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

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

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

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

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

What went wrong with the old way of awarding treasure?

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

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

Bearer of unwanted magic items

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Imaginaryfriend says:

    Good stuff. The drow rogue with Dawnbringer is hilarious. Not the worst I have seen by far, but a good illustration of the blinding effect phat lewtz may have. And anyone wondering about the reasoning behind the limits put on gold should really walk past a few T3 or T4 tables at a con and simply add the cost of the material components used for the simulacrums and other spells.. The operating budget of entire Fearun nations goes into one adventure sometimes.

  2. timothypark says:

    Another good column and good insights. I’m curious what your take on the new rules will be. Curious to read them.

    Am I out of line to see the “computer game” mentality at work in some of this. Not wholly: there is always a draw to power for some at the table. Always unexpected synergies between items and powers and players. Still, the game culture is suffused with a great deal of play based on many games where the “optimal build” of character and/or items is the point of play. With so much of that going on elsewhere, that the same dynamic becomes frequent at the D&D table is not much of a surprise.

    Have to say, what is here, and the anecdotes shared and those I have on my own, just make me more content at my local tables and in the three sandboxes around here.

    I’ve always had more fun with a fairly mundane character doing remarkable things ….

  3. ~Gary says:

    may want to edit for accuracy, unless Mr Christy has run 77+ hours/week nonstop since Adventurers League started…?

    • ~Gary says:

      Also, while the league has proposed removing dawnbringer, they have several other sources of sun blades that are still legal. The ‘problematic’ aspect of dawnbringer is not in that it is a sun blade, but that it is a Legendary rarity item, allowing all sorts of trade shenanigans.

  4. jesseakins42 says:

    Punishing a community because of problematic players, abusing items in the game. Is not a solution to problematic players.

    • Lance says:

      But how is removing items from the game punishing players, they are allowing you to replace them with other items. Someone’s character is not going to stop being that character by Hazirawn being removed.

      • Phuka says:

        I would argue that the changes themselves are a punishment, not just the item removal. As a matter of fact, the only change that I like is the treasure change. The rest feels like fixing something that wasn’t broken and penalizing the whole team for a few people abusing a system.

  5. Lolzy says:

    Also treasure points don’t stop trade issues now you have players buying cheap tp items and trading them for high tp cost items of the same rarity.

    • ross brown says:

      snap! i hadn’t thought of that!
      they spent the last year crafting the perfect system in secret, and you crushed it.

  6. v2blast says:

    “Tom rarely minds if everyone in a party brings powerful magic, “I can tailor the difficulty.””

    I assume this should be “powerful magic *items*”?

    Anyway, thanks for the detailed writeup! I’ve never thought about those sorts of issues, since I’ve never played or run a game in AL.

  7. ross brown says:

    The complaint with the new rules isn’t that the old system wasn’t broken. It’s that the new rules swing the pendulum the opposite direction, and it’s not clear what the goal was.

    players can still powergame. they can still figure out which games unlock the magc item X. they can still trade for stuff.
    the treasure point system ensures that no one will pick up a driftglobe.
    the limited gold means wizards are hosed. fun spells are out cuz it is too expensive to copy them into your book. (secret chest is a 4th level spell that a wizard can’t afford until they reach 11-level and it will bankrupt them)

    • Jacob Weldon says:

      It is very clear what the goal is. The point with unlocking treasure for everyone at the table is so that anyone who wants the magic item has access to it. So even if the power gamer wants to claim the bracers of archery, the two other characters can still claim it if they want to.

      • ross says:

        As you said, the goal is not to improve the reward system, it is to alter it.

        The article also states:
        “what do you do with a +1 sword after you gain a +2 blade?” not addressed.

        “nobody wants the helm of comprehend languages. Driftglobes may as well be cursed.” still nobody will spend TP on that.

        “Players interested in winning the best loot would track the items available in adventures. ” still gonna choose adventures to unlock Belt of Strength over +2 sword”

        the cost (my prediction)… fewer non-combat items at the table. fewer different items at the table. more power items at the table.

        • Brian says:

          Ross is correct in this. I have several characters with unusual items that I would never spend TP on them. They come up from time to time in adventures they end up being very useful, but not worth the cost of TP.

          I’ve also seen people change the way their characters are built because of a specific magic item they happen to get at a table they would have never thought of to pick out of the video game magic store methods they are going with.

          What you will end up having now is more cookie cutter characters with the same items over and over again simply because they can choose.

          That being said, I could deal with that if it weren’t for the gold changes. That is a pointless change with zero benefit, and as Ross points out in another comment, breaks the Wizard class. So what if Wizards get 2 spells per level. If you limit them to standard spell progression, you have a sorcerer.

          • Exactly, now when epics are run, 5-7 players will have access to the powerful magic items the epics give instead of one of each we can have 5-7 of each being introduced to the game.

    • Scott says:

      How are wizards hosed? I’ve heard others saying this as well. They get to choose 2 new spells each level to add to their spell book automatically for no cost.

      Having to make choices about which to take helps define a unique character. And forcing interesting choices between having more flexibility in spell options in ones spell book versus having fewer choices there but more magic items is an interesting choice and can drive narrative.

      • ross brown says:

        A key and unique feature of the wizard is the ability to copy spells into her spellbook, beyond the 2 per level.

        Previously, she could find those spells in the wild (you find a scroll of levitation). This process costs gold + downtime (== more gold). Limiting the gold, means that wizards will be less able to use this feature.
        Copying a level 5 spell costs.1004 gold. By level 10, you only earned 1725.

        Am I gonna spend my very limited gold or my 2 per level on a power spell or on a flavor spell? Secret chest is a fun 4th level spell, but at 5000gp to use, i can’t afford it until level 11. Planar binding costs 20% of my earnings for 24-hour boost.

        Am I gonna spend my very limited gold copying a spell or using it to cast a spell with expensive one-time use components or just cast fireball?

        This drastically affects 1 class (the class the company is named after)

        • Matt says:

          Your point still holds, but your math is way off.

          By level 10, you will have gained 1125 gp (75 gp for levels 2-4, and 150 gp for levels 5-10).

          Copying a 5th level spell is 252 gp total (including downtime costs) for a modest lifestyle. Not 1004 gp. 50 gp and 2 hours of work per level of the spell x 5 = 250 gp and 10 hours. 1 downtime day is 8 hours of work, so you spend 2 gp for a modest lifestyle for 10 hours of work.

          The components for Secret Chest cost 5050 gp, not 5000. You wouldn’t have this much gold until level 17, not 11. By level 16, you’d only have 4425 gp.

  8. Jon Gardner says:

    The problem with 5e is the brickwall mechanic.

    Challenge is simply created by tossing more monsters at the party. Too much and you TPK. Too little and its easy.

    What tips the scales is gear. Which is never accounted for in APL. The problem isn’t builds its the fact of taking a bunch of random players and trying to make things work. This happens more in modules than say the hardcovers…but still, usually PCs are OP. The only way to recreate the feeling of challenge is to nerf eco and loot.

    You can’t restrict players from Dming and gaining rewards or going to another table and getting lootz. AL tries really hard to cap this but largely it fails.

    You see kids, D&D is really a game you play with a group of friends and have a good laugh. Its not chess.

    The hardcovers were never designed for AL, they were designed for weekly non-rotating players playing a campaign. AL only really functions when either the players are level 1 and have nothing or are level 20 and have everything. The rest is just broken narrative BS.

    What AL cures is for the DM. If you DM a game for random people that is homebrew, there really is no point. You get nothing but a shallow pointless game. You DM AL you get rewards, so if the players are shit at least you get something. And its all packaged in a way that somewhat restricts players from running amok.

    Wizards I think should really work really hard to make DMing fun. Maybe the new HCs will address this. Some of the books were really good and I think were too good for crappy players. Give them a sandbox RPG it blew their little minds. No railroad? Wut?

    I think what AL should move towards is no DM. The players run the game like a board game. That to me has possibility. I’m sure Wotc has done this as well.

    • Jon Gardner says:

      Despite this 5e really has great rules for combat. Probably the best ever for running a strategy RPG in a fantasy setting.

  9. Jeffrey Kesselman says:

    In a recent blog Mike Mearls announced that he *just* discovered that the game is actually more fun if you let the players lead a bit.

    With such ignorance of roleplay and what it means at the heart of the WOTC DND team its not surprising that WOTC created an organized play system that encouraged Game Oriented Play (GOPing) over anything else.

    What was a little more surprising was what a bad job they did of creating a set of rules that would at least play fairly. From day one AL had obviosu holes in it rules that you could drive trucks through. It allowed players to do things that a good DM would never put up with– like preading the adventures. (Read the AL rules, its not even a “missdeed” its totally legal.)

    Furthermore by tying their DMs hands up in this bad rules system they prevented DMs from fixing it in their own games. AL quickly devolved into a world primarily made up of exploiters and rules lawyers.

    This all traces back to WOTCs biggest misunderstanding of the genre. Even though they are getting a bit looser (or so they say) with the new hardback in terms of where players wander, in the end they see D&D as a one way medium. They write a story, then they tell us how to experience it.

    Until they understand that the heart of roleplay is the *players’* stories and not theirs, they will continue to miss the target.

    • Jeffrey Kesselman says:

      Post script: And that they imagine they can fix it by just “fixing the rules” is strong evidence that they are still clueless.

      • Dave says:

        Jeffery, I’m only seeing this now in late November, but…THIS, THIS, THIS!!! ALL of your reply.

        And as to your postscript, I feel the same way, even going so far as to say that WotC treated AL season 8 just like another M:tG expansion with a whole new set of rules and errata. They’re going along as “Oh, we’re banning these cards because players are using them in ways we never intended that they should be used.”, or “Oh, we’re putting these new play rules in place in order to blunt the power-gamers.” – never mind that it hurts just about every player BUT the power-gamer, who will just find another way to their power – or “No, THIS is how we envisioned the game would run and how the story would go. You are not playing nice!”, etc.

  10. Jeffrey Kesselman says:

    P.P.S. And please don’t respond with one of those “its necessary for Organized Play” posts. No, it really isn’t. I ran and played games in a 6 GM shared world for many years and it didnt take a lot of DM hand-tying, just the understanding that DMs had a right to reject anything coming in from another DMs world.

    For a modern, distributed take on this, see https://www.facebook.com/RealmsReborn

  11. Scott says:

    The following is purely my personal opinion, which, based upon prior comments, may be a minority opinion here.

    These rule changes are a wise move on the part of WotC. There has been a huge influx of interest in D&D driven by people watching streams like Critical Role and the like. These folks tend to be more interested in character (in the dramatic sense) and story than in min-max character “build” optimization (in the mechanical sense) and combat tactics.

    AL serves as an entry point into the D&D community for these folks who are new to the hobby. It makes sense to tweak AL rules to encourage a broader set of play styles, and these new rules do that.

    I wonder if it would be feasible for AL to run tables using the new rules (“standard”?) as well as tables using the prior rule set (“legacy”?). This would help guide the power gamers and tacticians to some tables and the more story-focused role players to others. Of course, this would only work for local AL communities that ae large enouh to support these 2 subcommunities.

    The problem with the current rule set is that you end up with min-maxed characters with optimized character builds and magical augments mixed in with more ordinary characters. The non-min-maxed characters then end up sidelined as the min-maxed characters essentially solo the encounters. That’s no fun for the new folks.

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  14. What I wonder is if these players are so story focused why are they so passionate about participating in combat? I generally stand aside while they dominate the roll playing.

    • Scott says:

      It’s not so black and white.

      Someone who is focused more on story and teamwork than on individual character optimization may appreciate encounters that include combat as much as those that don’t.

      Don’t conflate “story-focused’ with ‘roleplay-focused’. They are not the same.

      Also, there is nothing wrong with those who really enjoy the character min-max metagame. It just makes for better games overall if those folks end up playing with others with the same interests. There’s plenty of room in this hobby for all types.

  15. S'mon says:

    With AL PCs playing the same adventure multiple times, and no real persistent world, it feels like Organised Play is much closer to an MMORPG than a regular tabletop RPG campaign. The megadungeon campaigns of yore allowed world/campaign shifting PCs, but the worlds themselves were persistent; what you did in play mattered. This is the model I use myself.

    With no continuity except of the PCs themselves, the PC and their gear is all that matters. Unsurprising that is the only thing players care about.

  16. Jay D Ribak says:

    16,000 hours, assuming 40 hours per week, is 400 weeks of DMing. Assuming 52 weeks, not taking time for holidays or vacations, is over 7 and a half years—3.5 years more than AL and 5th edition has even existed.

    At 100 hours per week, it’s still over 3 years.

    Wish I could have the equivalent of 2 full time jobs running D&D.

    • Brian says:

      I don’t think the article specified AL or 5e, could just be an oldschool guy who’s been at it for a while.

      “For insight, I turned to Thomas Christy, who has logged over 16,000 hours prepping and dungeon mastering on Roll20.”

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