run with it. Take it and weave it back into your story.

“When you say yes, you open more possibilities.”

Say yes has helped my DMing, because my first reaction tends to be no. I used to say no a lot. “No” let me keep the game safely on the track I planned. But saying no cost opportunities to improve the game. Now I say yes, unless I have a damn good reason.

Role-playing games are new, so we feel tempted to borrow techniques from older mediums. Older media once followed the same pattern of borrowing. During the dawn of filmmaking, directors staged movies like plays, by setting a single, stationary camera in front of the actors. When filmmakers stopped shooting movies as plays, cinema leaped forward.

Often, game-mastering advice borrows suggestions meant for fiction writing—or for improv. Some of it still works, but some no longer applies to a game. In improv, performers always say yes. In gaming, yes can take a game in the wrong direction.

I chased all the DM advice about saying yes that I could find, and I the recommendation always came with strings attached. You should say yes—except when you should say no.

Saying yes can conflict with some of a dungeon master’s responsibilities:

  • Posing challenges
  • Protecting the game world
  • Giving each player a contribution

In those conflicts, DMs must balance the merits of yes against against their other duties.

Despite the exceptions, saying yes remains powerful because it challenges DMs like me to defy our first impulse. Saying no always feels safe and easy, but yes often leads to a better game.

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