The Most Useful D&D Miniatures to Buy On a Budget

When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons battles on a map, I used tokens and Cardboard Heroes instead of miniatures. Today’s gamers have similar inexpensive options ranging from tokens, to cardboard pawns on plastic bases, to printable paper minis, to flat-plastic miniatures.

When pre-painted plastic miniatures reached stores, I figured I would augment my cardboard with a few common monsters: orcs and skeletons and the lot. But the appeal of miniatures proved irresistible and my collection grew unchecked.

If you’re cheaper or more sensible than I am, you can still follow my original plan and collect a small group of broadly useful miniatures—the sort of figures I use so often that I never bother to file them away. Such common figures tend to come cheap too. This post features the most useful figures to buy on a budget. As of posting, I found all the pre-painted selections for sale at between $2 and $5 each. Unpainted picks often come a bit cheaper. To find these figures yourself, paste the figure caption into search and browse the listings that appear.

Typically, pre-painted figures come randomized in boxes, so if you buy a box, the you never know what you get. For maximum value on useful figures, buy singles from online vendors. For bargain hunters I recommend going the web site of a miniatures vendor, selecting all the D&D, Pathfinder, or D&D Miniatures and sorting by lowest cost first. Pages of bargains appear, many for broadly useful figures.

Unpainted figures bring the new hobby of painting miniatures. But the hobby of painting welcomes dabblers more than you may think. Even a beginner can paint figures with more appeal then some slapdash factory job. Just buy a painting starter set, put on headphones, and enjoy the almost meditative flow that comes from painting.

Bandits and thugs

The Bandit Knocker’s club and hodgepodge of armor makes the figure my favorite back-alley brawler.

Reaper Bandit Knocker (sold unpainted)

Reaper Bones: Bandit Knocker 77510 (sold unpainted)

Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Bandits

Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Bandits

Storm Kings Thunder #14 Bandit Captain

Storm Kings Thunder #14: Bandit Captain

 

Guards and soldiers

Heroes & Monsters #08 Watch Guard

Heroes & Monsters #08: Watch Guard

Watch Officer Heroes & Monsters #9

Heroes & Monsters #9: Watch Officer

Deep Cuts Unpainted Miniatures: Town Guards

Deep Cuts Unpainted Miniatures: Town Guards

Night Below #13: Greyhawk City Militia Sergeant

Night Below #13: Greyhawk City Militia Sergeant

 

Zombies and corporeal undead

The Terror Wight figure serves as a wight, ghoul, or any other corporeal undead, making it one of the most versatile figures.

Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Zombies

Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Zombies

Terror Wight War Drums #34

War Drums #34: Terror Wight

Reaper Bones Zombies

Reaper Bones: Zombies 77342

Incorporeal undead

Translucent undead figures stand in for ghosts, wraiths, and more.

Banshee Rage of Demons #21

Rage of Demons #21: Banshee

Not pictured: Boneyard #05: Ghost

Skeletons

Reaper makes a variety of skeletons for their Bones line.

Reaper bones: Skeletons (various, comes unpainted)

Reaper bones: Skeletons (various, come unpainted)

esert of Desolation #39: Boneshard Skeleton

Desert of Desolation #39: Boneshard Skeleton

Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Skeletons

Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Skeletons

Spiders

The giant spider is large, while the other spiders are medium sized.

Wolf Spider Elemental Evil #08

Elemental Evil #08: Wolf Spider

Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Spiders

Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Spiders

Reaper Bones Giant Spider

Reaper Bones: Giant Spider (sold unpainted)

Giant rats

Reaper Bones: Barrow rats 77198

Reaper Bones: Barrow rats 77198

Wolves

The wolf pack has medium figures, while the winter wolf is large.

Reaper Bones: Wolf pack 02830

Reaper Bones: Wolf pack 02830

Reaper Bones: Winter wolf 77437

Reaper Bones: Winter wolf 77437

Knights

Figures with full helms work best because they double as animated armor, helmed horrors, and the like.

Underdark #11: Royal Guard

Underdark #11: Royal Guard

Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage #36: Dezmyr Shadowdusk

Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage #36: Dezmyr Shadowdusk

Reaper Bones: Knight Heroes 77676

Reaper Bones: Knight Heroes 77676

Evil spellcaster

Baldur's Gate Descent Into Avernus #08: Falaster Fisk

Baldur’s Gate Descent Into Avernus #08: Falaster Fisk

Deathknell #36: Grim Necromancer

Deathknell #36: Grim Necromancer

Cultists

Reaper Bones: Cultists and Circle 77351

Reaper Bones: Cultists and Circle 77351

Berserkers

Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage #17: Berserker

Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage #17: Berserker

Not pictured: Monster Menagerie 2 #19: Half-Orc Barbarian

Goblins

Orcs see the table almost as often as goblins, but the smaller humanoids make better low-level foes, so their figures prove more useful.

Monster Menagerie 2 #03: Goblin

Monster Menagerie 2 #03: Goblin

Savage Encounters #16: Goblin Skullcleaver

Savage Encounters #16: Goblin Skullcleaver

Nolzur's Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Goblins

Nolzur’s Marvelous Unpainted Minis: Goblins

Assassins and rogues

Reaper Bones: Romag Davl, Thief 30004

Reaper Bones: Romag Davl, Thief 30004

Not pictured: Kingmaker #10: Shadow Rogue

Confidence game: Why Faking Confidence Makes You a Better Dungeon Master

Some dungeon masters boast unshakable confidence in their skill, even though their games only attract players because no one else wants the DM’s chair. Overconfidence leaves these DMs blind to their flaws. I should know. As a DM, I have been that overconfident, and it led me to run bad games.

bills_tableNow I know that my skills can always stand improvement. That my next session could be a dud. That however well my last game went, I can find ways to do better. When I finish running a game, I reflect back on the session and wonder how I can recreate the moments that went well and fix any missteps.

My lesser confidence makes me a better dungeon master. Don’t tell my players. I need to seem confident.

When expert DMs name the qualities of a good DM, they often cite confidence. I agree with 100% certainty.

As a dungeon master, you channel an imaginary world to your players. When you seem uncertain about what happens in that world, it yanks the players out of their imagination and reminds them that you just make things up.

In a confidence game, a con man schemes to gain someone’s trust in order to rob them. As a dungeon master, you don’t chase anyone’s retirement savings, but your game still needs trust. If you speak of the game world with confidence, players trust you as their eyes into it. They throw their alter egos into an imaginary world and trust that it will react in ways the make sense.

For dungeon masters like me who sometimes lack confidence, this insight should feel encouraging.

If you lack confidence, you can fake it. No dungeon master always feels confident. You just need to pretend enough to show authority. No problem. As role players, we all practice pretending.

Even though you can fabricate confidence from pure bluster, I prefer to reach the table armed with the real thing. You do not need 10,000 hours of GM experience to build the sort of confidence that helps at the table. You just need to master the sliver of your game world that players will see. By doing the preparation you probably already do, you can reach the table with confidence.

As a dungeon master, you may worry that someone at your table will know the rules better than you do. Don’t let this shake your confidence. Someone usually knows more, and that doesn’t matter. In a prior Dungeon Master’s Guide, designer James Wyatt wrote, “When I started working at Wizards of the Coast, it took a long time before I felt comfortable running a game for any of my coworkers, even though I used to always DM for my friends back home. They all knew the rules better than I did, and I didn’t want to get caught in a stupid mistake. Eventually, I got over that.”

You need to know enough of the rules to keep your game moving, but you do not need to match the rules lawyer. You can delegate mastery of the rules. Have someone look up that spell for you. Let the lawyers explain the corner case. They relish the chance.

“The DM is the person who prepares adventures, plans a campaign, and runs the monsters and NPCs,” Wyatt wrote. “I don’t want to be a referee or judge, and my players don’t expect me to.”

Of course, the rules leave many decisions to the DM’s judgement.

Confidence—or an imitation of it—lets you make these rulings with authority. If your rulings seem to rely on the players’ approval, you encourage them to quibble. They start to lobby for favorable rulings. I’ve sat at tables where players see the DM as unsure. They try to wheedle advantages and the game lurches along. Despite the merits of saying yes, compelling stories require obstacles. Immersion requires a game world that doesn’t change as the DM waffles. Listen to the players, make a confident ruling that seems fun and fair, and then move on.

The secret to projecting confidence at the table lies in role playing. Play the character of a confident, expert dungeon master. A dungeon master much like you. If you come prepared to bring a sliver of your game world to life, playing the role should come easy. You can run a great game. Your players sat to roll some dice and have fun. They want you to succeed.

This post originally appeared in October 2016.

Add Tension and Interesting Choices to D&D Adventures With This Potion

In an adventure that features a race against time or against unseen ememies, players will ask if they have time to rest,  search, or prepare. If the adventure lacks a way to reveal how much time remains, such decisions become guesswork. Informed choices make roleplaying games fun, but guessing can just feel frustrating. Players wonder if their blind decisions really matter or if their choices just get ignored so the session tracks a narrative. Often, story conventions win, so choices don’t matter. How often do parties of adventurers reach a diabolical ritual seconds before its completion? Such luck! All those guesses led to the most improbable, dramatic conclusion. (I don‘t condemn it; I’ve done it.)

The movie version of the race to foil a ritual would cut speeding characters against shots revealing the cultists’ nearing success. For drama, a dungeon master could take the storytelling liberty of describing events the characters can’t see, but that gives players actionable information their characters lack. To play in character, does the group have to pretend they don’t know what they can’t know?

Potions photo by Jan Ranft

Some years ago, the multi-table epic adventure Return to White Plume Mountain suffered from such an information gap. In it, some tables worked to create a distraction to divert foes from other groups who might otherwise be overwhelmed. At the end of the adventure, groups that drew more foes faced more monsters. The best strategy balanced making some distration without drawing a lethal amount of attention. But the players lacked feedback revealing the rising threat they faced, so I wished for some divination magic that would give players a better sense of how their actions shaped their future.

I’ve considered all this as I prepare to run the adventure Necropolis of the Mailed Fist, a “punishing” tournament adventure sure to be relished by a particular group of gluttons for punishment. Author Sersa Victory favors competition over immersion by sometimes telling DMs to make metagame announcements or to issue challenges:

“Announce to players that ‘the constellation of living spheres of annihilation has been awakened!’”

“Tell characters that they have one minute to choose between supremacy for themselves or subjugation for their enemies.”

I imagine an unseen narrator’s announcements sounding across the necropolis, and the characters looking quizzically for the source, Instead, I want a way to bring these announcements out of the metagame and into the game world.

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons scenarios would play better when the players gain feedback that would lead to interesting choices and added tension. Often, the characters have no ordinary way to get that information. Fortunately, D&D characters live in a magical world where divination exists.

Potion of Omens
Potion, rare
After drinking this potion, you begin seeing visions or hearing phrases that reveal your progress toward whatever short-term goal you feel is most important. These omens may also reveal the most likely outcome of current activities meant to reach the goal. The DM chooses the frequency and the exact nature of the omens. The effects last for 10 days or until your goal changes.

By providing the capability in a potion, the DM controls access, so when a mission works better with extra information, characters can happen upon a potion that helps.

How to End Combat Encounters Before They Become a Grind

Every Dungeons & Dragons player experiences a battle that drags near the end, when the monsters have spent their best attacks and lack the numbers to threaten the PCs. As a dungeon master, I want to cut to the next scene, but thanks to focused fire, the remaining monsters stand near full health. Players won’t spend any resources on a fight that seems won, so they chip away with cantrips and basic attacks. The battle wears on.

After a battle’s outcome becomes obvious, the game can drag. I have had many chances to test ways to move on. Some of my schemes have worked better than others.

Endings to avoid

Avoid having monsters flee or surrender. Some argue that monsters would possess a sense of self preservation. That in the face of death, they would flee or surrender. I used to agree, but then I learned that bloodthirsty treasure hunters never show mercy.

Having monsters flee or surrender seems like a quick way to end a battle, but neither tactic saves time. PCs always pursue fleeing monsters, resulting in a chase. Only have monsters flee when you want a chase, or when the PCs simply cannot follow.

Surrender leads to an ugly interrogation scene followed by the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Finally, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. (If you have never run these scenes, welcome first-time dungeon master!)

Sometimes, a surrender can lead to an interesting role-playing scene, or a real dilemma. Usually this requires foes who can (a) trade for their lives or (b) offer a good reason they should be freed. In these cases, a surrender can enrich a game by creating interesting choices. See Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing. Nonetheless, surrender never saves time.

With either a chase or a surrender, you spend 30 minutes to save 5.

I suspect that in the monster community, word has spread about murderous treasure hunters and their rogues and paladins. Better to fall in battle than to die on your knees or with a knife in your back.

Don’t call the fight. When a winner becomes obvious, some DMs recommend calling the fight. Just sweep the monsters off the map. This fix seems tempting, but players hate it.

As a DM, you know more about the monsters’ conditions than the players. You may see an obvious win, while the players still feel tension. To players, the fight remains undecided and they want to play to the end.

Even when everyone sees the inevitable, calling a fight jars the players out of their immersion in the game world. It leaves players feeling robbed of a victory they earned. “When a player rolls a successful attack, deals damage, and the bad guy dies, that’s something that THEY did. They own that moment,” writes Justin Alexander. “If you, as the GM, interrupt that process, and declare a fiat success, you take that moment away from them: They didn’t kill the monster; you did.”

“As DMs, we might get tired. We might get frustrated because the PCs dominated what otherwise would have been a tough fight,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea writes. “Don’t spread your disinterest to your players, revel in their excitement! Be fans of the PCs and come up with interesting ways to end the battle in a powerful in-story conclusion.”

In the worst time crunch, use narration to ease players out of the scene and give some sense of victory. Describe the characters’ final strikes—or invite the players to tell the tale.

Endings to use

Plan an out. The best combat encounters feature an objective different from kill all the monsters. Charactrers attempt to stop a ritual, defend a wall, close a dark portal, destroy an artifact, steal the brain in the jar, or accomplish some other task. Dave “The Game” Chalker calls this The Combat Out.

Often completing the objective returns undead foes to dust, turns summoned foes to mist, makes constructs inanimate, or causes the cultists to rout. Unlike most combat encounters, if the losing foes surrender or run, the players may skip the torture and chase scenes. After all, the victorious players have no information to gain. And if the heroes insist on bringing the fleeing cultists to justice, nobody minds if the DM summarizes that endgame.

Turn monsters into minions. You can bring a fight to a quick end by silently deciding that all the monsters stand at only 1 hit point. The next hit kills. I used to feel conflicted about this technique because it felt like a way for a DM to steer the game—I want the players’ actions and the dice to decide the characters‘ fate. But the characters have settled their fate and won. Rounding up their damage rolls to let them quickly finish monsters just gives the players a victory lap.

Let everyone roll at once. Near the end of a battle, typically only one type of monster remains—often just one creature at nearly full health. These survivors all act on the same initiative count, then all the players act. This situation permits my favorite way to close a battle: everyone roll at once. By now, the outcome has been decided, so no one would waste a spell slot. No player’s action requires my full attention. I announce the monsters’ armor class and invite everyone to roll their attacks and damage at once. If you need to move, just do it. I call out names in initiative order and tally damage. In the time usually spent on one turn, all the players act.

This post updates and improves on a version that appeared in 2016.

Two Ways to Exploit D&D’s Ready Action In Tricky Ways

Usually, D&D games feel the most fun and immediate when the game’s rules aren’t the center of attention. So for example, the fifth edition uses the blunt simplicity of advantage and disadvantage instead of the fussy lists of pluses and minuses found in prior editions. But the Ready action adds rules where players and dungeon masters can wring benefits by exploiting the game text. Using these tricks throws a spotlight on the game’s rules and might send players to the books or to search for rulings from lead designer Jeremy Crawford, so the tricks don’t fit every table.

A Dungeons & Dragons round unravels 6 seconds of mayhem where combatants all fight at once into turns played at the game table. The ready action lets players hesitate a moment to take an action outside their usual turn. Since all the turns in a round share the same 6 seconds, Ready actions leave space for wonky rules exploits.

Use this one weird trick to avoid counterspell

You cast counterspell as a reaction “you take when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell.” So if you cast a spell out of sight, no foes can counter it. “When you ready a spell, you cast it as normal but hold its energy, which you release with your reaction when the trigger occurs.”

To avoid a counterspell, just ready a spell by casting it around the corner or beyond the 60-foot range of a counter, and then choose to trigger the action when your target comes into view or within range of your spell. Jeremy Crawford writes, “Counterspell foils the casting of a spell, not the release of a spell that was cast previously using the Ready action.”

Nothing in the ready action prevents you from readying and then moving while concentrating on the ready spell. As an added bonus, readying a spell out of view enables you to release it without the mystic movements or words that would expose you as the source of the spell. Of course, with many spells, something like flames jetting from your fingertips reveals you as the caster.

Although this exploit works, I never use it because—despite Jeremy’s defense of the rules as written—it feels like an unintended consequence of the fifth edition text, allowing a trick that only a rules lawyer could love.

Slow ranged attackers by a third just by moving out of sight between turns

Creatures in fifth edition D&D can move into view, fire an attack or spell, and then duck back into complete cover. Such duck-and-cover tactics make the most effective defense against ranged attackers who can’t shoot through walls and other obstacles. The typical archer has to choose between two options:

  • Circle the obstacle and potentially move dangerously close to the target.
  • Ready an attack for the moment a target pops into view.
archer photo

Photo by Alireza Sahebi

Few D&D players appreciate how much using a Ready action hurts their ranged characters. Combatants forced to ready attacks suffer from two disadvantages that tend to fall more heavily on players.

  • The Extra Attack feature only works “when you take the Attack action on your turn.” Because Ready actions trigger on another creature’s turn, a character with Extra Attack who readies an Attack action only gets a single attack despite the feature.
  • The Ready action only lets you postpone an action, not an action plus a bonus action, so characters typically able to trade a bonus action for another attack lose that addition.

Combined, this means that martial characters who typically attack three times per turn thanks to the Extra Attack feature and feats like crossbow expert can only ready a single strike.

Because most adventuring parties include ranged attackers who can prove brutally effective in fifth edition, this technique tends to bring more advantages to DMs. But should DMs use this bit of rules mastery to frustrate players? If the party lacks characters with the Sharpshooter feat, I opt for just keeping foes in sight to gain the simple benefit of cover. But Sharpshooter negates cover and ranks as the most efficient feat in the game, so against it, I reluctantly adopt tactics that force players to ready actions.

How to Make a Mind-Controlling Sorcerer Who Forces DMs to Keep up with Some Fast Thinking

I made a character who can short-circuit adventures and force dungeon masters to do some fast thinking. Does that make me a troublemaker? I feel guilty as charged, but I blame curiosity. I wondered how experienced Adventurers League DMs accustomed to quick thinking would manage the character. While I haven’t played Poggry enough for a statistically significant sample size, I have made DMs visibly pause and ponder ways to make success in social encounters a bit less sudden.

My sorcerer Poggry favors spells like suggestion that influence the unwise and weak-willed. Normally, in a Dungeons & Dragons world, suggestion raises the anger of folks who prefer to keep spellcasters out of their heads.

According to the Player’s Handbook (p.203) spells like suggestion with verbal components require “the chanting of mystic words.” After making that incantation, the caster gives the suggestion in what D&D designer Jeremy Crawford calls “a separate, intelligible utterance.” Most Dungeons & Dragons worlds make magic common enough for ordinary folks to recognize spellcasting when it starts. In a D&D world, suggestion starts fights or finishes them. Unlike charm person, targets of suggestion don’t necessarily know they succumbed to a spell, but the mystic words reveal the magic.

So Poggry took the Subtle Spell metamagic option. “When you cast a spell you can spend 1 sorcery point to cast it without somatic or verbal components.” Suggestion still requires a material component like a spellcasting focus, but the caster just needs it in hand, so sorcerers able to hide their hands under something like a cloak can cast spells without notice. No wonder evil sorcerers favor capes. And just as real-life magicians sport bare arms to show that they have nothing up their sleeves, perhaps spellcasters in D&D worlds keep their hands empty to appear trustworthy.

Aside from the need to hide a focus, Subtle Spell turns suggestion into a sort of Jedi mind trick. If a target saves, they just ignore a bad recommendation. If they fail, they follow the suggestion and feel persuaded. The Sage Advice Compendium explains, “Assuming you failed to notice the spellcaster casting the spell, you might simply remember the caster saying, ‘The treasure you’re looking for isn’t here. Go look for it in the room at the top of the next tower.’ You failed your saving throw, and off you went to the other tower, thinking it was your idea to go there.” You can never know the source of the impulse, although a rash enough action might imply magic at work.

As a bonus, sorcerers boast real charisma, so when a subtle charm person seemed like too much, Poggry could charm to persuade. He combined a talent for deception with disguise self. I like heroic characters, so I imagined Poggry as a positive fellow from a bad situation who gained such talents for survival. Sample dialog: “It’s nice that you get to sleep on top of beds here. Where I come from, we always had to hide underneath them.”

If you opt to explore evil impulses by combining similar magic with a sociopath, share your plans with the rest of your group and gain their consent. A darker take on a manipulative sorcerer makes establishing hard and soft limits as described in Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything especially important.

Players of sorcerers commonly complain that their characters’ know too few spells, and choosing spells like disguise self over attack spells makes that limit even tighter. For a more versatile alternative with the same spellcasting tricks, you could design a caster such as a bard with Subtle Spell from the Metamagic Adept feat. Pick the College of Eloquence for maximum persuasion.

Using suggestion to tell enemy combatants to go jump in a lake gets old. When I played Poggry in combat-intensive adventures, he proved a bit dull. When I finally played him an adventure with a masquerade ball, intrigue, and exactly one fight, he became a delight. My poor DM for that session might disagree.

Spells like a subtle suggestion can potentially reduce an adventure full of diplomacy and intrigue to a few failed saves. Combined with a knack for deception, a spell like disguise self can turn an assault on a stronghold to retrieve some mcguffin into a solo milk run. Either spell can wreck the expectations of a written adventure. Such magic can force DMs to imagine ways to reward a characters’ talents while leaving room for the rest of the party to contribute. Think fast! (Or just call for a break to dream up new complications.)

Related: Should Charm Person Work Like a Jedi Mind Trick?

Tip: Plant Character Knowledge Before the Game

Characters in Dungeons & Dragons worlds bring knowledge that players lack. And that knowledge goes beyond sword swinging and spell crafting. Rolls that call for religion, nature, arcana, and history all check a character’s in-world knowledge. Sometimes characters know better than players. For example, as a DM, I warn players whenever their characters’ knowledge of the world says that a particular monster will likely kill them in a fight. Maybe your 1st-level characters shouldn’t attack the manticore.

For my latest game, I planned an investigation where the characters’ knowledge might help connect clues and would certainly provide perspective. For instance, the players could succeed without knowing Zuggtmoy and Lloth feuded as hated rivals, but that tidbit would help explain a discovery on the Abyssal plane of Shedaklah. I preferred not to interrupt the narrative for a Religion check and information dump. (Believe me, when the characters made the discovery, nobody wanted to pause for my lecture on religion.) I considered planting the lore in the world, but describing, say, an open book turned to a page about the rivalry seemed forced at best. So I adopted a tip from DM Tom Christy.

Before an adventure, Tom considers the essential backstory and pertinent lore that might arise, and then reveals it to individual players before play. “I love to find out which characters are trained in pertinent skills, and then feed their players information ahead of the session.” This knowledge can come from skill proficiencies but also from each character’s background, nature, and outlook. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine.

During the game, players can share their knowledge in-character. When a player reveals knowledge, Tom rewards inspiration.

slips containing written adventure background information

For my latest adventure, I wrote the useful bits of game-world lore on slips of paper. Before the game, I awarded the slips based on the characters’ experience in the world. So the elf who knew religion got facts about the demon queens. These tidbits even included personal information about a key non-player character one adventurer would have met.

I explained, “These slips list things that your character knows. Right now, they’re just some of the countless facts you happen to know. Sometime during the adventure, this information may become pertinent, and then you should share it.”

This technique boasts key advantages: The information sharing comes when players find it important and feels organic to the in-world narrative. More importantly, players get the spotlight to share lore as their character instead of just having the DM tell what characters know. DMs already spend enough time talking.

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

4 Tips For When One Player Scouts the Dungeon

Does find familiar rank as the most unbalanced spell in Dungeons & Dragons? For the price of learning a mere 1st-level spell, wizards gain a scout, an extension to all their touch spells, and a battlefield helper. If players make good use of familiars, the spell rates a better value than fireball. But still, does it rate as unbalanced?

When designers aim to balance characters’ spells and abilities, they look to give each character equal time as the focus of attention—as the lead character contributing to the party’s success. Mainly, gamers question balance whenever one character proves so deadly in combat that the other players wonder why they showed up for the game. In a fight, a familiar can use the Help action to boost allies, but no one minds that support.

Instead, familiars can feel unbalanced during D&D’s exploration pillar. Smart players can use a bat or an owl to scout cave systems from end to end or to peer into every window of the villain’s lair. Such scouting isn’t limited to familiars. Druids can wild shape into a creature like a tiny spider and creep unnoticed through a dungeon. One of my players used an arcane eye to scout 5 levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods without ever leaving the entry hall. An arcane eye can’t pass solid objects, but that dungeon’s halls, caves, and central atrium mostly lack doors. The player controlling the eye could have exhausted the entire session spying, but noticed impatient players and called the scouting short. Nonetheless, for an hour or so, I frantically scanned the adventure trying to summarize the visible parts of 50 pages of dungeon. I don’t blame the scrying wizard for smart play, I love gaining familiars and scout for as long as the other players’ patience can bear.

Familiars, wild shaping druids, and scrying wizards all challenge dungeon masters to reward smart play and the players who choose scouting abilities, without turning the rest of the party into passive bystanders who wonder why they showed up. Stealthy or invisible characters can also scout and create similar challenges. Finding a good balance proves difficult because no approach works for every dungeon and lair.

What tricks can help DMs strike the right balance?

1. Include doors and window covers.

The sort of creatures able to spy unnoticed typically lack the strength or thumbs needed to open doors, so the best limit to scouting becomes snug doors. Create dungeons with enough open paths to reward short scouting trips, but enough doors to force characters ahead. If a player quibbles that surely some doors leave gaps for a mouse or spider, roll and let the dice decide.

As for my own character’s favorite trick of sending an owl to peer into windows, consider balancing the temptation of open windows with a few drapes, shutters, soot stains, and just dark interior rooms.

2. Scout between sessions.

I like to end each session by asking for players to outline their plans for the next session. This helps my preparation. Also, if the players plan to tackle a dungeon or stronghold, you can handle scouting either through a 1-on-1 mini session or just by sketching a players’ map and planning a quick summary of discoveries for the full group. If that seems too passive, you can ask the scout to make, say, a stealth check and base the amount of information on their degree of success or failure.

3. Consider dungeon inhabitants.

Monsters and even ordinary critters can create a barrier to spying. Players scouting in a beast shape or using a familiar tend to dismiss the risk of something noticing or attacking a bat or spider. As a dungeon master, be clear about the risks and the checks a scouting critter might need to make to pass dungeon predators.

When familiars or characters scout alone, encounters that would never challenge a party or even a single adventurer can create interesting dilemmas. A servant who spots a cat prowling the manor might put a character or familiar in a pickle simply by closing the window leading out.

For creatures as small as a spider, consider adding wandering monsters, vermin really, that might try to make a meal of the scout. Sure, a cave centipede poses no risk to a druid, but in spider shape, the druid faces a choice of retreat or the price of shifting to humanoid form to squash the critter. As with any wandering monsters, I recommend making the rolls for an encounter openly. For such encounters, don’t bother creating a list of potential monsters. Just imagine one creature that suits the environment capable of forcing the scout to weigh risks and rewards.

4. Split the party.

Occasionally, entertain the idle players waiting for the scouting to finish by giving both the waiting characters and the scout something to do. By “something to do,” I mean fight. And by “entertain,” I mean threaten their characters’ lives. Characters waiting for scouts to return still face risks from patrols or wandering monsters. The most entertaining situations engage both the scout and the remaining party at the same time. In these predicaments, follow my advice for handling split parties.

These split-party jams work best when they feel like the natural consequence of a risky situation when both the scout and the waiting party know monsters lurk nearby. If scouting leads to a pattern of attacks from behind, players will feel punished for smart play. Still, the invisible, flying, or wild-shaped scout who presses their luck too far can lead to some of the game’s most exciting moments.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb: The Earliest D&D Adventure Worth Playing

The second Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Blackmoor, arrived in April 1975. It featured Temple of the Frog, the first adventure in print. A year later, three more pioneering adventures reached gamers.

The May 1976 issue of the UK magazine Games and Puzzles included an introduction to D&D by Games Workshop co-founder Steve Jackson. “D&D is an attempt to recreate fantasy adventure using greatly modified tabletop wargaming rules.” The article devotes a half page mapping and keying “The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins.” In June 1976, California gamers Pete and Judy Kerestan published D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen.

To explore D&D’s origins, some modern players have tried playing these dungeons. Don’t. Temple of the Frog runs as an infiltration mission. Players looking for classic D&D will only find a total party kill.  “The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins” and Palace of the Vampire Queen describe their rooms by pairing rare words of description with lists of monsters and treasures. Both demonstrate why D&D co-creator Gary Gygax thought adventures wouldn’t sell. Any dungeon master could easily create a similar monster zoos using the Dungeon Geomorphs and Monster and Treasure Assortments that Gary’s own TSR Hobbies would soon sell.

But one other adventure reached print in June of 1976.

The Dungeoneer

Dungeoneer01_3rdWhile still in college, Jennell Jaquays, writing as Paul, started The Dungeoneer fanzine. For the first issue, Jaquays wrote F’Chelrak’s Tomb. The pioneering adventure and its successors proved memorable. Looking back at The Dungeoneer, Jaquays said, “It’s the adventures that stand out, and not simply because no one else was doing mini-adventures in 1976. When I read comments about the magazine or talk to fans (old and new), no one talks about the monsters, or the art, or the magic items and rules variants. It’s always the adventures.

If you want to enjoy an adventure in the spirit of ’76, explore F’Chelrak’s Tomb. The tomb fits the early game’s style: It capriciously slays characters and drops magic like candy from a parade, but it also packs enough ideas to fill a game session with wild fun.

Jaquays published 6 issues of Dungeoneer, sold the fanzine, and then started work at Judges Guild. There she penned early, classic adventures like Dark Tower and the Caverns of Thracia.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb ranks as the first published adventure that remains playable in something like its original form. The cheapest legit versions of the adventure available now are in used copies of The Dungeoneer Compendium. Sadly, Judges Guild no longer sells the PDF version of that collection.

About the tomb

As soon as dungeon masters turned from megadungeons to smaller sites, they started devising tombs. F’Chelrak’s Tomb boasts plenty of save-or-die moments, but it lacks the menace of its contemporary from Origins 1975, Tomb of Horrors.

Instead, F’Chelrak’s Tomb offers the chaotic whimsy of a Deck of Many Things. One room features a gallery of objects shrouded by sheets. When revealed, each object has some crazy effect. A sculpture of the Medusa might change the revealer to stone. A statue of a gorgeous woman could either change the revealer’s gender or it could come to life and become a lover or slave. A great stone face might polymorph the revealer into a monster, grant a point of constitution, or split a character into good and evil versions. A statue of Death disintegrates the revealer. “No resurrection is possible!” One sheet covers an artifact: a shield that doubles as a mirror of life trapping. When the owner traps too many lives, the mirror makes room by freeing Morac, a 9th-level chaotic evil lord. I suppose he wants his shield back. (I didn’t know chaotic evil was an alignment in 1976).

If left on the floor, the sheets can animate and attack because, obviously.

The adventure rests on more than the gallery. A new monster merges the Human Torch with kobolds. Some vertical architecture calls for cross-section diagrams. Traps, tricks and interesting curios litter the place.

Like the Tomb of Horrors, F’Chelrak’s Tomb comes from a time when players aimed to beat dungeons and they kept score in gold. In this spirit, the dungeon can win by stumping players with the puzzle in the first room, by hiding essential paths behind secret doors, or by tricking players into leaving after they loot a false crypt. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of an adventure seems unthinkable.)

The early presentation

The entire adventure spans just four pages, including a page of maps. Maps (titled “Charts”) number 1 and 3 use a familiar overhead perspective. Maps 2 and 4 show vertical cross-sections on the same graph paper, making them look like overhead maps too. Cross-section 2 puts the high-point at the top, but 4 puts its high-point on the right. The key for map 3 lists numbered locations, interrupts those numbers with a list of numbered objects, then revisits the same locations with a lettered list of traps and secret locations. This dungeon starts as a puzzle for the DM, but it can be deciphered.

Explaining the tomb to modern standards would take at least 12 pages of text. Jaquays does it in 3 by leaving all the details to the imagination of the DM. What will F’Chelrak or Morac do if they get loose? What are the stats for an attacking sheet? (Hint: Use the rug of smothering.) If an unlucky character get polymorphed in to a monster, what one? DMs must find the most fair or interesting answer to many questions.

Running F’Chelrak’s Tomb today

Using original D&D rules, I estimate this adventure would challenge a party of level 4-6.

You could also run this adventure using fifth-edition rules.

If you wanted to run this adventure as a one-shot with the feel of the early game, let the players take a party of 12, 2nd-level characters. In 1976, adventuring parties tended to be large. Many PCs will die, but that only captures the spirit. Although many of the monsters in the tomb pose a grave threat to such low-level PCs, the PCs enjoy overwhelming numbers. Nonetheless, To reduce the chance of total party kill, put only 2 manticores in room 4. Somewhere in the adventure, give survivors a rest to heal and level up. If F’Chelrak finds them, they may need to run. That qualifies as smart play.

If you want better combat encounters and a lower body count, start each player with a 5th-level character. Make the following changes:

  • Replace the 10 gremlins with magmin. The gremlins penalize melee attacks by melting weapons, but 5E characters would sweep them away with spells and ranged attacks.
  • When the players take Morac’s shield, release 6 specters rather than just 1.
  • In the flooded tomb, put 3 ghouls rather than inventing a water gargoyle. Keep them hidden in the dark water so that only water-breathing PCs can easily confront them.
  • Make F’Chelrak a level-9 magic user based on the mage stats. If he possesses one of the PCs, he will study the rest of the party before attempting to reclaim his treasure from the party.

Related: Mark Grisham created a free, 2 room tomb for original D&D that uses F’Chelrak for inspiration.

A Game Design History of the Dump Stat

In 1974, Dungeons & Dragons introduced roleplaying games and—less significantly—dump stats where players set their least-useful ability to their lowest score. According to the original D&D rules, players rolled abilities in order. Actually, by the rules as written, “it is necessary for the referee to roll three six-sided dice in order,” but everyone let players roll instead. Innovations like point-buy character generation or even rearranging rolled scores were years away.

Still, original D&D had dump stats of a sort. Fighters could trade Intelligence for Strength, the fighter’s “prime requisite.” Clerics could trade Intelligence for Wisdom. Magic users could trade Wisdom for Intelligence. Every class came with at least one potential dump stat, and these exchanges cost 2 or 3 points for 1 point of the prime requisite. When I first read those offers, the exchange rates struck me as a bad deal. I was wrong. None of those classes gained anything from their dump stat, so the trades only benefited the characters. In the original rules, Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom just brought advantages to the class that used the ability as a prime requisite. (Intelligence brought extra languages; few players cared.) The rules prevented players from reducing Constitution and Charisma, but those abilities could help every character with more hit points or more loyal followers.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardIn 1977, the hand-to-hand combat game Melee by American designer Steve Jackson showed a different and influential approach to ability scores. Melee used just two attributes, Strength and Dexterity, but the scores brought bigger mechanical effects than in D&D. Strength permitted more damaging weapons, stouter armor, and functioned as hit points. Dexterity determined to-hit rolls and who struck first. In this combat game, dueling characters needed to enter the battlefield evenly matched, so rather than rolling attributes, players bought them with points. Modern role-playing games virtually always let players build their characters, but in 1977 the point-buy system proved a massive innovation.

Also in 1977, the obscure game Superhero ’44 used a point-buy system. In Heroic Worlds (1991), D&D Designer Lawrence Schick called that game “primitive,” but also “ground breaking.” Superhero ’44 even let players trade flaws for more points. “Characters who accept weaknesses or disabilities (Kryptonite, for instance) should be awarded with extra power.” This innovation spread to games like Champions (1981), GURPS (1986), and Savage Worlds (2003).

When I played Melee, I marveled at the balance between Strength and Dexterity. Every point moved between the two attributes traded a tangible benefit for a painful detriment, and the difficult choice between stats made character generation into a fascinating choice. Just as important, the simple choice led to fighters who played differently but who proved equally effective. No other game would ever feature such a precise balance between ability scores, but with 2 scores and just one character type, Melee’s narrow scope helped.

A magic system to accompany Melee appeared in Wizard (1978). This addition introduced a third stat, Intelligence, but wizards still needed Strength to power spells and Dexterity to cast them. Intelligence became a dump stat for the original game’s fighters, while wizards gained enough from spells to offset the need to invest in three stats. When Melee and Wizard became The Fantasy Trip roleplaying game, IQ also bought skills, so some balance between stats remained.

Some games lump Strength and some of Constitution’s portfolio together. In both The Fantasy Trip and Tunnels & Trolls (1975), wizards drew from their Strength to power their spells, and since characters in both games increased stats as they advanced, experienced TFT and T&T wizards grew muscles as swollen as steroid-fueled bodybuilders.

Choosing ability scores introduced a complication avoided when players just roll. Some stats prove more useful than others. Chivalry & Sorcery included an attribute for bardic voice. No one but bards would have invested there, and C&S lacked bard as a class. Also, the attributes that power your character’s key abilities bring much more value than the rest. The original D&D rules recognized that factor in the unequal exchanges that let players increase their character’s prime requisites.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1978), the recommended technique for generating ability scores allowed players to rearrange scores any way they liked. For most classes, Intelligence just brought extra languages and Wisdom only gave a saving throw bonus against magic “involving will force,” so these abilities became favored places to dump low scores.

In D&D, the value of ability scores mainly comes from the value the scores offer to classes that don’t require them. Constitution always comes out ahead because it adds hit points and improves a common saving throw. You may never see a fifth edition class based on Constitution because the attribute offers so much already. In earlier editions of D&D, Strength proved useful because every class sometimes made melee attacks. Nowadays, classes get at-will alternatives to melee attacks that use their prime requisite.

The value of ability score depends on what characters do in a campaign, and that adds challenge to balancing. In original D&D, shrewd players paid hirelings and henchmen to accompany their dungeon expeditions and share the danger. Characters needed Charisma to recruit and keep followers, so by some measures Charisma offered more benefits than any other attribute. But not every campaign played with hirelings. The 1977 D&D Basic Set skipped the rules for hiring and retaining help, so Charisma offered no value at all unless a DM happened to improvise a Charisma check—the game lacked formal rules for checks.

A similar factor makes Strength a common dump stat in fifth edition D&D. Strength provides the potentially valuable ability to carry more stuff, and more treasure, but few players even bother accounting for carrying capacity. The rules make dealing with encumbrance an optional variant. In the original D&D games, part of the challenge of looting the dungeon came from the logistical challenge of hauling out the loot. Runequest (1978) featured an encumbrance system that allowed characters to carry a number of “things” equal to their Strength before the weight hampered them. I remember the importance this system attached to Strength and the difficult choices of armor and equipment players faced. The secret to making Strength valuable is creating an encumbrance system that players use.When encumbrance feels like an accounting exercise that players ignore, Dexterity becomes king. By selecting ranged or finesse weapons, a Dexterity based character can approach the damage of a similar character based on Strength. Plus, a high Dexterity enables an AC nearly as stout as the heaviest armor, wins initiative, and improves common Dexterity saves rather than rare Strength saves.

Fifth edition D&D makes Intelligence another common choice for a dump stat. Of the classes in the Player’s Handbook, only wizard requires Intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. (See If a Mind Flayer Fed on D&D Characters’ Brains, It Would Go Hungry. Should PC Intelligence Matter?)

Third edition D&D boosted the value of Intelligence by awarding smart characters more skills. The fifth edition designers probably weighed the same approach, but with skills serving as key traits in the two pillars of interaction and exploration, perhaps the designers opted to award skills equally to characters of any Intelligence. So unlike in earlier editions, high Intelligence no longer brings D&D characters more skills or even languages.

Obvious dump stats limit the choices that lead to effective characters. Dump stats encourage players to create characters that fit common, optimal patterns. A fifth edition D&D party may include a wide range of classes and backgrounds, but almost everyone fits the mold of healthy, agile folks with low-average Intelligence. And not even the barbarian can open a pickle jar. (He’s dex based.)