Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Fun Thing D&D Players Love that No One Mentions and that the Game Almost Lost

Game mastering advice tends to lavish attention on what players enjoy. Things like playing a role, enjoying a sense of power, plotting strategies, and so on.

Another pleasure of role-playing games ranks just as high, even though the folks who offer game mastering advice rarely mention it.

Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world. Humans love finding order in a jumble. The impulse drives scientists, detectives, and conspiracy theorists.

In Dungeons & Dragons, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions—call them traps and toys.

The joy of figuring things out led to a type of adventure that didn’t exist during the first years of role playing. Investigation adventures now rank as one of the most popular styles. Much of the fun of an investigation or mystery comes from connecting the dots between clues. The challenges come along the way.

For example, players investigating missing magical reagents might start with the guild alchemist. He stole the reagents to help a secret lover out of a jam. Under pressure, the alchemist explains that his lover hasn’t been seen since getting the reagents, but that the couple used to meet at an particular inn. This leads to the innkeeper, who saw someone with the lover’s description meeting with someone wearing a flower that only grows at the royal arboretum. One clue leads to the next. Investigations ask player to make connections and figure things out.

Before investigations, player still found pleasure in figuring things out. Tomb of Horrors is packed with things to figure out. Taunting clues, secret doors, false endings, and so on. This abundance leads to some of the Tomb’s lasting appeal. But the tomb also set a terrible example.

In the Tomb, players figure things out to advance or to survive. Too often, D&D adventures have forced players to figure out puzzles to continue. For example, countless adventures include a magic portal that requires just the right activation to open. If players fail to figure out the key, they reach a dead end. Or in the case of the Tomb, they’re dead, the end. About everything in the Tomb works that way.

This sort of design gave puzzles—D&D’s original thing to figure out—a bad rap. No one likes to feel stuck or frustrated or stupid.

To avoid such bad feelings, fourth edition’s designers emphasized character skill over player skill. They aimed for a D&D game where no player felt forced to figure anything out. Accidentally, they nearly lost a source of fun.

Nonetheless, adventures that force players to solve a puzzle risk a bad D&D session. But players still love to figure things out, and the best adventures give them lots of chances to indulge—if the players like.

When you create adventures, rather than forcing players to puzzle out something that blocks their way, add more toys to figure out. For instance, imagine a magic fountain that the players can ignore. Scattered coins lie under its clear water. A bag of coins hangs from a hook. Tossing in a coin causes the waters to cloud and show a room somewhere. At the far end stands a statue of a king. The vision fades. Dropping a second coin reveals the same room from a different angle. This time a statue of a queen faces the viewer. Players can move on, but interacting with the puzzle reveals something interesting to figure out.

Fun adventures come sprinkled with things to figure out.

The best traps challenge players to figure something out. Puzzle traps hint at their presence. The fun comes from either deciphering clues to locate the trap or from working out a method to evade the trap, or both. Players rarely disable a puzzle trap with a quick check, rather they figure out the game-world steps required to avoid the threat.

I used to think that the fun of figuring things out came from the thrill of beating a difficult puzzle. The harder the challenge, the greater the thrill of victory. I was wrong. Part of the fun of figuring things out comes from feeling smart and successful. When players stall on a confounding problem, they just feel thwarted. The best puzzles serve just enough challenge so players suppose that they succeeded where others might fail.

Examining the coins reveals the faces of kings and queens. When the players toss in the queen’s coin, they see the king’s statue, and vice versa. Any party could figure out the fountain’s operation, especially if tossing another coin reveals a familiar place. Casting a coin temporarily reveals a view from a royal statue depicting the figure on the coin. Still, figuring out the fountain will bring fun.

Once players figure things out, they appreciate rewards that validate their success. Sometimes insight leads to treasure or an easier encounter. At first, the alchemist pretends to know nothing of the missing reagents, but if the players find a hidden love letter and make the connection, he cracks. That fountain could reveal some secrets in the adventure ahead.

In investigations, figuring advances the plot, but the same joy can come from spotting and making connections that don’t affect an outcome. Movie Easter eggs bring this pleasure.

The chance to figure things out provides a painless way to deliver backstory to the players—if they care. Start with the story and add ways to reveal it to the players. Avoid using journal entries. Think of subtler clues that reveal history in bite-size chunks. In Tomb of Annihilation, the Garden of Nangalore reveals its story in clues scattered throughout the site. Success here even leads to a reward: At the end, players who figure out the story can fare better when they meet the queen.

The next time you dream up an adventure, add things for your group’s actors and tacticians, but also add something to figure out.

3 Pieces of Dungeon Masters Gear I Love and 1 Failed Experiment

Whenever I unpack my dry-erase maps and tiles, I reveal the remains of past games. Today, this residue includes the usual battlegrounds drawn in 5-foot squares, but also names like Syndra Silvane and Ytepka, experience numbers, damage totals, a sketch of the Chapel of Kukulkan from Tamoachan, and a rough map of the Nangalore in Chult.

As much as dungeon masters serve as a referees and facilitators, we need to act as communicators. So I use my dry-erase grids as white boards to help reveal the game world to the players, to remind players of place and character names, to emphasize key details, and so on. At any Dungeons & Dragons table, I’m never the only one who tends to think visually.

This habit led me to discover an advantage interlocking gaming tiles boast over the conventional battle mats. I can pick up one tile, write or draw, and set tile back down. No more struggling to write “Ytepka” upside down for the players to see.

Compared to a conventional battle mat, interlocking, dry- or wet-erase tiles bring other advantages. You can draw tiles in advance, and then reveal them as characters explore. As characters travel, adding tiles extends your map. Characters and their miniatures can roam without leaving the table.

Dry- and Wet-Erase Interlocking Tiles

Two companies now sell dry- or wet-erase interlocking tiles with either 1-inch grids or hexes.

Gaming Paper’s tiles consist of heavy cardboard like the board in your Monopoly game, but thicker. I can hold a rigid tile in 1 hand and draw with the other. The glossy surface takes dry-erase markers. The 8×11 size fits with your game books in a bag or on a bookshelf. The construction makes the boards inexpensive, but it means that careless erasing will peel the paper surface from the boards.

I haven’t seen the tiles from Role 4 Initiative. They come on 1/8-inch-thick chipboard, so they should prove more durable than cardboard. The tiles work with both wet- and dry-erase markers. Dry erase marks lift without water, but they tend to smear during transport or storage. Wet-erase marks stay sharp. These tiles come in both 10×10 and 5×5 sizes, which makes packing a bit more awkward, but which helps DMs fit dungeon walls within tile borders.

Wire Templates

Nothing stalls a fight on a grid like an area-effect spell. Everyone waits while someone counts and recounts squares, and then figures angles like a pool shark. For fireballs and other circles, my macrame rings trim minutes from the process. To make 30-foot cones just as simple, I shaped 12-gauge, aluminum craft wire and electrical tape into a template. For Cone of Cold, I bent an 30-foot extension.

For improved versions, I would like to find stiffer wire. My wire holds up at the table, but packing requires care. I nestle the pieces under the flat cover of my compartment case.

Bags for Games Masters

I used to think that scrapbooking served as lonely fun, but scrapbookers gather together to craft. And companies design amazing bags suited for their ventures. We DMs lack the same market clout, but a bag made for scrapbooking holds my Dungeons & Dragons gear so well that only an embroidered ampersand would improve it.

The 360 Crafters Rolling Bag from We Are Memory Keepers holds a compartment case full of miniatures alongside a stack of hardcovers. Pockets cover the bag inside and out, offering a place for everything. Plus, mesh reveals each pockets’ contents, so I can find things without digging. Plus, the bag stands open beside my DM’s chair, keeping everything in easy reach. I can start a game without unpacking.

Admittedly, the selection of cheerful colors and breezy patterns hardly says killer DM, but I can add my own green, devil patches.

Wet-Wipe Chalk Marker

Until technology brings me a video display that I can unroll at a convention table, I’m stuck using paper maps. To bad, because I dream of using electronics to show a map and reveal only the features within the characters’ sight. I experimented with a low-tech alternative.

  1. Set a players’ version of a dungeon map under the Lexan sheet I sometimes use to keep battlemaps flat.
  2. Conceal the map with a wet-wipe chalk marker—the sort of marker a school’s homecoming committee uses to decorate the windows of businesses on Main Street.
  3. As players explore, wipe away the chalk marks, revealing the map.

Unfortunately, the chalk coating proved too hard to remove. Scraping caused it to flake off in ragged patches, revealing too much and leaving a blizzard of white powder. A wet paper towel left white smears and also lacked precision. I count wet chalk as a failed experiment, so I’m back to waiting for a packable, 30-inch display.

Related: Photo Guide to Dungeon Masters Tools

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

During the unveiling of third-edition Dungeons & Dragons, I saw a member of the design team say multiclassing offered tempting options for every character, but that every class offered enough rewards to make the choice to multiclass tough. Ideally, D&D multiclassing strikes that balance. In play, third edition fell short of balancing multiclassing. Classes tended to stack extra features at level 1 and sometimes suffered “dead levels” offering few benefits, so multiclass characters tended to outshine their single-class peers.

In fifth edtion, multiclassing isn’t so optimal. The first level of an additional class delivers fewer proficiencies. Every class level delivers new features or at least more spell slots. So while each class brings goodies, characters that multiclass lose some advantages of focus.

Spellcasters pay the biggest price for multiclassing. The top level in each separate spellcasting class limits the highest level of spell a character can know or prepare, so every level of a multiclass slows progress to higher-level spells. Characters reach spell slots based on the sum of their spellcasting classes, so they may gain slots of a higher level than any spell they know. At most, they can use those slots to boost a lower-level spell. Spellcasters who veer from their main class for more than 3 levels will never gain 9th-level spells.

Most classes leap in power at 5th level. Barbarians, fighters, paladins, and rangers all get a second attack. Wizards and sorcerers gain Fireball. Bards and warlocks gain Hypnotic Pattern. Monks gain Stunning Strike. When single-class characters reach level 5, multiclass characters will fall behind until their main class hits level 5.

At level 4, every class delivers a +2 ability score boost. Until a character’s attack or spellcasting ability reaches 20, these ability boosts stand to improve almost every to-hit roll and to hinder every foes’ save. Multiclassers who stop leveling a class at 1, 2, or 3 miss a key upgrade.

Despite the offsetting drawbacks of multiclassing, just a level or two of a class can enrich a character. For some players, multiclassing yields the flexibility to match a character’s story concept. Other players just want power. Many players seek a unique concept.

Whatever your aim for your character, this list reveals the top 7 classes to add as a multiclass.

7. Barbarian

Generally, barbarian makes a poor second class. Few martial characters want to avoid armor. Spellcasters can’t cast while raging. Despite the limitations, 2 levels of barbarian make a gimmicky combination with rogue. The Reckless Attack feature lets your rogue gain advantage for Sneak Attack.

6. Cleric

For spellcasters aiming to become much more durable, two cleric domains make a good start.

A character who starts as a Tempest cleric gains heavy armor proficiency. At 2nd level, the domain grants Destructive Wrath, which lets a cleric use Channel Divinity to deliver maximum lighting or thunder damage. Most spellcasters can find use a for that.

The Forge domain also grants new clerics heavy armor proficiency. At 1st level, these clerics can use Blessing of the Forge to add a +1 bonus to your armor or to a martial party member’s weapon.

Update: In the comments, Rooneg raises an important point. Heavy armor demands Strength scores higher than any spellcaster needs, so most characters only benefit from the medium armor proficiency granted by every cleric domain.

Unlike other classes that grant armor proficiency, a level of cleric keeps spellcasters on pace as they gain spell slots. As a drawback, your spellcaster will gain little benefit from the 13 Wisdom required to multiclass as a cleric.

5. Bard

At first level, bard delivers light armor proficiency, a skill, and Bardic Inspiration. Most multiclassers continue to gain Jack of All Trades at level 2. This adds half your proficiency bonus to every ability check where you lack proficiency.

Levels of bard combine easily with charisma-based spellcasters.

4. Warlock

Characters dip into warlock for 2 levels to gain 2 Eldritch Invocations. For charisma-based casters, the Agonizing Blast invocation upgrades Eldritch Blast from an ordinary, weak, cantrip attack to a powerful option. Devils Sight makes a dangerous combination with the Darkness spell. Mask of Many Faces lets a deceptive character scheme past obstacles and break a few adventures. Ignore the shell-shocked look on your dungeon master’s face; they love it.

When you calculate a multiclass spellcaster’s spell slots, Warlock levels don’t add to other caster levels. Still the warlock class combines especially well with sorcerer. See 7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing.

3. Sorcerer

Many of the Sorcerous Origins bring appealing perks at level 1. The Divine Soul’s Favored By The Gods feature lets you add 2d4 to a failed save. I like mobile characters, so the Storm Sorcerer’s Tempestuous Magic strikes my fancy. Before or after casting a spell, the feature lets you fly 10 feet without provoking.

Multiclassers add sorcerer to gain the 2 metamagic options available at level 3. Quickened Spell, Twined Spell, and Heightened Spell may rank as the best. Subtle Spell helps in adventures that feature role play and intrigue.

Characters rising in other spellcasting classes can trade spell slots for the sorcery points that fuel metamagic options. Except in the sort of dungeon crawls that exhaust spell slots, most mid- to high-level casters rarely use all their slots anyway.

2. Fighter

The first level of fighter ranks as the most useful single level in fifth edition. Characters who start as fighters gain heavy armor proficiency.

Level 1 also delivers a fighting style. The Archery style brings a +2 to ranged weapon attacks and benefits every sharpshooter. The Defense style grants +1 AC and keeps your spellcaster from harm. The Protection style helps save your allies. Protection lets a shield-bearing character impose disadvantage on an attack against a character within 5 feet. First-level fighters also gain Second Wind.

Levels 2 and 3 bring fewer rewards, but the features suit players who enjoy bringing big damage spikes. At 2nd, Action Surge lets fighter take an extra action once between rests. At 3rd, the Champion archetype scores critical hits on a roll of 19 or 20. This combines brilliantly with the paladin’s Divine Smite feature. If you stick with fighter through level 3, you should probably stay with the class to level 5 for the ability score boost and the Extra Attack feature.

1. Rogue

At 1st level, the Rogue class delivers Sneak Attack, but the Expertise feature may benefit dabblers more. Expertise doubles your proficiency in two skills. Second level brings Cunning Action, the best prize for multiclassers. Use a bonus action to Dash, Disengage, or Hide.

As a bonus, characters who start as a rogue gain 4 skills while most other classes just get 2.

A level or two of rogue fits with most multiclass characters.

What’s your favorite multiclass combination?