Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?

Eventually, every dungeon master winds up guilty of illusionism: You offer the players a choice that seems to matter, and then rearrange the game world so all the options lead to the same outcome.

An illusionist GM prepares an encounter that pits the characters against an ogre on the road. Then, whether the players take the low road or the high road, they face that same ogre. If they opt to stay home for tea and cakes, the ogre fancies a bite.

426px-Sandys,_Frederick_-_Morgan_le_FayIn the early days of role-playing games, when players tried to beat dungeons and dungeon masters acted as something between referee and adversary, such illusionist deceptions resembled cheating. Chivalry & Sorcery (1978) advised the GM to set out a dungeon’s details in advance so he could “prove them on paper should an incredulous group of players challenge his honesty or fairness.”

As the game changed into a way to engage players in a story, illusionism became a tempting strategy for GMs. Deception appealed to GMs who wished to steer players through a particular story, but also to GMs who needed to prepare a game without preparing for every possibility.

GMs running campaigns aim for three targets: player freedom, world detail, and ease of preparation. Those of us who must keep a day job can only choose two. Illusionism seems like a way to cheat by dropping player freedom while making the players think they remain free. If the players believe their choices count, what does it matter if they don’t?

The ogre encounter seems innocent. Dungeons & Dragons players expect to stumble on monsters, and that ogre could appear on either route as a wandering monster. But what if the players must guess whether the Dread Baron travels the low road or the high road? Do you base the villain’s travel plans on whether your story calls for a showdown today?

Many GMs feel that offering an illusion of choice robs players’ of real control over their characters’ fates, so illusionism is unfair on principle. While writing about illusionism, John Arendt concludes, “The DM is obligated to administer the setting in a way that ensures player choice is meaningful, in accordance with the previously established facts.” Courtney Campbell adds, “I think illusionism is abhorrent in both D&D-style games, and story-based, plot-arc games.”

I admire the principle, but players don’t join your game because they admire your unwavering game theory.

In every RPG session, players sacrifice some of their characters’ freedom for fun. When they join the game, they silently agree to band their PCs together, to cooperate, and to have their PCs award the magic item to whoever rolls highest on the great d20 in the sky.

The price of illusionism comes from another angle. Much of the fun of games come from making interesting choices and then experiencing the consequences. For more, see “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.”

In a role-playing game, good choices come with enough information to make illusion difficult. The sort of choices that let you easily fake illusionary consequences tend to be dull choices based on scant facts. When you serve players such vague options, they hardly enrich the game. High road or low road? Flip a coin.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, then either choice could lead to the same wandering ogre. 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 party thief a favor. Ogres could wander either route, but now the choice becomes interesting because each road takes the adventure on a different spin.

The best choices lead to consequences too specific to fake with illusion. If the players spurn a town that pleaded for help against raiders, the town burns. If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies.

You could contrive circumstances that spares players from the expected consequences: A storm delays the raiders until the players arrive. Lady Redblade blames a rival for stealing the artifact that the players took for themselves. But whenever a convenient break spares your story from the players’ actions, your game world loses credibility. If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Illusionism isn’t a cheat; it’s a compromise. Illusion may save a great encounter or contribute to an impression of freedom, but it bears a price. Whenever you serve an illusion of choice, you miss a chance to offer the sort of real choice that enhances the game.

Should you use to illusionism at your table? The game is yours. Every dungeon master knows the benefit of deception. Now you understand the cost of a lost opportunity. Interesting choices carry a price.

TSR vs. the Internet Part 2—From They Sue Regularly to Open Gaming

In 1994 TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, struck two blows aimed at containing fan-created D&D content on the Internet. (See TSR Declares War on the Internet’s D&D Fans.)

First, administrators running servers offering D&D content received email from TSR representative Rob Repp. “On behalf of TSR, Inc. I ask that you examine your public net sites at this time and remove any material which infringes on TSR copyrights.” Because universities hosted most of these sites, the notices led to a quick wave of shutdowns.

Second, TSR insisted that fans who wished to distribute their D&D creations exclusively use a server run by their licensee MPGNet. Fans hated that loss of control, but the real blow came from a disclaimer that TSR demanded fans add to their content.

This item incorporates or is based on or derived from copyrighted material
of TSR, Inc. and may contain trademarks of TSR. The item is made available
by MPGNet under license from TSR, but is not authorized or endorsed by
TSR. The item is for personal use only and may not be published or
distributed except through MPGNet or TSR.

The last line seemed to imply that TSR gained the right to publish or distribute independent creations, and that proved most alarming. “This statement looks more like a release of distribution rights than a disclaimer,” wrote Jim Vassilakos.

Sean K. Reynolds would soon become TSR’s online coordinator. In an interview, he explains the roots of TSR’s online policy. “They came up with the idea that if you express something in D&D format, it belongs to TSR because TSR owns D&D.“

Jim Vassilakos took the full force of TSR’s legal assault. He edited The Guildsman, a roleplaying fanzine with D&D-related content, and then he distributed it online from a server named greyhawk at Stanford University.

Before legal notices forced the Stanford server to shut down, TSR’s affiliate MPGNet had copied the Guildsman archive, transferred it to their servers, and added the disclaimer, all without permission. This led Vassilakos to write MPGNet head Rob Miracle.

“You (MPGN and TSR) have basically taken a vast quantity of material from Greyhawk, including the six Guildsman magazines which total over 400 printed pages, and proclaimed yourselves as the sole distributor of this material. I think that, given this situation, you should be able to see clearly enough why people are upset at this unexpected turn of events. In any case, my contributors are telling me that they’d prefer that their material not be kept at MPGN under this sort of condition.”

Rob Miracle wrote a conciliatory response. “First, let me say that we took over Greyhawk so that it wouldn’t die. We had lost other great sites and didn’t want to lose probably the best site. I will do whatever you wish, because they are your files. Just let me know.”

Of course this dispute just samples the furor raging in the Internet’s community of D&D fans. Fueled by distrust of TSR, people considered ways the company could benefit from seizing control of so much online content.

Many creators feared that TSR would bundle their creations in a CD-ROM or start charging for online access. Did the disclaimer enable the company to reap profits without paying anyone for their work? The more conspiracy-minded worried that TSR would simply gather content and pull the plug, eliminating a source of competition. Certainly some folks sought free and illegal online copies of D&D products. The crackdown made such sources harder to hide.

TSR claimed good intentions. “I can tell you that the intent we had when we started working with MPGNet was not to derive revenue from that site,” Rob Repp wrote. “I find it unlikely in the extreme that a company with as sharp a legal team as ours is going to simply grab someone’s stuff and publish it without permission. I don’t think that’s lawful, and I’m certain the legal people would mention it during some meeting or other.”

Rob Miracle explained, “MPGNet has nothing to gain from offering this service other than the satisfaction that there is a net home for gaming material.”

Meanwhile, many wondered if TSR really needed to take such steps to defend their intellectual property. Some fans did extensive legal research. TSR cited drow as a monster of their own creation. Gary took the name from folklore, but few of the specifics. (See The Stories Behind D&D’s Iconic Monsters.) So did TSR own the drow? Perhaps not, but they surely owned mind flayers, beholders, carrion crawlers and other monsters Wizards of the Coast now reserves as D&D’s product identity. TSR couldn’t copyright game mechanics, but could they copyright terms like armor class and hit dice? TSR felt their steps were required.

Many gamers saw TSR’s defense of their copyrights and trademarks as overreaching. If fans saw it, then TSRs lawyers saw it too, and fans supposed that revealed a bad-faith strategy working toward a hidden agenda. Benjamin Lake wrote, “Imagine how much cash TSR would have if every copy of Ultima (for example) was taxed for using the concept of levels and experience points.”

Perhaps Rob Miracle began regretting his company’s affiliation. “There is no conspiracy. MPGNet has no hidden agendas and as far as we know, TSR does not have a hidden agenda.”

During the furor, one fan asked, “Does TSR regard it as illegal to play AD&D with a dozen or so people over the Net, as opposed to playing it with a dozen or so people in my living room?”

“We certainly do not,” Repp explained before adding a catch. “Saving up all the moves, however, and republishing them as a separate work would probably be an infringement.” Such a recounting of a D&D game resembles an actual play podcast or even a streaming game. This interpretation would forbid the content powering much of D&D’s current surge in popularity.

Rob Repp got tired of bearing the Internet backlash, and tired of fans pointing out how TSR fought copyright infringement now, but had used balrogs and hobbits without permission 20 years earlier when the company operated from Gary’s basement. Sean K. Reynolds explained Repp’s plight. “To put it bluntly, he pissed off a lot of people with his attitude and posts. Not all of it was his fault. TSR’s online policy was draconian and unproductive. Rob was just tasked with enforcing it, but not being a gamer he couldn’t relate to the fans’ side of the story.”

In May 1995, Repp posted to the AD&D mailing list announcing a job opening for an online coordinator at TSR. The job’s responsibilities included managing TSR’s web presence and AOL site. Reynolds saw the listing. “I felt I could do a better job of it than he was; he was making people mad when he didn’t have to.”

Reynolds got the job. Two days later, Repp quit. Reynolds landed in charge of the online policy that he had argued against. “My first act was to go to the lawyer and say, ‘What can we do about this? We have this policy. I think it’s kind of unreasonable—actually very unreasonable.’ We stopped doing the cease-and-desist letters threatening people posting their own monsters or whatever, and started focusing on people doing actual copyright infringement. Without actually changing the TSR policy, we just kind of mitigated our enforcement of the policy.”

Reynolds served as online coordinator for 2 years. “A lot of people badmouthed me for a long time because of that policy, but while I was TSR’s online coordinator not one website was shut down for D&D material that wasn’t an actual copyright violation (such as posting scans of books or artwork). Nobody was ever bothered by me because of fan material on their site.” In 1997, Wizards of the Coast bought TSR. “They had a much more benign and open idea of how to handle this sort of thing.“

The new owners of D&D would completely rethink the status of fan creations. D&D team head Ryan Dancey led this change of direction. He credits open source software for inspiring the change. In open source, programmers contribute free code that enhances the utility of software like Linux, the operating system that now powers the Internet. Through open source, the Internet community proved the value of their freely-distributed creations.

Dancey saw fan contributions as an enhancement to the D&D community that strengthened the game’s place in the market. Support from fans and other companies for D&D leads more people to play D&D. Dancey writes, “This is a feedback cycle—the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is.” Besides, the numbers showed that the D&D business made money selling core books. Why not let fans and other companies bear some weight of supporting the game with low-profit adventures, settings, and other add-ons?

Dancey’s thinking led to the introduction of the Open Gaming License and the d20 License. Using these licenses gamers and gaming companies could create and distribute products compatible with the D&D rules, and not just on the internet, but in stores.

At a glance, this new spirit of sharing seems like a complete reversal, but TSR’s disclaimer that allowed sharing on MPGnet hints at the modern licenses. Like the OGL license, the old disclaimer set a legal basis for sharing content. Unlike the disclaimer though, the OGL is irrevocable. If you place content under that license, it is perpetually under it. This leaves little room for a hidden agenda. In an echo of MPGNet, gamers can offer creations that use D&D’s brand, unique monsters, and worlds on a specific site, the Dungeon Masters Guild. This time though, gamers can sell their products. And presumably the DMs guild has an Internet link even faster than 1.5Mbps.

Related:
The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice
The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America

1994: TSR Declares War on the Internet’s D&D Fans

Nowadays Shannon Appelcline writes about the history of the roleplaying game business and writes most of the product histories on the Dungeon Masters Guild. In 1994, he administered a computer at Berkeley University that served fan-created content for the indie Ars Magica roleplaying game. That role landed Appelcline an email from Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR claiming that his site offered unauthorized D&D content and demanding that he unplug. “There were no—absolutely zero—Dungeons & Dragons files on the website,” says Appelcline. “They were looking at a roleplaying site not related to D&D and they sent one of their nastygrams.”

The demand enraged him. “I suspect I wasn’t vulgar in saying what they could do with their letter, but I’m sure I was thinking it and I was certainly very angry.

“Overall if you think about the Internet at that time being focused on [educational domains], you can see that you had a lot of anti-establishment people on the Internet and so none of us liked TSR that much. Everyone wrote T$R for example. Now they’re sending these nasty letters for legal rights that they probably don’t have. The letter I wrote [in response] said, ‘Not only do we not have any files related to D&D on our site, but we never would. I would rather poke my eye out with a stick before doing anything to help you.’ That phrase was genuinely absolutely, in the letter.”

TSR sent similar cease-and-desist demands to sites across the Internet. Most of the targets actually served fan-created content devoted to D&D. A few delivered files that clearly infringed on TSR’s copyrights.

All these notices bore the name of manager Rob Repp whose job leading TSR’s Digital Products Group included things like managing TSR’s presence on America Online and heading the development of CD-ROM products. No other management employees boasted any Internet experience at all, so Repp drew the chore of leading TSR’s Internet presence. TSR had just gained their first email address a few months earlier. Despite working for TSR, Repp wasn’t a gamer, so he failed to distinguish content for Ars Magica from D&D. But he can’t be dismissed as just a suit. He’s also credited with the border art on many of TSR’s Planescape products.

Repp first appeared on the Internet in 1994 when he replied to a request for an illegal copy of the Monsterous Compendiaum posted on the rec.games.frp USENET newsgroup.

>Anyone know of an ftp site that has a monstrous compendium available for
>download? Thanks in advance. (Please email to j...@thepoint.com).


I'd be interested in knowing about this one myself. :)

Rob Repp                           | InterNet: tsrinc@aol.com
Manager, Digital Projects Group    | InterNet: mobius@mercury.mcs.com
TSR, Inc.                          | CompuServe: 76217,761
__________________________________ | GEnie: TSR.Online  AOL: TSR Inc
All opinions are my own, not TSR's | 414-248-3625    Fax 414-248-0389

Despite a TSR’s employee’s interest, someone still posted a link to a file server distributing the infringing content.

The budding Internet created fears beyond such blatant infringement. Repp explained, “When gamers begin sharing their creations with the public, whether for profit or not, they are infringing our rights. If we don’t make an earnest attempt to prevent this infringement of our trademarks and copyrights, our ownership of these extremely valuable assets may be jeopardized.”

Companies that fail to defend their trademarks can lose them. Just ask the original makers of cellophane, escalators, and trampolines. However, D&D fans and TSR would debate how much copyright law justified the company’s cease-and-desist notices.

In an official statement, TSR told fans interested in distributing content to avoid infringing on D&D by making the content generic. “If the party encounters a hydra, let the GM look up the stats for the hydra in the game system he is using. Don’t set the adventures in a TSR world. Create your own or use one from history or legend. Don’t use monsters, spells, etc. that were created by TSR. Create and name your own. Draw on history, legend or reality. Even spell their actual names backward for uniqueness.”

For fans who insisted on sharing content for D&D, Repp promised a solution. “Sometime very soon, we’re going to create a place where gamers can legally upload and share their creations, including modules, stories and software. We are definitely interested in fostering goodwill among customers. Eventually, we want gamers to be able to turn to TSR in cyberspace as easily as they do in a hobby store.”

“IBM PC Computer” by Accretion Disc is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

None of Repp’s goodwill cushioned the impact of the nastygrams.

Unlike Appelcline, Trent A. Fisher had set up a server that actually held D&D-related content: a collection of the best of the rec.games.frp discussion group. “I was pretty angry about all of this. I read most everything that went onto the site, and I never would have permitted anything which outright copied TSR materials. Apparently, someone in TSR leadership must have felt that any fan-generated work represented competition that had to be stamped out.”

Jim Vassilakos also edited D&D-related content in his fanzine The Guildsman . He served it from Stanford University. At the time, he wrote, “Many gamers actually dislike TSR, and they have since before TSR was even on the Internet. I think a large part of the reason has to do with the way TSR deals with competition.”

That distrust of TSR extended to much of D&D’s fan community. Critics pointed to TSR’s lawsuits against competitors. When Game Designers Workshop dared to publish founder Gary Gygax’s latest roleplaying game, TSR sued. When Mayfair Games published generic content “suitable for use with Dungeons & Dragons,” TSR sued. Gamers joked that TSR stood for “they sue regularly.” TSR’s takeover of wargame publisher SPI also troubled gamers. Partly because TSR stiffed lifetime subscribers to SPI’s magazines. Also because most of SPI’s design staff quit when faced with working at TSR. Overall, gamers saw TSR as a company using a dominant market position and deep pockets to bully fans and competitors.

Nonetheless, TSR fulfilled its promise to provide a place where gamers could share their creations. In a time when the company lacked a web presence, the company found a host for fan-created content.

On September 6, 1994, TSR announced that fans could legally upload content to a server hosted by an outfit called the Multi-player Gaming Network or MPGNet.

TSR is pleased to announce a licensed Internet FTP file server. MPGNet's
site (ftp to ftp.mpgn.com) will carry a license that allows your creations
to be shared with the world via the Internet. 

MPGNet called itself “a business that provides low-cost, interactive multiple player gaming entertainment,” but it seemed like a small enterprise. Company head Rob Miracle suggested users cope with his site’s low bandwidth by connecting during working hours when few online gamers were active. (He did promise to upgrade MPGN to a T1 line in 1995. In 1994, a network business dreamed of a 1.44 MB per second T1 connection. Now houses in my neighborhood get a download speed of 360Mps and a upload speed of 25Mps.)

TSR’s takedown of gamers’ file servers had inflamed fans, but the invitation to share content on MPGNet included a requirement that provoked rage.

In order to distribute your texts, software and message digests via this server,
you must include the following disclaimer:

_______________________________________________________________________________
This item incorporates or is based on or derived from copyrighted material
of TSR, Inc. and may contain trademarks of TSR. The item is made available
by MPGNet under license from TSR, but is not authorized or endorsed by
TSR. The item is for personal use only and may not be published or
distributed except through MPGNet or TSR.
_______________________________________________________________________________

The last line seemed to imply that TSR gained the right to publish or distribute people’s creations, and that proved most alarming.

Next: TSR vs. the Internet—From They Sue Regularly to Open Gaming

Related: The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

Turning a Monster Into a Puzzle

In first-edition Dungeons & Dragons, clay golems could only be hit by magical bludgeoning weapons. Also, only three spells, move earth, disintegrate, and earthquake, affected these monsters. As foes, they worked as puzzles. “Our DM ran the golem encounter from Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure this way,” recalls @Stoltzken. “It was terrifying. The key to making it work for us was we had fair warning in the initial round that this was as much a puzzle as a fight. First round was minor damage. From there on though…”

Poul Anderson’s novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) inspired D&D’s regenerating trolls. To the hero of the novel—and to early D&D players unfamiliar with the book—the problem of killing a troll makes a puzzle.

Now everyone knows how to kill a troll, and that shows one problem with puzzle monsters such as trolls and golems. Players learn the solutions. Early in D&D’s history, co-creator Gary Gygax figured that only dungeon masters would read the books of treasures and monsters. He assumed players would learn the game’s secrets in play. In practice, even kids who couldn’t find a group studied the Monster Manual. At every table, someone knew every monster’s vulnerability.

That problem invites obvious solutions: Invent new monsters, vary existing monsters with new immunities, or add secret enchantments that block familiar attacks. @StaffandBranch writes, “I ran a rock, paper, scissors, encounter where the rock golem could only be defeated by wood, the treant by metal weapon, and the storm of swords by stone or rocks.”

Recent editions of D&D rarely add strong immunities to monsters. The third-edition rogue reveals why. That edition’s designers gave rogues a sneak attack ability limited by numerous monsters immune to sneak attacks. Creatures like oozes lack vulnerable spots, so those limitations made sense. But players saw too many encounters where rogues could not use their signature ability. Since then, D&D’s designers have steered toward avoiding immunities that hamper characters and lead players to feel-bad moments.

Mainly though, the blame for driving puzzle monsters from D&D belongs to foolhardy players. When did you last see players run from a fight? In early D&D games, players expected to find monsters too strong to defeat. Fragile characters made retreat a common option. Often now, players who face a creature that seems immune to attack just try hitting harder. (See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.) When players don’t know the key to beating a puzzle monster, such encounters can lead to total party kills.

Still, puzzle monsters can enrich D&D and many players love them. Creatures with secret vulnerability make D&D games feel more mythical. They let players work their brains while their characters flaunt their power.

For some monsters, players can find the key to victory during battle. Perhaps pushing that clay golem into running water dissolves the thing. Often puzzle monsters must be trapped rather than killed. I’m reminded of Spider-Man trapping the Sandman in a vacuum cleaner.

Other puzzle monsters might require gathering lore and engaging with the game world. A hunt for a lich’s phylactery can work like that. Some might spur a quest for the artifacts that enable a monster’s defeat. Curse of Strahd works like that.

Puzzle monsters work best in games seeded with rumors of the creature’s invincibility and hints to the creature’s vulnerability. For players particularly slow to spot clues, devise a plan B enabling an escape or rescue. I once put a puzzle-based golem on a ledge over water. If the players took too much damage before spotting the creature’s invulnerability, the jump offered an easy escape. I didn’t even fill the water with sharks. Sometimes I’m such a cupcake.

The adventure Deep Carbon Observatory by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess features my favorite puzzle villain. Spoilers follow. In the adventure, a rescued child whispers in an character’s ear.

There was a bad old woman who lived in the corn.
Only children knew that she was real.
She had seven souls and couldn’t die the same way twice.
So all the children poisoned her.
Then they stabbed her and smashed her and sliced her
and burnt her and drowned her.
And then they threw her in the well.
That’s Six And Seven Makes All…

To slay the witch, the players need to find a means of death the children never used.

What’s your favorite puzzle monster?

D&D’s Best Multiclass Combinations With Paladin

More and more Dungeons & Dragons players keep learning a secret: The paladin class rates as one of the game’s strongest. In past editions, the paladin class weighed players with a need to play a faultless, lawful do-gooder who gave away most of their treasure, so the designers made paladins powerful to compensate. Fifth edition frees players of those old restrictions, but the class gets as many powerful features as ever.

As good as the class rates, players look to improve their paladins through multiclassing. The recipe seems strong. Combine the paladin’s martial prowess, armor, and divine smites with a Charisma-based spellcasting class that gains more spell slots to fuel extra smites. Compared to a level-10 paladin, a 10th-level character who mixes 2 levels of paladin with 8 levels of sorcerer or bard gains 1 level-3 slot, 3 level-4 slots, and 1 level-5 slot. The combination yields 24d8 extra total smite damage per day. Plus sorcerers gain sorcery points they can trade for even more slots. Of course, such combinations lack a bounty of paladin features. More on that at the end.

What multiclass combinations work best with paladin?

Paladin + Sorcerer

Multiclass paladin/sorcerers live their dreams by casting a quickened hold person or monster to paralyze a foe, and then following with paladin smites that automatically score criticals for twice the damage dice. Still, the combination suffers drawbacks that careful choices can help offset.

  • Sorcerers only gain d6 hit dice, so a lack of hit points limits characters who need to melee to smite. To compensate, pick the Draconic Bloodline origin for an extra hp per level. Prepare the shield spell and, later, mirror image, which rates as the best defense spell that works without concentration.

  • While paladins can cast their paladin spells using a holy symbol emblazoned on a shield as a focus, sorcerers need a free hand for the components of sorcerer spells. You can avoid this by focusing on the Great Weapon Fighting style, but the lack of a shield diminishes AC. To equip a shield, take the War Caster feat so that you can cast spells while holding it. This brings the added advantage of granting advantage on the Constitution saves needed to maintain concentration.

  • This class combination never gets an extra attack unless you invest five levels in paladin. To compensate, choose either the booming blade or green-flame blade cantrip to add extra damage to a single attack.

  • The class combination relies on multiple ability scores. Draconic Bloodline sorcerers gain in armor class if they focus on Dexterity over Strength, plus a high Dexterity offers more benefits than Strength, but these characters still need a 13 Strength to become a multiclass paladin. That hurts enough for most of these characters to opt for Strength over Dexterity. Half-elves work especially well with this class combination because of their choice of ability score increases.

Paladin + Bard

Multiclass paladin/bards boast one edge: When you join the bard’s College of Swords at 3rd level, you gain features that work in melee. Bards in the college gain an extra attack at level 6. These characters can start with 2 levels of paladin for Divine Smite, switch to bard, and still gain an extra attack at level 8. Plus, these sword bards can use their weapon as an arcane focus. The Defensive Flourish option lets you add a Bardic Inspiration die to AC. Combined with a paladin’s armor, this can yield an untouchable AC, at least for a turn.

For this combination, opt for the paladin’s Defense fighting style and choose the Dueling style available to the College of Swords. Half-Elves make a good choice of race.

Compared to the sorcerer combination, the bard multiclass lacks spells that complement the fighting style. You want spells like shield, but you have to wait for the 10th-level bard’s Magical Secrets feature to gain them.

Paladin + Warlock

The hexblade patron makes warlock a strong combination with paladin for several reasons:

  • Warlocks who choose the Pact of the Blade feature and the Improved Pact Weapon invocation can use their pact weapon as a spellcasting focus.

  • Warlocks who choose the Pact of the Blade feature and the 5th-level Thirsting Blade invocation can attack with their pact weapon twice whenever they take an attack action.

  • Most paladins need a high Strength to power their attack and damage rolls. For a pact weapon or for any weapon that lacks the two-handed property, a hexblade warlock can use Charisma instead. This frees the character from needing a strength higher than 13, the prerequisite for multiclassing. You can focus ability score improvements on Charisma, Constitution, and the Resilient (Constitution) feat that you want to improve concentration.

  • Hexblades get spells like shield that prove particularly useful.

  • The hexblade curse enables critical hits on 19-20, which doubles your chance of getting to roll twice as many damage dice on a divine smite. Plus you gain a damage bonus equal to your proficiency bonus. Plus when you kill your target, you regain hit points.

  • Warlocks regain spell slots after short rests. Often this provides more fuel for smites than comes from a full caster like a bard or sorcerer.

Warlock/paladin multiclass characters divide their loyalties between a sacred oath and, likely, a mysterious entity from the Shadowfell that manifests in sentient magic weapons carved from the stuff of shadow. To some players this presents a roleplaying challenge they feel eager to embrace.

Paladin + More Paladin

Paladin multiclass characters gain attention for racking heaps of smite damage and sometimes beating encounters single handed. A pure paladin can’t flash as often or as bright. Nonetheless, a pure paladin may lift a party’s strength more, creating a more powerful group.

Look at all the goodies a multi-class paladin may lose.

  • Characters who opt for just 2 levels of paladin never reach the ability score enhancement at level 4.

  • Those taking fewer than 5 levels never gain Extra Attack.

  • Quit before level 6 and you never gain that sweet, wonderful Aura of Protection that gives you and every ally within 10 feet a bonus to saving throws equal to your charisma bonus. That aura will make your paladin the party’s MVP of every single session.

The paladin’s benefits at level 7 and higher feel less essential, but multiclassers still miss some compelling features. At level 10, allies within 10 feet can’t be frightened. At level 11, all your melee attacks deal an extra 1d8 of damage. At 14, you can touch yourself and alies to remove spells. At 18, the range of your auras increases to 30 feet. Plus at level 7, if you follow the Path of the Ancients, you and allies in your aura gain resistance to spell damage.

All that, and unlike a 1st-edition paladin, you can keep all your magic items.

How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter

When I wrote a post rating the Sharpshooter feat as overpowered and naming its combination with Crossbow Expert as the worst thing in Dungeons & Dragons, some readers stepped up to expose my bad take. But nobody said the feats were weaker than I claimed, because most folks who read my posts have played D&D.

Many folks refuted the power of Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert by naming a spell with the power to win an encounter. Animate objects (5th), mass suggestion (6th), and forcecage (7th) make particularly good examples. My posts on the most annoying lower-level spells and higher-level spells add ammunition to this line of thinking. Still, a look at the spells-per-level tables shows that even high-level spellcasters rarely get more than one chance to cast one of these spells per day. D&D lead designer Jeremey Crawford explains, “We constrain how many spell slots you get at those upper levels. You’ll look at your table of spells slots and you’ll go down the slope and you’ll get down there and you’ll go, “Oh, just one.” And it never goes up. That’s on purpose because it allows us to make 9th-level spells, for instance, just crazy bonkers. But you get that crazy bonkers no more than once a day.” Meanwhile, a martial character optimized for damage blows up every encounter.

Most commonly, folks tried to refute my point by citing other character builds they rate as even more broken. What could possibly be more ridiculous than the Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert feats combined with either a fighter using the Samurai martial archetype or a ranger using the Gloom Stalker archetype? Also, you might ask how to build such ridiculous characters (but only because your story concept arrives there organically). Read on.

1. Great Weapon Master + Polearm Master

Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master offer the combination of feats most comparable to Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert. Great Weapon Master lets characters trade -5 to hit for +10 damage with a heavy weapon, including polearms such as halberds and glaives. Polearm Master lets characters use a bonus action for an extra attack. Sure, the extra attack only starts with 1d4 damage, but when each hit still deals 13-15 points of fixed damage, the d4 is just seasoning. Plus, you can use a reaction to attack creatures who enter your 10-foot reach.

To create a character based on this combination, choose human to take Polearm Master at creation, then add Great Weapon Master at level 4.

Either barbarian or fighter makes a good class to combine with these feats.

  • Barbarians can use Reckless Attack to gain advantage, making landing blows at -5 easier.

  • The Battle Master fighter gets combat maneuvers like Trip Attack that enable you to gain advantage on follow up attacks. Later, the fighter gains more attacks. Plus the Riposte maneuver lets you use your reaction to attack creatures who miss you with a melee attack.

Are these feats better than Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert?

As strong as the combination of Great Weapon Master plus Polearm Master seems, three factors make it less troublesome in play.

  • These warriors must enter melee and stand in harm’s way. Flying foes can avoid their attacks.

  • These warriors usually must move to attack and to switch targets.

  • No fighting style comparable to archery offers a +2 bonus to hit with great weapon or polearm attacks.

Paladin also makes a fun combination with these feats, but the class needs both Charisma and Strength, so trading ability score improvements for feats hurts more.

2. Polearm Master + Sentinel

Polearm Master and Sentinel creates a combination of feats able to frustrate monsters and dungeon masters alike. The polearm master gains ways to trade bonus actions and reactions for extra attacks. When the sentinel lands an opportunity attack in a polearm’s 10-foot reach, the creature’s speed becomes 0. The combination of reach and literal stopping power lets these warriors plug a 25-foot gap.

To build a character based on this combination, choose human to start with your favorite of the two feats.

For fighters, choose the Defense fighting style. The Battle Master martial archetype brings several abilities that save your bonus actions and reactions for the feats. The Goading Attack, Lunging Attack, and Sweeping Attack maneuvers seem like particularly good picks.

The Cavalier martial archetype also combines well with these feats. The Unwavering Mark helps you draw attacks and punish foes who attack your allies.

Barbarians make a good match because they can shrug off damage better than any other class. Choose the Path of the Bear Totem Warrior for resistance to everything but psychic damage while you rage. The Path of the Ancestral Guardian also makes a good choice, although the Spirit Shield feature takes the reactions needed to power your Sentinel abilities.

Unlike armored fighters, unarmored barbarians need Dexterity and Constitution to gain a high armor class, so they suffer more when they trade an ability score improvement for a feat.

Are these feats better than Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert?

A character built on these feats rates as the best way to frustrate monsters and DMs looking to maneuver past the party’s front line. Still, these characters shine less in bigger spaces, when attacks come from multiple directions, and against ranged and flying foes.

While these combinations prove strong, they lack the consistent dominance of Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert. But forget feats. The most common builds rated as more powerful combined a paladin’s martial proficiency and smite ability with a spellcasting class able to fuel more smites.

Next: The best multiclass combinations with paladin

Related:
How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D.
The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

Dungeons as a Mythic, Living Evil

In 1974, dungeons tried to kill you. More than just the creatures inside, the walls and stone wanted to murder you.

  • Dungeons changed when you looked away. Page 8 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures tells dungeon masters to change explored dungeon tunnels by “blocking passages, making new ones, dividing rooms, and filling in others.”
  • Dungeon doors closed on their own accord, and then you had to force them open. But the dungeon helped its monstrous allies kill you. Doors opened for them.
  • “Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character.” (See page 9.)
  • Dungeons had one-way doors and gently sloping corridors that lured prey deeper and closer to their deaths.

Did the architects of these dungeons aim to foil explorers, or do the walls themselves bend to snare them? Was the door you went through earlier one-way or just gone now.

dungeon table at Gen Con 2015

Decades after the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor launched the game, players grew interested in recapturing the style of those old megadungeons. But D&D had matured. Even players bent on remaking the past wanted to drop or explain the most preposterous elements: Monster populations that defied any natural order. Walls that changed between visits. Doors that opened and closed to frustrate intruders.

So gamers looked for ways to account for the weird essence of those classic dungeons.

Jason “Philotomy” Cone popularized the idea of a mythic underworld, which justifies the strange things that happen in those old dungeons by embracing the unreal as part of a place’s nature.

“There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should ‘make sense’ as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn’t necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through). None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld. There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should, be the centerpiece of the game. As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it.”

For more about Jason’s concept, see page 22 of Philotomy’s Musings, a PDF that mimics the appearance of the original D&D supplements.

When Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo created their “love letter to D&D” in the 13th Age role playing game, the mythic underworld probably inspired their notion of living dungeons.

“Other special dungeons, known as ‘living dungeons,’ rise spontaneously from beneath the underworld, moving upward steadily toward the surface as they spiral across the map. Living dungeons don’t follow any logic; they’re bizarre expressions of malignant magic.”

The game charges heroic adventurers with the goal of slaying living dungeons. “Some living dungeons can be slain by eliminating all their monsters. Others have actual crystalline hearts, and can be slain by specific magic rituals whose components and clues can be found among their corridors and chests.” 

The concept even explains why a living dungeon might offer adventurers clues to its secrets. “More than one party of adventurers has observed that most living dungeons have some form of a death wish.”

Blogger Adam Dray gives the best sense of the concept’s flavor. “Like any good monster, the living dungeon wants to kill. It’s a mass murderer, gaining more and more power as it takes life. Like a clever virus, it knows that it can’t just instantly kill anything that enters it. It seduces and teases. It lures people into its depths with the promise of treasure.”

The 13th Age adventure Eyes of the Stone Thief presents a living dungeon for the game.

If you like the living dungeon concept, in “I, Dungeon,” Mike Shea gives more ideas for a living dungeon’s motives and vulnerabilities.

Some 13th Age reviewers found the living dungeon concept too fanciful. For them, the biological whiff of the concept of a burrowing dungeon felt too dissonant.

For me, I think the mythic underworld resonates when it feels less alive and more haunted or cursed. Not cycle of life, but living dead. Stones that echo with so much hate and hunger and chaos that they mock life.

To make such a dungeon frightful, avoid putting a face to the wickedness. The evil cannot manifest itself as a ghost in a sheet or as a personified “Dungeon Master” working controls at the bottom level. For inspiration of a haunted place look to 1963 movie The Haunting, which never shows ghosts but proves scarier for it. Or see the 2006 movie Monster House, which my kids couldn’t bear to watch through to the end.

Imagine a place, perhaps one haunted by a massacre or some other legendary wickedness, perhaps one abandoned by god. This site devours all that is living and good that intrudes. It hungers to snuff more lives, so perhaps it pulls gems, gold, and lost treasure from the depths to lure more victims. Imagine a place that seems to summon—or perhaps even create—malign horrors to infest its halls. Imagine a place that waits to test the boldest heroes.

What to Do When a D&D Player Wants to Be Ready, Call a Shot, or Delay

Without knowing any rules—without knowing a d20 from a d12—new Dungeons & Dragons players can join a party and love the game at least as much as veteran players. Everything feels fresh and thrilling, so often the newcomers have more fun. They play without rules by just imagining themselves as heroes and asking what they would do.

For the rest of us, knowing the rules can interfere with that primal experience. Instead of interacting with the D&D world, we slip into interacting with the rules. So when we hear footsteps approaching a door, instead of nocking an arrow and drawing a bow, we ask to ready an attack action for when a monster opens the door. In this example, that ready action breaks the rules because ready only applies during combat’s initiative order.

My last post described 3 times when players ask to use rules not even in the game. The game omits the supposed rules because they would run against D&D’s design approach. Often, past editions of the game even included these extra rules, but fifth edition’s more economical design forced them out. That post explained the designers’ choices and how to explain the missing rules to players.

Still, although the rules only allow ready actions in combat, lack a system for called shots, and omit the delay action, characters can still aim a drawn bow at a closed door, shoot for the tentacle gripping a friend, and perhaps even wait for the slow paladin to stop blocking the door.

This post offers advice for ruling on all those requests without inventing rules that the designers skipped for good reasons.

1. Readying an action outside of combat.

Players usually ask to ready outside combat for one of two reasons:

  • They expect trouble and want to stay alert.

  • They want to attack first. 

D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford explained how he handles the request to stay alert. “Usually what that means is they won’t be surprised at my table.” Alternately, you could grant the character advantage on perception checks and a cooresponding +5 to passive perception until the situation changes or you judge that the characters’ attention would ease to a normal level. Nobody can stay especially alert all the time except barbarians with Feral Instinct. Impinging on a class feature would make barbarians angry. You wouldn’t like that.

Often, attempts to gain the first attack fall under surprise rules. When a party prepares to attack something inside a closed door and that foe remains unaware of the threat, then the monster starts combat surprised. If the monster knows about the threat, then the situation matches the usual start of a fight: Everyone is ready. Roll initiative to see who goes first. DMs who rule that a character with an arrow pulled only needs an instant to aim and shoot might give that character advantage on initiative. Don’t make the first attack automatic. We’ve all seen countless scenes where some skilled fighter stares down a poised weapon, and then uses lightning reflexes to strike first.

2. Called shots.

Usually players ask to call shots to gain a quicker route to taking a foe from a fight. To that I say, “Your characters are experts at combat. With each attack, they use their skills to find the best opportunity to land a blow that deals the most damage and that offers the best chance of taking your foe out of the fight.”

The second-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide limited called shots with a rule that remains sound in fifth. “Against a creature, a called shot will only cause the normal amount of damage allowed by the weapon. Attempts to blind, cripple, or maim will not succeed.”

Such a limit quashes most interest in called shots, so the designers opted for rules economy over adding rules for called shots. Still, players may want to temporarily impose a condition like Blinded, Deafened, or Prone. Conditions in D&D typically last a round or allow saves every turn. Players could also aim to distract, slow movement, or disarm.

The latest Dungeon Master’s Guide includes rules for disarming a foe (p.257). For other conditions, game designer Justin Alexander suggests some sensible, but untested rules. His post details the design decisions behind called shots. Called shots typically suffer a penalty of -2 or -4 as judged by the DM. (Don’t impose disadvantage, because that creates an incentive to call a shot whenever an attack would suffer disadvantage anyway. D&D lacks double disadvantage.) If the called shot succeeds, then you deal damage normally and the target must make an appropriate saving throw or suffer the effect. I recommend calculating a saving throw DC using a formula similar to the Battle Master fighter’s Maneuver save DC. Add 5 + your proficiency bonus + your choice of Strength or Dexterity modifier. 

Delay a turn.

Fifth edition skips the delay action because the extra option adds extra rules baggage and may slow play.

Nonetheless, in one case players who delay their place in initiative can smooth play without adding any complexity to the rules. That case comes when you first arrange initiative before any creature takes an action. Too often, the slow, tough characters at the door roll low while the quicker skirmishers in back roll high. Those tanks wind up bottling up the door because the rules offer no way for the bladesinger in back to just wait for the paladin to step out of the damn way. Before initiative starts, let players opt for a lower initiative count.

For the players who enjoy the tactical intricacies brought by the delay action, groups can import the delay rules in earlier editions of D&D and in D&D’s sister system Pathfinder. Here are the rules the designers wished to avoid.

Delay

By choosing to delay, you take no action and then act normally on whatever initiative count you decide to act. When you delay, you voluntarily reduce your own initiative result for the rest of the combat. When your new, lower initiative count comes up later in the same round, you can act normally. You can specify this new initiative result or just wait until sometime later in the round and act then, thus fixing your new initiative count at that point.

You never get back the time you spend waiting to see what’s going to happen. You also can’t interrupt anyone else’s action (as you can with a readied action).

Your initiative result becomes the count on which you took the delayed action. If you come to your next action and have not yet performed an action, you don’t get to take a delayed action (though you can delay again).

If you take a delayed action in the next round, before your regular turn comes up, your initiative count rises to that new point in the order of battle, and you do not get your regular action that round.

When you Delay, any persistent damage or other negative effects that normally occur at the start or end of your turn occur immediately when you use the Delay action. Any beneficial effects that would end at any point during your turn also end. You can’t Delay to avoid negative consequences that would happen on your turn or to extend beneficial effects that would end on your turn.

3 Actions D&D Players Want That Defy the Game’s Design Choices

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons players ask to do things that the rules don’t handle—and not just because no roleplaying game’s rules can cover everything. The game omits the added rules because they would run against D&D’s design approach. Often, past editions of the game even included these extra rules, but fifth edition’s more consistent design forced them out.

This post isn’t about the rules fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons could have included, but which the design skips for brevity. The D&D designers intentionally avoid providing rules for everything. “We want a system that 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,” writes designer Rodney Thompson.

What actions aren’t covered by the D&D rules because they defy the game’s design choices?

1. Readying an action outside of combat.

In the early days of D&D, players liked saying, “I ready my sword” or “I nock an arrow.” Back then, initiative ran by house rules and DM whim, so this sort of declaration might win an edge. In an example of playing D&D that Gary Gygax wrote for the Europa zine in 1976, the DM grants the party +1 to a d6 initiative roll for being prepared. Only Unearthed Arcana (1985) actually put a benefit for readiness into print. “A bow specialist who begins the round with arrow nocked, shaft drawn, and target in sight is entitled to loose that arrow prior to any initiative check.” (See For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots.)

Despite the lack of rules benefits, such declarations might prevent an adversarial dungeon master from deciding that because you never said that your sword was drawn, a fight caught you unprepared. In those days, many gamers saw thwarting and punishing players as part of the DM’s role. That attitude has fallen from favor. Nowadays, even though you never mention that your character started the day by putting on pants, we still assume pants.

The old spirit of readiness continues today. In a Sage Advice segment, D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford says, “People often want to ready actions before combat has even started.”

Why “readying” does nothing. Jeremy says, “The ready action is an action you take in combat, so there’s really no such thing as readying before combat has started.”

What a DM should say. Maybe nothing. “I rarely correct them,” Jeremy says. He interprets the ready request as the player signaling their intent to stay alert. “Usually what that means is they won’t be surprised at my table. So even though I won’t have the mechanics of the ready action play out, I will still reward them for thinking in advance and signaling intent.”

To more rules-oriented players say, “In D&D, everyone who isn’t surprised starts a fight ready. Initiative lets us decide who among the ready combatants goes first.” (Surprised combatants also have a place in initiative, but they take no actions while surprised.) For more on what to tell players about initiative, see What to do when a player interrupts a role-playing scene to start a battle.

2. Called shots.

Sometime in every player’s D&D career, they get the idea of skipping the process of hacking through all a creature’s hit points by simply chopping off their weapon hand or blinding them with a blow to the eyes. Earlier editions of D&D termed attacks that aimed for a specific body part “called shots” and the game once included rules for such strikes. No more.

Why the rules don’t include called shots. The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook explains, “Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.” That’s a lot of possibilities. The game rules rely on this vagueness to allow characters to regain all their hit points after a short rest rather than a long hospital stay.

The moment characters start attempting to gouge their foes’ eyes out and villains return the favor, the game loses the useful abstraction of hit points. Also, if aiming for a particular body part proved more effective, why would anyone bother with regular attacks? The second-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed called shots, but explained, “Because the AD&D game uses a generalized system for damage, called shots cannot be used to accomplish certain things. Against a creature, a called shot will only cause the normal amount of damage allowed the weapon. Attempts to blind, cripple, or maim will not succeed.”

What a DM should say. “Your characters are experts at combat. With each attack, they use their skills to find the best opportunity to land a blow that deals the most damage and that offers the best chance of taking your foe out of the fight.”

3. Delaying an action.

In third and fourth edition, players could delay their actions to later in the initiative count. This helped players coordinate actions with other players using an advanced strategy called you set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em down. Players who remember the flexibility of delaying still ask for it.

Why the rules don’t include delaying. The fifth-edition designers chose to eliminate delaying to simplify the rules and speed play.

Many spell durations and combat effects last until the beginnings and endings of turns. An option to delay complicates the rules for such effects and the bookkeeping needed to track them. “Simply by changing when your turn happens, you could change the length of certain spells,” explains the Sage Advice Compendium. “The way to guard against such abuse would be to create a set of additional rules that would limit your ability to change durations. The net effect? More complexity would be added to the game, and with more complexity, there is greater potential for slower play.”

An option to delay encourages players to analyze and discuss the optimal order for their turns during every round. “Multiply that extra analysis by the number of characters and monsters in a combat, and you have the potential for many slow-downs in play.”

What a DM should say. “Everyone in a fight acts at once. We just have turns to make some sense of that activity. If you delay, you do nothing while everyone else acts. At best, you can start an action and attempt to time it so that it finishes right after something else happens. That’s called readying an action.”

Making a Tier 4 D&D Encounter for Characters Who Play Like Superheroes

Dungeons & Dragons tier 4 spans levels 17 through 20, where wizards can cast wish. When I read class abilities in that range, I think, Well, that’s overpowered. And then I think, They can cast wish. If the party plays like the Justice League, then the design hit the right note. (See The Obvious Innovation in Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons That No Designer Saw Before and The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players.)

I’ve played dungeon crawls at levels 17+ and felt surprised by how much the delve felt like ordinary D&D. I’ve also played T4 encounters where everyone flew dragons to battle in the stratosphere and T4 encounters where the party faced off against the mad mage Halaster mounted on a flying tarrasque. Want to guess whether those open encounters proved more memorable than the dungeon crawl? (Hint: Yes.)

So the tier 4 adventure design open call from D&D Adventurers League got me thinking. How would I answer such a call?

Part of the challenge—and fun—comes from the call’s limits. These restraints include a limit to 500 words or fewer with no maps. No doubt these limits aim for two goals: (a) to spare the time of whoever evaluates the submissions and (b) to test writers’ ability to follow directions. The rules also limit submissions to 1 page, but 500 words take less than a page. For example, the 1-page encounter in the sample document takes 662 words.

When I think T4 adventures, I think of events that cap a multi-year campaign with a final showdown with Orcus, Tiamat, or a similar arch-foe. But Adventures League sessions start and end within 4 hours, which leaves little build up for, “Orcus attacks!” This led me to imagine situations where an epic party might be drawn into a conflict that fits a convention slot. My encounter hints at that conflict. Also, I opted for a starting encounter to avoid something as potentially bewildering as tuning into the last 15 minutes of a movie. I agree with Sly Flourish on the importance of starting strong.

In the City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977), a loan shark could summon Orcus to deal with folks who miss payments, so a sudden attack by the demon lord has a early precedent. See Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.

For tier 4, I prefer to leave the prime material plane. Adventures set in a place like the Abyss feel like a better match for legendary heroes. Besides, the outer planes bring the most suitable foes for the tier. But the rules limit encounters to the Forgotten Realms. Rather than quibbling that the Realms setting includes the Abyss, I thought back to a Lore You Should Know segment on a Dragon Talk podcast episode that fired my imagination. Adam Lee describes the fallen cities of ancient Netheril and the mythallar’s that tapped enough magic of the weave to levitate cities. What if some evil sought a mythallar to power some scheme? Unlike a plain McGuffin, I could use that raw magic to justify some big special effects. Tier 4 merits heavy use of the imagination’s unlimited special effects budget.

Remember all those mighty abilities that make tier 4 characters play like superheroes? These characters commonly fly, run on walls, teleport, and so on. If you drop such a party in a room where two sides trade damage, nobody gets to flaunt their amazing powers. You want battles atop boulders buoyed on rising lava in an erupting volcano. (Maybe next time.) With lesser characters, such a battlefield might risk incinerating heroes, but the tier 4 heroes can cope with every peril you imagine, and then leave you wondering how to dial the difficulty above easy. I aimed for medium difficulty, but I suspect I barely landed easy. Blame it on just 500 words of threats.

For my fantastic location, I opted for a magic gate tunneling from a ruined city to the Abyss. I hoped for a site that forced characters to use their abilities while still being run theater of the mind—although an abstract map would offer greater clarity. Just draw a big tube with 2 circles and 2 lines and tick off 15-foot increments like a measuring cup. Cross it with 2 lines for the fallen towers. Ambitious DMs could unroll the tube onto a flat battlemap. Very ambitious DMs could model it in 3 dimensions.

Selecting monsters at this tier poses a challenge because so few stand a chance in the big leagues. Fewer still work in groups and even the mightiest solo monsters struggle against groups of adventurers. For example, when I ran a solo tarrasque against a level-20 party, I needed to give D&D’s mightiest monster maximum hit points to hold up. For my encounter location, my foes needed to fly.

I settled on yugoloths. They fly and the type boasts a number of other advantages: I can team spell slingers and martial types to match with the varied powers of the party. Plus, their nature as mercenaries make them an easy fit for an adventure. Monsters who challenge characters in multiple ways give players more chances to exercise their characters’ abilities. The nycoloths bring innate spellcasting and that makes me concerned that so many abilities could mire a DM in too many choices and layer too much magic on the battlefield. At this level, even “shock troops” feature suites of abilities.

My encounter’s last ingredient comes from an anthropomorphic fox bent on using the party for revenge. I added Rusty for two reasons:

  • His presence lures characters into the pit when good sense might keep them outside.
  • He adds more opportunities for interaction to the encounter.

For a look at my encounter, see the draft PDF and an updated version based on feedback.

Related: Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: To Steal a Primordial
Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: The Giant Ship