Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse

Larry Niven's disk

The Magic Goes Away inspired Larry Niven’s disk

During the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, speculative fiction enjoyed something of a fashion for combining science and fantasy, so the popular Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey and Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley provided scientific explanations for fantasy-flavored worlds of dragons and magic. Meanwhile, in The Magic Goes Away, hard science fiction author Larry Niven treated magic as science and investigated all the implications.

Readers appreciate these kind of hybrids for a couple of reasons. The injection of science gives magical concepts a boost of plausibility. In some future world, perhaps science really could engineer telepathic dragons as in Pern. Plus writers and readers who enjoy explaining things with science’s reasoning get to play with fantasy’s toys. I get it. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with fantasy that leans too heavily on “just because” to explain candy houses and winged monkeys. For instance, I keep trying to imagine a scientific explanation for the long and varying seasons in the world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, even though I’m confident George has no such explanation to offer. In Westeros, seasons last for years because it supports theme and story. Winter is coming.

Part of what makes fantasy powerful is that not everything needs explanation. Sometimes Fantasy just needs to feel true. And sometimes resonate stories come from mystery.

Ecology of the PiercerPerhaps inspired by the fashion for using science to explain fantastic concepts, Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards took a somewhat silly monster, the piercer, and wrote “The Ecology of the Piercer,” which first appeared in the UK fanzine Dragonlords. The piercer seems obviously contrived to harass dungeon-crawling PCs, so a dose of science and ecology adds some verisimilitude. Dragon magazine editor Kim Mohan must have fancied the article’s concept, because he reprinted the piece in the April 1983 issue of Dragon. The ecology series took off and Dragon went on to print more than 150 installments.

The ecology concept improves some monsters, especially those that share the non-magical nature of the piercer, but adding a dose of science to every prominent creature damaged the assumed world of Dungeons & Dragons.

For many monsters, magic provides a better creative basis than science and ecology.

1. Monsters that come from magic can inspire stories

Magical creatures can bring histories that go beyond ecological niches and breeding populations; they can come from stories that players can participate in. Magical creatures can begin with a curse, they can be created for a sinister purpose, or in experiments that went wrong. For example, in “Monsters and Stories,” D&D head Mike Mearls explains how medusas come from a magical bargain and a curse. He tells how this can inspire gameplay. “One medusa might be a vicious, hateful creature that kills out of spite, specifically targeting the most handsome or beautiful adventurers that invade its lair. Another might be a secluded noble desperate to conceal her true nature, and who becomes a party’s mysterious benefactor.”

2. Magical creatures can be evocative in ways that natural creatures cannot

Does imagining dragons as a form of dinosaur, as presented the 2nd Edition Draconomicon, improve either dragons or dinosaurs? Dragons become less magical, less mythic. Meanwhile, dinosaurs don’t need to be blurred with fantasy to excite us—they were huge and real. Mythology teems with chimeric hybrid creatures from the gryphon to the cockatrice. Does supposing these creatures have populations with natural ranges and diets improve them? Why can’t the cockatrice emerge from a tainted, magical mating of bird and serpent? Why cannot gryphons be a divine creation based on some godling’s favorite creatures?

3. Magical creatures can break the laws of nature

Every culture seems to include giants in their myths. Giants may be the most pervasive and resonate monster of the human imagination. But giants defy science’s square-cube law and walk in defiance of physics. We ignore that because we like giants, and because of magic.

When I did my post on the 11 most useful types of miniatures, I determined that elemental and, especially, undead monsters appear in a disproportionate number of adventures. In the early days of the hobby, dungeon designers could put living creatures in a remote and unexplored dungeon without a source of food, and no one would care. Now days, dungeon designers feel limited to populating their crypts, lost castles, and vaults with the undead and elementals that gain an exemption from the bounds of nature. This stands as the stifling legacy of the ecology articles. By treating most D&D creatures as natural things that feed and breed and live natural lives, we make them difficult to use in the game.

Embrace the magic in magical creatures

We should embrace the obviously magical nature the D&D bestiary and free more creatures from the limitations of nature. Unnatural creatures can be unique. They can spontaneously generate in places where foul magic or bizarre rituals were practiced. They can leak into the world in places where the barriers between planes have weakened. They can be immortal. Undying, they can survive aeons trapped in some underground lair, growing more hateful and cunning with each passing year.

In the Wandering Monsters post “Turned to Stone,” James Wyatt writes, “One of the things that we’ve been thinking a lot about is that we are creating—and facilitating the creation of—fantasy worlds. The monsters of D&D aren’t races of aliens in a sci-fi setting. They don’t all need to have logical biology.”

D&D operates in worlds’ brimming with enchantment. The ecology articles threw too much magic away.

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

Just a couple of years after its release, the original Deities & Demigods from 1980 became legend. The first copies included sections featuring the Melnibonéan mythos from the Elric stories by Michael Moorcock and the Cthulhu mythos from the tales of H.P. Lovecraft. Every Dungeons & Dragons fan knew the legend: TSR printed the sections without permission, got sued, and now the book was censored. The tale boasted a delicious mix of scandal, arrogance, and justice, and for those of us who owned one of those banned copies, a priceless collectable certain to fund our retirements. Too bad none of legend was true.

Today, the book’s co-author, James M. Ward still works to spread the facts. “I absolutely hate it when ignorant people say TSR and I acted in copyright infringement.”

But how did the the Elric and Cthulhu content reach the book, and why did it disappear?

Deities & Demigods describes gods, mostly drawn from cultures around the world.

When James Ward started the book, he proposed a list of the pantheons he wanted to include. In addition to drawing from folklore, the list included gods created in fiction by three authors: Lovecraft, Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber. Each deeply influenced D&D co-creator Gary Gygax and the game. But to use the authors’ work, TSR needed permission.

Leiber had created the Nehwon mythos for his tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. After Leiber attended Gen Con X in 1977 as guest of honor, he had stayed a Gary’s house for a week. Gary called the author a friend. Surely, gaining Leiber’s authorization proved easy.

The chance of gaining authorization to use the work of Lovecraft and Moorcock seemed smaller.

Lovecraft’s key work suffers from a muddled copyright status. Up until 2019, any stories he published before 1923 qualified as public domain, but his most important stories, including “Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness” reached print later. After the author’s death, two of Lovecraft’s protégés founded Arkham House Publishers to print collections of his work. Today, Arkham House claims Lovecraft’s copyrights. But did Lovecraft’s heirs ever actually transfer the rights to the publisher? Also, prior to 1978, copyright holders needed to renew copyrights to maintain ownership. Failure to renew landed the movie It’s a Wonderful Life in the public domain. Did a once, nearly-forgotten writer of pulp fiction get more mindful handling? Did anyone with legal standing ever file renewals? Decades have buried the answers. This year, Lovecraft’s remaining copyrights begin to expire, year by year, until the last expire in 2032. Until then, his tales may or may not be in public domain.

Nonetheless, Jim Ward wrote Arkham House asking to include Lovecraft’s material. He received a letter back granting permission. At about the same time, the game company Chaosium struck a similar deal. In design notes in Different Worlds magazine, editor Lynn Willis wrote, “I negotiated rights for the Cthulhu mythos from Arkham House.” Call of Cthulhu would not reach print until the summer of 1981, but work on the game started much earlier. “After many months delay, the manuscript of the game was unsatisfactory, and had to be turned down. It was originally was to be a 1980 release; now we were hoping for 1981.” In 1980, Sandy Petersen took over the project and delivered a classic role-playing game.

More than likely, someone at Arkham failed to realize how granting a permission to describe Lovecraft’s mythos in a game-related reference book conflicted with a license to publish a game. How could a game be a book? Granting permission to TSR probably just seemed like a good way to introduce Lovecraft to a wider audience.

In the popular conception of the time, games sold from toy stores for children. Gaming remained a tiny hobby that few even knew existed. No one outside the hobby considered existential horror tales from the 1920s a suitable topic for a game. Requests to use Cthulhu for a game of all things probably puzzled the administrative staff at Arkham. As this story keeps showing, few outside of gaming saw game rights to fiction as anything of value.

Jim Ward wrote Michael Moorcock requesting authorization to describe the mythos from the Elric stories. The author granted permission. In a 2009 interview, he explains his thinking. “It was in the spirit of the 60s/70s when it seemed to many of us that we were sharing in a common culture and the products of that culture.”

But Moorcock proved overly generous. Years earlier, Chaosium had bought the board-game rights to the Elric books. That license led to the Elric game in 1977. After the success of RuneQuest, Chaosium decided to adapt their roleplaying game rules to Moorcock’s fiction, so they returned to Moorcock’s agent and gained an RPG license.

Chaosium insider and RuneQuest designer Steve Perrin explains the source of the trouble. “Chaosium arranged for the Elric license through Moorcock’s agent. Jim went directly to Moorcock, who did not consult with his agent. He just sent back a note saying ‘Go for it.’ So the only person Chaosium could sue would be Moorcock, which is not a good practice between a licensor and licensee.”

Arioch from the 1st printing of Deities & Demigods

Moorcock never expected his tales of a doomed sorcerer and a soul-stealing sword to become valuable for gaming. “I hadn’t anticipated that some people would start turning all this stuff into commercial businesses and so it was a bit of a surprise when D&D and Chaosium, for instance, started fighting over who ‘owned’ the rights to the Elric ‘cosmology.’”

In 1980, Deities & Demigods reached gamers, complete with sections describing the Melnibonéan mythos and the Cthulhu mythos. Meanwhile, Chaosium prepared to publish their Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu role-playing games in 1981. They sent cease-and-desist letters to TSR. “I don’t blame them a bit,” Ward writes. However, Chaosium knew nothing about the two letters authorizing TSR to use the content.

The legal demand put TSR in a bind. Armed with their letters of permission, TSR could have fought. “The company wasn’t rich at that point,” Ward explains. Brian Blume, TSR’s head of operations, “didn’t want to go to California, get a California lawyer, and spend time and money winning the case.” TSR could have stopped selling Deities & Demigods, but it sold great. Pulling the book meant pulping copies on hand, reprinting, and paying new costs. Reprinting the book with fewer pages would take time. During the lapse, some customers would lose interest and TSR would lose sales.

So TSR sought an accommodation with Chaosium. Fortunately, both companies had something to give.

In addition to the licensed role-playing games Chaosium scheduled for 1981, the company planned Thieves’ World, a roleplaying supplement based on Robert Asprin’s shared-world series of books. In order to give the supplement maximum appeal, it would include game stats for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Adventures in Fantasy, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, The Fantasy Trip, RuneQuest, Tunnels & Trolls, and even Traveller. But TSR zealously defended the trademarks to AD&D and D&D. If the supplement touted compatibility and named the games on the cover, Chaosium needed permission. In Designers & Dragons, game historian Shannon Appelcline writes, “Chaosium got the rights to use the TSR trademarks in Thieves’ World and in exchange TSR was allowed to continue using the [Melnibonéan and Cthulhu mythos in Deities & Demigods].” As part of the deal, TSR added a notice into the book’s second printing. “Special Thanks are also given to Chaosium, Inc. for permission to use the material found in the Cthulhu Mythos and the Melnibonéan Mythos.”

If TSR had kept the notice and the original content, the story would have ended quietly, with no bogus legends of plagiarism and banning. But for 1980’s third printing, TSR had time to drop the Lovecraft and Moorcock sections and reconfigure the book with fewer pages.

Why did Brian Blume choose to withdraw the content despite trading for permission to keep it? Appelcline cites a desire to soothe the same fears of Satanism that would lead TSR to retitle the book Legends & Lore in 1985. Presumably, existential horror and evil gods might worry parents, and that worried TSR. Other sources say Blume didn’t want a TSR book to fuel interest in Elric or Cthulhu because that would drive players to a competitor’s games.

As for a copy of Deities & Demigods funding a retirement, more copies of the first two printings exist than the legend suggests. According to the D&D collector’s site The Acaeum as many as 15,000 copies reached buyers. In auction, the book fetches more than other D&D hardcovers, but prices have fallen.

In an odd postscript, Fritz Leiber, the third author featured in Deities & Demigods, would land TSR and Chaosium in a second dispute over conflicting licenses. In 1983, Chaosium planned a follow up to Thieves’ World featuring Leiber’s city of Lankhmar. They already had a license agreement when TSR announced that they had a license from Leiber too. “It turned out that Leiber had indeed licensed both companies,” Appelcline writes. “Chaosium pointed out that their license was earlier, but TSR replied that if that was the case, they would sue Leiber.” Gary Gygax may have counted the author as a friend, but Brian Blume ran TSR. To protect Leiber from a suit, Chaosium dropped their claim. In an email, Chaosium founder Greg Stafford explained the decision. “Fritz was one of my literary heroes in those days, and also a terminal alcoholic, and I just imagined the havoc that would ensue for him, so I just dropped it.” In 1985, TSR published Lankhmar: City of Adventure.

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A Dungeons & Dragons Summoning Spell Reference

Many summoning spells in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons explicitly allow the player to choose the creatures summoned. Others only let the player choose from broad options. Typically players choose the quantity and challenge rating of creatures.

This reference lists typical creatures summoned by each conjuration spell. Download a Markdown version, or a PDF version or a low-ink PDF formatted using the The Homebrewery.

Spells Where the DM Determines Summoned Creatures

Spells that let players choose broad options work best when the dungeon master selects the specific creatures summoned. The Sage Advice Compendium issued by D&D’s designers explains, “A spellcaster can certainly express a preference for what creatures show up, but it’s up to the DM to determine if they do. The DM will often choose creatures that are appropriate for the campaign and that will be fun to introduce in a scene.”

To help DMs make these selections, this reference lists the common monsters summoned by each spell. To make random selection easy, the creatures are numbered.

Conjure Animals

You summon fey spirits that take the form of beasts.

Land Beasts
Qty CR Creature
1 2 1: Giant Boar, 2: Cave Bear, 3: Giant Constrictor Snake, 4: Giant Elk, 5: Polar Bear, 6: Rhinoceros, 7: Saber-toothed Tiger, 8: Swarm of Poisonous Snakes
2 1 1: Brown Bear, 2: Dire Wolf, 3: Giant Eagle, 4: Giant Hyena, 5: Giant Spider, 6: Giant Toad, 7: Lion, 8: Tiger
4 1/2 1: Ape, 2: Black Bear, 3: Crocodile, 4: Giant Goat, 5: Giant Wasp, 6: Swarm of Insects
8 1/4 1: Axe Beak, 2: Boar, 3: Constrictor Snake, 4: Elk, 5: Giant Badger, 6: Giant Bat, 7: Giant Centipede, 8: Giant Frog, 9: Giant Lizard, 10: Giant Owl, 11: Giant Poisonous Snake, 12: Giant Wolf Spider, 13: Panther, 14: Swarm of Bats, 15: Swarm of Rats, 16: Swarm of Ravens, 17: Wolf

When you cast this spell using certain higher-level spell slots, you choose one of the summoning options above, and more creatures appear: twice as many with a 5th-level slot, three times as many with a 7th-level slot, and four times as many with a 9th-level slot:

Swimming Beasts
Qty CR Creature
1 2 1: Giant Constrictor Snake, 2: Hunter Shark, 3: Plesiosaurus, 4: Swarm of Poisonous Snakes
2 1 1: Giant Octopus, 2: Giant Toad, 3: Swarm of Quippers
4 1/2 1: Crocodile, 2: Giant Sea Horse, 3: Reef Shark
8 1/4 1: Constrictor Snake, 2: Giant Frog, 3: Giant Poisonous Snake

Conjure Minor Elementals

You summon elementals.

Elementals
Qty CR Creature
1 2 1: Azer, 2: Gargoyle
2 1 Fire Snake
4 1/2 1: Dust Mephit, 2: Ice Mephit, 3: Magma Mephit, 4: Magmin
8 1/4 1: Mud Mephit, 2: Smoke Mephit, 3: Steam Mephit

When you cast this spell using certain higher-level spell slots, you choose one of the summoning options above, and more creatures appear: twice as many with a 6th-level slot and three times as many with an 8th-level slot.

Conjure Woodland Beings

You summon fey creatures.

Fey Creatures
Qty CR Creature
1 2 1: Darkling Elder*, 2: Meenlock*, 3: Seahag
2 1 1. Dryad, 2: Quickling
4 1/2 1: Darkling*, 2: Satyr
8 1/4 1: Blink Dog, 2: Pixie, 3: Sprite

Creatures marked with an asterisk appeared in Volo’s Guide to Monsters.

When you cast this spell using certain higher-level spell slots, you choose one of the summoning options above, and more creatures appear: twice as many with a 6th-level slot and three times as many with an 8th-level slot.

Summon Lesser Demons

Roll to determine the number and challenge rating of the demons from among the possibilities.

Because official D&D lacks challenge rating 1/2 demons, DMs can either rule that summoning 4 demons brings lower CR demons or they can ignore that possible outcome.

Demons
Qty CR Creature
2 1 1. Maw Demon (Volo’s Guide to Monsters), 2: Quasit
4 1/2 None
8 1/4 1: Abyssal Wretch (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes), 2: Dretch

When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th or 7th level, you summon twice as many demons. If you cast it using a spell slot of 8th or 9th level, you summon three times as many demons.

Spells Where the Caster Chooses Summoned Creatures

This reference lists the likely options available when players choose summoned creatures.

Conjure Celestial

You summon a celestial of challenge rating 4 or lower.

CR Creature
2 Pegasus
4 Qouatl
5 Unicorn

When you cast this spell using a 9th-level spell slot, you summon a celestial of challenge rating 5 or lower.

Conjure Elemental

Choose an area of air, earth, fire, or water that fills a 10-foot cube within range. An elemental of challenge rating 5 or lower appropriate to the area you chose appears in an unoccupied space within 10 feet of it. For example, a fire elemental emerges from a bonfire, and an earth elemental rises up from the ground.

CR Creature
5 Air Elemental, Earth Elemental, Fire Elemental, Salamander, Water Elemental, Xorn
6 Galeb Duhr, Invisible Stalker
7 Air Elemental Myrmidon, Earth Elemental Myrmidon, Fire Elemental Myrmidon, Water Elemental Myrmidon
9 Frost Salamander (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes)

All elemental myrmidons appear in Princes of the Apocalypse.

Infernal Calling

Uttering a dark incantation, you summon a devil from the Nine Hells. You choose the devil’s type, which must be one of challenge rating 6 or lower, such as a barbed devil or a bearded devil. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the challenge rating increases by 1 for each slot level above 5th.

CR Creature
5 Barbed Devil
6 White Abisai (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes)
7 Black Abisai (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes)
8 Chain Devil
8 Bone Devil
10 Orthon (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes)

Summon Greater Demon

You utter foul words, summoning one demon from the chaos of the Abyss. You choose the demon’s type, which must be one of challenge rating 5 or lower. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the challenge rating increases by 1 for each slot level above 4th.

CR Creature
5 Babau (Volo’s Guide to Monsters), Dybbuk (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes), Shadow Demon
5 Balgura, Tanarukk (Volo’s Guide to Monsters)
6 Chasme, Vrock
7 Armanite (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes), Draegloth (Volo’s Guide to Monsters), Maurezhi (Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes)
8 Hezrou, Shoosuva (Volo’s Guide to Monsters)
9 Glabrezu
10 Yochlol
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Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters?

In 1970, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson joined the Castles & Crusades Society, a group of miniature gamers formed by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. The group imagined a Great Kingdom and parceled out territories to players to develop for their local games. The Great Kingdom became Greyhawk. In the foreword to the first Basic Set, Gary wrote, “Dave located a nice bog wherein to nest the weird enclave of ‘Blackmoor,’ a spot between the ‘Giant Kingdom’ and the fearsome ‘Egg of Coot.’” Dave’s Blackmoor campaign became the foundation to D&D.

In a way, D&D got started because Gary let players like Dave create in his world. Then as now, creativity leads to more creativity.

In a typical D&D game, the dungeon master describes the game world, the players tell what their characters do, and then the DM describes the results of the PCs’ actions. But in some games, the players’ creativity extends beyond their characters. Players contribute ingredients that conventionally come from the DM.

When dungeon masters and players join imaginations and build on shared ideas, D&D campaigns gain benefits:

  • The game world can become richer than the work of one imagination.

  • When players add creative work, the DM’s job becomes easier.

  • Players can create content that helps develop and reveal their characters.

  • Players who help create the game world feel a connection and stake in the world that can’t come from visiting someone else’s creation.

Even tiny player contributions might enhance your game. In Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea recommends a few ways to invite players to embellish the game. Two ways are particularly quick and easy.

  • When a character kills a monster, ask the player to describe the fatal strike.

  • The first time a character attacks a monster, ask the player to describe a distinguishing physical characteristic of it.

Each technique reveals some of the benefits and risks of asking players to help describe the game world.

Asking to describe a killing blow helps players reveal their characters and grants players extra attention. However, it can grow tiresome. By the end of a game session, players may strain to find novel ways to say, “I stab it with my sword.” The descriptions might either become silly or extravagantly gruesome. They can push the game to revel in blood and gore more than players like. The question only spotlights characters with combat prowess.

Instead, I look for characters’ heroic moments. In a movie, a heroic moment might come when Wonder Woman rushes a foe through a window, crashing out in a shower of glass and debris. In a game, heroic moments come when a hero grapples Acererak and heaves him into a pool of lava, or when a hero stops fleeing an onrushing boulder and turns to drive the sword Shatterspike into it. Whenever you spot a heroic moment, invite the player to describe it. Tell them to make it awesome.

Not every player feels comfortable taking the spotlight this way. If they hesitate, their character still deserves the moment. Put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome.

When players invent distinguishing characteristics for monsters, the creatures become unique, which makes the world richer. Some players enjoy this technique, but many feel uncomfortable with it. When a player describes a heroic moment, they reveal their character. Describing a monster feels like a bigger step into the DM’s territory.

“For what it’s worth, I find players can be on the fence or even against that style,” Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains in a Twitter conversation. “It confronts them with how the game isn’t real. We all know that, but it can pull them out of the immersion and into ‘just making this up, there is no truth.’”

For many players, the kick of role playing comes from diving into the role of a character. Jarring players out of immersion to embellish the scenery seems counterproductive.

Beyond these tiny embellishments, players can contribute bigger chunks of world building. Mike Shea asks players to help him describe things like the taverns characters visit. Lazy DMs can outsource improvisation this way.

How much players welcome such invitation varies widely. “I was at a table recently where I was asked to name the town we reached and describe what made it interesting. I did so and enjoyed it,” Teos recalls. “The DM asked 2 other players similar questions…uncomfortable silence.”

“Part of some players’ reluctance comes from feeling put on the spot,” Hannah Rose writes. For DMs, inventing a new tavern during a game session is part of the job, but many players shrink from that role.

Harold advises, “I do the world-building mostly as icebreakers at the start of a session, and rarely give such prompts once the players are in character for the game.” This avoids calling players to the blackboard during class. Plus, players can stay immersed in character.

Delegating world building works especially well when DMs ask players to define the places and non-player characters that define their background. If the party visits a family home, or the wizard school that shaped a character, many players embrace an invitation to create that corner of the world.

“I think there is a wide variance in this idea of bringing players’ creativity into the story,” Mike writes. “Killing blows and describing enemy physical characteristics are one thing. Building towns is another.”

“I asked players to help define the campaign world. We hit a point where they basically said, ‘Uh, we want you to do that, or it won’t feel real,’” Teos recalls. Delegating creation can rob the world of mystery. “When I asked them why Yuan-Ti were active in Port Nyanzaru, they flat-out said they didn’t want to know that as players.” Secrets serve as a key ingredient of any D&D world.

Teos has players that care for a believable game world. Based on the number of ridiculous character names players bring to my public play tables, some players treat the game world as a joke. Be prepared to veto some ideas unless you want a party to meet Captain Crunch on the deck of Boaty McBoatface. Some ideas could prove harder to kill. Players might invest loving effort into ideas that either don’t fit the DM’s vision for the campaign or meet the DM’s standards. If you invite player contributions, are you prepared to dismiss gifts that don’t suit you?

Besides heroic moments, my favorite times to invite player contributions come when characters pass time between the main action of the game. For example, when the characters spend downtime at the inn, ask the rogue’s player what their character does on the streets at night. Mike asks players to tell the story of their journey across the map.

In these passages, the question of whether the characters succeed is already answered with yes. DMs can skip their usual role of confronting characters with obstacles. Players invent challenges as they like to develop and reveal their characters while the group prevails. Time passes in summary rather than scenes, but everyone still gains a sense of time passing.

The end of an adventure or campaign presents the best time for such character developments. Instead of trying to tie up the campaign in scenes, wrap the characters’ stories in summary—and let the players tell their tales. “Tell us how your dwarf spends some of that gold. Tell us how your halfling lives out the rest of their days. Tie a bow on a happy ending. Make it awesome.”

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Unfrozen DMs, Annoying Spells, Dynamic Battles, and More Insights from the Comment Section

Time for another trip to the comment section.

The unfrozen dungeon master

In The Plight of the Unfrozen Dungeon Master, I wrote about DMs returning to Dungeons & Dragons and adapting the changes in the way folks play the game.

Edgewise wrote “One thing everyone needs to learn is that there are many different legit styles of GMing. There is no single new and current approach, and if there was, it wouldn’t be ‘better.’

My post highlighted a shift in play style from cooperating to overcome deadly challenges to a style aimed at developing characters and their stories.

Even in the same campaign, D&D can accommodate both styles. To span styles, DMs need to separate their roles in the game. Unfrozen DMs like me first learned to act as impartial referees who bring challenges and control monsters. Even in a story-focused game, that role remains important because compelling tales put characters through a wringer. We unfrozen DMs know when to tell players no(sometimes). The collaborative storyteller learns to say yes and become the character’s biggest fans. We can all learn to welcome the players ideas and weave them into the game.

This post also prompted some discussion of Matthew Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, a pamphlet I mentioned in A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. The pamphlet merits a read. Just as unfrozen DMs can learn from the game’s innovations, newer DMs can learn from D&D’s original style of play.

I failed to explain why a Lair Assault game made such a bad match for an unfrozen DM’s style. Thanks go to Marty from Raging Owlbear for making up for the lapse.

Lair Assault was an organized play event where players were challenged to optimize a party build in order to defeat a specifically designed difficult scenario.

It was not a home game. It was not Adventurers League. It was more akin to a cooperative board game where it was the players vs. the game with the DM acting as the ‘AI’ of the scenario.

This means that the DM changing the Lair Assault scenario is breaking the whole concept of the Lair Assault. The whole point of Lair Assault was to stick to the rules as written to “win” the scenario. If the DM changes the scenario as written, it’s not fair to the players who signed up for that specific game mode. The DM is breaking the agreed upon play style.

Preparing situations

Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead advised DMs to build games around situations rather encounters.

Grimcleaver offered an alternative approach that mixes specific encounters with some improvisation.

Take your normal map with encounters scattered around, cut out all the same encounters and put them in a bullet point list. Then just sit back. When the time seems set for one of the encounters–run it. They need be in no preordained place on the map so long as the circumstances are right. They collapse the mine entrance with an avalanche? Fine, but a ways out they discover tracks–a warband of the creatures must have been out when the cave was sealed. If they do the expected thing and follow them into the woods then your first encounter can be whatever you’d planned, but in a clearing in the woods. If they come up with another crazy out of the box solution and subvert that situation? Well that’s fine, you have the encounter prepped and in your notes whenever you need it–and the PCs get to do something else clever.

What I try to go for is to have a list of encounters that are both dramatic and balanced that I can drop in anywhere to use as filler or twists or kickoff points to further the action. If what the PCs are doing is proactive and interesting on its own, that’s better. I’ll stick with that. But when things slow down and the players need an external stimulus, bam I can throw down an encounter that works.

This technique resembles the way I sometimes manage wandering monsters, so it makes a good addition to a preparation toolbox. But DMs who lean too heavily on the technique risk robbing players of meaningful choices. If options lead to the same encounters, do the players’ choices matter? See Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?.

Character introductions

Replying to How to Get D&D Players to Make Unforgettable Character Introductions That Take a Minute or Less, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia reminded us that you don’t need a DM’s invitation to make an unforgettable introduction. “It may be worth mentioning that as players, we can also plan for a generic ‘fit anywhere’ scene. When a DM asks for a character introduction, you can drop it in. ‘My introduction isn’t about me standing here before you, but what led to my arrival. It started with a few shouts down the street, as I battled a pair of ruffians…’”

Spell templates

Regarding How to Create Wire Spell Templates for Dungeons & Dragons, skwyd42 asked a question: “I agree that wire templates are quite nice. However, these cones (and also circles) will have the issue of ‘partial squares’ when using a grid. I’ve yet to find a satisfactory solution for this issue. Any ideas?

The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives this answer: “Choose an intersection of squares or hexes as the point of origin of an area of effect, then follow its rules as normal. If an area of effect is circular and covers at least half a square, it affects that square.” Likewise, if a cone fills half a square, it affects the square.

Alphastream offers a method suited to making square templates. “Should it be of help, during the 4E days I used a technique one of my friends had, using window screen tubing and wire. That same technique can be used for 5E.”

Gary Gygax’s plans for AD&D

In reply to Gary Gygax’s Thwarted Plans for Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a couple of posters mentioned Joseph Bloch’s game Adventures Dark and Deep. This AD&D game attempts to capture the second edition Gary Gygax would have created, based on exhaustive research into Gary’s stated plans.

Joern Moller writes, “Isn’t Castles and Crusades (which Gary consulted on and supported) the game closest to his ideal version of D&D?

Correct. In Gary’s later years, he favored his own Lejendary Adventure Game. But when an occasion called for a modern take on D&D, he ran Castles & Crusades.

Annoying spells

In a response to How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, Andy Walker succeeded at diplomacy, by the standards of Internet comments.

I will try to be diplomatic here, and probably fail. I like some of the spells you hate in this post. Banishment? Sure it upsets the table temporarily, but the target gets a save, and IT WORKS BOTH WAYS. Try letting the villain banish the Barbarian or the Wizard as his opener, and suddenly the PCs are the ones on the defensive, pinata side. When a villain is banished, have him return invisible, or in Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere. Just because the baddie is gone, doesn’t mean he/she suddenly becomes stupid or helpless.

Counterspell? One of the best spells in the game. If you want an interesting duel between mages, this thing rocks. Nothing is more dramatic than causing the evil necromancer’s Disintegrate Spell to fail, or a PC’s high level spell, carefully selected for just this foe, to fizzle. And counterspell against a counterspell (yup, totally legal)? Mage Battle Royale!!!

This whole column seems like ‘things that annoy me as a DM because I didn’t prepare contingencies, and I’m too nice to use them against the PCs.’

If I ran a regular game with players who enjoyed such reprisals, I would relish banishment. However, most players find seeing their characters sidelined by banishment or counterspell more frustrating than fun. Fortunately for most players, unless DMs opt to drop spellcasters into most encounters, and then routinely switch up the stock non-player character spell lists, the annoying spells rarely work both ways.

Tracking initiative

I discovered my numbered technique for tracking initiative from Alphastream.

To use numbers, create a set of tents numbered from 1 up. When initiative starts, the players compare numbers and take the card the matches their place in the order. The highest takes 1, second highest 2, and so on. The DM takes cards for the monsters’ place in the order. Everyone sets the numbers at their spot at the table so everyone can see their place.

I have to give all praise to Paul Lauper Ellison, an amazing gamer and friend I first met during the days of Living Greyhawk 3.5 organized play,” Alphastream commented. “Paul came up with the idea of numbered tents (and made his first ones) for special Living Greyhawk events like Battle Interactives, where time was a big factor for success. We could shave off many minutes of the DM pausing to figure out who went when by using his tents.

During the first round, Paul would simply start placing numbers as the DM called out someone’s turn. I do the same as a player. I must say that by the end of the adventure/event, 99% of DMs have stopped tracking initiative on their end and are letting us do it, because it is so much better. Every player knows when their turn comes up, no one gets skipped, and we know when monsters go (typically, we place a number in front of the DM for each group of monsters, so a DM might go on both 4 and 9). It really is a brilliant system. These days, you see the system used all around Adventurers League, and it is all thanks to Paul!

As for handling monster initiatives, Alphastream writes, “I still assign them a number. Because most encounters have a few types of creatures (a bugbear, three orcs), and cards are used for each group of monsters, the players are used to seeing the DM have several numbers at the start of combat. They don’t know if a number belongs to one of the orcs (maybe one of them is a spellcaster) or something else, until the initiative passes (and even then, they may not notice).

It can also be fun to announce it. ‘And on number 5… nothing happens!’ It creates mystery and excitement at the table, as they wonder what will happen. If you use initiative numbers for things like traps and events (on every number 4, the volcano causes the ground to shake and all creatures make a Dex save to avoid falling), the players won’t always assume it’s a hidden monster. It really works well overall.

Dynamic combat scenes

In response to D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes Alphastream offered more suggestions. (As you see, Alphastream’s comments make half this post. Thanks, buddy!)

One thing I would add is to give the characters obvious goals inside the room, to draw them in and give them things to do. Some examples: A monster is heading towards a lever, so it probably should be stopped. The treasure is in a clearly visible alcove, but a huge stone wall is dropping down to seal it off. A clockwork device begins to slowly count down.

When it comes to foes, making them interesting really helps. Four goblins and a wizard… everyone will target the wizard. But when you have goblins throwing strange alchemical or mechanical devices at the party, or if the goblins control levers that activate traps, suddenly players won’t know where to focus fire, and the battle gets interesting and dynamic. Even vivid descriptions can be effective. A common outcome in my home campaign is that they don’t focus fire (despite being very tactical) because the monsters all demand attention.

Terrain is also worth underscoring. Cover is important, but the design of the room itself will drive how players react. A ramp up the middle, elevated places, stacks of crates that can topple over, a chasm, a pit, a rope bridge with ropes you can clearly use to swing across, and other such terrain will all change the behavior of players and encourage at least a few of them to engage the battle in fun ways.

My terrain post also drew suggestions for dynamic encounters from Timothy Park. He adds too much good advice to quote here, so go back to the post and read the comment.

In the same post, I faulted the adventure Hecatomb for a lack of terrain, which set up monsters for execution by sharpshooters and other ranged attackers.

Stevey writes, “I helped with Hecatomb last spring also here in Montreal. I was to be DMing Tier 3. Upon reading it, I immediately noticed the open battle field effect you mentioned. I proceeded to create a dozen ‘Claws’ and a huge box of scatter terrain to hand out to the 10+ DM’s to help with this. I really think it helped. We even used it to help raise money (the Epic was for a charity) and gave away the terrain to those that donated.

Check out Steve’s stunning terrain props.

The terrain post led Duncan Rhodes from Hipsters & Dragons to create a list of terrain features that would improve a combat scene. See 101+ Terrain Features for Better Combats. I plan to draw from the list for inspiration.

From the authors of a 40-year-old adventure

Finally, during this site’s first year, I praised one of my favorite adventures, Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a 1980 tournament adventure Judges Guild sold for a mere $2. Authors’ Allen Pruehs and Ree Moorhead Pruehs, found my review and wrote, “Wow. Thank you for the compliments. We are blown away!” Their notice delighted me. Incidentally, I also listed Astigar’s Lair, among the 5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1978-2000.

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How to Use the Players’ Metagaming to Mess With Their Heads (and Improve Your Game)

In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Dungeon & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax suggested speeding overcautious players by rolling “huge handfuls of dice” to raise fears of nearby monsters. Of course, the characters in the game world never hear the die rolls or Gary saying, “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far.” He relied on the player’s metagaming to speed the dungeon crawl. When metagaming, players use knowledge of the game in the real world to make decisions based on things their characters don’t know.

Gary intended to use the power of metagaming for good.

Whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. Players routinely ignore statues drawn on the map, but if I add a miniature, their characters inevitably sidle around thing, expecting it to animate and attack. The presence of miniatures sends the metagame signal that the figures represent things to fight.

Although this never fails to amuse me, it brings another benefit. Placing miniatures for harmless things defies a metagame assumption. Maybe next time, the players won’t tie up all the statues in the dungeon just in case.

Animated Statue?

These sorts of metagame stunts carry a price. They call attention to the game and may interfere with the players’ immersion in the imaginary world. When DMs use meaningless die rolls to hurry the players or foster paranoia, they can nudge players out of the game world.

Instead, consider fostering paranoia based on things inside the game world. Describe the sound of a door slamming in the last room, a smell of wet fur, a sudden chill, cries echoing through stone halls, and so on.

Still, my trick with the statures seems  innocuous to me. After all, the players are already focusing on the map and minis when I place the figures.

Despite the price of instigating metagame thinking, I occasionally ask players to make meaningless checks. This discourages the assumption that every roll signals something. I prefer requesting such checks when players already seem focused on the game table rather than immersed in the game world. For instance, if a rogue scouts ahead and checks for traps, I might also ask for a superfluous stealth check.

In my games, I like to toy with players metagame expectations for two reasons:

  • It discourages metagaming. If you sometimes do things that defy the metagame, players will rely less on it.
  • It creates uncertainty and fosters surprises. In the game, we can create surprises by doing things that break the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
People bring meta-fiction expectations to stories as well as games. The movie Psycho provides my favorite example of violating these expectations to shock and surprise. The movie contains two big surprises. I will spoil one here. Psycho begins with the movie’s star embezzling $40,000 cash and taking to the road. We’ve all seen countless movies, so we all know what will happen. Obviously, the movie will follow the story of the stolen cash to the end. And we know the movie’s star will survive until the finale. The star always does. Instead, Psycho shatters our expectations by having the movie’s star suddenly murdered less then half way through. The turn shocked and electrified audiences. Hitchcock even added a personal plea to the end of the film asking viewers not to reveal the twists.

I recommend playing with these metagame assumptions.

Metagame assumption Countermeasure
The battle map signals a fight. Every DM has set a battle map on the table and seen players immediately ready weapons and announce their battle stances. I discourage such shenanigans by saying something like, “This map shows a forest clearing exactly like several others you passed on your journey, except—unknown to your characters—this clearing happens to be on a battle map.” Use a battle map for a non-combat scene like a council meeting or a visit to the tavern. From Twitter, @Styro_Vgc writes, “Watching the PCs carefully maneuver to flank the mailman delivering the summons is worth the effort of drawing a few building outlines.” I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway.
Miniatures represent combatants. If a non-player or creature has a miniature, you should expect to fight them. In addition to statues, I collect miniature figures for unarmed civilians, from royalty to beggars. During combats, they often serve as bystanders to be protected. Bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat.
The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. Vary your adventures from the expected arc to a climactic battle. For instance, in Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the players almost immediately face one of their biggest, most dangerous fights. Monte designed the battle to shock players who expected the usual, leisurely start.
Unique miniatures or tokens represent important NPCs. Players tend to focus attention on the unique figures in a battle. From Twitter, Kyle Maxwell writes, “I use and it’s fun to name the NPC tokens so my players immediately assume they are some highly significant character. (Bonus, the interaction with them sometimes turns this into a self-fulfilling prophecy!)” A variation of this trick works with unique or important looking miniatures mixed in with, say, a group of bandits.

While these tricks keep players on their toes by toying with metagame assumptions, I can think of one assumption DMs should uphold. A tricky DM can alarm players by lavishing description on a harmless, ordinary object such as a door. Don’t. None of this suggests you should avoid vivid descriptions—they make the imaginary come alive. Still, no player wants to spend a half hour investigating an ordinary door because their DM’s extra attention made it seem important. Your descriptions help guide players to the fun and interesting features in the world. Without that lead, you risk slowing the game as players poke, prod, and investigate every bit of decor.

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The Plight of the Unfrozen Dungeon Master

If you play Dungeons & Dragons in game stores, you will meet an unfrozen dungeon master. Fifteen years ago, I was one.

The first surge in the popularity of D&D started in 1977, when I found the first Basic Set, and continued in the 80s. Nerdy kids everywhere found the game, played obsessively, and then mostly moved on. Eventually groups separated for college and jobs. Players abandoned their books in their parents’ attics or sold them for gas money.

But we missed the game, and 10, 20, or 30 years later, those of us who loved D&D come back. We are the unfrozen dungeon masters.

Over the years, D&D has changed. Not just the rules, but also play style and player expectations have changed. When unfrozen DMs play, we can either adapt to the new style—shaped by 45 years of innovation. Or we can find like-minded players in the old school—still as fun as ever.

An unfrozen DM came to my local store during the fourth-edition era. He played enough to learn the new edition and then served as a DM on a Lair Assault. After the game, he told me about the rules he fixed on the fly because they didn’t suit him or his style of game. Such changes defied the spirit of fourth edition, which aimed to limit DM meddling in favor of giving players a clear understanding of how their actions will play in the game world. Such DM fiat especially defied the spirit of a competitive challenge like Lair Assault.

Since then, I haven’t seen a DM so clearly unfrozen, but DMs still stagger from caves and icebergs into game stores. When they run a game, newer players probably see too much focus on pitting an unyielding game world against the party, and too little on shaping the game to suit the players and their characters.

This topic inspired a question that I asked on Twitter. The answers showed the gulf between the game when I started playing and the current style of play. I felt a little like a DM staggering from melting ice to see a new world of wonders. Will I ever learn enough of the new ways to fit in?

When D&D started, DMs were called referees and they played the part of a dispassionate judge of the game. As a referee, you used die rolls to place most of the monsters and treasure in your dungeon. When the players explored, you let die rolls and the players’ choices determine the outcome. A referee ran home adventures the same they ran a tournament where competing teams might compare notes and expect impartial treatment.

D&D’s roots in wargaming set this pattern. Referees devised a scenario in advance. Players chose sides and played. In the spirit of fairness, referees didn’t change the scenario on the fly.

Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), one of D&D’s early imitators, spells out this ideal. The rules 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.”

That style didn’t last. In most D&D games, no competing team watches for favoritism, so if the DM changes unseen parts of the dungeon, the players never know.

Dungeon masters differ from referees in other ways.

Unlike wargames with multiple sides, dungeon masters control the foes who battle the players. Now, DMs sometimes struggle to suppress a will to beat the players. In the 1980s, when people still struggled to understand a game that never declared a winner, competitive urges more often proved irresistible.

RULE NUMBER ONE in Chivalry & Sorcery is that it is a game, not an arena for ‘ego-trippers’ to commit mayhem with impunity on the defenseless or near defenseless characters of others. Games have to be FUN, with just enough risk to get the adrenalin pumping. The moment that an adventure degenerates into a butchering session is the time to call a halt and ask the would-be ‘god’ running the show just what he thinks he is doing, anyway.

All of the early fantasy RPGs came as reactions to D&D. For example, Tunnels and Trolls (1975) aimed to make D&D accessible to non-grognards—to players who didn’t know a combat results table from a cathode ray tube. C&S follows the pattern. It reads as a response the shortcomings of D&D and the play style it tended to encourage.

C&S reveals much about how folks played D&D in the early years.

Before I entered the DM deep freeze, my players would sometimes discuss their plans of action out of my earshot. In their talks, as they speculated on the potential threats ahead, they imagined worst-case scenarios. To avoid giving me ideas, they kept me from overhearing. After all, their worst-case scenario might be harsher than anything I planned. (Obviously, I never borrowed the players ideas. My worst cases were always worse.)

D&D has changed since then, so I asked current players on Twitter for their feelings:

How do you feel about GMs who eavesdrop on your conversations, and then incorporate your speculations in the game?

  • Love it. Let’s tell stories together.
  • Hate it. The DM shouldn’t steal my ideas to complicate my character’s life.

In the responses, the lovers overwhelmed the haters to a degree that surprised me.

Players see RPGs are structured, collaborative storytelling and they enjoy seeing their ideas shape the tale. “D&D is a collaborative storytelling activity,@TraylorAlan explains. “I imagine it as a writer’s room for a TV show, with a head writer who has a plan that is modified by the other writers. A good DM riffs off what players do, uses that to build. Players then feel invested because their choices matter.

I agree, but my sense of the answers is that folks don’t often imagine their DM overhearing a worst-case scenario, and then wielding it against characters. If players only wanted compelling stories, DMs should sometimes adopt players’ cruelest ideas and use them. Stories feature characters facing obstacles. Countless sources of writing advice tell writers to torture their beloved characters. But how many players want to participate in the torture of their alter egos?

For my money, the answer to my question depends on the part a DM plays in the game, moment by moment.

Are you the adversary, with a Team Evil button?

Better to keep your eyes on your own paper, even if the players’ worst-case scenario fills you with glee. Never adopt killer strategies or dream up countermeasures for tactics you overhear.

Are you the collaborative story-teller, looking to help the players reveal their characters?

When players speculate at the table, they’re making connections based on what they know about the game world—connections that the DM may not see. Adopt the speculations that link the characters to the game world in unexpected ways. They reveal they characters and tie them to the shared fantasy. Making connections real makes the D&D world seem deeper and more meaningful. It adds a sense of order that we humans enjoy in the game world, especially at times when the real world shows too little order and too little sense.

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Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D

In 1972, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson introduced his Blackmoor campaign to co-creator Gary Gygax. The campaign stemmed from Gary’s Chainmail rules, but Dave’s game transformed the rules for miniature-figure battles into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

My last post explained how Dave shaped a combat system that featured hit points, 2d6 to-hit rolls, damage rolls, and armor classes where higher numbers represented better protection.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. In Pegasus issue 1, 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.”

Gary changed Dave’s combat rules in 3 key ways:

  • Hit points became less realistic and more fun.
  • To-hit rolls switched to a twenty-sided dice, creating a new market for funny dice.
  • AC ratings flipped to make lower values better, forcing awkward, negative ACs on players.

Unrealistic hit points

Gary’s changes let characters gain hit points as they leveled. In Blackmoor, Dave wrote, “As the player progressed, he did not receive additional hit points, but rather he became harder to hit.” Dave based armor class on armor, but fighters gained better saving throws. By the Blackmoor rules, saves applied to weapon attacks, so fighters could avoid damaging blows. “Only Fighters gained advantages in these melee saving throws. Clerics and magicians progressed in their own areas, which might or might not modify their saving throws.”

In Chainmail, a hero fought as 4 ordinary soldiers and a superhero as 8. D&D translated this scheme by making heroes 4th-level fighting men and superheroes 8th level. When Gary reconciled Dave’s rules for hit dice with the notion of heroes that fought as several men, he probably decided to give characters more hit dice as they leveled. The mechanic seemed unrealistic. After all, nobody gets 10 or more times more durable through experience. But rising hit points helped power the game’s success. They boosted the positive reinforcement of leveling. Plus, heroes capable of unrealistically surviving many blows supported D&D’s combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing style. These advantages helped make the game so appealing.

Every “realistic” system to follow D&D echoed Dave Arneson’s original method of using hit points to measure a character’s body’s physical capacity to survive injury. In D&D, hit points rise as characters advance, and that turns hit points into an elegant damage-reduction mechanic. As characters level, they essentially reduce the damage they take from blows.

Using hit points for damage reduction boasts a number of virtues:

  • Combat plays fast because players do not have to calculate reduced damage for every single hit.
  • Although damage is effectively reduced, the reduction never makes a combatant impervious to damage.
  • Once characters gain enough points to survive a few blows, hit points provide a predictable way to see the course of battle. If a fight begins to go badly, the players can see their peril and bring more resources like spells and potions to the fight, or they can run. In a realistic fight, things can go bad in an instant, with a single misstep resulting in death.
  • Most attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight. Realistic combatants do not wear down from dozens of damaging blows; instead each hit is likely to kill or maim. In more realistic systems like Runequest and GURPS, when two very skilled combatants face off, they block or dodge virtually all attacks. The duels turn static until someone muffs a defense roll and lets a killing blow slip through. This model may be realistic—it reminds me of those Olympic competitions where years of training turn on a single, split-second misstep—but the realistic model lacks fun. No popular sports begin as sudden-death competitions where the first to score wins.
  • Battles can gain a dramatic arc. Fights climax with bloodied and battle-worn combatants striving to put their remaining strength into a killing blow. No one likes to see the climactic battle fizzle with a handful of bad rolls, especially at their character’s expense.

Bottom line: Using hit points for damage reduction enables a combat system where you can hit a lot, and hitting is fun.

Funny dice

When Dave adapted the Chainmail rules for his Blackmoor campaign, he kept using ordinary 6-sided dice. He later explained, we had “no funny dice back then.”

The twenty-sided die may not have reached Dave’s corner of gaming yet, but Gary had funny dice and they enchanted him. At first, polyhedral dice only came from vendors in Japan and the United Kingdom, so getting a set required significant time and money. But by 1972, polyhedral dice started arriving from domestic sources. Gary recalled buying his first set from a teacher-supply catalog. In 1972, Creative Publications of California started selling 20-sided dice in a set of polyhedrals, and word spread among gamers. By 1973, Gary wrote an article touting funny dice. “The most useful are the 20-sided dice,” he explained. The original d20s came numbered from 0 to 9 twice, so most gamers rolled twice to generate a percentage from 1-100. Gary noted that gamers could do more. “Color in one set of numbers on the die, and you can throw for 5%—perfect for rules which call for random numbers from 1-20.” As an example, he mentions being “busy working up chance tables for a fantasy campaign game.” Gary found his new d20 so irresistible that he changed Dave’s 2d6 to-hit tables into D&D’s d20-based system.

Descending Armor Classes

As Gary reworked his attack table, he discovered that switching to descending AC numbers created a mathematical elegance. Game historian Jon Peterson describes how this system appears in a draft of the D&D rules. “If you were a first-level fighter rolling to hit, the number you needed was equivalent to 20 minus the armor class of your target. To hit AC 2, you needed an 18, to hit AC 3, a 17, and so on. Armor class descended to make it easy enough to calculate your needed roll that you wouldn’t even have to consult a table.”

If D&D had settled on this system, we might now be rolling a d20 to hit, adding the foe’s AC, and trying to reach a target number based on our character.

D&D reached players with a muddled system that kept descending armor classes, but hid any reason for the scheme. So players wondered why lower armor class represented better protection. Usually, bigger is better.

What happened?

When Gary expanded D&D to account for a greater range of levels than 9, he lost the mathematical simplicity. While the draft rules just present to-hit numbers for fighters up to level 9, the published D&D rules extend the table up to level 16 and beyond. To keep a steady advancement over a greater range of levels, Gary reworked the table and broke an elegant design. This left a system where players just used armor class to reference a row in a table and where intuitive, rising numbers could have worked just as well.

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The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit

In 1977, when I first read the Dungeon & Dragons basic rules, the way armor class improved as it shrunk from 9 to 2 puzzled me. Shouldn’t higher numbers be better? Players just used AC to find a row on a table, so rising ACs would have worked as well. Magic armor introduced negative ACs, making the descending numbers even more awkward. Also, many of the demons described in 1976 in the Eldrich Wizardry supplement sported negative armor class.

D&D’s designers seemed to think rising armor classes made more sense. The game rules stemmed from co-creator Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules for miniature-figure battles. Chainmail rated armor from 1 to 8, with better armor gaining higher values. Co-creator Dave Arneson based his Blackmoor fantasy campaign on Chainmail. His campaign developed into D&D. In Blackmoor, higher armor classes represented better armor.

So how did the first D&D rules set the puzzling convention of descending armor class?

The answer lies toward the end of the genesis of D&D’s combat system.

In the original D&D rule books, the combat system that everyone used appears as the Alternative Combat System. “Alternative” because players could just use the combat system from Chainmail instead. When Dave launched Blackmoor, he tried the Chainmail system. But it focused on battles between armies sprinkled with legendary heroes and monsters. For ongoing adventures in the dungeon under Castle Blackmoor, the rules needed changes. Original Blackmoor player Greg Svenson recalls that within about a month of play, the campaign created new rules for damage rolls and hit points. (More recently, Steve Winter, a D&D designer since 1st edition, tells of playing the original game with the Chainmail combat rules.)

Much of what we know about how Dave adapted the rules for his Blackmoor campaign comes from two sources: a 2004 interview and The First Fantasy Campaign, a raw publication of notes for his game. Most quotes in this post come from those sources.

Chainmail’s melee combat matrix

To resolve melee combat, Chainmail used a combat matrix. Players matched the attacking weapon or creature against the defender, rolled a pair of 6-sided dice, and consulted the table for an outcome. “That was okay for a few different kinds of units, but by the second weekend we already had 20 or 30 different monsters, and the matrix was starting to fill up the loft.”

Dave abandoned the matrix and extended Chainmail’s rules for missile attacks to melee combat. In Chainmail, ranged attackers rolled 2d6, and tried to roll higher than a target number based on increasing armor classes. Blackmoor gained melee to-hit rolls.

Chainmail’s man-to-man combat and ranged combat tables

In Chainmail, creatures lacked hit points, so a single hit killed. But with extraordinary individuals like heroes, wizards, and dragons, a saving throw allowed a last chance to survive. For example, the rules say, “Dragon fire will kill any opponent it touches, except another Dragon, Super Hero, or a Wizard, who is saved on a two dice roll of 7 or better.”

Under rules where one hit destroyed a character, Dave tried to spare player characters by granting saving throws against any hit. “Thus, although [a character] might be ‘Hit’ several times during a melee round, in actuality, he might not take any damage at all.”

But the system of saving throws still made characters too fragile to suit players. “It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn’t have,” Dave explains.

Chainmail battle on a sand table

“I adopted the rules I’d done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer.” In a Chainmail battle that featured armies spanning a sand table, hit points would have overwhelmed players with bookkeeping. But the Blackmoor players liked the rule. “They didn’t care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn’t care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn’t want the monster to kill them in one blow.”

When players rolled characters, they determined hit points. For monsters, hit points were set based “on the size of the creature physically and, again, on some regard for its mythical properties.” Dave liked to vary hit points among individual monsters. To set the strength of a type of monster while rolling for an individual’s hit points, he probably invented hit dice.

Dave said he took the armor class from Ironclads, but the concept came from Chainmail and the term came from its 1972 revisions. I suspect Dave meant that he pulled the notion of hit points and damage from a naval game that featured both armor ratings and damage points. Game historian Jon Peterson explains, “The concepts of armor thickness and withstanding points of damage existed in several naval wargames prior to Chainmail.” Still, nobody has found the precise naval rules that inspired Dave. Even his handwritten rules for ironclad battles lack properties resembling armor class. Perhaps he just considered using the concept in a naval game before bringing the notion to D&D.

In Blackmoor, Dave sometimes used hit locations. Perhaps naval combat inspired that rule. When ships battle, shells that penetrate to a boiler or powder keg disable more than a cannonball through the galley. Likewise, in man-to-man combat, a blow to the head probably kills.

Dave’s rules for hit locations only reached D&D in the Blackmoor supplement, which came a year after the game’s release. But hit locations made combat more complicated and dangerous. Realistic combat proved too deadly for the dungeon raids in D&D. So D&D players never embraced hit locations. Even Dave seemed to save the rule for special occasions. “Hit Location was generally used only for the bigger critters, and only on a man-to-man level were all the options thrown in. This allowed play to progress quickly even if the poor monsters suffered more from it.” Dave ran a fluid game, adapting the rules to suit the situation.

By the time Dave’s fantasy game established hit points, 2d6 to-hit rolls, and damage rolls, he showed the game to Gary Gygax.

Next: Gary Gygax improves hit points by making them more unrealistic, and then adds funny dice

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Event-driven D&D Adventures Aren’t About Events; They’re About Villains

The plot of every vintage James Bond movie resembles a role-playing scenario based on an investigation and events. A hook like the theft of an atomic bomb sets Bond into motion. In an investigation, he chases leads from one situation to the next. The events come when the villains’ agents attempt murder, usually while Bond pilots a gimmicky vehicle or skis downhill.

Lloth and Drow at Gencon

Event-driven adventures aren’t really about events; they’re about villains. Unlike dungeons or the classic situations, I described in an earlier post, event-driven adventures stem from dynamic villains working to achieve some goal that the players feel compelled to foil. “Villain adventures are, by their nature, more dynamic,” the Angry GM writes. “The players aren’t pursuing a goal so the game master isn’t completely reliant on the players to drive all the action in an otherwise static adventure setup. Instead, the villain can take actions and the adventure is constantly changing.”

To prepare and event-driven adventure, plan villains instead of events.

Villains require three elements:

  • a goal
  • a plan to reach their evil ends
  • assets that can help bring their goal

Every villain must have a goal. For bad guys, the usual aims include power, vengeance, and, in Dungeons & Dragons, to harvest souls for ultimate power. Any of these goals make the foundation of a sound villain, but more evocative goals can make more compelling foes. Strahd Von Zarovich aims for power and vengeance, but he also wants to win a woman who would rather die than return his love. She does, more than once. Such depth helps make Strahd a classic.

Every villain needs a plan to gain their desires. In D&D, they make plans to conquer kingdoms, bring worshipers to dark gods, and so on. Those plans shape adventures.

In a typical D&D game, most players will act to oppose signs of evil, especially if thwarting evil would also bring treasure. The game builds on such calls to action. But plots that affect the characters directly make more compelling conflicts. Look to the player characters’ bonds for inspiration. If a wizard in your game seeks arcane knowledge above all else, then a plot that threatens to burn an ancient library would provoke the character.

When some DMs develop evil plans, they imagine a timeline of how the plan advances if the players fail to intervene. Such plots can continue all the way to the moment when Dendar the Night Serpent devours the world. But the game depends on the players meddling, so steps 13 and up rarely show at the table.

A better plan starts loose and develops through play. At first, the players may only see signs of evil.

An offstage villain can develop into a compelling foe. “One of the key components to creating tension is the slow burn,” Courtney Kraft of Geek and Sundry writes. “Don’t show your villain fully right from the start. Perhaps there are mysterious things happening around your heroes. The mystery is fun, so take your time. Give your players small tastes of what’s to come. Leave them warnings. Send minions. Maybe even let them experience a fraction of the villain’s power.”

As a tool for introducing villains to a campaign, I like the concept of fronts. The idea comes from the games Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Dungeon World by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra, but the concept’s best lessons apply to games like D&D.

Fronts abstract villains. “Each is a collection of linked dangers—threats to the characters specifically and to the people, places, and things the characters care about. It also includes one or more impending dooms, the horrible things that will happen without the characters’ intervention.”

Game masters planning fronts imagine grim portents that expose a villain’s progress toward a sinister goal. You reveal these portents to raise tension, or when players need a call to action. I liken fronts to weather fronts, because with both, you spot a coming storm in a distance. The early portents start a slow burn without necessarily calling players to action.

The game rules describe another sense of the term. “‘Fronts’ comes, of course, from ‘fighting on two fronts’ which is just where you want the characters to be—surrounded by threats, danger and adventure.”

In a campaign with multiple potential villains, grim portents help introduce the group. Such warnings suggest villains without much preparation. See what captures the players’ interest, and then develop the foes behind the portents. The players’ response to multiple portents can help shape a campaign’s direction.

Too many fronts advancing too quickly can make players feel overwhelmed and under-powered. Much of the fun of D&D comes from a sense of potency, so second fronts work best on a slow burn. They suggest an active world full of peril and opportunity.

The players’ actions to thwart the villain will eventually force a reaction. Perhaps the enemy slays someone the heroes recruited as an ally or captures some magic artifact the heroes need. Suddenly, the adventure comes alive as the players face a dynamic foe.

Villains need assets that help advance their plans. Most D&D villains start with monsters ready to fight. These assets range from faceless mooks to lieutenants colorful enough to overshadow their boss. Think Odd Job or Darth Vader. In more nuanced scenarios, the villain may bring allies with their own goals. Such friends of convenience can bring depth to an adventure by making adversaries that the heroes can turn to their side, or at least against the villain.

To build an event-driven campaign, dungeon masters need to imagine a villain’s assets, plan, and goal. But you don’t need a final, personified villain. That creation can wait. Waiting to develop a lead villain can even bring some advantages.

When DMs invest time in villains, they start to dream of recurring enemies who appear though the course of a campaign and escape alive.

In D&D, villains don’t recur like they might in a book or movie. The game strips away plot armor. As soon as recurring villains appear onstage, the players will attempt murder. Sometimes DMs can engineer an escape without railroading, but usually villains just survive a round or two.

In D&D, recurring villains work behind the scenes. Players learn of their hand through their reputation, their servants, and the accounts of would-be heroes who fled for their lives. The characters may thwart a plan, but the recurring villain’s goal remains to inspire another, more diabolical ploy. Each scheme needs to escalate the stakes. At level 1, a villain’s first plot might act to corrupt the kindly, village cleric. At 3rd level, the entire village becomes the target. In a campaign, some of the plans may succeed, raising the conflict further.

In an episodic campaign, keeping the lead villain undefined can help set a recurring villain who resonates with the player and even develops a record of beating the heroes.

Whenever players confront a bad guy, think about making the scene an audition for the role of ultimate villain. In most episodes, some agent of villainy will work a plan, fail, attempt escape, and perish. But sometimes, the players suffer a setback, and the villain escapes or even succeeds and complicates the characters’ lives. Consider promoting that enemy to the big bad. Justin Alexander advises, “The real key here is to simply refrain from pre-investing one of these guys as the ‘big villain.’ Basically, don’t get attached to any of your antagonists: Assume that the first time they’re in a position where the PCs might kill them that the PCs will definitely kill them.” If someone survives or prevails, you have a villain the players can hate. That enemy may need more power for a lead role, but the game is D&D. Just back a winner with a dark pact, evil artifact, or battle-ready servants.

By preparing active villains with goals, plans, and assets, you can prepare adventures that follow an arc that resembles a pre-planned plot. But you prepare without assuming what the players will do or how the game will advance.

 

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