The 4 Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break

In Dungeons & Dragons the dungeon master gets to break the rules, but only so much. The amount of breakage varies from group to group. Some DMs stick to the rules as written, only overriding them when they defy the logic of the game world. Other DMs never track hit points and just declare monsters defeated when it suits the drama of a battle.

Despite a DM’s dominion over the rules, D&D includes some rules DMs must never break—at least if they want their players to stick with the game. Oddly, these rules never appeared in print, so successful DMs learned them by observation and insight. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax made these lessons difficult for many early DMs to learn. He set an example that seemed to encourage dungeon masters to beat players. As soon as players gained an edge, Gary created something to foil them. He and his players enjoyed the battle of wits brought by this style of play. Still, Gary just aimed to challenge players and he mostly stuck to these rules that he never wrote down.

Meanwhile, struggling DMs never deduced the unwritten rules, and often unknowingly broke them to defeat the players and to “win” D&D. Eventually, these DMs either lost all their players or they learned.

What are the dungeon master’s laws of fair play?

1. Never confront characters with threats they cannot either defeat or avoid.

The avoid part of this rule is important.

In D&D’s early days, players controlled the game’s difficulty by choosing how deep to delve into the dungeon. Certainly Gary introduced tricks aimed at luring characters deeper than they intended, but he saw such traps as avoidable tests of mapping skill. The early rules made fleeing easier and clever players knew when to run. See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.

In today’s game, DMs more often contrive threats that the party can beat. DMs can still throw deadly, even lethal challenges, but not without giving players a warning or a way to avoid the peril. See How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes.

An outrageous violation of this rule appears as a living hill monster described in Booty and the Beasts, the 1979 collection of monsters and treasures co-authored by legendary D&D artist Erol Otus. Living hills look like normal, grassy hills. “They feed upon unwary travelers who camp upon their seemingly benign summits.” Campers only have a 1 in 6 chance of noticing a lost—and digested—party member. Blogger Mr. Lizard writes, “This is a perfect example of the classic ‘gotcha!’ monster. Basically, unless you actually go out of your way to check to see if you’re on a living hill, your character is dead.”

2. Assume players have taken reasonable actions.

Imagine this rule worded in a more amusing way: DMs should always assume the characters are wearing pants, even if no players said that they put them on. Obviously, this guideline exempts the anthropomorphic ducks in RuneQuest.

In the more adversarial days of D&D, some DMs insisted that players announce their intent to draw a weapon before attacking. If the battle started without weapons drawn, characters wasted a turn pulling out blades. Frustrated players took to readying weapons at every sign of danger, as if just entering a monster-infested underground death trap fell short of a sign.

3. Never let players ignorantly take a substantial risk.

We all love when players stake their characters’ lives on some reckless, nearly impossible stunt. Whether they succeed or fail, such moments make unforgettable gaming. But before any foolhardy undertaking, make sure the players know (1) the odds and (2) the result of failure. I typically share difficulty classes before players roll. These DC numbers help span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and what a player learns from a DM’s description. DCs prevent misunderstandings.

As for risks, make sure players know that, say, falling from the Earth mote means plunging into a sea of lava. That works better than rewinding the action for a player who heard “sea” and not “lava.”

4. Never plan to take the players’ freedom or stuff to support your plot.

In the early days of D&D, some gamers coached DMs to deal with excess treasure by having thieves steal it as the characters slept. Often the caper succeeded because the players never listed the reasonable precautions they would take to protect their treasures. (See rule 2.)

Early spells like Leomund’s Secret Chest seem designed to thwart thievery, so perhaps Gary indulged in such thefts. Gary had an excuse: He invented most of the game’s magic items and wanted to test them in play. His players grew accustomed to seeing gear won, lost, and melted by fireballs. Also Gary’s players probably stole from each other—they played to win back then. See Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

None of this applies to today’s game. Never take the character’s hard-won gear. They will resent the loss.

Often DMs who steal gear aim to create a powerful hook, which leads players to chase their treasure through a campaign arc. Those good intentions may make the theft seem permissible, but those schemes only make the situation worse. Such rough hooks make players feel railroaded.

The same rules for gear also apply to the loved ones players invent for their backgrounds. Those casts count as the player’s stuff. Never kill such characters to create a cheap motivation.

The most common and egregious violation of this rule comes when a DM wants players taken captive. In adventure fiction, heroes get captured regularly. So DMs dream up similar stories, and then try to force a capture despite the players’ determination to never get taken alive.

Sometimes DMs opt for capture as alternative to a total party kill. While a fair exception to this rule, don’t violate rule 1 in the process by confronting characters with a threat they cannot defeat or avoid. Save your escape-from-the-dungeon scenario for a time when players ignore warning signs, make bad choices, suffer setbacks, and ignore any chance to run. Those times happen—trust me. Then, instead of rolling new characters, have the old characters wake in chains. The players will feel grateful for a second chance.

What unwritten rules have you spotted in D&D?

3 Posts that Need Updates Thanks to Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

The latest Dungeons & Dragons release, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, brings a host of additions to D&D’s fifth edition. These extensions prompt updates to at least 3 posts on this site.

1. Fast, Unkillable, Deadly: The 7 Supreme D&D Character Builds for One Thing

Just two weeks before this post, I delivered a list of 7 supreme D&D builds, including best healer. Tasha’s Cauldron enables a new build to take that crown.

The older best-healer build combined of life domain cleric with enough bard levels to gain the paladin spell aura of vitality via the bard’s Magical Secrets feature. Tasha’s Cauldron paves a short cut by simply adding aura of vitality to the cleric’s spell list. Forget multiclassing; just play a life cleric. For each of the 10 rounds of aura of vitality’s 1 minute duration, you can use a bonus action to heal 2d6 hit points. The cleric’s Disciple of Life feature boosts that to 2d6+5 hp.

Now, to claim the crown as best healer in D&D, take the Metamagic Adept feat, also in Tasha’s Cauldron. “You learn two Metamagic options of your choice from the sorcerer class.” Select the Extended Spell option. “When you cast a spell that has a duration of 1 minute or longer, you can spend 1 sorcery point to double its duration, to a maximum duration of 24 hours.” When you cast aura of vitality, spend 1 of your 2 sorcery points to double the duration and the healing. One third-level spell heals an average of 240 hp. At just level 5, you can perform the trick twice. Remember when folks fretted about pairing the life domain with goodberry for 40 points of healing?

2. Concentration Frustrates D&D’s Rangers More than Paladins and Hexblades, but Unearthed Arcana Helps

In a post on concentration, I explained the trouble concentration brings rangers. “The hunter’s mark spell underpins the ranger’s flavor as someone who targets prey and pursues it to the finish. With a duration marked in hours, hunter’s mark seems meant to last through a ranger’s daily adventures. But the spell requires concentration, so rangers who need another spell lose their mark and what feels like a key feature. Also, rangers who aim to enter melee with say, a sword in each hand, suffer an outsized risk of losing their mark.”

Unearthed Arcana trialed a new Favored Foe feature that erased the problem of concentration and hunter’s mark. Unfortunately, the final version in Tasha’s Guide brings back the pain. “When you hit a creature with an attack roll, you can call on your mystical bond with nature to mark the target as your favored enemy for 1 minute or until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).”

The offhand mention of concentration confused me, but a ruling on another feature sharing the wording clears up the intent. The trickery domain cleric’s Invoke Duplicity feature also works “until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).” Lead rules designer Jeremey Crawford explained that this wording means that you must concentrate on the feature to maintain it, just like a spell.

The new Favored Foe skips the need to spend a bonus action, but otherwise it weakens the version tested in Unearthed Arcana in every way. In addition to requiring concentration, the new feature does less damage, only damages once per turn, just lasts a minute, and can’t be moved. Why do the D&D designers hate rangers?

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

My post on choosing the right pet for your character continues to rank near the top of my daily page views, proving the appeal of animal companions.

The post began with the easiest route to a pet or companion. “Through roleplaying and ability checks (most likely Animal Handling or Persuasion), you can have a buddy,” Jeremy Crawford explained, “As long as your DM is OK adding a creature to the group.”

But this simple approach posed one problem: After the party befriended a creature, the party leveled up to meet greater threats while the friend remained the same fragile creature. At just level 5, most characters survive a flameskull’s fireball, but an 11 hp wolf needs extraordinary luck to live, and a 5 hp tressym goes to meet Sharess, goddess of cats.

My favorite part of Tasha’s Guide offers a remedy: The sidekick rules offer an easy way to add a special companion to a group of adventurers. “A sidekick can be any type of creature with a stat block in the Monster Manual or another D&D book, but the challenge rating in its stat block must be 1/2 or lower.” This means that sidekicks could range from that wolf or tressym, to a bullywug rescued from a monster who enjoys frog legs, to the kobold Meepo, future dragonlord.

Whenever a group’s average level goes up, the companion gains a level in a sidekick class of warrior, expert, or spellcaster. They gain the additional abilities and hit points required to survive and contribute without ever overshadowing the rest of the party.

My post on pets ends with advice for beast master rangers. This archetype’s animal companions earn a reputation for weakness, partly because the Player’s Handbook offers poor direction. The beast master’s description suggests taking a hawk or mastiff as an animal companion. D&D designer Dan Dillon says that such choices set players up for failure. Beast masters should not take beasts with a challenge rating below 1/4.

To enhance the beast master archetype, Tasha’s Guide presents three primal companions typed for land, sea, and sky. Beastmasters can summon these primal beasts as a companion instead of befriending the creatures in D&D’s monster books. You can choose to describe your creature as a hawk or mastiff or anything that fits a type, without the risk of selecting a creature too weak to prove effective.

Rangers can spend a bonus action to  command the primal beasts to attack or to take an action other than the dodging they do on their own. This marks a big improvement from archtype’s original companions, which typically required an action to command.

The primal beasts offer effective companions that can feel warm, fuzzy, and charismatic. The primal companions tend offer more hit points than real creatures. Plus, if these spirt beasts drop to 0 hit points, you can revive them for the price of a spell slot. As spirit creatures, you can summon new and different beasts after a long rest.

You Can Play These Supreme D&D Characters, But Should You?

When I drafted my list of supreme character builds for Dungeons & Dragons, I originally included a section that asked, “You can play this, but should you?” The answer became this post, but why even ask?

In a comment, designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia identified the supreme builds as enjoyable concepts, but “generally horrible at the table.” Although any character can fit the right game, some optimized builds reduce the fun at most tables. Teos writes, “For me, the biggest social contract item for players is to contain whatever optimization they cook up to reasonable and fun levels.”

D&D’s design aims to create a game where all a party’s characters get to contribute to the group’s success. When a single member of the group starts battles by one-shotting the monster with a huge burst of damage, or one character learns every skill to meet all challenges, then that character idles or overshadows the rest and makes the other players wonder why they showed up.

Most skilled

DM’s guild designer Andrew Bishkinskyi singles out one optimization to skip. “The most skilled character is made to do everything, and exists by design to exclude others from play, which I don’t want.”

Early editions of D&D embraced this kind of specialization. Thieves started as the only class with any capabilities resembling skills, but rated as nearly useless in a fight. Nowadays, D&D’s class designs aim give every class ways to contribute through all the game’s three pillars of exploration, combat, and roleplaying interaction.

Most damaging

Combat makes a big part of most D&D games, so characters optimized for extreme damage tend to prove troublesome. I’ve run public tables where newer players dealing single-digit damage would follow turns where optimized characters routinely dealt 50-some points. I saw the new folks trade discouraged looks as they realized their contributions hardly mattered. DM Thomas Christy has hosted as many online D&D games for strangers as anyone. He says, “I have actually had players complain in game and out about how it seemed like they did not need to be there.” In a Todd Talks episode, Jen Kretchmer tells about asking a player to rebuild a combat-optimized character. “The character was a nightmare of doing way more damage off the top, and no one else could get a hit in.” See Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D.

D&D’s strongest high-damage builds make ranged attacks from a distance. Such builds can leave the rest of the party to bear the monsters’ attacks. Teos Abadia writes, “Even if we don’t have character deaths or a TPK, a ranged character can create a frustrating situation for the other characters, who find themselves relentlessly beaten up, constantly targeted by saving throws, and harried by environmental and terrain damage. Over the course of a campaign, this can be tough for the party. Players may not even realize the cause. They simply find play frustrating and feel picked on. If the ranged player keeps saying, ‘hey, I didn’t even take any damage—again!’ the rest of the party might start to realize why.”

If you, like everyone, enjoy dealing maximum damage, I recommend a character powered by the Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master feats. See How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter. If you favor a ranged attacker, the strongest builds combine Sharpshooter, Crossbow Expert, and an Extra Attack feature. In a typical game, pick two.

Biggest damage novas

A few D&D players welcome characters capable of starting a fight with a huge burst of damage for an unexpected reason: These gamers find D&D’s combat pillar tiresome. By bringing a fight to an immediate end, a nova just brings the session back to their fun. Perhaps these games need a better approach to combat, or even a switch to a different game.

In groups more interested in roleplaying and exploration, players might not mind letting an optimized character showboat during the battles. Or perhaps others in the group feel content in roles other than damage dealing. Perhaps the bard and wizard both enjoy their versatility, the druid likes turning into a bat and scouting, and nobody minds letting you finish encounters at the top of round 1.

But most gamers enjoy a mix of the D&D’s three pillars. For these players, characters designed to start fights with maximum damage prove problematic because when they work, no one else participates. “The issue is that even if those characters don’t completely trivialize an encounter, they can reduce the fun of other players by taking a disproportionate amount of the spotlight,” writes @UncannyPally.

You can’t blame the players aiming for these builds. The occasional nova can create memorable moments.

“It’s only fun the first few times a character charges in and essentially one-shots the boss before you get to do anything,” writes @pocketfell. “And of course, upping the hp of the monsters just means that when the mega-damage PC doesn’t get lucky, it’s a slog through four times the usual number of hp.”

I suspect that D&D class features that power damage spikes steer the game in the wrong direction. However, I respect D&D’s designers and they seem to welcome such features. For example, paladins can smite multiple times per turn. In more recent designs, rangers with the Gloom Stalker archetype begin fights with an extra attack plus extra damage. The grave domain cleric’s Path to the Grave feature sets up one shots by making creatures vulnerable to the next attack.

Surely, the designers defending such features would cite 2 points:

  • Players relish the occasional nova. They can feel like an exploit that breaks the game, delivering a quick win.
  • Some spells shut down an encounter as well as massive weapon damage. Fair’s fair.

I argue that encounter-breaking spells rate as problematic too, but D&D traditionally limits such spells to a few spellcasting classes, often at higher levels and only once per day.

Highest AC

I accept that as a DM controlling the monsters, I will almost always lose. A defeat for my team evil counts as a win for the table, so I welcome the loss. But I must confess something:  For my fun, I like the monsters to get some licks in. Is that so wrong? Under suggestion and zone of truth, I suspect other DMs would echo the same admission. Some gamers even float the courageous suggestion that DMs deserve fun like the players.

A character with an untouchable AC doesn’t rob the spotlight from other players, but for DMs, such characters become tiresome. If you back up a maximum AC with, say, a class able to cast shield and block those rare hits, then your DM might not show disappointment when you miss game night.

To be fair, players who sell out for maximum defense wind up with few other strengths. These players enjoy their chance to shine at the end of every fight when they crow about not taking damage—again! I’ve learned to accept their source of bliss and welcome their characters. They may soak attacks, turning claw, claw, bite into useless flailing, but I can always add more attacks to go around.

Toughest

In theory, tough characters should trigger the same annoyance as untouchable characters, but the barbarians and Circle of the Moon druids actually suffer hits, so their durability feels different.

In tactically-minded parties, tough characters and characters with high AC fill a role by preventing monsters from reaching more fragile characters. If your group favors that play style, your DM surely dials up the opposition past very strong and also pairs smart foes with clever strategies. Optimized characters of all sorts often fit that style of play.

Fastest

Nobody minds a fast character. I love playing monks who speed around the battlefield stunning everything in their path. However, those stun attacks certainly bring less acclaim. See How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat.

Most healing

If you play the healer and miss game night, everyone feels disappointed. ’Nuff said.

Related:
If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”
10 Ways to Build a Character That Will Earn the Love of Your Party

Fast, Unkillable, Deadly: The 7 Supreme D&D Character Builds for One Thing

Have you ever wanted to play a Dungeons & Dragons who boasted the highest armor class, the fastest speed, the deadliest attacks, or another extreme ability? This post shows the way to making the most amazing character at one of 7 things.

Fastest

For the fastest character, start as a monk. Your choice of race depends on what your campaign allows.

  • Wood elves gain the fastest walking speed.
  • Tabaxi from Volo’s Guide to Monsters make better 1-turn sprinters. Their Feline Agility trait doubles their speed for a turn, but they must spend a turn moving 0 to use it again.
  • Aarakocra, also from Volo’s Guide, gain a flying speed of 50 feet, which combines perfectly with the monk class. Not every campaign allows flying characters, especially to start.

Take 10 levels of monk for a 20-foot speed bonus. Then add 5 levels of barbarian for Fast Movement and another 10-foot bonus. Choose the Path of the Elk Totem Warrior from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide to increase your walking speed by 15 feet while raging. Sadly for aarakocra, this bonus doesn’t improve your fly speed.

For even more speed, add two levels of fighter for the Action Surge.

Along the way, choose the Mobile feet to add another 10-foot speed bonus. Also consider the Magic Initiate feat to learn the longstrider spell, which adds another 10-foot speed bonus for an hour. Obviously, seek Boots of Speed, Potions of Speed, and friends able to enchant you with haste.

Even without the magic, this build yields a 70-foot base, doubled to 140 by feline agility. For maximum speed, choose a dash action, add a dash using the monk’s Step of the Wind ability, plus a dash using Action Surge to move 560 feet in 6 seconds. That amounts to 63 mph or 102 kph!

See How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat.

Most skilled

For the most-skilled character, start as a half-elf rogue. This gains you 4 rogue skills, plus 2 skills from being a half-elf and 2 more from your background. Don’t pick proficiency in Nature or Survival. You gain those skills when you select the Scout archetype at level 3.

Remain a rogue until level 4 when you can choose the Skilled feat for 4 more skills.

For level 5, multiclass into bard for another skill. At level 7, select the College of Lore for 3 more skills. Then at level 8, elect the Prodigy feat for that last untrained skill plus Expertise in a choice of skill. Expertise doubles your proficiency bonus for that skill.

At level 8, your character boasts proficiency in every skill in the game.

Most damaging

The highest, most consistent damage output comes from characters who combine the Sharpshooter and Crossbow expert feats with a hand crossbow.

Start as a human with the Sharpshooter feat. Your class can either be fighter or ranger. Either way, select the Archery fighting style to gain +2 on your ranged attacks.

For a fighter, choose either the Battle Master or the Samurai archetype from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. As a ranger, choose the Gloom Stalker archetype, also from Xanathar.

At level 4, take the Crossbow Expert feat to gain the ability to make extra attacks with a hand crossbow as a bonus action.

For more, see How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D.

Highest AC

The simplest route to a maximum AC uses heavy armor. Select a paladin or fighter and then select the Defense fighting style. Equip plate mail and shield for AC 21. Then seek magic that improves AC. If you find +3 plate, +3 shield, plus a Cloak of Protection, a Ring of Protection, and an Ioun Stone of Protection for your three attunement slots, your AC reaches 30. If you attune a Staff of Power instead, you reach AC 31, the highest permanent level you can achieve. Plus, the munchkins make you their king or queen. Also your absurdly indulgent dungeon master wants to date you. If you learn the shield spell, then you can vault your AC 36 for a turn.

Someone in half plate with a 16 Dexterity and the Medium Armor Master feat can reach the same ACs.

A barbarian with just a shield can reach a 24 AC without any magic, but that requires a 20 Dexterity and the 24 Constitution attainable by the class at level 20.

Toughest

For the toughest character, start as a hill dwarf for a +1 hp bonus per level. Select the Barbarian class. At 3rd level, pick the Path of the Bear Totem Warrior to gain resistance to all damage but psychic while raging. At fourth level, take the Toughness feat for 2 more hp per level, and then use your ability score increases to maximize Constitution.

Biggest damage nova

When characters unload all their abilities to deal maximum damage in a single turn, they go nova. You could just level a Wizard up to level 17 and cast meteor swarm on a hoard of foes, but true nova builds aim for focused damage more than once a day. Thanks to the Divine Smite ability, paladins bring big nova potential, but the class lacks enough spells slots to fuel maximum damage. For the biggest numbers, combine 2 levels of paladin with either sorcerer or warlock.

For a sorcerer combination, your dream turn starts when you cast a quickened hold monster on your foe, and the hit with green flame blade plus a smite that spends your highest-level spell slot. On a paralyzed enemy, you automatically score a critical hit and double all your damage dice. (If you don’t paralyze your target, booming blade makes a better cantrip combination.)

While sorcerers bring more spell slots, the warlock combination boasts better synergy. Start by creating a paladin with maximum charisma and the 13 strength required for multiclassing. After reaching 2nd level as a paladin, multiclass to a warlock and choose the Hexblade pact. At warlock level 3, choose the Pack of the Blade boon, and then at level 5, choose the Thirsting Blade invocation for multiple attacks. Your dream turn starts when you lay a Hexblade’s Curse on your foe for a damage bonus, and then strike twice, scoring critical hits on a roll of 19 or 20. Back each hit with a smite. After a short rest, you can reload slots to repeat the combination.

An all-in nova build adds 2 levels of fighter for an Action Surge, another swing or two, and as many smites as you have spell slots to fuel.

See D&D’s Best Multiclass Combinations With Paladin.

Most healing

Update: Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything enables a new build to take the best healer crown.

The older best-healer build combined of life domain cleric with enough bard levels to gain the paladin spell aura of vitality via the bard’s Magical Secrets feature. Tasha’s Cauldron paves a short cut by simply adding aura of vitality to the cleric’s spell list. Forget multiclassing; just play a life cleric. For each of the 10 rounds of aura of vitality’s 1 minute duration, you can use a bonus action to heal 2d6 hit points. The cleric’s Disciple of Life feature boosts that to 2d6+5 hp.

Now, to claim the crown as best healer in D&D, take the Metamagic Adept feat, also in Tasha’s Cauldron. “You learn two Metamagic options of your choice from the sorcerer class.” Select the Extended Spell option. “When you cast a spell that has a duration of 1 minute or longer, you can spend 1 sorcery point to double its duration, to a maximum duration of 24 hours.” When you cast aura of vitality, spend 1 of your 2 sorcery points to double the duration and the healing. One third-level spell heals an average of 240 hp. At just level 5, you can perform the trick twice. Remember when folks fretted about pairing the life domain with goodberry for 40 points of healing?

For the easy path to a character who vies for the best healing, play a cleric and choose the Life domain. Done. By the time you reach 17th level, nothing else comes close. But hardly anyone plays at tier 4. In tiers 2 and 3, you can become the best healer as a bard with just a one level dip into cleric.

Start 1st level as a human Life domain cleric. Choose the Healer feat, which lets you spend one use of a healer’s kit to restore 1d6 + 4 hit points, plus additional hit points equal to the creature’s maximum number of hit dice. A creature can only regain hit points this way once between each rest, but this still counts as the cheapest healing in the game. See The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character).

After level 1, switch to only taking bard levels. At bard level 3, choose the College of Lore, and then at level 6 choose the paladin spell aura of vitality for your Magical Secrets feature. For each of the 10 rounds of aura of vitality’s 1 minute duration, you can use a bonus action to heal 2d6 hit points. The cleric’s Disciple of Life feature boosts that to 2d6+5 hp. One third-level spell heals an average of 120 hp. You will have 3 third-level spell slots.

Plus, the bard spell list includes most of the cleric’s best remedies, including the restoration and resurrection spells. You can raise dead through song!

Related:
You Can Play These Supreme D&D Characters, But Should You?
7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing

Gen Con 1981: From D&D Nerdvana to Stranded by My Lies

In 1981 Dungeons & Dragons was surging in popularity, but you could not tell from my school. When my buddy Mike and I asked our friend Steve whether he wanted to join our next game session, he declined. As if warning us of an unzipped fly or of some other mortifying social lapse, he confided, “Some people think that D&D isn’t cool.” But Mike and I lacked the athletic prowess of the sportos and proved too mild for the freaks, so we kept gaming.

The May 1981 issue of Dragon magazine previewed the upcoming Gen Con convention. “The 14th annual Gen Con gathering, to be held on Aug. 13-16, is larger in size and scope than any of its predecessors,” the magazine boasted. “E. Gary Gygax, creator of the AD&D game system, will make other appearances, such as being the central figure or one of the participants in one or more seminars concerning the D&D and AD&D games.”

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

I lived an hour south of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the site of Gen Con. For four days in August, this building near Lake Geneva would became holy ground. I vowed to reach nerdvana.

In my high school circle, no parents objected to loosing unsupervised teens on a convention an hour from home. Modern parents might fear child-snatching psychos; 80s parents might fear devil worship fostered by D&D. Our parents must have realized that fear of Satanists would keep the psychos away. One can’t be too careful.

I couldn’t drive, so I had to find a way to reach the convention. Mike’s dad volunteered to drive, but Mike had made a terrible first impression on my parents, who wanted me to find a better class of friends. Mike was a year younger and struck my folks as flighty. They forbade me from going alone with Mike.

Joel, a former member of our gaming group, also planned to go. Joel was old enough to drive, but also old enough not to want to spend a day with kids 1 and 2 years younger. If you thought playing D&D was uncool, imagine nearly being a senior and hanging out with children. No way. (Picture a geeky alternative to a John Hughes movie. The time fits well enough and the place matches. Hughes graduated from my high school. Legend says that the sweet Mrs. Hughes staffing the school store in 1981 was his mom.)

So Gen Con hung in the balance. A shaft of golden light pierced the clouds just north of home, possibly illuminating Saint Gary Gygax himself. So I fibbed and told my parents that Joel would drive, even as I agreed to ride with Mike.

Thursday and Friday, the plan worked. Mike and I gamed nonstop. Meanwhile, Joel spent the con shoplifting from the dealers in the exhibition hall. Mike felt as appalled as I did, demonstrating my parents’ poor judgement of friends for their son.

The convention revealed aspects of the hobby I had never seen. Niche games. Sprawling miniature landscapes. Girls who liked D&D. It all seemed impossibly wonderful.

At Parkside, a wide, glass corridor stretched a quarter mile, linking the five buildings of the campus. Open-gaming tables lined the hall’s longer spans. Every scheduled role-playing session got its own classroom, so no one needed to shout over the clamor. Players circled their chairs around the largest desk. The lack of tables posed no problem, because in those days, everyone played in the theater of the mind.

Learn to play Titan from McAllister & Trampier – an advertisement from the program book

All the event tickets hung from a big pegboard behind a counter. If you had keen eyes, you could browse the available tickets for a game you fancied.

We played Fez II and had a blast. In “Little-known D&D classics: Fez,” I told how the game transformed how I played D&D.

One of the designers of Titan recruited us to learn and play his game. I liked it enough to buy, but I lacked the ten bucks. So the demo led to a purchase thirty years later on ebay. Eventually, I learned that Dave Trampier, my favorite game artist, had co-designed Titan, but I suspect that co-designer Jason McAllister showed us the game.

We entered the AD&D Open tournament and played an adventure written by Frank Mentzer that would become I12 Egg of the Phoenix (1987).

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Introducing Arms Law and now Spell Law

We ran a combat using Arms Law, the new system that boasted more realism than D&D. I remember how our duelists exhausted each other until the fight reached an impasse. I still took years to learn that realism doesn’t equal fun.

At Gen Con, you could find any game you wished to play, any players you needed to fill a table. D&D was cool. I had reached gaming bliss.

As for my ride the to con, my scheme imploded on Saturday night. Mike’s dad called my dad who repeated my lie: No one needed to drive north to pick up the boys, because Mike and I were riding home with Joel. Oblivious, Mike and I waited outside for his dad.

By midnight, all the gamers had left. A campus official warned us to leave the premises. We assured him that our ride would come soon.

(Young people: Once upon a time, we lacked cell phones. All plans needed to be arranged in advance. Folks grew accustomed to waiting. If Mike’s dad had left home as we thought, no one could have contacted him.)

So we waited in the dark and empty parking lot. Miles of dairy farms and cornfields surrounded us. No one lived near but cows and probably psychos.

After midnight, we tried to find a pay phone, but now all doors were locked. The nearest shabby, murder-hotel was miles away. Worse, we had been told to leave, so now we were trespassers.

By 1am, a maintenance man found us and achieved surprise. Some details may have grown in my memory, but our hands shot into the air as if Dirty Harry had caught us punks at the scene of our crime.

Instead, Harold the custodian mocked our skittishness and let Mike inside long enough to call. At 2am, Mike’s dad finally pulled into the lot. Forget Saint Gary, I now realize that the true saint was Larry, Mike’s dad.

In 1981, Gen Con reached an attendance of 5000. Dragon magazine speculated, “It’s logical to assume that at some point in its history, the Gen Con Game Convention and Trade Show will not get any larger.” So far, the convention defies logic: In 2019, Gen Con drew about 70,000 gamers.

I still have the program to my first Gen Con. You can see it.

How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes

Scaring Dungeons & Dragons players proves hard. Unlike the ordinary folks played as characters in a frightful game of Call of Cthulhu, characters in D&D boast heroic powers that allow them to defeat the most fearsome threats, at least eventually.

Most campaigns begin with the assumption that the dungeon master won’t give the characters more than they can handle. Fifth edition’s first hardcover adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, starts when 1st-level adventurers reach a town under attack by an adult blue dragon—an insurmountable threat. Instead of sensibly assuming that entering the town would lead to electrocution, and then choosing to flee in terror, the new party must go charging in for the adventure to begin. When characters always meet threats their characters can overcome, players never see reason to fear.

However, if players understand that their choices led them into trouble, then they can reach a rare moment of panic.

Blogger Ben Robbins writes “The players will embrace the idea of being afraid and impressed by a threat when they brought it upon themselves. If the threat comes at them because of nothing the players did, the players rightly feel like the situation is a little unfair and are not as willing to buy into it.”

If the party hears whispers from the darkness and chases blindly toward the noise, then they deserve the panicked moment when monsters close from every direction.

Shoggoth by Nottsuo – nottsuo.deviantart – www.pixiv.net – twitter.com/nottsuo, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In a seminar, Call of Cthulhu designer Sandy Petersen builds on this idea with his Creepy Stuff Rule. “What you don’t want to do is say, ‘You open the door an there’s a shoggoth,’ and then the players all get killed.” Instead, give players three chances to survive the monster.

  1. A hint. In the case of the shoggoth, that might be a trail of ooze and a reptile-house smell outside the sewer entrance. “Then the players might say, ‘We’re not afraid. We’re going in.”
  2. Solid evidence of danger. “You find the sewer worker’s body. His head has been sucked off and it’s covered in slime.” Now the player’s see an obvious sign of danger. “Anything that sucks a guy’s head off has got to be a problem.” Here the players can still turn back.
  3. The Monster. “Emerging from the nexus of sewers is a giant, protoplasmic blob covered with eyes and organs constantly spawning.” The players may still have time to say, “Nope,” and then slam the door, although with a shoggoth probably not.

“At this point, any player who is killed can’t blame you. You gave them three warnings. Always have the players blame themselves when they get killed. Even in Call of Cthulhu, the players should feel like it’s their own fault.”

Justin Alexander writes, “If the players externalize that blame to the GM, it becomes external not only from themselves but also from the game world. This robs the events of meaning, and without meaning there can be no horror.”

Petersen recognizes that players may feel compelled to chase obvious danger to finish the adventure. In his game, players embrace that expectation. “If they weren’t willing to get their heads sucked off, why would they play Call of Cthulhu?”

However, few D&D campaigns expect characters to survive deadly treats to finish an adventure, so to earn a scare, D&D players must choose danger over other leads that could also bring success.

A typically reckless and impulsive D&D party may see extra risk as an invitation—at least until that oh-shit moment. Look for opportunities when the players’ choices might lead to extraordinary danger, and then fuel their fears. If you know your players, you may even know ways to tempt them into bad choices.

Rather than actually slaughtering the party, you probably favor suggesting a lethal threat without actually delivering. That means keeping the true size of the threat unknown and unseen. In the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, Jennell Jaquays writes, “Rely on the perceptions of the characters. Describe what seems to be seen, what may have been heard, or a faint odor in the air. Let the players draw their own conclusions. When the players don’t know what their characters are up against, they begin to feel the creeping chill of fear.

“Keep the players guessing, keep them on edge, even make them afraid—they’ll love you for it.”

Related: The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.

Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From RPG Legend Sandy Petersen Made Me Stop Talking to Myself

Dungeon Masters: Just a Little Attention to Darkness Pays Off

My favorite sightseeing stops include caves and inactive mines. Cave tours inevitably include tales of the cave’s original explorers. I imagine myself in their place, delving by a feeble glow from a lantern, discovering underground landscapes and traces of people and creatures long gone, and I relish the feelings of wonder and mystery. My love of dungeons seems inevitable. In sprawling undergrounds, even modern lights don’t reach far before darkness engulfs their glow. I gaze into midnight shafts and feel a shiver much like leaning over a rail on the 95th floor. These tours always pause to extinguish all the lights and give a taste of complete darkness, but not before making sure no one feels close to panic. Like heights, spiders, and snakes, darkness triggers a primal fear that we share.

As played by most groups, the Dungeons & Dragons rules for light work like this: When the party starts their descent into darkness, the dungeon master asks what they have for light. Perhaps everyone has darkvision and that’s that. More likely, the group includes a human, so someone fires a torch or casts light and then no one pays attention to the subject until the next dungeon.

Through most of my experience as a DM, I played that way. The same goes for the multitude of DMs I’ve played with. After all, the rules as written make careful attention to light seem like a chore. How can anyone be expected to keep track of who carries a light and how that glow interacts with the senses and positions of various characters? You need a computer for that. My scrapheap of article-ideas-never-written includes a post describing light as a thing everyone ignores because it never adds fun. Everyone would have ignored that post too.

Surely tense dungeon-survival sessions can bring fun. In those campaigns, parties struggle to escape the dungeon with their loot before their supplies of torches and oil run out. But most D&D players favor heroism over such grit. Besides, D&D gives so many characters darkvision that calling out the stumbling humans and halflings seems pointless.

I’ve changed. When I run dungeons now, I pay some attention to light without getting mired in detail. The benefits of a little consideration surprised me.

As a party explores a dark space, I pay attention to just one thing: about how far they can see past their front row. For most groups, that’s 60-feet from the character with darkvision closest to the lead. And then when I describe, I mention what they can’t see because of the cover of darkness. When possible, I describe any sounds that come from that shrouded space. Imagine the scratches, the whispered malevolent voices, the creak of doors, the drip of water. Sometimes perceptive characters see glowing eyes that suddenly wink out in the depths. If the party recklessly chases ahead into the unseen, they deserve the panicked moment when monsters close from every direction. When I draw maps as players explore, my lines for the walls end where the darkness starts.

That small regard pays off with a sense of tension, atmosphere, and mystery.

In cramped dungeon rooms, light hardly matters, but in long corridors, underground cathedrals, vaulting caverns darkness easily swallows the feeble glow of a lantern. Darkvision only makes 60 feet seem like dim light. Beyond that who knows what spies the party’s glow and clamor?

Paladins, Barbarians, and Other Classes Once Balanced by Rules of Behavior

Early in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, the game’s creators made classes that rewarded strict rules of behavior with extra power. For instance, a player taking the challenge of playing a chivalrous cavalier always fought fairly, but also gained a bonus to attack with sword and lance.

Arguably, cleric stands as the first class limited by rules of behavior. Some holy men in history attempted to straddle the gulf between peaceful servant of god and spilling the blood of enemies by opting to bash their foes’ skulls while claiming not to spill blood. Based on that lore, original D&D required clerics to choose not to wield edged weapons or arrows. Back then, all weapons dealt 1d6 damage, so this limit only counted as a disadvantage because the treasure tables made magic swords 20 times more common than non-edged weapons.

Former Wizards of the Coast head Peter Adkison shepherded D&D’s third edition design. He wanted to purge “restrictions that did a good job of reinforcing play balance but still didn’t make sense.” Why would a cleric devoted to Apollo the Archer refuse a bow? For third edition, D&D’s designers replaced the rule that prevented clerics from using swords with a proficiency system that made swords a poor option. Modern D&D follows the same pattern, but it still includes a class that requires characters who choose to limit themselves. More on that at the end.

With D&D’s first Greyhawk supplement, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax started adding classes that clearly balanced extra power with limitations that required certain behavior. Paladins started as a version of fighter who always acted lawfully. (D&D lacked good and evil alignments then.) “Any chaotic act will immediately revoke the status of paladin, and it can never be regained.” The paladin’s generosity required the class to give away inessential magic items and other loot. “Gifts must be to the poor or to charitable or religious institutions, i.e. not to some other character played in the game.”

The first editor of The Dragon, Tim Kask, wrote, “It was so rigid a PC class; that smacks of Gary’s fiendish wit. Make a character truly extraordinary and make it really tough to play in terms of always having to do the ‘right’ thing, ALWAYS.”

By the Unearthed Arcana book for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, many classes offset power with a roleplaying catch. “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items.”

Gygax knew this created a recipe for party conflict and embraced it. “When I played a barbarian, I would indeed attempt to get at newly discovered magic items and rid the world of their bane, and if some mage was foolish enough to flaunt such an object before the character, and he could lay hands on it, then…” When a monster turned Gygax’s barbarian to stone, it ended the character’s career. “No cleric or mage in the group was much interested in having the poor chap returned to life.”

In most games, players saw such restrictions as problems to solve with ingenuity. Part of the paladin’s reputation for lawful stupid comes from all the do-gooders conned into leaving the room when the thief wanted to question or kill prisoners. And how many barbarian players opted for characters just stupid enough to fail to realize that their +2 sword and cloak of protection happened to be magical? Sample dialog: “Tan-kor, you should wear this cloak we found because it, um, matches your eyes.”

Second edition introduced class kits that made characters more distinctive and powerful, often in exchange for behavior restrictions. For instance, the bladesinger from the Complete Book of Elves ranked as one of the most powerful kits. The catch: Having to protect elves whenever the opportunity comes. Players got a boost for simply committing to bite on a certain sort of adventure hook. A more onerous code weighed cavaliers, who always had to fight fairly and chivalrously. So if a cavalier’s foe slips off a cliff and hangs by the edge, the cavalier must help the foe up before resuming the fight.

Such restrictions only worked in campaigns where every player valued roleplaying. In a mix of actors and power gamers, behavior limits cause friction—even when the code doesn’t require destroying magic items. Players who value immersing into character grow annoyed by the players who just look for loopholes in codes of conduct. Dungeon masters dislike the role of mandating or penalizing behavior that ignores the hindrances built into a character kit.

By third edition, the D&D team mostly dropped roleplaying limits from the class-design toolbox.

Still, one code of conduct remains in the modern druid class. The fifth edition Sage Advice Compendium explains, “Druids don’t lack the ability to wear metal armor. They choose not to wear it. This choice is part of their identity as a mystical order. Think of it in these terms: a vegetarian can eat meat, but chooses not to.” This restriction brings enough teeth for class balance while proving clear enough to defy most players seeking loopholes.

Related: 4 Ways D&D’s Creators Tried and Failed to Balance Classes

4 Ways D&D’s Creators Tried and Failed to Balance Classes

The classes in today’s Dungeons & Dragons game are balanced to make sure that when players leave a session, everyone feels like their character contributed to the party’s success. No player should ever see their character routinely upstaged and wonder, “Why am I even here?” In a list of goals for fifth edition, designer Mike Mearls wrote, “All of the classes should feel competent when compared to each other at all levels.”

The game’s designers didn’t always aim for this target, and when they did the methods often failed. What methods of class balance have the game’s designers abandoned?

1. Ineffective in one pillar, strong in another

The D&D game focuses on three pillars of play: exploration, roleplaying interaction, and combat.

In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. The original thieves lacked any combat assets—not even backstabbing—but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusable abilities. They shined in the exploration pillar, and floundered in combat.

In an interview for Drache issue 3, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax explained, “D&D’s team aspect is important. In a D&D game, each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

Some of that spirit remains, Mearls writes, “We’re OK with classes being better at specific things. Rogues are good at checks and handling traps. Fighters have the best AC and hit points. Clerics are the best healers and support casters. Wizards are the best at area attacks and control effects.”

But the game no longer allows classes that prove ineffective in a pillar. “If each class has wildly different combat abilities and the game doesn’t account for that, the system falls apart,” Mearls wrote. Over the years, the thief class added a backstab feature, which became sneak attack and a suite of combat abilities.

See The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination.

2. Weak at low levels, mighty at high levels

In D&D’s early days, Gygax saw characters who survived to high level as proof of a player’s skills. By this notion, players able to raise a weak character to the top deserved rewards. Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon magazine, echoed this perspective when he wrote, “Anyone that gets an Illusionist [to high level] deserves whatever they can achieve.”

No class showed this attitude more than the magic user. Originally, magic users started with the no armor, the lowest hit points, feeble attacks, and just one magic missile or sleep spell. But while a high-level fighter just added more hit points and a higher attack bonus, wizards gained power in 3 ways: They gained more spells per day, higher-level spells, and more damage with spells of a given level. Their power grew to overshadow the other classes.

“Earlier, D&D balanced wizards by making them weak at low level and powerful at high level,” wrote third-edition designer Jonathan Tweet. “But we tried to balance the classes at both low level and high level. (We failed. Spellcasters were still too good at high level.)”

The current edition starts to get the formula right. Mearls explained his goal for fifth edition. “Attaining balance is something that we must do to make D&D fit in with fantasy, myth, and legend. Even if a wizard unleashes every spell at his or her disposal at a fighter, the fighter absorbs the punishment, throws off the effects, and keeps on fighting.”

See How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D.

3. Higher-powered classes require more experience points

Before third edition, every D&D class had a different table of experience points required to level. As far as I know, Gygax never explained this quirk. No one asked because everyone just assumed the higher-powered classes demanded more experience points to level. The charts hint at some of this: The mighty paladin requires more experience than the weaker rogue. But for the original classes of fighter, cleric, and wizard the differences seem quirky rather than systematic. “The system sometimes gave clerics more hit points than fighters because a cleric would be higher level than a fighter with the same XP total.” Until double-digit levels, the XP requirements for a magic user never left the wizard more than a level or two behind the other classes.

4. Classes with level maximums

Originally, Gary Gygax gave little thought to high-level characters. Kask recalled, “We figured the odds of even getting to level 9 or 10 were so high that it wouldn’t pose a problem. This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest-level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was a 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave Arneson’s.”

After D&D’s release, TSR co-owner Brian Blume lobbied to include the monk class in the game’s upcoming Blackmoor supplement. Kask wrote, “Brian rationalized the nearly super abilities of the monk’s high levels with the argument that nobody, or damned few, would ever get that high. (This illustrates a certain naivete that all of us shared back then. We had no idea people would play almost daily and rack up XP’s at a truly unimagined rate.)”

Gygax published a class that imposed harsh limits to high-level monks. For monks “there is only one man at each level above 6th.” So to rise above 6th level, a monk character had to find the one monk of that level and win a fair fight. “There will always be a higher level to fight, even if there is no player character in the role.” The class topped out at 16th level.

A year after Blackmoor, gamers had completely disproved the theory that few characters would rise to high level. So Gygax returned to the monk class’s scheme for limiting the new Druid class in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Kask explained, “Every advance beyond level 11 meant fighting and defeating a fellow druid in either magical or physical combat—and the occasional 11th-level challenger of one’s own to deal with!”

In practice such limits only steered players away from choosing the classes they wanted to play, or blocked characters from advancing with their peers in a high-level party.

Next: Number 5.

Scrutinizing the 9 Most Popular House Rules for D&D

In the beginning, Dungeons & Dragons required house rules to run. For instance, for 10 years the game suffered from an unplayable initiative system, so everyone used a house rule. Every dungeon master grew accustomed to tinkering with the game, leading to a generation of amateur game designers who sometimes graduated to the pros.

Fifth edition has proved sound enough that the game’s designers resist tweaking even the worst parts of the game. The reluctance makes sense: No customer wants to learn that the rules in their game book are changed by some notice on the Internet.

Nonetheless, everyone who plays the game long enough wishes something played a bit differently, perhaps a bit better. Forty-some years on, the roleplayer’s urge to design and redesign remains. My search for fifth-edition house rules turned up an avalanche of favorites.

What are the most popular house rules for D&D and how do they stand to scrutiny?

Players may spend inspiration to a gain a reroll.

Spending inspiration gives you advantage an attack roll, saving throw, or ability check, so you must choose to use inspiration before the roll. Meanwhile, so many people think that inspiration allows a reroll that every convention DM who runs by the book can tell a story of being falsely accused of not knowing the rules. “You may be right,” we lie. “Go ahead and look that up for me.”

Advantage. The original conception of Inspiration supposed that players would gain inspiration more frequently than typical now. During the edition’s design, Mike Mearls wrote, “A player can gain it once per significant scene or important combat. Inspiration fades quickly, so you must spend it within a few minutes in game time before you lose it.” The lighter benefit of advantage suited this frequency. With most DMs awarding Inspiration less often, a stronger reroll benefit works fine.

Disadvantage. You may foster a misunderstanding that causes your players to call out some poor DM who plays by the book.

Players roll their characters’ death saves in secret.

Groups who adopt this house rule allow players to override their secret saving roles to spare their character or, I suppose, speed a tragic end. This change doesn’t actually change D&D rules, so the pedant in me wants to call it a table convention.

Advantage. By rolling their character’s death saves secretly, players gain more control over whether their character dies. This suits groups who emphasize story and would rather not see the campaign arc overturned by a blown save.

Disadvantage. Allowing players to choose not to die may seem like a violation of the game’s spirit to players who value a genuine threat of death.

See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.

DMs roll the characters’ death saves in secret.

Advantage. If you play fifth edition long enough, you suffer through this scene: Your character drops early in a fight, and because you never fail a death save, no one bothers to heal you. The players know your character remains 3 turns from death, so no one feels urgency. Meanwhile, for all the characters know, their friend is hearing her dead parents calling her toward the light. (As an adventurer, her parents are as inevitably dead as a Disney lead’s mother.)

If the DM rolls death saves, or the player rolls and only shares the result with the DM, the rest of the party stops gaining metagame information about a dying character’s closeness to the final curtain. This adds urgency to the need to heal fallen characters and can heighten feelings of peril. Such secrecy encourages players to quickly bring their friends back into the action.

Disadvantage. Particularly if the DM rolls, the players lose a sense of control over their fate, even if that false sense only comes from throwing the die.

Precedent. If Gary had invented death saves, you know that he would have rolled them secretly for players.

Critical hits deal maximum damage plus damage from a second roll of the dice.

Advantage. In fifth edition, we’ve all experienced the excitement of a critical, followed by the roll of a handful of dice that yields mostly ones, twos, and a big letdown. Reinforcing critical hits guarantees big damage. This favors divine smiters, sneak attackers, and the kid at my game table whose “practice” rolls uncannily end when he rolls a 20. “Look! Another critical!”

Disadvantage. Apparently, none of the folks bolstering criticals have played a paladin and realized that the class rates as almost too good without smites backed by stronger crits.

Criticals offer fun, but they are secretly bad for players because characters endure far more critical hits than any monster. Dialing up extra damage increases the chance that a monster’s attack will kill a character dead. For criticals that avoid the bummer of low rolls without adding risk to player characters, make criticals deal maximum damage.

Precedent. In third edition, criticals let you double your damage bonuses along with your damage dice. Fourth edition backed away from doubling damage bonuses by just making criticals deal maximum damage. That favored players, but eliminated the fun of the roll and the chance of huge damage against monsters. The fifth-edition system opts for a mechanic converging on maximum damage, but with extra dice to roll.

Lesser Restoration and remove curse won’t automatically remove diseases, poisons, and curses.

Lesser restoration and remove curse turn poisoning, diseases, and curses in D&D into the loss of a spell or a donation at the local temple. To match folklore and for story, we want curses and other afflictions to prompt quests, so many groups add limits to the spell remedies. The limits run from an ability check similar to dispel magic, to a requirement for special material components, to more. Adventurers League administrator Greg Marks writes, “I’m a big fan of any story-based poison or disease requiring a story-based solution in addition.” If a character gets hit with a bestow curse spell in a random encounter, then remove curse fixes it. If the party is cursed by the dying breath of a witch queen, then that’s an adventure to fix.

Advantage. Limiting lesser Restoration and remove curse opens D&D to a type of story that pervades the tales that inspired the game.

Disadvantage. Limiting these spells hurts characters who prepare them, but not as much as in earlier editions. Originally, clerics who prepared a just-in-case spell like remove curse lost a spell slot, which they could have devoted to a healing spell that would always prove useful.

Precedent. Many adventures through D&D’s history include curses and other afflictions that resist mere spells.

Healing potions can be consumed with a bonus action.

A character can spend a bonus action to drink a healing potion. Administering a potion to another character still requires an action.

Advantage. When a typical round takes several minutes of real time, losing an action to drink a healing potion feels like a bummer. Also, a player who needs a potion probably needs that action to turn the tide of battle.

Disadvantage. If your campaign awards a typical amount of treasure, then the 50 gp cost of a healing potion quickly becomes negligible, especially when characters have little else to spend money on. If drinking becomes a bonus, expect smart players to litter battlefields with empty vials. Still, this change probably won’t upset the game’s balance.

Lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford might prefer that you not mistreat bonus actions as just a lesser sort of action though.

Characters gain a bonus feat at first level.

Advantage. Granting characters an extra feat enables more customization, especially for groups who tend to shorter, low-level campaigns. Some DMs even allow characters who reach ability score increases to gain both an increase and a feat rather than choosing one.

Disadvantage. Some feats grant big boosts in power. See The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves, How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter, and How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D. Also, the Lucky feat may as well be called Never Fail a Save. The power of feats means that bonus feats steeply increase the power curve for characters. Some groups don’t mind because they see combat as a way for characters to show off their prowess rather than a challenge that endangers heroes. Some DMs don’t mind because they happily dial up the opposition to match.

Also, pairing extra feats with ability score increases strongly encourages multi-class characters to take class levels in blocks of 4.

Precedent. If you like this rule because it allows extra customization, you may benefit by switching game systems. Pathfinder 2 modularizes character advancement into choices of feats and allows much more customization of characters.

Players can delay their turn to take a later place in initiative.

Advantage. Too often, the slow, tough characters who open the dungeon door roll a low initiative while the quicker skirmishers in back roll high. The tanks in front wind up bottling up the door because the rules offer no way for the bladesinger in back to just wait for the paladin to step out of the damn way.

Also, some groups enjoy the tactical options unlocked by letting characters delay.

Disadvantage. The D&D designers sought faster play and a leaner game by dropping the delay option. For more, see 3 Actions D&D Players Want That Defy the Game’s Design Choices.

I favor a lightweight alternative to a full delay option. Before combat starts, let players opt for a lower initiative than they rolled.

Precedent. Third and fourth edition both included a delay option. For a suggested delay rule adapted from those editions, see What to Do When a D&D Player Wants to Be Ready, Call a Shot, or Delay.

Characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion.

Advantage. Players intent on wringing every advantage from the game rules will only heal characters when they drop, because damage below 0 heals for free. Imagine being injured but denied healing until you lie dying on the dungeon floor because the magic somehow works better that way. As an adventurer, I would find a less psycho group of comrades in arms.

By making characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion, the dying condition becomes something to be realistically feared rather than an inconvenience where players can exploit their metagame understanding of fifth edition’s lack of negative hit points.

Disadvantage. Although this penalty encourages players to keep their friends in the game rather than incapacitated by 0 hit points, the rule remains a penalty that will sometimes prove unavoidable.

Precedent. In first edition, characters brought to 0 or fewer hit points needed a week of rest. “The character cannot attack, defend, cast spells, use magic devices, carry burdens, run, study, research, or do anything else.” However, due to house rules, I never saw this penalty enforced.