How D&D Got an Initiative System Rooted in California House Rules

Some groups playing first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons might have run initiative by the book, but with the incomprehensible rules text, no one knew for sure. Besides, the full rules proved so complicated and cumbersome that most groups threw some out in favor of a faster pace. Even AD&D author Gary Gygax ignored most of it. “We played to have fun, and in the throws of a hot melee, rules were mostly forgotten.” (See For 10 Years Dungeons & Dragons Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots.)

For the designers working on second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, updating these rules posed a challenge. D&D’s management had required the designers to make their new version of AD&D broadly compatible with the original. Even after years on store shelves, plenty of first-edition products continued to sell. TSR wanted to keep that income coming. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

So second edition needed a version of the first-edition initiative rules, but which rules? First-edition players handled initiative in countless ways, none precisely by the book. The second-edition team settled on all of those ways. Like before, each side rolled a die and the winning roll went first. Beyond that, second edition offered enough optional rules to reconstruct whatever system a group already used. Groups that favored a system complicated by spell casting times and weapon speed factors could keep it.

Second edition also kept the wargame-inspired rule where players declared their actions before a round, and then had to stick to plan as best they could. Many groups chose to ignore this rule. Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison says, “I’ve had many conversations with fans who were really big fans of AD&D and who never really left second edition. I would say, ‘So you like the declaration phase?’ And the answer would always be, ‘Oh we don’t play that way.’ So you like AD&D better because you don’t play by the rules!”

When Adkison led Wizards of the Coast to buy TSR, he granted the third-edition design team permission to redesign initiative—and the rest of D&D—without keeping broad compatibility. Adkison simply charged the team with creating the best D&D game possible.

To start, the team looked at how gamers actually played second edition. Few groups declared actions before a round, and groups that did found the process slowed the game. Third-edition lead designer Jonathan Tweet explains, “Eventually what you ended up doing is you had to tell the DM what you were doing every round twice.”

Most tables did roll initiative every round. That added some exciting uncertainly, but also friction. “It takes forever to go through the round because no one knows who’s next and people get dropped.”

Despite having so many systems to choose from, none of the options pleased anyone. Co-designer Monte Cook says, “Initiative was probably the longest knock down drag out kind of fight. We must have gone through—no exaggeration—like 8 different, completely different, initiative systems.”

Meanwhile, in Tweet’s home games, he used a system that he hesitated to propose to the other designers. “I said to the group, ‘I want to try this cyclical initiative. It’s always worked for me, but it’s so different from AD&D. You know what, it’s probably so different that even if it’s better, people would not like it.’”

For the origin of cyclical initiative, the story goes back to D&D’s early days.

The original D&D books omitted a rule for who acts first in a fight. For that, co-designer Gary Gygax supposed gamers would refer to his earlier Chainmail miniatures rules. In practice, players rarely saw those old rules. As the game spread virally from the creators’ local groups and from the conventions they attended, gamers in the Midwest learned to play D&D.

Gamers in the West found D&D too, but those communities lacked the same word-of-mouth connection to the game’s creators. Necessity forced those players to make up rules to patch the gaps in the rule books. Copies of these fans’ informal game supplements spread from table-to-table.

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

A group of gamers around Caltech created Warlock. “What we have tried to do is present a way of expanding D&D without the contradictions and loopholes inherent in the original rules and with various supplements.”

Future RuneQuest designer and D&D supplement author Steve Perrin wrote a set of house rules that came to be called The Perrin Conventions. He distributed his rules at California’s DunDraCon I in March 1976.

The enthusiasts working on these West coast D&D enhancements lacked Dave and Gary’s deep roots in wargaming, so they found fresh answers to the question of who goes first. Instead of an arcane system built on weapon types, they worked from the description of the Dexterity attribute in original D&D’s Men & Magic booklet (p.11). Dexterity indicates the characters “speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.” So Warlock lets the spellcaster with the highest Dexterity goes first, and The Perrin Conventions explain, “First strike in any situation, whether melee combat, spell casting, or whatever depends on who has the highest dexterity.”

Meanwhile, D&D hooked California physician J. Eric Holmes, but the original game’s obtuse and incomplete rules frustrated him as much as anyone. So he contacted Gygax and volunteered to write rules for beginners. Gygax already wanted such an introduction, but he lacked time to write one because he also wanted to create his new advanced version of D&D. He welcomed Holmes’s unexpected offer and compared it to divine inspiration.

Starting with the original rule books plus the Blackmoor and Greyhawk supplements, Holmes made D&D comprehensible while keeping “the flavor and excitement of the original rules.” As much as he could, he reused wording from the original game. But J. Eric Holmes had learned to play D&D from the Caltech Warlock rules and he probably had seen The Perrin Conventions. That experience led him to pitch Warlock’s spell-point system to Gygax. We know how that turned out. Gary hated spell points. However, Holmes’s take on D&D included one West coast innovation: The character with the highest Dexterity struck first. Back then, monster stats lacked a number for Dexterity, so the rules explain, “If the Dungeon Master does not know the dexterity of an attacking monster, he rolls it on the spot.”

Holmes’ revision became the 1977 Basic Set known for its rule book’s blue cover. That version of the rules introduced young Jonathan Tweet to D&D. Even when new versions of D&D appeared, Tweet stuck to his interpretation of the 1977 initiative rule. “It was really fast. Everyone knew what order you went in.”

Fast forward twenty-some years to the design of third edition when Tweet proposed his home initiative system inspired by that blue rule book. He called the system cyclical because instead of re-rolling initiative every round, turns cycled through the same order.

The design team’s third member, Skip Williams brought deep roots into AD&D. Williams had played in Gary Gygax’s home campaign and came from years of experience answering AD&D questions as Dragon magazine’s sage. Tweet suspected Williams would hesitate to test an initiative system that defied AD&D tradition, but Williams said, “Well, let’s try it.”

“We played one battle using initiative that goes around in a circle instead of being different every round and it was so much faster,” Tweet recalls. “It feels more like combat because it’s faster. By the end of the turn, by the end of the 5 hours playing D&D, you’ve had way more fun because things have gone faster.

“One of the big things that I learned from that experience is how well people took to a rule that on paper they rejected but in practice they saw how well it played.”

Monte Cook says, “If you can look at something that happens 20, 30, 50 times during a game session, and eliminate that or decrease it hugely, you’re going to make the game run faster, more smoothly. That idea is now a big part of my game designer toolbox.”

In today’s fifth edition, cyclic initiative now seems like an obvious choice, but the D&D team still considered alternatives. Some players tout the side initiative system described on page 270 of the fifth-edition Dungeon Masters Guide. The opposing groups of heroes and monsters each roll a die, and then everyone in the group with the highest roll goes. Unlike in past editions, nobody re-rolls initiative; the sides just trade turns. The designers chose against this method because the side that wins initiative can gang up on enemies and finish them before they act. At low levels, when a single blow can take out a foe, winning side initiative creates an overwhelming advantage.

Many players find side initiative even faster than individual initiative. Side initiative could also encourage tactically-minded players to spend time each round planning an optimal order for their turns. Some players enjoy that focus. However, if you aim for fast fights where rounds capture the mayhem of 6-seconds of actual battle, avoid encouraging such discussion.

Why do you prefer your favorite method for deciding who goes first?

Related: 13 of the Craziest Quirks in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules

For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots

While every version of Dungeons & Dragons has a rule for who goes first in a fight, no other rule shows as much of the game’s evolution from what the original books call rules for “wargames campaigns” into what the latest Player’s Handbook calls a roleplaying game about storytelling.

Before you old grognards rush to the comments to correct my opening line, technically the original books lacked any way to decide who goes first. For that rule, co-creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson supposed gamers would refer to Gary’s earlier Chainmail miniatures rules. In practice, players rarely saw those old rules. The way to play D&D spread gamer-to-gamer from Dave and Gary’s local groups and from the conventions they attended. D&D campaigns originally ran by word-of-mouth and house rules.

Gygax waited five years to present an initiative system in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). Two things made those official rules terrible.

  • Nobody understood the system.

  • Any reasonable interpretation of the system proved too slow and complicated for play.

Some grognards insist they played the first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons initiative system by the book. No you didn’t. Read this 20-page consolidation of the initiative rules as written, and then try to make that claim. Grognardia blogger James Maliszewski writes, “Initiative in AD&D, particularly when combined with the equally obscure rules regarding surprise, was one of those areas where, in my experience, most players back in the day simply ignored the official rules and adopted a variety of house rules. I know I did.”

Not even Gygax played with all his exceptions and complications. “We used only initiative [rolls] and casting times for determination of who went first in a round. The rest was generally ignored. We played to have fun, and in the throws of a hot melee, rules were mostly forgotten.”

With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D story grows complicated, because original or basic D&D soldiered on with workable initiative systems. My next tale will circle back to D&D, but this one focuses on first-edition AD&D, the game Gygax treated as his own. (See Basic and Advanced—the time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games.)

Some of the blame for AD&D’s terrible initiative system falls back on Chainmail and Gygax’s love for its wargaming legacy.

Chainmail lets players enact battles with toy soldiers typically representing 20 fighters. The rules suggest playing on a tabletop covered in sand sculpted into hills and valleys. In Chainmail each turn represents about a minute, long enough for infantry to charge through a volley of arrows and cut down a group of archers. A clash of arms might start and resolve in the same turn. At that scale, who strikes first typically amounts to who strikes from farthest away, so archers attack, then soldiers with polearms, and finally sword swingers. Beyond that, a high roll on a die settled who moved first.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the 1-minute turns from Chainmail became 1-minute melee rounds. Such long turns made sense for a wargame that filled one turn with a decisive clash of arms between groups of 20 soldiers, but less sense for single characters trading blows.

Even though most D&D players imagined brief turns with just enough time to attack and dodge, Gygax stayed loyal to Chainmail’s long turns. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gygax defended the time scale. “The system assumes much activity during the course of each round. During a one-minute melee round many attacks are made, but some are mere feints, while some are blocked or parried.” Gygax cited the epic sword duel that ended The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) as his model for AD&D’s lengthy rounds. He never explained why archers only managed a shot or two per minute.

Broadly, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons held to Chainmail’s system for deciding who goes first. Gygax also chose an option from the old wargame where players declared their actions before a round, and then had to stick to plan as best they could. “If you are a stickler, you may require all participants to write their actions on paper.”

Why would Gygax insist on such cumbersome declarations?

In a D&D round, every character and creature acts in the same few seconds, but to resolve the actions we divide that mayhem into turns. This compromise knots time in ridiculous ways. For example, with fifth edition’s 6-second rounds, one character can end their 6-second turn next to a character about to start their turn and therefor 6 seconds in the past. If they pass a relay baton, the baton jumps 6 seconds back in time. If enough characters share the same 6 seconds running with the baton, the object outraces a jet. Now expand that absurdity across AD&D’s 1-minute round.

Years before D&D, wargamers like Gygax had wrestled with such problems. They couldn’t resolve all actions simultaneously, but players could choose actions at once. Declaring plans in advance, and then letting a referee sort out the chaos yielded some of the real uncertainty of an actual battle. Wargamers loved that. Plus, no referee would let players declare that they would start their turn by taking a relay baton from someone currently across the room.

Especially when players chose to pretend that a turn took about 10 seconds, the Chainmail system for initiative worked well enough. In basic D&D, turns really lasted 10 seconds, so no one needed to pretend. Many tables kept that system for AD&D.

But nobody played the advanced system as written. Blame that on a wargamer’s urge for precision. Despite spending paragraphs arguing for 1-minute rounds, Gygax seemed to realize that a minute represented a lot of fighting. So he split a round into 10 segments lasting as long as modern D&D’s 6-second rounds. Then he piled on intricate—sometimes contradictory—rules that determined when you acted based on weapon weights and lengths, spell casting times, surprise rolls, and so on. In an interview, Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison observed, “The initiative and surprise rules with the weapon speed factors was incomprehensible.”

In a minute-long turn filled with feints, parries, and maneuvering, none of that precision made sense. On page 61, Gygax seemed to say as much. “Because of the relatively long period of time, weapon length and relative speed factors are not usually a consideration.” Then he wrote a system that considered everything.

Some of the blame for this baroque system may rest on the wargaming hobby’s spirit of collaboration.

Even before D&D, Gygax had proved a zealous collaborator on wargames. Aside from teaming with other designers, he wrote a flood of articles proposing variants and additions to existing games. In the early years of D&D, Gygax brought the same spirit. He published rules and ideas from the gamers in his circle, and figured that players could use what suited their game. In the Blackmoor supplement, he wrote, “All of it is, of course, optional, for the premise of the whole game system is flexibility and personalization within the broad framework of the rules.”

I doubt all the rules filigree in AD&D came from Gygax. At his table, he ignored rules for things like weapon speed factors. Still, Gygax published such ideas from friends and fellow gamers. For example, he disliked psionics, but he bowed to his friends and included the system in AD&D. (See Gary Gygax Loved Science Fantasy, So Why Did He Want Psionics Out of D&D?.)

Weapon speed factors fit AD&D as badly as anything. In theory, a fighter could swing a lighter weapon like a dagger more quickly. Did this speed enable extra attacks? Not usually. Instead, light weapons could strike first. But that contradicted Chainmail’s observation that a fighter with a spear had to miss before an attacker with a dagger could come close enough to attack. Gygax patched that by telling players to skip the usual initiative rules after a charge.

AD&D’s initiative system resembles a jumble of ideas cobbled together in a rush to get a long-delayed Dungeon Master’s Guide to press. The system piled complexities, and then exceptions, and still failed to add realism. In the end, AD&D owed some success to the way D&D’s haphazard rules trained players to ignore any text that missed the mark.

In creating D&D, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax faced a unique challenge because no one had designed a roleplaying game before. The designers of every roleplaying game to follow D&D copied much of the original’s work. Without another model, Gygax relied on the design tools from wargames. His initiative system may be gone, but ultimately Gary’s finest and most lasting contribution to D&D came from the lore he created for spells, monsters, and especially adventures.

Next: Part 2: “It’s probably so different that even if it’s better, people would not like it.”

How Dungeons & Dragons Gained Feats

At a Dungeons & Dragons game, I overheard a player explain that feat was short for feature.

That’s not right, but I kept quiet for 2 reasons:

  • I don’t want to be the guy who butts into conversations to say, “Well, actually…”

  • I like the feature explanation much better.

Using “feat,” a word for a stunt, as a game term for a character feature or talent bothers my wish for precise terminology. Back in the third-edition days, this word choice annoyed me to such an embarrassing degree that I griped about the misnomer on the Wizards of the Coast D&D boards. That post probably only exists on a backup tape labeled “GLEEMAX” in magic marker.

How did we end up with feats?

Designer Monte Cook explains that feats came from the development of the third edition’s skill system. Two ingredients from D&D’s history contributed to skills.

The designers aimed to combine the two threads. “What we saw was that there were certain skills that we wanted to put into the game, but they were unlike the others because there wasn’t a check involved,” designer Monte Cook explained in an interview. Some of those proficiencies granted an ability to use things like shields, but others unlocked stunts that a character learned to do.

The design team called those stunts “heroic feats. As the game element developed, the team dropped the heroic bit. “Feats opened up a way for us to give cool character powers and abilities that weren’t skills and that weren’t tied to your class.”

Spell Tactics for 8 Wizards in the D&D Monster Books and for a Wizard of Your Own

Evil wizards in Dungeons & Dragons can make exciting foes for players. They have access to a range of spells that threaten characters and create tactical puzzles. But that potential seldom translates into play. The designers of fifth edition aimed to make a typical fight last 3 rounds. That seems brief, but wizards lack hit points and they carry a big bullseye, so they can only dream of lasting so long. Too often, some evil “mastermind” stands in an open room, whiffs an initiative roll, and dies in an encounter that resembles an execution by firing squad. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us just so players could claim a Table H treasure without a fight or even any cunning.

Five years ago, I wrote the The Evil Wizard’s Guide to Defense Against Murderous Treasure Hunters. That post focused on defensive spells and assumed dungeon masters would choose spells rather than stick to the lists in the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Sometimes players who see non-player wizards go off script can get a bit salty. After all, an archmage who prepares greater invisibility becomes a much bigger threat than one bringing the standard spells listed in the book. For a convention table, I’ll stick to a standard spell selection. For a home game that includes players who welcome a challenge, anything goes.

This post focuses on the game’s stock wizards and their spell lists.

Wizard encounters

Wizards make poor solo foes. Better fights come where wizards—even the boss—play supporting roles. Players must wonder if they can safely ignore a casters’ allies to focus fire on the wizard.

If wizards are paper, the party’s archers are scissors. Ranged rogues and sharpshooting fighters break concentration and heap damage on a wizard’s meager health. Avoid starting a fight with a spellcaster standing in the open, because they rarely bring enough hit points to survive long. In fifth edition, a character can move into view, cast a spell, and then move back out of sight. Make the party ready attacks or charge in to face the wizard’s allies. I dream of wizard battles where a solo wizard boasts defenses that the players must fight to unravel, but we have a game with sharpshooters instead. (This message brought to you by the alliance to return protection from normal missiles to D&D as a non-concentration spell.)

Spellcasters are smart and have the potential to become recurring foes, so whenever I pit the players against a wizard, I plan an escape and reserve the spell slots required for that plan. For lower-level casters, my escape may require invisibility or fly. Higher-level casters may reserve teleport or wall of force.

Next, identify the wizard’s most powerful offensive spells. For the mage and archmage in the Monster Manual, this means cone of cold followed by fireball. Few D&D battles last long enough to tap lesser spells.

Next check the wizard’s defenses. Without their defensive spells running, wizards become as fragile as soap bubbles. Unless the players make a special effort to gain surprise, and succeed, let the wizard raise a few defenses before they enter battle. Since defenses often require concentration, pick the spell that merits that focus. Sometimes this means concentrating on an offensive or battlefield control spell rather than a defense.

The rest of this post highlights the wizards in Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, from the tricky illusionist to the mighty (underwhelming) archmage.


Illusionist

A 7th-level wizard.

Escape

Invisibility [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 hour)

Invisibility lets wizards escape from melee, but without much stealth, they need more tricks or obstacles to block a chase.

Disguise Self [1st-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 hour)

Disguise self enables an illusionist to blend into a crowd.

Minor Illusion [Cantrip] (S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

Minor illusion could make a hall or a door look like a plain wall for long enough to engineer an escape.

Offense

Phantasmal Killer [4th-level Illusion] (V,S) (Casting time: 1 Action) (Duration: concentration, 1 minute)

Phantasmal killer only hits one target and requires 2 failed saves before inflicting any damage. Even that feeble effect requires concentration. An attacking illusionist can only target the barbarian and hope for the best.

The illusionist starts with feeble offensive spells, so more than any of the other wizards, illusionists work as part of a group of foes.

Defense

Mage Armor [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 8 hours)

Every wizard the players face will have mage armor in effect.

Mirror Image [2nd-level Illusion] (V,S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

Even compared to higher-level options, mirror image ranks as the best no-concentration defensive spell.

Make it fun

Illusionists make bad foes for dungeon showdowns. Instead, use an illusionist in an urban environment to trick an frustrate the party, potentially helping other attackers.

Major Image [3nd-level Illusion] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)

Use crowds, illusion, and cover to avoid being spotted, and major image to befuddle the party. For a good model, think of the super-villain Mysterio as seen in Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Power up

Hypnotic Pattern [3nd-level Illusion] (S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, 1 minute)

To make an illusionist more dangerous, perpare hypnotic pattern rather than phantom steed and shield instead of magic missile.


Mage

A 9th-level wizard.

Escape

Misty Step [2nd-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 bonus action) (duration: instantaneous)

For a quick escape, use misty step to teleport to someplace relatively inaccessible, such as a balcony or across a chasm, then dash out of view. Misty step just takes a bonus action to cast, but you cannot cast a spell as a bonus action and cast another spell other than a cantrip in the same turn. See Player’s Handbook page 202.

Fly [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Fly offers a defense against melee attackers and a potential way to escape a fight that goes bad. When a wizard can fly in and out of cover, the spell makes a good defense.

Offense

Ice Storm [4th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

While ice storm falls short of the damage from cone of cold or fireball, the spell slows movement and makes a good opening attack.

Cone of Cold [5th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Fireball [3th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

While the other wizards in D&D’s monster books include some weaker spell choices to make them into distinctive foes, the mage picks the strongest spells as a player might.

Defense

Greater Invisibility [4th-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Greater invisibility rates as the best defensive spell in D&D. Most attacks on you suffer disadvantage. Plus, you avoid spells that require a target “that you can see,” which includes counterspell.

Counterspell [3rd-level Abjuration] (S) (casting time: 1 reaction) (duration: instantaneous)

An enemy wizard will run out of turns before running short of spell slots. Counterspell gives wizards a use for their reaction and lets them benefit from casting two leveled spells in a round rather than just one. Counterspell lets you trade another caster’s action for a reaction that a wizard probably would not use. Despite the power of counterspell, most enemy spellcasters benefit more from ducking out of sight between turns.

Whenever players face enemy spellcasters, pay close attention to the 60-foot range of counterspell. If possible, spellcasters move out of that range before they cast.

Shield [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S) (casting time: 1 reaction) (duration: 1 round)

Shield offers protection against archers and melee attacker that lasts a full round. Use this to protect against readied attacks when you move into view to cast spells.

Also: mage armor.

Make it fun

The mage brings the best spells on the wizard list, so of all the monster-book wizards, this one hits hardest for its challenge rating.

Power up

For a more durable, and therefore more dangerous mage, swap suggestion for mirror image.


Conjurer

A 9th-level wizard.

Escape

Misty step.

Offense

Evard’s Black Tentacles [4th-level Conjuration] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

In most fights, start with Evard’s black tentacles and follow with fireball.

Cloudkill [5th-level Conjuration] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

If the natural terrain somehow prevents attackers from easily escaping from a cloudkill, or against parties dominated by ranged attackers, start with cloudkill. Remember, cloudkill creates a heavily-obscured area that blocks vision.

Defense

Stoneskin [4th-level Abjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 hour)

The quality of stoneskin depends on the number of foes wielding magical weapons or attacks. Against groups likely to fight a 9th-level wizard, stoneskin offers nothing. Just about every non-player character wizard prepares stoneskin, and that’s always a mistake. With so many of the conjurer’s spells requiring concentration, stoneskin becomes doubly useless.

Also: mage armor

Make it fun

The combination of cloudkill and Evard’s black tentacles makes an exciting challenge for a party facing a pair of conjurers.

Power up

Prepare shield instead of magic missile and mirror image instead of cloud of daggers.


Enchanter

A 9th-level wizard.

Escape

Invisibility.

Offense

Enchanters have fireball, which seems like a bid to give them something to do in a fight, even if that lacks the flavor of the specialty.

Hold Monster [5th-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

In the best case for hold monster, the enchanter paralyzes one character and spoils one player’s fun, then the rest of the party takes an average 1.5 turns to zero the caster’s 40 hit points.

Haste [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Haste ranks as an excellent spell for an enchanter to cast on an ally, but a fight with a hasted, charmed assassin doesn’t feel much like a fight against an enchanter.

Dominate Beast [4rd-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

The best setup for a battle against an enchanter features a giant ape or a tyrannosaurus rex improbably around to become the target of dominate beast.

Defense

Instinctive Charm seems like defense that shows an enchanter’s flavor, but enchantment spells tend to require concentration, so an enchanter probably won’t cast one every turn, and the ability will rarely recharge. Let the ability recharge every turn anyway.

Also: mage armor and stoneskin.

Make it fun

An enchanter serves as more of a story piece than a combatant. For a fun battle against an enchanter, add odd creatures under a geas to defend the wizard and perhaps a fearsome beast in a cage.

Dominate Person [5th-level Enchantment] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

For enchanters to show their power, power up with dominate person.

Power up

Confusion [4th-level Enchantment] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Switch hold monster for dominate person, confusion for stoneskin, and shield for magic missile.


Evoker

A 12th-level wizard.

Escape

Wall of Ice [6th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

A cautious evoker saves a 6th-level spell slot for a wall of ice to block pursuit.

Also: misty step.

Offense

Bigby’s Hand [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Rather than casting chain lightening, start with Bigby’s hand to interfere with melee attackers, and then start blasting with cone of cold and either fireball or lightning bolt.

Lightning Bolt [3th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Defense

Mage armor, mirror image, and counterspell.

Make it fun

With so many blasting spells and few defenses, the evoker will probably strike hard, and then die quickly. This caster may work best supporting other foes in a high-level encounter.

Power up:

Prepare greater invisibility instead of stoneskin and shield instead of burning hands.


Abjurer

A 13th-level wizard.

Escape

Teleport [7th-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Teleport enables a near-certain escape, so long as you allow time to cast it.

Wall of Force [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Wall of force can serve three purposes.

  • Create a barrier to enable escape.

  • Trap some of your foes so the rest become outnumbered by your allies.

  • Create a defensive shield that blocks attacks while you blast foes.

An invisible wall of force lets you see targets for spells, but “nothing can physically pass through the wall of force.” Few wizard spells let you continue to concentrate on the wall while enabling attacks through the wall. Sadly, none of the non-player character wizards prepare both wall of force and something like disintegrate or finger of death. Unless you change spells, this lapse eliminates the wall’s third use.

Also: invisibility.

Offense

Symbol [7th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: until dispelled or triggered)

The abjurer’s most dangerous spell takes too long to cast in battle, but it lasts until dispelled or triggered. Each symbol costs 1,000 gp to inscribe. This leaves DMs to decide how many symbols protect an abjurer. One seems sporting.

Symbol aside, start blasting with cone of cold, and then fireball.

Banishment [4th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

As soon as you take damage, upcast banishment in a 6th- or 7th-level slot and bolster your Arcane Ward.

Defense

Alarm [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: 8 hours)

Abjurers should never face an attack unprepared. Best case, that means casting symbol on the entry, taking a position that puts a barrier between you and melee attackers, and having a globe of invulnerability in effect.

Globe of Invulnerability [6th-level Abjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

Globe of invulnerability only protects from magical attacks, so it just leaves most casters vulnerable to the party’s archers. Paper, meet scissors. Fortunately, the abjurer’s Arcane Ward grants a measure of protection that other wizards lack. Plus, the ward takes damage instead of the wizard, reducing concentration checks. The globe might remain active long enough to shape the battle.

Also: mage armor, shield, counterspell, and stoneskin.

Make it fun

The abjurer rates as the only wizard able to make a globe of invulnerability into a tactical challenge for an adventuring group, rather than a bubble a few arrows pop. So start with the globe. Once the wizard takes damage, switch to concentrating on banishment.

Forget the archmage, the combination of symbol, Arcane Ward, and banishment makes abjurers the most dangerous wizards in the monster books. If enough characters fail their saves, banishment could make half the party vanish. If you pit an abjurer against a group, ready a plan B involving a capture, a rescue, or a deal that can avert a total-party kill.

Power up

Prepare mirror image instead of arcane lock.


Diviner

A 15th-level wizard.

Escape

Teleport and fly.

Offense

Mass suggestion [_6th-level Enchantment] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 24 hours)

A diviner’s best strategy probably starts with a mass suggestion that convinces everyone to leave in search of the real villain. Unlike suggestion, mass suggestion doesn’t require concentration.

Maze [8th-level Conjuration] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)

Escaping maze requires a DC20 Intelligence check. Because so few player characters boast an Intelligence above 10, the spell usually guarantees one character leaves the fight for its duration. If the party includes a paladin, then use maze to banish that character and their boost to saving throws. Otherwise, wait to see who saves versus mass suggestion.

Delayed Blast Fireball [7th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

A diviner can see enough of the future to know not to cast delayed blast fireball, saving their 7th-level slot for teleport instead.

Also: ice storm and fireball.

Defense

Portent will probably only get one use, so keep it for a saving throw.

Make it fun

Like an enchanter, a diviner serves better as a story piece than a combatant. Diviners make good patrons because they see enough of the future to send the party on quests.


Archmage

An 18th-level wizard.

Escape

Teleport, wall of force, fly, misty step, invisibility, and disguise self.

The wealth of spells that enable archmages to escape reveal the role of these wizards: Archmages underperform in combat and work better as plotters who avoid fighting whenever possible.

Offense

Cone of cold, banishment, and lightning bolt.

Defense

Time Stop [9th-level Transmutation] (v) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Time stop gives an archmage a chance to cast a suite of defensive spells.

Mind Blank [8th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 24 hours)

Mind blank serves as a story piece more than a spell that actually defends against anything players might use to attack an archmage.

Fire Shield [4th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)

As a 4th-level spell, fire shield ranks as the worst no-concentration defense. The damage amounts to less than a typical melee attacker can deal, and wizards lack health to lose in trade.

Combine fire shield with stoneskin, the worst defense that requires concentration, and you follow a recipe for a short and disappointing showdown.

Make it fun

The archmage’s spell list makes this wizard weaker in combat than some of the lower-level specialists. I suspect the designer who concocted this spell list imagined a fight starting with a time stop that enables an archmage to erect defenses, followed by a barrage of attack spells. Unfortunately, the feeble defenses do little to thwart a party facing an archmage. The archmage’s 99 hit points may not last two players’ turns. Paper, meet scissors.

The smart move is to skip time stop and upcast banishment at 9th-level, and then to blast the survivors who made saves. Once you thin those foes, cast wall of force to split the banished party as they pop back. Divide and conquer.

I’m not sure which of those strategies seems less fun for players.

The Intelligence-20 move is to teleport away to live for more evil schemes.

Power up

Disintegrate [6th-level Transmutation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Prepare greater invisibility instead of stoneskin and disintegrate instead of globe of invulnerability.

Gary Gygax’s Dungeon Building Spells (and the Ones He Should Have Made)

Since 1975, every single player of a wizard or magic user has read the Magic Mouth spell, and then chosen to skip it. Prove me wrong.* Who wants to use a 2nd-level spell to put a message on a wall when a piece of chalk works as well? While Magic Mouth never gets used by players, Glyph of Warding only ever gets misused. Recently, I saw a player use glyphs to manufacture explosive arrows. He overlooked the sentence that says that a glyph breaks if it moves more than 10 feet. That limitation exists now because players of earlier editions dreamed up the same stunt. Without the exploit, no player prepares glyph. Judging from the spell lists in the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, non-player characters shun these spells too.

Why does the Player’s Handbook include spells that players virtually never use? Part of the appeal of these spells comes from nostalgia. Both date from the 70s. Mainly though, the spells appeal to the game’s dungeon architects and dungeon masters. For example, magic mouths and glyphs of warding appear in at least three of the Dungeons & Dragons hardcover adventures.

Compared to chalk, Magic Mouth offers more portentous way to deliver a message. Glyph of Warding adds a common magical trap. The spells weave useful magical effects into both the lore and the rules of the game. They give DMs ready-made tricks for their dungeons. Players enjoy recognizing these familiar bits of spellcraft mixed with the fantastic.

The game’s original Players Handbook includes even more spells aimed at dungeon architects instead of players.

At level 5, Distance Distortion made a corridor appear either twice as long or half as long as its actual length. D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax loved to confound dungeon mappers. I imagine a party of lost players at Gary’s table, growing sore, and insisting that Gary described something wrong. Gary laughs slyly, opens the Player’s Handbook, and points to page 80.

At level 6, Permanent Illusion appealed to a few players, but dungeon masters gained a way to trick or terrify characters and to disguise pits. The spell evolved into fifth edition’s Programmed Illusion.

At level 8, Glassteel made glass or crystal as strong as steel. A few players dreamed of transparent weapons and armor, but I suspect Gary Gygax mostly sought a way to add durable windows to his tricky dungeon rooms. Between the scientific flavor of a name torn from sci-fi and they way walls of force did the same job better, dungeon builders never embraced glassteel.

To last, a few of these dungeon builder spells needed the help of the 8th-level Permanency spell. In fifth edition, Magic Mouth lasts until dispelled, but originally that same duration required an 8th-level spell and a lost point of Constitution. If I were a mad mage building a dungeon, I would opt for painted signs instead.

Permanency helped dungeon architects extend spells like Wall of Fire, Gust of Wind, Wall of Force, and many others. Edition 3.5 featured the best realization of Permanency.

As I look back on the spells for dungeon makers, I see a missed opportunity. D&D could benefit from more spells that filled gaps in the toolkit of Keraptis, Halaster, Galap-Dreidel, and all the game’s other dungeon builders.

The architect of the Tomb of Horrors, Acererak, creates dungeons to trap the souls of heroes, but he faces a problem: Before adventurers die, they keep wrecking stuff. In Return to the Tomb of Horrors and Tomb of Annihilation, Acererak recruits unliving maintenance crews to repair damage for the next party of doomed adventurers arrives. Now imagine an infomercial featuring an exasperated archlich saying, “There has to be a better way!”


Spirit of Remaking

6th-level transmutation
Casting Time: 1 hour
Range: Touch
Components: V,S,M (a jewelled hammer worth 500 gp, which the spell consumes)
Duration: Until Dispelled
Save: None

You touch an object or section of construction of large size or smaller. If the target suffers damage, the spell repairs the damage. If the target includes mechanisms, the spell returns these mechanisms to their original state. So for example, traps can be reset.

This spell repairs at the pace of a skilled laborer. The spell will not function while its target is observed.


In Tomb of Annihilation, Acererak uses adamantine parts held together with Soverign Glue to prevent adventurers from breaking his magical puzzles and traps rather than engaging with them. Can you imagine the building expense? Every dungeon builder needs some way to keep adventurers from simply cutting the Gordian Knot.


Ward of Sequestration

6th-level abjuration
Casting Time: 1 hour
Range: Touch
Components: V,S,M (a powder composed of diamond, emerald, ruby, and sapphire dust worth at least 500 gp, which the spell consumes)
Duration: Until Dispelled

You cause a Large-sized or smaller object to be warded so that if it’s damaged or manipulated in certain ways, then it vanishes to an extra-dimensional space, safe from harm. You set the ways that manipulating the object will cause it to disappear. Also, you can set how long the object will remain in the extra-dimensional space. For example, it could remain sequestered just a minute or 1,000 years. If the object is built into a larger construction such as a wall or door, then when the target disappears, it’s replaced with stone, metal, or similar materials that blend with the surrounding construction. If the replacement materials are removed from the construction, then they disintegrate.


In the early days of D&D, many DMs suffered a common embarrassment: Players would dare to enter some dungeon sealed for millenia, and find it stocked with living creatures who somehow survived the ages in their monster hotel rooms. Some smart-assed player would start asking quetions, and soon the whole group starts mocking the absurdity of the DM’s creation.

To avoid ridicule, DMs learned to fill their vaults with undead, constructs, and elementals, but that leaves so many fine monsters unavailable.


Temporal Prison

8th-level transmutation
Casting Time: 1 action
Range/Area: 60 ft (20 ft)
Components: V,S,M (an hourglass)
Duration: Until Dispelled or Triggered
Save: None

You attempt to imprison creatures in spaces where time slows to a near standstill. Creatures within 20 feet of a point you choose within range are affected in ascending order of their current hit points. The spell affects up to 175 total hit points. Subtract each creature’s hit points from the total before moving on to the creature with the next lowest hit points. A creature’s hit points must be equal to or less than the remaining total for that creature to be affected.

Inside a temporal prison, a blink of an eye can take hours. This slowing of time means that imprisoned creatures do not grow older and their body functions virtually cease. These prisons take a crystaline shape that envelops each creature. To the touch, the prisons feel solid and glassy. Bright light that passes through the prisons appears dim and dim light cannot penetrate. The prisons provide total cover to the creatures inside. Moving the prisons by any means other than teleportation breaks the spell

You can decide on triggers that cause the spell to end. The condition can be anything you choose, but it must occur or be visible within 120 feet of the target. The most common trigger is approaching within a certain distance. You can further refine the trigger so the spell ends only under certain circumstances or according to physical characteristics (such as height or weight), creature kind (for example, the ward could be set to affect aberrations or drow), or alignment. You can also set conditions for creatures that don’t end the spell, such as those who say a certain password.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, add an additional 75 hit points to the total number of hit points affected.


*My friend John P. Jones plays a character who casts Magic Mouth on his arrows so they deliver a mix of messages and terrified screams when they hit. John plays a bard and you know how they are. My outrageous generalizations about wizard players stands. John’s trick works because Magic Mouth now lasts until dispelled. John can prepare arrows in advance and still adventure with all his spell slots.

Related: 5 Reasons Someone Might Build a Dungeon Filled With Clues, Tests, and Riddles

The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players

The Obvious Innovation in Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons That No Designer Saw Before

Stirrups. Zero. Shipping containers. Luggage with wheels. All these innovations seem obvious in hindsight. But they went undiscovered for millennia, until someone’s bright idea changed the world—or at least put airport porters out of work. Even those hotel shower rods that curve made someone rich.

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons includes one obvious-in-hindsight innovation that the game’s past designers failed to spot. Alas, it won’t make anyone rich.

Sverrir by ArboUp until fourth edition, D&D fighters gained extra attacks, but fourth edition avoided them. The designers shunned extra attacks partly to speed play by reducing the number of attack and damage rolls. Sure, spells attacked lots of targets, but at least spells only required one damage roll.

Also fourth edition, like all earlier editions of D&D, aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. In theory, this made the difference in power between, a 4th- and 5th-level character about the same as the difference between levels 5 and 6. Characters at similar levels could adventure together without someone routinely dealing twice as much damage. But a second attack on every turn brings a fighter a big jump in power.

The designers of past editions worked to smooth these jumps in power by granting fighters something less than a full extra attack. AD&D gave fighters extra half attacks, and a need to remember half attacks. Third edition traded half attacks and the memory issue for weaker attacks and fiddly attack penalties. These solutions complicated the game with awkward memory demands and calculations.

So playtest versions of fifth edition did not grant fighters and other martial characters an Extra Attack feature. Rather than gaining more attacks, these classes earned features that enabled attacks to deal more damage. But this approach put fighters at a disadvantage against weaker foes easily dropped by a single blow.

When a fighter confronts a goblin horde and only makes one attack per turn, no amount of extra damage matters because one strike can only fell one goblin per turn. To help martial types against weak foes, the playtest included cleaving-attack powers that swept through groups. But such features failed to remedy another trouble: To-hit bonuses in fifth-edition increase at a slower rate and never grow as big as in earlier editions. The designers call this bounded accuracy, because they do not come from marketing. Bounded accuracy means that fighters hit weaker foes less easily than in past editions.

Fighter types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. But in the playtest, even the mightiest spent turns muffing their one attack against some mook. With an extra attack, misses matter less because there’s more where that came from.

During the playtest, I wrote, “If D&D Next’s designers can find a good way to allow fighters to gain multiple attacks against weaker opponents, then a key piece of the Next design puzzle falls into place.”

Late in fifth edition’s creation, the designers compared the benefits each class gained as they leveled and noticed that wizards leap in power at 5th and at 11th levels. These jumps come from quirks of a spell list that date to the beginning of the game. At 5th level, wizards gain potent attack spells like Fireball, plus unbalancing buffs like Haste. At 11th level, wizards gain 6th-level spells, which bring save-or-die effects like Disintegrate. At the 9th spell level, Gary Gygax felt comfortable stashing world-altering spells like Wish and Time Stop, because his players never reached 17th level and never gained easy access to them.

Earlier editions of D&D aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. Those editions’ designers ignored the leaps in power certain spells brought; the fifth-edition designers embraced the leaps.

This brought the obvious-in-hindsight innovation: Rather than offering fighters half attacks or fiddly attack penalties, fifth edition matches the leaps in power brought by additional attacks to the leaps brought by 3rd, 6th, and 9th-level spells. Fighters gain extra attacks as wizards gain these spells. At the same levels, other classes gain potent powers and spells of their own. For instance, the bard’s Hypnotic Pattern spell got a fifth-edition redesign that moves it to 3rd level and dramatically increases the spell’s power. 

Third and fourth editions arbitrarily aligned the game’s tiers with 10th and 20th levels, because of round numbers. The fifth-edition tiers match to the levels where characters gain the best new powers and spells. These leaps in ability mean 4th- and 5th-level characters cannot adventure together without displaying big power differences, but characters in the same tier can join a party and contribute.

It all seems obvious now. Designer Mike Mearls says that a lot of innovations in game design work that way.

13 of the Craziest Quirks in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules

Eventually, everyone who plays Dungeons & Dragons finds a place where rules seem to defy logic and common sense. These quirks tend to stem from three good reasons:

  • The D&D rules don’t attempt to cover every situation. Few players would want to grapple with so many rules, so the design brings a more compact set of rules that apply to most of what happens in a game. To make sense of unusual situations and corner cases, D&D relies on the judgement of dungeon masters.

  • Rarely, the designers wrote rules that failed to work as intended. Often when the rules as written serve well enough, the D&D team chooses not to tamper with the text.

  • The D&D rules accommodate a legacy of earlier editions spanning 40-some years of history.

I asked D&D enthusiasts to name the strangest quirks in the rules. This post lists some of the best answers. I skipped the part of D&D that most brazenly defies reality: The rules for damage and recovery. Those unrealistic hit points enable the games’ combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing style, so I count that absurdity as a feature. (See Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points to D&D.) To learn to love hit points, just avoid asking questions. For example, I wish I could stop wondering how (#13) one healing potion completely cures a new adventurer while a legendary hero needs to guzzle 20 for a similar recovery.

12. Characters with the Lucky feat can close their eyes, swing blindly at a foe, and gain a better chance of hitting than they would get from attacking as normal. When you use Lucky, you roll an extra d20 and choose your attack roll from any of the d20s you rolled. When you roll at disadvantage, you roll two d20s. So Lucky lets you choose your best roll from any of the three dice: the two dice rolled for disadvantage and the one for lucky. Use the force, indeed!

11. In one round, someone who flees a Wall of Fire, and then gets forced back in on another character’s turn takes more damage than someone who just stayed in the flames through the entire round. (See D&D’s Inconspicuous Phrases That You Notice Once You Master the Rules.)

10. Archers shooting blindly into impenetrable fog hit as easily as they do when they see their targets. A blinded attacker suffers disadvantage and typically gains advantage because their target can’t see the strikes to defend. Advantage and disadvantage cancel, so the attacks roll as normal. This makes some sense for melee attackers flailing in the dark. For someone shooting blindly, the lack of a to-hit penalty flouts common sense.

9. Daylight fails to generate sunlight. Daylight originated from the first-edition spell Continual Light. Back then, every new D&D player counted themselves as the first to realize a 2nd-level spell enabled them to easily destroy vampires! They were wrong. Then, as now, you don’t become a D&D designer without being pedantic enough to rule that light “as bright as full daylight” falls short of “direct sunlight.”

8. The Chill Touch cantrip isn’t a touch spell and doesn’t deal cold damage. In past editions, the spell really had a range of touch, but even then, its damage came from negative energy, the necromantic damage of the era.

7. Faerie Fire doesn’t deal fire damage or involve fairies. The spell references naturally glowing fungus.

6. Detect Evil and Good doesn’t detect evil and good. The spell’s name comes from past editions when it worked as described. Back then, too many players took shortcuts through adventures by detecting for evil and murdering potential villains in the first scene. Now the spell detects the creature types that are supernatural representatives of good and evil.

5. Only crossbow experts and sharpshooters can attack with a net without suffering disadvantage. Nets are ranged weapons with a normal range of 5 feet, so most net attackers must either make a ranged attack within 5 feet of a foe or at long range. Either way, the attack suffers disadvantage. Crossbow experts can make ranged attacks within 5 feet of a foe without disadvantage. Sharpshooters can make ranged attacks beyond normal range without suffering disadvantage.

4. Invisibility, a spell that makes you invisible and monitors your movements to see if you intended to hurt someone, rates as simpler than Greater Invisibility, a spell that just makes you invisible.

3. Creatures who lose temporary hit points to caltrops can have full health and still move slower. Worse, they can’t regain their speed until they take more damage. The speed penalty from caltrops only ends when you regain a hit point, so you might need to lose more hit points to have some to heal.

2. A cleric can cast a spell like Aid with somatic and material components while holding both a mace and a shield with a holy symbol. But casting a spell like Cure Wounds that drops the need for material components requires putting the mace or shield away. Fewer components makes the spell more cumbersome because the shield only doubles as a somatic component when you also use it as a spell focus to satisfy a need for material components. Confusing? Awkward? That’s why I’ve never seen this rule enforced. (See the Sage Advice Compendium.)

1. By relaying an object from creature to creature on consecutive turns in a 6-second round, a group can make the object outrace a jet. In an actual fight, everyone acts at the same time. But in the game, turns serve as a simple but unrealistic way to make sense of 6 seconds. To squeeze turns until their absurdity shows, just have everyone on the party run a relay. If each of 7 characters dashes 60 feet before passing a baton to the next person, the baton travels at almost 50 miles per hour. The more characters who can move an object in a round, the faster it goes. To weaponize this quirk, hire 1000 laborers to pass a 10-foot pole and create a peasant railgun. No DM allows such weapons, but some encounters force players to transport things like potions or keys across the battlefield. DM Tom Christy enforces a house rule where no object can be manipulated by more than one of each type of action in a round. No chaining move actions to rocket something across the battlefield.

All this points to the importance of the DM. D&D designer Dan Dillon writes, “If a confluence of circumstances in D&D creates rules interactions that don’t make sense to you, ignore it. Change it. Do what makes sense for the given situation the characters find themselves in.”

For example, if you prefer a game where shooting into darkness yields disadvantage, impose it. If you want Lucky characters to always suffer a disadvantage from disadvantage, then tweak the rule. Lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford suggests letting the lucky character choose between either (a) the lower of the two disadvantage dice or (b) the lucky die.

“The rules aren’t written to cover every possible circumstance,” continues Dan Dillon. “Think about how many pages would have to be added to the already 316-page Player’s Handbook if we added every possible ‘unless’ to a rule that applies advantage or disadvantage to an attack roll.”

The designers could try to patch every quirk and corner case, but if they did, you wouldn’t want to play that game.

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

How the Flawed Hooks in Descent Into Avernus Might Make D&D Players Feel Railroaded

Everyone giving Dungeons & Dragons advice tells dungeon masters how to start an adventure with a hook. This includes me, last week. That advice usually stops after the first hook, and it shouldn’t. Sure, adventures that lure characters into the unknown seeking treasure only need one hook. But just about every adventure with a more complicated premise serves hooks from start to finish. Those hooks offer choices and lure characters along a course that shapes into a story.

The hooks that come after an adventure’s start often go by names like clues, secrets, or leads. In earlier posts, I favored the term “leads” because the word matches one essential purpose: Leads reveal ways for the characters to reach a goal. (If the idea of leads seems unclear, see instead of plots, prepare secrets, clues, and leads.) The word “hook” emphasizes a second essential: Hooks entice players to chase a particular goal.

By either name, hooks and leads must accomplish two things: They entice characters to pursue a goal and they reveal ways to reach that goal. Skipping one of those parts causes adventures to stumble.

Leads point a direction, but sometimes they still need to sell a new goal.

When an adventure needs to point characters toward a new goal, the leads need to sell that new goal. Many adventures fail to close the sale. Most often, an adventure starts with a promise of gold, and then presumes that a band that may only include murderous treasure hunters will happily switch to, say, battling princes of elemental evil—for free.

My last post describes how Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus attempts this sort of flip. The opening hook appeals both to the treasure hunters and the do-gooders. Later though, the adventure asks players to send their characters to Hell for the slimmest chance of rescuing a damned city. The paladins might volunteer, but any sensible rogue would say, “I’m out.” Still, the rogue players want to play D&D, so their characters dutifully tag along.

In an adventure like this, either the dungeon master or the players can rethink the party’s motivations, smoothing the rough patch. Often, no one does. Many longtime players face such situations often enough to feel numb to the dissonance of having to do something their characters wouldn’t do just to keep playing. The rest feel railroaded.

Hooks sell a goal, but they need to offer a sensible direction too.

When an adventure runs short of hooks or leads, everyone notices. The party gets stuck and the DM finds a way to drop new clues. The adventure may stall, but the obvious trouble invites a solution.

Imagine trying to start an adventure by only revealing that long ago a mighty warrior hid a magic sword in a long-forgotten location. That tidbit would only leave players waiting for more, because without any clues, the incomplete hook rates as backstory. Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal. Number 2 rarely gets discussed because DMs seldom botch it. At the start of a scenario, no DM dangles a hook that lacks any clues the characters can follow to the goal.

The more insidious problem appears when an adventure offers clues that don’t seem to lead closer to the goal. The players see a lead, but no reason to follow it. Few players want to derail an adventure that plainly offers a direction, so the players dutifully follow the lead while ignoring that dissonance that comes from doing things just because the DM pointed the way. Following an apparently useless lead makes players feel confused at best, railroaded at worst. To the DM, the adventure seems to run smoothly, so the problem goes unnoticed by the person who could have corrected it.

Descent Into Avernus suffers from this trouble. (This discussion includes spoilers, but hardly more than the adventure’s title.) D&D blogger Merric Blackman writes, “The trip to Hell offers no reason for the characters to believe they can improve things. You stopped a threat to Baldur’s Gate. Why now to Avernus?

“‘If the characters think they have any chance to rescue Elturel, Liara strongly urges them to pursue that quest.’ That’s why the PCs descend into Avernus. Not great, huh? Why do the PCs think they have a chance?”

Game designer Justin Alexander is more blunt. He explains how Descent Into Avernus keeps asking players to follow directions just because they lead to more D&D. “The entire campaign is just this one structure repeated infinitely: A non-player character tells you where to go, you go there, and then find another NPC who tells you where to go.” This pattern works when the NPC’s directions show a way closer to the goal. The leads in Avernus fail that standard. “The problem is that the designers aren’t designing a situation. They aren’t thinking of the game world as a real place.

“Why does the adventure assume the characters will simply plane shift to Hell without having any reason for doing so? Because an NPC told them to! Why not also have the NPC give them a coherent reason? Because it doesn’t matter!”

The design only aims to route players from scene to scene. In play, the party sees a lead that they know the adventure expects them to follow, so they do. To the DM, the adventure appears to work, but unless players feel numb to dutifully playing DM Simon says, they feel railroaded.

Alternately, when hooks clearly point characters toward their goals, even linear adventures, even railroads, can work magic.

“A good railroad, at a certain level, is like a good magic trick: The players won’t really believe that magic is real, but a good magic trick will let them suspend disbelief just long enough to be amazed. The most important technique for the railroaded scenario is to frame the meaningful choices in such a way that the players legitimately want to make the predetermined choice.” writes Justin Alexander.

“The GM never forces a card on them. In the end, they do the magic trick to themselves. When a railroaded scenario pulls this off, the suspension of disbelief is perfect: Players never feel as if they were forced to do something. They’re able to remain completely immersed in their characters, feeling as if the world is unfolding in direct response to their actions.”

In a successful narrative adventure, the DM keeps laying track by dropping hooks. Each one shows a course that brings the characters closer to their goal, so the players willingly choose to follow. 

Good hooks power meaningful choices even better than linear scenarios. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

As for Descent Into Avernus, the adventure brings evocative locations and vivid characters to an unforgettable journey through Hell. Your heroes get to adventure in Hell! Fixing the weak connections merits a bit of creative work. For ideas, see Merric Blackman’s account of running the campaign, Justin Alexander’s Remixing Avernus, and my own post Improve the Start of Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus With These 2 Add-On Adventures.

Related: Why Dungeons & Dragons (and roleplaying) took years to leave the dungeon.

The D&D Adventures That Stumble by Missing the Hook

Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal.

Appealing to rogues, paladins, and players

A good adventure hook appeals to both the party’s rogues and paladins. More than popular classes, rogues and paladins represent two ways players often imagine their characters’ outlooks. Steve Winter, a Dungeons & Dragons designer since second edition, writes, “Hooks aren’t about characters; they’re about players.”

Rogues and paladins make popular character perspectives because they bring escapes from either the restrictions or the unfairness of modern life.

In our world, we often feel bound by rules and obligations. Playing a rogue who’s free from ethical burdens and who boasts the power to ignore rules feels exhilarating. Much of the vicarious joy of playing a rogue comes from gaining wealth. Certainly most players of rogue types would say their character is in it for the money.

In our world, we see misdeeds rewarded, good people suffer, and too often we feel helpless to act. Playing a paladin with the strength to punish wrongdoers, help the deserving, and right wrongs feels rejuvenating. Paladins seek chances to act heroic.

Hooks that only appeal to one type can leave other characters just following along because their players came to play D&D. For example, Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage presents a megadungeon similar to those that D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax imagined for their first campaigns. But when I ran it, the paladin types kept wondering why they bothered with Undermountain. A mere search for fortune failed to motivate them; they wanted to become heroes. As the delve continued, I sought ways to add heroic missions.

Vicarious wealth and glory make a solid appeal to players, but curiosity can grab players emotions even more. Most D&D games tease a little curiosity with questions like, “What waits under Skull Mountain.” Especially compelling hooks make players ask, “How can this be so?” Television shows like Lost build mysteries that hook viewers who crave explanations.

Missing the hook

Some adventures risk only hooking one character type. Hoard of the Dragon Queen starts with the characters nearing a town under attack by a dragon and an army—foes that add up to near certain death to a 1st-level character. The adventure depends on new characters charging into the town, so it demands heroes willing to ignore impossible odds to do good. If everyone makes a paladin type, the start works. Of course, the rogues and the sensible characters probably tag along because their players came to play D&D, but their players feel the dissonance of making their characters do things they really wouldn’t. A broader hook might add rumors of a wagon load of treasure in the town. Movies like Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and Three Kings (1999) work from a premise like this.

Alternately, the characters could start the campaign knowing they must play do-gooders. Hoard includes an appendix listing character backgrounds that bring them into the adventure. D&D blogger Merric Blackman writes, “Ultimately the Tyranny of Dragons storyline is a heroic one. The characters get into it because they’re heroes.”

Even adventures that start with an appeal to every character can run short of interest for one type, usually the rogues.

An adventure like Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus can switch goals. At the start, the characters just aim to thwart some evil cultists. The opening hook brings both a payment that appeals to the rogues and a chance to smite evil for the paladins, so it works for both character types. Later though, the adventure asks players to send their characters to hell. The paladins might volunteer, but any sensible rogue would say, “I’m out.”

Nonetheless, the rogue players want to play D&D, so their characters dutifully tag along. Perhaps the expert role players invent a new goal that fits their character. Maybe they go for the sake of their friendship with the team. Maybe, like Han Solo, they go because they discover an unfamiliar desire to do the right thing. Perhaps the player does a bit of improvised world building by imagining a legend of treasure in Avernus. Most likely, the rogues just ignore the dissonance of having to do something their characters wouldn’t.

As the goals of an adventure change, the hooks still need to appeal to the entire party.

None of these missed hooks make the adventures I cited bad. I rate Dungeon of the Mad Mage as the best megadungeon to ever appear in print. Merric ranks Tyranny of Dragons as fifth edition’s best hardcover adventure. DMs grow accustomed to tinkering with hooks—many would consider such adjustments mandatory. After all, every adventure deserves a strong start.

Next: The D&D adventures that falter by letting the hooks stop in the first scene.

Improve the Start of Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus With These 2 Add-On Adventures

Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus suffers from a slow start. The adventure begins when the material plane around the city of Elturel splits open. Massive, flaming chains reach from the gash, seize the city, and drag it to hell. But instead of witnessing the cataclysm, the characters start nearly 200 miles away, where they learn of the trouble from fleeing refugees. Instead of calling the party members to adventure, the opening box text drafts them. The group’s first assignment has them serve as bodyguards until a bar fight lifts them to 2nd level. Imagine 20 minutes into the campaign, halting the action so everyone can level up.

Baldur’s Gate: The Fall of Elturel

For the DMs Guild adventure Baldur’s Gate: The Fall of Elturel, authors Anthony Joyce and Justice Arman replace that awkward launch with something stronger. This 2-hour adventure begins in Elturel with the players meeting authorities who need help investigating cult activity outside the city. Two of these three patrons play a part later in the hardcover, so the opening lays a foundation for later. The adventure tackles so many introductions that I made picture cards to introduce key non-player characters. One picture needed a bit of redeye correction for what’s definitely the flash and not a devilish taint. Have Duke Ulder Ravengard give at least one character a copper badge that bears the Flaming Fist’s coat of arms.

The adventure assumes that characters begin in one of three factions. Instead of assuming membership, I asked each player whether glory, wealth, or justice motivated their character. A representative of the Hellriders contacted the characters interested in glory, one from the Flaming Fist contacted those craving wealth, and one from the Order of the Gauntlet reached out to seekers of justice.

The party’s meetings with the folk of Elturel bring the best parts of the adventure. The authors dreamed up touches to make these citizens likeable, creating affection that will add weight to the city’s fall. At a wedding scene, my players kept bracing for something terrible to happen. Nothing happens yet, but the anxiety amused me. I’m awful.

In gratitude for witnessing the wedding, have the priest cast Aid on the party. The extra hit points enabled me to increase the number of cultists the party battles later, while still limiting the chance that a character might die. Without more foes, some of the fights could end too quickly for everyone to get a turn.

When the scenario serves up four different evil cults, it risks confusing players. My newer players asked questions and would have benefited from a scorecard. To be fair, the authors just play a hand dealt by the hardcover’s first chapter where all four cults appear again.

After facing the cults, on the way back to Elturel, the party witness the city’s fall. Baldur’s Gate: The Fall of Elturel provides a superior start to Descent Into Avernus that I strongly recommend.

Bridging to the hardcover and the next add-on

The group reaches Baldur’s Gate (and the hardcover’s content) with a badge that proves a connection to the Flaming Fist and a clue pointing to Dead Three cultists in the city. The young Hellrider Reya Mantlemorn will probably be with the party. Perhaps Reya sees fellow Hellriders arrested by the Flaming Fist outside the Basilisk Gate.

Captain Zodge will wish to speak and invites the party’s help dealing with the cults. Before the party enters the dungeon of the Dead Three, let Reya leave to investigate the fate of Elturel. The next time the players meet, she will bring new leads to follow.

The dungeon of the Dead Three can lay a path to the next add-on adventure. I suggest planting clues that show the cultists working with the Vanthampur family to steal a magical shield from the Hhune family. For this, I relied on Vendetta Kress in room D23. She distributes wine and spirits for the Oathoon patriar family of Baldur’s Gate. The Oathoon mansion neighbors the Hhune’s and city legend suggest that the catacombs under those old estates connect. The Vanthampurs hope Vendetta can show a path from the Oathoon wine cellar into the tunnels under the Hhune’s compound.

Mortlock Vanthampur knows his mother seeks the shield. The prospect of someone else taking it amuses him.

Shield of the Hidden Lord

Shield of the Hidden Lord by M.T. Black enables the players to gain the shield during a dungeon crawl under Baldur’s Gate. The adventure targets level 3 characters, but like an Adventures League scenario, the text lists adjustments for stronger or weaker groups.

This adventure proved especially easy to run. Black keeps his descriptions short and evocative, while including plenty of headings to make information easy to find at the table. I never felt slowed by the long columns of unbroken text that so often appear in other adventures.

Every room features things that invite interaction. For example, the first room includes the usual monsters, but it also includes a ghostly chorus trapped in a choir stall, an enclosure that resembles an ornate jury box. The characters can raise a baton and lead the choir to sing to the hidden lord. Opening the stall releases the specters, with the result you probably expect. To add temptation, the gold bolt that closes the stall appears valuable.

Elsewhere, an incubus seeking the shield makes an entertaining foil for the party. “Trait. I enjoy shapeshifting often while talking to mortals, as it annoys them.” The adventure suggests some amusing shapes to take.

Sometimes, I rate adventures based on whether I could improvise something similar. Most adventures combine a few standout features with many familiar details. Shield of the Hidden Lord goes well past that benchmark. Almost every room shows invention and a flair for evocative details.

The amount of content prompts my one reservation: Shield of the Hidden Lord will take most groups 6-8 hours to finish, so it makes a long detour from the hardcover. Still, no players will mind the trip.