Monthly Archives: September 2016

Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons worlds seem split in two. In the towns and hamlets, players exercise charm and guile. In dungeons and lairs, every creature attacks on sight and battles continue to the death.

When TSR printed Dungeon magazine, the most common room description must have included a passage like this: “The room has five orcs. They attack immediately!”

I remember when every dungeon denizen attacked because they were monsters in a dungeon. Over time, adventure writers came to assume the they-attack part. Even modern adventures often assume, because what else? Since when do creatures or adventurers in dungeons want to talk?baba lysagas hut

Sometimes, players in role-playing games choose to role play in the oddest situations. I know. They surprise us all.

Sometimes the author of an adventure adds a routine fight, complete with an implied “they attack immediately.” But at the table, the players decide to talk. So I say “yes” instead of “roll initiative.” I scramble to improvise an interesting scene that challenges the players without handing them the keys to the dungeon. And I think unkind shots about an author who failed to account for role playing. Yes, some of the fun of being a dungeon master comes from making stuff up. Nonetheless, am I wrong to think that perhaps the adventure’s author could come up with something better? Am I wrong to ask the author to inspire me?

In your home game, if you assume a monster exists to attack immediately, you can’t annoy me, but you might miss a chance to create a more interesting encounter.

If heroes and monsters decide to stake their lives on a fight over a 10-foot room, both sides need a reason. The players decide for their heroes, but you choose for the monsters.

Spend a moment thinking about what your monsters want. Often they just hate all that live, or they thirst for blood, or they want to fatten children for dinner. That’s okay. If you have a combat-focused game, players seldom look for more.

If inspiration finds you, the monsters motives may surprise you. If goblins stand watch for the tribe, why would they fight to the death? They might run as the players spot them. Now the players face a dilemma. Give chase and risk blundering into a trap, continue carefully and risk a prepared foe, or find another route? What if the monsters try to negotiate to save their skin? Do the players trust them? Perhaps the orcs are only raiding because they want to retrieve a lost totem. Do the characters help the orcs, perhaps stopping the raids? Or do the PCs just destroy one war band of many? You can create an extra dimension by imagining monsters that want something unexpected, perhaps even noble.

When you understand what your monsters want, fewer encounters end with one side dead. Encounters may end—or start—with monsters fleeing or bargaining. If the players all drop, and you know the monsters intentions, you may see a way to fail forward. (I recommend Sly Flourish’s post Failing Forward on a Banshee TPK.) Fewer encounters turn into grinds. More develop into interesting choices.

Spells that let players skip the dungeons in Dungeons & Dragons

In today’s Dungeons & Dragons game, player characters gain experience by overcoming obstacles and defeating monsters. In the original game, PCs got most of their experience for claiming treasure. (For more, see “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”) Back then, if you skipped monsters and traps on your way to the loot, all the better.

dungeon miniatures dragon statueOf course, Gary Gygax never let players cart away gold without a challenge. His game included a few spells that allowed clever players to skip obstacles, but none that let players skip the dungeons or the dragons.

As the play style of D&D grew beyond the dungeon and focused on story, designers introduced spells that let players skip past dungeons to treasure vaults or dragon hoards. More than any other class of spell, these tend to vary with edition, revealing the changing fashions of play. When designers focus on setting books and novels, they overlook the potential of Find the Path. When they seek D&D’s roots, they notice the power of walking through walls.


(introduced in the original game, 1974)

Gary’s original game included rules for wilderness encounters, but his players preferred to explore under Castle Greyhawk. Underground, the 3rd-level spell Fly never rates above another fireball.

As soon as D&D left the dungeon, Fly shaped play. Every dungeon designer toys with the idea of turning a ruined city into a sort of open-air dungeon. Then they remember that the wizard can cast Fly. Every dungeon master eventually sees flying PCs turn a carefully-prepared challenge into a joke. The PCs soar over obstacles or strafe helpless foes. Players relish their prowess; DMs never overlook Fly again.

As soon as players gain access to Fly, the spell frees players from challenges they can fly past. But Fly carries a key limit: it only works on one character. This makes a spell that can both leap obstacles and create interesting complications. When just one person can scout ahead, they can fly into a heap of trouble with no help—a memorable game moment. When a spell takes an entire party, obstacles disappear.

Find the Path

(introduced in the original game, 1974)

Once, the 6th-level cleric spell Find the Path focused on escape. “By means of this spell the fastest and safest way out of a trap, maze, or wilderness can be found.” In the original books, the sample tricks and traps focus on getting PCs lost in the dungeon. When Gary’s shifting rooms and unnoticed slopes made the PCs hopelessly lost, Find the Path offered a way out.

As means of escape, Find the Path just keeps PCs alive, so in AD&D, Gary felt safe creating a spell that told players the “actions to take” on a path. Second edition explained, “For example, with concentration the spell enables the subject to bypass tripwires or the proper word to bypass a glyph.”

Some players had the bright idea of finding a path to something like “a hoard of platinum pieces.” Second edition specifically banned looking for objects or creatures.

When players stopped looting megadungeons and DMs introduced stories into their games, Find the Path gained game-breaking potential. If players aimed to capture the master of the thieves guild, the spell could take them safely to his hideout. If they needed to find the Gate of the Hidden Ways, the spell guided past any wards. By third edition, DMs were visiting message boards, pleading for ways to cope.

The fifth-edition designers realized that Find the Path offered more than escape from Castle Greyhawk. The latest version no longer reveals actions to take. It promises the shortest path, but not the safest.


(introduced in the original game, 1974)

Gary combed fantasy stories for spells to include in his game. He even added odd spells like Sticks to Snakes and Magic jar. Of course his wizards had to get Teleport. But a 5th-level ticket past every trap and monster would spoil the game, so wizards teleporting into unfamiliar locations suffered a chance to miss, perhaps fatally.

As long as PCs could not safely spy on locations from a distance, Teleport’s limitations worked. Teleport seemed too hazardous for anything but going home to rest.

Astral Spell

(introduced in Greyhawk, 1975)

Astral Spell serves as the ultimate spying spell. An astral wizard can move at will to anywhere on the prime material plane and observe undetected. They can’t bring their body, but after getting a good look, they can return to their body and teleport themselves and their pals. In the original game, magic users and clerics gained Astral Spell at 17th-level, beyond the levels that Gary expected for PCs. (See “The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players.”) We know better now. In today’s game, players with access to Astral Spell move out of the tier of dungeons and into the league of foes with True Seeing and Planer travel. (See “The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before.”)


(introduced in 3rd edition, 2000)

Third edition’s designers forgot the risks of giving PCs both Teleport and a safe way to spy. They added the 5th-level Scrying spell. Unlike Clairvoyance and Clairaudience, which targeted a familiar location, Scrying could target a creature. It worked with Teleport to make villains vulnerable to the scry-buff-teleport system of ambush, also known as scry and fry.

The target of the Scrying spell gets a save, but even if the spell fails, the caster can make another attempt—or just scry Igor or minion #3. The best defense against Scrying used to be a DM with the chutzpah to fudge an improbable number of saves.

Fifth edition still includes both Scrying and Teleport, but the new game changes Teleport enough to spoil the combination. First, Teleport jumps from 5th level to 7th. The error-proof Greater Teleport used to be a 7th-level spell. Now it’s gone. Second, the risk of missing a carefully-studied target jumps from 6% to 24%. With those odds, infiltrating the villain’s fortress through the sewers seems like a valid strategy.

Plane Shift

(introduced in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1978)

Ethereal travel can threaten to take dungeons right of the game. In 1st-edition AD&D, any cleric with the 5th-level Plane Shift spell could take seven friends ethereal, allowing them to waft through the dangerous dungeon stuff and go straight for the treasure. AD&D attempted to limit the problem by populating the ethereal with tough wandering monsters and the random Ether Cyclone. Apparently that failed to deter enough adventurers because Tomb of Horrors includes this note: “Character who become astral or ethereal in the Tomb will attract a type I-IV demon 1 in 6, with a check made each round.” Second edition closed Plane Shift’s game-breaking potential by ruling that the spell “rarely works with pinpoint accuracy.” In 5E, you appear 5 to 500 miles from your intended destination.

Now that Plane Shift drops PCs wherever the DM fancies, it becomes useless except as a save-or-goodbye attack. If the game requires the PCs to go to Hades, fate (the DM) will provide a way.


(introduced as a spell in Planescape – A Guide to the Ethereal Plane, 1998)

Etherealness began as a feature of magical armor or oil, items the DM could limit. Then it became a psionic power. When DMs allowed psionics, etherealness ranked as the least of their troubles.

A Guide to the Ethereal Plane opened the plane to a pair of spells. The 5th-level spell Lesser Etherealness took the caster and 3 friends ethereal for at least 4 hours. The 7th-level spell Greater Etherealness worked on 1000 pounds. Three strong, skinny friends could probably carry off more loot with the lesser spell.

A party with such easy access to the ethereal could loot half the dungeons on the prime material. But as long DMs kept Planescape to planer adventures, Lesser Etherealness stayed balanced. The third-edition designers recognized these spells’ power. When they brought the renamed versions Ethereal Jaunt and Etherealness into the Players Handbook, they raised each spell by 2 levels.

In fifth edition, the 7th-level spell Etherealness takes the caster to the ethereal plane, where they can waft alone into a heap of trouble. To take 2 friends, cast the spell at 8th level. At 9th, take the whole party.

The 6th-level spell Forbiddance protects an area from planer travelers and teleporters. When cast 30 days in a row, Forbiddance becomes permanent. In practice, most tombs, vaults, or fortresses that interest 13th-level characters will be guarded by Forbiddance.


(introduced in Tome and Blood, 2001)

By the time third edition came around, some designers had become so immersed in the story slant of D&D that they forgot how broken insubstantial travel could be. How else can we explain Ghostform, a spell that makes the target insubstantial? Just add invisibility to Ghostform and you can phase through any dungeon. Ghostform appeared at 5th level and rose to 8th in errata! The 3-level revision stands as a record. Fifth edition drops the spell.

The fifth-edition designers studied D&D’s history, playing every edition of the game. They managed to look beyond a single play style and address the problems with a category of spells that sometimes bedeviled dungeon masters.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb: The earliest D&D adventure that remains playable

In earlier posts, I examined two of the first three Dungeons & Dragons adventures to reach print: Temple of the Frog and Palace of the Vampire Queen. To explore D&D’s origins, some modern players have tried playing these dungeons.

Don’t. Temple of the Frog plays as half spy mission and half Chainmail miniature battle. Players looking for classic D&D will only find a total party kill. Palace of the Vampire Queen demonstrates why Gary Gygax thought adventures wouldn’t sell. Any dungeon master could easily create a similar monster zoo from TSR’s Dungeon Geomorphs and Monster and Treasure Assortments.

But Palace was just one of two adventures that reached print in June of 1976.

The Dungeoneer

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

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

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

About the tomb

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

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

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

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

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

The early presentation

When Jaquays punched F’Chelrak’s Tomb out on a typewriter, no one had presented such a dense and intricate dungeon. To understand the tomb, I needed to unscramble the descriptions.

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

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

F’Chelrak’s Tomb ranks as the first published adventure that remains playable in something like its original form. You can get a PDF copy of the original adventure in The Dungeoneer Compendium at the Judges Guild.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb today

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

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

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

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

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