Monthly Archives: October 2018

Dungeon Masters, Instead of Plots, Prepare Secrets, Clues, and Leads

Planning a Dungeons & Dragons game around encounters and plots leads to trouble. In my last post, I explained how preparing encounters proves less flexible than preparing situations.

Situations can take dungeon masters far. Every D&D adventure published before 1982 presented a situation ripe for adventure. These early adventures might include broad goals, like destroy the evil behind raiding giants, but these modules mapped out situations and then set characters loose. Nothing broke this mold until N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God in 1982. Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or adjacent hexes. N1 paired an investigation with a scenario where events happened even if the characters did nothing. Since then, both features have appeared in countless adventures. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures for Good.)


Such features make adventures resemble plotted stories, so dungeon masters preparing for events and investigations often imagine plots for their scenarios. Then they contrive ways to make players follow the plot. When the players’ choices upset the plan, the DM feels tempted to invalidate the diversion. Sometimes, to avoid railroading, DMs work to build player-proof plots by including contingency plans for every choice and outcome. The preparation effort can swamp a DM.

As an alternative to plotting adventures, DMs can turn to situations. Adventures designed around situations allow both investigations and events, but other techniques make preparing and running such scenarios easier.

Instead of preparing plots, prepare leads.

Leads go by other names. Some writers call them clues, secrets, or hooks. When they discuss clues and secrets, their terms cover scraps of information that may lead or may serve another purpose. I favor “leads” because the word matches my main purpose, but I’ll use the other terms too.

Suppose the characters investigate a string of bloody murders in a village, they might discover the following leads:

  • All the murders center on well, recently dug to replace one that went dry.
  • A farmer found blood on the clothes of family members, but believed their innocent explanations and hid the evidence.
  • Children have spotted parents wandering the woods at night and returning at dawn.
  • A forester who cared for the woods now spends days in a drunken stupor.

Clues like these leave many angles that invite investigation. Each could lead to more clues.

Leads serve as one way DMs direct players through a plot, so in a sense, planning leads instead of plots just represents a change of mindset. But leads encourage choices. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

If situations form the obstacles in an adventure, then leads become the scraps of information that direct players through situations and from one situation to the next.

Most adventures begin with a lead that everybody calls a hook. The best adventures supply characters more hooks as they go.

Leads give players a sense of direction. They lure players through an arc that, looking back, will resemble a plot. Leads can guide characters to the locations that match their power. As clues, they help reveal a situation in an order that keeps players asking questions and craving answers.

Blogger and game designer Justin Alexander has a rule for giving clues:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

“Why three? Because the PCs will probably miss the first; ignore the second; and misinterpret the third before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along.”

By Justin’s three-clue rule, every step in the scenario needs three clues that lead to another step. The surplus clues make the scenario robust. In game, players never wind up so clueless that they lack direction. In life, they’re on their own.

The clues can lead in different directions. Such diversity gives options, breaks linear adventures, and sometimes creates tough choices for players. Justin builds on his three-clue rule to create a node-based system of scenario design.

Typically, I plan clues, planting them along the course of the adventure ahead of players. But Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea takes a looser approach. He calls his clues secrets. He prepares for each game by listing 10 secrets that the session could reveal. Some of his secrets reveal the game world, but others serve as leads for players. “Secrets and clues are the anchors of our games. They’re a simple way to build out an adventure, create meaning and story for the players, and connect people, places, and things. Secrets and clues are the connective tissue of an adventure—and, more often than not, a whole campaign”

Mike’s lazy technique skips planning where the clues lead or how players will find clues. “You know the characters will learn something interesting—but you don’t know how they will learn it. You get to figure that out as it happens at the table.” He prepares a list of evocative secrets, and then as he runs a game, he improvises ways to reveal the secrets. Mike’s secrets don’t even become real until the players discover them. After a session, he discards some unrevealed secrets, but revisits others for the next session. For example, in my game based on the murders, if I choose to reveal the secret of the well, then the well becomes important; otherwise, it’s nothing.

“Abstracting secrets and clues works particularly well with mysteries. You’ll have no idea how the characters might go about investigating a mystery. But as they do, you can drop in the right clues at the right time to help them solve it.” For more on secrets, consult The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures designed campaigns around situations that offered all the advantages of the situation mindset. The designs gave players maximum freedom and DMs the flexibility to cope. But these adventures tended to lack ready-made leads that helped players find direction and helped DMs anticipate and prepare for the players’ next destination. (For more, see Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?)

Alone, situations can overwhelm DMs with information to remember. Campaign-sized situations make preparing for sessions hard on DMs because the scope of what players might do becomes vast. DMs who run published adventures suffer the worst of this problem. Chances for improvisation are more limited. And I can’t be the only DM who finds remembering lore from a fat adventure book harder than the product of my own imagination. Few DMs can master hundreds of pages of content that spans a region like the Underdark well enough to prepare for aimless wandering.

In my games, leads provided the secret ingredient that the campaign-sized situations lacked. They gave players clear options and narrowed their likely choices enough for me to focus my preparation.

Next: Instead of preparing events, prepare villains.

Dungeon Masters, Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead

Every dungeon master sometimes throws characters into a combat encounter, and then sees players do something unexpected. We never expect a peaceful dialog. Later, the characters reach a mountain outpost stocked with perfectly crafted encounters and the players show ingenuity by, say, triggering an avalanche that buries the place. Sometimes, every DM wants to say, “Come on, you all took intelligence as a dump stat. Just fight the monsters!”

Sometime in most dungeon masters’ careers, we plot a grand adventure for characters, complete with dramatic beats, treachery, revelations, and a climax. Then the players impulsively murder the traitor in session 1. In session 3, instead of escaping as planned, the evil mastermind dies too. The threat of such reversals tempt any dungeon master to railroad.

All these setbacks come from preparing encounters and plots that expect players to behave as expected. Often players do something surprising that leaves the plans in ruin.

Such planning misfires stem from taking the wrong mindset to prepare for a Dungeons & Dragons game.

For a better approach, follow two principles:

  • Prepare situations instead of encounters.
  • Prepare clues and villains instead of plots.

Situations form the bones of an adventure.

Game-world situations are the arrangements of locations and non-player characters that stand between the characters and what they want. The most elemental form of a situation includes (a) an obstacle, like a bridge blocked by a troll hungry for the party’s delicious gnome, and (b) a goal, like the other side. Often the difference between a small situation and an encounter is a mindset. An encounter starts as a situation with an assumed plot—perhaps as simple as (1) the characters fight and (2) they win. A situation stops assuming a plot and fills in other details like what the monsters want. (Hint: Not to wait in a room until heroes come to murder them.) A small situation might resemble a combat encounter complete with monsters to (probably) fight, but the situation mindset opens DMs for other courses of action. Maybe the characters talk, or sneak, or dislike the gnome.

Unlike combat, exploration, or interaction scenes, situations bring enough flexibility to play in different ways.

Larger situations often resemble dungeons. From a situation mindset, players could solve the Tomb of Horrors by excavating it from the top down—or by skipping it. Rather than grave robbing, real heroes should battle evil overlords. They have treasure too. (Perhaps by looting the tomb, the heroes can defeat the overlord by getting enough gold to cause runaway inflation. I want an adventure where evil is thwarted because it can’t make payroll.)

Tomb of Annihilation includes more modern takes on the dungeon as situation. Within the campaign, The Fain of the Night Serpent features factions, intrigue, and a McGuffin to recover. The Tomb of Nine Gods resembles the Tomb of Horrors, but with the time limit and an objective bigger than runaway inflation.

Situations can go beyond locations. For instance, a masquerade could be a situation where players need to uncover a spy. The characters might find their target through deception, magic, or by picking a suspect’s pockets to gain stolen plans.

The Prince of Murder’s network of covert assassins could form another situation. Instead of predicting which encounters the characters will face as they unravel the network, the DM invents a organization that reacts to the players’ actions.

As with combat encounters, a boring situation can lead it to dull scenes. Good situations include features that lead to interesting play. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea has advice for creating situations. “Develop situations with lots of options, lots of hooks, and lots of interesting things the characters can interact with.”

So a situation that might feature combat may include a location primed for a dynamic battle. A situation that might include role playing may include memorable NPCs, but should at least include NPCs that want something.

I think of developing situations as piling kindling. Add enough incendiary ingredients so that if a spark flares, the scenes catch fire.

These details rarely require more work. Most dungeon masters will feel comfortable improvising some of the pieces. Plus, the situation mindset often frees DMs from worrying about contingencies. DMs who build situations spend less time preparing responses for every potential action because consequences stem naturally from the situation.

Mike touts the virtues of situations. “D&D is a lot more fun when we can watch scenes unfold in new and interesting ways well beyond what we originally intended. In order for that to happen, however, we need to build environments with all of the right elements to give characters, and their players, the chance to take things in lots of different directions.”

For situations, Tom “Dungeon Bastard” Lommel plans one extra element: He prepares a menu of potential outcomes. He lists wins that represent total success, complications that bring success at a cost, and setbacks that represent failure. “One thing I always get bogged down in is analysis paralysis,” Tom says. “This is a road map for me to respond to what the party is doing. I have a list of plausible options at my command and I don’t have to think about it in the moment.”

I like Tom’s strategy because, in the heat of a game session, I struggle to improvise reactions to sweeping victories and epic fails. Such grand outcomes often threaten to upend the game. An easy win can’t cut a 4-hour convention adventure to a half-hour assassination. Instead, I want to reward ingenuity with some success, and then add reasonable complications that keep one move from ending the game. A total-party kill shouldn’t abort a long-running campaign arc short of a satisfying conclusion. Instead, I want the characters captured, or to lose the magic key, or to suffer the gloating of the rival who saves them. (Forget bludgeoning, adventurers hate blows to their pride most because they wound the player too.) At the least, I always plan ways to turn total-party kills into setbacks that spare the campaign.

Tom uses a storyteller’s sense of drama to help decide among outcomes. His choice results from the usual factors of the player’s choices and the luck of the die, but also from what suits the narrative. Will an up-beat or a down-beat better add drama? Is the table spoiling for a fight or for a lull? Does the session’s pace leave time for complications?

Instead of preparing encounters, prepare situations. The mindset opens you to plan less for what the players might do, while making you ready for anything.

Next: Dungeon masters: Instead of plots, prepare secrets, clues, and leads.

The Game-Design Trends That Turned D&D Into a Game Gary Gygax Disliked

The second edition of Dungeons & Dragons that reached gamers probably stayed close to the edition co-creator Gary Gygax might have designed. But later, Gary would say, “In my estimation second-edition AD&D began to lose the spirit of the original.”

What spirit did it lose?

Partly, Gary probably missed his own quirky touch. But I suspect that most of the changes he disliked arrived as the edition matured. As second edition grew, it began adding character options from new classes and kits. The design staff seemed intent on luring players to each new set of character options by making them a bit more powerful than the last. To Gary, this escalation defied the spirit of the game.

After Gary left TSR, two design trends that he resisted shaped D&D’s evolution from second through fourth edition.

Current D&D lead, Mike Mearls wrote about these directions in a series of tweets. The first trend came from “an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance. They aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.

“The downside to this approach is that the rules became comprehensive to a fault. The game’s rules bloated, as they sought to resolve many if not all questions that arise in play with the game text.”

Gary saw this trend begin with third edition. He said the version’s “mass of detail” made the game “too rules-oriented for my personal taste.” Gary saw D&D leaning less on a DM’s judgement and more on comprehensive rules that made the game procedural. His play favored minimal reliance on the rules. “Generally, I just DMed on the fly, so to speak, and didn’t use the rule book except for random encounters, monster stats, and treasure.”

He advised DMs to do the same. “Do not let the rules get in the way of play. Be the arbiter of the game so that the adventure continues without unnecessary interruptions, and the immersion of the player in the milieu remains complete.”

Mike Mearls thread goes on. “At the same time, 3.5 and 4 were driven by the idea that D&D players wanted as many character options as possible, presented in a modular framework meant to encourage the search for combinations that yielded characters who broke the power curve.”

Character options never raised objections from Gary. After all, he planned skills and several new sub-classes for the game. But Gary saw D&D turn into a game centered on building characters that matched the power of comic book superheroes. This direction made him fume. He wanted an “emphasis on group cooperation, not individual PC aggrandizement.”

D&D started as a game that challenged players and threatened their characters. To Gary, later editions just offered players a chance to show off their characters with minimal risk. “How I detest namby-pamby whiners that expect to play a real RPG without threat of character death or loss of a level, stat points, or even choice magic items! Without such possibilities, what it the purpose of play, a race to see which character can have the greatest level, highest stats, and largest horde of treasure? That is just too flaccid for words.”

In many ways, fifth-edition D&D represents a return to Gary’s tastes. He would have liked the lighter rules. Mike explained the direction, “With 5th, we assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”

“In terms of players, we focus much more on narrative and identity, rather than specific, mechanical advantages. Who you are is more important than what you do, to the point that your who determines your what.”

Gary would have approved of these changes, but would he have liked fifth edition?

To an extent, I doubt any edition that Gary didn’t design could have earned his favor. Gary saw AD&D as his baby and kept tight control on its content. No other version, no matter how many improvements it featured, could earn the same paternal love.

Also, Gary might fault fifth edition for one thing: The edition emphasizes storytelling over challenging players and endangering their characters. Sure, you can still run a killer game. Tomb of Annihilation and its meat-grinder variant set a blueprint for that. But beyond level 4, fifth-edition characters become as durable as comic book characters. According to Mike Mearls, the edition “focuses on socializing and storytelling.” No storyteller wants to see their tale’s planned resolution spoiled when a hero dies to a fluke critical. Gary and his original co-designer Dave Arneson came from wargaming and a passion for competition. To Gary, D&D needed to test player skill to feel compelling. A storytelling exercise that glorified precious characters failed to interest him.

Still, fifth edition captures the soul and spirit of original D&D better than any other version. I’ll bet Gary would have liked it enough to write adventures for it. Except his adventures would not have let characters skate through with minimal risk. So don’t get too attached to your hero, keep another character sheet on hand, and keep playing D&D.

How Much Would Gary Gygax’s Second-Edition D&D Have Differed From the Version That Reached Gamers?

In 1985, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax shared his plans for a new, second edition in Dragon magazine. Even as his column reached print, Gary was forced out of TSR, ending his work on D&D.

This left D&D fans to speculate how Gary’s second edition would have differed from version that actually reached stores in 1989.

For the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, designer David “Zeb” Cook wrote an introduction that sets his goals for the revision. “To make it easier to find things, to make the rules easier to understand, to fix the things that did not work, to add the best new ideas from the expansions and other sources, and, most important of all, to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed.”

To preserve the D&D games knew, TSR management mandated that Zeb and the other second-edition designers keep AD&D largely compatible with its first edition. That requirement blocked innovations like ascending armor class.

Like Zeb, Gary planned to keep the D&D players knew. Gary later explained, “The soul and spirit of the revised game would have remained the same. The change might have been likened to that from D&D to AD&D.” Gary planned some subclasses and other additions, but nothing that changed the game as played.

As for making things easy to understand and to find, Gary lacked the skills to meet those goals.

Gary had already tried and failed give AD&D a sensible organization. He and  started the first edition by tacking clippings from the original rules to bulletin boards in a logical order. Despite their intentions, the Dungeon Master’s Guide reads like an open window let a breeze clear the boards. Apparently, a janitor reposted the scraps. Gary’s strength came not from organization, but from ability to heap fantastic ideas like a dragon’s hoard.

As for Gary’s writing, fans lovingly call his ornate prose and difficult lexicon High Gygaxian. I learned enough of his vocabulary to boost my SAT score. His style brings some charm, but hardly clarity. Once around 1980, as an exercise, I took a pencil to a page in my Dungeon Master’s Guide, striking unnecessary words. I thinned a quarter of the text. This insane exercise began my slide into blogging about D&D.

Could Gary have realized that a second edition needed skills that he lacked? Perhaps not, but I suspect that if Gary had remained a TSR, a time shortage would have pressed him to seek assistance. Half of the class ideas he floated in 1982 had languished for years. Sure, Gary had made time to compile his old magazine articles into Unearthed Arcana, but only when TSR’s survival required immediate cash. D&D historian Shannon Appelcline explained that Gary “wasn’t up to producing book-length RPG work of his own, due to the time required in running the ailing company. Thus, Unearthed Arcana was actually the product of diverse hands, including collaborator Frank Mentzer, design consultant Jeff Grubb, and editor Kim Mohan.”

If Gary had delegated writing of second edition, who would have drawn the assignment? Not Zeb Cook. Gary favored the notes his friend Francois Marcela-Froideval wrote for Oriental Adventures over the book Zeb Cook actually wrote, so Zeb was out. Likely, if Gary had remained at TSR, his trusted lieutenant Frank Mentzer would have written the new books under Gary’s supervision. In his work on Basic D&D, Frank demonstrated the ability to write clearly and to organize rules.

In his introduction, Zeb avoids mentioning another goal: To sooth the worries of concerned parents who fear that the game will lead their children to the devil or to lose touch with reality. Among other changes, this led the designers to rename demons and devils to baatezu and tanar’ri. Gary would have made similar changes. In what Gary called a bow “to pressure from those who don’t buy our products anyway,” Gary let TSR retitle Deities and Demigods to Legends and Lore. He didn’t “particularly approve”, but he still bowed.

Under Gary, second-edition might not have been hugely different from the version gamers saw. Still, it would have been more idiosyncratic. Gary’s update would have introduced eccentricities like the mountebank, the class that inspires every gamer to say, “What’s a mountebank?” (A boastful charlatan.)

After second edition, D&D benefited from the skill of new designers. The game’s subsequent design teams brought innovations that Gary probably would have spurned. Leaving TSR forced Gary to design role playing games that defied comparison to D&D. (TSR sued him anyway.) But if Gary continued on D&D, I doubt Gary would have murdered his darlings and adopted inventions from other games. D&D’s new designers did both, and the modern game benefited. Plus, new teams brought skills for rigorous and mathematical design that Gary could not match. Gary’s strength came from ability to heap fantastic ideas like a dragon’s hoard. The order and elegance D&D needed came from other sources.

Related: From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance

Next: The game-design trends that turned D&D into a game Gary Gygax disliked

Gary Gygax’s Thwarted Plans for Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons

In 1985, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax wrote a column for Dragon magazine describing his plans for a second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “This task does not preclude later supplements, changes and yet new editions (a Third, perhaps a Fourth someday).” Imagine that.

By the time his plans reached readers in November, Gary had been forced out of TSR. Gary’s part in shaping D&D ended. TSR ignored his outline and would not start work on a second edition until 1987.

This left D&D fans to speculate how Gary’s second edition would have differed from version that actually reached stores in 1989.

Gary never sets goals for the new edition. He later explained, “The soul and spirit of the revised game would have remained the same. The change might have been likened to that from D&D to AD&D.” AD&D started as a collection of all the material published for the original game. Similarly, Gary’s outline for second edition dwells on compiling first-edition monster books and arcana into four core books. “Each is far larger than now, but the needed information is all under the cover of the appropriate tome.” (Gary added Legends & Lore to D&D’s usual three, core books.)

Most of Gary’s plans centered on selecting what parts of D&D merited a place in the new edition. By his reckoning, monks belonged in an oriental-themed campaign book and assassins should become optional. As for psionics, he wrote, “I’d like to remove the concept from a medieval fantasy roleplaying game system and put it into a game where it belongs—something modern or futuristic.”

He planned to remove rules for weapon-speed factors and weapons versus armor. Like virtually every AD&D player, Gary ignored those rules.

His offers few thoughts for new material, and none that threatened to change the game. He planned to tinker with monster hit dice, giving robust creatures more hit points and damage. Powerful individuals gained extra hit dice. “I suppose some will call that monster munchkinism.”

His best plans featured changes that reached D&D without Gary’s help. The original bard class forced players to gain levels in Fighter, Thief, and Druid before becoming a bard. Gary’s updated bard could start as a bard.

He planned a skill system that would have resembled a system he designed in 2006 for for the booklet, Castle Zagyg Class Options & Skills for Yggsburgh. This book supported a game called Castles & Crusades, a rules-light game that mixed some third-edition innovation with the spirit of original D&D. Gary’s skill system let characters trade experience points for skills that granted bonuses to checks. This approach offered advantages over the weak skill system in second edition. Best of all, with Gary’s skills, no one had to say “non-weapon proficiency.”

His plans included wizard specializations beyond illusionist and a sorcerer class that resembled today’s conjurer specialization.

Mainly, he planned to design some class ideas that he had floated three years earlier in Dragon issue 65. Then he had asked readers to rate his concepts. “Let me know which you like best, which least.” Two issues later, he reported a flood of responses.

The most popular notions, the cavalier and the thief-acrobat, reached print in Unearthed Arcana, but neither idea captured players’ imagination. Even these best concepts suggested that Gary had run short of compelling class ideas. Nevertheless, Gary still dreamed of bringing second edition the remaining classes:

  • Mystic: A cleric subclass focused on divination.
  • Savant: A magic user subclass specializing in knowledge and study. The class crossed the old sage class with divination and detection spells.
  • Mountebank: A thief subclass focused on deception, slight-of-hand, and persuasion. Gary’s short story, “The House in the Tree” included a character named Hop who describes himself as a mountebank. Hop comes across a fast-talking snake-oil salesmen, except some of Hop’s concoctions might actually work. The story appears in a collection of short tales about Gord the Rogue titled Knight Errant.
  • Jester: A bard subclass with jokes, tricks, and insults. “The class will be less than popular with fellow adventurers, I suspect, so that jesters will frequently have enemies and travel alone.” Jesters come from the same inclination that produced the sage—from an urge to design classes around every medieval profession without any mind to what might attract players to the class.

Even though none of these ideas seem compelling enough to merit a class name, I’ve seen some characters that fit all these concepts except for the Jester. Between class archetypes, skills, and spell selection, D&D now boasts enough flexibility to realize any of these class concepts. As for the jester, a bard could adopt the wardrobe, but why? Old-school blogger James Maliszewski asked, “What’s the appeal there? Perhaps I’m simply humorless and unimaginative but I have a hard time imagining either an adventuring jester or a need for a NPC class based around juggling, tumbling, and minor spellcasting.”

Next: How much would Gary’s second edition have differed from the version that reached gamers? Plus, would Gary have liked fifth edition?