Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling

Even though experience points have fallen from the favor of the designers of Dungeons & Dragons, XP brings advantages proven by countless video games. XP show players steady progress to the reward of their next level. Players feel a sense of control over their advancement. With every victory, gamers see their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards kept gamers hooked. (See XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas and XP Versus Milestone Advancement.)

As I run Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, I’m using the story-based awards set in the text because adapting for experience points seems like too much work for any potential benefits. Still, in a more open campaign, I would opt for XP.

I suspect D&D fans undervalue the XP system. Dungeon masters tend to be more vocal in D&D circles, but we gain no rewards from experience points, so we just see a chore. As for players, seasoned D&D fans feel far too canny to fall for cheap psychological tricks. (Also, we never stay up playing a video game for just one more level, and we never become distracted by social media.)

For DMs who want the advantages of XP, fifth-edition D&D features a mostly-excellent system. Too bad the terrible part of the system—the XP awards for individual monsters—gets all the attention. Ignore those XP scores for two reasons:

  • The monster XP values hardly relate to the difficulty of the encounter. Most of encounter difficulty stems from the relative numbers of monsters and characters. Also, some monsters like banshees and shadows hit harder than their XP value suggests, others like spell casters rarely survive long enough to merit their XP.

  • Monster XP values steer players toward fighting, even when they might prefer to overcome obstacles with ingenuity and roleplaying.

As my dear Nana used to say about monster XP calculations, “The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”

Instead of using the monster values, rate every obstacle, even combative monsters, as non-combat challenges as described on page 261 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Each challenge gets a difficulty rating of easy, medium, hard, and deadly—call that nearly impossible. If you run a campaign where players have enough freedom to seek greater challenges, higher difficulty scores match higher risks with bigger rewards. Otherwise, you may as well rate every challenge as medium. Uniform ratings free you from judging difficulties and the points even out over the course of the campaign.

By this system, look for places in the adventure where the players’ goals meet an obstacle. The obstacle could be a monster, but also a puzzling door into the treasure room, a disagreeable queen who might offer help, or an ogre with a key. The players can set their own goals with help from the adventure’s hooks, secrets, and clues.

Whenever the players overcome an obstacle on route to their goal, they earn experience for the achievement. Some solutions might pass an obstacle, but leave problems for later. Think of times when the characters sneak past a monster that remains to block their escape. In these situations, you can grant half the XP award for half a resolution.

For investigation and exploration goals, the obstacle comes from the lack of information. Reward the party for the discoveries they make that bring them closer to their goal.

Don’t bother awarding XP to the group and then dividing by the number of characters. Such math only makes sense if you count XP scores by monster, and monster XP scores assume a bogus precision that D&D can’t offer. Instead, just award each character points based on the number and difficulty of obstacles. And in most campaigns, count every obstacle as medium difficulty.

To determine how much experience to award to each character, the following table shows current party levels and the XP awards for easy, medium, and hard obstacles. Nearly impossible challenges earn as much as two medium challenges.

Current Level Easy XP Award Medium XP Award Hard XP Award Medium XP Awards to Advance
1 25 50 75 6
2 50 100 150 6
3 75 150 225 12
4 125 250 375 15
5 250 500 750 15
6 300 600 900 15
7 350 750 1100 15
8 450 900 1400 13
9 550 1100 1600 15
10 600 1200 1900 18
11 800 1600 2400 6
12 1000 2000 3000 7
13 1100 2200 3400 6
14 1250 2500 3800 7
15 1400 2800 4300 7
16 1600 3200 4800 6
17 2000 3900 5900 7
18 2100 4200 6300 6
19 2400 4900 8500 6

If the party mixes characters of mixed levels, award experience points based on the higher-level characters in the party. This helps the lower-level characters catch up. Few players will complain about advancing too quickly.

Sometimes characters need extra experience to keep pace with, say, a hardcover adventure. You can award bonus experience for bigger, story achievements. If you plan on such awards, then when the players set the goal, I suggest writing the quest and award on a note card and giving it to the players. This makes the award feel like a prize for an achievement rather than an arbitrary bonus. The value of XP comes from how the points feel to players. Such bonus XP awards correspond to the milestones described on page 261 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

In games where wandering monsters encourage characters to act with urgency, you might skip awarding XP for overcoming these foes. Wandering monsters serve to penalize players for dillydallying, so adding an XP reward just mixes the message. In the original D&D game, wandering monsters usually lacked treasure and the XP award that gold brought, so they worked as a similar consequence for loitering.

My XP table shows the number of medium-difficulty XP awards required to gain a level. This helps DMs see how quickly characters will level and helps plan the pace of a campaign. For faster or slower advancement, you can adjust the XP awards listed.

Players commonly fault XP for adding math and bookkeeping. Many close relatives of D&D adopt smaller XP numbers as a quick route to simpler math. For example, in the second edition of Pathfinder, gaining each level takes 1000 XP. But such uniform numbers might cost a system a key advantage: D&D’s steep, level-by-level rise in XP awards speeds the advance of lower-level characters who join higher-level parties. That helps new characters and players who miss sessions catch up to their companions. Characters never fall far behind their group. Pathfinder works to capture a similar advantage by  granting party members behind in level double XP.

Still, an XP system that counts obstacles rather than monsters could grant 1 point for an easy, 1st-level obstacle rather than 25. From there, every XP award would be 1/25th of its current D&D value. This table shows XP values divided by 25.

Level Experience Points Medium XP Award
1 0 2
2 12 4
3 36 6
4 225 10
5 260 20
6 560 24
7 920 30
8 1360 36
9 1920 44
10 2560 48
11 3400 64
12 4000 80
13 4800 88
14 5600 100
15 6600 112
16 7800 128
17 9000 156
18 10600 168
19 12200 196

The smaller numbers have some appeal, but they hardly merit a house rule that confuses players by replacing the standard XP advancement table.

Some DMs suffer from players who ask for XP awards throughout a game session. While this reveals the addictive boost XP can deliver, it also brings the worst aspects of XP, the bookkeeping and distraction.

Never award XP until the end of a game session. But avoid delaying the awards until next time, because you want the accomplishments to feel fresh and the rewards immediate. Review of the characters’ successes while you cite the XP awards each earns, and then the total award for the session.

Recounting the achievements and awards makes the most of the cheap, I mean, powerful psychological boost brought by XP. Players hear they did well and feel good about their accomplishments. Plus, the account helps everyone understand and remember the session. This pays off during the next session.

Related: How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

Postscript: My last post promised the XP award Gary Gygax should have used instead of gold, but this post has run long enough. That topic must wait.

Posted in Advice | Tagged | 22 Comments

XP Versus Milestone Advancement—At Least We Can All Agree That Awarding XP Just for Combat Is Terrible

When Dungeons & Dragons arrived in 1974, players rated experience points (XP) as one of the game’s most irresistible features. Now, all of D&D’s official adventures ignore the experience point system, and the official Adventurers League campaign has dropped XP. See XP started as one of D&D’s breakthrough ideas. Now the designers don’t see the point.

In the place of experience, the official adventures and the league substitute what folks commonly call milestone advancement—leveling after story-driven accomplishments. The Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.261) calls this method story-based advancement.

“I have no quarrel with you sir, but I need the XP.”

Dungeon masters typically favor milestone advancement because it spares them the chore of planning and calculating XP awards. Instead, milestones give DMs lazy and total control over when characters advance.

While DMs dislike accounting for XP, adventure writers hate fitting XP in their designs. Organized play campaigns typically required designers to write their adventures around combat encounters that net a specific number of XP. Some authors met their XP quotas by adding bandit encounters until ambushed by thugs became a cliché of awkward design. Adventure paths pose an even bigger challenge. “Designers have to jam in the ‘correct’ number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace,” writes D&D head Mike Mearls. “Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot.” Designers who wanted fewer fights could add XP awards for accomplishing story goals, but these awards lead to the same outcome as just telling players to level up. Just telling players to take a level skips the math and planning.

Experience points come weighed with another negative: Everyone agrees that the XP system commonly used for D&D’s last 30 years is terrible. Those three decades began when D&D’s second edition stopped awarding experience for winning gold, leaving the notion that characters only gained XP for killing monsters. That has never been strictly true, but players, organized play, and designers most often treated XP-for-slaying as the rule.

D&D builds around three core activities: roleplaying interactions, exploration, and combat. Awarding XP just for monster slaying rewards just one of those pillars. This twisted incentive shapes play. For example, players in the third-edition Living Greyhawk campaign understood that their experience came from killing monsters, so many players felt resigned to solving every problem with violence. You might be able to succeed through stealth or diplomacy, but only battle guaranteed XP. “I once had a player tell me they were 40 XP short, so they wanted to go kill a few bears,” writes SwampRob. We’ve all known that player.

Erin Adams writes, “As a story-focused player, I’m not a huge fan of XP because it seems to skew the focus towards combat. I enjoy letting the DM decide when it’s time to level up because it often feels like a reward. Leveling after a tough social combat feels just as satisfying as leveling after a boss fight.”

When the Adventurers League stopped counting XP, the administrators cited a desire to support the roleplaying and exploration pillars.

DMs and adventure designers tend to dislike XP because milestones offer an easier route to the same bottom line. But computer games prove how compelling XP feel to players. With every battlefield victory, gamers see their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards keeps gamers hooked. We all love stacking wins and watching our scores rise.

Fifth-edition D&D includes an excellent XP system that allows players to gain points for overcoming challenges and achieving their goals. Characters can gain levels without grinding through combat. But the system still requires some bookkeeping. Do XP feel compelling enough to tabletop players to merit the math? Many players say yes.

Players like how winning XP gives a sense of progress. Nicholas Qualls writes “I enjoy the wrap up at the end of the game to see how well we did, and actually seeing a quantifiable measurement of progress.” Players enjoy anticipating the next level.

Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm describes the positive feedback loop that experience points create. “Growing in power feels good. Making progress with your character feels good. Making progress in the game feels good. Winning feels good. And connecting the extrinsic rewards with the intrinsic good feelings makes everything feel even better.” Some players like to beat monsters, some like to achieve progress in the game, some like to gain power, and some like watching their score zoom higher. Most of us enjoy a mix. Experience points connects all those good feelings into a loop where one joy leads to another. “Everyone gets something out of it. And therefore everyone can celebrate together even if their motives are different.”

XP Gives players a measure of control, which encourages players to take risks that make the game more fun and exciting. Peter James Mann writes, “I find that XP makes everyone at the table gamble for higher rewards, and that end game tally can really be a nail-biter. Unfortunately, milestone advancement has felt a little anticlimactic over time.”

Tom Henderson writes, “It makes me feel like I am actively involved with leveling my character as opposed to having a GM decide when I get to advance.”

XP makes an especially good fit for more open campaigns where characters wander without an overriding narrative shaped by a hardcover or a DM’s plan.

In more story-driven campaigns, where hooks and clues lead players through an adventure, and where the DM adds achievement XP awards, the players’ control over their advancement looks more like an illusion. Nate Finch writes, “The GM always just chooses when you level up. It’s just less work if you don’t have to bean count.”

The players who preferred milestones all touted the freedom from bookkeeping. Instead of feeling distracted by the game of seeking XP, they felt focused on story and character.

Milestone advancement works best when players know what achievement will earn their next level. Adam N. Dobson writes, “My group unanimously prefer milestones. The goals are made clear and they pursue them without feeling that they have to kill everything. Milestones are more inventive, immersed, and versatile.”

“If a DM uses [milestones],” Graham Ward writes, “I like to have some information on what those are. Even the illusion of an objective measure makes a difference for me. I hate when DMs decide on the fly.”

Next: Doing experience points right and the XP award Gary Gygax should have used instead of giving XP for gold.

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XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas. Now the Designers Don’t See the Point

When Dave Arneson ran a session of his Blackmoor dungeon for his Dungeons & Dragons co-creator, Gary Gygax’s biggest impression came from two innovations: (1) the dungeon expedition and (2) how characters improved with experience. In Playing at the World, author Jon Peterson describes reactions to the revolutionary game and shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players. I shared their fervor. In my junior high cafeteria, when I overheard some kids talking about a strange game where you could kill an orc, gain experience points, and get better at fighting, that single notion hooked me.

Early in Dave’s Blackmoor campaign, characters earned one experience point for each hit point of the monsters they killed. Players rarely saw the details. Blackmoor player Greg Svenson recalls, “We didn’t track our experience points as is done now. Dave simply told us when we had transitioned from one level to another.” Dave liked to shield players from his game’s numbers, partly for mystery, partly so he could change rules whenever he thought of something better.

His method for awarding experience certainly evolved. In a 1978 interview, Dave Arneson recalled awarding experience for characters who used skills associated with their class. “Each player increases in ability in a given area by engaging in an activity in that area. For a fighter this meant by killing opponents (normal types of monster), their ability to strike an opponent and avoid the latter’s blows was increased.”

While realistic, awarding experience points (XP) for different activities could have split groups to work their separate professions. If characters gained, say, spellcasting ability through endless hours of practice and study, players would face choosing between the fun of exploring dungeons and the drudgery of practice. “While it is more ‘realistic’ for clerics to study holy writings, pray, chant, practice self-discipline, etc. to gain experience, it would not make a playable game,” Gary wrote in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. “Magic users should be deciphering old scrolls, searching tomes, experimenting alchemically, and so forth, while thieves should spend their off-hours honing their skills, casing various buildings, watching potential victims, and carefully planning their next job. All very realistic, but conducive to boredom.”

In the pursuit of realism, Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) took study so seriously that the authors argue that magic users shouldn’t leave their labs at all. “What real ‘experience’ is to be had in a dark, damp dungeon?”

Gary saw dungeon expeditions as the second compelling innovation in Dave’s game. To succeed, the budding D&D game needed a way to lure every character into the dungeon, and then to reward their risk taking. Players loved seeing their characters gain power, so Gary motivated them to explore dungeons by stocking the underworld with treasure and by awarding characters experience for winning gold. The rogue might want wealth, and the paladin might want to smite monsters and to give to the church, but they could both win experience in the dungeon. Plus, the hunt for treasure resonated with players. Gary wrote, “If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more that the lure of riches?”

In addition to rewarding players for seeking fun, the XP-for-gold system offered another benefit: It created a simple way to award experience points for succeeding at non-combat challenges. As a new PC in the original game, potentially with 1 hit point, you had little chance of leveling through combat. Players joke that D&D is about killing things and taking their stuff, but in the original game, you were better off using your wits to take stuff. So long as your cunning led to gold, you got experience.

In the original game, characters earned much more experience for gold than for monster slaying. This rewarded players for engaging in exactly the dungeon exploration that made the game so much fun.

Once treasure led characters to the dungeon, Gary harnessed the system to tempt players to higher risks. In the early D&D game, players chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level of the dungeon corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—as they went deeper.

When Gary created this aspect of the game, he needed to find ways to entice players deeper into the dungeon. If a cautious party could gain nearly as much loot on an easy dungeon level as on a deeper one, why go down? Gaining experience could become a safe—and dull—grind.

To draw characters to danger, Gary doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. To rise in level at a tolerable rate, players needed to delve as far down as they dared.

Doubling both experience requirements and rewards offered a second benefit: Low-level characters could join a higher-level party and catch up quickly. This gave newer characters a boost and so made dead characters easier to replace. Also, the quicker advancement made monsters that drained characters of levels a bit less punishing.

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a foam sword cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system.

The XP-for-gold system struck players everywhere as unrealistic. In the original Arduin Grimoire (1977), Dave Hargrave wrote that in his game, “[Experience] points are given for many reasons, but NOT for gold or other treasure. After all, it is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience.” In 1989, with the second edition, D&D would follow suit. The game would never award XP for gold again.

Without XP for gold, only killing monsters earned specific experience awards. Players liked to say the D&D only awarded XP for killing things, but that has never been true. While second edition stopped granting experience for gold, “a character can earn experience points for successfully completing an adventure or achieving a goal the DM has set.” But neither dungeon masters nor published adventures tended to follow the advice. Everyone, professionals included, tended to ignore improvised awards for experience in favor of the set numbers printed for each monster.

In the countless video games that adopted experience points, the mechanic proved its psychological draw. With every battlefield victory, gamers saw their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards kept gamers hooked. Electronic games brought advantages to an XP system. The computer freed players from working the math, and CPUs patiently served an endless stream of foes to characters who needed to grind their way to the next level. Still, grinding hardly sounds fun.

When second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, D&D superficially became more of a game of killing than ever. Except D&D matured anyway. Adventures started spinning stories deeper than that one time we killed a minotaur for gold. Originally, every character chased treasure; now, characters pursue adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure. And that worked so long as when players joined a game, they joined an unspoken pact to find reason for their character to accompany the other characters in following the plot.

In the newer, story-driven play style, some players stopped seeing the point of counting experience. Those players included current D&D head, Mike Mearls. “Tracking experience points and using them to award levels makes a lot of sense in open-ended games, where the players can go where they wish, tackle the specific challenges that appeal to them, and create their own goals as a campaign progresses. In this type of game, when the players decide to assault the lair of a blue dragon, their primary goal is most often the treasure and XP they’ll gain for defeating it,” Mike wrote.

“In a more story-driven campaign, however, that lair assault could have a more complex purpose. Defeating the dragon removes a threat to the realm and creates a key event in the campaign’s story arc. In this type of campaign, treasure and XP take second place in the characters’ goals, behind the dragon’s importance in the narrative. The reward lies in making the kingdom safe and completing the mission, not necessarily in collecting loot. Leveling up might feel like the best way to mark that campaign milestone, even if the XP earned by slaying the dragon doesn’t quite cover it.”

In addition to faulting XP for failing to serve narrative campaigns, D&D’s designers disliked the bookkeeping behind XP. Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, the designers behind D&D’s 3rd and 4th editions wrote, “We think that XP systems are better left to computer games.

Even today, players still mischaracterize D&D as a game that only awards experience for slaying, mainly because every monster lists an XP number, while diplomatic and other challenges lack them.

Meanwhile, the game’s designers abandoned experience points in favor of milestones—leveling after story-driven accomplishments. Mearls wrote, “In the past, we’ve always defaulted to using experience point rewards for everything. However, for narrative-driven adventures like adventure paths, that approach can prove troublesome. Designers have to jam in the ‘correct’ number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace. Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot. Otherwise, if characters don’t level up at the expected rate, subsequent chapters in an adventure path become too difficult or too easy.”

When Mike complains about jamming in combat encounters, he reinforces the canard that the D&D rules only allow XP for killing monsters. Even a long-time designer never considers other XP awards. To be fair, story awards that help characters meet the level requirements of an adventure yield the same result as a DM announcing that everyone gains a level. Milestones lose the math, but they also lose the hook of small XP rewards for successes, seeing progress, and then earning levels.

The fifth-edition hardcover adventures lack enough monster-slaying XP to keep characters on pace with the adventure’s target levels. The designers could have added XP awards for other accomplishments, but they show little interest in supporting XP. This disinterest posed a problem for those of us who ran the hardcover adventures for the Adventurers League through the first 7 seasons. The league used experience then, and if the characters had only earned XP for slaying, they would never reach the levels targeted by the adventure. I may have violated the letter of League rules by awarding extra XP for overcoming non-combat challenges. I may be good, but I’m not completely lawful. Don’t tell the administrators.

Now, the League follows the D&D designers by dropping XP in favor of granting players the option to advance after an adventure, chapter, or other milestone.

Next: XP versus milestone advancement—at least we can all agree that awarding XP just for combat is terrible.

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

Concentration rates as one of the best additions to the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. In earlier editions, higher-level parties might enter a fight layered with spells like haste, invisibility, fly, blur, protection from energy, and on. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while dungeon masters struggled to create any challenge. Concentration simplifies the game by limiting the magical effects in play.

In earlier editions, the same caster behind the buffs could also immobilize foes with Evard’s black tentacles, and then smother them with cloudkill. Now, the need for concentration limits the power of spellcasters, helping to eliminate D&D’s old problem of wizards who surged in power with every level until they overshadowed other classes. (See How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D.)

Plus, concentration enriches the game by adding a fresh, tactical element. Combatants can end spell effects by targeting casters and breaking their concentration.

While concentration improved D&D and put wizards in their place, the innovation proved mixed for class archetypes that cross swords and spells.

For exhibit A, see the paladin. In my last game, the party’s smite-happy paladin relished the chance to lock down a monster with compelled duel. This 1st-level spell boosts the paladin’s flavor of champion and protector. But compelled duel requires concentration, so while the paladin trades blows, every hit threatens to end the duel. Paladins want to bear the brunt of attacks, and they lack proficiency with Constitution saves, so their concentration is fragile. Why would a paladin ever cast shield of faith?

Worse, the paladin’s smite spells also require concentration, so even momentary attention to a smite spell ends the compelled duel. With smites serving as a cornerstone of the paladin’s offense, the need for concentration brings some frustration. Spells like magic weapon, heroism, and bless seem perfect for paladins, but all demand concentration.

In the D&D Next playtest, the paladins smite spells skipped the concentration requirement, but spells like banishing smite and blinding smite impose ongoing effects that merit concentration. The designers added concentration to add the tactical element where foes can break concentration to end punishing effects.

The same tension between concentration and a melee archetype hinders warlock hexblades and pact of the blade warlocks who aim to use their pact blade for more than posing. Hexblades gain smite spells that require concentration, yet the class also features spells like hex that demand attention.

Surely rangers suffer the most friction between concentration and the class’s featured abilities. The hunter’s mark spell underpins the ranger’s flavor as someone who targets prey and pursues it to the finish. With a duration marked in hours, hunter’s mark seems meant to last through a ranger’s daily adventures. But the spell requires concentration, so rangers who need another spell lose their mark and what feels like a key feature. Also, rangers who aim to enter melee with say, a sword in each hand, suffer an outsized risk of losing their mark. (This exposes another spot where fifth edition punishes melee archetypes, but I’ve written about that already.)

The D&D design team uses their Unearthed Arcana series to test player reaction to potential game additions. A collection of class feature variants reveals one feature intended to smooth the rough spots from hunter’s mark. Read my annotated description.

Favored Foe
1st-level ranger feature (replaces Favored Enemy)¹
You can call on your bond with nature² to mark a creature as your favored enemy for a time: You know the hunter’s mark spell, and Wisdom is your spellcasting ability for it.³ You can use4 it a certain number of of times without expending a spell slot5 and without requiring concentration6—a number of times equal to your Wisdom modifier (a minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

When you gain the Spellcasting feature at 2nd level, hunter’s mark doesn’t count against the number of ranger spells you know7.

1. Instead of changing the base ranger class by adding a new feature missing from the Player’s Handbook, this variant adds an option that replaces a weak class feature. Most players would opt for Favored Foe, but rangers built from the core book keep a unique feature. The D&D design team has chosen not to make changes to the game that supplant anything in the published books. New players should never join a game and then learn that their Player’s Handbook character fails to match the latest rules.

2. The hunter’s mark spell implements a 4th-edition power called Hunter’s Quarry, a non-magical exploit that seemed to behave in some magical ways because the rules said so. Now, the replacement works like magic because it is.

3. First-level rangers can’t normally cast spells, but this feature needs the hunter’s mark spell. This line adds the one spell to a 1st-level ranger’s knowledge.

4. Oddly, the description says “use” rather than “cast”. This shows the designer thinking of this feature as an ability more than a spell. The whole feature description reads like something written by committee, but surely a final version will show more polish.

5. Because hunter’s mark implements a marquee ranger class feature, having to spend a spell slot on it feels like a tax. Here the ability goes tax free.

6. This waives the concentration requirement. Dual-wielding Drizzt admirers everywhere can cheer.

7. Hunter’s mark no longer taxes a ranger’s list of known spells either.

Favored Foe offers a good way eliminate a frustrating edge in the ranger class. I predict we’ll see it in a class options book toward the end of 2020.

Posted in Role-playing game design | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

New Printable Initiative Trackers for Dungeons & Dragons

When I described the best ways to track initiative in Dungeons & Dragons, I showed how I track initiative by draping named initiative tents over my dungeon master’s screen. I favor this method because I like a visible reference to the characters’ and especially the monsters’ stats. At the table, paging through the monster manual or finding monster pages shuffled in my other papers takes me too long. Hanging key numbers in plain sight speeds play.

Collected Monster Initiative Tents

When I fill a monster’s initiative tracker, I save it for future games. Over a couple of years, I’ve accumulated hundred of tents, from aboleth to zombie. I appreciate this resource, but when the reuse proved helpful, I wished for monster tents that could hold more information: all the saves and an fuller outline of actions. So I created bigger trackers for more complicated monsters. These large tents work better for aboleth, while the small ones still work fine for zombie. My new design means I’ll be rewriting older tents as needed.

Download a PDF of my blank tents.

My player tents include spaces for AC and passive perception, plus space for up to 8 separate initiative scores. As an extra time saver, I have players pre-roll initiative. During the a game session, I never slow for initiative. When an encounter starts, I hand all the tents to a player for sorting, and then I drape the folds on my screen.

Some helpful players won’t wait for initiative. At the end of every encounter, they re-order the tents. I never have to call for initiative. While this skips a dramatic moment, it also blends the line between combat and the rest of the game.

Top Dog Games makes a line of pre-printed Stat Trackers that already come printed with monster information.

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Start Here: My Most Popular and Favorite Posts

This page list the most popular articles on DMDavid by category.

Signed Greyhawk CoverD&D History

Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

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

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers

When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

Behind D&D’s Design

Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve

The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit

Proficiency and Bounded Accuracy in D&D Next

The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition

The Dungeons & Dragons Spells Gary Gygax Never Meant for Players

Character Building

7 Dungeons & Dragons Character Builds Absurdly Good at One Thing

7 Best Classes to Add to Multiclass a Dungeons & Dragons Character

The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D (If the Rest of Your Group Doesn’t Mind)

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

Dungeon Master Advice

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

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons

You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (and So Do I)

Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

5 Tricks for Creating Brilliant Dungeon Maps From Will Doyle

How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure

Reference and Play Aids

A Complete List and Gallery of Dungeon Tiles Sets

New Photo Guide to Dungeon Master’s Tools

Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk

What Is the Typical Amount of Treasure Awarded in a Fifth-Edition Dungeons & Dragons Campaign?

Gallery of poster battle maps published for Dungeons & Dragons

How to Print Map Graphics As Battle Maps Using Free Software

Great Adventures

Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985

How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures for Good

How Running Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan Reversed My Opinion of It

Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes

Opinion

Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, but That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition

How New Changes Created the 4 Most Annoying Spells in Dungeons & Dragons

Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes As Much as They Think

Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?

If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”

Dungeon Masters: Why Your Players Might Not Love Theater of the Mind As Much as You Do

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Demi-Human Level Limits, D&D Adventurers League, Open Rolls, and More From the Comment Section

Time for another visit to the comment section, starting with a request.

DM Bill writes, “Could you do an article about humans versus non-humans, and the importance of the First Edition level cap, please!

Until third edition, Dungeons & Dragons limited non-human characters to maximum levels in most classes. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax favored the sort of human-dominated fantasy that appeared in the fiction that inspired him. To Gary, demi-human level limits explained why humans dominated D&D worlds despite the extraordinary talents and longevity of elves and dwarves. Gary wrote, “If demi-humans, already given some advantages, were as able as humans, the world would be dominated by them, and there goes the whole of having a relatively familiar world setting in regards to what cultures and societies one will find in control. So a demi-human is unlimited in thief level only, as that this a class not destined to control the fate of major groups or states.

I doubt the rare humans who become capable enough to overshadow non-humans really explain human prevalence in a D&D world, but the level limits encouraged playing human characters and tended to fill adventuring parties with humans. Of course, some groups simply ignored the rule.

Gary wrote, “Why are humans more able to rise to higher levels than demi-humans? Because the gods say so, and don’t like pointy eared types with curly-toed shoes, squat miners with big beards, hairy-footed midgets, etc.” Gary intended the comment as harmless fun at the expense of make-believe creatures, and in 2005 most readers read it that way. But now the comment reads in a way Gary surely didn’t consider. In our history, people have justified inflicting countless horrors on other humans by claiming that God disapproved of some group. Talking about even fictional half-humans like this raises uncomfortable echoes.

Nowadays, many players feel drawn to the exotic character races. In an apt post, John Arendt compares the typical Adventurers League party to the Munsters, a collection of exotic, monstrous types with perhaps one human for contrast. “When an AL player sits down with a shadar-kai shadow sorcerer, there’s no point in even asking them what they’re doing in a large human city; the players haven’t considered it. The culture is about players assembling races and classes because the mechanical bits sound cool.” I see many players drawn to exotic characters for their story, flavor, and for the chance to play someone who seems extraordinary even in a D&D world. That urge never succeeds as well as players hope. Even in the Forgotten Realms, a party that includes a deep gnome, a tortle, a triton, a shadar-kai, and a guy with flaming hair would alarm ordinary folks, but to keep the adventure on track everyone treats such groups as unremarkable.

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

In D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character I touted the power of find familiar.

Seven writes, “When used correctly find familiar is way overpowered. My owl scouts ahead so we don’t get ambushed. My owl flies down the tunnel triggering the glyph. My owl scouts the dungeon as I watch. Oh, it dies. Ok, I ritually cast. Let’s burn an hour.

I disallowed the Help action in combat for familiars and my players try not to abuse the power granted by the find familiar, but I miss the old days when you suffered a consequence when your familiar died.

Ilbranteloth writes, “Why can’t a spirit have a personality? Gwenhwyver was a magic item, but had a personality and sting connection to Drizzt. Having a personality is up the player. It has nothing to do with being a flesh and blood creature that only exists in our imagination.

If find familiar feels too strong for a 1st-level spell, I suggest limiting it by adding two elements:

  • Treat the familiar as an non-player character with an attitude and a some desire to avoid getting hurt. As controlled by the dungeon master, familiars follow orders, but not necessarily cheerfully or recklessly.

  • Doors. Scouting familiars lack the hands needed to open most doors.

The post also suggested find steed and find greater steed to players interested in gaining a mount.

Larissa writes, “Find greater steed is a 4th-level spell, so paladins won’t get it until level 13. For the greater steed, play a bard and take the spell at level 10, because for a paladin it’s a long wait.

Steal This Rule: Flashbacks and Heists in Dungeons & Dragons

The post Steal This Rule: Flashbacks and Heists in Dungeons & Dragons explained how to adapt rules for flashbacks to Dungeons & Dragons.

Morten Greis writes, “It is kind of weird to see flashbacks-mechanics coming back as if it was a wholly new thing. In 2010, I wrote this: Using Flashbacks in Your Roleplaying Game. It is a great mechanic, though, and it is good to see people using it more.

For gamers interested in flashbacks, Morten’s post gives more suggestions for using the mechanic to enhance your game.

Captain Person writes, “There’s a product on DMs Guild called Here’s To Crime: A Guide to Capers and Heists that adapts the Blades in the Dark heists to fifth-edition D&D.

Michael Lush writes, “‘The Arcadian Job’ episode of the Netflix series 3Below: Tales of Arcadia had an interesting flash-forward spin on this.

The protagonists need to break into a high security military base, but the action focuses on the planning session where they narrate what they are doing and their plans appear on screen.

We infiltrate under cover of night and cut through the wall with…BZZZZZZT!!! No, can’t do that! Look the wall is electrified…

We infiltrate under cover of night and short circuit the wall (failed Security roll. An alarm rings, guards show up, and we die in a hail of blaster fire! No, can’t do that…

OK. Infiltrate under cover of night, insulate the wall with rubber matting (rolls a success), and climb over the…ZAP!! Oh sentry turrets.

Hmm. The wall is a bust. How about the gate?

Once they bypass all the security, the flash-forward planning switches back to normal real-time play.

In a tabletop game, such planning steps would resemble a video game where when you run into trouble, you restore to the last save. The story that develops includes no failures because the framing story shows how the players planned around all the pitfalls.

The 3Below episode finds a new take on the usual storytelling approach to planning. Typically, if the characters make a plan on screen, we know the plan will fail. The narrative lets us enjoy the surprise and tension of seeing the plan unravel. But if we never see the planning, then the plan succeeds. Narratives never show heroes making successful plans because revisiting a familiar plan as it unfolds would prove less interesting.

lunaabadia writes, “One of the mechanics I really like in Gumshoe games such as Night’s Black Agents is the Preparedness skill. It represents this concept that your character has a knack for planning. As with other skills in the game, you spend one or more points to add to a roll for what you are trying to accomplish. You might say, ‘but of course I brought night goggles,’ and you make the roll. As you noted above, the whole point is to zip past the boring hours players can spend wondering what gear to bring. Preparedness answers the question of whether you brought it and frees players’ brains to focus on the action.

I would guess Preparedness could be done with Inspiration, and in a heist session it could make a lot of sense to give each player Inspiration at the start of the mission, representing their planning. Do you spend it on a roll? Or do you hold it in case you need to do a flashback?

7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing

The post 7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing continues to attract readers and comments.

Geoff writes, “Disciple of Life doesn’t apply to goodberries. It says ‘whenever you use a spell of 1st level or higher to restore hit points to a creature, the creature regains additional hit points.’ Goodberry is a spell that summons magical berries, not a spell that restores hit points to a creature.

Your interpretation adds up, but officially the interaction works. See this Sage Advice post.

Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?

In Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?, I had a bit of fun at the expense of one of the earliest fantasy roleplaying games.

Shane Devries tells how his group started playing Chivalry & Sorcery by ignoring most of the rules, and then slowly added complexity. “Over a period of a couple of years we were playing the entire system as written and NEVER looked back. Over time D&D and Palladium dropped away and by 1985 all we played was Chivalry & Sorcery, which we still play to this day. All my players prefer C&S BECAUSE of its complexity and revel in the system and what it has to offer. The older players in my group with decades of experience will not go back to D&D or any other system for this fact.

Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start)

The post Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start) prompted some readers to share their bad experiences dropping in for Adventurers League games.

Alphastream responds, “The experience really varies, but bad areas are uncommon. I’ve traveled for work across the US and tried many different stores. I would say under 15% are truly bad, primarily due to bad store management. And, even when I’ve found a bad one, I’ve offered to DM an additional table, recruited players via MeetUp (or a similar site), and had a great time. I’ve had far better results finding AL tables and meeting cool players/DMs there than I have with trying to find decent home groups. Good stores are also very welcoming to new players. Stores overall are changing a lot these days, mastering skills to draw in customers through many different programs and creating healthy and safe spaces focused on fun.

My local game store draws players interested in sampling D&D, and while many become regulars, many don’t return. The conversion rate rises when prospective players arrive at a table starting a new campaign or hardcover. When players get slotted into an ongoing game, they seem to find the experience more daunting. An ideal welcome would feature short seasons of low-level games that fed into a higher-level experience. Wizards of the Coast should support a program like that. I can even suggest a name for it.

How New Changes Created the 4 Most Annoying Spells in Dungeons & Dragons

In How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, I wrote, “By the end of the encounter, player characters go from one beguiled victim to the next, raining attacks on the defenseless pinatas. As a DM, I may be biased, but I think the least fun scenes in the game come when PCs beat helpless foes to death.”

Acemindbreaker writes, “Why play that out? If it’s clear that their opponents stand no chance, montage it instead of rolling the dice. ‘So, your opponents are all helpless as long as your wizard keeps up hypnotic pattern. Are you intending to kill them all?’

‘Yeah.’

‘All right, easy enough to do. Once they’re all dead, what next?’

Zachiel cites maze as an annoying spell that can wreck most player characters. Wizards aside, PCs never boast enough intelligence to make a DC20 check on less than a 20. Lucky for players, few will ever face the 8th-level spell. However, the spell appears on Acererak’s list in Tomb of Annihilation, so I got to send someone to the labyrinth, and that delighted me. My joy probably makes me a mean DM, but we DMs so rarely get to thwart players with such potent magic.

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less suggested ways DMs can delegate some of their tasks to players.

Daniel writes, “My players enjoyed reciting expository dialog (usually in the form of flashback conversations involving NPCs). Maybe this is because some of them had more of an acting background than a gaming one. It does mean that I had to compose and print the dialog in advance but it then saved me having to do too much talking (and switching personas) during a session.

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

The post In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling? raised a question that drew plenty of interest.

RobOQ writes, “As a player I tend to get annoyed at rolling for every imaginable thing. I prefer, both as a player and a DM, to go by the rule of ‘if there isn’t an interesting outcome to both success and failure on the roll, leave the dice where they are and just describe the more interesting outcome.’ I see very little point in rolling dice where a failure means the situation doesn’t change at all.

Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes

In Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes, I betrayed a low passive insight by suggesting that a liar might avoid eye contact.

Dr Sepsis writes, “Someone who is lying is more likely to make eye contact as they check to see if they’re being detected.

HDA writes, “Instead of rolling dice to get information, make your players think, observe, ask questions, learn from the world around them. As the DM playing a non-player character, maybe raise your eyebrow a bit. You know, emote. What is even the point of having intrigue and deception in your game if the players can just roll to see through it?

8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell

In response to 8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell, Kristen Mork pointed me to Sage Advice that said each magic missile should provoke a separate concentration check.

This answer defies the answer the design team gave when they introduced the game, but fine. In practice, the newer ruling makes magic missile an efficient way to break concentration and to finish fallen characters. (See Can a DM Have Monsters Kill Fallen Characters Without Bringing Hurt Feelings?)

After penning my 8 facts, I watched a Q&A panel by TSR editor Tim Kask that expanded on one. Gary Gygax’s debates with Tim helped shape Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “The only thing that I won was that magic missile always hits for damage,” Tim said. “It took me two-and-a-half weeks of arguing. I kept telling him that that’s the only thing the little guy gets and if it’s hit or miss, then he’s dead.”

Dan writes, “I would actually argue that the magic missile and shield spells were inspired by a bit earlier in that scene from The Raven, whereby Karloff produces magical knives and an ax and sends them toward Price, who blocks them with magic barriers.

The small exploding balls at the beginning of your embedded video are much more likely to have been what inspired Melf’s Minute Meteors.

Steve Blunden writes, “Seeing both these clips, and of course the wizard duels in Harry Potter inspired me to see if the rather colourless counterspell could be dramatically improved. When a character tries to cast counterspell, the player should be encouraged to describe what this might look like. E.g. if counterspell is used against fireball, the player can describe the counterspell as a jet of water leaping out of their hand to douse the fire.

In Making Counterspell Awesome, Mike “Sly Fourish” Shea recommended this approach.

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

The post How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story prompted alphastream to share some history.

Second edition and earlier simply had fragile PCs. You could die easily, end of story.

Third edition had monsters that were absolutely brutal at all tiers, plus some really exploitable loopholes (such as non-associated class levels) that created sky-high challenges. This all meant that if the DM knew how to craft monsters,characters could easily die, even when they had full hit points. Unfortunately, it was incredibly taxing to modify monsters.

Fourth edition gave PCs too much of a safety net between hp and healing surges, though the edition also had some amazing challenges (especially after the developers went back and corrected the monster design math).

Fifth edition on paper looks more fragile than 4E, but it has not been in play. Characters are very resilient and have a lot of hit points compared to monster damage. Monsters are often given special abilities and to balance that they do less damage, but the abilities don’t actually threaten PCs with death. This problem is even worse at high tiers of play, where monster damage is absolutely shameful. Most monsters have no chance. If they hit 100% of the time they still could not drop all the PCs to 0 hit points. And when that isn’t the case, there is no way for the PCs to be defeated in most fights. To me, the 5E solution is pretty simple: add damage.

Abelhawk writes, “I have a couple of house rules that make death a bit more dangerous and limiting:

1. When a character is brought to 0 hit points, they gain a level of exhaustion. Levels of exhaustion gained in this way go away after a short rest, or if the character is brought to half their hit point maximum.

2. When a character dies and is brought back to life, they receive one permanent death saving throw failure. A character with three permanent death saving throw failures cannot be brought back to life by any means.

Imposing exhaustion on characters raised from 0 hp rates as a fairly popular house rule. As for the second house rule, I like the idea of limiting characters to some maximum number of resurrections.

Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

In the post, Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story, I wrote, “If D&D players wanted a game where fighting rated as a last resort, they would play Call of Cthulhu or the Dallas Television RPG, where you can’t shoot JR.”

Jacob Blalock responds, “Most people who want to play have to take what they can get in terms of finding a group to play with, and that means they mostly play the most recent edition of the most widely recognized RPG, 5th-edition D&D.

Jacob makes a fair point. Some roleplaying gamers play D&D because the game’s popularity makes finding a group easier, rather than because the game perfectly suits their tastes.

Cymond writes, “I was recently considering the idea of a house rule: Let a dying character remain conscious but unable to act or speak loudly. You can still have those dramatic deathbed moments where they confess their eternal love, beg to be avenged, plead with the unscrupulous rogue to please save the world, etc. Or maybe say that they don’t die immediately after 3 failed saves, but are beyond saving with anything less that the same things that would resurrect them, and save the deathbed moment until after combat.

Tardigrade writes, “I strongly feel that if a character death is a problem for your narrative, then you’re playing the game wrong. If you are narrating a story, go write a book. If you are trying to create an experience that challenges players, then play D&D, design the game so that their choices matter and don’t fudge the dice.

BlobinatorQ responds, “Ultimately it comes down to the group. If the group wants D&D to be nothing but challenges, and wants the stakes to be high with character death always on the table, then so be it. If the group wants to build and be invested in a narrative, and don’t want people left out of the experience due to some unlucky dice rolls, then things should be crafted to suit that. There is no one right way to play D&D, it can be a very different game for different groups.

When I explained the problems that death creates for a story, I focused on the story a particular player imagines for their character. The story of a D&D campaign can stand some character deaths, but that doesn’t cushion the blow a dead character brings to their player.

Ilbranteloth notes that the 1st-edition rules for characters at 0 hit points were forgiving, giving players at least 7 rounds to help a fallen character.

What differs significantly are the consequences of your near-death experience. And this is where I think 5e has made it much less of a thing. In AD&D, if you were reduced to 0 hp, then once you were restored to at least 1 hp with mundane OR MAGICAL means, you were in a coma for 10-60 minutes. Then you had to rest for a full week, minimum. A Heal spell was required to avoid this period of rest.

There was a significant consequence already built into the game for dying and we avoided it because it generally put the adventure on hold while the party headed back to town to rest and recover.

In most cases, it also meant nobody was out of the game. The entire party went to town to rest and resupply, and of course you didn’t have to play that out. So it was a short, we-failed moment.

If this one rule was still in effect, then the risk of death is back, without having to kill any PCs. And it also has the effect of reducing the risk of actual character death because players try to make sure they aren’t reduced to 0 hp.

I have now learned that when I played AD&D, everyone I played with got the rules for 0 hit points wrong.

The post Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk explained why I typically use a DM screen.

Alphastream writes, “When I run organized play games and don’t use a screen, I get maybe one person every four or so tables that can’t help but look at my notes. And when that happens, they tend to look often… enough that it distracts me! So, I tend to use a screen. Plus, I like collecting/buying screens and then I get to show them off.

I find screens can be effective for drawing attention from others. In a public space where that’s valuable, such as to get other people walking by to be interested and sit down, it can be an asset.

The least valuable aspect of a screen, for me, is what’s printed on my side. Outside of a few things, such as conditions, dispel magic, and counterspell, I never look anything up. What I’ve been doing lately is draping two pieces of paper taped together over one part of my screen. Facing the players is a map of the general area of the world. Facing me is a list of the character names and info I want for help with roleplay: race, background, class/subclass, etc. I add a list of important campaign NPCs and similar notes. That’s stuff I reference all the time.

I have one young player who finds the basilisk so irresistible that I often see his eyes rise like Kilroy over the top of my screen.

The post’s sidebar explained why I roll in the open and raised some debate.

I wrote, “If I had rolled behind the screen and simply announced a pair of crits, the event would have fallen as flat as a card trick on radio.”

Navy DM responds, “If players have that low level of trust in their DM, then that is a whole different issue.

Sam replies, “Sounds more like the excitement and watching the dice roll than not trusting what the DM rolled to me.

Marty replies, “Exactly. The tension comes from seeing the rolls and reacting. Rolling in the open has completely changed my game for the better.

Most DMs who roll behind the screen acknowledge that they occasionally override rolls to shape play, aiming for a better experience. Rather than players trusting their DM to stick to a die roll, I assume the players trust the DM to not abuse their privilege in some way. What would count as a betrayal of trust?

To be clear, I make some rolls in secret to conceal information from the players. I often roll hidden perception and especially insight checks to avoid revealing secrets.

Beyond the advantages I described in the post, rolling in the open forces me to honor any surprises the dice send my way. If a secret roll upends my plans, I might feel tempted to ignore the roll and take the comfortable path I expected. For me, rolling in the open feels a bit more exciting, like dungeon mastering without a net.

Other DMs feel like sometimes overriding rolls lets them craft a more dramatic game. I respect that perspective, but it’s not for me.

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Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk

When I run games as a dungeon master, I typically use a DM screen, but I see the appeal of skipping it. Many DMs feel that screens create an unnecessary divide that feels adversarial. By this mindset, everyone at the table ranks a storyteller in a collaboration. When I have minimal notes, I’ll set my screen aside and join the team.

Also, I roll in the open, in front of the screen. Dropping the screen would eliminate a bothersome obstruction between me and my dice tray.

As a dungeon master, I want players to feel they earned their victories thanks to smart play, and not to worry that they owe a win to fudged rolls. As for defeats, I like the dice to carry the blame. By rolling in the open, players know I’m not fudging to spare them, to pick on them, or to protect some narrative I planned for. Key die rolls can also add drama. I like when a tense moment brings players to their feet, and when everyone at the table watches to see the outcome of a roll. In one memorable moment, I reminded a player that his movement would provoke a pair of attacks, but he laughed off the risk. I rolled a pair of natural 20s and the table burst out laughing. If I had rolled behind the screen and simply announced a pair of crits, the event would have fallen as flat as a card trick on radio.

Despite the annoyance, I use the screen because of the basilisk. Let me explain. When I play with DMs who skip the screen and sets out their papers, I don’t want to spoil bits of the adventure, so I avoid looking at their preparation. But a DM’s maps and notes always draw my eye. They become the basilisk, something in plain view that forces me to constantly avert my gaze. Surely, many players easily ignore the basilisk, but I’m not the only one who struggles against it. I’ve heard others voice similar feelings.

In addition to walling off the basilisk, my DM screen shows tables and rules I often forget. After five years of fifth edition, I know exactly what I never remember. Every session, I reference descriptions of the game’s conditions. Also, I usually write the names of characters and locations on an index card and clip that to the screen. Plus, the screen gives me a visible place to drape initiative tents.

Despite my preference for a screen, standard-sized screens stand too tall for my taste. I prefer the 6-inch tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog Games. This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides. I fill the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I need most at the table. For the player side, I add artwork.

You can download a PDF version of my screen, minus the art.

This update adopts a look that echoes the design of published 5th-edition screens. The PDF includes more pages than you need. Choose which pages suit you best. Some inserts feature information like the table showing levels and experience points, which suits the players more than the DM. Add those to the side that faces the players.

The tables for encounter building, improvised challenges, and mobs of monsters appear thanks to Mike Shea. His Lazy DM’s Workbook includes versions of all these tools along with a wealth of other references, guides, and maps.

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Can a DM Have Monsters Kill Fallen Characters Without Bringing Hurt Feelings?

In Dungeons & Dragons, the threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an end that usually feels sad and disappointing. Fifth-edition D&D copes with this conflict by making death virtually impossible for characters above level 4. Only new characters typically die. The game’s designers embrace this bent. To them, a new character represents a small enough time and emotional investment to feel disposable. But at higher levels, players feel indestructible, and this lack of risk can drain the game of excitement. (See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.)

D&D needs a better way to add peril without the problem of dead characters. In my last post, I suggested a solution to limit the problem of dead characters: Substitute character deaths for more interesting and less permanent setbacks. But while writing the post, I realized the proposal hardly applied to fifth edition because only new characters die. Once you solve for dead characters, the game needs a higher risk of death.

How can a DM increase the threat of death?

Obviously, we can add more and tougher monsters. Higher challenge monsters rarely hit with enough damage to threaten higher-level characters. Maxing out the monsters’ damage increases their menace to a level that makes fights interesting.

We can run monsters with more cunning. See 4 Simple Tactics that Make Cunning D&D Foes Seem More Dangerous, D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes, and the book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing.

I support these approaches, because greater danger makes a more exciting game. But pressing threats too hard will create more total-party kills. D&D enthusiasts call them TPKs, and we don’t want them.

In fifth edition, fallen characters usually survive if anyone stands to revive them, so the rules make TPKs more common than individual deaths. To raise the threat of death without substantially more TPKs, fallen characters must suffer a higher risk of dying.

If I were king of D&D rather than a DM who shuns house rules, I would rule that damage that exceeds the Constitution score of a character at 0 hit points results in death. Does that seem harsh? If so, perhaps you should sit down for my next bit.

The existing D&D rules offer one way to make the game more lethal. Monsters can deal killing blows to fallen characters. Older editions called this the coup de grâce. This edition calls it attacking an unconscious foe within 5 feet, gaining advantage, counting any hit as a critical, and then inflicting two failed death saves. That’s a mouthful, but at least I can say it without anyone laughing at me for pronouncing the P in coup de grâce.

Monsters have good reasons for dealing finishing blows.

  • Monsters of average intelligence who see a fallen foe magically healed will want to prevent more revivals.

  • Brainy monsters who recognize healers will avoid leaving unconscious enemies.

  • Demons, gnolls, and other creatures fueled by blood and destruction will delight in murdering enemies.

  • Creatures with a hostility toward particular party members might focus on slaying them. For example, drow might finish elves.

Despite the logic of finishing blows, DMs never let monsters make them because the tactic feels harsh. Such attacks single out players in a way that seems personal. Besides, although we want a threat of death, we would rather keep characters alive.

But handled with finesse, the risk of a finishing blow might make the game feel more dangerous and urgent without hard feelings and without sending character sheets to the shredder.

To make finishing blows work, players must see the risk and understand that the menace comes from the monsters.

If smart monsters resolve to make finishing blows because of potential healing, make their decision obvious. So if a character falls and gets revived, have an evil leader shout an order to finish any other characters who drop. Or at the start of the fight, have a mastermind point out the party’s healer and order the other monsters to knife anyone who falls.

Demons, gnolls, and other creatures who exalt in blood lust will gain a reputation for rending fallen foes. Make sure that the player characters hear such tales before they face battle.

All these warnings let players adapt their strategies to higher threats.

In most D&D games, players treat fallen characters with little urgency. Three strikes usually take a string of bad luck and a several turns to accumulate. Players often choose to make an attack over spending a turn pouring a healing potion into an ally. They expect plenty of time for healing after the fight.

Sometimes, party healers aiming for efficiency will avoid mending characters until they drop. Curiously, these healers know the rule that allows all damage below 0 to heal for free. When the dread warlord orders his soldiers to finish fallen characters, such metagaming ends immediately.

Simply a threat of finishing blows makes D&D battles feel much more dangerous and urgent. Plus if players adapt by healing characters before they drop and by immediately healing fallen allies, the number of deaths remains close to zero.

D&D rules make finishing blows a bit less dangerous than they seem. Typically, one inflicts two failed death saves, and leaves the character hanging to life. Monsters will assume that the one blow finished the character and will move to another foe. Let your monsters overlook their chance to kill characters with failed death saves. Still, be prepared to swap a potential character death for a more interesting complication.

After writing this post, I still feel unsure of the answer to the question I posed in my title. Tell me. Can a DM have monsters kill fallen characters without bringing hurt feelings?

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Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

A few years ago, I heard someone suggest what I then considered the worst bit of roleplaying game advice ever: Let players choose whether to allow their characters to die. Except, hear me out, maybe something like that could work. Keep reading.

Character death has always torn Dungeons & Dragons between game and story. The threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an unsatisfying end that can disrupt a campaign. See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.

Making character deaths optional declares story most important, and games focused on storytelling can thrive with such a rule. The Fate roleplaying game rules explain, “Most of the time, sudden character death is a pretty boring outcome where compared to putting the character through hell.” Plus a journey through hell can emerge from the other side.

To remove death from a roleplaying game, make success and failure about stakes less final than shredding a dead character’s sheet.

D&D makes a tough candidate for this approach. Mainly, D&D tends to feature fighting evil with an emphasis on fighting. Combat is a life or death situation, especially when most players’ refuse to retreat or surrender. If D&D players wanted a game where fighting rated as a last resort, they would play Call of Cthulhu or the Dallas Television RPG, where you can’t shoot JR.

D&D has never been good with setbacks short of death. Co-creator Gary Gygax invented some, including level draining and equipment loss aided by things like rust monsters, but players hated all of them. Somehow a lost level or a ruined magic item seemed more punitive that a dead character.

Making death optional risks leaving D&D lifeless. In the Investigation Check podcast, Josh remembers a campaign where the players learned that no characters could die. “It started to feel stale when we didn’t feel like our characters were in any real danger. I didn’t feel motivated to level up or even get equipment, because I felt we were always going to make it out fine.” D&D needs a consequence of failure that is less disruptive and painful than character death, but that holds enough sting to keep a sense of danger.

To cope with character death, try bridging the gap between game and story by bargaining.

A good story requires two ingredients: (1) characters with a goal and (2) obstacles that test and reveal the characters. To serve the story of a D&D game, players and the dungeon master take opposing interests. Players handle the characters while DMs pose the obstacles. In a healthy game, none of this makes the DM and players into opponents competing to win. As a player focused on story, understand that the best stories include some setbacks and perhaps even defeat. As a DM, become a fan of the characters. In Your Best Game Ever, Monte Cook recommends game masters take this approach: “Have a playful attitude of, ‘I’m making this really challenging for you.’ This isn’t adversarial, just a way to—on a metagame level—inject a bit of tension into the game. When the PCs are victorious, the players will feel even greater satisfaction from believing that you were pushing them to their limits.”

When the dice rule that a character dies, and the player feels unready to end the character’s story, consider making a deal between the player and DM that improves the tale by substituting death for a different setback. The more the setback complicates the character’s imaginary life, the more the story wins.

My inner old-school gamer, who started playing before Tomb of Horrors reached stores, fears that sparing rightfully-dead characters coddles players and ruins D&D. Fortunately, trading deaths for lesser penalties has support from a man with perfect old-school credentials. In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax wrote, “Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. You do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well.”

As the simplest consequence for letting a character live, accept a roll on the permanent injuries table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.272). Or perhaps that last death save never failed, but the next 3 times the character faces undead, he suffers from the frightened condition until he ends a turn with a successful Wisdom save.

Perhaps the character loses an item needed to reach the party’s ultimate goal. The dragon’s breath somehow missed the character and destroyed the party’s astral skiff. The death blow sundered the sword specifically forged to kill the Dragon King. This setback should still allow a final victory, but the path to success becomes more complicated. Maybe now the players must free the imprisoned smith with the skill to reforge the dragonslayer. Complications turn into adventure hooks.

The deal need not explain why the character lived, although a hunt for some explanation can fuel creativity. The deal swaps death—a bad outcome for the character and (probably) a bad outcome for the story—with an outcome that by provides a more interesting reversal of fortune. This means any unplanned plot twist can buy a life so long as it also complicates the character’s life. For example, normally DMs should avoid having non-player characters betray the party. Such treachery encourages players to see everyone as a foe. But if the twist comes from a unplanned complication that buys a character’s life, it works. Let’s make a deal.

Space battles pose a problem for roleplaying games. A photon torpedo or plasma bolt can destroy a space ship, vaporizing all on board. In scripted science fiction tales, the crew’s plot armor protects them, but in a roleplaying game, a space battle threatens to wreck a campaign with an instant total-party kill. The game Stars Without Number solves the problem with an ingenious solution: When a space ship takes critical damage, players can opt to substitute a crisis aboard the ship. The game swaps death for complications that enrich the adventure. In Stars Without Number, players roll on a table to determine the exact crisis. This takes the GM out of the process and makes the swap feel entirely impartial.

A player can opt to let a character die. Sometimes players have a new character in mind and feel ready to move on. Sometimes a noble sacrifice defending the bridge or holding the door seems like exactly the right end for a character’s arc.

Even if a player feels ready to accept a character’s fate, the deal might be to die forever, but not just yet. Perhaps instead of bleeding out, the character rises to her feet to defend the bridge or to strike the killing blow. And then, when her moment has passed, her mighty heart finally gives out. That’s a death for heroes.

By allowing players to escape death, DMs can run more tense, dangerous games while making the tale of the characters’ adventures more heroic and more compelling.

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