How to Run an Ambush So Sneaky Monsters Bring More Than Claw/Claw/Bite

Dungeons & Dragons includes lots of sneaky creatures proficient in Stealth, from Abominable Yeti to Yeti. That alphabetical range somehow fails to make my point, but more than 500 creatures fit in between. The game includes creeping monsters who work as ambush predators like spiders (Stealth +7), crafty ambushers like goblins (Stealth +6), as well as potential jump scares from wights, and jumping oh-shit surprises from bulettes.

When these creatures get some chances to lie in wait or to sneak up for surprise, they show the traits that make them more interesting than a claw/claw/bite sequence. Combat scenes feel more varied. Plus the barbarian gets to show off Feral Instinct. However, I have almost never run sneaky monsters for surprise, and based on countless convention games virtually every other DM plays sneaky wrong too.

Part of the blame rests on the fifth edition rule for hiding before an attack. “Compare the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.” In the highly technical jargon of game design, this rule is rubbish.

The worst check among the hiders determines surprise, so with multiple foes and checks, the chance of success veers quickly toward impossible. Based on real life, you might suppose that ambushes often work. Based on the D&D rules, the word “ambush” describes a imaginary event that can never happen, at least for groups of sneaky monsters. (For a look at the reverse of this dynamic, see In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.)

To fix the rule so ambushers can surprise, skip the roll to hide. As a dungeon master, you can set the difficulty class to spot an ambush just as you set DCs for other checks. Then, compare each character’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score against the DC to determine if the character is surprised. This matches the procedure you might use for a trap.

As a technique for setting the DC to detect an ambush, just add 10 to the ambushers’ Stealth bonus, so hiding goblins with Stealth +6 require a DC 16 to spot. If the sneaky creature has advantage, add 5 to the DC. For disadvantage, subtract 5 from the DC. A group setting an ambush has the edge of planning, preparation, and familiarity with the location, so a DM focused on realism might allow advantage and enable many surprises, but not the kind players favor. More entertaining ambushes probably lead to a mix of surprised characters and characters who act immediately. Such situations reward characters with high perception.

This approach boosts sneaky monsters and perceptive characters, but it eliminates die rolls and the fun uncertainty that dice add. By choosing a DC, the DM essentially decides who becomes surprised, and it’s always the same, oblivious characters. The D&D designers favor passive perception because it avoids slowing the game for rolling Wisdom (Perception) checks. In dungeons that encourage players to look frequently for traps, passive checks can speed past a lot of rolls. But lurking monsters deserve a different procedure: Just have players roll a Wisdom (Perception) check before the likely roll for initiative. The characters who fail their check begin surprised.

In an ambush, initiative can start at one of two times:

  • When the monsters attack.
  • When one or more characters notice the potential ambush.

This second case leads to judgement calls from the DM, but can also lead to interesting scenes. How the realization plays depends on how the perceptive characters react to spotting the attackers.

If the ranger draws a sword and yells, “To Arms!” then initiative starts and the less perceptive players begin surprised. Meanwhile, the monsters are already aware of their foes, so they start without surprise.

If the ranger plays it cool and tries to alert the party, then the scene turns on whether the ambushers happen to attack immediately. Does the ambushers’ insight reveal that the archer spotted them? If so, they strike and may surprise some characters. Can the ranger deceive the ambushers into waiting just a moment longer while covertly signaling the party? Ask what the alert characters do, and then call for checks to play the scene.

Distance factors into the situation too. In daylight, if the eagle-eyed ranger spots a group of yuan-ti hiding among desert rocks a half-mile ahead, then any surprise hardly matters. During that first round, no one without meteor swarm is in range to attack. The players can select the best angle of approach or can just avoid the monsters. Since yuan-ti have darkvision to 120 feet, they surely wait until night when most adventurers with darkvision see 60 feet and still suffer disadvantage to Wisdom (Perception) checks unless they carry a light source. Such scenes allow characters to show their special traits, like the drow character’s enhanced night vision that lets the party turn the tables.

For that ambush in darkness, you must judge how close the party will approach the yuan-ti before any characters can detect the snakes. Perhaps at 60 feet, allow the ranger leading the party one check at disadvantage due to dim light. At 30 feet, in the moment the monsters spring their attack, allow a second check for the entire party.

Ultimately, many ambush attempts lead into situations that demand DMs ready to balance distance, skills, and traits to create fun and exciting situations. An ’80s roleplaying game might have included a table that factored Stealth scores, Perception scores, terrain and lighting into a roll that revealed encounter distance. The authors of the Player’s Handbook skipped all that complexity in favor of simplicity. The approach relies on a DM’s judgement, but isn’t that part of what makes being a dungeon master fun?

When You Describe Outcomes, Flatter Your Game’s Heroes and Monsters

Dungeons & Dragons games live in our imagination, so we can only share the action through our description. Critical hits, high-stakes saves, and successful checks against long odds all encourage dungeon masters and players to describe the game’s action in ways that flaunt the characters’ power and talent. Everyone loves a crit; even narrating one is fun.

As a DM, I look for characters’ heroic moments. In a movie, a heroic moment might come when Wonder Woman rushes a foe through a window, crashing out in a shower of glass and debris. In a game, heroic moments come when a hero grapples Acererak and heaves him into a pool of lava, or when a hero stops fleeing an onrushing boulder and turns to drive the sword Shatterspike into it. Whenever you spot a heroic moment, put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome. Many players enjoy describing their characters’ heroic moments. Invite them to.

In D&D and in fiction, a heroes prove their mettle by facing villains who seem at least as capable of winning the day. So look for villainous moments—baddass occasions when your monsters get to flaunt their menace. Think of the Darth Vader demolishing rebels in pursuit of the stolen Death Star plans. D&D monsters typically arrive outmatched by heroes, so make the most of every badass turn. Legendary resistances invite badass moments by letting villains shrug off a hero’s best shot and laugh at the character’s weakness.

Surely none of this advice surprises you. Here’s the unexpected tip: When someone fumbles, instead of describing the failure in a way the makes the hero or monster seem inept or comical, describe the stumble so the fault comes from tough opposition or an imposible situation. DMs feel tempted to narrate bad rolls for laughs. We can narrate a 1 with a description of how someone’s hat tilted to cover their eyes and gain an easy laugh that feels fun in the moment. But too many descriptions like that turn characters into clowns and their opponents into jokes. Instead, use a 1 to describe a foe’s superhuman speed or the swirling hot ash clogging the air and stinging the heroes’ eyes. When you describe outcomes, even the fumbles, flatter your heroes and monsters.

Postscript: Before anyone runs to the comment section, I know that D&D lacks fumbles, but you know what I mean. Don’t be pedantic.

Ninth-level D&D spells Were Never Intended for Players

Dungeons & Dragons first supplement, Greyhawk, raised the game’s highest level spells from 6th level to 9th. None of Gary Gygax’s players had reached the level required to cast the new spells.

Tim Kask remembers that as he and Gary worked on the Blackmoor supplement, they figured players faced little chance of even reaching level 9 or 10. “This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was level 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave’s.”

Doctor_Strange_AstralGreyhawk’s high-level spells served non-player characters and indulged Gary’s love of systematic cataloging—the same inclination that drove him to create a plane of existence for every alignment.

At level 9, Gary stashed outrageous effects from fantasy. Shape Change duplicated a scene from the movie Sword in the Stone. Wish, Time Stop, and Gate came from popular imagination. Astral Spell came from the Doctor Strange comic.

Most of the level 9 spells boasted game-breaking effects. Shape Change let casters gain the shape and abilities of any creature at will, over a duration of hours. Gate could summon a god. Wish seemed to allow anything. Astral Spell probably helped you spy, but you needed to read Doctor Strange to be certain.

To Gary, these spells stood above the players’ reach, reserved for scrolls, liches, and legends.

Gamers played D&D with more passion—and less disciple—than Gary ever expected. Player characters raced past level 17 and gained those once-legendary spells. Now the spells marked either (a) where D&D stopped playing like D&D or (b) where players rolled new characters. All of Gary’s players retired their characters at levels in the mid-teens.

Gary wrote that he designed original D&D to challenge characters between 1st and 16th level, and not 17th-level characters with their level-9 spells. Eventually, the 9th-level spells prompted the fifth-edition designers to mark a new tier for 17th-level PCs. See The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before.

lich_queen_close

When heroes oppose the lich queen, what does she wish for?

By the time Gary designed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, he knew that 17-plus-level PCs bedeviled DMs everywhere, but he kept spells like Wish and Shape Change. Gary aimed to keep the elements of his original game. Instead of eliminating troublesome spells, he imposed limits. Shape Change now consumed a 5,000 gp. jade circlet. The description for Wish now warned, “The discretionary power of the referee is necessary in order to maintain game balance.” I wish I had known that before my players wished for level-infinity PCs. Astral Spell added some baggage about silver cords and continued to discourage casting through obfuscation.

Third edition coped with the legendary spells by adding limitations. Wish stopped granting Wishes and now offered a page-long menu of magical boons. Shapechange lost a space and added hit die limits. Deities and unique beings could now ignore the Gate spell’s summons. As for Astral Spell, I must have missed the issue of Doctor Strange that explained its value.

Fifth edition continues the strategy of containing overpowered spells with long, limiting descriptions. Wish once appeared in 4 lines, now it spans a half page. Shapechange grows almost as much.

Why do these spells remain in the game, even though Gary Gygax never expected players to enjoy free access to them? In part, I blame tradition. Fourth edition eliminated Wish and its kin, but players rebelled against a game that cut so many familiar ingredients.

Designers struggle to capture a sense of wonder appropriate for the game’s most powerful spells while keeping spells playable. Meteor Swarm never aggravated any DMs, but a cluster of fireballs just feels like more of something from level 3. Of Gary’s legendary spells, Time Stop ranks as the best. It combines an epic feel with a manageable effect. In some future revision of the game, I hope to see Wish retired to legendary status and replaced by more spells in the mold of Time Stop.

Greyhawk’s description of Meteor Swarm interjects “(Jim!)” whenever it mentions the spell’s fireballs. Before Meteor Swarm reached print, Greyhawk campaigner Jim Ward’s PC acquired the spell on scrolls. He argued that Meteor Swarm should create flying rocks and overcome fire immunity. His dungeon master, Greyhawk co-author Rob Kuntz, put his final ruling in print. Years later, Jim prevailed. The spell now produces fiery rocks that deal both fire and bludgeoning damage.

The Twisting Tale of Skills in D&D

Modern Dungeons & Dragons includes both skills and character classes, but in the early days of the roleplaying hobby, gamers often saw skills and classes as incompatible. Some gamers touted skills as the innovation that freed roleplaying games from character classes. Three years after D&D reached hobby shops, new games like Traveller and RuneQuest eliminated classes in favor of skill systems. Advertisements for RuneQuest in The Dragon trumpeted, “No Artificial Character Classes!!” Such games eliminated the unrealistic class restrictions that prevented, say, a fighter from learning to climb walls or from mastering a spell. “Mages can wear armor and use blades.” The ad credits RuneQuest to designer “Steve Perrin and friends.” Remember that name, because Perrin returns to this tale later.

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax favored classes because they resonated with the fantasy archetypes everyone knew. He warned, “If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character.” He had a point. Skill-based games gave every character the ability to improve the same common adventuring skills, leading to a certain sameness among adventurers.

Classes let characters make distinct contributions to a group’s success. In a 1984 interview in DRACHE magazine, Gygax said, “The D&D game is based on the theory that there is so much to know and to do that nobody can do everything on his own. The team aspect is important. Each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

As long as Gygax controlled D&D’s development, he kept skills out of the game. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but their narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes.

Still, TSR designer Dave “Zeb” Cook saw a need for character development beyond class. “One of the things dreadfully lacking from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills.” When Cook wrote Oriental Adventures (1985), he brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies—skills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”

Checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks filled the place of ability checks. The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, although class features still covered most of the actions characters attempted during an adventure, so thieves still rolled on their private tables to climb walls and move silently.

In a convention appearance, Dave “Zeb” Cook and fellow designer Steve Winter talked about how these first-edition books led to a second edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”

Even after Gygax left TSR in 1985, designers like Cook and Winter lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary. Nonetheless, these additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

But TSR sold two D&D games, an advanced version that got more scrutiny from management, and a basic version that offered more freedom to designers. By 1988, RuneQuest designer and freelancer Steve Perrin was gaining assignments writing D&D supplements. His GAZ5 The Elves of Alfheim (1988) for the D&D campaign setting of the Known World introduced skills by name to the game. “Due to their background, elves have a variety of skills that are neither shown in the rule books, nor related directly to combat, thieving, or magic. These are optional additions to your D&D campaign.” RuneQuest’s designer put more cracks in the wall between skills and D&D’s classes.

A year later, GAZ11 The Republic of Darokin (1989) by Scott Haring expanded this skill system beyond elves.

“Each skill is based on one of the character’s Abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma). When a circumstance arises in which the DM feels the use of a character’s skill is needed, he asks the player to roll a d20 against his current score with the Ability. If the result of the d20 roll is less than or equal to the Ability, the skill use succeeds. A roll of 20 always fails, no matter how high the chance for success.”

The gazetteer listed skills from advocacy and animal training to woodworking, but the options still kept away from the class specialties of combat, thieving, and magic.

In 1991, the Dungeon & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia gathered all the rules from the basic line into a single hardcover that included the skill system. Meanwhile, AD&D would spend another decade forcing players to say “non-weapon proficiency” in place of “skill.”

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained permission to correct old drawbacks. “We knew we wanted to make a more robust set of skills,” designer Monte Cook said in an interview. “You had thieves‘ skills, which were different and they worked completely differently, because they were percentage based. So we wanted to marry all of that together.” Like RuneQuest and virtually every other contemporary roleplaying game, the new edition would adopt a single, core mechanic to resolve actions. Players made checks by rolling a d20, adding modifiers, and comparing the result against a difficulty class number. Skills now offered bonuses to these checks.

The older D&D skill system and AD&D proficiency checks had created in impression that the third-edition designers worked to avoid. In both systems, skills seemed like a requirement to attempt many tasks, so characters needed gemcutting skill to even attempt a radiant cut. That adds up. On the other hand, surely anyone could attempt bargaining and gambling, yet D&D’s original skill checks only applied to characters with a skill.

D&D’s new d20 core mechanic meant that skills expanded to include actions characters actually did in the game. For instance, rogues got skills rather than a private table listing their chance of hiding and picking pockets. “D&D was still a class based game, but the idea that you were not a thief, so you can’t climb and you can never climb, didn’t really hold a lot of water.” The system allowed any character to attempt to hide and climb. Unskilled characters just suffered worse odds of success. Good luck with the gemcutting.

By fourth edition the games designers worked hard to reach Gary Gygax’s ideal of teamwork—but only during combat. On the battlefield, each character class served a distinct role like striker and defender. For tasks outside combat, the designers contrived a skill challenge system aimed at ensuring that every character gained an equal chance to contribute.

During fifth edition’s design, the D&D designers planned to sideline skills in favor of simple ability checks. “We’re making skills completely optional,” lead designer Mike Mearls wrote. “They are a rules module that combines the 3E and 4E systems that DMs can integrate into their game if they so desire.”

But playtesters liked the depth that skills gave characters. Also finessing the game’s math so it played equally well with or without skill bonuses doubtless proved troublesome. So skills stayed part of the D&D core. The designers still chose to rename skill checks as ability checks. This further avoids from the implication that characters need a skill to attempt certain tasks. Without formal skill challenges, fifth edition allows characters with particular skills to shine more as individuals who bring special talents to contribute to the team.

And in the end, no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

If a Mind Flayer Fed on D&D Characters’ Brains, It Would Go Hungry. Should PC Intelligence Matter?

In modern Dungeons & Dragons games, intelligence vies with strength as the most common stat where players dump their characters’ lowest ability score. Of classes in the Player’s Handbook , only wizard requires intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. And unlike in earlier editions, high intelligence no longer brings more skills or even languages. Am I the only dungeon master who spots a mind flayer in an adventure, realizes that only a wizard can make an intelligence save against a psionic blast, and feels a shameful excitement? We DMs rarely get a chance to stir panic by exploiting a weakness the players chose for themselves.

In original D&D, intelligence brought even fewer benefits than in the modern game. The rules lacked intelligence saves and checks.  Magic users needed the stat, but otherwise smart characters only gained languages. Still, at some tables, low-intelligence characters came with a steep penalty.

The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson chronicles how after the release of D&D in 1974, discussion brought roleplaying from a single, revolutionary game to a mature hobby. The discourse started in fanzines like Alarums & Excursions and spread to magazines like Different Worlds, which treated roleplaying as a new art. The book shows how many seemingly modern controversies about styles of play actually date back to 1975 or so. For instance, gamers have argued about whether game masters should favor storytelling over impartiality almost since the first mention of D&D in a mimeographed zine.

One debate described in The Elusive Shift  seldom reappears now. It stems from the original D&D rules and this line: “Intelligence will also affect referees’ decisions as to whether or not certain actions would be taken.” In other words, dungeon masters could bar low-intelligence characters from taking clever actions dreamed up by a smart player.

The implications of intelligence go two ways. In 1975, Lee Gold wrote that when a player proposed an action too rash for a wise character or too dumb for a smart character, “a dungeon master should legitimately overrule a person’s call for his character.”

Especially in the days of roleplaying, when everyone generated characters randomly, many gamers saw playing low intelligence or low wisdom as both a penalty and as a demonstration of roleplaying skill.

In Alarums & Excursions issue 13 (1976), Nicolai Shapero wrote, “If I have a character with an intelligence of 6, and a wisdom of 8, I refuse to run him the same as an 18 intelligence 18 wisdom character. This has cost me characters…it hurts, every now and then.” However, he insisted that “it is a far more honest way of playing.”

Some gamers wondered if the players who ignored their character’s intelligence even counted as roleplayers. Did such gamers just play a game of puzzle-solving and battle tactics? Meanwhile, the gamers who favored tests of skill preferred games where players needed all their own wits to survive.

Nowadays, some players enjoy playing a low-wisdom character as someone who ignores signs of trouble and takes risks. Such recklessness leads to a more exciting game. But few players enjoy stifling their own ingenuity to play a lower intelligence. To be fair, the intelligence of a modern D&D character typically bottoms out at 8, just below average, but I suspect most D&D players are far more clever.

How do you roleplay intelligence and wisdom?

The Dungeon Mapper: From Half of D&D to a Forgotten Role

In 1977, when I found the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, I noticed that the dwarf description included a lot of fluff: stocky bodies, long beards, and an ability to detect slanting passages, shifting walls and new construction. I figured the slanting-and-shifting thing would never affect the game unless some dwarf skipped adventuring for a safer job as a building inspector. “Your rolling-boulder ramp isn’t up to code. Someone might not trip.”

Years later, I realized the dwarven fluff actually helped players draw the accurate maps needed to keep characters alive. Sloping floors and shifting walls made more than a nuisance. In the mega-dungeons of the era, greater threats prowled on lower levels, so tricks that lured characters too deep threatened their lives. Lost explorers deep in a sprawling multi-level dungeon could run out of resources before they got out. Originally, the spell find the path found an escape path.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle photographed in 2007 by Matt Bogen

In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. The original rules present mapping as half of the game. In the example of play, the referee—the title of dungeon master had not been coined yet—spends half the dialog reciting dimensions. The rules’ example of “Tricks and Traps” only lists slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to vex mappers. The text’s author, Gary Gygax, suggests freshening explored parts of the dungeon by adding monsters, but also through map “alterations with eraser and pencil, blocking passages, making new ones, dividing rooms, and filling in others.”

Despite the emphasis, many gamers found mapping less compelling. By 1976, the first D&D module Palace of the Vampire Queen included players’ maps to spare explorers the chore of transcribing dimensions. By fourth edition, labyrinths had changed from mapping challenges into skill challenges. Such mazes were no more fun, but they saved graph paper.

Today, only players who play D&D in an older style draw their own maps as they explore a dungeon.

Did anyone ever think translating distances to graph paper added fun? Or was mapping another way to thwart players who tried to steal the quasi-adversarial referee’s treasure. (In that original example of play, the Caller finds hidden loot, and the Referee responds by “cursing the thoroughness of the Caller.” Rules question: Must the Referee curse aloud or can he just twirl his mustache?

Blackmoor scholar Daniel H. Boggs describes mapping’s appeal. “If the DM is running the game with a proper amount of mystery, then mapping is one of the joys of dungeon exploring. In my experience, there is usually at least one person in the group who is good at it, and it is lots of fun to see your friends pouring over maps trying to figure out where to go or where some secret might be.”

In 1974, D&D seemed so fresh and intoxicating that even duties like mapping found love—just less love than the game’s best parts. Then, exploring a hidden version of the game board seemed revolutionary. Even the wargames that relied on umpires to hide enemies from opposing players let everyone see the terrain—and only a tiny community of enthusiasts played such games. In 1975, when Tunnels & Trolls creator Ken St. Andre attempted to explain dungeoneering to potential players, he could only reach for a slight match. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon. He tells the players what they see and observe around them.”

As fans of competitive games, D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax relished tests of player skill more than many D&D players do now. To the explorers of the mega-dungeons under Blackmoor and Greyhawk, map making became proof of dungeoneering mastery. In the game’s infancy, different groups of players mounted expeditions as often as Dave and Gary could spare them time. Separate groups might compile maps and keep them from rivals.

While recommending slanting passages and sinking rooms, Gary seemed to relish any chance to frustrate mappers. Describing a one-way teleporter, he crows that “the poor dupes” will never notice the relocation. “This is sure-fire fits for map makers.”

Dave favored fewer tricks. Daniel Boggs writes, “Arneson would actually help map for the players by drawing sketches of what players could see in difficult to describe rooms.” In early 1973, Dave Megarry, a player in the Blackmoor campaign and designer of the Dungeon! board game, mapped much of Blackmoor dungeon during play. Megarry’s maps proved more accurate than the versions published in The First Fantasy Campaign (1980), a snapshot of Arneson’s Blackmoor game.

Still, Dave Arneson expected players to show mapping skill and deal with setbacks. In a 2009 post on the ODD74 forum, he wrote, “A referee ‘happy moment’ was when the mapper was killed and the map lost. ‘OK guys now where are you going?’ What followed was 15 minutes of hilarious, to me, fun. A non-player character gave them a general direction. Another was when the mapper died and the players couldn’t figure out how to read the map. Again an NPC saved them.”

“In terms of tricks, Arneson primarily relied on complexity,” Boggs writes. Despite ranking as the first dungeon ever, Blackmoor includes rare vertical twists. “The combination of connecting shafts, pits, elevators, and literally hundreds of stairs across levels is just astounding. There is also the fact that the dungeon is segmented, so portions of certain levels could only be accessed by stairs on other levels or via secret doors. Secret doors abound in Blackmoor dungeon and most of Arneson’s dungeons.”

Nowadays, the task of transcribing explored rooms and halls to graph paper lacks its original novelty, but turning unexplored space into a map brings as much satisfaction as ever. Sometimes as my players explore, I draw the map for them on a grid. For some sessions, I bring a dungeon map hidden by scraps of paper fastened with removable tape. Players can become so eager to reveal rooms that they vie for the privilege of peeling away the concealment. While running Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I loaded the maps on a tablet and concealed them under an erasable layer. All these techniques eliminated the chore of mapping for the pure fun of discovery.

Steal This Rule: Numenera and XP for Discovery

By popular reckoning, the original Dungeons & Dragons play style centered on killing monsters and taking their loot. But D&D’s experience rules focused less on killing than folks think. The monster and treasure tables provided as much as three times as many XP for gold as for slaying. Savvy players learned to snatch treasure without a fight. Their characters lived longer that way.

Still, gamers criticized the rule for awarding experience for gold as unrealistic. For example, in the original Arduin Grimoire (1977), Dave Hargrave wrote that in his campaign experience “points are given for many reasons, but NOT for gold or other treasure. After all, it is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience.” The second-edition designers agreed, because they removed XP-for-gold from D&D.

But D&D co-creator Gary Gygax never aimed for realism. He intended to reward players with XP and levels for doing the things that made D&D fun—for exploring dungeons and for taking risks when surely the Oerth merchant trade promised wealth with no chance of a painful death in some murder pit. D&D’s third-edition designer Monte Cook gets the point. He writes, “I’m a firm believer in awarding players experience points for the thing you expect them to do in the game. Experience points are the reward pellets players get. Give the players XP for doing a thing and that thing is what they’ll do.”

Over time, D&D players started spinning stories about topics other than that time we killed a troll for gold. Originally, every character chased treasure; now, characters pursue adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure. For this sort of campaign, the classic awards of XP for gold and XP for slaying both fall short. In Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling, I suggest awarding XP for overcoming obstacles, but during D&D’s exploration pillar, the obstacles often miss the point.

If a party finds a secret door to the magic fountain, should they earn less XP than the party that killed the monsters guarding the obvious route? If obstacles bring rewards, then the party who finds the secret misses XP. If discoveries win points, then both groups gain for finding the fountain, and perhaps the observant party gains for finding the secret way.

Discovery is the soul of Monte Cook’s Numenera roleplaying game, so the game awards XP for discoveries rather than for overcoming challenges or killing foes. In D&D, similar awards can spotlight the goal of exploration: discovery.

For investigation and exploration adventures, the obstacles come from a lack of information. Reward the party for the discoveries they make.

To reward explorers for discovery, get a copy of your map and highlight the features to find: magic fountains, hidden shrines, magic items, keys, maps, hidden passages, and clues to the prince’s disappearance. Divide the number of XP characters need to level by the number of discoveries you hope they make before advancing. Then mark each discovery with the point award it brings. (See Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling for a helpful table of points.) If you like precision, adjust the points so bigger discoveries bring bigger rewards. Optionally, you can mark obstacles the group must overcome and include them with the discoveries. Some gamers favor calling D&D’s exploration pillar its discovery pillar instead. This XP method fits that notion perfectly.

Flashing back to 1973, perhaps Gary should have chosen this XP system for his dungeon-crawling game. How would that small change have shaped the way we played?

Related: XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas. Now the Designers Don’t See the Point

Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains

How to Build a D&D Cleric Who’s Super Fun in a Fight

In Dungeon & Dragons, clerics suffer from a reputation as the dull class that folks dutifully play to support the party. Forget that. In fifth-edition D&D, clerics can enter a fight like a tornado, damaging every foe around them, dodging blows, and attacking, all in the same turn.

Plus, their faith gives clerics a ready-made hook for playing the sort of big personalities that make roleplaying fun.

At level 5, D&D classes leap in power. Martial classes typically gain an extra attack, potentially doubling their damage dealing. Monks gain Stunning Strike. Wizards and Sorcerers gain fireball, which delivers 5th-level power for a 3rd-level slot. Bards and Warlocks gain hypnotic pattern, a spell that turns fights into beatdowns. (See How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve.) The 3rd-level spell that lifts clerics in power lacks the flash of fireball or hypnotic pattern, but it makes clerics more fun in a fight.

Spirit guardians summons spirits that surround you to 15 feet and that damage enemies who enter or start their turn in that sphere. Spirit guardians rates as one of the most efficient spells to up-cast with a higher-level slot. I played a cleric to 20th level and loved casting spirit guardians at 8th or even 9th level to deal 8d8 or 9d8 damage to any foes near me. Clerics on the move take their 15-foot sphere of divine fury across the battlefield, forcing more foes into the destruction. If the party ever gains boots of speed, give them to the cleric!

Spirit guardians suffers from an obvious drawback and an overlooked one. Obviously, the spell requires concentration while encouraging clerics to go into the thick of a fight. Also, the spell requires clerics to see allies to exempt them from the guardians. That means invisible allies or even friends around the corner can’t be spared.

Tactics

Starting at 5th level, the fun battlefield cleric starts combat by casting spirit guardians and moving into the thick of battle. On turn two, cast your favorite combat cantrip—or just dodge—plus cast spiritual weapon for another strike, and then keep moving to include the biggest groups of foes in your radiant doom.

Ability scores

To build a cleric, make Wisdom your highest score, followed by Constitution. Choose an odd-numbered Constitution score. Traditionally, clerics rely on Strength, but a cleric’s cantrips can bring more damage than weapon attacks, especially with the Blessed Strike option in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Only domains that grant heavy armor proficiency might actually benefit from Strength. A 13 Strength enables you to wear an affordable suit of chainmail without losing speed. A 15 Strength enables you to wear plate without slowing. Low strength dwarves can wear heavy armor without losing speed, so ironically the D&D rules reward creating agile, pencil-necked dwarves who defy their archetype. If your domain lacks heavy armor proficiency, choose Dexterity as your third highest score.

Why choose an odd Constitution score? Clerics surrounded by spirit guardians become an immediate target for attack. Through any damage, they must maintain concentration by making Constitution saves. The War Caster feat can help, but the Resilient (Constitution) feat proves better. If you start with a Constitution of 13, then taking Resilient (Constitution) before level 5 adds 1 to Constitution and helps your save about as much as War Caster. Then your save continues to improve with your proficiency bonus. If you play your cleric to high levels, you can add War Caster later.

Race

If your campaign uses the standard rules for ability scores in the Player’s Handbook, hill dwarves and variant humans make particularly good clerics. Wood elves also work well if you favor Dexterity and speed over Strength. If your campaign uses the custom origins from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and you prefer weapon attacks, pick a high elf and choose Booming Blade as your bonus cantrip. You can strike a foe, and then when they flee your spirit guardians, they take thunder damage. This combination works best with cleric domains such as life and tempest that grant the Divine Strike feature.

Domain

The forge and tempest cleric domains excel for clerics capable of fun battlefield fury. Both domains grant heavy armor proficiency.

Forge. The forge cleric brings improved AC to heavy armor and the 1st-level searing smite spell powers weapon attacks until you gain better spells to concentrate on. Opt for Strength over Dexterity. At level 7, you get the underrated wall of fire spell. Sadly though, wall of fire also competes for concentration.

Tempest. Once tempest clerics cast spirit guardians and become a target, they can use Wrath of the Storm to heap punishment on foes who hit back. Plus, the spell thunderwave and the Thunderbolt Strike feature both let you push away creatures so you can move freely around the battlefield. The tempest domain makes a flavorful combination with that high elf who makes attacks backed by the booming blade cantrip.

Other domains gain some versatility while remaining especially fun in a fight.

Life. Choose a life cleric to gain the durability of heavy armor while becoming the best healer in the game. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything adds the aura of vitality spell to the cleric list. This domain gives that spell game-breaking power. (See The 7 Supreme D&D Character Builds for One Thing.)

Light. Choose the light domain if your notion of fun in a fight includes blasting things with fireball. For a light cleric, opt for a high Dexterity and ignore Strength.

Essential spells

Cantrips. Select guidance. Forge, tempest, and other clerics who favor weapon attacks should prepare sacred flame for the undead-slaying potency of radiant damage. Clerics who rely on damaging cantrips should choose toll the dead for maximum damage—unless you roleplay your light or life domain cleric as someone loyal to their ideals. (If you’re not a grave domain cleric, you can still prepare toll the dead, but you should feel bad about it.)

1st level. Prepare healing word to heal without slowing your attack. Add guiding bolt for attacks at range. Before 5th level, prepare bless. Once you reach 5th level, spirit guardians becomes a better spell to concentrate on.

2nd level. Prepare spiritual weapon. Aid makes one of the game’s best spells to cast using a higher-level slot. Although silence requires concentration, prepare it. Silence hinders enemy spellcasters, stops guards from calling for help, and lets you chop through doors without announcing your location.

3rd level. Prepare spirit guardians, mass healing word, and revivify. Invest 300 gp in diamond dust for revivify’s components. You may rarely cast revivify, but when you do, you become party MVP.

How to Improve Your D&D Game by Posing Difficult Dilemmas

As a game master, my favorite moments during session come when I sit idle as the players’ debate the tough choices open to their characters. Each option balances hope with a price. All the options lead to consequences that will spin the game in a different direction. Watching these discussions, I know the game world has come alive. No one tries to metagame what they’re supposed to do. Later, when those same players wonder what might have happened if they had chosen the other path, I bask in that moment.

If players just wanted to follow a story, they could have read a book. In role-playing games, much of the players’ fun comes from making choices and then experiencing the consequences as the game spins into a new direction. A hard choice lets players reveal their characters, reminds players that they control their characters’ fates, and turns the game world into a vibrant place that reacts and changes.

Occasionally tough choices spring naturally from the twists of your game, but you can plan your game to pose more dilemmas for players.

What makes a good dilemma?

Dilemmas have consequences

Much of the fun of making game choices comes from seeing the effects. If the adventurers get a call for help from a fishing town threatened by raiders, the hard choice comes when they learn of a far more lucrative job: The cunning Lady Redblade wants a magical curiosity retrieved before her rivals can snatch it. When the curiosity proves to be a dangerous artifact, the hard choice comes when the players must decide whether to hand it over. Every GM can tell such choices matter, but the consequences must ripple into the game. If the players spurn the town, it burns (even if you prepared for a rescue session). If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies (even if your plot assumed she would remain an ally). If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Still, consequences don’t make a good game. If you put a dracolich behind door number 1 and a pile of +5 swords behind door 2, you just offered a choice with consequences. But your players will still drop out of your crummy game.

Dilemmas require information

Let's Make a DealIf you play Dungeons & Dragons long enough, you hear of a Monty Haul dungeon master who loads treasure on players. The name comes from the Monty Hall, host of a game show called Let’s Make a Deal. He handed out so much treasure that every bumblebee and Raggedy Ann left his studio with a vorpal sword. Sometimes, Monty offered contestants a choice of whatever lay behind three doors that concealed prizes ranging from a toilet plunger to a Chrysler Cordoba. Guess a door makes a dull decision, but Monty’s game entertained by creating dilemmas.

After a contestant picked door 1, but before revealing its prize, Monty would pull out wad of cash and count off bills that he offered in exchange for the unseen prize. Now players faced a dilemma.

Interesting choices start with information.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, the choice only merits a coin flip. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the thief a favor. Now the choice becomes interesting. Players can expect their choice to take the adventure on a different spin.

Menus of choices like these let players reveal their characters or steer the game toward their own preferences. I like offering such options near the end of each game session so I can prepare for the road ahead.

Dilemmas defy correct answers

Sorry Monty, but choices with one right answer don’t count as dilemmas.

Such choices might serve as puzzles. Suppose the PCs want to pursue the Dread Baron, but wonder whether to follow the low road or the high road. If they see he left his fur boots in his tower or if they find an invitation from Auntie Boil tied to a bird in the rookery, then they know which road to take.

Puzzles like this enhance your game, especially if you occasionally allow the players to miss the clues. Virtually every adventure spins clues and other leads into the threads that draw players along. But such clear answers only offer a choice between continuing the adventure or dropping out. If players know which road to take, they gain no sense of freedom.

In a dilemma, every option brings a price

In the choice between the high road and the low road, each option brings a price: The high road means calling a giant’s dept and hoping a he will honor it; the low road requires some wicked deed.

“To craft a good dilemma,” Wolfgang Baur advises, “Don’t give the players any good options.” (See “Dungeoncraft – Temptations and Dilemmas” in Dungeon issue 148.)

Clever players may still find good options—players relish the chance to crack an unsolvable problem, but you don’t need to hand them a solution. And definitely don’t hand them a fight. Usually, a good dilemma puts PCs between forces too strong for an assault. If you make Auntie Boil or those giants look like a problem that just needs a few smacks with a warhammer, you created skirmish rather than a dilemma.

Creating dilemmas

The limits of loyalty and time can easily create dilemmas for players.

As player characters gain in renown, powerful non-player characters will begin to request or demand their loyalty. If Lady Redblade and the Master of Eyes both want the players to retrieve the same magical curiosity, then the players choose more than an ally—they choose an enemy.

The limit of time can create many torturous dilemmas. The players must understand that accepting Lady Redblade’s job means risking that besieged town.

We DMs tend to offer quests with no particular urgency. This spares us from having to rework a mission because the game world moved on. The fishing town perpetually waits on the verge of doom until the players arrive to save it.

Sometimes though, time must force the players to choose which fires to fight. This does more than test the players. Such dilemmas make the game world seem like a dynamic place that moves and changes even when the PCs turn away.

Let’s Make a Deal

Suppose you know that the paladin in the party would never spurn the townsfolk for Lady Redblade’s bounty. Now you can play Let’s Make a Deal. The heart of Monty’s game came when he started counting off the hundred-dollar bills that he would exchange for whatever prize lay behind door number 3.

For the paladin’s help, the Lady can offer that magic sword he covets. “So armed, imagine the good you could do.” If she offers to send her own men to aid the town, will the party take her job? After closing a deal, what happens when the party learns that the man assigned to rescue the town is corrupt and possibly incompetent? Do you betray the Lady and your word, or do your leave the townsfolk to their uncertain fate?

Let players feel powerful sometimes

Don’t turn every decision into test of the characters’ limits. A few tough choices add to the game, but people also play to feel powerful enough to sweep away trouble with an stroke of the blade and a fireball. Read the mood of your players.

Still, even if you work to put players in dilemmas, hard choices can be hard to create. That’s what makes them so delicious.

Related: Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing
Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?

D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books

The prior edition of Dungeons & Dragons, its fourth, welcomed too many players with a feel-bad moment. Eager new players would join a table with a character built from their new copy of their Player’s Handbook and learn the character was unplayable—full of errors created by fourth edition’s errata. The potential message: Your character is bad and you can’t use the book you just bought without embarrassing yourself.

The fourth-edition team strived to get rules right the first time, but they faced a relentless publishing schedule focused on releasing as many hardcovers as the market would bear, all packed with character options. To fix the inevitable missteps, the designers relied on players able to download errata. The game’s business strategy centered on online subscriptions to D&D Insider, so the finished rules existed on the internet, while the books attracted completists and folks who enjoyed reading the latest D&D lore from a comfy chair.

For fifth edition, the D&D team completely reverses this strategy, striving to avoid any changes that contradict text in print. In newer printings, wording gets an occasional change for clarity, but the game’s mechanics remain virtually unchanged. Surely this stability accounts for a measure of the newest edition’s success in winning new players.

To perfect new content before it reaches print, the D&D team relies on a slower release schedule and on letting players preview and test new game elements as Unearthed Arcana. Only the rare overpowered features that prove game breaking get tweaks. While the D&D team avoids errata, they feel comfortable assuming that players and dungeon masters can ignore feats, spells, and archetypes that don’t suit their game. If we find some spells annoying, then we can skip them.

Still, the D&D designers see the game’s flaws. The 12th printing of the fifth-edition Player’s Handbook includes some corrections. On rare occasions, the designers feel compelled to make functional changes to printed rules. For example, errata to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything changes the healing spirit spell from game altering to adequate.

Newer D&D books give the D&D team chances to improve on the Player’s Handbook without actually invalidating anything. Mainly the new books offer options that improve on the original versions. Players can still opt for the original, but the newer alternatives rank as stronger, easier, or just as a more flavorful realization of an archetype. So Xanathar’s Guide To Everything revisits the rules for downtime with a more evolved take, and Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything includes new beast master companions that strengthen the ranger archetype.

During the typical edition cycle of a roleplaying game, years of play expose flaws, while new supplements build a complexity that rewards obsessed players while deterring newcomers. But the D&D team’s careful release strategy has let the game attract new players when most RPGs—including past D&D editions—introduce a new edition. The rules foundation of fifth edition remains strong enough that even an enthusiast like me just names a couple of feats as the worst thing in the game. New editions fuel a surge of sales as a game’s existing fans replace their books, but they also lose players who choose not to leave their experience and old books behind.

Given the success of fifth edition, I suspect the D&D team would feel content keeping the lightly-edited Player’s Handbook in print for years to come. However, I predict that one change in emphasis will lead to a quicker revision. In an article on diversity, the team writes that in the six years since fifth edition’s release “making D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible has moved to the forefront of our priorities.”

This new emphasis shows in Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything and the book’s options for customizing characters.

The original, 1974 D&D game avoided linking ability scores to a character’s race. Nearly 5 years later the game’s Advanced version added ability score penalties and bonuses for elves, dwarves, halflings, and half orcs. This change reinforced fantasy archetypes, but it also limited player freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes. Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. Sure, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are imaginary species, but they become relatable reflections of us in the game world. After all, imaginary halflings, I mean hobbits, just started as Tolkien’s stand-ins for ordinary folks.

Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything offers an alternative to ability score modifiers. “If you’d like your character to follow their own path, you may ignore your Ability Score Increase trait and assign ability score increases tailored to your character.” In a post previewing the change, the D&D team writes, “This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.”

The old approach to races in the Player’s Handbook hinders the book as a welcome to D&D. I predict that by the end of 2022, Wizards of the Coast will release of new version of the Player’s Handbook that revisits the old ability score adjustments in favor of the more flexible version. To be clear, this will not represent a 6th edition, but merely a better welcome to the existing game. That book will join revised versions of the other core books by swapping some of the original elements of the edition with the improved alternatives that appeared in more recent books. Meanwhile, the revisited Monster Manual will make some of our more fearsome reflections in the game world clearly “as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.” After all, isn’t that freedom to decide a lot of the reason we love D&D?

Related: 3 Posts that Need Updates Thanks to Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything