Watch my appearance on the Designer’s Den with Ginny Loveday. We talk Queen of the Demonweb Pits and Dead in Thay, and how they fit Dungeons & Dragons history. Plus, why designers should DM for strangers, my most popular posts, and much more.
Monte Cook’s thirty-plus years as a game designer include credits co-designing third-edition Dungeons & Dragons and his science-fantasy roleplaying game Numenera, which mirrors some broad patterns of D&D. Numenera includes characters that resemble fighters, rogues, and spellcasters who gather to explore dangerous places. Players even roll d20s and aim to reach target numbers that rate a task’s difficulty. Make no mistake though, Numenera features innovations. Monte writes, “I think I have some fresh variations on some concepts that are in games now, and some wholly new ideas as well.”
For example, Monte noticed that players have more fun rolling to attack than watching a dungeon master make a foe’s saving throw. Rolling gives us an emotional sense of involvement. So in Numenera, the players always roll the dice. When players attack, they roll to hit; when monsters attack, the players roll to defend.
Letting players always roll has the side effect of eliminating the GM’s ability to fudge rolls. “If the dice don’t mean anything, then everything is predetermined, and it’s no longer a game by any definition—just a story being told,” Monte writes. “So the dice need to matter. But that means that sometimes a PC will fail when they would succeed if it were a story, and vice versa. That’s not a flaw; it’s a feature. It’s what makes roleplaying games so exciting.” Dice make roleplaying games unpredictable and dynamic. Numenera embraces that. (You may like how fudging rolls gives a GM power fit the game into a story, but Numenera gives GMs and players other tools to help shape a thrilling narrative.)
Numenera highlights the fun and drama of rolling dice in other ways. One has influenced how I run D&D and improved my games.
The rules of D&D encourage rolling first, and then adding bonuses and penalties to learn whether the roll means success or failure. The delay of calculating after the roll often robs the roll of potential drama.
Numenera puts the calculations before the roll by making things like skills and circumstances adjust the target difficulty. By the time the players throw the dice, they know exactly the number they need. Monte explains that calculating before the roll “makes task resolution–and in particular combat–move much, much more quickly if you’re not waiting for people to add together numbers (or to ensure they have all their various miscellaneous modifiers accounted for).” Even better, calculating first gives the roll an immediate significance that everyone playing understands.
Of course D&D players and DMs can calculate the target number needed for success before rolling too. Just subtract all the bonuses from the DC. As a DM, I often announce these target numbers before open rolls to wring maximum drama from a roll of the dice. As a DM under the influence of Numenera, I find myself making such announcements before nearly every roll. I’ve always rolled in the open, but when players know what the numbers mean, they pay attention and they react to the numbers.
Calculating a target number in advance hardly takes extra effort. Sure, some very low or high rolls could have skipped the math entirely. But pre-calculating often makes up for the occasional unnecessary effort in volume. If I roll a save for the 7 ghouls in a fireball and I know they need a 13 to succeed, I can toss 7 d20s and spot all the successes in an instant. If I throw the dice with just DC 15 and +2 in my head, then making sense of 7 numbers on the dice and the 2 numbers in my head takes much longer.
The most exciting moments in games like Numenera and D&D often come from die rolls. When we throw the dice, game masters and players alike surrender control to chance. For maximum drama, don’t make players wait for calculation of the results. Tell everyone the number to look for on the die.
When Magic the Gathering players talk about broken cards, they mean ones powerful enough to dominate games so that every competitive deck either includes the card or focuses on countering it. These cards break the game by destroying the options that make playing fun. D&D includes some spells that suck fun from the game, but nothing that ruins it.
Still, foresight breaks D&D. I don’t mean that it’s over-overpowered; 9th level spells should deliver wahoo powers that feel a bit overpowered. In the words of lead designer Jeremy Crawford, “High-level spells are often just whack-a-doo on purpose.” (I’ll bet he didn’t expect to be quoted on that one.)
By broken, I mean that foresight makes D&D dull, and a 9th-level spell should always add excitement. Even if the spell’s power wrecks an encounter, the magic should feel game breaking and thrilling. Foresight just feels game breaking and boring.
For 8 hours, the target of foresight “can’t be surprised and has advantage on attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws. Additionally, other creatures have disadvantage on attack rolls against the target for the duration.”
Fifth edition’s rules for advantage and disadvantage streamline the game by eliminating the fiddly pluses and minuses that older editions imposed on attacks and checks. While the old modifiers added realism, they slowed play and seldom made a difference.
To gain even more quick simplicity, multiple sources of advantage and disadvantage don’t stack. At most they offset, leading to a straight roll. Usually that works because multiple advantages and disadvantages come infrequently. (For instances where this rule creates illogical situations, see numbers 12 and 10 of the 13 of the Craziest Quirks in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules.)
The simple approach falters when some ongoing factor adds advantage or disadvantage to every roll. Suddenly other circumstances stop affecting the odds. D&D’s designers recognized this when they opted to have cover impose a minus to attacks rather than disadvantage. They wanted a factor as common as cover to stack with all the other situations that can create advantage and disadvantage in a fight.
During my D&D weekend, when two level-20 wizards benefited from the 8-hour duration of foresight and spent an entire adventure with advantage, I realized how much less interesting the game became. Foresight eliminates all motivations to seek an edge. By erasing fifth-edition’s foundation of advantage/disadvantage, foresight nullifies the effect of too many decisions, tactics and character traits.
Incidentally, the 3rd-edition version of foresight gave just a +2 bonus to AC and Reflex saves—at 9th level! Instead of a broken spell that sucked the fun from D&D, the spell just sucked.
Jon Peterson’s earlier books aimed for readers with an unusual appetite for role-playing game history. Playing at the World sprawls past 425,000 words, rooting the design of Dungeons & Dragons in chess variants and Prussian wargames. The Elusive Shift tells how fans mainly writing in amateur zines shaped the often esoteric theory behind roleplaying games. Thanks to my taste for such arcana, I jumped to get a copy of Peterson’s most recent book, Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, but I didn’t expect this book to keep me up at night reading and telling myself I would only stay up for a few more pages. This book can captivate anyone interested in the business of roleplaying games or in the people who created D&D.
Game Wizards focuses on battles that go from the game table to the boardroom and courtroom. The book reveals the pride and ambitions of the men who created D&D, and of their feuds over credits, awards, and money. This tale even includes backstabbing, though thankfully not the sort with knives.
Jon Peterson pulls the story from letters and other documents written by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and other players as the events occurred. “Many of the direct quotations in this piece are thus taken from their correspondence.” Much of this book’s magic stems from the breadth of sources Peterson uncovers, from the contract establishing the original game’s royalty agreement to an audio tape Arneson recorded of a Gygax television appearance. “When Gary enumerates the character classes available in the game, at the point when he mentions that there is a thief class, you can hear Arneson mutter, ‘That’s you.’” Arneson and Gygax were then battling over credit and royalties for their creation.
The story starts in 1969, when Arneson attended the second GenCon, which Gygax hosted in his hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The two gamers first partnered to create a set of rules for naval miniatures titled Don’t Give Up the Ship.
By the early 70s, Arneson and his group of Minneapolis gamers invented a style of campaign that broadly resembled D&D. When Gygax played Arneson’s Blackmoor game, its innovations inspired Gygax to turn the seed into a publication. “I’ll whip out a booklet for your approval, so groups can play their own games,” he wrote Arneson. Later Arneson described the role of Gary and his circle of gamers in creating D&D. “At the time, they had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules. They sent theirs to us and we fooled around with them for a while.” When Gygax had reasons to exaggerate his role, he claimed, “D&D, I wrote every word of that. Even my co-author admits that.” Arneson admitted no such thing. Still, Gygax’s tireless work as a writer, publisher, and well of ideas proved essential too.
Gary Gygax started Tactical Studies Rules to publish D&D and other games. In September 1973 Gygax wrote to Arneson, “We’re getting ready to roll.” When the costs of printing the first D&D sets ballooned, Brian Blume invested $2,000 dollars to become a partner in the company. In 1975 the company was incorporated as TSR Hobbies with Gygax and the Blume family holding nearly equal shares.
The revolutionary D&D game spread from Lake Geneva by word of mouth, from tabletop to tabletop, and especially from the gamers attending conventions like GenCon. In 1974, one GenCon visitor reported, “This year’s convention was centered mainly around the new set of Gygax and Arneson rules Dungeons & Dragons.” It was “the hit of the convention with gamemasters having games going in all parts of the Hall.”
By 1976, sales had grown enough for TSR to hire Arneson as Director of Research—and to work shipping. “Everyone who worked in the building had a nominal job, but had to pitch in wherever the need arose. In a personal letter dated February 2, Arneson explained his situation at the beginning of his employment at TSR: ‘My work here in Lake Geneva is going quite well and keeps me very busy from 8:30 to 6:00 every day of the week. In addition to my job as Director of Research I am also in charge of the Shipping Department.’”
But by summer Arneson felt growing dissatisfaction. None of his work related to D&D. Instead he had spent four months doing shipping and editing other designers’ rules.” He felt “no prospect of any of my work being published by TSR.” Arneson would accuse Gygax of taking the company’s choicest design assignments. When work started on a D&D set for beginners, drafts of the future basic rules listed the authors as Gary Gygax and Eric Holmes with no mention of Arneson. Also, Gygax excluded Arneson from work on the design that would become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
Still, naval miniatures ranked as Arneson’s first love. Before hiring on, he had promised two sets of naval rules to TSR in exchange for company stock, but his drafts languished unfinished. “Gygax repeatedly asked for urgent revisions to them both, and Arneson repeatedly avowed his faith in their imminent publication to his friends, even as late as October 1976, but they simply never materialized. As of the summer of 1975, TSR had announced both as forthcoming titles in the third Strategic Review.” Clearly TSR planned to publish the games, but Arneson’s projects stagnated, frustrating Gygax. By September, Arneson routinely left TSR offices at lunch to work afternoons at his apartment. Despite the time away from shipping, he produced virtually nothing for TSR. Before long, he and the company started squabbling over unexcused time away.
In November, Arneson resigned from TSR. He and Gygax drew battle lines over their creation. Arneson argued that D&D stemmed from his essential ideas. He planned a company and roleplaying game to rival TSR and D&D.
Copyright law sided with Gygax, the author who penned the game’s rules. He planned a new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which he presented as a completely different game, free of any royalty obligations to Arneson. Their war for hearts and minds extended to convention appearances and magazine interviews. The creators fought in shareholder meetings and in courtrooms. Reaching a settlement would take years.
While Arneson battled for credit and royalties on one front, Gygax fought with TSR on multiple fronts.
In 1979, a 16-year-old college student named Dallas Egbert disappeared from his dorm at Michigan State University. His parents hired a publicity-seeking private detective named William Dear to find the boy. The investigator blamed D&D for Ebert’s disappearance and his lurid speculation stormed to the national news. By the time Egbert turned up safe, few were paying attention. (See The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America.)
Even as Gygax and TSR staff fought to clear up negative myths about the game, the publicity drove a sales boom. “At the beginning of 1981, no ceiling for sales of Dungeons & Dragons was in sight: the game was like a magic item that relentlessly generated gold.”
The gold rush inspired a spending spree: The Blume’s added much of their extended family to the payroll. In 1982, TSR funded an effort to raise a shipwreck from Lake Geneva and announced sponsorship of the U.S. Bobsled Team. “It would be a year of lavish gestures like this, of a company spinning virtually out of control. Events piled on events so rapidly that its management structures simply had no way to manage them. It ensured the foundering of the company Gygax and Blume had created in 1975.”
By 1983 the bubble burst, leaving D&D sales stagnant. Weary of battling the Blumes over business decisions, Gygax left Wisconsin to live in a Los Angeles mansion that cost TSR $10,000 a month, $25,000 adjusted for inflation. To be fair, the D&D movie Gygax hoped to produce could renew TSR’s growth, but to the gaming industry, the move looked like a retreat to an opulent lifestyle in Hollywood.
Game Wizards wraps in 1985, with TSR on the brink of bankruptcy, but Gygax back from Hollywood and poised to take sole control of the company from the Blume family. By then a new player, Lorraine Williams, had entered the game. As granddaughter of the original publisher of Buck Rogers, Williams brought wealth plus experience licensing intellectual property. Gygax interested her in making the investment TSR needed to avoid bankruptcy.
Before Gygax could take full control over TSR, Williams made other plans. “‘Gygax and I were not talking very much during the time because we had very fundamental differences,’ she would remark. Furthermore, informing Gygax that she intended to purchase the Blume family shares would be, as she put it, ‘an invitation for him to get in and just try to screw it up, and to once again try to thwart the ability of the Blumes to sell their stock and to get out and to go about their lives.’” Williams purchased a controlling interest in TSR and forced its founder out.
In Game Wizards Peterson reveals the conflict with a turn-by-turn account played over years. It makes a story as riveting as any yarn played out at the D&D game table.
To start a weekend of D&D, my friend Tom Christy touted House of Lament, the level 1-3 adventure from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. He had already run it twice and rated it as outstanding. DMs shape the experience of an adventure, so just playing House of Lament tells me nothing about running it, but I loved playing it. It succeeded at two things that D&D makes difficult.
In D&D games, players sit at well-lit tables among friends. Most often, players become fearless heroes capable of winning against almost any threat they face. Long-time players see all the monsters revealed in the game books, eliminating any fear of the unknown. All this makes creating a fearsome or even unsettling adventure nearly impossible. But House of Lament succeeds on both counts.
As much as adventure designers enjoy inventing a backstory for their adventures, often making the party’s arrival the last chapter of a long tale, 80% of the time, none of that story reaches the players. And for most of the rest of the 20%, the players don’t care. Just tell me what to kill. House of Lament succeeded at developing a fascinating history and motivating players to uncover it. Plus, the adventure mixes in variety by offering a choice of potential villains and allies.
A popular house rule in Dungeons & Dragons lets characters drink a potion as a bonus action rather than as an action. (See Scrutinizing the 9 Most Popular House Rules for D&D.) When a typical round takes several minutes of real time to play, this rule spares the players from having to wait for their turn only to spend it adding 2d4+2. That turn feels like a letdown.
Nonetheless, I favored playing by the book and making drinking a healing potion an action. Until we welcome CamelBak hydration backpacks into our D&D worlds, I estimate that getting and opening a vial, and then downing the contents would take the better part of 6 seconds. Also, characters tend to need healing potions late in a fight, and I enjoy the difficult choice between pressing an attack despite dangerously low hit points or healing. Choices make games engaging.
My opinion changed after I played countless battles while eyeing unused potions of giant strength, fire breathing, and heroism in my characters’ inventories. Near the end of a battle, I still like the dilemma that healing potions can bring, but those other potions work best as a boost at the start a tough fight—the sort of fight you never want to begin by wasting a turn sipping a potion. The typical D&D battle only lasts three rounds!
Can I start fights with a timeout? “Before we roll initiative, my character tells the dragon, ‘Wait one second,’ holds up a finger, and then drinks a potion of fire resistance.” Until that works, I will continue to retire characters with stockpiles of unused potions. I would have enjoyed using those potions, so I suppose I’m ready to invent a device that rigs one of those gag cup-holder hats with more tubes than a pan flute.
For tier 2 of my Dungeons & Dragons weekend, I ran Necropolis of the Mailed Fist, billed as a “punishing one-session tournament dungeon designed for four 8th‑level 5th Edition characters.” My group relishes punishing tournament D&D games and once made the annual D&D open championships the center of our gaming year, so the Necropolis seemed tailor made. See Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return.
Necropolis author Sersa Victory specializes in tournament-style deathtraps flavored like the concentrated essence of every graveyard-and-murder-themed heavy metal album cover. The Necropolis delivers. In the first room, one character had his eyes torn out. The adventure includes a creature called a constellation of living spheres of annihilation. For the right audience it works brilliantly, and I ran it for the right crowd.
That said, because every room includes a page or two of connected puzzles, traps, and monsters, I often found running the adventure taxing. As I flipped pages, I sometimes worried that I failed to keep the fast pace needed for maximum engagement. Confession time: I love encounters with more in play than monsters to kill, but this adventure layers so much into every scene that I wished for a bit less. I feel so ashamed. A more measured approach to heaping punishment would have limited the simultaneous moving parts that demand a DM’s attention.
Later in the weekend, when I ran a tier 4 adventure of my own making, I took the lesson to heart and eliminated some complicating elements from an encounter that hardly seemed to need the filigree.
Spoilers for magic items in Rime of the Frostmaiden.
As written, Rime of the Frostmaiden includes a typical number of magic items, but only one useful magic weapon, a +2 trident. That count excludes the Berserker Axe, which attaches a harsh curse, and 6 laser rifles, which I don’t count as magic. Some players will relish letting their rogues and rangers become raygun-blasting snipers, but many players, including those with greatsword-wielding barbarians, may not fancy where a laser rifle steers their character.
Dunegon masters can change the adventure’s loot to fit their players, and you, I, and the designers all know it. Surely though, the lack of magic weapons comes by design, from a choice the authors made because they felt it enhanced the adventure.
What motivated this choice?
The stinginess reinforces the scarcity and struggle that sets the adventure’s early tone. ThinkDM writes, “It’s meant to convey desolation at the surface level of Icewind Dale, literally and figuratively. This sets a contrast to the high magic stuff happening later in the adventure.”
The adventure mainly avoids granting magic items that only suit a particular class or character, favoring wondrous items, protective items, and even a wand of magic missiles that any character can use. This avoids the awkward moment when the party finds a +2 longsword even though everyone wants a rapier. (DM hint: When you announce the find to that party, pronounce “longsword” as “rapier.”)
D&D’s fifth edition design aims to play fine without magic items, but a lack of magic weapons weakens fighters, rangers, and rogues against creatures resistant to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from non-magical attacks. Every character suffers moments like when the fireball-blasting sorcerer enters the forge of salamanders. However, the game makes creatures resistant to non-magic weapons common enough to lead the designers to give monks and druids fist and claw attacks that count as magic. The D&D Adventurers League gives out magic weapons to any fifth-level character who wants one. This avoids both penalizing the classes that need them and the awkward moments when a group finds the wrong type of magic sword.
In Frostmaiden, a certain infestation of vampires could overwhelm a party without magic weapons. At best, that barbarian spends a night feeling ineffective. Hope you found a laser rifle.
The ancient Egyptians used canopic jars to store the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver of corpses embalmed as mummies. I’m surprised that as a longtime D&D fan, I learned that fun fact only recently. Credit Jen Kretchmer, the author of The Canopic Being from Candlekeep Mysteries. The group for my D&D weekend started our tier 3 games with this standout adventure that built mummy lore into an ingenious villain.
After playing the adventure, I remembered that the dungeon’s lack of stairs caused a silly controversy. A preview by James Haeck reveals the feature. “It’s filled with fantasy elevators, and ledges are accessible by ramps rather than by stairs. If you have a player in your gaming group who wants to play a wheelchair-using character, this is a great adventure to borrow dungeon design ideas from. After all, it is a fantasy world. If it’s a player’s fantasy to kick ass in a wheelchair, why not?”
Some D&D fans grumbled that such a dungeon defied history or D&D tradition. In D&D, any closed environment meant to be explored, infiltrated, or raided qualifies as a dungeon, and those places almost always include substantial allowances to make play more fun, most often including oversized spaces with plenty of room for fights. D&D dungeons owe as much to history as fire-breathing dragons do. As for D&D tradition, the original 1974 D&D books recommend sloping passages and sinking rooms as tricky dungeon features. Dungeons can make such allowances and still murder characters.
James asks, “If we didn’t mention that the dungeon was fully accessible here, would you have even noticed that there were ramps instead of stairs?” True. Nobody noticed.
Of the 6 players gathered for my weekend of D&D, nobody showed up with a character with a strength higher than 8. Fifth edition D&D makes Strength a common dump stat because the game lacks an encumbrance system that players use. I’ve never played fifth edition with the option, mainly because I’ve never played this edition in a style that encourages the bookkeeping. Encumbrance fits with a gritty style of dungeon crawl that focuses on counting torches, rations, and perhaps abandoning copper pieces in favor of more portable loot.
When encumbrance feels like an accounting exercise that players ignore, Dexterity becomes king. By selecting ranged or finesse weapons, a Dexterity-based character can approach the damage of a similar character based on Strength—more with optimal feats. Plus, a high Dexterity enables an AC nearly as stout as the heaviest armor, wins initiative, and improves common Dexterity saves rather than rare Strength saves.
With encumbrance justifiably relegated to a seldom-used optional rule, a more evolved D&D design would boost the value of Strength with some advantages over Dexterity. After all, mighty warriors swinging great big swords form a deeply resonant part of fantasy and the game. I want to play those characters without feeling like I made a sacrifice for the sake of roleplaying.
For more, see A Game Design History of the Dump Stat.
Next on Thursday: Dungeons are contrived for fun games.