Reader Reactions to 6 Things In D&D I Fail to Appreciate

For my post 6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate, I aimed to air some trivial, possibly-wrong gripes in an amusing and thought-provoking post. Usually I avoid bitching in favor of a positive slant, but my earlier list of 9 Things met a good reception, so I figured a follow up would work. This time, I fumbled. While the old post targeted things in the game and landed a much funnier tone, my new post sometimes aimed at the way people play. Many people felt criticized for their style of Dungeons & Dragons. When I fostered that impression, I missed the mark, and I apologize. Play D&D in the style you love. Use Starburst, or salt shakers, or pure imagination. I love playing D&D—even at tables that feature everything I fail to appreciate. This hobby is too great for quibbles.

I asked readers to help me appreciate the things I griped about, and I meant it. The conversation led me to change my opinions on two things.

My post targeted D&D worlds that unnecessarily cast adventuring as a common profession. I wrote, “If your D&D campaign just includes a few players, why cast them as a common rabble of wandering treasure hunters? I would rather picture the player characters as heroes of legend.” But I overlooked great campaign models where the promise of fame and fortune lures characters to a megadungeon, a frontier, or a point of light that needs help against the darkness. These models start the characters as aspiring treasure hunters and let them rise above the crowd to gain wealth and renown. “I generally don’t like ‘the chosen one’ trope,” writes Andrew Bishkinskyi. “The idea that everyone made themselves is more appealing. I think the game’s tiers also reflect this—by time you’re tier 3 or 4, you are that great, known hero. But it’s a journey.” This rise to glory forms the heart of D&D and I’m humbled because I needed readers to remind me. Plus the adventurer-as-profession trope makes hooking players into adventure easier, especially in a campaign like the Adventurers League. “It’s useful when NPCs have a baseline understanding of adventuring/mercenary work,” writes Brandes Stoddard. “Basically it’s saving me the first 5 minutes of each interaction.”

As for carnival games, several readers explained that the mini games offer a good way to introduce players to the game. Instead of dropping fragile new characters into a dungeon and risking an early death, mini games introduce players to their attributes and to D&D’s core mechanics. The barbarian in the caber toss makes a Strength (Athletics) check. The elf in the archery contest makes attack rolls. And the dwarf in the drinking contest saves versus poison. Players learn the game in a fun and familiar setting. David Gibson writes, “No one wants to die because they didn’t know how to play.” The carnival scenario works particularly well with new players who invest in their characters’ stories and personalities.

Related: 6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate.

Unrelated: I’m running Dungeon of the Mad Mage on Wednesdays from 7-9pm at Dean’s Dugout in Naperville, IL. Many of my regulars have moved. I invite you to drop in and join my open table, even for 1 session, because we would love to have you. Bring any tier 2, Adventurers League character for a level 8-9 party.

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6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate

I’m used to having fringe tastes: I love Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy, and science fiction. These days, none of these passions rate as weird, but only because of a recent flip in popular tastes. As a teen, all these interests struck people as childish escapism. Worse, I failed to appreciate sports. Now books with dragons top the bestsellers, comic book movies get nominated for best picture, and I feel grateful for the change, but if I need a reminder of my weird tastes, I can just look at all the progressive rock in my music library. Giants may not be strange any more, but Gentle Giant still is.

Even in Dungeons & Dragons, I fail to appreciate things that normal fans like. In this post, I confess to six lapses in taste. As with my last post on this topic, this is a cry for help. Help me understand the appeal of these 6 aspects of our hobby.

1. Game worlds that unnecessarily make adventuring a common profession.

D&D’s original dungeon below the ruins of Blackmoor Castle drew so much traffic that a fairground filled with “hundreds of fabulous deals” catered to incoming adventurers. Turnstiles blocked entry into the dungeon (1 gp admission). Dave Arneson’s exhaustion with all the players insisting on dungeon crawls rather than Napoleonic naval battles drove him silly. In the Forgotten Realms, entry into Undermountain also costs 1 gp, but The Yawning Portal sells drinks rather than I-survived-the-dungeon t-shirts. As campaigns grow, adventurers start seeming common, so dungeons charged admission in the grand campaigns run by Dave and Ed Greenwood. Nowadays, so many adventurers crowd the Realms that they need a league.

The League’s version of the Realms really does teem with adventurers, but in home games I don’t understand the urge to elevate adventurer to a common profession.

If your D&D campaign just includes a few players, why cast them as a common rabble of wandering treasure hunters? I would rather picture the player characters as heroes of legend. Between all the time we spend waiting our turn and finding our place in the crowd, we play D&D to feel exceptional. Most campaign worlds only include 3-7 players—ample room for each to stand out as extraordinary. So why work to make adventuring seem common?

2. Characters with full names from the modern world. I’ve played D&D with Chuck Norris, Bob Ross, Walter “Heisenberg” White, Maynard G. Krebs, and many others. No, my time as a D&D blogger hasn’t landed me in games with famous and often fictional people. At my tables, players have used these names, and often these personas, for their characters. Sometimes the tone of a game fits sillier characters and everyone loves it. I want to play in a game with an entire party patterned after Muppets. Other games include cooperative storytellers crafting characters and their world. Showing up with Bill S. Preston Esquire may strike the wrong chord.

Still, I get the appeal. Some folks play D&D to hang with friends or to battle monsters, but pretending to be an elf feels awkward. Instead of an angel and a devil on their shoulders, these players have a class clown mocking Butrael’s elven name and a gym teacher saying, “Grow up!” So playing Burt Reynolds from Celene feels like taking a safe seat with the wise guys at the back of class. Players who adopt a modern persona for an elf in Greyhawk get to join the fun while declaring themselves too cool for the silly play acting.

The popularity of modern names and personas leaves me conflicted. Many players feel an affection for, say, Keith Richards and relish playing him as a swashbuckling pirate. I hate squelching the fun, particularly if it means dragging someone out of their comfort zone. That said, when I ruled to block real-world names from my game-store table, players thanked me.

Instead of writing a modern name atop your character sheet, just mash it into something like Bureyn. Dave and Gary’s players did it all the time.

3. Bungee monsters in multi-table adventures. Multi-table epic adventures join a ballroom full of adventuring parties together to battle for a common goal. Often these adventures assign one DM to take a monster from table to table, interrupting play to trade rounds of attacks. Like jumpers at the end of a bungee, these monsters plunge suddenly into a scene, and then snap away. Adventure authors hope these monsters unite the tables in a battle against a shared foe. Some players seem to like the surprise breaks from a session’s rhythms. High-damage characters particularly seem to enjoy vying for the highest output.

For me, the attacks just make an unwelcome interruption. These monsters’ sudden appearances typically defy explanation, so they destroy any sense of immersion. Also, the damage dealt to the bungee monster never matters; they always have just enough hit points to visit every table.

4. Adventures with carnival games. One shtick appears so frequently in organized play adventures that it must be popular. The characters visit a party, festival, or carnival where they compete against non-player characters in in a series of mini games: The dwarf enters the drinking contest, the bard tells tall tales, and the barbarian does the caber toss. For adventure writers, the device offers a simple way to let players flaunt their skills, presumably boosted by ample roleplaying. I know many people enjoy the setup, because I’ve heard players rank carnival-game adventures as favorites.

Nonetheless, I rate “carnival games” with “jumped by bandits” as easy ways to puff an adventure to fill a longer session. (At least the carnival games add variety.)

When I play D&D, I like to make game-altering decisions while (imaginary) lives hang in the balance. Competing for an (imaginary) blue ribbon feels like a disappointment. Much of the fun of roleplaying games comes from making choices and witnessing the consequences, but carnival games lack interesting options. Players only need to match the game to the characters with the best bonuses. Deciding not to enter the gnome wizard in the arm-wrestling competition hardly rates as deep strategy. Also, although adventure authors surely contrive to make the carnival shape the next encounter, I’ve never managed to pretend the mini games affect the adventure—aside from offering a route to end it and go to lunch.

5. Using miniatures for the wrong monster. During my last convention, I learned that I can easily become confused. Let me explain. Almost every dungeon master brought miniatures. Wonderful, right? Miniatures add visual appeal to the game. Dungeon masters who cart an assortment on a flight, and then daily through the convention center show a commitment that I value.

But no DMs carried minis that matched the monsters in the adventure. Every battle started like theater during a flu epidemic. “Tonight, the role of Lareth the Beautiful will be played by a grick. The roles of the goblins go to a barmaid, a shadow demon, and a hell hound.” I could never remember what figure represented what, so the miniatures proved a distraction. I spent two turns stabbing someone’s flaming sphere. By the end of the con, I wished for numbered bottlecaps that I could keep straight and I fretted that a miniatures fan like myself could fall so far.

To be clear, I’m only griping about games where the tracking the jumble of miniatures demands a cast list. I enjoy D&D games with coins, skittles, and pure imagination.

6. The dragon-slayer pose on page 7 of the second-edition Player’s Handbook. Many D&D fans rate this picture as a favorite, so why do I hate joy?

Most folks see the characters’ pride in slaying a baby dragon as humorous. I cringe in vicarious embarrassment at the pose. I like my dragons fierce, so the pitiful, dead one feels as sad as a pretty bird broken by an office window. And cameras don’t exist in the D&D world, so just what are these “heroes” posing for? Nobody paints that fast. See When D&D Art Put Concerned Parents Ahead of Players.

Related: Reader Reaction to 6 Things in D&D I Fail to Appreciate

Related: 9 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate

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The History of Traps In Dungeons & Dragons

In original Dungeons & Dragons, the three brown books only include one rule for traps. “Traps are usually sprung by a roll of a 1 or a 2 when any character passes over or by them.” That’s it. Except for the Find Traps spell, the rules never explain how characters can find traps. In D&D’s original play style, if you wanted to find pit traps, you just told your dungeon master how you pushed down on the floor ahead with your 10’ pole. Or you sent your hireling ahead first. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

In Book III, Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gary Gygax lists a dozen tricks and traps such as slanting passages, sinking rooms, and one-way doors. All foiled a retreat from the dungeon. They threatened to make characters lose their way out, or worse, deliver them to a deeper level and more more dangerous foes. None of these traps need rules to play, just player ingenuity.

Undoubtedly, Gary had thought of other traps such as spring blades, poison needles, and warning bells, but his list conspicuously omits any traps that seem to require game-world finesse to overcome.

In the May 1974 issue of a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter, Gary Gygax presented the thief class. In his introduction, Gary tells how the class was suggested by a gamer named Gary Schweitzer (probably Santa Monica gamer Gary Switzer). “He mentioned that his group was developing a new class of character—thieves. Gary gave me a few details of how they were considering this character type, and from from these I have constructed tentative rules for the class.” In 1975, Supplement I: Greyhawk made the class official.

The thief class featured the ability to “remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)” At level 1, the thief boasts a 10% chance! So when your new thief says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” the party should dive for cover. Original thieves enjoy no special ability to detect traps. Keep your hirelings in front.

The thief’s limit to disabling “small trap devices” seems to exist as an attempt to confine thieves to working on traps that require a character’s game-world knowledge and dexterity. For example, a chest rigged to release deadly gas requires a thief’s game-world aptitude, and a die roll. Big traps like pits and rolling boulders, which can be beaten through player ingenuity, remain outside of the thief’s skills. Players can tell the DM the steps their characters take to bridge a pit or to chock the rolling-boulder trap.

In the summer of 1975, Gary  brought the Tomb of Horrors to the Origins convention for a D&D tournament. One of the tournament’s players wrote a first-hand account of the event for issue 4 of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Even though the party includes two members of the new thief class, the Tomb offers virtually no place for them to disarm traps, and the Tomb [SPOILERS!] is loaded with traps. To determine when players get caught by traps, Gary fills the adventure with an ad-hoc system of saving throws, rolls of 1-2 on a d6, and verbal countdowns. (Player tip: If the DM begins to count down, run!) The Tomb’s legendary status comes from the mix of ingenuity, divination, and attrition required to bypass its memorable deathtraps, rather than the number of disarm checks needed. (DM Tip: if you run the Tomb and allow thieves to detect or disarm much, you’re doing it wrong. The Tomb of Tiresome Checks is a different adventure.) See Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, thieves finally gained the ability to locate traps. A low-level rogue’s odds remained dismal, quickly upstaged when the priest gains Find Traps at level 3. This thief ability implied that no one else could find traps—after all, other classes lacked a Find Traps percentage. Third edition set this limitation in the rules by allowing rogues (and only rogues) to find traps “well hidden” behind a 20 or higher Search difficulty.

The rogue or thief’s limit to finding and disarming small traps remained in second edition. “These include poisoned needles, spring blades, deadly gasses, and warning bells,” but do not include “large, mechanical traps.”

In third edition, traps gained a systematic treatment, complete with triggers, effects, and difficulty classes. The Trapfinding ability enabled rogues the chance to locate and disable anything that the DM categorizes as a trap, small or large, magical or mundane. This gave rogues more chances to shine, but heightened the tension between the traps a thief can find and disable and the traps that test player ingenuity. We have all encountered players who insist that a disable trap roll will enable their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge. So does staying at home, but neither tactic leads to much fun.

When the fourth edition designers rethought D&D, they saw traps as posing two core problems:

  • Traps can frustrate players
  • Traps can slow play to tedium

Problem: Traps that challenge player ingenuity can lead to player frustration.

This problem arises when when dungeon masters limit the players to a preconceived menu of potential solutions. This approach riddles the Tomb of Horrors, which includes many predicaments that require curiously-specific recipes of spells or actions to escape.

In Traps!, fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “In the early days, DMs all too often felt compelled to demonstrate their cleverness and punish players for making ‘wrong’ choices—even a choice as simple and random as which passage to explore.” For example, Tomb of Horrors. See Player skill without player frustration.

Problem: Traps can slow play to tedium.

Regarding the problem of slow play, Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “The ‘right’ way to play the game was to slowly and laboriously search each 10-foot square of dungeon before you set foot on it, or to use magic that made traps completely pointless. Neither option was much fun.”

Radney-MacFarland never mentions that old-school traps require wandering monsters or some other time pressure to avoid grinding the game to a halt. Of course, if time pressure denied characters the chance to look for the trap that killed them, the hazard seems arbitrary and unfair. See Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.

Fourth edition gives traps a new design

Radney-MacFarland admits designers thought about “disappearing” traps from the game, but decided to try fixing them first.

The fourth-edition design sought to fix the problem of frustrated players by eliminating traps that only challenge player ingenuity. “We wanted to expand the ways in which you could counter a trap. Much like figuring out that sometimes you wanted other skills to allow a character to recognize a trap’s threat, we made an effort to design traps that could be countered with an interesting skill uses.” Skill checks became the core mechanic for resolving traps. The game invited dungeon masters to allow as many different skills as plausible so everyone could share the fun of making skill checks.

Many players prefer traps that require ingenuity to overcome, because such challenges make the players’ decisions matter in the game world. But not all players favor this play style. The fourth edition design aimed to please players who insisted that a disable trap roll enabled their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge. Still, the designers recognized that turning traps into a cause for skill checks failed to offer enough fun, so they redesign went farther.

“Most traps work best when they ‘replace’ a monster in a combat encounter, or serve as a hazard equally threatening to both sides.” In fourth edition, traps become a sort of stationary monster that the characters can disable or attack. Like monsters, traps make attacks, grant experience, and have solo and elite varieties. In this new concept, traps add spice to combat encounters, allow rogues to strut their skills, and target monsters as well as players—a new tactical element.

Radney-MacFarland writes, “Don’t fret, rogue fans. That class and other characters trained in Thievery are still the party’s best hope to shut down traps quickly and well.” But fourth-edition rogues soon learned to approach traps like everyone else, by attacking. Fourth-edition rogues inflict so much damage that a series of thievery checks always took longer than just attacking a battlefield trap.

Justifying battlefield traps

In the game world, the battlefield trap always seemed hard to justify. I pity dungeon builders stupid enough to bother enchanting, say, an automatic-crossbow trap rather than an iron defender or other construct. Unlike constructs, traps (a) cannot move, (b) can be disabled, and (c) will attack your guards as well as intruders. The dungeon builder’s henchmen, hired to fight alongside their master’s indiscriminate death machines, should look for a job at a better class of dungeon.

The fourth-edition approach to traps never proved as satisfying as hoped. As the edition evolved, we saw a gradual return to classic traps, even with all their problems.

Fifth-edition traps

Although complex traps revisit the good ideas from fourth edition’s battlefield traps, most fifth-edition traps recall the ones from before fourth edition. The rules offer advice for avoiding the problems with traps. “Traps are most effective when their presence comes as a surprise, not when they appear so often that the characters spend all their effort watching out for the next one.”

Just like thieves in D&D’s original game, fifth-edition rogues lack any special ability to find traps. Now, to find a trap, any character can attempt a Wisdom (Perception) check. The rules specifically allow players to find traps by looking in the right places. “You should allow a character to discover a trap without making an ability check if an action would clearly reveal the trap’s presence. For example, if a character lifts a rug that conceals a pressure plate, the character has found the trigger and no check is required.”

Depending on the trap, the best way to disarm may be a Dexterity or Strength check, but player ingenuity often works. “As with many situations, you shouldn’t allow die rolling to override clever play and good planning.” If disarming a device requires a check, the rogue’s proficiency with thieves tools can help.

Ironically, rogues rarely have high Wisdom, so they rate as bad at finding traps. Lucky for today’s rogues, the class pivoted from unlock-and-disarm specialists to hidden snipers. See The Thief’s Strange Trip From Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination.

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How to Create Loveable Non-Player Characters While You Supercharge Your Sex Appeal

When roleplaying game players have affection for the friends and allies in a campaign’s supporting cast, the game improves. Players who feel an attachment to non-player characters will strive to help and protect them. That draws players into the game world, raises an adventure’s emotional stakes, and encourages player characters to act like responsible members of their community.

How can a game master make players care about imaginary people? To help answer that question, I asked for advice. Hundreds of game masters weighed in. Many suggestions linked to research that shows how people can increase their real-world charisma. The same qualities that make imaginary people likeable can work for real people like you. Will these techniques really supercharge your sex appeal?

Yes. Trust me. I write about Dungeons & Dragons on the Internet.

How can you create likeable NPCs (and also apply the techniques to become more likeable)?

Make characters distinctive

In a roleplaying game, before characters can become likeable, they must become distinct and memorable. If characters blend into a game’s supporting cast, no one will care for them. So key characters need traits simple enough to flaunt in a roleplaying scene and quirky enough to stay memorable.

For GMs comfortable acting in character, traits might include mannerisms, speaking voices, or a phrase someone uses and reuses. Some characters might have distinct passions. Wallace adores cheese. Others might have quirky habits. Perhaps the informant at the bar cracks raw eggs in his beer.

Traits that defy expectations often prove most memorable. In D&D, the beholder Xanathar would be just another Lovecraftian horror if not for a beloved pet goldfish.

In a roleplaying game, subtle traits disappear. Broad strokes work best.

In the real world, quirks make you interesting. When you share your passions, your enthusiasm shows. All these traits make you more likeable.

Make characters flawed

Flaws often make the most likeable traits. For instance, romantic comedies always seem to make their female leads a klutz. Such movies start by casting a gorgeous actress, and if her character is good at her job, no one will empathize with Ms. Perfect. How could she be unlucky in love? So filmmakers make these characters clumsy. Meanwhile, Hugh Grant, a similarly gorgeous co-star often played characters with a certain shy hesitancy that made him relatable. Even Indiana Jones may be handsome, smart, and brave, but he panics around snakes.

Flaws make fictional characters relatable. After all, we all feel acutely aware of our own flaws.

Movie leads serve as the imaginary stand-ins for viewers, so we rarely mind if they seem better than us. In roleplaying games, our own player characters become our stand-ins, so we accept perfection. But in NPCs, we favor flawed characters.

In life, competent people who fall to everyday blunders and embarrassments become likeable thanks to something called the Pratfall Effect. We relate to flawed people too. None of this means you should purposely embarrass yourself, but when you goof, own it and take it in good humor. People will like you for it.

Make characters relatable

People like folks similar to themselves. In life, if you share an attitude, background, or interest with someone, you have the start of a friendship.

In a game, you can create NPCs who reflect bits of the players’ personalities and interests. For instance, some players inevitably love books, so NPCs who share that affection almost always make friends at the game table.

In life, you can make a good impression by finding a shared anchor that connects you to another person. You become relatable.

Relatability explains why a fondness for pets like Sylgar the goldfish makes such a likeable trait. At any game table, players who love animals will identify with such affection.

A desire for connection also explains why powerful non-player characters become disliked. These characters don’t just steal the spotlight—any hint of arrogance or request for deference shows the NPC putting themselves above the players. In the real world, a lack of humility also makes people less relatable and likeable.

Make characters useful

According to Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, some charisma comes from a person’s power and from signs of a willingness to help others.

While players dislike NPCs powerful enough to overshadow the party, players favor NPCs who can help. Often useful NPCs act as a source of secrets, clues, or as a guide. Perhaps a helpful NPC pilots a boat or casts a spell outside the party’s repertoire. Don’t make friendly NPCs good at any talents the players want for their characters. Those characters become rivals.

Make characters authentic and vulnerable

People love dogs and children partly because they always reveal their true emotions. In roleplaying games, the same goes for NPCs too stupid for guile.

“Because most NPCs only exist to oppose, trick, or act as disposable exposition devices,” writes Tom Lommel, “the players inherently distrust or dismiss them.” Authentic characters break that pattern, so they work particularly well in roleplaying games.

In life, likable people are authentic, says Karen Friedman, author of Shut Up and Say Something. “They are comfortable being who they are, and they don’t try to be someone different,” she says. “They are approachable and sincere even if what they have to say isn’t popular.”

Often people avoid showing their authentic selves because that makes them feel vulnerable. What if people don’t like me? Will I be judged? But people admire folks brave enough to be vulnerable.

Make characters struggle

Sometimes vulnerability comes from characters thrust into a bad situation. R. Morgan Slade and Tom Lommel both named examples: Players might witness NPCs caught in an unfair deal or by a false accusation. NPCs might struggle with a sick child, a debt, or their own vices.

We admire characters for trying more than for succeeding. Give an NPC a goal to struggle for, but out of reach.

In a 70s TV show, the tough-guy detective Kojak sucks lollipops to cut his smoking habit. This trait works on several levels: The visible habit defies his hardened image, making the quirk memorable. Sucking candy like a child makes Kojak vulnerable. His battle against smoking shows a struggle.

Make characters ask for help

When players help NPCs, a quirk of psychology called the Benjamin Franklin Effect makes the NPCs more likeable. When we do something for someone, we justify the good deed by supposing we liked the person from the start. Our rationalization makes the affection real.

In life, you can trigger the effect by asking someone for a small favor.

In a game, players do favors and even save lives. If players save an NPC’s life, they can become particularly attached. When people invest in someone, they feel connected. The investment becomes a sunk cost, and people unconsciously work to believe the reward was worth the price.

Make characters show warmth

People reveal warmth by showing concern for another person’s comfort and well-being. We appreciate warmth in others because it demonstrates a generosity that may help us, even if we just need understanding and a cool drink.

In a game, GMs can have NPCs show warmth just by offering an imaginary chair. Brian Clark suggests building an emotional bond by having NPCs sharing wine, serving a meal, or defending the party against criticism.

In life, warmth is an unappreciated trait leaders need.

Make characters show admiration

Everyone loves getting a compliment—if it’s authentic. People of give compliments show warmth and generosity. In life, avoid complements on outward appearance. Instead seek chances to give genuine compliments praising things people choose, or especially traits people worked for.

Compliments come from admiration, which makes a likable trait in the game world. Many GMs cite examples of players favoring NPCs who admire the player characters.

“Tell them that a little girl with a bucket helmet and a stick sword runs to the strongest character and asks if she can join the party because they are her heroes,” writes Niko Pigni. “They will love that NPC.”

In most campaigns, player characters grow into heroes. Sometimes, NPCs should treat them as celebrities.

Respect reveals a sort of admiration. Brandes Stoddard writes, “Players like and respect people who offer them respect and social legitimacy.”

Make characters entertaining

When romantic comedies feature ordinary-looking leads, they cast comedians. We like characters who entertain, especially when they make us laugh. In life, the most likable folks make jokes at their own expense or that tease folks about traits outside of their core identity.

In roleplaying games, stupid or otherwise exaggerated characters can be funny and entertaining enough to be loveable. Recently, I played in a game where a foolish goblin who fancied himself king fit this role.

I take my player characters seriously, but I often give them humorous quirks. My monk recites his master’s nonsensical aphorisms and pretends they hold great wisdom. “The stone that weeps in silence weeps best.” My sorcerer points out ordinary things like a bed, and says, “Oh, this inn has straw beds! That’s much better than where I come from. We only got a bed to hide under on our birthday.”

Make characters optimistic

Part of my affection for my sorcerer stems from his optimism. We like people who show optimism because it lifts us. Optimism brings confidence and suggests competence—all traits that foster charisma.

Mixing traits

NPCs don’t need all these qualities to become likeable. Adding too many traits will dilute them all and waste creative energy. A few likeable qualities make a loveable character.

Author Eric Scott de Bie writes, “One of the NPCs in my current D&D game has been dubbed ‘the cutest dwarf ever.’ Not because she’s a romantic interest or anything, though the low-Charisma, half-orc bard might have plans, but because she’s cute, optimistic, and helpful. And she has a dire weasel animal companion.” This NPC checks optimistic and useful, plus she brings a pet.

Minsc from the Baldur’s Gate computer games appears on lists of gaming’s most beloved characters. As a companion, he’s useful, but he gained notice for an authentic lack of guile, optimistic enthusiasm, entertaining dialog, and for being the proud owner of Boo, a “Miniature Giant Space Hamster.”

Meepo the kobold from The Sunless Citadel surely ranks as one of D&D’s most loved NPCs. Meepo serves as his tribe’s Keeper of Dragons, but he struggles to find his missing dragon. He is distraught, making him seem authentic and vulnerable. He needs help, but also becomes useful as a guide and intermediary. In the hands of many dungeon masters, Meepo’s broken Common, exaggerated woe, and low intelligence add an entertaining comic element. No wonder Meepo became irresistible.

As for Meepo’s sex appeal, perhaps some of these traits work better in fiction. Instead, just tell folks that you’re a dungeon master. It’s a thing now.

Related: See part 1, How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like.

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How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like

The murderhobo stereotype sums the worst behaviors of Dungeons & Dragons player characters. Such characters roam the land, killing everything that stands in the way of treasure. They rob merchants, murder town guards trying to make an arrest, and attack women encountered in a group of three. Players of murderhobos would rather kill some imaginary characters than risk getting surprised by hags. The stereotype comes from countless campaigns where the players cared nothing about the non-player characters in a world, only about the imaginary loot their characters could gain.

When the players become fond of the game world and especially its non-player characters, D&D becomes more fun. Players who feel an attachment to characters will strive to help and protect them. That draws players into the game world, raises an adventure’s emotional stakes, and encourages players to act like responsible members of the community. Instead of robbing and killing the citizens of Orlane, the players will protect them from the looming threat of the reptile cult.

How can a dungeon master make players care about other, imaginary people? To help answer that question, I’ve gathered advice from more than 100 DMs.

First a caution: When players grow fond of characters, don’t fridge them. Fridging refers to a trope in stories where the author kills a buddy, love interest, or sidekick to provoke the main character to act. Making callous D&D players care for imaginary characters is hard. A well-liked supporting cast enriches a campaign. Don’t trade your success for sorrow, anger, and a quick hook. Such lazy manipulation just teaches players not to become attached to NPCs.

The most common advice for making players care is to trot out lots of NPCs and see who players fancy. This contains one key lesson: Watch how players react to the characters they meet. If one sparks interest, then look for ways to expand the character’s role. Fonzie and Urkel started as minor characters, but the love of TV viewers made each the star of his show. So if the players love the salty attitude of the barmaid in her walk-on role, make her the campaign’s Harper agent.

But parading characters past the players reduces the chance any will attract interest or affection. Instead, they blur together. Players need time with characters for any to gain an impression. When NPCs join a party as guide or traveling companion, they gain the best chance to build a relationship with players. See The Surprising Benefits of Giving an Adventuring Party a Guide. Most key NPCs fit better in a recurring role.

Aim for a small cast of distinctive characters who appear enough to build relationships with the players. Rather than creating a new character to deliver each session’s hook, or to reveal a new secret, look to revisit familiar characters. As for the rest of the world’s characters, not everyone needs a distinct voice, a story, or even a name. If you save such details for the interesting and important folks, you focus the players’ attention on the characters who deserve attention.

Portray NPCs a little like you would play your own character. Start with a trait that interests you or that sparks your imagination. Decide what the NPC wants, even if it’s just lunch. All NPCs rate themselves as the star of their story. While this tactic helps DMs bring NPCs to life, don’t let the mindset tempt you to treat an NPC as your proxy in the game. Players deserve the spotlight. If a DM seems like a bigger fan of an NPC than the PCs, the players will grow to dislike the NPC, and possibly the DM.

Players never like a campaign’s supporting cast to outshine their characters. If you want an NPC to become a friend rather than a rival or foe, never make them excel at something the players aspire to do well.

Look for ways to link NPCs to the player characters’ backgrounds. If a character was a sailor, perhaps their informant in the Dock Ward once crewed the same ship. Such bonds make player characters feel tied to the game world. Plus the connection might gain the NPC some extra affection from the one player tied to the NPC.

If your players enjoy creating things in the game world, you can let them invent some of the campaign’s NPCs. This technique brings advantages:

  • The players’ own interests can guide these creations.

  • Players can more easily connect NPCs to their PCs’ backgrounds.

  • The players’ creations automatically gain some parental affection.

Still, not every player enjoys sharing this world-building role. See Should a Dungeon Master Invite Player to Help Create the D&D World Beyond their Characters?

To encourage players to create NPCs, DM David Nett has a house rule: In a situation where a PC might know someone able to help the party, their player can declare, “I know a guy.” The player invents the NPC, sketching the guy’s background and relationship to the PC. (This rule assumes the gender-neutral usage of “guy.”) Now the party can reach out to the new character. To determine the NPC’s reaction, the player who created the guy makes a Charisma check. David writes, “I’ve found this simple and very loose mechanic invites players to create critical NPCs and continue developing (revealing) backstory as they play.”

Next: Part 2

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How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs

In real life, we all sometimes feel bound by caution and frustrated by rules of decorum, so we enjoy characters who act recklessly, play by their own rules, and boast the power to ignore the consequences. This accounts for some of the appeal of gangster films and of evil D&D characters.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1978) introduced half-orc characters. They stemmed from evil and seemed suited to it.

Those first edition rules limited a half-orc’s top level in every class but assassin, so only half-orc assassins saw much play. Author Gary Gygax surely figured that evil half-orcs would have a knack for assassination, but the combination lacked much appeal. Orcs bring strength and battle lust, not cunning and methodical planning. Assassins fueled conflict between players, and the role concerned some parents, so second edition dropped the class. (See Why Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons Dropped Thieves and Assassins.)

At first, D&D pictured orcs with pig faces and described them as evil bullies willing to “breed with anything” and eager to capture human slaves. This led many  people to conclude that half-orcs came from rape.

The half-orc’s history in the game suggests that the D&D team shied from featuring a playable race that implies a dark background of sexual violence. As designers wrestled with the half-orc’s backstory, the race came with the first and third editions of the Player’s Handbook, and left with the second and fourth editions of the book.

Many players enjoy mighty, reckless characters who thrive on melee. They relish the chance to ignore caution, rush into action, and destroy foes. No race supports the style half as well as the half-orc, so the option kept reentering the game. Especially when third edition’s Player’s Handbook combined the berserker archetype into the barbarian class, half-orcs gained popularity.

Most of D&D’s editions offer goliaths to players interested in big, mauling fighters, but almost everyone favors half-orcs. Goliaths, a sort of diluted half giant, come so low on flavor that few players can pick one from a lineup.

Through D&D’s editions, the designers worked to free half-orcs from their worst implications.

In second edition’s Planescape setting, the half-orc leader of the Bleaker faction comes from a loving marriage between a human and an orc. The pair came to Sigil seeking tolerance. The setting’s authors felt that a human-monster romance needed some explanation, so in the tradition of Alicia Masters, they made the human parent blind.

Half-orcs can be explained without the implication of rape. The race came from Tolkien and his half-orcs stemmed from interbreeding between orcs and unsavory humans allied with Sauron or Saruman. Third edition steered in a similar direction. “In the wild frontiers, tribes of human and orc barbarians live in uneasy balance, fighting in times of war, and trading in times of peace.” Trading, indeed. Face it, orcs don’t really need to be less evil or monstrous for some humans to willingly interbreed with them. Evidence supports the notion that humans can be outrageously indiscriminate about who or what they couple with.

Still, rather than explaining half-orcs as the product of human-orc interbreeding, fourth edition made them a completely separate race. As backstory, the Player’s Handbook 2 offers a menu of mythic explanations to choose from. For example, perhaps a part of the god Gruumsh’s savage essence fell to earth and transformed a tribe of humans into a new species. Like many ideas floated in fourth edition, half-orcs didn’t remain a species.

Fifth edition frees half-orcs from their darkest implications by developing the nature of orcs. Their evil and savagery stems from their devotion to Gruumsh and the rest of their gods. Orcs follow a faith that preaches blood and conquest, backed by actual gods able to give followers divine powers. No wonder orcs behave so badly.

Outside of Gruumsh’s influence, orcs can escape savagery. “Most orcs have been indoctrinated into a life of destruction and slaughter. But unlike creatures who by their very nature are evil, such as gnolls, it’s possible that an orc, if raised outside its culture, could develop a limited capacity for empathy, love, and compassion.” Perhaps the son of a human and a loving orc could even grow into a factol in Sigil.

Although fifth edition makes half-orcs the product of interbreeding, the game makes the mix common enough for form self-sustaining communities. “In lands far from the Sword Coast, such as Thesk and Chessenta, there are large communities of half-orcs, where generations of them have lived as a people in their own right.”

The story behind D&D improves by making orcish savagery a product of violent gods. In the early days of D&D, orcs only differed from other humanoids by resembling pigs rather than hyenas or big goblins. Now, orcs stand out for their spiritual devotion, and this backstory makes orcs more layered and interesting. Allowing orcs a capacity for love and compassion helps solve the question of what could lead a human to pair with an orc. Plus, the story answers whether good adventurers can murder baby orcs with a clear conscious. I always hated the baby orc dilemma.

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How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal

How much should the outcomes of characters’ actions be decided by the dungeon master instead of the rules?

Before roleplaying games, the rules of a game specified every action players could take, and then decided the outcome of each possibility. The invention of the dungeon master freed players from the tyranny of the rules. Most editions of Dungeons & Dragons expected the DM to make frequent decisions about the characters’ fates—especially in the many situations the rules didn’t cover. “Prior to 3rd edition,” designer Monte Cook wrote, “‘the DM decides’ wasn’t just a fallback position; it often was the rule.”

The DM’s power to augment the rules enabled the hobby we love, but this power enabled capricious DMs to zap characters when players failed to laugh at their puns, to curry favor by lading treasure on their girlfriend’s characters, and to win D&D by killing the rest of the party.

So the designers entered what D&D’s Creative Director Mike Mearls calls “the business of trying to ‘fix’ obnoxious people.”

“D&D’s 3.5 and 4th editions were very much driven by an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance,” Mearls explained in a Twitter thread. “The designers aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.”

So D&D’s fourth-edition designers devised rules that shrank the DM’s role as much as possible. Potentially, a DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. As much as possible, fourth edition shifts the game to the combat stage with its well-defined rules. In stark contrast to earlier editions, spells lacked effects outside of combat. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic: the Gathering cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For action outside of combat, fourth edition presents the skill challenge, where the DM only must decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance.

In Mearls’ opinion, this basic design premise suffers from a fatal flaw. “It misses out on a ton of the elements that make RPGs distinct and doesn’t speak to why people enjoy D&D in the first place.”

Fifth edition’s design returns dungeon masters to their traditional role in the game. During the design, Rodney Thompson described the goal. “We want a system that makes it easy to be the DM, and at the same time trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

“With fifth edition,” Mearls explained, “We assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”

The design team referred to the goal as “DM empowerment.” The phrase may be misleading, because the goal of DM empowerment is not to tickle a DM’s power fantasies. DM empowerment lets DMs fill gaps in the rules—and sometimes override the rules with their own judgement. DM empowerment lets your wizard use spells outside of combat, among other things.

Monte Cook touted the advantages of the approach. “Empowering DMs from the start facilitates simulation. No set of rules can cover every situation, and the DM can address fine details in a way no rulebook can. When it comes to how much of your turn is spent opening a door, perhaps it depends on the door. A large, heavy metal door might be your action to open, while opening a simple wooden door might not be an action at all. Another door might fall in between. Do you want the rules to try to cover every aspect of this relatively insignificant situation?”

DM empowerment reduces the volume of rules a game needs. Original D&D’s rules fit into a few pages because the game relied on the DM to resolve all the areas the rules failed to cover. Rodney Thompson explained that fifth edition also “trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

“Fewer rules coupled with DM empowerment also facilitate story-focused play, because nothing slows down an exciting narrative like consulting a book or two . . . or ten,” Monte wrote. “Giving the DM the ability to adjudicate what you can and can’t do on your turn then players to be more freeform with their actions. They don’t need to worry about action types and can just state what they want to do. A player’s crazy plan might not fit into the tightly defined rules for what you can do in a round, but a good DM can quickly determine on the fly if it sounds reasonable and keep the story and action moving.”

None of this means that D&D’s rules lack a purpose. D&D remains a game about making choices and seeing the consequences (often while in dungeons with dragons). The rules serve as the physics of the game world. As much as convenient, rules should enable players to see the likely consequences of an action, make wise or reckless choices, and then let the dice settle the outcome. Rules help span the gulf between a character’s real experience in the game world and what players learn from a DM’s description. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.) Elegant games cover most of the actions players may take with compact rules that deliver verisimilitude. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

In a roleplaying game, characters face perils, and sometimes harsh consequences. Without such possibilities, the game lacks tension and everyone grows bored. The rules help the DM avoid becoming the players’ adversary—the person to blame when something goes wrong. Monte wrote, “If the rule is printed in a book, it’s easier to assume that it’s balanced and consistent, and players are less likely to question it.” When I run a game and the players succeed, I want them to credit themselves; when something goes bad, I want them to blame the die rolls set by the rules.

The best roleplaying games strike a balance between rules and empowered game masters. D&D owes some of its recent success to elegant rules, some to DM empowerment, and some to modern dungeon masters better suited to their empowered role.

Early in the life of D&D, DMs struggled more with their role keeping the group interested, excited, and happy. Everyone came to D&D from a life seeing and playing only competitive games, so DMs tended to fall into a familiar style of playing to win. And let’s face it, the example set by co-creator Gary Gygax reinforced some of the DM-to-win archetype. After all, when his group made smart plays by listening at doors and searching rubbish for treasure, Gary struck back by creating ear seekers and rot grubs.

Until recently, if you didn’t go to conventions, you could be a dungeon master for decades and almost certainly only see a couple of other DMs in action. Today, every potential DM can stream examples of other DMs acting as fans of the characters. Plus, DMs grow up exposed to electronic roleplaying games. Today’s DMs rarely need to be tied by rules to enable a fun game.

The biggest competitor to D&D is not another tabletop game, it’s World of Warcraft and countless other computer and video games that duplicate most of the D&D experience, 24/7, with better graphics. D&D enjoys two competitive advantages: face-to-face social interaction, and the DM’s ability to account for actions outside of the game’s rules. When D&D’s designers worked to eliminate the DM’s judgement from the game, they threw out a key advantage. Without a DM, why bother to log off?

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

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Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League

Dungeons & Dragons started as a game about treasure hunting. The rules awarded as much of 80% of total experience points for finding gold, so no one missed the point. Co-creator Gary Gygax knew a thirst for gold resonated with players. “If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more than the lure of riches?” (See The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold.)

D&D no longer awards experience points for gold, but for all the game’s storytelling and heroics, treasure hunting remains the game’s core motivation.

Treasure drives characters to take risks. Safe characters leave the sarcophagus alone and the chest unopened. Safe choices make D&D boring. A treasure hunter risks undead and traps for a chance at riches, which makes the game fun. But players who take risks for no chance of gold feel like chumps, and feeling like a chump isn’t fun.

In D&D, parties of characters join together in a group venture. Players can come up with endless characters, but for the game to work, they must invent characters able to cooperate to reach a shared goal. That’s the magic of treasure hunting. Whether characters aim to feed the orphans or to swim in coins like Scrooge McDuck, they can all quest for gold. (See A Role-Playing Game Player’s Obligation.)

Treasure hunting resonates. When our characters strike it rich, we all feel a vicarious thrill.

In a global campaign like the D&D Adventurers League, treasure becomes a vital, universal aim. In a home game, the players can agree to create characters who only dream of defending the trees. But in a game where players join strangers in an undertaking set by whatever adventure the dungeon master prepared, treasure hunting gives everyone a goal we can share.

For the D&D Adventurers League’s eighth season, the campaign’s new rules stop characters from keeping the gold and magic they find in an adventure. Instead, for each hour of play, characters gain a treasure point spendable on magic items. When characters level, they get an allowance of gold. (See My Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Quick Reference Sheet for a compact introduction to the new rules.) When I counted four ways the new rules reshape the campaign, I felt optimistic about the changes. I knew the bar on keeping treasure defied D&D’s original nature, but perhaps the game had outgrown base motivations. Players could still roleplay a hunger for gold. Now, after seeing the rules for six months of play, I’m ready to rate the revised campaign.

The new rules reached their goals of opening adventures to more styles of play and reducing the exploits players used to claim the best magic items. (See The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win..) However, one change in particular hurt the league.

Preventing characters from keeping the gold they find damages D&D’s foundation.

Ironically, the new rules arrived with two hardcover adventures that showcase D&D’s classic aim of treasure hunting. In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, the characters race to claim a hoard of 500,000 gp—except league characters can’t keep any of it. In Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, characters risk the perils of a massive dungeon for riches, which league characters can’t keep. The safe play sees characters working to monetize Trollskull Manor. Why brave dungeons when you can reach franchise agreements? “Our group isn’t so much an adventuring party as an adventuring sub-committee.”

Because my players left home to play D&D, their characters ventured into Undermountain. But they kept asking why, and a little enthusiasm died. Players who take risks for no chance of gold feel like chumps, and feeling like a chump isn’t fun.

Season eight’s gold allowances brought one positive change: Characters gain far less gold than they used to. For the league’s first seven seasons, players gained tons of gold, but found nowhere to spend it—except on healing potions. Before season 8, characters had access to effectively unlimited healing potions. (See D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose.) Also before season 8, the cost of magic such as Heroes Feast and Simulacrum hardly dented the wealth of characters able to cast the spells. If a tier 3 party brought a cleric, they routinely ignored fear and poison and laughed at yuan-ti and green dragons. If they brought a level-13 wizard, they gained a spare and the pair won D&D for everyone. Before, gold served as a motivation that players roleplayed. Now, gold becomes a motivation they value for spells, healing, and armor. The smaller gold supply forces players into spending choices, and choices make games fun.

A simple fix could solve the trouble. Make gold a reward that characters keep, and then write adventures that award less gold. The league could gain the benefits of limited wealth, without ripping the treasure hunting from the heart of D&D.

Of course, such a change leaves years of league and hardcover adventures that award way too much gold.

Prolific league DM Tom Christy created a set of Adventurers League Recommendations that offers a solution: Limit the gold awards to a set amount per advancement checkpoint earned. Alternately, the league’s content catalog could list updated treasure amounts for each hoard awarded in an adventure. The league administrators could avoid this job by giving volunteers a budget based on each adventure’s expected play time, and letting them crunch the numbers. The hardcovers lack play times, but the league boasts many members who recorded the times they spend playing each chapter in character logs. Surely someone could collect the data.

As much as players seem to dislike the level-based gold allowances, they favor using treasure checkpoints to buy unlocked magic items. To players, finding and unlocking a useful magic item feels rewarding, especially now that another player can’t snatch the item away for “trade bait.” Plus, the system frees adventure designers from having to stock most scenarios with bland items like +1 weapons just so every character can find usable items.

Still, the treasure-point system would benefit from a couple of tweaks:

  • Unlock superior items in adventures, while limiting the evergreen and seasonal unlock items to broadly-useful but less extraordinary items. At Winter Fantasy, players joked about all the adventures that unlocked drift globes and rings of warmth—great for cozy nights scribing franchise agreements. Some epic adventures failed to unlock anything at all. Remember when epics promised special rewards? Meanwhile, even for level-appropriate characters who play safe, the season unlocks some of the game’s most powerful items. Who cares what an adventure brings when anyone can claim a cloak of invisibility or staff of the magi?

  • When characters unlock magic items during the course of an adventure, let them borrow treasure points to claim the item immediately. No one enjoys waiting to play with new toys. The need to bank treasure points particularly frustrates new and lapsed players returning to D&D. New players find a toy they can’t use because of legalese that makes no sense in the game world. Returning players just think D&D no longer resembles the game they used to love. (Credit Tom Christy’s proposals for this idea too.)

For almost 50 years, the vicarious joy of finding treasure brought players to D&D. To thrive, the Adventurers League must recapture some of that thrill.

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5 Tricks for Creating Brilliant Dungeon Maps From Will Doyle

If you played the Dungeons & Dragons adventures Tomb of Annihilation or Storm King’s Thunder, you adventured through dungeon maps created by Will Doyle.

In an episode of the Official D&D Podcast, D&D’s principle story designer, Chris Perkins, explained why he called on Will. “I realized I would not be able to justice to the maps unless I brought in someone to help. There’s this wonderful collaborator, a freelancer named Will Doyle. He had done some work for me back when I was editing Dungeon magazine and I was always impressed with the style of his maps and the amount of effort and devotion that he put into them. I’m very, very meticulous when it comes to map creation, and he has those same qualities.”

In Tomb of Annihilation, Will mapped and designed the adventure’s centerpiece, the Tomb of the Nine Gods. He made Acererak proud.

Will’s maps attracted notice when his adventure Tears of the Crocodile God appeared in Dungeon issue 209. Chris Perkins called the adventure one of the best to appear in the magazine. You don’t have to take his opinion alone, because I agree. Chris has only worked professionally on D&D for decades; I have a blog.

When I gained a chance to talk with Will, I asked him for a secret to making a great dungeon map. He gave me five:

1. Cross the map with a river, rift, or similar connecting feature.

Will recommends splitting your dungeon map with some kind of central feature that characters can travel. Tomb of the Nine Gods includes three connecting elements:

  • An underground river links sites on the first and fifth levels.
  • A grand staircase and vertical shaft connect the dungeon’s first five levels.
  • An underground lake spans the fifth level.

During players first hour exploring the tomb, they could easily find all these features.

These features connect many rooms and passages, giving players choices. Instead of forcing players along a linear path, the dungeon teases explorers with perils and routes to discover. In a study of designer Jennell Jaquays’ dungeon maps, Justin Alexander explains how a well-connected dungeon gives groups agency and flexibility. “They can retreat, circle around, rush ahead, go back over old ground, poke around, sneak through, interrogate the locals for secret routes. The environment never forces a pre-designed path.”

Of course, a corridor could also serve as a connecting feature, but such features feel dull. Rivers and the like add variety to dungeon travel. “You row down the river, rope across the rift, fly down the magic wind tunnel, which makes it fun and memorable,” Will explains. “In play, it’s also easier to say, ‘let’s go back to the river and try another route, rather than ‘let’s go back to that long corridor and try another route.’”

2. Show the final room first.

Will suggests revealing the player’s final destination early in the adventure. Perhaps this location shows the locks to open or a task to complete. Such designs set the characters toward their goal and gives the adventure focus.

While more video games use this technique, a few table-top adventures follow the pattern. In Tomb of Annihilation, both the Lost City of Omu and the Tomb of Nine Gods make finding the players’ goal easy, but both send characters searching for keys.

In Storm King’s Thunder, the forge of the fire giants has massive, adamantine doors that lead from the mountainside directly to the hall of Duke Zalto, the players’ target. But to reach the Duke, the characters probably need to climb 1500 feet and battle down through the mountain’s interior.

If the final room is a metaphor for a visible goal, many more adventures start to follow Will’s advice. For example, in Curse of Strahd, Castle Ravenloft looms visible through the adventure, but the players learn they must gather certain artifacts to stand against Strahd. Teos Abadia drew inspiration for his adventure DDEX2-13 The Howling Void from Will’s Tears of the Crocodile God. The characters enter an elemental node where Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players can see the node the must reach to stop a ritual, but they will visit others to weaken their foes before a final confrontation.

3. Give players goals that compel them to explore.

Linear dungeon adventures come from designers who only plant one goal in the dungeon, usually its villain and its hoard. Players have nothing to find but the end, so authors feel tempted to put all their ideas along the path to the end.

Instead, Will designs his dungeons with elements that draw characters to explore.

For example, the dungeon in Tears of the Crocodile God draws players with several goals. First, the characters aim to save four human sacrifices wandering the dungeon. Second, the dungeon’s four areas include clues that enable the characters to confront the crocodile god. As a bonus, this premise leads the characters to hurry to rescue the sacrifices before the dungeon’s monsters and traps claim them.

In another example, Tomb of Annihilation sends players chasing five wandering skeleton keys.

4. Make the dungeon a puzzle.

In the D&D Adventurers League scenario DDAL07-14 Fathomless Pits of Ill Intent by Eric Menge, the dungeon becomes a puzzle. Early in, players find a puzzle that unlocks a portal to the main villain. Players must explore the dungeon to find the keys to the puzzle. This design combines two of Will’s other suggestions: It shows the final room first and and draws players to explore. Plus, the adventure turns the dungeon into a puzzle. Tears of the Crocodile God mixes a similar brew with its scattered clues.

Most dungeons will follow this suggestion less rigidly. Perhaps the dungeon merely works as something to unravel, location by location. As an inspiration, Will cites the levels of the Doom video game. To progress, players must find a series of keys. Each key brings the heroes deeper into hell.

5. Give each level a distinctive theme.

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

In larger dungeons, flavor the levels or areas with themes that add variety and make regions seem distinct. This practice dates back to D&D’s second dungeon, which sprawled under Castle Greyhawk. Gary Gygax included levels themed around types of monsters.

Large, contemporary dungeons such as the Doomvault in Tales From the Yawning Portal or Undermountain in Dungeon of the Mad Mage feature stronger themes. For instance, Doomvault includes areas bubbling with slime and oozes, overrun by underground gardens, and corrupted by the far realm.

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Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself

Much of a dungeon master’s skill amounts to choosing the technique that suits a moment in the game. I have two examples:

Use the right tool for the job.

For years, because I used the wrong tool, a type of roleplaying scene sometimes left my players confused. Adopting a better technique would have forced me to accept a limitation that just about every DM shares. Few of us can stage a good one-performer show. Lucky for my players, a giant of roleplaying game design set me straight.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the DM plays every non-player character. Speaking in character makes these NPCs more vivid, makes scenes feel more immediate, and encourages roleplaying. (See Most Advice for Encouraging Roleplaying Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.)

As a DM, when I portray two NPCs at once, I often see the players grow confused about who is talking. I figured if I performed better, then the confusion would lessen. So I worked on character voices and doing a better job attributing each speaker. Sometimes I even held up a picture of the current speaker. Despite any improvement, players still often became confused. Perhaps worse, players sat idle. Roleplaying games should encourage interaction and my one-man show discouraged it.

Permission to change my approach came from Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu—probably the most critically acclaimed roleplaying game ever. In a convention presentation, he says, “Never let two NPCs have a discussion, because then it’s just the gamemaster talking to himself.” Thank you, Sandy.

Instead of acting two parts in character, just tell the players what the two characters say. “The elders disagree about the best way to stop the raids. Some want to strike back the chief. Others suspect the attacks seek a stolen totem held by cultists in the village.”

Such a narrative approach falls short of ideal, but it works better than talking to yourself.

Still, the best roleplaying scenes feature a small number of players speaking to one NPC at a time.

In your favorite TV comedy, have you ever noticed how cast members with nothing to do leave the scene? Partly, this happens because actors hate standing in a scene with nothing to do, but moving extraneous characters offstage also focuses attention on the important ones.

Find an excuse to trot out your NPCs one at a time, play their part, and then have them excuse themselves to go to the loo or to take cookies from the oven. (Many dark necromancers enjoy baking to unwind.) If you need two characters to argue two points of view, let one convince the players, and then leave. Then have a second NPC meet to present an opposing point of view. Now you can act as each NPC in character without fostering confusion.

But suppose you have the acting chops to fill a crowd scene with distinctive voices chatting among themselves. Awesome! Can I play at your table? Still, avoid putting more than one NPC onstage at once, you showoff.

Dungeon masters should work to offer each player as much time to play and interact as possible. That means that even if you can portray every member of the king’s council as they argue strategy, resist the temptation. Give the players a bigger role in the discussion by limiting yourself to a single NPC. If the players wanted to see a one-man show, they would have gone to the theater.

As you deploy your cast of characters, weigh the advantages of forcing the party to split up to meet NPCs separately. Splitting the party makes everyone contribute. Less-vocal party members gain time in the spotlight. In the dungeon, never split the party, but in the castle or guild hall, send them on their separate ways. (See Never Split the Party—Except When it Adds Fun.)

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