Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Plight of the Unfrozen Dungeon Master

If you play Dungeons & Dragons in game stores, you will meet an unfrozen dungeon master. Fifteen years ago, I was one.

The first surge in the popularity of D&D started in 1977, when I found the first Basic Set, and continued in the 80s. Nerdy kids everywhere found the game, played obsessively, and then mostly moved on. Eventually groups separated for college and jobs. Players abandoned their books in their parents’ attics or sold them for gas money.

But we missed the game, and 10, 20, or 30 years later, those of us who loved D&D come back. We are the unfrozen dungeon masters.

Over the years, D&D has changed. Not just the rules, but also play style and player expectations have changed. When unfrozen DMs play, we can either adapt to the new style—shaped by 45 years of innovation. Or we can find like-minded players in the old school—still as fun as ever.

An unfrozen DM came to my local store during the fourth-edition era. He played enough to learn the new edition and then served as a DM on a Lair Assault. After the game, he told me about the rules he fixed on the fly because they didn’t suit him or his style of game. Such changes defied the spirit of fourth edition, which aimed to limit DM meddling in favor of giving players a clear understanding of how their actions will play in the game world. Such DM fiat especially defied the spirit of a competitive challenge like Lair Assault.

Since then, I haven’t seen a DM so clearly unfrozen, but DMs still stagger from caves and icebergs into game stores. When they run a game, newer players probably see too much focus on pitting an unyielding game world against the party, and too little on shaping the game to suit the players and their characters.

This topic inspired a question that I asked on Twitter. The answers showed the gulf between the game when I started playing and the current style of play. I felt a little like a DM staggering from melting ice to see a new world of wonders. Will I ever learn enough of the new ways to fit in?

When D&D started, DMs were called referees and they played the part of a dispassionate judge of the game. As a referee, you used die rolls to place most of the monsters and treasure in your dungeon. When the players explored, you let die rolls and the players’ choices determine the outcome. A referee ran home adventures the same they ran a tournament where competing teams might compare notes and expect impartial treatment.

D&D’s roots in wargaming set this pattern. Referees devised a scenario in advance. Players chose sides and played. In the spirit of fairness, referees didn’t change the scenario on the fly.

Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), one of D&D’s early imitators, spells out this ideal. The rules advised the GM to set out a dungeon’s details in advance so he could “prove them on paper should an incredulous group of players challenge his honesty or fairness.”

That style didn’t last. In most D&D games, no competing team watches for favoritism, so if the DM changes unseen parts of the dungeon, the players never know.

Dungeon masters differ from referees in other ways.

Unlike wargames with multiple sides, dungeon masters control the foes who battle the players. Now, DMs sometimes struggle to suppress a will to beat the players. In the 1980s, when people still struggled to understand a game that never declared a winner, competitive urges more often proved irresistible.

RULE NUMBER ONE in Chivalry & Sorcery is that it is a game, not an arena for ‘ego-trippers’ to commit mayhem with impunity on the defenseless or near defenseless characters of others. Games have to be FUN, with just enough risk to get the adrenalin pumping. The moment that an adventure degenerates into a butchering session is the time to call a halt and ask the would-be ‘god’ running the show just what he thinks he is doing, anyway.

All of the early fantasy RPGs came as reactions to D&D. For example, Tunnels and Trolls (1975) aimed to make D&D accessible to non-grognards—to players who didn’t know a combat results table from a cathode ray tube. C&S follows the pattern. It reads as a response the shortcomings of D&D and the play style it tended to encourage.

C&S reveals much about how folks played D&D in the early years.

Before I entered the DM deep freeze, my players would sometimes discuss their plans of action out of my earshot. In their talks, as they speculated on the potential threats ahead, they imagined worst-case scenarios. To avoid giving me ideas, they kept me from overhearing. After all, their worst-case scenario might be harsher than anything I planned. (Obviously, I never borrowed the players ideas. My worst cases were always worse.)

D&D has changed since then, so I asked current players on Twitter for their feelings:

How do you feel about GMs who eavesdrop on your conversations, and then incorporate your speculations in the game?

  • Love it. Let’s tell stories together.
  • Hate it. The DM shouldn’t steal my ideas to complicate my character’s life.

In the responses, the lovers overwhelmed the haters to a degree that surprised me.

Players see RPGs are structured, collaborative storytelling and they enjoy seeing their ideas shape the tale. “D&D is a collaborative storytelling activity,@TraylorAlan explains. “I imagine it as a writer’s room for a TV show, with a head writer who has a plan that is modified by the other writers. A good DM riffs off what players do, uses that to build. Players then feel invested because their choices matter.

I agree, but my sense of the answers is that folks don’t often imagine their DM overhearing a worst-case scenario, and then wielding it against characters. If players only wanted compelling stories, DMs should sometimes adopt players’ cruelest ideas and use them. Stories feature characters facing obstacles. Countless sources of writing advice tell writers to torture their beloved characters. But how many players want to participate in the torture of their alter egos?

For my money, the answer to my question depends on the part a DM plays in the game, moment by moment.

Are you the adversary, with a Team Evil button?

Better to keep your eyes on your own paper, even if the players’ worst-case scenario fills you with glee. Never adopt killer strategies or dream up countermeasures for tactics you overhear.

Are you the collaborative story-teller, looking to help the players reveal their characters?

When players speculate at the table, they’re making connections based on what they know about the game world—connections that the DM may not see. Adopt the speculations that link the characters to the game world in unexpected ways. They reveal they characters and tie them to the shared fantasy. Making connections real makes the D&D world seem deeper and more meaningful. It adds a sense of order that we humans enjoy in the game world, especially at times when the real world shows too little order and too little sense.

Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D

In 1972, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson introduced his Blackmoor campaign to co-creator Gary Gygax. The campaign stemmed from Gary’s Chainmail rules, but Dave’s game transformed the rules for miniature-figure battles into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

My last post explained how Dave shaped a combat system that featured hit points, 2d6 to-hit rolls, damage rolls, and armor classes where higher numbers represented better protection.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. In Pegasus issue 1, Dave recalled that Gary and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.”

Gary changed Dave’s combat rules in 3 key ways:

  • Hit points became less realistic and more fun.
  • To-hit rolls switched to a twenty-sided dice, creating a new market for funny dice.
  • AC ratings flipped to make lower values better, forcing awkward, negative ACs on players.

Unrealistic hit points

Gary’s changes let characters gain hit points as they leveled. In Blackmoor, Dave wrote, “As the player progressed, he did not receive additional hit points, but rather he became harder to hit.” Dave based armor class on armor, but fighters gained better saving throws. By the Blackmoor rules, saves applied to weapon attacks, so fighters could avoid damaging blows. “Only Fighters gained advantages in these melee saving throws. Clerics and magicians progressed in their own areas, which might or might not modify their saving throws.”

In Chainmail, a hero fought as 4 ordinary soldiers and a superhero as 8. D&D translated this scheme by making heroes 4th-level fighting men and superheroes 8th level. When Gary reconciled Dave’s rules for hit dice with the notion of heroes that fought as several men, he probably decided to give characters more hit dice as they leveled. The mechanic seemed unrealistic. After all, nobody gets 10 or more times more durable through experience. But rising hit points helped power the game’s success. They boosted the positive reinforcement of leveling. Plus, heroes capable of unrealistically surviving many blows supported D&D’s combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing style. These advantages helped make the game so appealing.

Every “realistic” system to follow D&D echoed Dave Arneson’s original method of using hit points to measure a character’s body’s physical capacity to survive injury. In D&D, hit points rise as characters advance, and that turns hit points into an elegant damage-reduction mechanic. As characters level, they essentially reduce the damage they take from blows.

Using hit points for damage reduction boasts a number of virtues:

  • Combat plays fast because players do not have to calculate reduced damage for every single hit.
  • Although damage is effectively reduced, the reduction never makes a combatant impervious to damage.
  • Once characters gain enough points to survive a few blows, hit points provide a predictable way to see the course of battle. If a fight begins to go badly, the players can see their peril and bring more resources like spells and potions to the fight, or they can run. In a realistic fight, things can go bad in an instant, with a single misstep resulting in death.
  • Most attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight. Realistic combatants do not wear down from dozens of damaging blows; instead each hit is likely to kill or maim. In more realistic systems like Runequest and GURPS, when two very skilled combatants face off, they block or dodge virtually all attacks. The duels turn static until someone muffs a defense roll and lets a killing blow slip through. This model may be realistic—it reminds me of those Olympic competitions where years of training turn on a single, split-second misstep—but the realistic model lacks fun. No popular sports begin as sudden-death competitions where the first to score wins.
  • Battles can gain a dramatic arc. Fights climax with bloodied and battle-worn combatants striving to put their remaining strength into a killing blow. No one likes to see the climactic battle fizzle with a handful of bad rolls, especially at their character’s expense.

Bottom line: Using hit points for damage reduction enables a combat system where you can hit a lot, and hitting is fun.

Funny dice

When Dave adapted the Chainmail rules for his Blackmoor campaign, he kept using ordinary 6-sided dice. He later explained, we had “no funny dice back then.”

The twenty-sided die may not have reached Dave’s corner of gaming yet, but Gary had funny dice and they enchanted him. At first, polyhedral dice only came from vendors in Japan and the United Kingdom, so getting a set required significant time and money. But by 1972, polyhedral dice started arriving from domestic sources. Gary recalled buying his first set from a teacher-supply catalog. In 1972, Creative Publications of California started selling 20-sided dice in a set of polyhedrals, and word spread among gamers. By 1973, Gary wrote an article touting funny dice. “The most useful are the 20-sided dice,” he explained. The original d20s came numbered from 0 to 9 twice, so most gamers rolled twice to generate a percentage from 1-100. Gary noted that gamers could do more. “Color in one set of numbers on the die, and you can throw for 5%—perfect for rules which call for random numbers from 1-20.” As an example, he mentions being “busy working up chance tables for a fantasy campaign game.” Gary found his new d20 so irresistible that he changed Dave’s 2d6 to-hit tables into D&D’s d20-based system.

Descending Armor Classes

As Gary reworked his attack table, he discovered that switching to descending AC numbers created a mathematical elegance. Game historian Jon Peterson describes how this system appears in a draft of the D&D rules. “If you were a first-level fighter rolling to hit, the number you needed was equivalent to 20 minus the armor class of your target. To hit AC 2, you needed an 18, to hit AC 3, a 17, and so on. Armor class descended to make it easy enough to calculate your needed roll that you wouldn’t even have to consult a table.”

If D&D had settled on this system, we might now be rolling a d20 to hit, adding the foe’s AC, and trying to reach a target number based on our character.

D&D reached players with a muddled system that kept descending armor classes, but hid any reason for the scheme. So players wondered why lower armor class represented better protection. Usually, bigger is better.

What happened?

When Gary expanded D&D to account for a greater range of levels than 9, he lost the mathematical simplicity. While the draft rules just present to-hit numbers for fighters up to level 9, the published D&D rules extend the table up to level 16 and beyond. To keep a steady advancement over a greater range of levels, Gary reworked the table and broke an elegant design. This left a system where players just used armor class to reference a row in a table and where intuitive, rising numbers could have worked just as well.

The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit

In 1977, when I first read the Dungeon & Dragons basic rules, the way armor class improved as it shrunk from 9 to 2 puzzled me. Shouldn’t higher numbers be better? Players just used AC to find a row on a table, so rising ACs would have worked as well. Magic armor introduced negative ACs, making the descending numbers even more awkward. Also, many of the demons described in 1976 in the Eldrich Wizardry supplement sported negative armor class.

D&D’s designers seemed to think rising armor classes made more sense. The game rules stemmed from co-creator Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules for miniature-figure battles. Chainmail rated armor from 1 to 8, with better armor gaining higher values. Co-creator Dave Arneson based his Blackmoor fantasy campaign on Chainmail. His campaign developed into D&D. In Blackmoor, higher armor classes represented better armor.

So how did the first D&D rules set the puzzling convention of descending armor class?

The answer lies toward the end of the genesis of D&D’s combat system.

In the original D&D rule books, the combat system that everyone used appears as the Alternative Combat System. “Alternative” because players could just use the combat system from Chainmail instead. When Dave launched Blackmoor, he tried the Chainmail system. But it focused on battles between armies sprinkled with legendary heroes and monsters. For ongoing adventures in the dungeon under Castle Blackmoor, the rules needed changes. Original Blackmoor player Greg Svenson recalls that within about a month of play, the campaign created new rules for damage rolls and hit points. (More recently, Steve Winter, a D&D designer since 1st edition, tells of playing the original game with the Chainmail combat rules.)

Much of what we know about how Dave adapted the rules for his Blackmoor campaign comes from two sources: a 2004 interview and The First Fantasy Campaign, a raw publication of notes for his game. Most quotes in this post come from those sources.

Chainmail’s melee combat matrix

To resolve melee combat, Chainmail used a combat matrix. Players matched the attacking weapon or creature against the defender, rolled a pair of 6-sided dice, and consulted the table for an outcome. “That was okay for a few different kinds of units, but by the second weekend we already had 20 or 30 different monsters, and the matrix was starting to fill up the loft.”

Dave abandoned the matrix and extended Chainmail’s rules for missile attacks to melee combat. In Chainmail, ranged attackers rolled 2d6, and tried to roll higher than a target number based on increasing armor classes. Blackmoor gained melee to-hit rolls.

Chainmail’s man-to-man combat and ranged combat tables

In Chainmail, creatures lacked hit points, so a single hit killed. But with extraordinary individuals like heroes, wizards, and dragons, a saving throw allowed a last chance to survive. For example, the rules say, “Dragon fire will kill any opponent it touches, except another Dragon, Super Hero, or a Wizard, who is saved on a two dice roll of 7 or better.”

Under rules where one hit destroyed a character, Dave tried to spare player characters by granting saving throws against any hit. “Thus, although [a character] might be ‘Hit’ several times during a melee round, in actuality, he might not take any damage at all.”

But the system of saving throws still made characters too fragile to suit players. “It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn’t have,” Dave explains.

Chainmail battle on a sand table

“I adopted the rules I’d done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer.” In a Chainmail battle that featured armies spanning a sand table, hit points would have overwhelmed players with bookkeeping. But the Blackmoor players liked the rule. “They didn’t care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn’t care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn’t want the monster to kill them in one blow.”

When players rolled characters, they determined hit points. For monsters, hit points were set based “on the size of the creature physically and, again, on some regard for its mythical properties.” Dave liked to vary hit points among individual monsters. To set the strength of a type of monster while rolling for an individual’s hit points, he probably invented hit dice.

Dave said he took the armor class from Ironclads, but the concept came from Chainmail and the term came from its 1972 revisions. I suspect Dave meant that he pulled the notion of hit points and damage from a naval game that featured both armor ratings and damage points. Game historian Jon Peterson explains, “The concepts of armor thickness and withstanding points of damage existed in several naval wargames prior to Chainmail.” Still, nobody has found the precise naval rules that inspired Dave. Even his handwritten rules for ironclad battles lack properties resembling armor class. Perhaps he just considered using the concept in a naval game before bringing the notion to D&D.

In Blackmoor, Dave sometimes used hit locations. Perhaps naval combat inspired that rule. When ships battle, shells that penetrate to a boiler or powder keg disable more than a cannonball through the galley. Likewise, in man-to-man combat, a blow to the head probably kills.

Dave’s rules for hit locations only reached D&D in the Blackmoor supplement, which came a year after the game’s release. But hit locations made combat more complicated and dangerous. Realistic combat proved too deadly for the dungeon raids in D&D. So D&D players never embraced hit locations. Even Dave seemed to save the rule for special occasions. “Hit Location was generally used only for the bigger critters, and only on a man-to-man level were all the options thrown in. This allowed play to progress quickly even if the poor monsters suffered more from it.” Dave ran a fluid game, adapting the rules to suit the situation.

By the time Dave’s fantasy game established hit points, 2d6 to-hit rolls, and damage rolls, he showed the game to Gary Gygax.

Next: Gary Gygax improves hit points by making them more unrealistic, and then adds funny dice

Event-driven D&D Adventures Aren’t About Events; They’re About Villains

The plot of every vintage James Bond movie resembles a role-playing scenario based on an investigation and events. A hook like the theft of an atomic bomb sets Bond into motion. In an investigation, he chases leads from one situation to the next. The events come when the villains’ agents attempt murder, usually while Bond pilots a gimmicky vehicle or skis downhill.

Lloth and Drow at Gencon

Event-driven adventures aren’t really about events; they’re about villains. Unlike dungeons or the classic situations, I described in an earlier post, event-driven adventures stem from dynamic villains working to achieve some goal that the players feel compelled to foil. “Villain adventures are, by their nature, more dynamic,” the Angry GM writes. “The players aren’t pursuing a goal so the game master isn’t completely reliant on the players to drive all the action in an otherwise static adventure setup. Instead, the villain can take actions and the adventure is constantly changing.”

To prepare and event-driven adventure, plan villains instead of events.

Villains require three elements:

  • a goal
  • a plan to reach their evil ends
  • assets that can help bring their goal

Every villain must have a goal. For bad guys, the usual aims include power, vengeance, and, in Dungeons & Dragons, to harvest souls for ultimate power. Any of these goals make the foundation of a sound villain, but more evocative goals can make more compelling foes. Strahd Von Zarovich aims for power and vengeance, but he also wants to win a woman who would rather die than return his love. She does, more than once. Such depth helps make Strahd a classic.

Every villain needs a plan to gain their desires. In D&D, they make plans to conquer kingdoms, bring worshipers to dark gods, and so on. Those plans shape adventures.

In a typical D&D game, most players will act to oppose signs of evil, especially if thwarting evil would also bring treasure. The game builds on such calls to action. But plots that affect the characters directly make more compelling conflicts. Look to the player characters’ bonds for inspiration. If a wizard in your game seeks arcane knowledge above all else, then a plot that threatens to burn an ancient library would provoke the character.

When some DMs develop evil plans, they imagine a timeline of how the plan advances if the players fail to intervene. Such plots can continue all the way to the moment when Dendar the Night Serpent devours the world. But the game depends on the players meddling, so steps 13 and up rarely show at the table.

A better plan starts loose and develops through play. At first, the players may only see signs of evil.

An offstage villain can develop into a compelling foe. “One of the key components to creating tension is the slow burn,” Courtney Kraft of Geek and Sundry writes. “Don’t show your villain fully right from the start. Perhaps there are mysterious things happening around your heroes. The mystery is fun, so take your time. Give your players small tastes of what’s to come. Leave them warnings. Send minions. Maybe even let them experience a fraction of the villain’s power.”

As a tool for introducing villains to a campaign, I like the concept of fronts. The idea comes from the games Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Dungeon World by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra, but the concept’s best lessons apply to games like D&D.

Fronts abstract villains. “Each is a collection of linked dangers—threats to the characters specifically and to the people, places, and things the characters care about. It also includes one or more impending dooms, the horrible things that will happen without the characters’ intervention.”

Game masters planning fronts imagine grim portents that expose a villain’s progress toward a sinister goal. You reveal these portents to raise tension, or when players need a call to action. I liken fronts to weather fronts, because with both, you spot a coming storm in a distance. The early portents start a slow burn without necessarily calling players to action.

The game rules describe another sense of the term. “‘Fronts’ comes, of course, from ‘fighting on two fronts’ which is just where you want the characters to be—surrounded by threats, danger and adventure.”

In a campaign with multiple potential villains, grim portents help introduce the group. Such warnings suggest villains without much preparation. See what captures the players’ interest, and then develop the foes behind the portents. The players’ response to multiple portents can help shape a campaign’s direction.

Too many fronts advancing too quickly can make players feel overwhelmed and under-powered. Much of the fun of D&D comes from a sense of potency, so second fronts work best on a slow burn. They suggest an active world full of peril and opportunity.

The players’ actions to thwart the villain will eventually force a reaction. Perhaps the enemy slays someone the heroes recruited as an ally or captures some magic artifact the heroes need. Suddenly, the adventure comes alive as the players face a dynamic foe.

Villains need assets that help advance their plans. Most D&D villains start with monsters ready to fight. These assets range from faceless mooks to lieutenants colorful enough to overshadow their boss. Think Odd Job or Darth Vader. In more nuanced scenarios, the villain may bring allies with their own goals. Such friends of convenience can bring depth to an adventure by making adversaries that the heroes can turn to their side, or at least against the villain.

To build an event-driven campaign, dungeon masters need to imagine a villain’s assets, plan, and goal. But you don’t need a final, personified villain. That creation can wait. Waiting to develop a lead villain can even bring some advantages.

When DMs invest time in villains, they start to dream of recurring enemies who appear though the course of a campaign and escape alive.

In D&D, villains don’t recur like they might in a book or movie. The game strips away plot armor. As soon as recurring villains appear onstage, the players will attempt murder. Sometimes DMs can engineer an escape without railroading, but usually villains just survive a round or two.

In D&D, recurring villains work behind the scenes. Players learn of their hand through their reputation, their servants, and the accounts of would-be heroes who fled for their lives. The characters may thwart a plan, but the recurring villain’s goal remains to inspire another, more diabolical ploy. Each scheme needs to escalate the stakes. At level 1, a villain’s first plot might act to corrupt the kindly, village cleric. At 3rd level, the entire village becomes the target. In a campaign, some of the plans may succeed, raising the conflict further.

In an episodic campaign, keeping the lead villain undefined can help set a recurring villain who resonates with the player and even develops a record of beating the heroes.

Whenever players confront a bad guy, think about making the scene an audition for the role of ultimate villain. In most episodes, some agent of villainy will work a plan, fail, attempt escape, and perish. But sometimes, the players suffer a setback, and the villain escapes or even succeeds and complicates the characters’ lives. Consider promoting that enemy to the big bad. Justin Alexander advises, “The real key here is to simply refrain from pre-investing one of these guys as the ‘big villain.’ Basically, don’t get attached to any of your antagonists: Assume that the first time they’re in a position where the PCs might kill them that the PCs will definitely kill them.” If someone survives or prevails, you have a villain the players can hate. That enemy may need more power for a lead role, but the game is D&D. Just back a winner with a dark pact, evil artifact, or battle-ready servants.

By preparing active villains with goals, plans, and assets, you can prepare adventures that follow an arc that resembles a pre-planned plot. But you prepare without assuming what the players will do or how the game will advance.