Monthly Archives: November 2012

Evolution of the skill challenge

When Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition came out, I found a lot to like, and one thing I hated: the skill challenge mechanic—not the underlying idea of giving non-combat activities center stage, but the rules framework of the original skill challenge. As originally presented, the skill challenge seemed like an element from a story game awkwardly forced into D&D. I’m not saying that story game elements are wrong for another game, but they do not fit with the D&D game that I want to play.

Other fourth edition players may not have shared my dislike for the original skill challenge, but the mechanic certainly puzzled them. Less then three months after the 4E release, Mike Mearls began his Ruling Skill Challenges column. He writes, “In many ways, the R&D department at Wizards of the Coast has undergone the same growing pains and learning experiences with skill challenges, much as DMs all over the world have.” This column began a process of recasting the skill challenge into something that fit more comfortably into a classic D&D game. Aside from the underlying numbers, this process never changed the underlying rules for skill challenges—though it did ignore some.

Based on the new advice, I learned to run skill challenges that stayed true to the rules, but that felt more like classic D&D. I found that I could enjoy skill challenges and I think my players liked them more too. Nonetheless, the original skill challenge rules and the original format for describing skill challenges remained, and that foundation made running them well a bit harder.

In my upcoming series of posts, I will write about the original skill challenge, how the skill challenge evolved, and how something like a skill challenge might best appear in a future iteration of D&D.

Tips for battle maps and dungeon tiles

I do most of my dungeon mastering at conventions and game stores. This post shares some of my tricks for working with battle maps on the go.

Wizards of the Coast includes pre-printed battle maps with Encounters and Lair Assault adventures as well as most of their published adventures. I love the maps, but they never lay flat. The folds and creases always seem to topple figures on the map.

To solve this problem, I purchased a sheet of Plexiglas from the window department at the local home improvement store. Laying the sheet on the printed map forces it flat and prevents it from sliding. You can even mark up the sheet with a wet-erase pen. Suitable Plexiglas sheets cost about $15.

Living Forgotten Realms adventures encourage you to use dungeon tiles. As I’ve confessed in other posts, I prefer to bring the best possible production value to the table. Particularly if I’m running the same adventure several times at a convention, I feel like the extra effort of assembling maps pays off.

For the times when I plan to set loose tiles on the table, I spread sheets of non-slip drawer liner, available anyplace that sells housewares. The liners grip the table and keep loose tiles in place. The lightweight material easily rolls up for transport.

For all but the simplest layouts, loose tiles take too long to arrange on the table, so I like to assemble maps in advance. I use removable mounting putty to stick the tiles on foam-core art boards. Office supply stores sell both the boards and the putty. Get the white putty, and not clear removable mounting dots, because the clear stuff sets after a while and will damage the tiles.

I transport my maps and Plexiglas in a cheap, $10 artist’s portfolio case.

Next: Evolution of the skill challenge

Picturing the dungeon – Other publishers revive keyed illustrations

In my last post, I discussed my love of keyed illustrations in adventures, and how, after dabbling with the feature, TSR abandoned it.

Despite TSR’s lack of interest in the keyed illustrations, they haven’t died. Other creators clearly love them as much as I do.

In the third edition era, both Goodman Games and Kenzer & Company championed keyed illustrations. Just about all of the Dungeon Crawl Classics feature them. Kenzer even coined a marketing term for them. Their adventures tout the ImageQUEST Adventure Illustrator. “Because a picture is worth 1,000 words. ImageQUEST is the picture book that gamers love. Now DMs can not only read the boxed text, they can actually show it to the players.”

Monte Cook must appreciate keyed illustrations. His adventure The Banewarrens includes them, as does his adventure The Harrowing from Dungeon issue 84.

Dungeon issue 77 includes a White Plume Mountain spin off called Ex Karaptis Cum Amore, which features keyed illustrations.

None of the early classic adventures featured pictures of non-player characters, but adventures do benefit from portraits of supporting characters. For years, Dungeon magazine routinely showed pictures of the prominent NPCs. (Too bad they buried them in the text.) I like attaching pictures of NPCs to my DM screen. The pictures provide a far more memorable impression than a mere description, and pictures give role playing encounters a visible focus. I’m not great with voices, so if I can point to a picture as an NPC speaks, the NPC makes a more distinct impact. This enables the players to better follow an exchange between to NPCs.

Most of the guys who ran Dungeon then work at Paizo now, and they still recognize the value of NPC portraits. Paizo publishes decks of Face Cards that feature character portraits suitable for the characters in your game. The playing-card format strikes me as perfect for sharing NPC portraits as the players encounter the characters. Paizo even releases decks of NPC portraits to accompany their adventure paths. Brilliant.

Have I missed any published adventures that feature keyed illustrations?

Next: My tips for using maps and dungeon tiles

Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations

Tomb of Horrors from 1978 stands as the first adventure to include a set of illustrations keyed to the various locations. TSR dabbled with keyed illustrations in two more early adventures, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1979) and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980).

I first saw keyed illustrations in the Hidden Shrine and I became enchanted. The illustrations transported me into the Shrine more vividly than any text description could. The pictures showed detail that would have required all of those hypothetical 1000 words, and the details tantalized me with potential clues to the mysteries of the Shrine. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the Shrine, the designers loosed their imaginations, and it showed in the pictures.

Both Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks originated as tournament adventures, and the Tomb of Horrors was designed to present a similar challenge.  Of all the adventures to appear in the first three years of published modules, I suspect these three included keyed illustrations for the same reason the Hidden Shrine introduce boxed text. The illustrations gave tournament players a clear, consistent picture of each location, complete with all those tantalizing clues.

Keyed illustrations offer the biggest payoff when they show complicated architecture and decorative details—elements better shown than described. Think of the intricate decorations along the passage into the Tomb of Horrors or the terraced room in White Plume Mountain. I can’t match the skill of a professional artist, but as a DM, I often clarify some architectural detail by sketching a quick illustration.

Apparently, the expense of devoting so many pages to illustrations drove TSR to virtually abandon them. Return to the Tomb of Horrors and the fourth edition, hardcover Tomb of Horrors do continue the tradition. Aside from the Tomb series, only the 1984 oddity, XL-1 Quest for the Heartstone and the fourth edition throwback Thunderspire Labyrinth include keyed illustrations.

Current published adventures typically include a few illustrations, but the layout drops them into the text, making them difficult to share with the players. Often, the page layout flows text around the contours of the picture, further limiting them to the DMs eyes only. What a waste. If the adventure includes art, present it so the DM can easily share it.

D&D adventures dropped keyed illustrations and started including battle maps in a way that mirrors an evolution in play style. In the early D&D game, you played by describing exactly what actions your character performed to overcome an adventure’s challenges. In those early tournament adventures, if you entered combat, it meant that you had probably made a mistake. The adventure’s illustrations provided more than flavor, they provided the information you needed to make decisions. The fourth edition game centers around the action on the battle map, and the details of the traps and obstacles do not matter so much; the player just needs to know what skill to use. I like the richer tactical combat enabled by battle maps and figures, but I miss the days when an illustration invited so many possibilities.

In an adventure, do you like keyed illustrations, or would you rather see pages devoted to additional text?

Next: Picturing the dungeon – Other publishers revive keyed illustrations

Picturing the dungeon – boxed text

As a dungeon master, I work to avoid confusion at the table, but from time to time, players misunderstand something in the game world.  “If I had realized the standing stones were only 18 inches high, I wouldn’t have tried to climb them.” Sometimes distracted players are to blame, but most of the burden falls on the dungeon master’s ability to describe.

In Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map and Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons, I wrote about how maps and minis help everyone understand what is happening in the game. In this post and the next, I want to discuss two more things that help everyone at the table understand.

Boxed text

In 1979, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan introduced boxed text descriptions for the DM to read when the players entered a location.  The Hidden Shrine originated as the adventure used for the “Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons tournament at Origins in ’79.” The boxed text provided a way to offer a consistent play experience in a competitive environment.

I know first hand about the importance of consistent descriptions in a competitive D&D environment. As I’ve suggested before, I like playing in the D&D Championship tournament at GEN CON. In 2012, the final challenge required you to close six arcane gates while demons poured out. As the challenge began, the DM dutifully read the boxed text, which included a description of mysterious runes on the pillars in the room. Like any good boxed text description, the text mentioned the runes alongside other, less important details. No one on my team appreciated the runes significance, so we failed to discover that disabling the runes reduced the extremely difficult arcana checks required to close the gates. Later, as we waited for the event results, we all wondered how we managed to overlook the runes. We could not blame the DM’s wording, because every team heard the same boxed text.  (Despite the oversight, my team performed well enough to place second. Still, if only…)

The boxed text innovation lives on, but not for its original purpose of leveling a competition. The introduction to the Hidden Shrine advises DMs to “read the module thoroughly several times before play starts.” Now boxed text exists to spare DMs from having to read a module several times. When you have to run a published adventure without a lot of preparation, boxed text avoids the stumbling descriptions that come when you must comb through the text for relevant details.

Boxed text does have a drawback. When most speakers read something aloud, their voice takes a different tone and cadence than when they speak extemporaneously, and that monotony can cause players’ attention to wander. Perhaps too many boxed text descriptions have lingered on descriptions of the color of the sunset and other bits of obviously unimportant fluff. For this reason, when I know the content well enough, I paraphrase boxed text. Still, even for DMs who never read boxed text, it helps. No one has shown a better way to summarize what the players must learn when they enter a room.

Do you think DMs should read or paraphrase boxed text?

Next: Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations

Secrets to storing and retrieving D&D miniatures

As I’ve written before, I always attempt to use suitable miniatures for the creatures in my game. I collected a lot of the pre-painted D&D miniatures. Early on, I heaped the minis in a storage tub, but that quickly became unworkable. Finding the proper figures for a game took way too much time.

To solve the storage problem, I went to the discount store after the back-to-school supplies reached the clearance shelves. I purchased a cart-load of plastic pencil cases at $0.54 each. I printed sticky, address labels with the names of sets and ranges of numbers within the set. For example, “Blood War 11-20.” Now I could organize the miniatures by set and figure number in the little boxes. In the picture, you can see some of my collection sorted into a larger cardboard box.

To solve the retrieval problem I rely on the wonderful, online miniature database at The database includes all the pre-painted D&D miniatures along with their pictures and, for most, their card images. You can search by name, or by tags such as ‘female’, ‘crossbow’, or ‘insect.’ If you sign up for a free user account, you can track the number of each figure present in your collection.

With, I can run a few quick searches to find the miniatures I need from among the ones in my collection, and then I jot down the set names and numbers. This lets me quickly locate the correct figures in the pencil boxes.

Now if only I could find a better way to manage my dungeon tiles. Does anyone have a system?

Next: Picturing the dungeon – boxed text

Solving the limitations of battle maps

In “Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons,” I wrote about how the widespread introduction of battle maps improved the fun of combat encounters. Everyone knows where everything is. The game never gets bogged down with boring descriptions of layout and dimensions.

Nonetheless, as much as the simple map avoids confusion, it suffers two weaknesses where I still search for improvements.


Without 3D terrain, battle maps do a poor job of representing elevation, and cannot clearly represent rooms with multiple, overlapping levels, such as balconies.

When I create my own adventures, the limits of the flat map limit the kind of spaces that I imagine. So sometimes I work to break the constraints of the map. For example, I once ran a vertical dungeon, perched on walkways and platforms carved into—and jutting out of—a giant cliff. While this kind of environment can inject some fresh wonder into the game, I’m always annoyed when an encounter forces, say, a balcony into an essentially static combat. If an encounter adds the complexity of multiple levels, I want a dynamic encounter with characters on the move between levels, trading fire and flying around. If you have levels, force the characters to go to them before they clear the room.

I used to have trouble representing flying creatures at the table. Players constantly had to ask which creatures were in the air, and who could attack who. The flying figure stands from Litko game accessories solve this problem for medium creatures. The stands allow you to position one figure over another, or to set a die under a flying figure to indicate elevation. Fourth edition’s non-Euclidian geometry simplifies flight, because flyers can rise or descend one square of elevation for each square moved across the map.The flight stands come in three pieces that require assembly. Typical CA glue will fog the clear acrylic, so I suggest using the Craftics #33 Thick Acrylic Cement. Use nail clippers to trim the long tabs on the vertical support so they fit flush with the base and platform.

I want to find some convenient brackets or holders that raise dungeon tiles over the battlefield as with my improvised balcony in the photo. Ideal holders would be compact enough to fit in my convention bag, but heavy enough to stay put. Do any MacGyvers out there have suggestions?

Lighting and visibility

Someday, I hope we all have touch-sensitive, electronic battle maps that sense and track the presence of a particular miniature in a particular spot, and automatically reveal the parts of the cave that that the players can see. Until then, dealing with lighting and line of sight is a chore that I too often gloss over. Some methods help. You can reveal the map as the players explore, either by lifting coverings, laying new tiles, or just drawing as needed. However, in a big battle, where some combatants lurk in the darkness, the matter of tracking who sees what becomes unwieldy.  Does anyone have any tricks for handling lighting and visibility?

Next: Secrets to storing and retrieving D&D miniatures

Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons

Early versions of Dungeons & Dragons always included miniature rules for movement, range, area effects, and even for actions similar to attacks of opportunity. But I never witnessed those rules in action. They seemed to require miniatures. Collecting miniatures cost a lot of money and invited another hobby consisting of painting miniatures.

D&D second edition arrived in 1989 with the usual easily abstracted and easily ignored rules for miniatures. However, six years later, Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics finally introduced the gridded battle map to D&D. In the Foreword, Skip Williams promises that, “You will find plenty of ways to make combat more than a dice-rolling contest or an exercise in subtracting hit points from your character’s total.” Combat & Tactics reads like an early draft of the third edition combat rules, complete with rules for opportunity attacks, reach, and cover. Combat & Tactics probably scared more players away from battle maps than it converted. The supplement moved deep into wargame territory, with over 250 pages of rules for facing, fatigue, and things like direct and indirect bombardment.

TSR supported Combat & Tactics with The Gates of Firestorm Keep, which Dungeon magazine ranked at number 11 on its 2004 list of greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. The Gates of Firestorm Keep started the tradition of including printed battle maps for major encounter areas, and also included cardboard counters for the monsters. So The Gates of Firestorm Keep stands as the first adventure to invite D&D players to use a battle map.

Update: A few adventures prior to Firestorm Peak featured both battle maps and cardboard counters. See “Early combinations of adventures with battle maps” for more.

The complete change in approach arrived with third edition, co-designed by Combat & Tactics co-designer Skip Williams. When third edition debuted at Gen Con, vendors such as Chessex immediately sold out of their battle mats. While the third edition rules tried to phrase its rules so you could play without a map, everyone used a map, so 3.5 abandoned any nod to play without one.

For most folks playing D&D in 2000, the adoption of battle maps represented a big change. For instance, I played all three rounds the D&D Open tournament in 1999, and none of the DMs resolved combat on a map. (Now the D&D Championship plays as a tactical miniatures challenge. Still fun, but very different. In the lower left corner of the photo, you can see my figure, a turn or two away from being treated like a steak in a Benihana by a marilith.)

Fourth edition showed that some of the D&D community will rebel if an edition fails to adequately support their favored play style. But the third edition’s switch to battle maps brought no rebellions. Everyone started using maps and figures, and almost everyone felt the addition improved the game. Maps and figures enable all the players to share a clear understanding of the battlefield with the DM. The maps enable the tactics that make fights interesting.

Fourth edition brought changes that can make D&D combat more dynamic and exciting than ever, but some of the changes have threatened to sour players’ attitudes toward the battle map. Fourth edition forces every encounter to be a big set piece, and often these battles seem to take too long.

The set-piece problem comes from encounter design. Fourth edition works to prevent one-sided fights by bringing greater formality to what constitutes a combat encounter, and what adversaries the players can expect to face. This puts a stake to the heart of the old-school possibility of stumbling into 30-300 orcs, but it also eliminates short encounters where just you slew their sentry. In fourth edition, every encounter requires a battle map, because every encounter takes the same scale.

The problem of long combats has prompted much discussion, but I do not blame the map. Most players used maps in third edition, and the few who complained about the length of combat typically favored the non-combat pillars of the game.

So when D&D Next comes out, I’ll embrace it, but I’ll still use my battle maps.

Next: Solving the limitations of battle maps

Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map

In the late 70s, the ads that ran in Dragon for the Melee and Wizard microgames convinced me to send away for Melee. I had grown interested in seeing how games other than Dungeons & Dragons handled fantasy combat, but I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters. Still, Melee seemed cheap at $2.95, even weighed against the little money I made cutting lawns.Advertisment for Melee and Wizard

Game designer Steve Jackson created Melee and Wizard after his first game, the futuristic-tank classic Ogre. In Space Gamer issue 29, Steve wrote, “Like everyone else who tried an early version of D&D, I wanted to make some changes. The polyhedral dice were irritating—but the biggest problem was combat. The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.”

I didn’t share any dissatisfaction with the D&D combat rules, because I had never seen any better alternatives. However, my D&D games had drifted away from the uninteresting fights and toward exploration and problem solving—the more satisfying parts of the game.

So Melee provided a revelation.

Unlike early D&D, where your six characteristics hardly mattered, and where one fighter played much like another, with Melee you could create a variety of heroes from two, carefully-balanced characteristics: strength and dexterity. Strength determined how potent a weapon you could wield and how many “hits” you could survive. Dexterity determined your chance to hit, and who gained initiative.

I liked Melee so much that I immediately sent for Wizard.

Wizard added intelligence, a dump stat for non-wizards, which cleverly balanced wizards against mundane heroes. The spell point system allowed wizards to cast spells every turn, without resorting to darts or a crossbow. And the spells featured a variety of interesting battle effects. I loved how my wizard could snake a wall of fire across the battlefield, dealing damage and obstructing the enemies.

For me, the real revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at GEN CON, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.

I failed to realize how limited we were by theater of the mind. Without a map, nobody can really follow the action unless things stay very simple. In practice, you could be in front, swinging a weapon, or behind the fighters, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”

Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.

My enlightenment came long before third edition D&D brought the battle map into widespread use. Ready-made battle mats simply didn’t exist. So at GEN CON, I purchased blank, poster maps with both 1” squares and hexes, and I had them laminated for use with wet-erase markers. I discovered that drawing the rooms and corridors of the dungeon on the mat as the players explored gave the players a much better understanding of their surroundings. (No players enjoyed the old-school practice of sketching a map based on the DM’s descriptions. It’s only fun for sadistic DMs who like frustrating players with teleports and gradual slopes.) When Steve Jackson Games introduced Cardboard Heroes, I came to rely on them. I hardly ever ran a combat without a map.

As much as Melee and Wizard inspired me, the games suffered some flaws. Wizards drew on strength to power spells, leading to some curiously brawny wizards. As your character gained experience, their characteristics increased. Soon, experienced characters earned high enough stats to succeed at everything, virtually automatically. Ultimately, Steve would address the flaws in Man-to-Man and then GURPS, at the price of wonderful simplicity.

Next: D&D brings back tactics late in second edition.