Monthly Archives: January 2015

How Queen of the Demonweb Pits opened Dungeons & Dragons to the multiverse

In Dragon magazine issue 8, published July 1977, Gary Gygax proposed the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology, a great wheel of planes surrounding the prime material. The existence of infinite planes “will vastly expand the potential of all campaigns which adopt the system—although it will mean tremendous additional work for these DMs.”

planes in Dragon magazine number 8

Diagram of planes from Dragon magazine number 8

The countless planes showed how D&D could go beyond the dungeon and the wilderness and into new worlds. The system revealed exciting potential, but Gary set an ambitious goal. “Different planes will certainly have different laws and different inhabitants (although some of these beings will be familiar). Whole worlds are awaiting creation, complete invention, that is.” The outer planes offered so many possibilities that setting an adventure in them made a formidable challenge. Players would wait years for any product to go beyond the prime material.

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits CoverIn 1978, Gary published module D3, Vault of the Drow. At its conclusion, the players locate a strange mural. “The mural itself is a scene resembling a starry sky, but a tunnel of webs stretches into space.” This vortex is a gate “to the plane of the Abyss, where Lolth actually dwells.” The text explains that this journey to the Abyss will be handled in module Q1, Queen of the Demonweb Pits. (For those who do not plan to play the sequel, Gary suggests that characters passing the gate be considered slain. Suggested dialog: “You could be taking your character on another thrilling adventure, but it’s not released yet. So instead, you’re dead.” In 1978, Gary could be capricious when he drew the line between the correct action and, “Wrong move—you’re dead!”)

Rereading Gary’s promise of letting PCs travel to the Abyss to confront Lolth, I remember the anticipation I felt in 1978.

But Gary seemed deterred by his own ambitious goals for planar adventures. Instead of completing Queen of the Demonweb Pits, he set the project aside “until a considerable period of time could be spent addressing it.” Soon, work on the Dungeon Master’s Guide demanded all his time. For two years, characters entering Lolth’s gate faced summary execution.

The Demonweb

The Demonweb

The delay ended when artist David C. Sutherland III pitched his own finale. Gary wrote that the adventure “was taken out of my hands by [TSR executive Brian Blume] when Sutherland discovered the ‘Demonweb’ pattern in a hand towel and talked Brian into using it as the main theme for the concluding module. I had no creative control over it.” (Although many sources report that the Demonweb pattern came from a placemat, Sutherland confirmed that his inspiration was a towel.)

The adventure reached print in 1980. Now players could venture to Lolth’s own level of the Abyss—the Demonweb. For the first time, TSR demonstrated adventure on the outer planes.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits gets some criticism for its execution. The creatures in the Demonweb—even those in Lolth’s stronghold—fail to match the setting. Players encounter ogres, trolls, ettins, bugbears, and even a roper, but no drow. In an review Lev Lafayette describes her stronghold as a “boring zoo.” In the god-slaying finale, any dungeon master who makes cunning use of Lolth’s abilities will annihilate parties in the module’s recommended levels. On the other hand, she only has 66 hit points, so a careless DM could see her slain in a round. The module spends pages describing changes to the effects of spells cast on the Abyss, but no one liked dealing with all the changes.

You can fault some details in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but not its big ideas. This adventure took the scope of Dungeons & Dragons and blew it wide open.

Start with the Demonweb, a web of pathways floating through impenetrable fog. The material of the path moves slightly. “Close examination will reveal faces, twisted and tortured, pressed against some invisible barrier, silently mouthing screams and howls.” These are the lost souls of the Abyss. The Demonweb captured an unsetting and chaotic feeling that suited the demon queen of spiders.

Along the path, unsupported doors open into extradimensional spaces. At first, these doors lead to Lolth’s creatures. On the last level of the web, the doors open on alternate material planes that she targets for attack or other schemes. In a look at the module, James Maliszewski wrote, “A key to portraying planar travel effectively is grandeur—the sense that one’s home world is just a tiny speck floating on a giant ocean and you’ve only just begun to plumb its unknown depths.” The Demonweb and its portals delivers this sense of grand scope.

In the Abyss, some spell effects change in evocative ways. For example, restoring an arm with the Regenerate spell may regrow a limb demonically twisted.

Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. If Wild Wild West producer Jon Peters were cool enough for D&D, I might suppose he took his obsession with giant mechanical spiders from the spider queen. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk. I loved it. A diet of Michael Moorcock books and Arduin had already shattered my reservations about mixing such elements. The spider-ship seemed like a fitting creation for a goddess whose power spanned a multiverse. The ship’s inscrutable purpose and destination suited her chaos.

The adventure’s plot may not have matched Gary’s plan, but I suspect the Demonweb surpassed any of Gary’s ideas for the setting. In 1980, before the Manual of the Planes, before Planescape, Queen of the Demonweb Pits showed the way to the planes. Fans of Planescape can find its roots in the Demonweb.

Are you still curious about Gary’s original plan for the adventure? He wrote, “My concept was that Eclavdra was aiming at dominance of the drow through using the Elder Elemental God to replace Lolth. She, as the chief priestess of the elemental deity, would then be the mistress of all. The final scenario was to have been one in which the adventurers got involved in the battle between the evil entities and made it so that both lost and were tossed back to their own planes, relatively powerless in the Mundane world for some time to come.” Gary had an ambitious plan, heavy on intrigue, but without the vision—and hand towels—that led to the Demonweb.

What things do I need to play Dungeons & Dragons?

If you have seen the Dungeons & Dragons played on TV or in a live play video, you might suppose that playing requires a lot of maps, miniatures, props, and other gear. While many players enjoy using the accessories, D&D is a game of imagination that requires dice and virtually nothing else. Many players prefer to keep play in their imagination, unburdened by gear.

The things you need for a Dungeons & Dragons game depends on your game’s style and how much you wish to spend.

Required: Rules and Dice

To start, all you really need rules and dice.

Start with the free-to-download Basic Rules. Print some blank character sheets from the one that appear at the end of the basic rules.

D&D uses an unusual set of dice, each with a different number of sides.

d4 d6 d8 d10 d12 d20

4-sided 6-sided 8-sided 10-sided 12-sided 20-sided

d100The ten-sided die shows a 0 on one side, but that counts as a 10. Some dice sets include a second 10-sided die numbered from 00 to 90. To generate a number from 1-100, you add a roll on this die with a roll on the other d10 , with a roll of all zeroes counting as 100.

Ten-sided dice with just 10 sides first appeared for sale in 1980. Before that, players rolled a twenty-sided die numbered from 0 to 9, twice. Those rounder d10s roll better, so I prefer them over the modern version, but I stopped using them. Whenever I made a damage roll with my 20-sided d10s, my players would panic. What sort of monster rolls d20s for damage! I will happily interrupt a post for a gaming history lesson, but not a combat encounter.

You just need one of each die, but many rolls add more than one result from the same size die. If you buy extra dice, you can make these rolls faster by throwing several dice a once. Veteran players tend to collect bags of dice.

More rules options

You could play D&D for years without anything more than the basic rules, but most players eventually seek even more options.

The Player’s Handbook expands your character options and makes a good first purchase.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the Dungeon Master (DM) acts as the games referee and storyteller. If you want to be a Dungeon Master, the Monster Manual adds monsters beyond those in the free Basic Game. The Dungeon Master’s Guide can wait until you’ve run a few games and feel an urge for more advice, options, or magic items.

Some DMs prefer to start with a published adventure. The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set includes the adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver which ranks as an excellent adventure and a good start for new DMs. Of course, many DMs prefer to dream up their own adventures.

Optional: Battle map

Unlike some earlier editions, the latest version of Dungeons & Dragons enables you to play combats in the theater of the mind, a fancy way of saying in your imagination.

Theater of the mind works well for small battles, but for most encounters, I favor playing on a grid of 1-inch squares called a battle map. Blank, reusable battle maps let you draw walls and other features, and then wipe them clean.Doomvault Golem Foundry

The Pathfinder flip-mat works with both wet- and dry-ease markers and folds for easy storage. When laid out, the mat tents a little at the creases.

The Chessex Battemat rolls out and lays flat, but the rolled map is harder to carry. This vinyl map limits you to wet-erase markers.

Even if you choose to run some fights on a battle map, you do not need to invest in miniatures. Instead, just use any tokens that you can tell apart. For example, a lot of convention judges use Starbust candies to represent creatures on the battle map. They come in a variety of colors, and players like to eat the monsters they slay. You can also use 1-inch washers or game pieces from other games. NewbieM explains how to create tokens from inexpensive materials. D&D is a game of imagination first.

Optional: Dungeon Master Screen

Many DMs prefer to work without a screen that divides them from the group, but I favor a screen.

Mini dungeon master's screen on tableIn my very first post, I listed five reasons I use a DM screen. Mainly, I like keeping my notes secret. Most players avoid snooping, but with a screen no one has to worry about catching sight of a spoiler. If you decide to use a screen, you can purchase one, use my rules inserts, or make your own screen.

Even if you usually opt for a screen, you do not always have to use it. Sometimes when an adventure reaches an interactive section, I lay my screen flat and portray non-player characters without a barrier.


For more gear options, see my “Photo Guide To Dungeon Masters Tools.”

Deciding what backstory to print and what to cut

When I write these posts, I occasionally offer advice aimed a folks creating adventures and game materials for print. I realize that this represents a minuscule number of readers, so I fret about writing to an audience of no one. On the other hand, I post for kicks, so here I go again. If you lack interest, this won’t appear on the test. My next post will move to a different topic. You may be excused.

In “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory,” I complained about written adventures loaded with backstory that cannot possibly enter play. When I prepare to run a published adventure, I want only as much information as I need, when I need it. I know that this is an unreachable goal. Adventure authors must prepare me for actions my players won’t choose. Nonetheless, the goal stands.

Edmund Leighton - Tristan and Isolde - 1902

“Let me tell you about my campaign.”

When writing an adventure, save the “Adventure Background” section for last. Instead, write descriptions of backstory in the locations and scenes where players can discover it. An adventure may offer several ways to learn some essential backstory. You can repeat that background wherever it surfaces. I want information when and where I need it.

If backstory never comes up in a location or scene, that either means it’s not important or that you must find a way to communicate it to the players during play. For more, see “How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session.”

Some authors feel tempted to stuff backstory into descriptions of non-player characters, but appending backstory to an NPC fails to do enough to put it into play. This approach tempts authors to pair NPCs with backstories that die with the NPC in 3 rounds. You can pair backstory with a character description, but only if you offer a way for players to learn the story.

As a dungeon master, I do appreciate a big picture look, so that “Adventure Background” does help me. When you finish writing your locations and scenes, go back and look at the history that gets revealed. You can then compile the subset that will enable the DM to understand the adventure. The telling details and sense of wonder can stay in the scenes and locations. If you finish your compilation and realize that some essential piece of background doesn’t appear in your compilation, then you know you failed to offer a way to communicate that background to the players. Dream up a few ways that the players can learn the background, then drop the element into the adventure.

How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session

Adventures should focus on the present, but they can still draw from your game world’s past. Exposing players to a little backstory makes the world feel more connected and vibrant. The imaginary seems more real.

I prefer to reveal backstory through dialog. This lets the players learn as they interact. They can role play their characters’ reactions. Players can ask questions, and feel clever when the answers lead to more insights.

Creating a source of backstory

Bound and unbound books and manuscripts on shelves and a table (Leiden, 1630)Backstory can come from more sources than a hoary sage or captured henchman. People hear things, and in fantasy your sources can be something other than people. Your players can get information from a range of sources that add flavor and even launch plotlines.

  • a local busybody or snoop.
  • a fortune teller whose insights come from a network of gossips rather than anything supernatural.
  • servants and slaves, ignored by their masters, but privy to intimate conversations.
  • an immortal creature or a ghost bound to a particular location or object.
  • a thief who discovered something in the course of a crime.
  • a shapeshifter who spies in animal form.

Opening a dialog

The best time to reveal backstory is when players seek it because they have questions to answer. See “When to introduce backstory in a role-playing adventure.” For example, if a party stops at a pig farmer’s shack to ask about a strange light, and they notice that he flies the banners of the lost kingdom, someone will ask about the banners.

If you cannot lead the players to ask the right questions, then you can have a non-player character (NPC) volunteer essential background, but keep the dose small. The players will tolerate a pig farmer who mentions that the last king ascended to the heavens from atop yon hill. They won’t listen to the king’s lineage.

When you make an NPC stand out, or put her in the path of adventure, players may decide to talk. Aim to let curiosity drive the the players. If you lavish too much attention on a bystander, players will metagame and assume that the spotlight obligates them to approach. No one likes to feel steered.

Sometimes NPCs will approach the players. In a world without mass communications, locals will seek wanderers with news from afar, and will bring gossip to share. If the players decide the pig farmer is not worth their time, then perhaps he wants to to know if anyone saw his lost sow. “She likes the berries that grow on yon hill. It’s special, you know.” Remember: small doses.

Revealing backstory in writing

Of course, sometimes no one knows the information the players need. At times, I’ve resorted to letting characters uncover a bunch of backstory written in a letter, or a journal entry, or an old book page. This tactic lets players learn from a dead or missing source. It avoids the risk that players will kill someone who knows something essential. It lets me create a prop.

But this approach suffers from serious drawbacks:

  • Reading a page loses the interaction players gain when they speak to a non-player character.
  • No one wants to stop participating to read. Often players’ handouts languish on the table
  • Only one player can read at once, unless you print copies. You can enlist someone to read aloud, but listening to someone drone never seems compelling.

If you must offer written backstory, make it short. The chance to inform without spending time at the table tempts some DMs to cast pages of backstory as a tome or journal, and then to dump them on the players. This only works if players can study between sessions, and many—perhaps most—players will skip the homework.

When did you last see a movie or TV show that expected you to read something to understand the story? I can answer that. When did you last see a Star Wars movie? Even in 1977, the introductory text seemed quaint. George Lucas wanted to evoke the movies he saw as a kid. If you can think of another movie that requires reading, I suspect it’s black and white, perhaps even silent. Contemporary movies find a way to communicate though dialog and images rather then text, and a game should aspire to more interaction than a movie.

Written backstory works best when it supports interaction. First players meet with the sage, then they get a copy of the lecture notes. If you have a journal or tome for the players, put it in the hands of an NPC who has read it. The NPC can tell what it says and contribute extra information to the discussion. When the discussion ends, the players have a text to reference.

Iceberg adventures

Although I dislike trudging through pages of adventure background just to run a published adventure, I hate when authors imagine nuggets of evocative backstory, put them in print, and then fail to offer any way for players to discover them.

Some adventures resemble icebergs, with a background that could make the game world come to life submerged and doomed to stay hidden. Of course, most adventure backgrounds drown the flavorful morsels with cruft the author could not bear to cut. For more, see “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory.”

When I run a published iceberg, I aim to break the ice. After I finish reading, I return to the background and look for all the interesting bits of history and scheming, motive and magic that might enhance play, if only I can bring them to the table.

Five new or different rules in the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons game

With the launch of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the designers hosted panels at Gen Con 2014 introducing the game to new and returning players. You can listen to designers Rodney Thompson and Greg Bilsland at one of these sessions recorded by the Tome Show Podcast.

During the discussions, the designers listed 5 new or different things in the new edition. This post recaps that list.

First though, the designers explained the game’s core: Whenever a character’s action has an uncertain outcome, you roll a twenty-sided die (d20), add a bonus, and try to reach a target number. If your roll plus your bonus equals or exceeds the number, you succeed. In the game, players make three types of d20 rolls following this mechanic.

  • When your character tries to strike an enemy in combat, an attack roll determines whether the attack hits. To succeed, an attack roll must equal or exceed a foe’s armor class.
  • When your character attempts a task with a chance of failure, an ability check determines success. To succeed, an ability check must equal or exceed a difficulty class.
  • When your character resists a spell, trap, poison, disease, or similar danger, a saving throw determines whether the character succumbs. To succeed, a saving throw must equal or exceed a difficulty class.

As players make these d20 rolls on behalf of their characters, the dungeon master makes these rolls for the monsters.

These mechanics existed in earlier editions, but the fifth edition makes five, key additions:

1. Advantage and Disadvantage

When something in the game world improves your chance of hitting, succeeding at a task, or avoiding a threat, you gain advantage on your d20 roll. When you have advantage, you roll two twenty-sided dice and use the highest of the two die rolls. For example, when your foe cannot see you and properly defend, you might gain advantage on an attack . Similarly, when circumstances hurt your chance of success, you suffer disadvantage. When you have disadvantage, you roll two d20 and use the lowest of the two rolls.

Advantage and disadvantage don’t multiply. Even if you gain advantage from more than one source, you never roll more than two d20 dice. You cannot stack advantages. Likewise, If you suffer disadvantage from two sources, you still just roll two d20 and take the lowest. If you both gain advantage and suffer disadvantage on the same roll, they cancel and you roll one d20. Any number of sources of advantage and disadvantage cancel each other out, leading to rolling one d20. This spares players from having to count advantages and disadvantages.

Advantage and disadvantage replace most of the pluses and minuses that appeared in earlier editions, but the mechanic does not apply to cover. A target with half cover gains a +2 bonus to AC and dexterity saving throws. A target with three-quarters cover gains a +5 bonus to AC and dexterity saving throws. For more on this design choice, see “How cover and tool proficiency reveal choices in fifth-edition design.”

Reason for change. Third-edition D&D featured long lists of pluses and minuses that applied when the situation affected an attack or check. While these modifiers added realism, they slowed play, seldom made a difference, and were often overlooked. Fifth edition drops all the fussy calculation for advantage and disadvantage. While less of a simulation than a tally of pluses, the new mechanic plays quickly and eliminates math and memory demands.

“I just invented a new D&D term: Sadvantage. That’s when you have advantage and still can’t hit.” – Greg Bilsland.

2. Spellcasting and spell slots

Except for Rangers and Paladins, every spellcaster knows a number of cantrips. Cantrips can be cast at will, as often as desired. More powerful spells cost spell slots to cast.

Every spellcaster has a number of spell slots they spend to cast spells. As Rodney Thompson explains, slots are the fuel characters burn to cast spells. Spell slots have a level and you can spend them to cast a spell of equal level or lower. For example, you can spend a second-level slot to cast either a first or second level spell.

Many spells become more powerful when cast with a higher-level spell slot. For example, the first-level Magic Missile spell shoots another missile when cast with a second-level slot. Unlike in third edition, spells never grow more powerful simply because a higher-level caster throws them. Only spending a higher-level slot boosts their power.

Characters regain spell slots after a long rest.

Preparing spells. Characters in most classes must prepare spells before they can cast them. When you cast a spell, you spend a spell slot, but the spell remains prepared. Unlike in earlier editions, you can cast a prepared spell more than once, as long as you still have slots to spend. After a long rest, you can change the spells you have prepared.

Bards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks don’t prepare spells. They know spells that they can cast whenever they have slots to spend. You choose which spells your character knows as you gain levels.

Reason for change. This system grants casters an extra measure of flexibility. It spares players the risk of preparing spells that prove useless, resulting in a bad day of adventure.

3. Concentration

Many spells require their caster to maintain concentration to keep their magic going. These spells list durations such as “Concentration, up to 1 minute,” meaning that if the caster concentrates, the spell lasts a minute.

Losing concentration. A spellcaster can concentrate on just one spell at a time. You can cast other spells that do not require concentration without breaking concentration. You can end concentration on a spell at any time, without an action. This ends the spell’s effects, but lets you cast a new spell that demands concentration.

When casters maintaining concentration take damage, they must make a Constitution saving throw to keep their spell going. The DC equals 10 or half the damage suffered, whichever is higher.

Combining magical effects. When different spells’ overlap, the effects add together. The effects of the same spell cast multiple times don’t combine. Only apply the one spell with the most potent effect, such as the highest bonus. If that spell ends, then less potent spells may show their effects.

Reason for change. In earlier editions, higher-level parties might enter a fight blanketed with spells like Haste, Invisible, Fly, Blur, Polymorph Self, Resist Elements, and on and on. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while the DM struggled to create any challenge. Then when the evil mage casts dispel magic, buffs disappear and all the numbers need recalculation. Concentration simplifies the game by limiting the magical effects in play.

Concentration forces the min-maxers to search harder for broken combinations of spell effects. Multiple spell casters can still combine effects, but the designers see this as teamwork, not as a single character dominating the game.

Concentration also opens tactical options. Casters become targets for foes aiming to break concentration and stop spells. For more, see “Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Kill the wizard.”

Not all spells with durations require concentration. A few spells such as Mage Armor, Mirror Image, and Fire Shield offer protection without concentration.

4. Proficiency

Characters have proficiency in the things they do well. A character can be proficient in armor, skills, saving throws, weapons, and tools.

Proficiency grants a bonus to the d20 rolls you make for attacks, saving throws, and checks. The proficiency bonus starts at +2 at level 1 and rises to +6 at level 19. Proficiency appears throughout the system.

  • When characters are proficient with a weapon, they add their proficiency bonus to the attack roll. When characters lack proficiency, they do not gain this bonus.
  • When characters cast a spell that requires an attack roll, they add their proficiency bonus to the roll. Spellcasters always gain proficiency with spells they can cast.
  • When characters make an ability check covered by one of their skills, they add their proficiency bonus to the check.
  • When characters are proficient with tools used to make an ability check, they add their proficiency bonus to the check. You never add a proficiency bonus for both a skill and a tool to the same check.
  • When characters are proficient with a type of saving throw, they add their proficiency bonus to those saves.

Proficiency with armor works differently from proficiency with everything else. Rather than granting a proficiency bonus, armor proficiency grants the ability to wear armor without disadvantage. This difference may confuse new players, but earlier editions handled armor proficiency in a similar manner.

Reason for change. Earlier editions of D&D featured countless tables showing bonuses for attack rolls and saving throws, and added additional bonuses for skills and proficiencies. The fifth-edition proficiency bonus simplifies by sweeping all these tables and rules into a single rising bonus. For more, see “How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game” and “Proficiency and bounded accuracy in D&D Next.”

5. Bonus actions

Characters take just one action on their turn. Some class features, spells, and other abilities let you take an additional action called a bonus action. Three key limitations apply to bonus actions.

  • To gain a bonus action, something like a special ability or spell must state that you get a bonus action to do something. Otherwise, you get no bonus action. For example, when you take an attack action to attack with a light melee weapon in one hand, you can use a bonus action to attack with a second light melee weapon in your other hand.
  • You can only take one bonus action. For example, at second level, the Rogue’s Cunning Action class feature grants a bonus action to Dash, Disengage, or Hide. If your rogue also wields two weapons, then you must choose between using your one bonus for your Cunning Action or for a second weapon strike.
  • You can only take bonus actions on your turn. For example, your rogue cannot interrupt another turn to take the bonus action granted by Cunning Action.

Reason for change. Fourth-edition characters could gain numerous extra actions, which helped the game earn a reputation for long turns. Bonus actions speed play by limiting the number of extra things someone can do during a turn.