10 Favorite Nuggets From Monte Cook’s Your Best Game Ever

Roleplaying games have benefited from decades of advice for players and game masters. Every year, several new books offering help to roleplaying gamers reach print. Meanwhile, bloggers like me and countless others post advice and hope someone finds it useful.

With all this coaching, who needs more? For my part, I look for topics that haven’t gained much discussion and gather the best suggestions.

Monte Cook brings credentials earned through a long career in roleplaying games. In 1988, Cook started working for Iron Crown Enterprises on their Rolemaster and Champions games. By 1992, he started working for TSR where he penned Dead Gods, one of the greatest D&D adventures since 1985. He served as a lead designer on D&D’s third edition. For his Monte Cook Games, he designed roleplaying games such as Numenera, Invisible Sun, and The Strange. Among living RPG designers, Monte surely rates as the most famous and acclaimed.

This year, Monte published Your Best Game Ever, “A tool book, not a rulebook—for everyone who plays or runs roleplaying games.” When this book of advice reached Kickstarter, it rated as a must for me.

The finished book brought a couple of surprises. First, the campaign touted a long list of contributes from roleplaying game pioneers like Jennell Jaquays to famous voices like Matthew Mercer. I expected a compilation of advice from the contributors. Instead Monte stands as the book’s primary author, with the contributors seasoning the book with short sidebars. This makes a happy surprise because Monte brings a singular voice of 30-some years experience, which gives the book a clear, consistent feel. Second, outside of starter sets, few books of roleplaying advice aim to help beginners. Your Best Game Ever starts as a primer for new players, and then builds to help veteran gamers. This old enthusiast kept noting favorite quotes and even pages.

I chose ten passages from a 240 page book to give a taste of the content inside. But as I read and scribbled notes, I kept thinking that Your Best Game Ever rates as a book I want to come back to again and again. Highly recommended.

1. Lean Into Failure (Occasionally) (p.58)

You play games to win, and you win an RPG by succeeding at your goals (defeat the villain, get the gold, get more powerful, and the like). But if you’re a player focused on story, you need to look at things a little differently sometimes, because to win an RPG from this perspective is to tell a great story. And sometimes the best stories arise out of failure or defeat.

2. Anticipating Where the PCs Will Go (p.99)

A good GM knows where the PCs will go and what they’ll do before they do. However, the GM doesn’t force them to go anywhere or do anything. How on earth do you accomplish that?

Players have their PCs go where things sound most appealing, interesting, or fulfilling of their goals (wealth, power, information, the recovery of the kidnapped duke, or whatever). And you are the one who controls the places and things that fit that description.

Sometimes, you can subtly encourage the PCs to go in a certain direction or do a certain thing (because you’ve got stuff prepared for that choice). You do this by observing and learning what the players are likely to do. Once you figure things like that out, you can guide the players and they won’t even know you’re doing it.

3. Leading Questions (p.128)

GMs should be very aware of when they ask leading questions. Now, my point here isn’t to encourage you to avoid them—just to be aware of them. Sometimes, leading questions are valuable tools. But most players will read into a leading question, so don’t use them unless you want a player to read into them. This leading question is probably the most powerful in the arsenal: Are you sure you want to do that?

4. Speaking for the Group (p.129)

Sometimes one player will attempt to speak for the group, saying something like “We turn on our flashlights and go inside the warehouse.” If that happens, just go with it. If the other players don’t object, it makes things a little easier and moves them along a little faster. You don’t have to get confirmation from all the other players. It’s their duty to pay attention and interject with “Wait, I don’t want to go into the warehouse,” or “I’ll stay outside while everyone else goes in” if that’s how they feel.

5. Answering Questions (p.129)

Sometimes a player will ask a question that they shouldn’t have the answer to. Questions like “Are the police in this town corrupt?” or “Where do criminals fence their stolen goods around here?” Rather than saying, “You don’t know,” try instead asking the player “How will you go about finding the answer to that question?” Doing that turns their question into a forward-moving action. It becomes something to do, and doing things is more interesting than asking the GM questions.

6. Pacing Within a Session—Important Moments (p.132)

Sometimes, though, it’s worth taking a bit of time with an important moment. An audience with the queen, the appearance of an elder god, or flying a spaceship into a black hole are all scenes where it might be okay to take your time. In fact, the change of pacing will highlight the importance of the moment and can, all by itself, convey the gravity you want. But here’s the thing about slower pacing—you have to fill up the gaps with something. In other words, it’s okay to slow things down, but if you do, you need more evocative description, more intriguing NPCs, or more exciting action.

7. Pacing Within a Session—Unimportant Moments (p.132)

A GM who is adept at pacing will take this a step further, to the point of perhaps surprising the players, at least at first. If there are a couple of rather low-powered guards at the entrance to a high-tech complex and the players announce their intention to take them out quickly, the GM might just say, “Okay, you knock out the guards. What do you do with their unconscious bodies?” No die rolls, no game mechanics.

That will catch the players off guard at first, but it’s going to tell them about the difficulty of the challenge and the importance of the encounter. In an instance like this, the GM knows that PC victory is a foregone conclusion, and rather than taking ten minutes to resolve the rather meaningless encounter, they simply get to the heart of the matter, which is what the PCs do immediately after the fight—do they try to hide their infiltration or charge right in? Because the GM knows that decision will affect the rest of the session far more than how much damage they can inflict on a low-powered foe. Plus, it saves session time for the challenging encounters to come.

8. Enduring Player Agency (p.136) If you put a PC in a situation where their abilities don’t work, you’re taking away their agency. Rather than negate their abilities, require them. If a character can phase through walls, don’t set up the villain’s fortress so that the walls prevent phasing. Instead, make it so that phasing is literally the only way the PCs can get in. By requiring that ability, you’ve rewarded the player for selecting it.

9. Even a Simple Game Is Fun (p.142)

The events that occur because of ideas generated by the players rather than the GM, and events that come about because of the inherent randomness of the game, are far more likely to make or break a session than the ideas the GM provides.

My point here isn’t to contend that the GM doesn’t matter. As someone who loves running RPGs more than almost any other activity, I’d never say that. What I’m saying is don’t put too much pressure on yourself as you’re getting ready to run a session, particularly if you’re a new GM. I’ve made this point many times, but I’ll make it again: RPGs are about group storytelling. It’s not all on you. It’s on the group as a whole.

10. Character Death (p.230)

Sometimes in RPGs we gloss over the effects of death in the story, but that’s not entirely believable and means missing out on great narrative opportunities. If a character dies, talk about how that impacts the survivors. Have a funeral in the story. Track down their next of kin. Build a memorial. Do something to recognize that the characters in the group are very likely close friends and would react as people who have lost someone significant in their lives.

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8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell

1. Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax introduced the Magic Missile spell in the original game’s first supplement, Greyhawk (1975). “This is a conjured missile equivalent to a magic arrow, and it does full damage (2-7 points) to any creature it strikes.” After that sentence, the description tells how higher-level magic users shoot extra missiles.

2. Gary took the idea for Magic Missile from the 1963 movie The Raven. The movie ends with a wizard duel between Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. Karloff flings bolts of energy at Price, who brushes them aside with a flick of his hand.

3. The exchange that inspired Magic Missile also led to the Shield spell, so the original Player’s Handbook (1978) explains, “This shield will totally negate magic missile attacks.” This property remains in fifth-edition D&D.

4. The original description of Magic Missile led players to dispute whether casters needed to make a to-hit roll. J. Eric Holmes, the editor of the 1977 Basic Set, opted for yes. His rules explain that casters must roll the same missile attack as a longbow. Gary settled on no. The Players Handbook states that the missiles “unerringly strike their target.”

Magic missiles always hit without allowing a saving throw, even though in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979) Gary stresses the importance of saves. Player characters “must always have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction.”

5. D&D’s fourth-edition designers seemed uncomfortable with a spell that always hit without a save, so the edition’s original version required an attack roll. When D&D fans griped that fourth veered too far from the game’s roots, the designers appealed to nostalgia by again making the missiles always hit. The 2010 rules update announces the change.

6. In fifth edition, wizards can add missiles by casting Magic Missile with a higher-level spell slot. In earlier editions, higher-level casters gain extra missiles for free. Back then, magic users started as weak characters who only launched one missile when they cast their day’s only 1st-level spell. But wizards steadily gained more spells, and higher-level spells, and even their first-level spells like Magic Missile gained strength. At higher levels, wizards boasted much more power than any other class. Gary Gygax felt comfortable with dominant, high-level wizards so long as they suffered through lower levels as feeble magic users. Today’s designers strive to match the power of every class at every level. Part of that balance comes from attaching a price to extra missiles.

7. In fifth edition, the missiles strike simultaneously. This means the strikes count as a single source of damage for things like resistance and that 3 magic missiles striking a character at 0 HP does not count as 3 failed death saves. A concentrating spellcaster hit by multiple missiles makes one Constitution save against a difficulty class set by the volley’s total damage. See 9 More Fifth-Edition D&D Rules Questions Answered by the Designers.

8. Strictly by the fifth-edition rules, when you cast Magic Missile, you roll 1d4 and use the result to set the same damage for every missile. This stems from a rule on page 196 of the Player’s Handbook. “If a spell or other effect deals damage to more than one target at the same time, roll the damage once for all of them.” The interpretation comes from lead-designer Jeremy Crawford. In practice, Jeremy allows players to roll separate damage for every missile, just like Gary did in 1975.

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Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes

In Dungeons & Dragons Wisdom (Insight) checks commonly lead players to pile-on checks. One character talks to someone, asks to roll insight, and then everyone adds their roll. The group supposes that just one success will spot a lie. If the dungeon master allows such checks, someone almost invariably uncovers any deception. By such rules, lying to big groups becomes impossible, which makes insight checks the most unrealistic thing in a game with djinns in bottles who grant wishes.

If you want any intrigue and deception in your game, never roll group insight checks where one high roll brings success. Instead, opt for one of two methods. The choice of method depends on whether you, as DM, want players to roll their check.

  • If the players roll, the numbers on the dice give players unearned hints. Low numbers tell the players they probably failed and not to trust their insight; high numbers suggest they succeeded and that, for instance, an NPC who appears honest can be trusted.

  • If you roll in secret, the players feel deprived of some control over their fate. After all, some DMs will fudge rolls to protect a planned narrative. Also, players like rolling dice, especially if rolling gives unearned hints.

Players roll group checks

If you allow players to roll, call for a group check where everyone makes a Wisdom (Insight) check and at least half the group must succeed.

This method may see odd, because group checks apply to situations where one failure could potentially cause the whole group to fail. For instance, one noisy character could alert the guards the party wants to sneak past. But group checks actually fit insight checks with no sure answers. If at least half the group succeeds, the successful characters reveal their insight to the others. If too many characters fail, the group suffers a difference of opinion that leaves everyone uncertain. Or perhaps Terry the Apothecary just proved hard to read.

Don’t tell players which characters suspect lies. Players who know that and their die rolls gain a metagame-based lie detector.

Set the difficulty class for the checks by adding 10 to the liar’s Charisma (Deception) bonus, so the DC equals the liar’s passive deception.

DMs roll a single check

As a DM, you could roll a secret, group Wisdom (Insight) check, but tracking several die rolls and bonuses would slow the game. Instead, roll one check for the character in the scene with the highest Wisdom (Insight) bonus. By using the highest insight score rather than a group of scores, this method benefits the players. On the other hand, the players lose any hints they gain from seeing the numbers. Don’t grant advantage for help coming from the other players. We don’t want to make spotting lies unrealistically easy. This method presumes that the rest of the group offers little help to the most insightful character. Either the others also spot the deception, or they muddy the waters by being more easily fooled.

Alternately, roll one Charisma (Deception) check for the liar against a DC set by the group’s highest passive Wisdom (Insight) score. If the deceiver fails, describe signs of deception. On success, the liar seems legit. I like this reversal because the odds stay the same, but you roll on behalf of the more active character.

Usually a liar only needs to make one deception check, but if the pressure increases thanks to sharp questions, or their lies begin to unravel, you might require fast talking and another check.

Success and failure

Whatever type of check you use, if the outcome favors the players, a liar shows signs of deception and an honest character seems trustworthy. Otherwise, the target of the check seems hard to read.

Rather than flatly stating that someone lies, describe signs of deception: A lying person may sweat or otherwise appear anxious. Perhaps they start speaking in a manner that seems rehearsed. Someone with something to hide might avoid eye contact or become hesitant while speaking. Perhaps their words and body language fail to match. For example, they might nod yes during a denial. For countless more symptoms, search the internet for “signs of deception.”

When a check goes badly against the players—call it a fumble even though D&D lacks critical failures—the party may get the wrong impression. Perhaps an honest person shows misleading signs of deception. Follow what works for the story and your inclination to deceive the players. Maybe an honest person just feels nervous in the presence of such esteemed adventurers (or such temperamental and murderous treasure hunters).

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In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

As a dungeon master, I rarely ask everyone in the party to make perception, investigation, or knowledge checks, because someone almost always rolls high. With these checks, just one high roll yields the information the players want. Why bother rolling for a virtually certain outcome?

I asked this question of Dungeons & Dragons fans and gained hundreds of responses.

Many comments mentioned that passive checks—especially passive Wisdom (Perception) checks—fit most times everyone might roll.

So why roll instead?

Even though DMs realize that saying “everyone roll” almost guarantees success, they ask because players enjoy rolling. For many players, the game only begins when the dice fly.

Plus, “everyone roll” is D&D theater. You know the outcome but asking grabs attention and spurs the players into real-world action. Jamie LaFountain writes, “Everyone rolling is a nice smoke-and-mirrors trick when you want to get a piece of information out to the group and give the illusion of risk of failure.”

Sometimes everyone rolls without a request from the DM. One person makes a check, and all the other players snap to attention and try too. For example, the character at the dungeon door looks it over, muffs a perception check, and then everyone else starts rolling and calling numbers. What should a DM do?

First, you might gently remind your players that rolling a check that the DM didn’t request counts as a slight lapse of table decorum. “When I’m a player I loathe that everyone at the table feels the need to also roll a check,” Sam Witkowski writes. Such piling on robs the active player of their moment—their chance to be rewarded for their action. Checks should happen when a DM decides that a character’s action in the game world merits a check.

Ask the other players what their characters do. If nobody approaches to spot the door’s faded inscription, ignore their checks. If everyone takes a turn up close, consider any time pressure, but let everyone roll (and maybe a wandering monster opens the door from the other side).

Actions prompt checks, so making a perception check typically means taking a closer look. If the party just crosses a room and you want to see if someone notices a trap door, D&D’s rules suggest using passive Wisdom (Perception) rather than calling for a roll. You can limit passive checks to those closest to the trap door, so players benefit from letting the perceptive character lead. (And remember in dim light, the check is at disadvantage, a passive -5. Darkness counts as dim light for characters relying on darkvision.)

Players pile on lore checks too. These are checks against skills like History, Arcana, and Religion to discover if a character brings some knowledge to a situation. Everybody rolling for knowledge typically assures success. Such group rolls often show that the most unlikely character knows some bit of obscure lore.

Group knowledge rolls diminish the choices of players who invested proficiency in knowing things. If you always let everyone roll for an inevitable success, the value of knowledge skills drops to almost nothing. Success comes from making five rolls rather than from proficiency.

When everyone rolls, the one sage proficient in a skill will seldom roll a better success than the four know-nothings in the party. Still, some DMs enjoy the surprise of seeing the barbarian beat the wizard’s arcane knowledge. Such occasions can reveal character.

The next time every character wants to pile on a knowledge check, consider letting them, but ask players to roll only if they think their character might know something. Then if the barbarian lucks into a 20, say, “I’ll tell you about the enchantment on the door, but first can your tell me how someone fostered by wolves knows about wards forged on the plane of Mechanus?” Asking “how can this be so?” fuels creativity. “The barbarian may not know what that symbol means is or what civilization used it, but they remember seeing something similar 10 years ago on a crypt outside of Blahland,” writes Jonathan Hibberd. Either players add interesting bits of background to their characters, or they admit to knowing nothing.

Letting everyone roll a lore check works best when you have lots of information to offer. Every success yields a fun fact. By granting information for good rolls, you can make an information dump feel like a series of rewards.

For extra value, try to make the tidbits feel unique to each character’s background, nature, and outlook. D.W. Dagon writes, “A Religion check from a cloistered scholar is going to be resolved very differently to the same check from an outlander. It’s a great opportunity to bring forth each character’s unique backstory in a way which forwards story.”

DMs who want to see if a character discovers a secret may ask for everyone to roll. The player who succeeds gains confidential information. Don’t do this if you expect players to share the information. Players tend to guard secrets, even when they have no reason to.

Everyone roll almost guarantees success, but sometimes no one rolls better than a 6—including the character starting with a +5. If you call for everyone to roll, expect success, but be ready for a fail. If the adventurers must know something, then just tell them.

Some DMs keep track of characters’ proficiencies for this purpose. “If I can prepare,” Thomas Christy writes, “I love to find out who is trained in pertinent skills, and then feed their players information ahead of the session.” During the game, the players can reveal their knowledge in-character. When players remember their knowledge, Tom rewards inspiration.

You can treat knowledge skills as passive. Without a roll, tell players what their character knows based on, say, their Intelligence (Religion) bonus. I often reveal lore based on characters’ proficiencies and background. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine. This technique works especially well for the information players must learn to continue. Essential backstory feels like a reward for a character’s choices. Players won’t know what knowledge comes from their characters’ aptitude and what you had to reveal to advance the plot.

If you want to make checking for a bit of obscure lore into a real test, allow fewer characters to roll.

  • Limit the check to characters with proficiency. This rewards the cleric proficient in religion even if their knowledge is hampered by low Intelligence.

  • Limit the check to the active character, possibly just the person who asked, and then grant advantage based on the party’s advice and assistance. This encourages action.

  • Limit the check to the most knowledgeable character, and then grant advantage based on the party’s help. I love when this enables a quiet player to gain the spotlight based on their character’s aptitude.

You can impose similar limits on investigation. Limit Intelligence (Investigation) rolls to the best detective or to the active character, and then grant advantage based on the help from other characters.

Wisdom (Insight) checks commonly lead to pile-on checks. If you want any intrigue and deception in your game, then more than one person should never roll a Wisdom (Insight) check. Next week, I’ll explain how to cope with Insight.

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How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

If you are a dungeon master, the easiest way to improve your game sessions might be to do less. Rather than doing all the tasks of running the game, delegate some to the players.

This lesson took me a long time to learn. I found Dungeons & Dragons in an era when gamers took the master part of dungeon master seriously. Some control freaks even thought dungeon masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?) I never went so far, but I never considered imposing DM chores on the players. Besides, I felt happy to do the chores myself.

Years of running tables in 4-hour convention games made me change. Especially with D&D’s fourth edition, convention sessions threatened to push past the time allowed, robbing the players of a satisfying conclusion. Rather than let a session go long, I found ways to speed the game. I learned to delegate parts of the game to the players.

I've learned a lot about dungeon mastering in rooms like this at Origins

I’ve learned a lot about dungeon mastering in rooms like this one at Origins.

The benefits surprised me. Delegating did more than help end a session on time. It led to better games.

Typically, dungeon masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the DM’s attention. A DM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the dungeon master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

What tasks can you delegate?

Tracking initiative. If you poll your players for initiative scores and keep track yourself, you should change your method. Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative. I drape initiative tents over my DM screen so that I can reference stats on the cards, but players fill the cards—even monster names—and put them in order. Typically, they call out turns. For more, see The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons.

Referencing rules. Stopping a session to page through the rules robs the game of momentum. Ask your players to look things up. Usually, I just need to understand a spell and can resolve other actions until I get the details.

Drawing the battle map. If someone can draw the room while I grab miniatures, combat starts faster. Don’t bother describing every detail to sketch. Just ask someone to draw, say, a 40 by 60 room, then you can draw the doors and profane altars and other features.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an non-player character might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the character’s combat stats. My regular players lobby for the chance to run an NPC. If the ally doesn’t require bring much personality or motive, anyone can run it. If I need someone to show the NPCs’ fear of fire or hatred of magic, I pick the role players with character portraits on their table tents—the players who introduce their characters in funny voices.

Recapping the last session. When you continue a campaign, ask if anyone can recap the last session. This allows you another moment to prepare while giving you a sense of what the players considered interesting or important. Plus, you may uncover things you told the players that proved confusing or misleading.

Tallying experience points. Players keep track of the gold they win. Why not have a player keep track of experience points too? After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Numbering monsters. I use numbered markers to distinguish the miniature figures on my battle map. Compared to players attacking “this” and “that” monster, the numbers avoid confusion and speed play. Tracking damage becomes easier. See Number Your Monsters to Stop Wasting Time Finding Them on the Battle Map. Usually, I hand one player a stack of numbered markers and let them tag the monsters.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the DM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. When a monster takes damage, have the tracker report its total damage. If the total exceeds the monster’s hit points, describe the kill.

Or let the player describe their moment. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the dungeon master. It belongs to everyone at the table. See Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters?

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Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start)

If you want to play more Dungeons & Dragons, but can’t find opportunities, then you must try the D&D Adventurers League. The League runs an ongoing, official campaign for D&D. This campaign lets you create a character and bring it from table to table, game store to store, convention to convention. In online league games, I’ve joined players connecting from Germany, Russia, and New Zealand—and I only occasionally play online.

For most players, the league solves the problem of finding a D&D game.

Many local game shops host regular league games. These programs thrive on new players and they welcome guests. Some business travelers who live on the road make a point of seeking games in the places they visit.

Most D&D games at conventions follow the league. For some D&D players, league games at one annual convention amount to all their D&D play for the year.

To start with the league, I suggest going to the Adventurers League site and looking for a game store hosting games. Then contact the store. If nothing is close enough, find a regional convention and make a weekend of gaming. Or play online.

Even if you prefer to find or start a home game with a consistent group of players in an ongoing campaign, the league makes a great place to start. In league games, you will meet players and dungeon masters whose style matches yours. You can find and recruit like-minded players for a home game.

While the league’s campaign rules create a certain consistency, the league aims to accommodate players who favor different play styles, whether role playing, story, or combat. DMs and players vary from table to table and they bring their tastes to the game. If one session doesn’t suit you, try a different DM or a different location.

The league operates in seasons matched to the hardcover adventures published by Wizards of the Coast. The 9th season, supporting Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, launched in September. 

Until now, the league administrators have coped with troublesome players by weighing the campaign with more and more cumbersome rules. See The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win. This season marks a change of direction toward lightweight, elegant campaign rules. By season 8, the league required players with a stubborn commitment to mastering legalities. Season 9 makes the league more welcoming to casual players than ever.

The league offers an unmatched opportunity for DMs and adventure writers to boost their skills. For DMs, no practice works as well as running games for strangers. For adventure authors, running games for strangers gives you a better sense of the characters that players bring, the choices they make, and the tactics they adopt. No home game can bring the same experience. I suspect the best new authors penning Adventurers League scenarios bring ample experience running for strangers.

To help you start with the league—and to help veterans bring new players on board—I present a 1-sheet, quick start guide for the league’s new Season 9. My thanks go to Adam Corney, who did the heavy lifting of updating the sheet for season 9.

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How Dungeons & Dragons Got Its Ability Scores

The earliest character sheet for the game that inspired Dungeons & Dragons includes 8 character traits: Brains, Looks, Credibility, Sex, Health, Strength, Courage, and Cunning. The character comes from Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, which launched in 1971. See A History of D&D in 12 Treasures from author Jon Peterson.

The sheet organizes these traits under the heading, “Personality,” and measures of personality dominate the list more than abilities like strength and health. The Blackmoor campaign represented Charisma with three scores—Credibility, Looks, and Sex, as in “sexual prowess.”

Blackmoor evolved from miniature wargame campaigns. These games only represented individuals when they served as commanders for military units or as leaders of countries. When the referee needed to determine how well a commander followed orders or honored an alliance, measures of personality such as courage and loyalty mattered. One early campaign adopted a system for generating life events such as marriages and sickness for important characters. You can imagine how health and even sexual prowess could factor in such a game. Abilities like strength never figured in play.

Blackmoor started with players controlling single characters who would act in political intrigue and as leaders in battle, so the game emphasized traits for personality and leadership. The characters could fight solo or learn magic, so Strength, Health, and Brains found a place in the game.

In the Blackmoor campaign, Dave used ability scores as the basis of tests that resemble modern saving throws or ability checks. “Players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, to see if they were successful at an attempt,” writes Blackmoor scholar D. H. Boggs. For example, on page 28 of The First Fantasy Campaign (1977), Dave describes how characters had to roll under their Dexterity score to remove their armor before drowning in Blackmoor Bay.

That example cites D&D’s Dexterity attribute, a score the original Blackmoor characters lacked. If Dave and his players used ability scores for saves, how did the rules omit a score for dodging? For his game, Dave also borrowed the saving throw categories from Chainmail—a 1971 set of rules for miniature-figure battles. Boggs speculates that these types for Dragon Breath, Spider Poison, Basilisk Gaze, and Spells covered enough cases to make a Dexterity attribute unnecessary.

How did Blackmoor’s personality traits turn into D&D’s six ability scores?

In 1972, Dave introduced his Blackmoor campaign to Gary Gygax, the author of Chainmail. Dave’s game transformed bits of Chainmail into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. Dave recalled that Gary and his Lake Geneva group “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.”

In the case of ability scores, Gary reworked the Blackmoor attributes into D&D’s. For example, Gary never favored simple, informal terminology like “Brains” and “Health,” so he opted for Intelligence and Constitution.

Gary consolidated Credibility, Looks, and Sex into Charisma. (Later, Unearthed Arcana and other roleplaying games would experiment with splitting Charisma back into traits for charm and beauty.)

Gary’s early games paired players with gangs of followers, so Charisma helped recruitment and retention. As play styles turned away from henchmen and hirelings, Charisma became less important. The 1977 Basic Set provided no rules crunch for Charisma.

On the Blackmoor character sheet, Cunning looks like a late addition. In both Dave and Gary’s pre-D&D campaigns, Cunning became the prime requisite for clerics. “Cunning” suggests a faith-healing charlatan more than a priest who’s spells worked. Still, the first cleric character, as played by Mike Carr in Dave’s Blackmoor game, had working spells. So eventually Cunning turned to Wisdom and became a measure of spirituality.

Unlike fighters, wizards, and thieves, the cleric lacks a clear archetype in the fantasy tales that inspired D&D. Instead, the class draws inspiration from bits of Christian priest and crusader, from Friar Tuck and Van Helsing. These clerics made an awkward fit in the pulp-fantasy world of D&D and lacked a place in other games. In 1975, when TSR adapted the D&D rules to different settings to create Metamorphosis Alpha and Empire of the Petal Throne, the games dropped clerics and their Wisdom attribute.

Instead designers saw a need to measure a character’s mental toughness with a sort of mental counterpart to Strength and Constitution. Metamorphosis Alpha swaps Wisdom for Mental Resistance. Empire of the Petal Throne replaces Wisdom with Psychic Strength.

Apparently, these games led Gary to see a need for a similar rating for D&D characters. Instead of adding a new attribute, Gary broadened Wisdom to include willpower. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook grants characters with high wisdom a bonus to saves against “mental attack forms involving will force.” Only a strained definition of wisdom includes willpower, but until then Wisdom only served clerics. The broader scope gave Wisdom similar weight to the other attributes.

Years later, Wisdom would gain an association with perception. Games without Wisdom tend to associate perception with Intelligence.

Dexterity arrived to the game last. Gary must have felt that Strength needed a counterpart for characters wielding crossbows, so Dexterity showed aptitude for ranged weapons. After the original books reached the public, the Thief entered the game and took Dexterity as a prime requisite.

Even though the original D&D release turned the scores from measures of personality into measures of ability, the game still says that the scores aid players “in selecting a role” like one of those personality tests that help students select a career.

When Gary wrote D&D, he never explained how to use ability scores for checks. In his own game, Gary preferred a loose method where he decided on a character’s chance of success and improvised a die roll to match. For saves, Gary just elaborated on the system from the Chainmail rules.

So according to D&D’s original rules, ability scores counted for little. The abilities barely deliver any game effects: At most a +1 to hit or an extra hit point per die.

These slight effects mean that early D&D characters in the same class all played much the same. But ability scores ranging from 3 to 18 seemed to promise bigger game effects than a mere +1. With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Wisdom and Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on.

With that development, D&D started down the road to the modern game, which builds on ability scores as the foundation for every check and save.

Related:
The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing.

Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

For 25 Years, D&D Put Saving Throws In Groups Made For Just 3 Creatures and 2 Spells

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Steal This Rule: Flashbacks and Heists in Dungeons & Dragons

In a heist film, a group of experts team to overcome elaborate security measures using a carefully planned series of steps. Much of the fun comes from seeing the ingenuity of the heroes as they crack seemingly impenetrable obstacles as if they were puzzles.

Roleplaying games such as Blades in the Dark and Leverage offer rules for adventures centered on heists.

As an activity for a roleplaying game, heists pose two challenges:

  • The exhaustive planning behind a typical heist would tax the patience of gamers eager to jump to live play.

  • The characters in a heist have more experience and expertise in the game world than the players can match. These characters can plan for trouble that surprises the players.

Heist games use a flashback mechanic to substitute for the planning players would rather skip and the expertise they lack. Players can call for a flashback to do preparations in the past that affect the current situation.

In my last post, I suggested using flashbacks as a formal way to allow players to pause the action and work out the strategy that their expert characters would have planned earlier.

For Dungeons & Dragons sessions where players attempt a heist, adding a flashback rule helps capture the feel of a well-planned caper.

When players face an obstacle, they can call for a flashback and describe a past action that impacts the current situation. For example, if the characters face a cult priest who demands to see the tattoo that shows their cult membership, they could flashback and narrate the scene where they forged the mark. This might require a deception roll to pass the priest’s inspection.

Flashbacks don’t work as time travel. The players couldn’t flashback to the scene where they killed the priest—he stands in front of them.

As a dungeon master, you might require an Intelligence check to determine if the character anticipated the situation and did the proposed preparation. The more unlikely the circumstance, the higher the DC.

As a price for a flashback, you can claim a character’s inspiration, take DM’s inspiration to spend on a villain’s roll, or both. The price of a flashback might start at nothing, and then rise through the game session.

Flashbacks make a lightweight mechanic that you can easily adopt for a session focused on a planned mission.

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How Much Talk at Your Game Table Reaches Into the Game World?

Suppose your players aim to stop raiders somehow able to slip past the town’s defenses. They meet the woman who leads the city guard. Mid conversation, the rogue’s player says, “I’m sure she’s behind the raids. We should just kill her.” In your game, did the rogue really say that out loud? If not out loud, did he whisper to the other characters? What does the guard captain make of the troubling whispers?

Or suppose the players offer to give a dragon a magic item in exchange for safe passage, but the negotiation scene pauses as the players debate which item to trade. Does the dragon hear their talk of a cursed sword?

In a battle, when the players discuss the best way to maneuver their foes into a fireball’s area, do their foes overhear the strategy?

How much discussion at your game table carries into the game world?

At many tables, none of the discussion at the table reaches the game world unless it suits the players—sometimes after a dispute over what happened and what was just a joke.

Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm settles the disputes and answers such questions with a convention he calls the murky mirror. “The players and the characters are reflections of each other in a murky mirror. They aren’t perfect reflections. But they are synchronous. If the players are sitting around and talking, then so are the characters. They are saying basically the same things, though they might be using different words.

“For example, when the player says, ‘My character refuses to help because he thinks the orcs are all savages because he saw them murder his parents,’ his character is probably saying something like, ‘Scum like you butchered my parents and I’d rather have every one of my fingers broken then lift one of them to help a monster like you.’” By the convention, whether players talk about their character or in character, they communicate a similar message in the game world. When players at the table exchange jokes and banter, characters in the game joke and banter. So when a non-player character named Elmo causes the players at my Ghosts of Saltmarsh table to erupt into a round of joking, the heroes in the game find the name just as funny, but for different reasons.

The murky mirror usually applies to scenes, the parts of the game where characters with a goal face obstacles to overcome. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

In D&D, a 6-second combat round may take 20 minutes to play out, so the synchronization must allow plenty of latitude. In practice, the party can’t limit discussion to six seconds or less. Still, players can’t pause a round for a 10-minute strategy discussion.

This murky mirror convention can benefit the game in a few ways:

  • Raised stakes. The players’ actions in the real world trace to consequences in the game world. When someone says the wrong thing, they can’t backpedal and claim they intended an out-of-game joke.

  • Immediacy. The game world and the game table both live in the moment.

  • Immersion. Players stay closer to their characters.

  • Faster pacing. Even loose synchronization between the real world and the game world adds urgency to fights. “If I see my group stopping every turn in combat to discuss every action, I will stop them and force whoever’s turn it is to make a decision,” Angry writes. “You only have a few seconds to act. What do you do?”

The murky mirror suits games where players dive into character and strive to prevail through skillful game play.

Most game tables settle for an informal convenience where players drop in and out of character, often only affecting the game world when it suits them. The banter and joking stay out of game.

This represents a looser, beer-and-pretzels style where players aim to spin a yarn for some laughs. Or possibly a style where storytelling takes the focus. Some players who favor narrative compare the forgiving style with a writers’ room. Most TV shows come from a team of writers who gather in a room and imagine story arcs and character beats.

A game like D&D differs from a room-written script because the screenwriters look for ways to thwart and test their characters—an essential part of storytelling. In most roleplaying games, only the GM intentionally complicates the characters’ lives. (The players unintentionally complicate their lives when they suggest murdering the guard captain while in her presence.) Games focused on storytelling may include mechanics that encourage players to add trouble to their characters’ lives.

In the loose style of most game tables, when players stop a scene to decide whether to accuse the guard captain or what magic item to trade, we assume that the actual discussion happened earlier. Or we assume that the characters’ time together leaves them with unspoken signals or a mutual understanding. After all, heroes in the game share experience in the imaginary world that players cannot match.

Introduce the murky mirror at a campaign’s launch or just before key scenes. Marty “Raging Owlbear” Walser says, “Occasionally for a very important scene, I tell the players, ‘You are now live.’ No out-of-character talk.’ It can really ramp up tension.”

Most of the time, the murky mirror just requires in-game reminders that, say, players in the tavern overhear the players’ argument. For dangerous lapses, the GM should remind players and allow a do over. If a player blurts, “I’ll bet she’s behind the raids. We should kill her,” then ask, “Do you really want to say that?”

“After all, the point of the murky mirror is to make things easier and more fun and less bitter and fighty for everyone. You shouldn’t be using it to gleefully pounce on a player who makes a stupid mistake,” Angry writes. That seems forgiving for a GM who makes a brand of raging. As players learn the convention, such lapses will become rare.

I see one potential downside to the murky mirror. Players who know they cannot freeze time to make plans may weigh the game with too much advance planning. As a dungeon master, I love when the players pause to plan—it shows an appreciation of the game world’s stakes and obstacles. But advance planning for every possibility delays diving in and playing. That’s the heart of the game.

To adopt the murky mirror while still allowing some flexibility to stop time and strategize, consider allowing flashbacks. The flashback mechanic borrows from roleplaying games like Blades in the Dark and Leverage. Players can announce flashbacks to recall planning they did in the past. It gives players a formal way to stop time and spin strategy. Players can only flashback from a situation they could have planned for.

An informal flashback can come from the GM. If the players stop a scene for the planning they could have done earlier, you can jump in and frame the planning as a flashback.

I still want to know. How much talk at your game table reaches the game world?

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D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character

Many Dungeons & Dragons players love animal companions for their characters, but the game’s fifth edition suffers uneven support for the archetype. Only specific character builds gain access to pets, and creating a character with an effective companion often requires a deep understanding of the game. For instance, of all the game’s class archetypes, the Beast Master ranger earns the most criticism for being too weak. To make beast masters able to hold their own, players must make some canny choices. More on that at the end.

The best route to an animal companion depends on what you want your companion to do. The more capable the pet, the more limited your options. A friendly mascot for your adventuring party hardly requires anything, but a pet capable of battling alongside a higher-level character confines you to just a few character options.

Ask yourself what you want from your pet. This post tells how to find the right creature companion.

For a friend or mascot, befriend and train a creature. In a tweet, D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford writes, “Want your D&D character to have a pet or companion? Here’s a little secret: You don’t need special rules for this. Through roleplaying and ability checks (most likely Animal Handling or Persuasion), you can have a buddy, as long as your DM is OK adding a creature to the group.”

Dungeon masters: When players encounter hostile animals, the characters may try to make friends instead of fighting. Players love turning an angry beast into a mascot or companion to the party. Players attracted to this strategy love seeing it succeed. Treat the creature as a non-player character. As with any tag-along character, the best such animal companions prove useful, but never overshadow characters.

For a horse or similar mount, play a paladin. At level 5, paladins gain the ability to cast Find Steed which summons a spirit that takes the shape of a horse or similar mount. At level 9, Find Greater Steed brings a flying steed such as a Griffin. This mount lasts until you dismiss it or until it drops to 0 hit points. You and your mount can communicate telepathically.

The Find Steed spells share a feature and flaw with many of D&D’s pets. Rather than gaining a live companion worthy of an emotional attachment, the spell brings a spirit. The spiritual steeds boast the intelligence of Maximus, the determined horse in Tangled, but I wish for personality to match too.

In an interview, D&D Designer Mike Mearls said, “Some people really like the feeling that a companion animal is a flesh and blood creature, but there are a lot of advantages to presenting it as a spirit companion or something similar.” In fifth edition, the designers mainly chose the advantages of spirit companions.

Still, nothing says your spirit mount can’t show personality. Perhaps particularly brave and true horses serve in the afterlife as a paladin’s steed. Now I want to play a paladin who struggles with temptation paired with a horse whose spirit mission includes dragging my hero out of the tavern before he has one too many.

For a scout, helpful distraction, or spell conduit, learn Find Familiar. I’ve seen enough familiars in play to witness their utility, but before researching this post, I still underestimated their power. For the price of learning a mere 1st-level spell, Wizards gain a scout, an extension to all their touch spells, and a battlefield helper. If players made better use of familiars, the spell would count as broken.

Find Familiar lets you summon a spirit animal in a variety of forms: bat, cat, crab, frog (toad), hawk, lizard, octopus, owl, poisonous snake, fish, rat, raven, sea horse, spider, or weasel. Just about every animated sidekick matches something on the list of familiars. Want to play like an animated Disney hero with a wise or comical critter for a companion? Sadly, familiars can’t talk. The designers really missed an opportunity here. Even players who claim they can’t do voices can do a toad voice. It’s so fun.

Still, your sidekick can help. Try these uses:

  • Use your flying, creeping, or swimming critter to scout, while you watch through its eyes. My players used a familiar to explore five levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods while the party stood safely in the first hall. Doors stopped the creature, but so much of that dungeon stands open.

  • Use your flying familiar to perform the Help action on the battlefield, giving allies advantage on attack rolls. Eventually, an annoyed monster will smack down your bird, but that’s one less attack on friends, which may save a 50 gp healing potion. Re-summoning the familiar costs 10 gold, which counts as money well spent.

  • Use your flying familiar to target touch spells from a distance. For clerics who heal through touch, gaining a flying familiar might justify the cost of a feat. Play a grave cleric with a raven familiar.

  • Use your familiar to channel damaging spells like Dragon’s Breath. Familiars can’t attack, but with help, your little toad can spew acid in a 15-foot cone.

To gain a familiar, select one of these options:

  • Wizard: Learn Find Familiar
  • Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Chain
  • Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Tome and the Book of Ancient Secrets invocation. You get two level 1 rituals, plus the ability to inscribe any class ritual.
  • Bard: Choose the Lore archetype and use the Magical Secrets feature to learn the Find Familiar spell at 6th level. Or at level 10, any bard can use Magical Secrets to learn the spell.
  • Any Class: Take the Magic Initiate feat to get a 1st-level spell.
  • Any Class: Take the Ritual Caster feat to get any ritual spells.

For a more dangerous familiar, play a Pact of the Chain warlock. Warlocks who opt for the Pact of the Chain can choose an imp, pseudodragon, quasit, or sprite as a familiar. These hardly count as animal companions. But unlike animal familiars, these creatures can attack—although after level 9 their bites and stings and tiny arrows amount to little. All these creatures fly and most turn invisible, so they make particularly good spies and spell conduits.

For an unusual mount, play a Beast Master ranger and a small character. Neither a familiar nor a paladin’s steed count as true animals. For a flesh and blood animal companion, opt for the Beast Master ranger archetype.

A small beast master such as a halfling or gnome can ride their medium animal companion as a mount. Ride a wolf for its pack tactics, 40-foot speed, and cool factor. Ride a giant wolf spider for its climb speed, poison bite, and creep factor. Ride a giant poisonous snake for its brazenly phallic implications.

For a partner in battle, play a Beast Master ranger and a creepy, crawly beast. Beast masters’ animal companions earn a reputation for weakness. At level 3, when the companion arrives, the poor beast has merely adequate hit points. As the party levels, the creature will have fewer hit points and worse AC than the wizard, despite having to fight in melee. Meanwhile, the wizard’s familiar makes a better scout.

The Beast Companion class description suggests taking a hawk or mastiff as an animal companion. D&D designer Dan Dillon says that such choices set players up for failure. Beast masters should not take beasts with a challenge rating below 1/4. If you want such a pet, follow Jeremy Crawford’s suggestion and train a creature to be your friend. Or spend a feat learning Find Familiar.

Unfortunately, warm, fuzzy, charismatic beasts like lions, tigers, and bears have size and challenge ratings that disqualify them as animal companions. If you want a furry friend, wolves rank as decent and panthers as adequate. But the very best companions make some folks say ick. For a pet that makes an able battle partner, choose one of these options:

  • A flying snake offers a 60-foot fly speed, flyby attack, and poison damage.
  • A giant crab brings decent AC, Blindsight 30 ft., grappling, and a swim speed. Plus, I understand such companions perform calypso-flavored musical numbers.
  • A giant wolf spider boasts Blindsight 10 ft., a climb speed, and poison.
  • A giant poisonous snake offers Blindsight 10 ft., a swim speed, and poison.

Dungeon masters: As special non-player characters, allow rangers’ animal companions to fall unconscious and roll death saving throws when reduced to 0 hit points.

With the D&D rules as written, animal companions lack the armor proficiency required to wear barding without suffering disadvantage on attacks, checks, and saves. Nonetheless, I doubt allowing a few extra points of AC breaks anything. Besides, cats in armor look adorable.

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