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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savvy characters can recover hit points without ever resting.

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

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

Potion of Healing
Potion, rarity varies

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

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

Potions of Healing

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

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

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

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

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Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens

A few recurring types of adventure scenes make me want to fast forward the game. For instance, I dislike when an scenario starts a party in a tavern, masquerade, or other social gathering, and then expects them to spend an hour or more mingling before the adventure finds them. Such scenes appear too regularly in Adventurer’s League scenarios. Even the adventure that introduced fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons to the public, Murder in Baldur’s Gate, started by letting characters mingle in a marketplace while they waited for the adventure to start.

This setup comes from good motives. Many role-playing gamers enjoy role playing, so a gathering of lovingly-crafted and colorful non-player characters seems like a playground. But I’ve never seen such setups offer more than a struggle for dungeon masters or players. I wrote a post about my trouble making Murder in Baldur’s Gate work during the convention slots I ran it.

Instead of living up to an author’s ambition, these mix-and-mingle scenes follow a different pattern:

  1. While the dungeon master describes the colorful occupants of an inn, players update their character sheets, snack, and check their phones. The most attentive players will remember one—perhaps two—of the NPCs crowding in the scene.
  2. Players enjoy a moment of vicarious wealth as their characters, who carry thousands of gold in loose change, pay a gold piece for a 1 copper piece cup of ale because keeping track of coppers is too much bother.
  3. Players of dwarves act out their character’s exaggerated appetite for ale. (To players of dwarves, ale provides as much material as air travel and 7-Eleven provide to stand-up comics.)
  4. The characters look for the mysterious hooded figure beckoning from a corner.
  5. If no figure beckons, characters wait for the bar fight. Sometimes an impatient player starts one.
  6. If no bar fight erupts, players start metagaming as they try to determine how to start the scheduled adventure. “Innkeeper, have we entered the wrong establishment? I was told there would be adventure here.”

The mix-and-mingle scenes fizzle because players lack an objective other than discover how to make the adventure start. When characters lack a goal and a DM launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering what they are supposed to do.

Instead, players should enter a scene with a goal they think their characters can accomplish. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Pass the sphinx that bars the way. Get the name of an alchemist who can supply reagents.

To succeed, a scene needs more than a goal. If the dwarf enters the bar with a purse full of gold and a goal of drinking ale, then a good bartender ends the scene in a hurry.

In Dungeons & Dragons, as in fiction, the really interesting action happens when the characters have both a goal and an obstacle that stands in their way. In the early days, the objective (treasure) was as simple as the obstacles (dungeons and dragons). Now we enjoy more variety, buy we still need the core ingredients of objectives and obstacles to keep the game moving and fun.

Sometimes players face the obstacle of not knowing which NPC in the crowd has the clue they need. This works. The players now have a reason to interact with several characters. Still, stronger obstacles make better scenes.

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

Often the players simply try to persuade the NPC, succeed at a diplomacy check, and move on, but if every interaction amounts to a skill roll, the game loses interest. At times the bard’s honeyed words may overcome any objections; at times an NPC faces conflicts or repercussions that require action.

For more challenging and interesting encounters—and more memorable NPCs—treat some NPCs as puzzles. Just as the puzzles in a Dungeons & Dragons game have solutions, and locked doors have keys, NPCs can have keys of a sort too. Every NPC who stands unwilling to cooperate must have a reason for it. To unlock the NPC’s help, players must find ways to defuse or overcome their objections. Perhaps the NPCs feel certain they’re being watched, or they love someone working for the villain, or they plan to buy the reagents. For more ideas, see 22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate. If an NPC enters an interaction with a reason not to help the players, give the players enough clues to find a way past the objection.

A lack of goals or obstacles explains some of the game’s less-interesting stretches.

You can pace your game by looking at the players’ objectives and the obstacles they face. If no obstacles challenge the party, then consider summarizing events until something new blocks the players’ progress. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

If the players lack objectives, then unveil some new development that suggests their next step. Characters should start each scene with an objective that can be achieved in the scene, and they should end with a new objective or, better still, a choice of objectives. A steady supply of objectives keeps the game moving forward and the players eager for more. A choice of objectives prevents the players from feeling railroaded.

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The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers

Publicly, members of Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons team never discuss sales numbers. Privately, they dispute the notion that the Pathfinder role-playing game ever outsold fourth-edition D&D. But at Gen Con, late in the short life of fourth edition, evidence of D&D’s collapse seemed glaring. Pathfinder players filled the massive Sagamore Ballroom that had once hosted D&D play. Meanwhile, D&D players became exiles in a much smaller space. To be fair, Paizo made a bigger financial commitment to the con, but Pathfinder players filled more tables. And Paizo boasted a long line of customers  waiting to pass the velvet ropes into the Pathfinder sales area.

If big-shot Hasbro executives had seen this difference, they would have rehired the entire fourth-edition team just to sack them again.

At Gen Con 2010, fourth edition seemed like a catastrophe, but the game’s designers deserved less blame then they got. They had simply created a D&D edition that tried to match the appeal of online role-playing games. During development, the edition seemed like a savior the D&D needed. Their plan had suffered some tragic, and unimaginable setbacks—and D&D designers boast pretty good imaginations.

Most of the blame for the collapse lay with the executives who needed to wring as much revenue as possible from the D&D brand. They had made the one decision that crushed the edition’s chance for modest success. Of course, these planners never imagined that their decision would lead to an upheaval. That came from unintended consequences.

And the decision proved lucky for gamers, because we benefited from the blunder.

Fourth edition’s chance of success died before the edition even reached stores. It died when Wizards of the Coast chose to prevent Paizo Publishing from staying in the business of supporting D&D.

Paizo started in 2002, when Wizards of the Coast decided to focus on its core competencies by selling its periodical business along with 5-year licenses to publish Dungeon and Dragon magazines.

The new publisher endured a rocky start. When the harsh economics of magazine publishing led to the end of their Undefeated and Amazing Stories magazines, the cancellations forced layoffs. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens took the setback hard. “The people at Paizo are my friends. With just a few keystrokes on a spreadsheet, I was potentially destroying lives, or at least changing their trajectories forever. The stress took over while driving home and I had to pull over to the side of the road and started bawling. I knew in my heart that I needed to make some drastic changes to give the company a chance to survive.” (For much more on the history of Paizo, including the quotes from their staff in this post, see the series of blog posts called Auntie Lisa’s Story Hour.)

Paizo continued to build publishing expertise. In Dungeon, The Shackled City launched a series of multi-part scenarios that Paizo called adventure paths. The paths plotted an entire campaign, from 1st to 20th level, from a series of linked adventures. “The reaction to The Shackled City was nothing short of fantastic,” Stevens recalled. “Little did we realize that the Adventure Path would eventually become our flagship brand, and our salvation in our most difficult time.

In 2005, the company started seeing profits and won the silver ENnie award for best publisher. Stevens saw validation that Paizo had finally found the right course.

By 2006, the license to publish Dragon and Dungeon neared its end, but Stevens and publisher Erik Mona felt sure a renewal would come. “With subscriptions on the rise, and powerful wind in our sails from the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths, there seemed little reason for concern.

But Wizards made other plans for the magazines. Their fourth-edition business strategy depended on luring monthly subscribers to D&D Insider. Electronic versions of Dragon and Dungeon would add value to that program.

On May 30, 2006, Stevens learned that she would lose the license. “After the call, I brought Erik in to my office and told him the news, tears streaming down my face.

I don’t think any of us ever really thought that this was much more than a remote possibility. Dragon and Dungeon were finally firing on all cylinders and were enjoying critical acclaim that hadn’t been seen in years. So this news struck us to the core. In one meeting, the last large chunk of the company that we started not quite four years before was going away. We were numb. How the heck were we going to cope with this? Frankly, it seemed impossible at the time.

I have to give Wizards of the Coast a lot of praise for how they handled the end of the license. Contractually, they only needed to deliver notice of non-renewal by the end of December 2006; without the extra seven months’ notice they chose to give us, I’m not sure that Paizo could have survived. Wizards also granted our request to extend the license through August 2007 so that we could finish up the Savage Tide adventure path. This gave us quite a bit of time to figure out how we were going to cope with the end of the magazines. It would have been very easy for WotC to have handled this in a way which would have effectively left Paizo for dead—all they would have had to do was follow the letter of the contract. Instead, they treated us like the valued partner we had been, giving us the ability to both plan and execute a strategy for survival. For that, I will always be thankful.

Paizo forged a survival plan based on replacing the magazines with monthly adventure path installments. If successful, the plan would save the jobs of all the company’s employees. “To transition the company into its new form in 2007,” Mona explained, “We needed all hands on deck.

Paizo’s new Pathfinder Adventure Path brought success. Sales were brisk, and the number of Dungeon and Dragon subscribers who switched to Pathfinder subscriptions surpassed targets.

But at Gen Con in August 2007, Wizards of the Coast announced that fourth edition D&D would arrive in 2008. Paizo’s plan depended on lines of products compatible with third-edition D&D. Suddenly these lines seemed doomed to obsolescence and obscurity.

After talks with our colleagues at Wizards of the Coast, we were cautiously optimistic,” Stevens recalled. “There was talk of getting together when we were back in Seattle and running through a playtest of the current rules. We were also promised that there would be a third-party license, similar to the OGL, really soon.

Meanwhile, Paizo employee and D&D freelancer Jason Bulmahn saw his assignments from Wizards disappear as the company turned to in-house development of fourth edition. Suddenly, he had free time. For fun, he wrote a set of revisions to the D&D 3.5-edition rules. “My first document had the title ‘3.75 Rules Set’ in the margin.

In the months after the fourth-edition announcement, Paizo anxiously waited for a chance to playtest the new edition, but the preview never came. Worse, the third-party license failed to reach publishers.

Inside Wizards, the D&D team wanted to launch fourth edition with something like the Open Game License, but they lacked the clout to get another generous license approved. In an interview, D&D designer Andy Collins summarized the situation by saying, “Legal opinions change; legal staffs change.

By the start of 2008, Paizo ran out of time to wait. “The lack of a firm commitment or any kind of schedule from Wizards was stretching our patience—and our deadlines,” Stevens wrote. She called a company summit to discuss options.

Bulmahn recalled the meeting. “We struggled most of that day to come up with a viable plan. I kept thinking back to my rules document, even though it was little more than a mishmash of rules ideas and notes. Late in the afternoon, I brought it up to the folks in attendance.” By the end of the meeting Bulmahn ranked as lead designer of Mon Mothma, the new code name for a potential Pathfinder role-playing game.

Wizards’ decision to end the magazine licenses had turned Paizo upside down and now made the company willing to explore a daring plan based on a mishmash of ideas and notes. “We were beginning to think that forging our own path forward might be a valid choice,” Stevens explained.

Nevertheless, we dutifully sent Jason Bulmahn to Wizards’ D&D Experience in Fort Wayne, Indiana that February. Jason’s mission was to learn as much as he could about 4th Edition, play it as much as he could, and report back with his findings. From that, we would ultimately make a decision that could make or break us. The tension was agonizing. I could barely sleep at night as my mind wrestled with the options. If we made the wrong decision, it could very well mean the end of Paizo.

From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 SRD: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

The cheap hobby of table-top role playing makes selling RPG games a tough business, but selling print RPG magazines in the Internet age is even tougher. Still, Paizo had learned to thrive. By fourth edition’s announcement, Paizo stood as an experienced publisher with an expert team of D&D designers, including many former Wizards employees.

When Wizards chose not to renew the Paizo’s license to publish Dragon and Dungeon, they led Paizo to compete with fourth edition. Paizo combined a lower cost structure and the nimble size of a small company with the resources to win against a giant like Wizards of the Coast.

As a result, gamers benefited from a choice of games. When asked about the split between Pathfinder and fourth edition, D&D designer Andy Collins said, “I think they’re both great games, and if they were more similar the hobby would be worse for it. I think it’s better to have games that are more distinct from one another that gives people clear choices. ‘Well this is the style of game I want to play, or this other one is the style of game I want to play.’ Nothing wrong with that.

If you loved fourth edition, you can still play games based on a shelf full of titles released for the game. Wizards even continues to offer D&D Insider to ongoing subscribers. If you favor fifth edition, many of the lessons of fourth helped make the new game so good. And if you love Pathfinder, the game continues to thrive. Is it okay to love them all?

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The Grand Campaign, Dungeon Master Gear, Fourth Edition D&D, and Other Reactions From the Comment Section

I’m ready for another trip into the comment section.

The Grand Campaign

My post on the grand campaign prompted a couple of commenters to tell of their long-running grand campaigns. Michael “Chgowiz” Shorten’s game has run more than 10 years. Rick Stump’s Seaward campaign has run 38 years and currently hosts 24 player characters and many more henchmen and hirelings. “With every player running multiple PCs and multiple adventures going on concurrently yes—strict time keeping is essential!” Rick has blogged about Seaward since 2013. Michael and Rick’s message: Passionate game masters still run grand campaigns. You can too.

Gary Gygax made the days characters needed to naturally heal seem like a key reason for a campaign calendar. Characters would spend days between adventures slowly recuperating. But Dan makes an good point, “Every game I’ve played in or run, there has been at least one PC with access to healing magic, so in between adventures he or she would just memorize as many healing spells as possible and rapidly bring the whole party to full or nearly-full hit points.

I’ve never seen a character sidelined for days of natural healing either. I suspect natural healing played a bigger part in Greyhawk for three reasons:

  • Few players chose to play clerics.
  • With no extra spells for high wisdom, and no spells until second level, the original clerics gained less healing magic.
  • Characters who adventured together also competed as rivals for the best treasure. In early D&D, characters raided dungeons for loot and players kept score in gold pieces. Outside of the dungeon, clerics might not heal rivals, and they certainly would not heal anyone who didn’t first make a generous donation to the church.

To gain the pace of a grand campaign where real time passes in pace with campaign time and an adventurer’s career can span years, Simon N. runs fifth edition with a house rule where a long rest takes a week.

Dungeon Master Tools

Chris asks, “Have you looked at ArcKnight for their spell effects? My only complaint there is they don’t have a way to pop them out so you have to cut them.

ArcKnight sells flat-plastic, spell effect templates. When I first saw these templates, the cones didn’t match the proportions set by fifth-edition rules. Now the templates fit the spell descriptions. I especially like the templates for ongoing effects like Cloudkill and Ice Storm, because their art adds scenery to the battle map. The templates come in exhaustive—but pricey—sets for clerics, wizards, and druids. I feel no need for line templates, or separate templates for, say, every 20-foot-radius effect. I would buy a less-expensive generic set with the common circles, cones, and squares.

ArcKnight sells 1-inch grids marked on transparent sheets. (Sorry, Sly Flourish.) This product overlays a grid on an unmarked map.

In Some New Favorite Dungeon Masters’ Tools, I wrote about my attempt to shape conical spell templates from wire. My templates proved usable, but too flexible. Matthew Lynn offered some advice for shaping templates that I’m ready to try. From a hobby shop, he purchased a brass rod about as thick as a coat hanger. Then he shaped it with bending plyers and connected the ends with heat shrink tubing.

The Joy of Figuring Things Out

In a post on figuring things out, I suggested that fourth edition’s designers emphasized character skill over player skill. Tom challenged my statement. “I’m confused about what, exactly, in the core 4E books (a mechanic or piece of advice) emphasizes character skill over player skill that isn’t already present in third edition or earlier.

To be fair, nothing in 4E blocks a style focused on player skill. As Tom noted, the section on puzzles in the fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide explained how to challenge players. Still, the edition’s emphasis on skill challenges and set-piece combats leans on character skill. We know the designers wanted this emphasis because their author guidelines for Dungeon told authors to favor tests of character skill and to avoid challenges aimed toward players.

In response to the same post, The Grymlorde™ offered a good perspective on puzzles. “I like to think of puzzles more like doorways to secret levels, side-quests, and Easter eggs. You can get through the adventure without having to solve the puzzles but you miss out on the best treasure, the best experience, the “truth” and so on. The worst puzzles are the ones where the adventure fails if you fail to solve the puzzle. Which means that the mandatory puzzle must be fairly easy to solve so that everyone has a good chance of finishing the adventure because some people are really good at solving puzzles (e.g. my wife) and others are terrible at it (me).” One question: If you’re married to The Grymlorde™, what do you call him at breakfast?

Linear Adventures

Even as I defended linear adventures, I praised The Howling Void by Teos Abadia for fitting many choices into the constraints of a convention time slot. In a comment, Teos gave more insight into his design. “The theme of my adventure was elemental air, and that element is all about chaos. I set to capture that swirling chaos through a multitude of options combined with foes that moved.

The downside is that there are some really fun encounters the party will never see. And, when they are having a great time, the players know they missed out on some fun. DMs certainly commented that they had to prep more rooms than they will actually run. One upside is that the DM can run this several times and still feel like every run is fresh and different.

Was it worth it? I think so. I won’t use this approach every time, but I think some adventures should work this way to keep players on their toes, to have a strong feeling of player action and choice mattering, and to break away from a linear style. Programs like AL are stronger when they include different approaches from time to time.

Lately, all the Adventurers League scenarios that I’ve played have flaunted an obvious lack of choices. Most still ranked as good-to-excellent adventures, but I have missed Teos’s flair for succeeding with different approaches.

Encouraging Role Playing

My post on encouraging players to role play, led several readers to contribute advice, so I suggest visiting that post’s comment section.

A few posters wanted to emphasize that role playing doesn’t require voice acting. A silly voice can distract from a serious character. Sometimes a character’s actions, decisions, and even silence can reveal role playing. That said, subtle depictions of character tend to get lost at the game table.

Someone with the handle 1958fury, who may also answer to Christine, commented on my tips for encouraging role playing. “I especially like this bit:

“‘Beyond this sound but conventional advice, many DMs suggested ways to pressure uncomfortable or uninterested players to role play. Don’t do that.’

“Thank you for that. I see that suggestion given a lot, and it drives me nuts. I’m shy, and I usually have to play with the same group for a while before I break out of my shell. Being put on the spot too much early on is a sure way to keep me from returning to your table.

Fourth Edition

When I wrote the story behind fourth edition, commenters like Marty from Raging Owlbear challenged my take on the business conditions at Hasbro leading to the edition. These comments made a fair request for more information.

Ryan Dancey led the D&D team through the third-edition boom and Wizards of the Coast’s first years as a Hasbro subsidiary. He wrote about Hasbro brand strategy and how it could apply to D&D. “Sometime around 2005ish, Hasbro made an internal decision to divide its businesses into two categories. Core brands, which had more than $50 million in annual sales, and had a growth path towards $100 million annual sales, and Non-Core brands, which didn’t.

Core brands would have included Magic the Gathering, while D&D ranked as non-core.

Core Brands would get the financing they requested for development of their businesses (within reason). Non-Core brands would not. They would be allowed to rise and fall with the overall toy market on their own merits without a lot of marketing or development support. In fact, many Non-Core brands would simply be mothballed—allowed to go dormant for some number of years until the company was ready to take them down off the shelf and try to revive them for a new generation of kids.

It would have been very easy for [Hasbro head of boy’s toys Brian] Goldner et al to tell Wizards, ‘You’re done with D&D, put it on a shelf and we’ll bring it back 10 years from now as a multi-media property managed from Rhode Island.’ There’s no way that the D&D business circa 2006 could have supported the kind of staff and overhead that it was used to. Best case would have been a very small staff dedicated to just managing the brand and maybe handling some freelance pool doing minimal adventure content. So this was an existential issue (like ‘do we exist or not’) for the part of Wizards that was connected to D&D.

To players who love and understand D&D, the perspective of a corporate, D&D-outsider can seem out of touch. Such executives might only know D&D as the game that lost players in the steam tunnels under Michigan State. Perhaps some wondered if players needed to dress up to play.

Dancey‘s best-case strategy parallels the one that kicked off fifth edition, with freelancers supplementing a tiny team of staff designers, and with as many staff working on branding and licensing as on the tabletop game.

Michael Benensky wrote, “You are not coming off as a 4E hater. Generally it irks me when people tear down 4E since I think it was the best edition.

I wrote a series about the business decisions that fed fourth edition’s design and why the design failed to pay off. Then I posted it on the Internet—a place not known for measured reactions. Folks who loved 4E and those who rejected it both liked the posts’ evenhanded stance. I count that as a win.

Posted in D&D fourth edition, Dungeon master's tools | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

5 Reasons Someone Might Build a Dungeon Filled With Clues, Tests, and Riddles

Dungeons & Dragons features a long tradition of dungeons built with tricks and puzzles to test and confound intruders.

C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness cover

C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness

Funhouse dungeons filled with odd challenges such as White Plume Mountain and Ghost Tower of Inverness rate as some of the most beloved adventures of D&D’s golden age. Most players enjoy these sorts of conundrums.

But why would any dungeon builder construct a room that forced intruders to answer riddles or to move like chess pieces on a huge board? Traditionally, dungeon authors provided one of two answers:

  • “The builder was crazy.”
  • “Are you going to keep asking annoying questions or are you going to play the game?”

Unless your players signed up to play in a game set in 1978, dungeons built by insane, magical pranksters no longer seem fresh or plausible; the life-size chess boards and reverse-gravity rooms can feel tired and silly. Also, while the crazy-wizard premise offers dungeon authors complete freedom, it gives little backstory to serve as a source of inspiration.

Still, Keraptis, Galap-Dreidel, and I all share an affection for pitting adventures against a strange and confounding room, so I will list some other reasons why a dungeon’s architects might build in clues and tests for intruders.

Some of these reasons assume that a dungeon exists to help guard or defend something: treasure in tombs, powerful or dangerous items in vaults, creatures in lairs or prisons. These dungeons’ built-in challenges allow worthy intruders through, and tempt the unworthy to die trying.

A test of merit

From the sword in the stone to the quest for the princess’s hand, fantasy offers plenty of examples of tests to reveal the worthy. A dungeon’s challenges could be constructed to reward the worthy and slay those lacking.

In the 2013 D&D Championship, players needed to solve three puzzles to retrieve three magic staffs. The puzzles were created to prevent the addled, insane cultists of Zargon from seizing the staffs before worthy champions.

Dungeon Crawl Classics 15: Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen

Dungeon Crawl Classics 15: Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen

In the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen, the tomb is a prison for the evil Sphinx Queen. “The labyrinth below consists of a series of guardian creatures and traps, designed both to test the party (to ensure that they’re powerful enough to destroy Ankharet and her crown) and to teach them of the now-forgotten glories of the Sphinx Empire.”

The clues tempt intruders with false hopes for success

The dungeon includes clues and puzzles so that the any survivors who escape will spread tales that serve as a challenge, tempting more adventurers to test their meddle.

The original Tomb of Horrors acts as trap to capture the souls of the strongest adventurers for some wicked purpose. The ambiguous clues written on the tomb’s floor seem almost as likely to lead to death as to success, so could they be a lure for more victims?

Challenges taunt intruders with the builder’s genius

The dungeon’s builder is like the serial killer who leaves clues because he wants to flaunt his genius over the cops pursuing him, or because his name is Edward Nigma so what else? This premise works as a more plausible version of the insane prankster.

The 2010, fourth edition Tomb of Horrors says, “It’s not enough for Acererak to win; he has to to prove his superiority by by saying, ‘I gave you a chance, and you still weren’t smart enough to beat me.’”

Someone wishes for the dungeon to fail its purpose

During a dungeon’s construction, something may have worked to sabotage it so that it ultimately fails its purpose. This sabotage can come from a few sources:

  • psychological conflict. We’ve all heard stories of the killer who secretly wished to be caught. Suppose a dungeon builder’s inner demons—or real, live demons—drive her to create a dungeon’s death traps, but her better nature, or some compulsion, or even a foe’s geas drives her to bury clues with the traps.
  • architects and workers. Most dungeon builders recruit architects and workers to construct their vaults. The patrons always boast of retirement plans, while they plan to slay their workers to preserve the dungeon’s secrets. But suppose the architects added clues as a means of revenge on their overlord? This results in a dungeon filled with clues subtle enough to escape the overlord’s notice, but within the grasp of clever adventurers.

    Charles IV of Spain and his Family paid for a portrait that flattered them with glittering jewels and finery, but the family’s dead eyes reveal them as foolish and banal.

    Buyer beware: Charles IV of Spain and his Family paid for a portrait that flattered them with glittering jewels and finery, but the family’s dead eyes reveal what artist Francisco Goya thought of them.

  • bargains. Fantasy includes many examples where bargains with mystical powers give a scheme an Achilles heel. Here, the dungeon’s weakness comes from the same, mighty powers called to help construction. Great magic often comes from a source with its own, unknowable motives.
    In the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, Tears of the Genie, the Grand Caliph binds a djinni in his dungeon, but the gods of Àereth force the Grand Caliph hide the means of freeing the djinni within the prison.

Dungeon crawling is a sport

XCrawl Crawl or Die

XCrawl

If adventurers crowd the streets and dungeons lie under every mountain, then dungeon crawling could become sport. This premise supports the six Challenge of Champions adventures that appeared in Dungeon magazine. Pandahead productions combined dungeon crawling for sport with all the posturing and pay-per-view rights of professional wrestling to create XCrawl. This premise abandons the mystery and enchantment of the exploring ruins, and replaces the thrill of confronting evil with artificial challenges and, in the case of XCrawl, humor.

If mortals can find sport in dungeons, then gods can too. Beedo from Dreams in the Lich House imagines death mountain, a place where the death god Hades can lure the land’s heroes, and then collect their skulls as trophies. This concept fits with the Olympians’ penchant for using mortal proxies as toys. “The other gods, for that matter, are greatly entertained when heroes overcome the machinations of the death god, and have gone so far as to sprinkle Hades’ sprawling dungeon with divine boons, godly weapons, and hidden shrines and sanctuaries where their beloved champions might gain a small respite.”

A religion or cult demands it

When Mike Shel decided to write an adventure inspired by Tomb of Horrors, he realized that the original tomb failed to provide much justification for its built-in clues and challenges. For The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb, he created a cult of mud sorcerers, who “delighted in riddles and conundrums, disdaining those who couldn’t equal their mental prowess.” And then he gave them a reason for planting clues. “It may puzzle your players that Tzolo would leave hints lying about for would-be grave robbers. However, the clues were intended for for her liberating servants.”

Mike Shel was on to something. D&D’s assumed background needs a cult or religion that provides a ready-made excuse for dungeons that test characters with puzzles and strange obstacles. The mud sorcerers point the way, but their plan seems flawed. Why build clues for your servants that could also aid meddling do-gooders?

I propose a new creation.

The cult of Seermock, god of wealth and power through cunning

Seermock serves as a secret patron to those of wealth and power who earned their status through scheming and manipulation. Although few know of the cult’s existence, Seermock gladly spurns the common herd that he deems unworthy. Seermock upholds these principles:

  • Wealth and power exist as a reward reserved for the cunning, while those of lesser intellect deserve impoverishment, servitude, and then death.
  • The weak minded who wish to claim wealth and power must suffer punishment for their presumption.
  • Bequeathing wealth on the unworthy only rewards the foolish. Those cunning enough to join Seermock after death must strive to protect their worldly gains from those of dull wit.

Like many figures of wealth and power, followers of Seermock strive to memorialize their achievements with grand tombs. But followers of Seermock build their tombs to test those who attempt to seize the riches inside, rewarding the clever while slaying others presumptuous enough to seek treasures they do not deserve.

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Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

“Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons is all about taking that things that work in D&D, keeping them in the game, and fixing everything else,” designer Mike Mearls wrote after the edition’s announcement in 2007.

“That’s the goal, and I think we’re heading there.”

Later, he put the goal in a different light. “No one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them.’ That was never the intent. With fourth edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say ‘hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.’”

By 2010, when Mearls defended the goals of fourth edition D&D, nearly all the team behind the game had left Wizards of the Coast. The virtual table top was 2 years late and on life support. Pathfinder, a game descended from the D&D edition that fourth edition tried to replace, now drew players alienated by fourth edition. Rumors circulated that Pathfinder sales exceeded D&D sales.

The Story of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

On the fourth-edition team, Mearls ranked as a secondary contributor. Now, with the most of the team sacked, Mearls rose to head D&D’s design. He remained to take the heat for “ruining D&D” and to salvage fourth edition until something new could replace it.

What had gone so wrong?

The business plan for fourth edition centered on enticing players to subscribe to D&D Insider, where they could play online using a virtual tabletop. At the edition’s announcement, the team emphasized online play so much that some wondered if D&D would remain playable without a computer.

But weeks after the game’s release, real-life tragedy shattered plans for a virtual table top. Joseph Batten, the senior manager leading development murdered his estranged wife and then killed himself. Apparently, Batten’s work on the project proved unusable. A beta version of the tabletop took 2 more years to reach users, and that version looked nothing like the demos shown in 2008. While the demos promised 3D rendering and an extension of other DDI tools, the beta version retreated to 2D tokens and still lacked integration. Nothing set the beta apart from other VTTs already available. In 2012, after the announcement of D&D Next, Wizards pulled the plug. “We were unable to generate enough support for the tool to launch a full version to the public.”

Of course, D&D Insider had moved ahead without the tabletop. Subscribers still gained access to rules, a character builder, and magazine-style articles. But the lack of a tabletop forced Wizards to charge less and to scrap plans for selling digital assets like virtual miniatures and dungeon tiles. Without the virtual tabletop, the D&D team could never gain the $50 million in revenue needed to lift D&D to a core brand.

Despite trouble with the online initiative, a hit game might have carried the edition. But while many current players loved the new edition, as many others rejected it.

From the designers’ perspective, the rejection stemmed from two causes: The game dared to change too much at once, and the designers ran out of time.

D&D’s second edition tried to be broadly compatible with the original game. Third edition succeeded by adopting decades of role-playing game design experience while preserving “sacred cows” that made D&D familiar. Players had embraced the leap. The fourth-edition designers felt confident that existing players were ready for another step. “I expect that the improvements in game play will convince even reluctant players to switch over to fourth edition,” designer Chris Perkins wrote.

For the new edition, the design team “took time to imagine D&D games that took a different slant than any of us would have imagined,” team lead Rob Heinsoo explained. They turned sacred cows into barbecue and delivered a game very different from any other edition.

To designers the gap between third to fourth edition seemed smaller than the gulf most gamers saw. “I think of D&D as a conversation, in terms of game design, between the designers and the audience,” explained Mike Mearls. “To designers—and players who followed every release—the transition to fourth made sense.” Some fans followed the conversation by playing 3.5, Player’s Handbook 2, Complete Arcane, and then playing with the at-will magic in Complete Mage and the martial powers in Book of Nine Swords. To them, the step to fourth seemed small. (See The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition.)

But few players kept up. “If you got a 3.5 Player’s Handbook and that’s the only D&D book you have and the only one you read, and then you got the fourth edition Player’s Handbook there was a gap,” Mearls said.

Steve Winter, a designer since D&D’s 2nd edition, wrote, “Fourth Edition was a glorious experiment that succeeded technically. Unfortunately, its breaks from the past were too severe for many fans, who didn’t pick up the new banner.”

The designers came to regret changing so much so fast. Fourth edition’s lead, Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Knowing what I know now, I might have worked for smaller changes in the world, since shifting both the world and the mechanics at the same time proved difficult for some of the D&D faithful to swallow.”

More players might have accepted the change if the developers had gained time to perfect the edition. “We just ran out of runway.” Mearls explained “That’s kind of the story of fourth edition in a lot of ways. We ran out of runway as we were tying to get the plane up in the air.”

The rush to deliver hurt the system. For example, player surveys reveal that the simplest character classes rate as the most popular, but fourth edition lacked simple classes. And all the classes played the same. “The things I would have wanted to change about fourth edition mostly center on the knowledge that the class design project wasn’t entirely finished upon release,” Heinsoo said. “I’d never wanted to use the exact same power structure for the wizard as every other class, for example, but we ran out of time, and had to use smaller variations to express class differences than I had originally expected.”

Also, the lack of development left more than the usual number of bugs in the new system. The numbers behind complex skill challenges made success nearly impossible. The math behind difficulty classes needed revision too. Higher-level monsters lacked the punch to challenge characters.

The power system designed as the game’s irresistible hook led to unintended consequences. As characters rose in level, their growing number of choices overwhelmed players, slowing decisions. Characters gained more ways to interrupt combat turns, so each player’s decision paralysis extended into other player’s turns. Characters gained powers that targeted every foe on the battle map leading to more attack rolls than ever. Instead of delivering dynamic combat, battles showed to a crawl.

In 2010, the D&D team’s bid to salvage fourth edition reached players in a line of Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products. The designers had solved the bugs. Classes played differently. Some were simple, others granted ample options. Monsters challenged characters. The math worked. The newest classes sped combat by limiting choices, reactions, and battlefield-spanning powers. Essentials recaptured familiar spells, monsters, and even the look of past editions. But the rescue came too late. By 2010, the D&D team knew Essentials could only buy the time needed to develop a new edition.

Imagine an alternate history. What if the design team had been given time to deliver a game as polished as Essentials? Would the game have succeeded? Surely such a launch would have kept more players loyal, but would it lure the flood of MMO players the designers sought? Computer games offer frantic action and vivid graphics that D&D can never duplicate. By trying to match the appeal of a video game, the edition stumbled.

“We really lost what made D&D unique, what made Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing game distinct from other types of games that you could play,” Mearls said.

The new fifth edition of D&D ranks as the most successful yet. Rather than attempting to match the strengths of online games, fifth edition offers limited, elegant rules so players can focus what makes D&D special: playing through a story created when a 5 or 6 people join together as characters in a world open to anything.

Video games can never duplicate the same experience because they lack the same personal interaction and a dungeon master ready for the unexpected.

The fourth edition designers aimed to make the dungeon master’s role easy—something a computer could handle. So the rules discouraged the sort of ingenious or outrageous actions that break the game and create unforgettable moments.

Fifth-edition lead designer Jeremy Crawford even credits making the grid optional with some of the newest game’s success. “It’s a really simple thing, but in 5th, that decision to not require miniatures was huge. Us doing that suddenly basically unlocked everyone from the dining room table and, in many ways, made it possible for the boom in streaming that we’re seeing now.” Fourth edition did more than require a grid; it dwelled on one.

Fourth edition never emphasized D&D’s unique strengths. As Mike Mearls put it, “I think what was happening was [fourth edition] was really focusing on really hardcore mechanics, the intricacies of how the rules interact. It really became about the rules and about mastering the rules, rather than about the story, or role-playing, or the interaction between the DM and the players.”

By the end of fourth edition’s run, the designers had perfected a game about building characters and showing them off in dynamic fights. Perhaps they lost some of what makes D&D uniquely compelling.

Related: How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books

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Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

In 2005, Dungeons & Dragons faced a possible future similar to the fate of another popular role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade. In this future, D&D only exists as a license for online games and t-shirts and another potential movie. The tabletop game remains as an archive of PDFs for sale to die-hards. See The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice.

To guarantee tabletop D&D never met this end, the game needed to qualify as a core game brand at Wizards of the Coast, now owned by Hasbro. D&D needed to match its best-ever year of sales in 2000, but this time the game needed sustained sales at that level.

Without a new edition, the game could never approach such numbers. A new edition could be easy, but it had to bring a profitable, sustainable strategy that would meet stockholder’s expectations for return on investment. So far, no tabletop publisher had found such a strategy.

None of this means that fourth edition’s inspiration came entirely from a reach for sales. D&D team leader Bill Slavicsek wrote, “As we move deeper into the third edition, it’s flaws and fun-ending complexities become more pronounced, more obvious to players and Dungeon Masters alike.” The design team saw ways to “greatly reduce and perhaps even eliminate completely the parts of the game that get in the way of the fun.”

Meanwhile, a new threat was taking players from D&D. World of Warcraft debuted in 2004 and experienced surging popularity. By May 2005, WoW had 3.5 million players. By 2008, the community hit more than 11 million players. D&D players started talking about the players that tabletop lost to WoW.

At gaming conventions, the same aging guys who started playing in the 80s showed up to play D&D. Presumably, the younger players and women who might love D&D stayed home to play Warcraft. Wizards of the Coast aimed advertisements at bringing WoW players to the tabletop, but mere ads could never win the flood of new fans D&D needed.

WoW didn’t look like a fad or another way to play. It seemed like the vanguard leading to the future of gaming. “Gaming was definitely changing,” D&D designer Mike Mearls explained. “And I think that for 4th Edition, what we were trying to do was to start predicting for D&D where we thought the game was heading.”

Surely, new players coming to D&D would have an online or video game background. To compete, D&D needed a big advance—a new edition that didn’t just improve the game but an edition capable of winning Warcraft players by matching some of what drew players to online games. “As far as I know, 4th edition was the first set of rules to look to videogames for inspiration,” Mearls said. “I wasn’t involved in the initial design meetings for the game, but I believe that MMOs played a role in how the game was shaped. I think there was a feeling that D&D needed to move into the MMO space as quickly as possible.”

So the new edition focused on the elements that made the D&D fun and especially appealing to fans of online fantasy games. Mearls recalled that the team felt that “building a player character was the real thing that drove people to play the games. You wanted to choose your feats, your prestige classes and whatnot.”

Once players built their characters, the fun came from showing off those characters on the battlefield. Lead designer Rob Heinsoo wanted to give the game an irresistible hook that tied the game together and compelled gamers to play. “The solution James Wyatt, Andy Collins, and I were excited about was to give every PC an ongoing series of choices of interesting powers. Most every time you gain a level you select a new power or a feat. Every combat round you have an interesting choice of which power or powers to use.”

But none of this excitement would benefit players who struggled to find DMs or potential DMs who saw the role as a chore.

The new edition worked to be easier to run. Casual DMs could simply buy an adventure, read the boxed text, and then run a sequence of skill challenges and combat encounters. In a skill challenge, the DM just had to decide if a skill helped the players—but only when the challenge’s description neglected to list a skill in advance. Combat encounters ran easier too. Monsters offered a few, clear options for combat. Just move and roll attacks.

To succeed, the new edition needed to do more than win new players. The game needed a profitable, sustainable strategy.

For Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft boasted an advantage that the D&D team surely envied. Players paid a monthly fee, which guaranteed steady revenue.

“Along the way, we also came up with the idea of Dungeons & Dragons Insider,” Bill Slavicsek wrote. “This exciting suite of digital tools for players and Dungeon Masters was just too powerful a concept to try to shoehorn the existing d20 Game System around it. Instead we knew we had to rebuild the game to take full advantage of this amazing new initiative.”

The game didn’t just need to be easy to DM. It needed to be easy to run online. Ideally, it would help DMs enough to make running a bad game nearly impossible. Players could drop into the virtual tabletop at any hour, join any available DM, and feel confident that a stranger could deliver a fun experience. A thriving virtual table would let players join a game 24/7, just like Warcraft. And all those player would pay monthly, just like Warcraft.

The designers aimed for online-friendly rules. Fourth edition defines powers as tightly as Magic the Gathering cards, so a computer never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. Unlike earlier editions, spell effects no longer required a DM’s judgement to rule on a Wish or to decide whether a wizard could polymorph a fly into a blue whale that would drop on a foe.

If the rules proved easy for computers to emulate, the virtual table could lift more and more of the rules burden from the DM and the players. Meanwhile, a new generation of D&D-inspired video games and MMOs could open new revenue sources.

The team planned ways for players at kitchen tables to contribute to the bottom line too. The emphasis on character building would inspire players to by a stream of books with new options. DMs would buy adventures. Everyone needed miniatures. The 4E rules list “D&D Miniatures” among things needed for play—not as a “Useful addition” like a character sheet. The rules never mention tokens or other alternatives to minis.

The D&D team thought they finally had the recipe for sustained success that D&D needed. The new game featured rules optimized to bring the most fun out of the character creation and combat choices that drew players to D&D. The new strategy could gain the income that would vault D&D to a core brand for years to come.

At the 2007 Gen Con game convention, the D&D team announced the new edition. Mike Mearls saw an uneasy reaction from the D&D faithful. “The big announcement on Thursday night was, well, tense. We didn’t spark a riot, but it seemed the audience was a bit nervous.”

As someone in the audience, I saw a confused reception. The D&D team emphasized D&D Insider and the virtual tabletop so much that people wondered if D&D would remain a game playable without a computer. But the designers loved D&D and their new edition, so we felt ready to embrace it too.

Next: Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

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The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Despite the alarmists warning that things like ascending armor classes, women, or fourth edition would ruin Dungeons & Dragons, the game has only faced one serious threat. Ascending ACs are just easier, woman have been improving the game at least since Lee Gold, and fourth edition once seemed like exactly the savior D&D needed. The real threat to D&D came from the way the game combined cheap entertainment with a valuable brand.

For a sample of D&D’s potential demise, witness the fate of another successful role-playing game: Vampire: The Masquerade. In the 90s, the popularity of Vampire seemed ready to eclipse D&D.

On its introduction by White Wolf Publishing in 1991, Vampire surged in popularity, attracting a new generation of players and more women. The game spawned a franchise of World of Darkness games.

But once the player community peaked, White Wolf saw its income slow until books barely broke even.

The low cost of role playing makes selling RPGs a tough business. Players can only spend so much time at the game table, and a few purchases will fill all those hours. Even if a game master buys an adventure to run, five other people get hours of fun from the purchase. And those hours come from a slim packet of pages. A hardcover adventure will sustain a campaign for a year. A few bucks spent on dice and maybe on a core book can sustain a player for years. Role-playing gaming rates as the cheapest entertainment around. See How the End of Lonely Fun Leads to Today’s Trickle of D&D Books.

By 1998, White Wolf was canceling games in the World of Darkness franchise. The company rode the d20 boom with D&D-related supplements, but that boon went bust too.

In 2006, CCP Games, the Icelandic company behind EVE Online, acquired White Wolf just to gain rights for a potential online game. White Wolf’s tabletop publishing schedule slowed a few PDF and print-on-demand products. When CCP’s plans for an MMO fizzled, White Wolf sold to another computer game company, Paradox Interactive. Now, the White Wolf web site calls the outfit a licensing company. In an interview, Martin Elricsson, the company’s Brand Architect explained the publisher’s status. “The economic center of the company will be computer games. As things are now, tabletop publishing hardly breaks even.”

Vampire: The Masquerade now rates as an entry in an IP portfolio, a brand to license or to apply to an online game. Paradox Interactive stands as the accidental owner of a tabletop RPG. If they bother to publish it, the action will hardly affect the corporate bottom line and stockholders will call tabletop a distraction.

At two points in D&D’s history, D&D could easily have met a similar fate.

The first threat came in 1997, when TSR neared bankruptcy. TSR sold itself to Wizards of the Coast, a company run by Peter Adkison, a D&D fan with big dreams for the game. A few years earlier, Adkison had asked designer Richard Garfield for a portable game suitable for passing time in a convention line. Garfield’s game, Magic the Gathering, captured lightning in the bottle, landing Wizards enough cash to buy TSR. Without this happenstance, TSRs assets could have been picked over and sold piecemeal to companies looking for intellectual property for computer games and movie licenses.

In 1999, Hasbro bought WotC for Magic the Gathering and the Pokémon card game. The waning profits from D&D’s second edition certainly didn’t help the acquisition. Like many folks in 1999, Hasbro executives probably wondered if people had to dress up to play D&D. Would remnants of the satanic panic stain Hasbro?

When Hasbro acquired WotC, they brought a big corporate cost structure and return on investment expectations set by Magic and Pokémon. If D&D failed to meet those expectations, imagine a D&D product line like the one today—but without any tabletop products—just an assortment of licensed video games, a D&D-themed Monopoly game, some t-shirts, and a movie a few years out. Maybe they would license the tabletop game to third party, where, like other high-profile licenses, a barely break-even business could struggle under oppressive license fees and stifling brand oversight. For a Hasbro executive cutting such a tabletop license, the deal offers little upside. A modest success barely registers; a runaway success embarrasses the exec who let a valuable asset leave the company.

In 2000, D&D proved a temporary asset to Hasbro. The new, third edition sparked a boom in sales, mainly by inspiring the same players who found the game in the 80s.

By 2005, D&D settled into a familiar pattern for a mature edition. After a big debut, players embrace character options, creatures, and adventures. Game companies have employees to pay, and only a steady income keeps the lights on, so they publish to meet demand. Before long, even the most passionate customers own more supplements than they can play. Players stop adding to the unused volumes already on their shelves. Meanwhile, the wealth of volumes on game store shelves overwhelms and scares away newcomers. Potential new customers wonder if they need to fill a bookshelf to play. Is the Player’s Handbook 2 required or is it an updated version of the original book?

The D&D team started enduring annual, Christmas-season layoffs as management expected slowing sales in each coming fiscal year.

Hasbro’s experience in the toy business made them familiar with such booms and busts. Except for a few core toy lines, they would roll out a toy like G.I. Joe, ride a surge in sales, and then sideline the toy for 15 or so years until a new generation of children seemed ready for it. Perhaps Hasbro execs wondered if a similar strategy suited D&D. Instead of losing money between generational releases, why not just retire the tabletop product during those 15-year lulls?

Peter Adkison had left Wizards, so no guardian angel would save the game this time.

For D&D to qualify as a core game brand, the game needed to match its best-ever year of sales in 2000, but this time the game needed sustained sales at that level.

Without a new edition, the game could never approach such numbers. A new edition could be easy, but it had to bring a profitable, sustainable strategy that would meet stockholder’s expectations for profit. So far, no tabletop publisher had found such a strategy.

As sales withered, the D&D team searched a way to save the tabletop game they loved. By 2008, they thought they found a way.

Next: Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

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Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

When Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax designed Dungeons & Dragons, they aimed for fun. In 1978 Gary wrote, “Enjoyment is the real reason for D&D being created, written, and published.” To Gary, when players fell in love with the game and spread their enthusiasm to new fans, D&D proved fun. Forty-some years later, the community of D&D fans continues to grow and thrive.

If players’ enthusiasm reveals the fun in D&D, then not every part of the original game passes the test—at least for most players. Over five editions, the game has lost some things that few players enjoyed. Only players seeking a deliberately old school style embrace things like mapping, strict encumbrance, spell blowback, and damage to treasure.

In the original D&D game, the party’s mapper served an essential role. Mappers translated the dungeon master’s descriptions of dimensions and distances onto graph paper. In Mapping—or Not-Fun Things That Dungeons & Dragons Players Learned to Skip, Part 1, I wondered why the game emphasized mapping, even though few players enjoyed it. I titled the post “Part 1” because I planned a series of posts making light of equally un-fun activities in the early game.

Dave and Gary created rules designed to create “a game which is fun to play and set so as to provide maximum enjoyment for as long a period of time as possible.” They showed a talent for finding the fun in dragons and in dungeons. Why did some parts of the game miss the target?

Perhaps the new game proved so thrilling that players overlooked its rough parts. Then, over time, gamers noticed rules they did not enjoy.

Mainly though, Dave and Gary actually enjoyed some aspects of the game that many players failed to appreciate.

Despite inventing the original non-competitive role-playing game, Dave and Gary loved competition and tests of skill in games. After all, both men held a lifelong passion for competitive games. “Games are usually for diversion or amusement, although sometimes they are played for a stake (gambling) or prizes,” Gary wrote. “They are typically contests.”

This love for competition shows in the way Gary and TSR always brought Dungeons & Dragons to conventions as a tournament. Early on, Dragon magazine and TSR sponsored competitions for dungeon masters, dungeon design, and “D&D masters.”

D&D rewarded ingenuity and resource management. Players took care to avoid fights they couldn’t win, to claim treasure without a fight, and to retreat from the dungeon when they ran low on spells and hit points.

Mapping tested skill. Gary relished any chance to frustrate mappers. The original rules’ half page of “Tricks and Traps” lists nothing but slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to thwart mapping. The tricks did more than waste graph paper—they threatened character’s lives. Heroes lured to a lower level of the dungeon faced more dangerous monsters. Lost heroes could run out of resources before they escaped the dungeon. Originally, Find the Path found an escape path.

Resource management tested skill. In a multi-level dungeon with uncertain maps, players always needed to consider whether to press ahead or to retreat from the dungeon. Pressing ahead offered more treasure but cost spells and hit points. Retreat imposed a cost too. Wandering monsters might still attack and they carried minimal treasure. Under these circumstances, spells like Leomund’s Tiny Hut offered a safe rest and a vital advantage.

Encumbrance tested skill. Gold is heavy, so early adventurers brought mules and porters to help empty the dungeon. Encumbrance forced players to make hard choices about the gold worth hauling, and the silver they might leave behind. Gary created Tenser’s Floating Disk on behalf of his son Ernie and every other player who wanted a painless way to recover every last copper from the dungeon.

Spells that ruined treasure tested skill. Even in D&D’s original rules, Fireball delivered more damage than other third-level spells. But Fireball destroyed treasure, and players hated seeing treasure within their grasp destroyed. Gary enjoyed this test of skill. 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.’” See
Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve. Cone of Cold deals the damage of a fireball without destroying anything, but as a 5th-level spell.

Vancian casting tested skill. In the wake of D&D’s release, every aspiring, RPG designer replaced spell memorization with spell points. But spell points never brought the added strategy of choosing which spells to memorize. In D&D, casters needed to decide whether to memorize an attack spell or a utility spell like Find the Path, Leomund’s Tiny Hut, or Tenser’s Floating Disk. As for rituals that characters can cast without choosing to forego another spell, Gary would not approve.

Tomb of Horrors became Gary’s earliest dungeon design to reach print. By today’s standards of storytelling, saying yes to players, and letting characters shine, the dungeon rates as nearly unplayable. But no other dungeon reveals Gary’s love of competition so well. The tomb served as a tournament at the Origins convention in 1975. In his notes to the dungeon master, Gary promises that the Tomb of Horrors “is a thinking person’s module.” He warns, “If your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy.” The tomb works as resource management challenge, where the resources are henchmen and divination spells. Locating Acererak’s hoard demands finding 15 hidden and concealed doors. Those secret passages make as much of a barrier to claiming the gold as the traps. Midway through, the tomb tries to fool players into thinking they reached the end. If the tomb aimed to present a story of players thwarting evil, it failed. But as a test of skill for players who keep score in gold, the tomb offered fun.

For Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, that’s what games were for.

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Gary Gygax Versus the False Deity (of Realism)

Dungeons & Dragons started with a laser focus on dungeon expeditions. Specifically, the game assumed multi-level dungeons with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die following orders.

When Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax crafted the original role-playing game, they focused on making dungeon crawls fun. Even when the rules strayed from the dungeon, they only served to build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. (See The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons.)

Although D&D’s rules kept a narrow scope, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured players’ imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. They could roam fantastic worlds. This potential invited players to stop seeing D&D as game about raiding dungeons. Players saw a system for simulating a fantasy world.

D&D made a poor simulation, so players decided to improve it. Instead of making the game more fun, most tinkerers aimed to make the simulation more realistic.

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a foam sword cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system. Folks considered how magic should work, and then fancied that spell points offered more realistic, imaginary magic.

All the criticism of D&D’s lack of realism rankled Gary Gygax. He and Dave had designed a game. “As a game must first and foremost be fun, it needs no claim to ‘realism’ to justify its existence,” Gary wrote. “D&D exists as a game because thousands of people enjoy playing it. As its rules were specifically designed to make it fun and enjoyable.” A game needed to be fun before it made offerings to the “false deity” of realism.

Gary made his defense in a 3,800-word article that appear in Dragon issue 16, from 1978. He took a justified stand. D&D continues to thrive because the game’s design values fun before realism. Still, his defense failed to win anyone, partly because Gary diluted his point by railing against other targets: unauthorized supplements to D&D and APAs—a sort of stamps-and-mimeograph version of Internet forums.

Mainly, the defense flopped because Gary offered the wrong examples. Instead of choosing unrealistic rules that added fun, he cited rules that added no fun and that D&D works fine without. No one worries about wizards and swords anymore, because mages have better ways to contribute. Although fighters can use magic wands, the classes haven’t merged into a flavorless super class. Elves and dwarves no longer face level limits and the game works better for it. Critical hits never ruined the game; they add fun. (Although, to be fair, the maimings and sudden deaths featured in critical tables from 1978 never took off.)

Meanwhile, Gary’s defense fails to mention the brilliantly unrealistic rules that made D&D work.

Original D&D includes mechanics aimed at making dungeon crawling as fun as possible. In The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points, I explained how the game’s totally unrealistic system for tracking injuries supported dungeon delves and added fun. In The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold, I explained how the game built in a goal that rewarded successful dungeoneers with stronger characters. In When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons, I revealed how absurdly unnatural multi-level dungeons let players choose a difficulty level and encouraged them to delve deeper without pausing to rest.

Why didn’t Gary choose better examples to defend? Partly because he took pride in D&D, so he leapt to the defense of the rules that drew the most criticism. But I wonder how well Gary understood the advantages of the unrealistic rules that he never defended. In his article, he describes D&D as a carefully designed and developed system of cohesive parts. No one describes the original game as cohesive. But Gary and Dave lacked our perspective. When they created the original role-playing game, they lacked the current hobby’s decades of shared design experience. They could only rely on the shared experience of a small circle of lifelong gamers. Lucky for us, that proved enough.

Next: Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

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