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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 of the Craziest Quirks in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The D&D Adventures That Stumble by Missing the Hook

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

Appealing to rogues, paladins, and players

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing the hook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baldur’s Gate: The Fall of Elturel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridging to the hardcover and the next add-on

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

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

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

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

Shield of the Hidden Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

D&D’s Inconspicuous Phrases That You Notice Once You Master the Rules

Despite using common language, the Dungeons & Dragons rules feature such precise wording that a close reading answers most questions and foils many schemes to break the game. You can tell that the designers dreamed up plenty of min-maxing exploits, and then engineered text that prevented any shenanigans.

Sometimes the implications of the game’s precise phrasing take experience to spot.

For example, the description for alchemist’s fire says, “Make a ranged attack against a creature or object, treating the alchemist’s fire as an improvised weapon.” That text includes plenty to unpack. Alchemist’s fire is treated as an improvised weapon, so unless you’re a tavern brawler, you don’t add your proficiency bonus to attack. Because the throw counts as a ranged attack, you add your Dexterity bonus to your attack roll. Most players miss the next implication: Ranged attacks add your Dexterity bonus to the damage roll. The specific rule for alchemist’s fire changes the general rule for when a ranged attack inflicts damage. “On a hit, the target takes 1d4 fire damage at the start of each of its turns.” As with any other damage bonus, the one for Dexterity only adds to the attack once.

(For another example of how a close reading of the rules differs from the common interpretation, check out the strict method for rolling damage from a magic missile.)

As I learned the D&D rules, I noticed phrases that once seemed innocuous, but that now reveal importance.

For example, consider the phrase “that you can see” in spell descriptions. Many spells require the caster to see the target of an effect. Invisibility rates as the game’s most potent defensive spell because so much magic requires sight for targeting. Sometimes the phrase “that you can see” turns against the players. Spirit Guardians lets casters spare any number of creatures they can see from the spell’s effect. Any invisible or otherwise out-of-sight allies must suffer the guardians’ effects.

Many monsters can cast spells “requiring no material components.” This enables a flameskull to cast Fireball despite lacking pockets full of bat guano and sulfur. (Flameskulls also cast without somatic components—an essential accommodation for their lack of hands.)

Monsters able to cast spells “requiring no components” gain a significant advantage: These creatures can cast spells without being interrupted by a Counterspell. “To be perceptible, the casting of a spell must involve a verbal, somatic, or material component.” With no components, no one notices the casting until it finishes.

The monsters able to cast without components mainly fall into two categories:

• psionic creatures like githyanki and mind flayers
• constructs

Many character features allow extra attacks “when you use the Attack action,” which creates a limitation that often goes unnoticed. For example, a monk’s extra unarmed strike requires an Attack action, so a monk cannot just take the Dash or Dodge action and then use a Bonus action to get some licks in. This same phrase prevents two-weapon rangers from casting a spell, and then making an attack with their off-hand weapon.

Most extra attacks delivered “when you use the Attack action” cost a Bonus action, but the barbarian’s Form of the Beast feature lets you make extra claw attacks as part of your Attack action. This enables such barbarians to rage and to still make that extra attack.

The D&D rules overload the terms “attack,” “melee,” and “ranged,” giving them different meanings in different contexts. That can fuel confusion. The Attack action usually includes an attack (unless you choose to grapple). But sometimes you can make an attack with a Bonus action, often “when you use the Attack action.” Spellcasters can take the Cast a Spell action, and then make a spell attack with something like a Fire Bolt. Spells like Booming Blade and Green-Flame Blade have you to make a melee attack (and not a spell attack) with a weapon as part of the Cast a Spell action.

No wonder the 2nd edition of Pathfinder attempts to cut the fog by calling a single attack a strike.

“Melee” and “ranged” can describe types of weapons and types of attacks. Usually the weapons and attacks stay in their lanes, but when you hurl a melee weapon it crosses into oncoming traffic.

A melee weapon, such as a dagger or handaxe, remains a melee weapon even when you make a ranged attack by throwing it. Normally a ranged attack adds your Dexterity bonus to damage, but the thrown property can change that general rule. The thrown property says, “If the weapon is a melee weapon, you use the same ability modifier for that attack roll and damage roll that you would use for a melee attack with the weapon. If you throw a dagger, you can use either your Strength or your Dexterity, since the dagger has the finesse property.”

When used to make a ranged attack, melee weapons that lack the thrown property count as improvised weapons. They add your Dexterity bonus to the attack and damage rolls, and deal 1d4 damage.

If I were king of D&D, my edition would adopt “strike” for a single attack, and I would consider phrases like “close attack” and “distance attack” in place of the overworked “ranged” and “melee.”

Sometimes a close reading of the D&D rules leads to interpretations that might differ from what the designers first intended. Perhaps lead designer Jeremy Crawford got questions about sneak attack, reviewed the rules, and then thought, I didn’t mean that, but it still works.

Your rogue can use the sneak attack feature “once per turn,” but it’s not limited to your turn. During a round, rogues can sneak attack on their turn and again on someone else’s turn, typically when a foe provokes an opportunity attack.

For spells like Wall of Fire and Blade Barrier, the distinction between turns and rounds also becomes important. These spells deal damage the first time you enter their effect on a turn—anyone’s turn. This means that if a monster gets forced through a Wall of Fire on consecutive turns, they accumulate more damage in a round than if they had just stayed in the fire. I suppose you get used to the heat.

For Better D&D Fights, Use This 1 Simple Trick That the Designers Won’t Tell You

Late in the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the design team started presenting each encounter in a 1- or 2-page diagram. By putting everything needed to run an encounter on a page, this “delve format” benefited dungeon masters. The format especially suited fourth edition’s focus on tactical combat encounters played on battle maps. It encouraged designers to craft locations that fueled interesting battles.

Delve format encounter

While many DMs favored the easy-to-run encounters, the delve format took some heat too. Critics argued that lavishing so much space and attention on encounters encouraged adventure designs that forced players to battle through all those set pieces. The approach led to linear adventures, and it discouraged letting players use diplomacy, stealth, or ingenuity to skip combat. All that sunk cost in maps, stats, and setup tempted DMs to make fights inevitable.

So in fifth edition, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme. Today’s adventures avoid framing situations as encounters. Instead DMs get a monster name in bold without any extra detail that might invite combat. Sample fifth-edition design: “This 20-by-20 room has 3 manticores. Fight them or whatever. Doesn’t matter.” I’m paraphrasing.

But combat remains part of D&D, and such lightweight non-encounters can lead to too many dull battles. Too often, characters and their foes crowd a doorway trading damage until monsters drop. If the designers aimed to make roleplaying interaction and exploration seem more appealing, then mission accomplished!

Even though the delve format seemed to foster more interesting combat encounters by lavishing more space on them, the key ingredient was rarely the extra text; the key was the map.

The delve format shined a spotlight on encounter maps and inspired designers to dream bigger than a 20-by-20 room. Better maps led to better battles.

Fifth edition abandoned the delve format, but it still features maps. Often, the secret to better D&D fights lies in imagining a better location. Not every potential battlefield merits the attention, but many do. I compare drawing the map for a likely battle to piling kindling. If a spark appears, I want fire.

Designing better maps doesn’t necessarily mean every fight needs to play on a grid of 5-foot squares. But even if your players favor narrative combat, more knotty locations probably mean sketching a rough map of the battlefield and of relative positions. (DMs, your players may not love theater of the mind as much as you do, so check.)

The 1 simple trick is more of a mindset: When you you map a battleground, start by seeking ways to favor the home team, usually the monster. 

Smart monsters will seek lairs that benefit them, but even beasts will instinctively seek the best place to ambush prey. From a game perspective, the most engaging fights will come from battlegrounds that let monsters exploit their abilities. Flyers want airspace to rise from reach and perhaps walls, columns, or stalactites to swoop behind. Giants need space to move. Intangible creatures want tight, knotted corridors with walls to phase through.

Mapping locations that favor the home team makes sense, but DMs seldom do it. Too often we fall into patterns set by the oldest dungeons. Originally, DMs like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax drew maps, and then populated them by rolling from tables. We came to mock those monster hotels, but just about every DM has started with a map and sprinkled it with picks from the monster manual. Modern dungeons still tend to settle for that pattern. I’ve seen official adventures with beholders in small rooms under low ceilings and even an archmage guarding a hallway. Here’s a super genius who spent a lifetime making space and time his playthings, and somehow he winds up alone in a hall where he can only hope for a high enough initiative to loose a cone of cold before getting beaten to death. (His stats say Int 20, but if he fails to use his turn to teleport far away, I suspect daddy got him into wizard school.)

This old pattern of drawing a rectangle and posting a few monsters heavily favors the players. The party brings durable heroes who can block attacks, plus spellcasters and sharpshooters who can heap damage on monsters while safely behind the defenders.

Maps that draw characters into interesting locations make sense for the monsters, and bring more fun. For help designing maps that fuel dramatic battles, see D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes.

Sometimes a battlefield that favors the characters can prove even more fun than one that favors the monsters. To work, such locations must invite some bigger advantage than a defensive line at the door. While most fights at a door prove tiresome, if the players cross to such a choke point and then draw their foes there, the battle rewards clever play and brings fun. Often the most exciting battles pit characters against more powerful foes, and then add features that players can use to even the score. Classic adventures like Night’s Dark Terror and Isle of the Abbey turn this premise into sieges, where players have time to prepare a defense against hordes of foes. Whatever the specifics, players feel clever while they savor the thrill of defying the odds.

Good maps don’t help if everyone winds up crowding the door. To avoid bottlenecks, flip the usual script: Give the party time to enter a room and scatter before having the monsters intrude. Beyond that, break from the old pattern of thinking of each room as a separate encounter area. Instead, think of encounter areas as clusters of rooms, hallways, and whatever else lies in earshot. As scattered monsters sense intruders, they come from different directions. If the set of rooms includes a route that leads behind the characters, monsters can circle back and give those wizards and archers a taste. For good battles against the leader types who make the players’ first targets, let the leaders move into view on their turns.

When you map a location for a likely battle, think of the monsters, and then favor the home team.

The Arduin Grimoire: The “Coolest RPG Book Ever,” also the Book Gygax Mocked As Costing Readers 1 Int and 2 Wis

When creators dream up imaginary worlds, they can go in two directions. They can build their world from a curated set of ideas, and then fit these pieces together into a logical and consistent manner. In a fantasy gaming, these creators worry about how magic affects society and culture, and then wind up with worlds like Glorantha or Tekumel.

The Arduin TrilogyDave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. If Tekumal is a museum, with treasures for contemplation, then Arduin is a dragon’s horde, with everything shiny heaped to the walls.

Dave Hargrave pictured in his adventure collection, “Vaults of the Weaver”

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in a little, brown book named after his world, The Arduin Grimoire. In 1977, his unofficial supplement to Dungeons & Dragons debuted at California’s DunDraCon II convention. The book’s success led to the sequels Welcome to Skull Tower (1978) and The Runes of Doom (1978).

In a look back on the trilogy, Ryk Spoor called Arduin “one of the most absolutely concentrated essences of the fun of roleplaying games ever made.” Jonathan Tweet, the lead designer of third-edition D&D, called Arduin the “the coolest RPG book ever.”

Sometime in 1979, I found the series on the shelves of The Hobby Chest in Skokie, Illinois. The pages teemed with fresh ideas. The author suggested strange pairings of science and fantasy. He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. It all seemed a little subversive. I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read. At first I thumbed through the books at random, discovering gems, then I turned to page one and read. (Due to the books’ random organization, both reading orders felt the same.) As Hargrave wandered through Arduin lore and free-associated roleplaying game wisdom, I learned three lessons.

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

Fantasy gives freedom to imagination.

As D&D’s audience exploded, in the days before Appendix N, most new players’ experience with fantasy started with Tolkien and ended with a few imitators. The sort of science-fantasy found in say, Jack Vance, seemed wrong. To us, Hargrave preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” Hargrave wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

Evidence of his creative abandon appears everywhere, from the “Multiversal Trading Company” to descriptions of the world’s 21 hells. For instance, the 17th plane of hell features blasted futuristic cities and space ports under a blue-black, moonless sky. Most vegetation is petrified. This hell’s most common inhabitant is The Black Wind, a fog of shifting shadows, lit by crackling, blue lighting bolts. The wind envelops and attacks psychically, taking over the body, and “forever making it alien.”

Hargrave welcomes a variety of character types. “Do not be a small player in a small world, embrace the whole Alternity and give different types a chance. I think you will find that the world your game is in will become a lot more fun if you do.” (Twenty years later, Dave Hargrave’s portmanteau “Alternity,” from alternate eternities, would become the name of a Wizards of the Coast RPG.)

‘Alliance’ from Arduin volume 3 and an advertisement in Dragon issue 30

Gary Gygax favored D&D parties where humans outnumbered the elves, dwarves, and other non-humans. Such groups matched the mostly human characters in the fantasy tales that inspired D&D.

Today’s D&D groups resemble the Star Wars cantina scene, where exotic species outnumber the odd human. Hargave encouraged similar, strange mixes. An advertisement for Arduin shows an adventuring party consisting of 4 unlikely companions:

  • a phraint, emotionless humanoid insects
  • a deodanth, undead elves from eons in the future, now lost in their past
  • a saurig, dinosaur-men from the distant past bred as killing machines
  • a masked, human samurai somehow somehow fighting alongside these gonzo creatures

Even now, this assembly seems stranger than the typical Adventurers League mix of, say, a tiefling, a tortle, someone with fire for hair, and a goblin named Percy.

The rules belong to players.

Jonathan Tweet noted the weakness of the Hargrave’s rules. “The Arduin system is usually unbalanced and often unbelievably complicated.” Still, some mechanics would fit a modern game. For example, he offers rules for touch attacks and a hit point system that resembles fourth edition’s. But the specific rules hardly mattered. Hargrave encourages players to own the rules and their games, to tinker, to playtest. On presenting his magic system, Hargrave advises readers to “take whatever I have that you like, use the old established fantasy gaming systems…and put together whatever you like in a magic system. Who knows, it may end up with such a good system that people will want to publish your fantasy world.” (Vol. I, p.30)

Detail makes game worlds come to life.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of the Wilderness Survival map and some encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later. According to Ryk Spoor, “One of the strongest and most powerfully attractive parts of the Arduin series was that, within and around the game mechanics, the statistics for demons and items and spells, Dave Hargrave wove tales and hints of his campaign world, giving us a look at the life of a world that didn’t exist, but…perhaps… could, elsewhere.”

Arduin Now and Then

To gamers today, Arduin’s three lessons may seem obvious. New games seek freshness by colliding genres, so cowboys meet the undead, magic meets cyberpunk, and so on. Endless setting books lend detail to world building. When the fifth-edition designers explain their hesitancy to tweak the published rules, they say the rules belong to the players now. Arduin’s phraints seem to have become Dark Sun’s Thri-Kreen.

True, but in 1978, Arduin’s lessons demolished barriers that would never stand again.

Gary Gygax versus The Arduin Grimoire

In the 70s, Gary Gygax resented products that rode his and D&D’s coattails. The man had 6 children to feed! Arduin aped the little, brown books and tore down D&D’s rules, so the grimoires earned particular ire. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gary added the Vacuous Grimoire (p.155) as a dig at The Arduin Grimoire. Read it and lose 1 intelligence and 2 wisdom. In the pages of The Dragon, Gary attacked spell points, critical hits, and other rules that Hargrave offered as improvements.

TSR issued a cease and desist letter to Hargrave, who responded by blanking references to D&D. My printing splices in mentions of “other popular systems” and “old established fantasy gaming systems” where D&D was mentioned. Hargrave took to calling Arduin a completely different game, although it skipped essential rules that readers must find elsewhere (in D&D). Rules sections are labeled as changes or revisions to an unnamed game (still D&D).

Over the years, Hargrave created the missing rules needed to make a stand-alone game. But no one cared about his rules. Dave Hargrave never realized that his rules hardly mattered.

His feverish invention mattered. Arduin’s lessons mattered—and they changed role-playing.

Emperors Choice Games offers Arduin products for sale. The original trilogy now appears in a single volume.

5 Ways Magic the Gathering Changed the Rules of D&D

Magic the Gathering designer Richard Garfield rates Dungeons & Dragons as the most innovative game of all time. Nonetheless, in any ranking of influential games, Magic’s revolutionary design surely vies for a top spot. You might suppose that a card game like Magic would differ too much from a roleplaying game to have any influence on D&D’s rules, but Magic’s design shaped the D&D editions to follow. Today, innovations from Magic extend to the roots of fifth-edition D&D.

5. Templated text changed how rules get written—and the 3rd-edition design team.

When Magic’s designers faced the problem of bringing order to countless cards, they used templated text: they described similar game rules with consistent wording imposed by fill-in-the-blank templates. Today, the patterns of templated text appear throughout modern D&D’s rules.
But the move to templated text also lifted a D&D-outsider to lead the game’s third-edition team. Ben Riggs tells this story in a convention seminar.

Early in the development of third-edition D&D, Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR. Skaff Elias had served as a designer on several early Magic sets and ranked as Senior Vice President of Research and Development. Skaff felt that the upcoming D&D edition could fix “sloppiness in the rules” by using templated text. Skaff and Wizard’s CEO Peter Adkison told the D&D design team to switch the spell descriptions to templated text, but the team kept resisting his directives.

Eventually, the D&D team readied the release of a playtest document that still lacked templated text. They claimed rewriting all the spell descriptions according to formula would prove impossible because hundreds of spells would need templating in 48 hours to meet their delivery deadline. Nonetheless, Adkison and Skaff took the challenge themselves, working through the night to rewrite the spells and meet the deadline. Even after that heroic effort, the rules document that reached playtesters lacked the templated descriptions from the CEO and the Design VP. The design team had simply ignored their bosses’ hard work.

The failure infuriated Adkison. He lifted Jonathan Tweet to the head of the third-edition team. Designer Monte Cook remembers Adkison’s new directive: “If Jonathan says something it’s as though I said it.” Unlike the TSR veterans on the rest of the team, Tweet had started his career by designing the indie roleplaying game Ars Magica and the experimental Over the Edge. As a member of the D&D team, he convinced the team to adopt some of the more daring changes in the new edition.

4. Keywords now get careful use throughout the rules.

Much like Magic, D&D uses keywords to describe many elements in the game. Often the keywords bring few rules of their own, but other things in the game interact with the keywords. So Magic has no rules specifically for “white” or “green,” but cards with “protection from white” work in a special way.

In D&D, conditions like “charmed,” creature types like “beast,” and descriptors like “melee” work as keywords. Such keywords power templated descriptions like, “While charmed by this spell, the creature is…” and, “The next time you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack…” In early editions of D&D some words got treatment that resembled keywords. But before Magic proved the technique’s power, keywords in D&D hardly saw the pervasive, rigorous treatment they do now.

3. Specific beats general came from Magic, but started in a hugely-influential board game nearly as old as D&D.

In Magic, the text on any card can change the rules of the game, so a card like Platinum Angel can say, “You can’t lose the game and your opponents can’t win the game.” Among traditional games where all the rules fit on the underside of a box lid or in a slim pamphlet, this made Magic revolutionary. The original Magic rules explain, “If a card contradicts the rules, the card takes precedence.” In other words, specific beats general. Similarly, page 3 of the Player’s Handbook explains how when a game element breaks the general rules in some way, it creates an exception to how the rest of the game works.

Earlier editions of D&D included game elements that broke general rules, but the unwritten principle left new players to struggle with the apparent inconsistencies. Judging by how frequently D&D lead Jeremy Crawford restates the principle, players still struggle with it.

The principle of specific beats general dates to the revolutionary 1977 game that inspired Magic the Gathering and countless others. Bored with the familiar patterns of their Risk games, the designers of Cosmic Encounter wanted a game where every play felt different from the last. In Cosmic Encounter, each player controls a different alien species able to break the general rules of the game in some specific way. With more than 150 rule-breaking alien species in the game and its expansions, Cosmic Encounter offers endless, disruptive combinations.

2. With more reliance on rulings, D&D does less to separate flavor from rules.

Magic the Gathering cards typically fill any space left after their rules text with italicized flavor text. So, Platinum Angel might say, “She is the apex of the artificer’s craft, the spirit of the divine called out of base metal.” Other Platinum Angels share the same rules, but different flavor text.

Traditionally, D&D mingled rules and flavor text, but fourth edition fully adopted such separation. The power descriptions even duplicate the practice of putting flavor in italics. This practice fit fourth edition, which defined combat powers as tightly as cards. The designers aspired to create a game where flavor never bent the rules, so a DM never needed to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time.

In fifth edition, the separation mainly appears in the monster books, where rules appear in formal boxes while flavor comes between the rectangles.

1. Reactions came from Magic’s instants and interrupts by way of D&D miniatures.

In Magic the Gathering, players can act at any time, stopping another player with cards originally called interrupts. The constant activity helps make the game so compelling, but it forced the designers to develop rules to make sense of the actions and reactions.

In early editions of D&D, players might interrupt another turn for an improvised action, but such acts needed a DM’s ruling. By third edition these actions counted as free and still mainly relied on a DM. Counterspells used the system’s only means of interrupting—the readied action.

When Wizards planned a line of D&D miniatures in 2003, the company aimed to expand sales beyond roleplayers to gamers who favored competitive wargaming. The Miniatures Handbook turned third edition’s combat rules into “a head-to-head skirmish system for fighting fast, tactical battles.” The book’s authors included D&D designers Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo along with Magic designers Skaff Elias and Mike Donais. The new miniatures would come boxed in randomized assortments complete with cards describing rules for each figure, so in ways, the package resembled Magic. The competitive skirmish game could no longer rely on a DM’s rulings to resolve interruptions, but the team wanted some of the richer play suggested by a game like Magic.

The design collaboration worked. Elias and Donais brought experience from a competitive game with strict rules for timing interrupts and reactions. “While designing Miniatures Handbook, we realized that free actions hid a potential smorgasbord of cool new mechanics,” wrote designer Bruce R. Cordell. “We subdivided the free actions into immediate actions (a free action you can take when it isn’t your turn), and swift actions (a free action you can take when it’s your turn).”

Swift and immediate actions entered the D&D roleplaying game through Cordell’s Expanded Psionics Handbook (2004). “The concept that swift and immediate actions could serve as one more resource available to a player opened up new vistas of possibility, expanding options in the game.”

In fifth edition, swift and immediate actions evolve into bonus actions and reactions.

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

I’ve seen a dungeon master go from rolling saves against a monk’s Stunning Strike in the open to rolling in secret. I’m sure that meaningless switch had nothing to do with prior encounters where the monk ran around the battlefield and stunned all the strongest monsters before they acted.

The title of this post uses the word “cheat,” but we know DMs can’t really cheat. I chose the word for a provocative headline. The DM’s sudden switch to secret rolls certainly came from a noble goal. He aimed to make the game more fun, and Dungeons & Dragons rarely proves fun when every encounter turns into a beat down of helpless monsters.

At least a monk’s player always relishes such encounters. I love playing a monk with boots of speed and the Mobility feat, who zooms about like the Flash and punches everything. I’m sure my monk’s stunning fist has irked a few DMs, but I play an unwise monk. My monk pushed Constitution ahead of Wisdom, a poor choice because he hardly needs the hit points. Before the monsters’ turns, his speed lets him run for a cup of tea. (I like tea.) A good monk focuses on Wisdom for a more potent Stunning Strike. The Stunning Strike feature rates as so powerful that an optimal monk rarely squanders ki on anything else. Good monks barely need hit points. Their foes wind up with cartoon stars and birds swirling around their heads.

Some folks suppose that monsters typically enjoy good Constitution saves, and that limits the power of Stunning Strike. That theory mixes a sliver of truth with lots of wishful thinking. Few monsters can repeat saves against stuns from a monk with a high Wisdom. Monks regain ki after just a short rest, so they usually bring enough to make three or even four stun attempts on their first turn. After a monk’s allies finish mauling stunned foes, turn two rarely needs so many stun attempts.

Monk ability scores

For the best monk, make Wisdom and Dexterity your highest attributes. Both raise a monk’s AC. Dexterity helps your attack bonus and damage, but Wisdom stuns. By the time you near 10th level, you usually hit anyway. When you spend ki to stun, you want the high save.

Monk races

With ability score increases to Dexterity and Wisdom, plus a 35-foot walking speed, wood elves make especially good monks.

The Mobile and Alert feats combine so well with the monk class that human monks make another sound choice. A variant human can start boosted by a feat.

If your campaign allows aarakocra characters, consider one. They gain +2 Dexterity, +1 Wisdom, and a 50-foot fly speed, which seems too strong when paired with a monk’s hit-and-stun tactics. Without special permission, the Adventurers League forbids aarakocra characters.

Monastic traditions

The power of Stunning Strike typically makes spending ki on anything else a poor choice. That makes the Way of the Shadow a strong choice for monastic tradition. Shadow monks can use Shadow Step, their strongest ability, without spending ki. In dim light, this ability lets shadow monks teleport up to 60 feet. Plus, they can spend 2 ki to cast Pass Without Trace, a spell good enough to merit 2 fewer stun attempts.

If the optimal strategy of spamming Stunning Strike seems tiresome, other traditions bring more variety. Here are some stronger options.

If you prefer lots of attacks and battlefield control, the Way of the Open Hand lets every hit from a flurry of blows bring a chance of knocking foes back 15 feet or knocking prone, which brings advantage to the rest of your flurry.

The Drunken Master tradition lets monks disengage after a flurry of blows, adding some mobility and defense. The tipsy flavor may not resonate with some players though.

The Path of the Kensi enables a monk to use more damaging weapons and to become a master archer. However, if you want an Asian-flavored archer that deals game-breaking amounts of damage, opt for a Samurai. (See How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D (If the Rest of Your Group Doesn’t Mind).)

Monk feats

The Mobile feat combines with monk so well that according to D&D Beyond, 23% of monks select it. You gain even more speed and foes you attack in combat can’t make opportunity attacks against you. This enable monks to attack, and then dart from reach. Monks hardly need hit points when they only run into combat on their turns.

The Tough feat ranks as the second most popular monk feat, but it makes a weak choice. Well-played monks can survive on fewer hit points. If you want a more durable monk, choose Resilient (Constitution) instead.

The Alert feat pairs well with a monk’s Stunning Strike. Combining the feat’s +5 bonus to initiative with the monk’s Dexterity means you almost always go first. This gives you a chance to stun all the most dangerous monsters before they act.

No wonder Stunning Strike tempts DMs to roll saves in secret for no particular reason.