Monthly Archives: July 2020

3 Actions D&D Players Want That Defy the Game’s Design Choices

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons players ask to do things that the rules don’t handle—and not just because no roleplaying game’s rules can cover everything. The game omits the added rules because they would run against D&D’s design approach. Often, past editions of the game even included these extra rules, but fifth edition’s more consistent design forced them out.

This post isn’t about the rules fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons could have included, but which the design skips for brevity. The D&D designers intentionally avoid providing rules for everything. “We want a system that trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation,” writes designer Rodney Thompson.

What actions aren’t covered by the D&D rules because they defy the game’s design choices?

1. Readying an action outside of combat.

In the early days of D&D, players liked saying, “I ready my sword” or “I nock an arrow.” Back then, initiative ran by house rules and DM whim, so this sort of declaration might win an edge. In an example of playing D&D that Gary Gygax wrote for the Europa zine in 1976, the DM grants the party +1 to a d6 initiative roll for being prepared. Only Unearthed Arcana (1985) actually put a benefit for readiness into print. “A bow specialist who begins the round with arrow nocked, shaft drawn, and target in sight is entitled to loose that arrow prior to any initiative check.” (See For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots.)

Despite the lack of rules benefits, such declarations might prevent an adversarial dungeon master from deciding that because you never said that your sword was drawn, a fight caught you unprepared. In those days, many gamers saw thwarting and punishing players as part of the DM’s role. That attitude has fallen from favor. Nowadays, even though you never mention that your character started the day by putting on pants, we still assume pants.

The old spirit of readiness continues today. In a Sage Advice segment, D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford says, “People often want to ready actions before combat has even started.”

Why “readying” does nothing. Jeremy says, “The ready action is an action you take in combat, so there’s really no such thing as readying before combat has started.”

What a DM should say. Maybe nothing. “I rarely correct them,” Jeremy says. He interprets the ready request as the player signaling their intent to stay alert. “Usually what that means is they won’t be surprised at my table. So even though I won’t have the mechanics of the ready action play out, I will still reward them for thinking in advance and signaling intent.”

To more rules-oriented players say, “In D&D, everyone who isn’t surprised starts a fight ready. Initiative lets us decide who among the ready combatants goes first.” (Surprised combatants also have a place in initiative, but they take no actions while surprised.) For more on what to tell players about initiative, see What to do when a player interrupts a role-playing scene to start a battle.

2. Called shots.

Sometime in every player’s D&D career, they get the idea of skipping the process of hacking through all a creature’s hit points by simply chopping off their weapon hand or blinding them with a blow to the eyes. Earlier editions of D&D termed attacks that aimed for a specific body part “called shots” and the game once included rules for such strikes. No more.

Why the rules don’t include called shots. The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook explains, “Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.” That’s a lot of possibilities. The game rules rely on this vagueness to allow characters to regain all their hit points after a short rest rather than a long hospital stay.

The moment characters start attempting to gouge their foes’ eyes out and villains return the favor, the game loses the useful abstraction of hit points. Also, if aiming for a particular body part proved more effective, why would anyone bother with regular attacks? The second-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed called shots, but explained, “Because the AD&D game uses a generalized system for damage, called shots cannot be used to accomplish certain things. Against a creature, a called shot will only cause the normal amount of damage allowed the weapon. Attempts to blind, cripple, or maim will not succeed.”

What a DM should say. “Your characters are experts at combat. With each attack, they use their skills to find the best opportunity to land a blow that deals the most damage and that offers the best chance of taking your foe out of the fight.”

3. Delaying an action.

In third and fourth edition, players could delay their actions to later in the initiative count. This helped players coordinate actions with other players using an advanced strategy called you set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em down. Players who remember the flexibility of delaying still ask for it.

Why the rules don’t include delaying. The fifth-edition designers chose to eliminate delaying to simplify the rules and speed play.

Many spell durations and combat effects last until the beginnings and endings of turns. An option to delay complicates the rules for such effects and the bookkeeping needed to track them. “Simply by changing when your turn happens, you could change the length of certain spells,” explains the Sage Advice Compendium. “The way to guard against such abuse would be to create a set of additional rules that would limit your ability to change durations. The net effect? More complexity would be added to the game, and with more complexity, there is greater potential for slower play.”

An option to delay encourages players to analyze and discuss the optimal order for their turns during every round. “Multiply that extra analysis by the number of characters and monsters in a combat, and you have the potential for many slow-downs in play.”

What a DM should say. “Everyone in a fight acts at once. We just have turns to make some sense of that activity. If you delay, you do nothing while everyone else acts. At best, you can start an action and attempt to time it so that it finishes right after something else happens. That’s called readying an action.”

Making a Tier 4 D&D Encounter for Characters Who Play Like Superheroes

Dungeons & Dragons tier 4 spans levels 17 through 20, where wizards can cast wish. When I read class abilities in that range, I think, Well, that’s overpowered. And then I think, They can cast wish. If the party plays like the Justice League, then the design hit the right note. (See The Obvious Innovation in Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons That No Designer Saw Before and The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players.)

I’ve played dungeon crawls at levels 17+ and felt surprised by how much the delve felt like ordinary D&D. I’ve also played T4 encounters where everyone flew dragons to battle in the stratosphere and T4 encounters where the party faced off against the mad mage Halaster mounted on a flying tarrasque. Want to guess whether those open encounters proved more memorable than the dungeon crawl? (Hint: Yes.)

So the tier 4 adventure design open call from D&D Adventurers League got me thinking. How would I answer such a call?

Part of the challenge—and fun—comes from the call’s limits. These restraints include a limit to 500 words or fewer with no maps. No doubt these limits aim for two goals: (a) to spare the time of whoever evaluates the submissions and (b) to test writers’ ability to follow directions. The rules also limit submissions to 1 page, but 500 words take less than a page. For example, the 1-page encounter in the sample document takes 662 words.

When I think T4 adventures, I think of events that cap a multi-year campaign with a final showdown with Orcus, Tiamat, or a similar arch-foe. But Adventures League sessions start and end within 4 hours, which leaves little build up for, “Orcus attacks!” This led me to imagine situations where an epic party might be drawn into a conflict that fits a convention slot. My encounter hints at that conflict. Also, I opted for a starting encounter to avoid something as potentially bewildering as tuning into the last 15 minutes of a movie. I agree with Sly Flourish on the importance of starting strong.

In the City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977), a loan shark could summon Orcus to deal with folks who miss payments, so a sudden attack by the demon lord has a early precedent. See Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.

For tier 4, I prefer to leave the prime material plane. Adventures set in a place like the Abyss feel like a better match for legendary heroes. Besides, the outer planes bring the most suitable foes for the tier. But the rules limit encounters to the Forgotten Realms. Rather than quibbling that the Realms setting includes the Abyss, I thought back to a Lore You Should Know segment on a Dragon Talk podcast episode that fired my imagination. Adam Lee describes the fallen cities of ancient Netheril and the mythallar’s that tapped enough magic of the weave to levitate cities. What if some evil sought a mythallar to power some scheme? Unlike a plain McGuffin, I could use that raw magic to justify some big special effects. Tier 4 merits heavy use of the imagination’s unlimited special effects budget.

Remember all those mighty abilities that make tier 4 characters play like superheroes? These characters commonly fly, run on walls, teleport, and so on. If you drop such a party in a room where two sides trade damage, nobody gets to flaunt their amazing powers. You want battles atop boulders buoyed on rising lava in an erupting volcano. (Maybe next time.) With lesser characters, such a battlefield might risk incinerating heroes, but the tier 4 heroes can cope with every peril you imagine, and then leave you wondering how to dial the difficulty above easy. I aimed for medium difficulty, but I suspect I barely landed easy. Blame it on just 500 words of threats.

For my fantastic location, I opted for a magic gate tunneling from a ruined city to the Abyss. I hoped for a site that forced characters to use their abilities while still being run theater of the mind—although an abstract map would offer greater clarity. Just draw a big tube with 2 circles and 2 lines and tick off 15-foot increments like a measuring cup. Cross it with 2 lines for the fallen towers. Ambitious DMs could unroll the tube onto a flat battlemap. Very ambitious DMs could model it in 3 dimensions.

Selecting monsters at this tier poses a challenge because so few stand a chance in the big leagues. Fewer still work in groups and even the mightiest solo monsters struggle against groups of adventurers. For example, when I ran a solo tarrasque against a level-20 party, I needed to give D&D’s mightiest monster maximum hit points to hold up. For my encounter location, my foes needed to fly.

I settled on yugoloths. They fly and the type boasts a number of other advantages: I can team spell slingers and martial types to match with the varied powers of the party. Plus, their nature as mercenaries make them an easy fit for an adventure. Monsters who challenge characters in multiple ways give players more chances to exercise their characters’ abilities. The nycoloths bring innate spellcasting and that makes me concerned that so many abilities could mire a DM in too many choices and layer too much magic on the battlefield. At this level, even “shock troops” feature suites of abilities.

My encounter’s last ingredient comes from an anthropomorphic fox bent on using the party for revenge. I added Rusty for two reasons:

  • His presence lures characters into the pit when good sense might keep them outside.
  • He adds more opportunities for interaction to the encounter.

For a look at my encounter, see the draft PDF and an updated version based on feedback.

Related: Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: To Steal a Primordial
Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: The Giant Ship

5 Reasons Most D&D Players Stopped Exploring Megadungeons

Dungeons & Dragons creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built their campaigns around huge dungeons that grew and changed. Megadungeons span enough rooms and levels to become the focus of an entire campaign without ever being fully explored. These megadungeons enabled Dave and Gary to run campaigns for dozens of players. On any day, they could host games for whoever happened to show up for a session. (See When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons.)

Even though the megadungeons under Greyhawk and Blackmoor became the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons, such dungeons rarely see play anymore. Why not?

1. Players never saw any examples. Originally, Gary thought that players would never pay for published dungeons. After all, players could easily make up their own. Despite this belief, TSR distributed the first published dungeon, Palace of the Vampire Queen. Strong sales proved Gary wrong, and so he set to publish his own dungeons. (See 9 facts about D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen.)

But Gary’s megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle seemed impossible to capture in writing. As adventurers explored and plundered, the dungeon changed constantly. New monsters wandered in to take empty rooms. Whenever the players’ attention turned, the layouts of old levels subtly changed. Entire new levels appeared. Most of the content lay in one-line descriptions, or worse, locked in the heads of Gary Gygax and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz. Decades later, Gary wrote, “If we handed over the binders containing the maps and the notes, I don’t think even the ablest of DMs would feel empowered to direct adventures using the materials.”

So rather than attempting to capture Greyhawk Castle, Gary opted to publish adventures that he had created for D&D tournaments at conventions. For instance, the official D&D tournament at Origins ’78 ran the G1-3 adventures. The choice to publish such adventures changed the development of the game. D&D players everywhere saw Gary’s published adventures as a model. Instead of patterning their games after a megadungeon like the one Gary played at home, players imitated adventures created for a few hours of competition.

In 1990, TSR finally published WGR1 Greyhawk Ruins, its first megadungeon in print. “There are more than two dozen levels of horror and treasures. Run into brutal foes and gain uncountable wealth-nearly 1,000 separate room descriptions in all!” Gary had left TSR five years earlier, so fans hoping to explore his actual creation felt disappointed. James M. Ward and other veterans of the Grayhawk campaign still at TSR gave insights, but the dungeon even lacked the Great Stone Face Enigma of Grayhawk that Gary himself drew for the first D&D supplement.

The Ruins of Undermountain followed 7 months later. Undermountain appeared in a box with maps and with booklets that sketched out encounter areas. This outline mirrored the terse descriptions and evolving notes that Gary Gygax used for Greyhawk Castle, but the sketch failed to satisfy DMs accustomed to publications ready for play.

Perhaps locking a megadungeon in a book kills it. Printed pages cannot capture the dynamic essence of those original levels.

2. The ecology and rational of megadungeons seemed ridiculous. From they start, players struggled with the logic of megadungeons. Where did all those monsters get their food or leave their waste? Where did the creatures and treasure come from? Every dungeon master invented an insane wizard as an architect for their game’s underground sprawl until the notion became trite.

In the little, brown books, Gary suggested dungeons with layouts that always changed and grew to “maintain freshness,” but that made the megadungeon even more implausible.

Then Gary published adventures that featured a logic sometimes called Gygaxian naturalism. Monsters had lives of their own that involved feasting, scheming, sleeping, and everything but waiting for heroes to come kill them. Rather than wandering monsters living in defiance of reason, we saw giants and drow in their steadings and vaults. For many players, the giant- and drow-series adventures set an example that killed the megadungeon.

Soon, any DM peddling a megadungeon had some explaining to do. For instance, The Ruins of Undermountain kept to the insane wizard trope, then added magic that continuously gated in fresh monsters from across the Realms, and deep entrances that allowed creatures from the Underdark to well up.

3. Play styles expanded. Sometime in the middle of the 70s, for the first time ever, a party of adventurers visiting the inn met a hooded stranger with a job that needed doing. D&D expanded beyond a series of dungeon expeditions aimed at claiming treasure. Players began to favor games that mixed action with story. Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage rates as my favorite megadungeon in print, but when I ran it, the group longed for a story and for motivations beyond a hunger for treasure.

4. Megadungons can feel monotonous. Even the biggest megadungeon only shows a tiny corner of the giant canvas that D&D worlds can offer. In a campaign limited to a single dungeon, kicking in endless doors to fight and loot can start fresh and thrilling but often becomes a tiresome slog. Even those of us who like dungeon crawls want to see some daylight and a plot.

5. Computers do megadungeons better. In 1979, computer games like Akalabeth and Temple of Apshai took gamers into megadungeons and started an electronic-gaming genre. Dungeon crawls limit players’ options, so they offer an easy premise for a computer game. (See How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games.) With a computer DM, players can explore anytime. Digital dungeons offer faster play and better graphics. For players who just want to visit a sprawling underworld to kill monsters and take their stuff, electronic games probably offer a better experience.

Can a megadungeon work today?

A clever design can avoid the problems that pushed megadungeons out of play.

A story-centered game can take PCs into a megadungeon to accomplish more than looting. For instance, when Monte Cook created his superdungeon The Banewarrens, he paired it with overarching plot. Players don’t raid the Banewarrens just to loot. Instead, the story leads to objectives that require missions into the place.

Many megadungeons avoid monotony by introducing levels or zones centered on unique themes such as crypts, flooded sections, or fungus gardens. Even the levels under Castle Greyhawk followed themes that grew more exotic at deeper levels.

A megadungeon design can add intrigue and roleplaying by borrowing a page from The Keep on the Borderlands and adding factions of monsters. Players can join a side or play one against another. Factions under attack will bring reinforcements, creating more interesting battles, and giving players a reason for caution. The stories “Red Nails” by Robert E. Howard and “The Lords of Quarmall” by Fritz Leiber helped inspire the concept of dungeon exploring. Both yarns centered on feuds and intrigue.

A megadungeon (and a live DM) can create player agency and tests of ingenuity that no computer can match.

Although good design can yield a megadungeon that proves fun to play, ordinary dungeons can bring the same advantages. Today’s gamers tend to create megadungeons to foster nostalgia or to enable episodic play.

The 3 Most Annoying High-Level Spells in D&D

When I named the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, my list topped at 4th-level with the banishment spell. That list came from D&D players and dungeon masters who named the spells they find the least fun in play. Some players nominated higher-level spells, but at the time my lack of high-level play left me unsure of those picks. Four years later, 3 powerful spells that stood accused have proven annoying.

The original list revealed that fifth-edition versions of the 4 spells all added changes that turned them from forgettable to powerful—and aggravating. The 3 spells on this new list all started powerful, even among 6th- and 7th-level peers. Two of the spells’ 1st-edition descriptions start, “This powerful spell…”

If anything, these spells falter because the designers worked too hard to avoid disappointment. No player likes to cast one of their most potent spells, only to see it amount to little. Here, the designers worked so hard to avoid such bummers that they steer right into aggravation.

Animate Objects

Animate Objects proves annoying for two reasons.

First comes sadness. In the popular imagination, magic causes brooms, tables, chairs or, best of all, statues to spring to life. That scene resonates so strongly that it appears in countless stories. Sadly, animate objects never leads to that scene. Instead, casters just use the spells to make 10 pebbles fly up and pepper a victim. Why such a dull choice? The spell description makes 10 flying coins into a far more dangerous onslaught than say, animating a wagon, Transformer like, into a huge attacker. That’s just sad. Plus, animated objects that lack legs or other appendages gain flying, a clear advantage.

The decision to make objects fly comes from a good place. The designers never want a player who prepared animate objects to be disappointed by a lack of suitable objects, so they made the most suitable target a handful of coins.

In effect, animate object rates as a more efficient telekinesis spell that robs the game of the attacking tables, statues, and fruit carts that we all want.

Those flying coins lead to the second annoyance: 10 more attack rolls every damn round. If the wizard player insists on rolling each attack and its damage separately, then the game becomes insufferable. A better spell would create an incentive to animate fewer objects.

Animate object entered D&D as a 6th-level cleric spell in the 1976 Greyhawk supplement by Gary Gygax. From Mickey Mouse, we all recognized animate objects as a wizard spell learned from a book. The 5th-edition designers spotted Gary’s error and moved the spell to its proper place. But why did Gary originally give the spell to clerics? Greyhawk introduced 6th-level cleric spells to D&D. Perhaps Gary struggled to find enough spells with a religious flavor to fill the new levels. Gary probably hoped to evoke stories of faith bringing life, turning sticks to snakes or vitalizing clay into a golem.

Clerics get few offensive spells, so animate object should have proven popular, but that early version suffered from a lack of stats for animated objects. The spell description mentions a few things DMs might consider when they improvise hit dice, armor class, movement, and damage for a sofa, but that still dropped a big burden on DMs in the middle of running a fight. Meanwhile, players hesitated to prepare a spell that only hinted at an outcome. The spell only grew popular when the third-edition Monster Manual set monster statistics for the animated objects.


I dislike spells that turn battles into murder scenes where characters beat down helpless foes. Nothing could feel less heroic. Forcecage doesn’t leave every foe helpless and vulnerable, but still, no spell generates those dreary executions as reliably. The spell’s victims don’t even get a save. In past versions of forcecage, the rare creature capable of teleporting could escape. Now, as a way to avoid disappointing players seeking their murder scene, such an escape requires a saving throw.

Whenever I gripe that some overpowered spell or feat hurts the game, some folks inevitability tell me to level the imbalance by having foes bring the same attack against the players. A little of that goes a long way, especially in a case like forcecage. As Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea notes, trapping a character in forcecage throughout a long battle might cause a player to rage-quit the game. Besides, serving players a regular diet of wizards casting forcecage seems a touch adversarial.

The original version of forcecage dates to the 1985 Unearthed Arcana book credited to Gary Gygax. That book includes some classic material among lesser entries that betray the book’s inspiration—an urgent need for cash flow. Earlier versions of forcecage consumed 1,500 gp worth of ruby dust. Ideally, the ruby dust made forcecage feel like a trap set for a powerful foe at great expense. The latest version works without the recurring expense.

Heroes’ Feast

Years ago, I ran a tier-3 Adventurers League epic adventure centered on a green dragon and its poison-themed allies. Like any group with a level 11 or better cleric, the party started with heroes’ feast, which grants immunity to fear and poison. No doubt through hour 1, the players relished laughing off all their foes’ attacks. By hour 4, the slaughter of toothless foes must have felt a bit empty.

Perhaps D&D’s designers imagined that the cost of components limited heroes’ feast. The spell consumes a 1,000 gp bowl. But by the time characters who earn fifth edition’s expected treasure rewards can cast 6th-level spells, they can effortlessly spare 1,000 gp for every adventuring day. So every day, the whole party enjoys immunity to poison and fear.

Mike Shea writes, “Many high challenge creatures are built around the damage they inflict with poison and the status effects they impose with both poison and fear. With every character in a party immune to these effects, certain monsters become much easier. This might be fine, but many of these monsters are intended to be truly powerful threats.” While I’m content to gripe, Mike’s post offers advice for handling the spell. Perhaps the best remedy comes from the Adventurers League, which now limits gold rewards enough to make 1,000 gp a serious cost.

Heroes’ feast works the same as when it first appeared in Unearthed Arcana, so don’t blame the spell’s problems on recent changes. Over 35 years, the spell has proven too good. Perhaps it invited a bit of tinkering, even if that risked disappointing fans of a good breakfast.

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