How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs

In real life, we all sometimes feel bound by caution and frustrated by rules of decorum, so we enjoy characters who act recklessly, play by their own rules, and boast the power to ignore the consequences. This accounts for some of the appeal of gangster films and of evil D&D characters.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1978) introduced half-orc characters. They stemmed from evil and seemed suited to it.

Those first edition rules limited a half-orc’s top level in every class but assassin, so only half-orc assassins saw much play. Author Gary Gygax surely figured that evil half-orcs would have a knack for assassination, but the combination lacked much appeal. Orcs bring strength and battle lust, not cunning and methodical planning. Assassins fueled conflict between players, and the role concerned some parents, so second edition dropped the class. (See Why Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons Dropped Thieves and Assassins.)

At first, D&D pictured orcs with pig faces and described them as evil bullies willing to “breed with anything” and eager to capture human slaves. This led many  people to conclude that half-orcs came from rape.

The half-orc’s history in the game suggests that the D&D team shied from featuring a playable race that implies a dark background of sexual violence. As designers wrestled with the half-orc’s backstory, the race came with the first and third editions of the Player’s Handbook, and left with the second and fourth editions of the book.

Many players enjoy mighty, reckless characters who thrive on melee. They relish the chance to ignore caution, rush into action, and destroy foes. No race supports the style half as well as the half-orc, so the option kept reentering the game. Especially when third edition’s Player’s Handbook combined the berserker archetype into the barbarian class, half-orcs gained popularity.

Most of D&D’s editions offer goliaths to players interested in big, mauling fighters, but almost everyone favors half-orcs. Goliaths, a sort of diluted half giant, come so low on flavor that few players can pick one from a lineup.

Through D&D’s editions, the designers worked to free half-orcs from their worst implications.

In second edition’s Planescape setting, the half-orc leader of the Bleaker faction comes from a loving marriage between a human and an orc. The pair came to Sigil seeking tolerance. The setting’s authors felt that a human-monster romance needed some explanation, so in the tradition of Alicia Masters, they made the human parent blind.

Half-orcs can be explained without the implication of rape. The race came from Tolkien and his half-orcs stemmed from interbreeding between orcs and unsavory humans allied with Sauron or Saruman. Third edition steered in a similar direction. “In the wild frontiers, tribes of human and orc barbarians live in uneasy balance, fighting in times of war, and trading in times of peace.” Trading, indeed. Face it, orcs don’t really need to be less evil or monstrous for some humans to willingly interbreed with them. Evidence supports the notion that humans can be outrageously indiscriminate about who or what they couple with.

Still, rather than explaining half-orcs as the product of human-orc interbreeding, fourth edition made them a completely separate race. As backstory, the Player’s Handbook 2 offers a menu of mythic explanations to choose from. For example, perhaps a part of the god Gruumsh’s savage essence fell to earth and transformed a tribe of humans into a new species. Like many ideas floated in fourth edition, half-orcs didn’t remain a species.

Fifth edition frees half-orcs from their darkest implications by developing the nature of orcs. Their evil and savagery stems from their devotion to Gruumsh and the rest of their gods. Orcs follow a faith that preaches blood and conquest, backed by actual gods able to give followers divine powers. No wonder orcs behave so badly.

Outside of Gruumsh’s influence, orcs can escape savagery. “Most orcs have been indoctrinated into a life of destruction and slaughter. But unlike creatures who by their very nature are evil, such as gnolls, it’s possible that an orc, if raised outside its culture, could develop a limited capacity for empathy, love, and compassion.” Perhaps the son of a human and a loving orc could even grow into a factol in Sigil.

Although fifth edition makes half-orcs the product of interbreeding, the game makes the mix common enough for form self-sustaining communities. “In lands far from the Sword Coast, such as Thesk and Chessenta, there are large communities of half-orcs, where generations of them have lived as a people in their own right.”

The story behind D&D improves by making orcish savagery a product of violent gods. In the early days of D&D, orcs only differed from other humanoids by resembling pigs rather than hyenas or big goblins. Now, orcs stand out for their spiritual devotion, and this backstory makes orcs more layered and interesting. Allowing orcs a capacity for love and compassion helps solve the question of what could lead a human to pair with an orc. Plus, the story answers whether good adventurers can murder baby orcs with a clear conscious. I always hated the baby orc dilemma.

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

How much should the outcomes of characters’ actions be decided by the dungeon master instead of the rules?

Before roleplaying games, the rules of a game specified every action players could take, and then decided the outcome of each possibility. The invention of the dungeon master freed players from the tyranny of the rules. Most editions of Dungeons & Dragons expected the DM to make frequent decisions about the characters’ fates—especially in the many situations the rules didn’t cover. “Prior to 3rd edition,” designer Monte Cook wrote, “‘the DM decides’ wasn’t just a fallback position; it often was the rule.”

The DM’s power to augment the rules enabled the hobby we love, but this power enabled capricious DMs to zap characters when players failed to laugh at their puns, to curry favor by lading treasure on their girlfriend’s characters, and to win D&D by killing the rest of the party.

So the designers entered what D&D’s Creative Director Mike Mearls calls “the business of trying to ‘fix’ obnoxious people.”

“D&D’s 3.5 and 4th editions were very much driven by an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance,” Mearls explained in a Twitter thread. “The designers aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.”

So D&D’s fourth-edition designers devised rules that shrank the DM’s role as much as possible. Potentially, a DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. As much as possible, fourth edition shifts the game to the combat stage with its well-defined rules. In stark contrast to earlier editions, spells lacked effects outside of combat. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic: the Gathering cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For action outside of combat, fourth edition presents the skill challenge, where the DM only must decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance.

In Mearls’ opinion, this basic design premise suffers from a fatal flaw. “It misses out on a ton of the elements that make RPGs distinct and doesn’t speak to why people enjoy D&D in the first place.”

Fifth edition’s design returns dungeon masters to their traditional role in the game. During the design, Rodney Thompson described the goal. “We want a system that makes it easy to be the DM, and at the same time trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

“With fifth edition,” Mearls explained, “We assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”

The design team referred to the goal as “DM empowerment.” The phrase may be misleading, because the goal of DM empowerment is not to tickle a DM’s power fantasies. DM empowerment lets DMs fill gaps in the rules—and sometimes override the rules with their own judgement. DM empowerment lets your wizard use spells outside of combat, among other things.

Monte Cook touted the advantages of the approach. “Empowering DMs from the start facilitates simulation. No set of rules can cover every situation, and the DM can address fine details in a way no rulebook can. When it comes to how much of your turn is spent opening a door, perhaps it depends on the door. A large, heavy metal door might be your action to open, while opening a simple wooden door might not be an action at all. Another door might fall in between. Do you want the rules to try to cover every aspect of this relatively insignificant situation?”

DM empowerment reduces the volume of rules a game needs. Original D&D’s rules fit into a few pages because the game relied on the DM to resolve all the areas the rules failed to cover. Rodney Thompson explained that fifth edition also “trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

“Fewer rules coupled with DM empowerment also facilitate story-focused play, because nothing slows down an exciting narrative like consulting a book or two . . . or ten,” Monte wrote. “Giving the DM the ability to adjudicate what you can and can’t do on your turn then players to be more freeform with their actions. They don’t need to worry about action types and can just state what they want to do. A player’s crazy plan might not fit into the tightly defined rules for what you can do in a round, but a good DM can quickly determine on the fly if it sounds reasonable and keep the story and action moving.”

None of this means that D&D’s rules lack a purpose. D&D remains a game about making choices and seeing the consequences (often while in dungeons with dragons). The rules serve as the physics of the game world. As much as convenient, rules should enable players to see the likely consequences of an action, make wise or reckless choices, and then let the dice settle the outcome. Rules help span the gulf between a character’s real experience in the game world and what players learn from a DM’s description. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.) Elegant games cover most of the actions players may take with compact rules that deliver verisimilitude. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

In a roleplaying game, characters face perils, and sometimes harsh consequences. Without such possibilities, the game lacks tension and everyone grows bored. The rules help the DM avoid becoming the players’ adversary—the person to blame when something goes wrong. Monte wrote, “If the rule is printed in a book, it’s easier to assume that it’s balanced and consistent, and players are less likely to question it.” When I run a game and the players succeed, I want them to credit themselves; when something goes bad, I want them to blame the die rolls set by the rules.

The best roleplaying games strike a balance between rules and empowered game masters. D&D owes some of its recent success to elegant rules, some to DM empowerment, and some to modern dungeon masters better suited to their empowered role.

Early in the life of D&D, DMs struggled more with their role keeping the group interested, excited, and happy. Everyone came to D&D from a life seeing and playing only competitive games, so DMs tended to fall into a familiar style of playing to win. And let’s face it, the example set by co-creator Gary Gygax reinforced some of the DM-to-win archetype. After all, when his group made smart plays by listening at doors and searching rubbish for treasure, Gary struck back by creating ear seekers and rot grubs.

Until recently, if you didn’t go to conventions, you could be a dungeon master for decades and almost certainly only see a couple of other DMs in action. Today, every potential DM can stream examples of other DMs acting as fans of the characters. Plus, DMs grow up exposed to electronic roleplaying games. Today’s DMs rarely need to be tied by rules to enable a fun game.

The biggest competitor to D&D is not another tabletop game, it’s World of Warcraft and countless other computer and video games that duplicate most of the D&D experience, 24/7, with better graphics. D&D enjoys two competitive advantages: face-to-face social interaction, and the DM’s ability to account for actions outside of the game’s rules. When D&D’s designers worked to eliminate the DM’s judgement from the game, they threw out a key advantage. Without a DM, why bother to log off?

Related: Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

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Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League

Dungeons & Dragons started as a game about treasure hunting. The rules awarded as much of 80% of total experience points for finding gold, so no one missed the point. Co-creator Gary Gygax knew a thirst for gold resonated with players. “If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more than the lure of riches?” (See The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold.)

D&D no longer awards experience points for gold, but for all the game’s storytelling and heroics, treasure hunting remains the game’s core motivation.

Treasure drives characters to take risks. Safe characters leave the sarcophagus alone and the chest unopened. Safe choices make D&D boring. A treasure hunter risks undead and traps for a chance at riches, which makes the game fun. But players who take risks for no chance of gold feel like chumps, and feeling like a chump isn’t fun.

In D&D, parties of characters join together in a group venture. Players can come up with endless characters, but for the game to work, they must invent characters able to cooperate to reach a shared goal. That’s the magic of treasure hunting. Whether characters aim to feed the orphans or to swim in coins like Scrooge McDuck, they can all quest for gold. (See A Role-Playing Game Player’s Obligation.)

Treasure hunting resonates. When our characters strike it rich, we all feel a vicarious thrill.

In a global campaign like the D&D Adventurers League, treasure becomes a vital, universal aim. In a home game, the players can agree to create characters who only dream of defending the trees. But in a game where players join strangers in an undertaking set by whatever adventure the dungeon master prepared, treasure hunting gives everyone a goal we can share.

For the D&D Adventurers League’s eighth season, the campaign’s new rules stop characters from keeping the gold and magic they find in an adventure. Instead, for each hour of play, characters gain a treasure point spendable on magic items. When characters level, they get an allowance of gold. (See My Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Quick Reference Sheet for a compact introduction to the new rules.) When I counted four ways the new rules reshape the campaign, I felt optimistic about the changes. I knew the bar on keeping treasure defied D&D’s original nature, but perhaps the game had outgrown base motivations. Players could still roleplay a hunger for gold. Now, after seeing the rules for six months of play, I’m ready to rate the revised campaign.

The new rules reached their goals of opening adventures to more styles of play and reducing the exploits players used to claim the best magic items. (See The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win..) However, one change in particular hurt the league.

Preventing characters from keeping the gold they find damages D&D’s foundation.

Ironically, the new rules arrived with two hardcover adventures that showcase D&D’s classic aim of treasure hunting. In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, the characters race to claim a hoard of 500,000 gp—except league characters can’t keep any of it. In Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, characters risk the perils of a massive dungeon for riches, which league characters can’t keep. The safe play sees characters working to monetize Trollskull Manor. Why brave dungeons when you can reach franchise agreements? “Our group isn’t so much an adventuring party as an adventuring sub-committee.”

Because my players left home to play D&D, their characters ventured into Undermountain. But they kept asking why, and a little enthusiasm died. Players who take risks for no chance of gold feel like chumps, and feeling like a chump isn’t fun.

Season eight’s gold allowances brought one positive change: Characters gain far less gold than they used to. For the league’s first seven seasons, players gained tons of gold, but found nowhere to spend it—except on healing potions. Before season 8, characters had access to effectively unlimited healing potions. (See D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose.) Also before season 8, the cost of magic such as Heroes Feast and Simulacrum hardly dented the wealth of characters able to cast the spells. If a tier 3 party brought a cleric, they routinely ignored fear and poison and laughed at yuan-ti and green dragons. If they brought a level-13 wizard, they gained a spare and the pair won D&D for everyone. Before, gold served as a motivation that players roleplayed. Now, gold becomes a motivation they value for spells, healing, and armor. The smaller gold supply forces players into spending choices, and choices make games fun.

A simple fix could solve the trouble. Make gold a reward that characters keep, and then write adventures that award less gold. The league could gain the benefits of limited wealth, without ripping the treasure hunting from the heart of D&D.

Of course, such a change leaves years of league and hardcover adventures that award way too much gold.

Prolific league DM Tom Christy created a set of Adventurers League Recommendations that offers a solution: Limit the gold awards to a set amount per advancement checkpoint earned. Alternately, the league’s content catalog could list updated treasure amounts for each hoard awarded in an adventure. The league administrators could avoid this job by giving volunteers a budget based on each adventure’s expected play time, and letting them crunch the numbers. The hardcovers lack play times, but the league boasts many members who recorded the times they spend playing each chapter in character logs. Surely someone could collect the data.

As much as players seem to dislike the level-based gold allowances, they favor using treasure checkpoints to buy unlocked magic items. To players, finding and unlocking a useful magic item feels rewarding, especially now that another player can’t snatch the item away for “trade bait.” Plus, the system frees adventure designers from having to stock most scenarios with bland items like +1 weapons just so every character can find usable items.

Still, the treasure-point system would benefit from a couple of tweaks:

  • Unlock superior items in adventures, while limiting the evergreen and seasonal unlock items to broadly-useful but less extraordinary items. At Winter Fantasy, players joked about all the adventures that unlocked drift globes and rings of warmth—great for cozy nights scribing franchise agreements. Some epic adventures failed to unlock anything at all. Remember when epics promised special rewards? Meanwhile, even for level-appropriate characters who play safe, the season unlocks some of the game’s most powerful items. Who cares what an adventure brings when anyone can claim a cloak of invisibility or staff of the magi?

  • When characters unlock magic items during the course of an adventure, let them borrow treasure points to claim the item immediately. No one enjoys waiting to play with new toys. The need to bank treasure points particularly frustrates new and lapsed players returning to D&D. New players find a toy they can’t use because of legalese that makes no sense in the game world. Returning players just think D&D no longer resembles the game they used to love. (Credit Tom Christy’s proposals for this idea too.)

For almost 50 years, the vicarious joy of finding treasure brought players to D&D. To thrive, the Adventurers League must recapture some of that thrill.

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5 Tricks for Creating Brilliant Dungeon Maps From Will Doyle

If you played the Dungeons & Dragons adventures Tomb of Annihilation or Storm King’s Thunder, you adventured through dungeon maps created by Will Doyle.

In an episode of the Official D&D Podcast, D&D’s principle story designer, Chris Perkins, explained why he called on Will. “I realized I would not be able to justice to the maps unless I brought in someone to help. There’s this wonderful collaborator, a freelancer named Will Doyle. He had done some work for me back when I was editing Dungeon magazine and I was always impressed with the style of his maps and the amount of effort and devotion that he put into them. I’m very, very meticulous when it comes to map creation, and he has those same qualities.”

In Tomb of Annihilation, Will mapped and designed the adventure’s centerpiece, the Tomb of the Nine Gods. He made Acererak proud.

Will’s maps attracted notice when his adventure Tears of the Crocodile God appeared in Dungeon issue 209. Chris Perkins called the adventure one of the best to appear in the magazine. You don’t have to take his opinion alone, because I agree. Chris has only worked professionally on D&D for decades; I have a blog.

When I gained a chance to talk with Will, I asked him for a secret to making a great dungeon map. He gave me five:

1. Cross the map with a river, rift, or similar connecting feature.

Will recommends splitting your dungeon map with some kind of central feature that characters can travel. Tomb of the Nine Gods includes three connecting elements:

  • An underground river links sites on the first and fifth levels.
  • A grand staircase and vertical shaft connect the dungeon’s first five levels.
  • An underground lake spans the fifth level.

During players first hour exploring the tomb, they could easily find all these features.

These features connect many rooms and passages, giving players choices. Instead of forcing players along a linear path, the dungeon teases explorers with perils and routes to discover. In a study of designer Jennell Jaquays’ dungeon maps, Justin Alexander explains how a well-connected dungeon gives groups agency and flexibility. “They can retreat, circle around, rush ahead, go back over old ground, poke around, sneak through, interrogate the locals for secret routes. The environment never forces a pre-designed path.”

Of course, a corridor could also serve as a connecting feature, but such features feel dull. Rivers and the like add variety to dungeon travel. “You row down the river, rope across the rift, fly down the magic wind tunnel, which makes it fun and memorable,” Will explains. “In play, it’s also easier to say, ‘let’s go back to the river and try another route, rather than ‘let’s go back to that long corridor and try another route.’”

2. Show the final room first.

Will suggests revealing the player’s final destination early in the adventure. Perhaps this location shows the locks to open or a task to complete. Such designs set the characters toward their goal and gives the adventure focus.

While more video games use this technique, a few table-top adventures follow the pattern. In Tomb of Annihilation, both the Lost City of Omu and the Tomb of Nine Gods make finding the players’ goal easy, but both send characters searching for keys.

In Storm King’s Thunder, the forge of the fire giants has massive, adamantine doors that lead from the mountainside directly to the hall of Duke Zalto, the players’ target. But to reach the Duke, the characters probably need to climb 1500 feet and battle down through the mountain’s interior.

If the final room is a metaphor for a visible goal, many more adventures start to follow Will’s advice. For example, in Curse of Strahd, Castle Ravenloft looms visible through the adventure, but the players learn they must gather certain artifacts to stand against Strahd. Teos Abadia drew inspiration for his adventure DDEX2-13 The Howling Void from Will’s Tears of the Crocodile God. The characters enter an elemental node where Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players can see the node the must reach to stop a ritual, but they will visit others to weaken their foes before a final confrontation.

3. Give players goals that compel them to explore.

Linear dungeon adventures come from designers who only plant one goal in the dungeon, usually its villain and its hoard. Players have nothing to find but the end, so authors feel tempted to put all their ideas along the path to the end.

Instead, Will designs his dungeons with elements that draw characters to explore.

For example, the dungeon in Tears of the Crocodile God draws players with several goals. First, the characters aim to save four human sacrifices wandering the dungeon. Second, the dungeon’s four areas include clues that enable the characters to confront the crocodile god. As a bonus, this premise leads the characters to hurry to rescue the sacrifices before the dungeon’s monsters and traps claim them.

In another example, Tomb of Annihilation sends players chasing five wandering skeleton keys.

4. Make the dungeon a puzzle.

In the D&D Adventurers League scenario DDAL07-14 Fathomless Pits of Ill Intent by Eric Menge, the dungeon becomes a puzzle. Early in, players find a puzzle that unlocks a portal to the main villain. Players must explore the dungeon to find the keys to the puzzle. This design combines two of Will’s other suggestions: It shows the final room first and and draws players to explore. Plus, the adventure turns the dungeon into a puzzle. Tears of the Crocodile God mixes a similar brew with its scattered clues.

Most dungeons will follow this suggestion less rigidly. Perhaps the dungeon merely works as something to unravel, location by location. As an inspiration, Will cites the levels of the Doom video game. To progress, players must find a series of keys. Each key brings the heroes deeper into hell.

5. Give each level a distinctive theme.

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

In larger dungeons, flavor the levels or areas with themes that add variety and make regions seem distinct. This practice dates back to D&D’s second dungeon, which sprawled under Castle Greyhawk. Gary Gygax included levels themed around types of monsters.

Large, contemporary dungeons such as the Doomvault in Tales From the Yawning Portal or Undermountain in Dungeon of the Mad Mage feature stronger themes. For instance, Doomvault includes areas bubbling with slime and oozes, overrun by underground gardens, and corrupted by the far realm.

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

Much of a dungeon master’s skill amounts to choosing the technique that suits a moment in the game. I have two examples:

Use the right tool for the job.

For years, because I used the wrong tool, a type of roleplaying scene sometimes left my players confused. Adopting a better technique would have forced me to accept a limitation that just about every DM shares. Few of us can stage a good one-performer show. Lucky for my players, a giant of roleplaying game design set me straight.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the DM plays every non-player character. Speaking in character makes these NPCs more vivid, makes scenes feel more immediate, and encourages roleplaying. (See Most Advice for Encouraging Roleplaying Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.)

As a DM, when I portray two NPCs at once, I often see the players grow confused about who is talking. I figured if I performed better, then the confusion would lessen. So I worked on character voices and doing a better job attributing each speaker. Sometimes I even held up a picture of the current speaker. Despite any improvement, players still often became confused. Perhaps worse, players sat idle. Roleplaying games should encourage interaction and my one-man show discouraged it.

Permission to change my approach came from Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu—probably the most critically acclaimed roleplaying game ever. In a convention presentation, he says, “Never let two NPCs have a discussion, because then it’s just the gamemaster talking to himself.” Thank you, Sandy.

Instead of acting two parts in character, just tell the players what the two characters say. “The elders disagree about the best way to stop the raids. Some want to strike back the chief. Others suspect the attacks seek a stolen totem held by cultists in the village.”

Such a narrative approach falls short of ideal, but it works better than talking to yourself.

Still, the best roleplaying scenes feature a small number of players speaking to one NPC at a time.

In your favorite TV comedy, have you ever noticed how cast members with nothing to do leave the scene? Partly, this happens because actors hate standing in a scene with nothing to do, but moving extraneous characters offstage also focuses attention on the important ones.

Find an excuse to trot out your NPCs one at a time, play their part, and then have them excuse themselves to go to the loo or to take cookies from the oven. (Many dark necromancers enjoy baking to unwind.) If you need two characters to argue two points of view, let one convince the players, and then leave. Then have a second NPC meet to present an opposing point of view. Now you can act as each NPC in character without fostering confusion.

But suppose you have the acting chops to fill a crowd scene with distinctive voices chatting among themselves. Awesome! Can I play at your table? Still, avoid putting more than one NPC onstage at once, you showoff.

Dungeon masters should work to offer each player as much time to play and interact as possible. That means that even if you can portray every member of the king’s council as they argue strategy, resist the temptation. Give the players a bigger role in the discussion by limiting yourself to a single NPC. If the players wanted to see a one-man show, they would have gone to the theater.

As you deploy your cast of characters, weigh the advantages of forcing the party to split up to meet NPCs separately. Splitting the party makes everyone contribute. Less-vocal party members gain time in the spotlight. In the dungeon, never split the party, but in the castle or guild hall, send them on their separate ways. (See Never Split the Party—Except When it Adds Fun.)

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8 Thoughts About D&D From Winter Fantasy

At the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the entire Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall. Despite the event’s compact size, it delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as the biggest table-top gaming cons. Imagine the D&D track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, concentrated in a convention of its own. Plus, the con offers plenty of inexpensive hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

This year’s convention inspired 8 thoughts about D&D.

1. Winter Fantasy 2019 marks my first convention under the Season 8 Adventurers League rules, which meant lots of jokes about the system’s abstractions. Based on descriptions at my tables, treasure chests now contain vouchers allowing the purchase of magic items, coins disappear into trusts payable upon leveling, and hardened mercenaries now tackle deadly missions for the promise of gratitude. (These adventurers took Intelligence as a dump stat and think “gratitude” is a gemstone.) For a summary of the season 8 league rules, see My Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Quick Reference Sheet.

Despite all the jokes, players seemed fine with the practice of unlocking magic items. Other aspects deserve changes. I plan a deeper look in a future post.

2. The convention’s organizer, Baldman Games, creates Adventurers League scenarios set in the Moonshae islands. With Shawn Merwin and Eric Menge shepherding the writing, these adventures boast an otherworldly flavor of Celtic myth and faerie. In Moonshae, the good fey are dangerous, the bad fey are creepy and dangerous, and the story ends when the witch eats the children. Those brats had it coming.

Everyone but the dog

3. My first game gathered James Introcaso, Mike Shea, Teos Abadia, and other D&D enthusiasts to play MOON4-1 Precious Cargo by Cindy Moore. Through our adventures, we befriended goblins, a svirfneblin, and a dog, adding all to our party. Credit our dungeon master, Garrett Crowe, for silly goblin voices and a knack for playing along. Just when Garrett seemed like a pushover, the svirfneblin betrayed us. Good move.

Whenever I run a D&D game for kids, their party seems to gather an entourage of pets, companions, and friends. The kids love it. So what does it say when a party of “mature,” “sophisticated” D&D players gathers a similar zoo? Don’t answer that question. And if my editor puts quotes around any words, ignore them.

4. Speaking of strategic mastery, our party started befriending monsters because Cindy penned a challenging adventure that made combat seem risky. I love difficult adventures because they can either bring tense battles that push characters to their limits or—in our case—alliances with one-armed goblins who fancy themselves emperor. Because Cindy’s adventures once carried a reputation for being cupcakes, this scenario’s difficulty surprised me. Later in the con, I asked her if this reputation led to a change in style. “Yes, I said eff you all.” Well played, Cindy.

5. As for challenges, a highlight of my games came when a kraken tentacle hurled my unconscious character to another game table. The incident came during the D&D multi-table special adventure MOON ES-1 A Drop in the Ocean. The DMs invented a process where tentacle attacks could fling characters from table to table. Falling characters landed in the quipper-infested waters controlled by another DM. Players loved it.

Many multi-table adventures feature a way for characters to jump between tables, but they typically move in response to a call for help. Players never ask for help, so nobody moves. The tentacle rule sparked concerns that too many people might temporarily land at a single table, leading to a party size that exceeded league regulations.

Luckily, someone read the part of league guidelines that grants DMs authority to make rulings that make things fun. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us just to see a game where kraken tentacles can’t hurl unconscious characters from table to table.

6. Another highlight came when I played Invasion from the Planet of Tarrasques run by the adventure’s author, James Introcaso. This stands as my first game with top-level characters. Despite our superhero-like power, James pressed us to our limits and we had a blast. This adventure serves “over-the-top, gonzo action” without becoming silly. I’ve already committed to running it for friends.

7. The play of the convention came during the adventure MOON6-2 Troubled Visions, run by Eric Menge. The adventure pits the party against a fey prince named Uznezzir, who revels in everything repulsive and unclean. Our party found the prince’s captive and unrequited love, an Eladrin woman named Aodh. Uznezzir offered her freedom as the stake in a challenge. He suggested a riddle contest. D&D players know how that goes: The players try to solve a riddle and the adventure moves on a well-trod path.

Instead, a party member played by Jason Pearson challenged Uznezzir to a compliment contest. Is that even a thing? Whoever lavished Aodh with the best compliment would win her freedom or her eternal imprisonment. She swore on her honor to judge fairly. While the party struggled to craft praise, Eric as Uznezzir found quick inspiration.

At last the party finished and we read our work. “Aodh, Your hair shines like the sun yadda yadda yadda.” Surely Uznezzir’s honeyed words would best our platitudes.

Then the fey prince spoke. “Aodh, You are as beautiful as a heap of rotting fresh turned green under a yellow sky of dripping acid that reeks to the highest heaven and brings all the flies.”

We won the contest. In the tradition of fables, Jason had realized the fey prince’s weakness and used it to outsmart him, while Eric had been quick enough to see the twist in the story and play it out. This may rank as the best moment of collaborative storytelling I’ve seen in a D&D game.

8. The authors of D&D’s creature statistics missed an opportunity when they failed to give owls an 18 Wisdom.

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10 Ways to Build a Character That Will Earn the Love of Your Party

In Dungeons & Dragons, rolling handfuls of damage dice feels like a good way to shine among party members, but know this secret: Other players usually overlook the damage you do. If you really want to shine, find ways to make other characters better. Make them hit on a roll that would have missed. Make them save when they would have burned. Make them happy you brought your paladin.

This post lists 10 ways to build and play characters that will earn the love of your party.

10. Build a cleric and prepare bless and aid

Between short rests and a choice of classes able to heal, D&D groups no longer require a cleric for healing. Clerics now can prepare some spells so useful that no one will gripe about the spell slots you should have hoarded for cures.

Bless lets up to 3 targets add an extra d4 roll to their attack rolls and saving throws. Unlike most 1st-level spells, which pale at higher levels, bless remains strong all the way up to a level-20 showdown with Orcus.

Players have enough trouble remembering their characters own abilities, so they sometimes forget even a buff as useful as bless. When you bless characters, loan their players a super-sparkly d4 to set beside their d20 and act as a reminder of who helped them shine.

Aid increases current and maximum hit points of up to 3 allies for 8 hours. This spell rates as one of the best to cast with a higher-level spell slot. Cast it once on your front line, or twice to give everyone in your party a boost.

Clerics and druids can also help friends with the guidance cantrip, the best utility cantrip in the game.

9. Build a wizard or sorcerer and a prepare haste

Fireball ranks as the 3rd-level spell strong enough to shape D&D’s power curve, but haste boasts nearly as much power. Against smaller groups of foes or spread out targets, haste works better. Just cast haste on the party’s most damaging attacker, typically the sharpshooter or great weapon master. They will relish the extra attack, and thank you every turn.

8. Build a barbarian who follows the Path of the Ancestral Guardian

Some support features work as reactions, making you watch the battle for chances to use the ability. Instead of waiting between turns with no chance to act, you stay involved in the fray. Such abilities bring you deeper in the game while earning the love of your party.

Barbarians who follow the Path of the Ancestral Guardian gain a feature like this. At 6th level Spirit Shield lets you use your reaction to reduce the damage that your allies suffer. Who needs a cleric when no one takes damage?

7. Build a fighter with the Battle Master archetype

Fighters with the Battle Master archetype can learn a couple of maneuvers that help allies.

Distracting strike lets you give an ally advantage on the next attack on a foe. I suggest putting an attention-grabbing marker on the enemy’s figure, so your friends remember to take their advantage.

Rally lets you grant temporary hit points to a friend in need.

6. Build a wizard in the School of Abjuration

At 6th-level, Abjurers gain the Projected Ward feature that lets you use your reaction to prevent damage to your friends. That’s immediate healing, and another ability that keeps you involved outside your turns.

5. Build a bard in the College of Glamour

The Bardic Inspiration feature lets every bard give friends a die that they can add to their choice of one d20 roll during the next 10 minutes. Set real, shiny dice next to the inspired players’ d20s, so they remember the boost—and remember who enables their success.

Bards in the College of Glamour can spend just one use of Bardic Inspiration to help a number of allies up to their Charisma modifier. Everyone inspired gains temporary hit points and can spend a reaction to move their speed without provoking opportunity attacks. In a tight spot, a bonus action plus Bardic Inspiration could make you the party MVP.

4. Build a wizard in the School of Divination

The diviner’s Portent feature rates as underrated. After a long rest, you roll 2 or 3 d20s and record the result. Then, when any creature you see is about to make a d20 roll, you can substitute one of your portent rolls. By tagging a foe with a bad roll, you can guarantee that save-or-die roll just means die. More to the point of this list, you can guarantee that a friend saves, lands their killing blow, or makes that vital check.

3. Build a rogue with the Mastermind archetype

Rogues who choose the Mastermind archetype can use the help action as a bonus action. Plus, they can help allies attack foes up to 30 feet away, adding combat advantage to attacks, both melee and ranged.

2. Build a barbarian following the Path of the Totem Warrior and choose a wolf totem spirit

As a wolf totem spirit warrior, while you’re raging, your friends have advantage on melee attack rolls against any creature within 5 feet of you. Unlike advantage-granting features from the Mastermind and Battle Master, this ability helps all your melee friends rather than just one.

1. Build a paladin

At 6th level, paladins gain an Aura of Protection that extends to every ally within 10 feet. Those allies gain a bonus to saving throws equal to the paladin’s charisma bonus. For most 6th-level paladins, the bonus starts at +4 and will rise to +5—roughly equivalent to advantage on every save.

Too few people play paladins, so when a level-6-or-higher paladin shows up with an aura, everyone gets a shocking reminder of how good paladins are. Adventure author Eric Menge writes, “That aura is the bane of my DM existence in my home game. No one fails saves.” I hear you, brother. Players under the aura shed magical attacks like Superman sheds bullets.

At 7th level, the paladin’s aura gains an extra measure of protection. As a player, I love the Aura of Warding, which grants you and friendly creatures resistance to spell damage. As a dungeon master, I tell everyone not to play boring, dumb paladins.

The paladin’s aura earns enough love to vault the class to the top of this list, but the class also brings enough healing to cure a fallen ally. Plus paladins gain the bless and aid spells listed in item 10.

Also, the Divine Smite ability lets you roll fistfuls of damage dice. I hear that can be fun too.

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Should Charm Person Work Like a Jedi Mind Trick?

In three original, brown Dungeons & Dragons books, what spell ranks as the most powerful? At 6th level, disintegrate could turn someone to dust, but charm person could put someone “completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such time as the ‘charm’ is dispelled.” Would you rather turn a foe to dust or turn a king or empress into your thrall? And charm person rates as a mere 1st-level spell, available to the weakest of mages.

Charm person brings more power. No contest. Why did such a potent spell land at first level? Read to the end for the answer.

D&D’s fifth-edition rules curtail charm person’s original power. “The charmed creature regards you as a friendly acquaintance.” But even weakened, the spell might outrank disintegrate. Would you rather turn a hostile king to dust or make him regard you as a friendly acquaintance? You could go far with help from a powerful and friendly acquaintance.

Charm person delivers power, but when I play wizards, the spell’s potential frustrates me. I dream of using charm like a sort of Jedi mind trick, subtly casting it with a hand wave and making allies—or at least friendly acquaintances—of all who stand in my way.

I’m thwarted because charm person is a spell, and spells work differently than Jedi mind tricks in two key ways:

  • People usually notice someone casting a spell.
  • Spellcasting takes longer than a hand wave.

According the Player’s Handbook (p.203) spells with verbal components require “the chanting of mystic words.” Somatic components add “forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures.” Most D&D worlds make magic common enough for ordinary folks to recognize spellcasting when it starts.

Folks also know that spells can pose severe danger. A spellcaster can shoot bolts of fire, or worse, compel you to do terrible things.

In many D&D scenes, someone who witnesses spellcasting will probably assume the worst and take sensible precautions—if not violent steps. Even villagers will know that they can’t usually be ensorcelled by someone who can’t see them.

Folks in the market won’t assume someone who starts a spell intends to use prestidigitation to clean a stain. Spells can make you do terrible things—like give away free merchandise.

Of course, the circumstances matter. Today, if an actor in a play pulls a gun, no one clears the theater. If someone in the audience pulls a gun, people take cover. Spellcasting has as much potential to be deadly or entertaining.

To cast a spell without provoking a fight, characters may need to fool their target into believing a spell is harmless, or even beneficial. Can the wizard bluff the chief into expecting a spell that will lift a curse? Despite any deception, targets with arcane knowledge may recognize a spell from the casting. They may even loose a counterspell.

Spellcasting in a D&D world often looks like a potentially hostile act. Can a target do anything before a spell like charm takes effect?

Often, yes.

In D&D, when someone in a tense situation makes a provocative move, roll initiative. Then, start taking turns from the top of initiative order. Nobody has to start fighting, but if the queen’s guards see the wizard start chanting and gesturing, they may loose arrows.

To some players, forcing the wizard into initiative order either seems unfair or defies their sense of the game. The wizard acted first, right?

Stop imagining initiative as a way to settle who starts acting first. In D&D, everyone in a round does 6 seconds of fighting all at the same time. Turns just exist as a completely unrealistic way to make sense of all those actions in a fun way. Who starts their 6 seconds first matters far less than who finishes first. The first to finish lands the first blow.

To picture how initiative works, imagine a Western where two gunslingers face each other. Each dares the other to draw, but the first to move may still fall to someone quicker to shoot.

“But,” players argue, “The wizard gained surprise, because our characters were just talking.”

No. The players at the kitchen table are just talking. In the game world, the queen faces a group of hardened, armed killers. While the woman with the lute seems agreeable, the ranger keeps an arrow nocked and the dwarf fingers his axe and glowers. (Charisma was his dump stat.) The queen knows these types by bloody reputation. When wizard the starts chanting, no one feels surprise except the ranger. (That player is sending a text.)

This sometimes defies players’ expectations, so when someone interrupts a role-playing scene with an attack, I explain that despite their “surprise,” everyone will act in initiative order. Then I ask if they still want to start something.

Initiative does more than support the game’s fiction; it avoids rewarding instigators with a free attack. Many players enjoy role-playing scenes, so don’t reward impatient players who spoil the dialog. (For more, see What to do when a player interrupts a role-playing scene to start a battle.)

Sometimes a wizard can cast spells without starting a fight by concealing the act of casting. Mystic words and forceful gestures seem hard to hide, but some combination of distraction, background noise, and concealment might succeed. In a noisy ballroom, a caster could make a Dexterity (Slight of Hand) check to hide a gesture. In the throne room, a party member might engineer a noisy distraction. Perhaps, with a Charisma (Performance) check, a bard can conceal mystic words and gestures in a song and dance. These misdirections give players a chance to show skill and ingenuity.

Still, if characters aim to charm the queen, they probably have to find a way to get her alone somewhere in the caster’s line of sight. Otherwise, her court would see the bard’s song and dance, note the queen’s change in attitude, and connect the dots. Guards know that the queen can’t be spellbound by a bard with a split skull.

With these challenges, charming someone powerful starts looking less like a quick way to wealth and influence and more like a heist. Such undertakings make great adventures.

By now, many readers probably want to set me straight in the comment section. “Hey dummy, The Jedi mind trick isn’t charm person, but more like suggestion.” Do the suggestion spell’s components resemble a hand wave and the suggested instruction? “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

A soft dungeon master could allow their children such tricks, but that defies the game. Verbal components consist of mystic words. In a tweet, designer Jeremy Crawford confirms the rules. “The spell’s suggestion is a separate, intelligible utterance.”

Suggestion appeared in the Greyhawk supplement two years before Star Wars reached theaters, and Gary Gygax drew inspiration from hypnotism, not Jedi.

If you want to use charm to turn enemies into friends and use suggestion to bend the will of kings and queens, you need skill and a clever plan—or to play a sorcerer with the Subtle Spell metamagic option. As a DM, I relish seeing players show ingenuity in my D&D games, so I favor these limitations. As a player, well, I’m creating a sorcerer for my next character. Always look out for sorcerers.

Why did Gary Gygax put the original charm person spell at first level despite its power? Original D&D debuted as a tightly-focused game where treasure hunters entered dungeons, spent turns moving and fighting, and kept score in gold. (See The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons.) Characters in dungeons didn’t meet queens or even shopkeepers to charm. Instead, magic users cast charm person to turn one attacking orc into an ally who could walk ahead. Such redshirts died in the next trap or next battle. As the game blossomed, D&D’s simple style of play disappeared. As soon as Greyhawk reached players, charm person started to weaken. Fifth edition includes the weakest version yet. Even so, at 1st level, charm person rates as strong.

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My Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Quick Reference Sheet

The end of a session in my local game store brings the worst part of my role as a dungeon master. Then, I inevitability struggle to explain the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League advancement and reward system to casual players who just stopped by to roll dice, kill monsters, and collect loot. “No, you don’t keep the gold. Instead, you get treasure checkpoints.” As players grapple with D&D without XP and with a treasure allowance, I show pages from the campaign documentation. “See, this evergreen list shows things you can get with points.” The players take the pages, and I start searching through another document. “The costs aren’t printed there, so you have to check this list, but then you need to reference the table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.” Casual players who just drop in for a D&D game often lack a Dungeon Master’s Guide.

I don’t see new players every week, but even repeat players need repeat explanations. Sure, I recommend downloading the campaign documents, but few players do the assigned readings.

Between the confusion and the homework, the current Adventurers League rules form a barrier that some players just bounce off. I want to reduce that barrier, so I created a quick-start guide that consolidates the essentials on two sides of a sheet. This reference draws from four campaign documents and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It might list more high-level loot than necessary, but I see players reach tier 3 without ever getting their own copy of the Player’s Handbook. Besides, I wanted a reference for myself too. Plus, everyone likes to browse the rewards that wait at higher levels.

Download the reference, share it, and then please tell me about any mistakes that need correction.

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Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse

Larry Niven's disk

The Magic Goes Away inspired Larry Niven’s disk

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Monsters that come from magic can inspire stories

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

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

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

3. Magical creatures can break the laws of nature

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

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

Embrace the magic in magical creatures

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

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

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

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