Monthly Archives: April 2017

Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon

The Dungeons & Dragons game’s original 1974 version offered two types of adventure: dungeons and wilderness. In such site-based adventures, players’ decisions about where to go set the course of the adventure. These adventures revolve around on a map with a key detailing important locations. When characters enter a location, they trigger encounters.

Today’s D&D scenarios mix places to explore, with events, and with clues to follow, but adventure authors took years to stretch beyond numbered lists of locations.

In the years after D&D’s release, every role-playing adventure to reach print was site-based. This extends beyond D&D. Until 1980, a keyed list of locations drove every published adventure for every role-playing game.

The first role-playing games all recreated the dungeon-crawl experience of D&D. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.” Tunnels & Trolls (1975) recreated the D&D experience with simpler rules. Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

By 1977, designers began to see the potential of role-playing games. By then, if you asked RPG designers what characters in their games would do, the designers would probably answer, “Anything.” Designers of the newer games strove to model game worlds as thoroughly as possible. This led to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), “the most complete rule booklet ever published,” with rules for everything from mass combat, to courtly love, to the One Ring. C&S offered a game so open ended that a table of players with randomly generated characters might fail to find any common activities that their characters could do together. In Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun, I had some fun at the expense of C&S. I showed how the game downplayed the dungeon crawl, but struggled to find a fun, group activity to serve as a replacement.

In 1978, after I found Traveller, I failed to imagine what players would actually do in a game without dungeons. Traveller opened the door for anything, anywhere in the universe, but nothing in particular. I concocted a scenario where a villain abducted the travelers and dropped them in a space ship filled with death traps.

Professional authors could do no better. Even though new role-playing games aspired to take characters out of the dungeon, authors of adventures created dungeons…in space. Science fiction games like Traveller (1977) featured players raiding or exploring space ships, star bases, or alien ruins. Sometimes travelers crossed an alien wilderness. Superhero games featured assaults on villains’ lairs. Horror games featured haunted houses. From a distance, they all looked like dungeon or wilderness adventures.

In every single one, the decisions that drove the adventure all amounted to a choice of doors (or to a choice of which hex to visit next).

In a Gamespy interview, D&D co-creator Dave Arneson said, “Dungeon crawls were, I think, the easiest things to set up because all you had to do was draw a grid map and didn’t have to worry about the great outdoors and setting up trees and stuff. People also couldn’t go wandering off where you didn’t have a map because it was solid rock.”

Like dungeons, site-based adventures limited characters’ choices, and this made them easy to write and easy to run. Adventure authors relied on numbered locations until they found new ways to limit players to a manageable number of choices.

Borderlands (1983) has players doing a series of jobs for their patron, a Duke

Traveller opened a galaxy of choices, so the rules recommended matching characters with patrons. “Patrons could specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task,” the rule book explained. “Some tasks may be ordinary in nature, such as hired guards or escorts; other tasks may be for the location and procurement of items of great value.” A patron’s task often led characters to an adventuring site, but not always. The first scenarios without location keys tended to rely on simple jobs.

Traveller casts patrons as an employer, but a patron can be anyone able to persuade the players to help. Once players selected a task, it limited players to the choices that brought them closer to their goal.

In the 70s, D&D players never needed patrons. By awarding characters with an experience point for each gold piece won from a dungeon, D&D built a goal into the rules. But games from Traveller to Runequest used patrons to match players with goals.

Eventually, even D&D players grew weary of just chasing loot, and D&D characters began meeting patrons too. D&D players began entering dungeons for more than treasure, they sought to thwart giant raids or to rescue the princess from the vampire queen. Nowadays, the cloaked figure in a bar who offers a job ranks as cliché.

The Traveller adventure Twilight’s Peak (1980) took another step away from site-based adventures. Here, the characters begin as crew on a starship that needs a costly repair. As they journey from system to system, hauling cargo and seeking a big score, they investigate clues that may lead to the lost base of an advanced civilization.

Twilight’s Peak ends as a site-based adventure, but it starts as the first investigation adventure where the players chase clues that author Marc Miller calls rumors. “The rumor is ultimately the source of all information for adventurers. Once they have been pushed by a rumor, they may look longer and harder in that direction and thus be moved closer to their goal. But without the initial impetus of the rumor the adventurers will find they have little reason for adventuring.”

In Twilight’s Peak, all the rumors lead to the same destination, but clues can drive a non-linear adventure too. When a scene or encounter gives more than one clue worth chasing, players face a decision that takes players in different directions. Do we check out the hunting lodge shown on the map, or go to town to question the jeweler who made the murder weapon?

Whether called rumors, clues, or leads, the technique’s introduction offered a new way to take players through an adventure.

Related: How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success

Next: A D&D module makes the next step away from site-based adventures.

What I Wish the Player’s Handbook Had Explained About Some More D&D Spells

In my last post, I offered some extra explanation for common spells that called for it. This post covers more spells.


Until Hex ends, the caster deals an extra d6 damage every time they hit the hexed creature with an attack. Some players hope that spells like a Magic Missile qualify for extra damage, but no. Actual attacks include an attack roll. Hex rewards casters capable of rolling lots of attacks from spells like Eldritch Blast.

The target of a hex suffers disadvantage on ability checks made with an ability of the caster’s choice. This penalty does not affect saving throws, so the disadvantage rarely comes into play.

Hypnotic Pattern

Creatures outside the 30-foot cube spanned by a Hypnotic Pattern see the pattern, but don’t suffer its effects.

When creatures become hypnotized, their intelligent allies typically focus their attacks on breaking the spellcaster’s concentration.

Creatures with advantage on saves against being charmed also gain advantage saving against Hypnotic Pattern. Creatures immune to charm cannot be affected.

Hypnotized creatures can’t take actions, but they can still evade attacks. Neither the victims’ AC nor their saving throws suffer penalties.


Players dream of casting Suggestion unnoticed, but observers will spot the enchantment. In addition to the usual gestures, casting Suggestion requires a verbal component of mystic words. The verbal component includes more than just the suggestion itself.

A suggestion must seem reasonable, so many suggestions include a bit of context. Jeremy Crawford offers some plausible suggestions:

“Flee! A dragon comes.”

“Don’t attack; I intend no harm.”

“Your sword is cursed. Drop it!”

In most cases, giving the king a suggestion like “execute the queen because she plots against you” would fail. Designer Mike Mearls says that the suggestion would seem too unlikely and too obviously harmful. “Context is really key. If the queen was already on trial, then it might work to push king to a guilty verdict.”

Wall of Force

Although a wall of force blocks spells just like in past editions, the new text fails to make this obvious. The description of Wall of Force only says that nothing can “physically pass” through the wall.

Designer Jeremy Crawford explains that a wall of force grants total cover, and that spells cannot target things behind total cover. (See page 204 in the Player’s Handbook.) Also. total cover blocks areas of effect from extending from their point of origin into the wall of force. This means that the wall blocks virtually all spells and their effects.

Spells like Teleport and Misty Step can pass a wall of force. These spells target the creatures who teleport, not the destination. Misty Step only requires the caster to see a destination in range. This interpretation fits D&D tradition, which says that creatures who teleport travel through the astral plane and that walls of force do not extend to the astral plane.

In the past, a wall of force could not block gaze attacks. This still applies to monsters, because they have gaze attacks that only require a victim who sees the eyes. However, the Eyebite spell implies that the caster targets victims.

When a caster creates a wall of force consisting of ten 10-foot panels, all the panels must form a single flat surface with a side of each panel connecting to another panel’s side. The wall cannot include checkerboard-style, corner-to-corner links.

Spells where the affected can’t see the areas of effect

For spells like Silence and Darkness, marking the spell’s area of effect on a map steals the uncertainty experienced by characters under the spell. Creatures in a Fog Cloud cannot see whether a step takes them deeper into the cloud. Creatures in Hunger of Hadar cannot see a path out and desperately want to find it.

A Silence spell that affects some characters can create a fun situation. Instead of marking the silence on the map, tell the characters who can no longer hear. Those players may not talk to other players, nor can the other players talk to them. Nobody sees the bounds of the silence, but they know who can’t be heard. If someone wants to help lead the characters out of the silence, they must point and gesture.

Spells like Darkness and Fog Cloud effectively blind characters, leaving them with no knowledge of the spells’ reach.

If a spell leaves out some of the party and enables them to see the area of effect, handle the spell in the easiest way: Mark its area on the battle map and let everyone take advantage of the perfect information. This assumes that characters shout directions to guide their blinded allies. Also, this assumes that everyone gives and follows directions perfectly. As long as players and their foes sometimes benefit from the assumption, it seems fair.

If a spell blinds everyone in a party, ask all the players how they intend to act and where they plan to move. Then go back to taking turns. When someone leaves the spell’s area, you can mark it the battle map. But until the next round, you can hold the players to their declared actions without being unfair. Everyone in a round takes their actions in the same six seconds. Any character who found a way out was too busy getting there to guide anyone else.

If a spell blinds monsters, then as the dungeon master, you must take the familiar job of reacting as the creatures would. Outside of a spell’s area, smart creatures might shout instructions to guide allies. Inside, smart creatures might spread out, assuming the caster aimed to blind as many creatures as possible. Aggressive creatures might charge the spellcaster. Cautious creatures back away until they can see. If more than one action seems equally likely, roll a die. Whatever the monsters do, explain their rational. Players should feel that the monsters act on something other than the DM’s perfect knowledge.

What the Player’s Handbook Should Have Explained about 6 Popular D&D Spells

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons features popular spells like fireball that leave little room for interpretation, but others that require extra help. Some spells only become clear after you chase rules in other parts of the book, others make key points easy to overlook, and some just call for tips to run at the table.

Animate Objects

The Animate Objects spell description never mentions that casters always choose to animate a handful of sling stones or similar tiny objects. I suspect the designers never realized the spell would play this way, and that makes me sad. I want a spell that causes tables, chairs or, best of all, statues to spring to life and attack. In fantasy, that scene appears everywhere. It resonates.

Instead, casters choose to use Animate Objects to make make 10 tiny rocks fly up bonk the victim. Visually, the spell looks just like Telekinesis. Except Animate Objects features an attack at the upper limit of the power curve. If I ever expand my list of 4 most annoying spells, Animate Objects ranks number 5 based on failed potential. The ten attack rolls also slow play, and that just adds to the sadness.

Animate Objects never matches the popular imagination because the spell works best with 10 tiny objects, which together deal more damage than any other option. I want a spell that forces casters to animate furniture in a room, but D&D delivers a spell that only forces a caster to carry a handful of copper pieces to animate.

When animated objects lack legs, they can fly. Because the spell turns objects into creatures, I would rule that a large-sized object could carry a medium-sized rider. This allows, say, a large flying carpet able to carry someone for a minute. Animated brooms lack the size to carry a rider, but halflings can fly medium-sized surfboards.


When Banishment sends a creature back to their native plane, the banishment makes a popping noise.

If fighting temporarily stops, and then banished creatures return to the battlefield, reroll initiative. This makes the restart of battle more interesting than just letting every player ready an attack for their foe’s return. Plus, the banished creature’s return rates as a game situation that calls for initiative. Everyone stands ready. The best initiative proves quickest to attack.

For more on initiative, see What to do When a Player Interrupts a Role-Playing Scene to Start a Battle.


The game lacks an official way for spellcasters to identify spells to Counterspell. As a DM, you could require a Wisdom (Perception) check to see the casting, and then a Intelligence (Arcana) check to identify the spell. Nobody dislikes Counterspell enough to impose such hurdles.

Instead, use designer Jeremy Crawford’s house rule: If the spell exists on your spell list and you can see the caster, then you can identify the spell. You know the spell’s default level, but not whether the caster has raised the spell to a higher level.

Counterspell targets the caster of a spell. Characters cannot target someone they cannot see or someone behind total cover. Whenever possible, enemy spellcasters will work their magic out of sight or beyond the 60-foot range of Counterspell.

Force Cage

Force Cage brings enough power to turn many showdowns into one-sided beatdowns. The spell imposes one limitation: The spell’s material components cost 1,500 gp. If the material components for a spell have a price, casting the spell consumes the components. I suspect the designers think the price of a Force Cage limits the spell more it actually does. By the time 13th-level characters can cast the spell, they typically gain 229,242 gp worth of loot.

Globe of Invulnerability

Players rarely cast Globe of Invulnerability, but enemy casters might. Spells of level 5 and lower cannot pass into the Globe of Invulnerability, but Dispel Magic can target and dispel the globe.


If a player stands at a threshold of potential fight and wants a d4 bonus to initiative, they can cast Guidance. Initiative counts as a Dexterity ability check, so Guidance helps. Some players always want this boost, so they claim their clerics spend every minute casting Guidance like a nervous tic.

This tactic creates three side effects:

  • Guidance includes a verbal component, so casting creates noise.
  • Because the cleric spends every moment either casting Guidance or concentrating on Guidance, their passive perception suffers the -5 penalty imposed on passive ability checks made with disadvantage.
  • The first time a party member grows tired of the constant incantations and demands silence, I award the player inspiration.

Next: Suggestion, Wall of Force, and more

How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke

In my last post, I explained how challenging myself to say yes to players made me a better dungeon master, even though I sometimes said no.

Sometime in the 90s, I returned gaming conventions after more than a decade away. Some folks played Dungeons & Dragons differently than I remembered. I played with a DM who said yes to more gifts than Santa Claus. Any time a player wanted to try some lame scheme, the DM would permit it—and grant a big bonus for creative thinking. His game held no challenges. It only existed for his players to show off.

My DM’s habit of saying yes should have created a collaborative story that enchanted me, but instead I felt bored.

Some folks equate saying yes with good storytelling. From this perspective, characters are the foundation of story. Players control the characters. Only bad DMs keep the storytelling to themselves. Saying yes to the players lets them contribute to a shared story.

Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique abilities. In one convention game, a water genasi monk’s fast swim speed let her breeze through this encounter.

Except good storytelling rests on characters who face obstacles. If you make obstacles that just enable characters to demonstrate how great they are, then you create a certain, notoriously dull sort of story. Your story features a Mary Sue who can only impress everyone by being wonderful.

In D&D, players never ask a DM to say yes to something that adds obstacles. Players ask for advantages. Players see a high Performance skill on their character sheet, and then ask to sing a cave-in away because maybe the right note starts a landslide. Saying yes isn’t the route to compelling stories.

But D&D isn’t really a storytelling game. Nobody wants to hear a story about your D&D character. The fun of D&D comes from playing the game. For most of us a big part of that fun comes from a chance to feel wonderful and impressive in our character’s shoes.

I often meet players who want to win D&D when they devise a superior character. The play at the table, for them, just offers a victory lap.

So does my desire for a game that challenges me and my characters make me an oddity?

For most players, credible obstacles help make role-playing games compelling. Call of Cthulhu typically ends in insanity or death, but you still get to thwart a dark god against overwhelming odds. Your characters’ losses make them more heroic than the D&D characters who always come out of scrapes better than before.

Nobody sits at a D&D table for vicarious insanity or death. In D&D, characters improve by gaining experience and magical gear. That steady improvement makes the game addictive. D&D players relish chances to show off.

I suspect most players crave a mix of challenges, chances to show off, and chances to feel powerful by overcoming real challenges.

Case in point: My friend Tom is a by-the-book DM with stronger mastery of the rules than anyone I know. Some have called him a dick DM, and he wears that label with a note of pride. He doesn’t try to win against players, but he won’t say yes to a brazen attempt to use Performance. Tom is an expert at running monsters so they make tough, canny foes. Sometimes Tom kills characters. He killed one of mine. If D&D players favored DMs who simply let characters show off, then Tom would rate as a bad DM. Not Tom. As a DM, he reached an elite, level-4 ranking in the Heralds Guild of DMs. This means Tom served a DM at conventions for table after table of strangers, and earned nearly perfect scores on their feedback forms. In his games, when characters show off, they earned it.

D&D works best when DMs find a balance between credible challenges and letting each player feel like a bad ass.

NFL star Cam Newton dominates pee-wee football

Sometimes finding the right mix just requires the players and DM to focus on their roles: Players work to make their characters awesome, while their DM takes charge of posing challenges. In this role, the DM acts as the characters’ biggest fan. As a fan, I want the characters to triumph against real tests. I want a 6’5” 250 pound NFL quarterback to face elite athletes rather than pee-wee football players. Let the Fantastic Four beat Doctor Doom rather than Paste-Pot Pete.

So as a DM, when the players ask you to say yes to something that ruins a challenge, you can say no without feeling like a bad DM who refuses to share the game with players. They have their part, you have yours.

Sometimes, your role as fan of the characters might call for a yes. I can think of three perfect occasions:

1. Say yes to inventive solutions.

When I started as a DM, I followed Gary Gygax’s model. I pitted my players against the most devious deathtraps I could invent. I would build in ways for the players to surmount the obstacles, but the players’ solutions rarely matched mine. The 6 or more brains across the table always proved more clever than me. Soon I stopped including solutions to the predicaments. The players across the table still escaped every impossible pinch. Their invention surprised me and I relished it.

I don’t recommend pitting players against impossible situations, but I do recommend learning to love an ingenious solution. Some DMs grow so attached to a “correct” solution to a predicament, that they reject their players’ ingenuity.

For more, see Player Skill Without Player Frustration.

2. Say yes to stunts and exploits that go outside the rules.

A few years ago I ran the Confrontation in Candlekeep delve at Gen Con. At the end, a dragon flies from Candlekeep tower to tower, table to table, exchanging attacks. At one stop, a character jumped atop the dragon and rode it table to table. After the event, the player giddily recounted the tale to anyone who would listen. He wasn’t alone. Players loved riding the dragon so much that DMs made it part of the adventure. Designer Teos Abadia remembers, “The result was great fun, a nice mechanic for players ending up at other tables, and some really spectacular falls!”

In Mike Shea’s post, A Collection of Awesome Events, he asks players to recount an awesome D&D moment, and then reaches a surprising conclusion: Players love it when they get to break the game. Riding the dragon steps outside the usual exchange of blows in a D&D battle. The Player’s Handbook offer no rules for it. But for players of Candlekeep, it created unforgettable moments.

When players suggest a bold or clever idea that ends a big encounter or that wrecks a major villain, I feel tempted to reject it. I worked to set the stage and a sudden end feels like a waste of effort. But for players, an ordinary battle can’t match the excitement of that one time when they broke the game.

3. Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique qualities.

At a convention, I ran an adventure where a pack of wolves confronted the characters. One player tried to make friends with the beasts and I asked for an Animal Handling check.

The player showed his character sheet. “My background happens to be Raised by Wolves.”

“Turns out, you know these wolves.”

Obviously, if some unique quality grants an advantage that threatens to regularly upstage the other characters, you can still say yes, once. After that, the wolves the player meets might be rivals.