Monthly Archives: October 2020

How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes

Scaring Dungeons & Dragons players proves hard. Unlike the ordinary folks played as characters in a frightful game of Call of Cthulhu, characters in D&D boast heroic powers that allow them to defeat the most fearsome threats, at least eventually.

Most campaigns begin with the assumption that the dungeon master won’t give the characters more than they can handle. Fifth edition’s first hardcover adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, starts when 1st-level adventurers reach a town under attack by an adult blue dragon—an insurmountable threat. Instead of sensibly assuming that entering the town would lead to electrocution, and then choosing to flee in terror, the new party must go charging in for the adventure to begin. When characters always meet threats their characters can overcome, players never see reason to fear.

However, if players understand that their choices led them into trouble, then they can reach a rare moment of panic.

Blogger Ben Robbins writes “The players will embrace the idea of being afraid and impressed by a threat when they brought it upon themselves. If the threat comes at them because of nothing the players did, the players rightly feel like the situation is a little unfair and are not as willing to buy into it.”

If the party hears whispers from the darkness and chases blindly toward the noise, then they deserve the panicked moment when monsters close from every direction.

Shoggoth by Nottsuo – nottsuo.deviantart – –, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In a seminar, Call of Cthulhu designer Sandy Petersen builds on this idea with his Creepy Stuff Rule. “What you don’t want to do is say, ‘You open the door an there’s a shoggoth,’ and then the players all get killed.” Instead, give players three chances to survive the monster.

  1. A hint. In the case of the shoggoth, that might be a trail of ooze and a reptile-house smell outside the sewer entrance. “Then the players might say, ‘We’re not afraid. We’re going in.”
  2. Solid evidence of danger. “You find the sewer worker’s body. His head has been sucked off and it’s covered in slime.” Now the player’s see an obvious sign of danger. “Anything that sucks a guy’s head off has got to be a problem.” Here the players can still turn back.
  3. The Monster. “Emerging from the nexus of sewers is a giant, protoplasmic blob covered with eyes and organs constantly spawning.” The players may still have time to say, “Nope,” and then slam the door, although with a shoggoth probably not.

“At this point, any player who is killed can’t blame you. You gave them three warnings. Always have the players blame themselves when they get killed. Even in Call of Cthulhu, the players should feel like it’s their own fault.”

Justin Alexander writes, “If the players externalize that blame to the GM, it becomes external not only from themselves but also from the game world. This robs the events of meaning, and without meaning there can be no horror.”

Petersen recognizes that players may feel compelled to chase obvious danger to finish the adventure. In his game, players embrace that expectation. “If they weren’t willing to get their heads sucked off, why would they play Call of Cthulhu?”

However, few D&D campaigns expect characters to survive deadly treats to finish an adventure, so to earn a scare, D&D players must choose danger over other leads that could also bring success.

A typically reckless and impulsive D&D party may see extra risk as an invitation—at least until that oh-shit moment. Look for opportunities when the players’ choices might lead to extraordinary danger, and then fuel their fears. If you know your players, you may even know ways to tempt them into bad choices.

Rather than actually slaughtering the party, you probably favor suggesting a lethal threat without actually delivering. That means keeping the true size of the threat unknown and unseen. In the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, Jennell Jaquays writes, “Rely on the perceptions of the characters. Describe what seems to be seen, what may have been heard, or a faint odor in the air. Let the players draw their own conclusions. When the players don’t know what their characters are up against, they begin to feel the creeping chill of fear.

“Keep the players guessing, keep them on edge, even make them afraid—they’ll love you for it.”

Related: The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.

Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From RPG Legend Sandy Petersen Made Me Stop Talking to Myself

Dungeon Masters: Just a Little Attention to Darkness Pays Off

My favorite sightseeing stops include caves and inactive mines. Cave tours inevitably include tales of the cave’s original explorers. I imagine myself in their place, delving by a feeble glow from a lantern, discovering underground landscapes and traces of people and creatures long gone, and I relish the feelings of wonder and mystery. My love of dungeons seems inevitable. In sprawling undergrounds, even modern lights don’t reach far before darkness engulfs their glow. I gaze into midnight shafts and feel a shiver much like leaning over a rail on the 95th floor. These tours always pause to extinguish all the lights and give a taste of complete darkness, but not before making sure no one feels close to panic. Like heights, spiders, and snakes, darkness triggers a primal fear that we share.

As played by most groups, the Dungeons & Dragons rules for light work like this: When the party starts their descent into darkness, the dungeon master asks what they have for light. Perhaps everyone has darkvision and that’s that. More likely, the group includes a human, so someone fires a torch or casts light and then no one pays attention to the subject until the next dungeon.

Through most of my experience as a DM, I played that way. The same goes for the multitude of DMs I’ve played with. After all, the rules as written make careful attention to light seem like a chore. How can anyone be expected to keep track of who carries a light and how that glow interacts with the senses and positions of various characters? You need a computer for that. My scrapheap of article-ideas-never-written includes a post describing light as a thing everyone ignores because it never adds fun. Everyone would have ignored that post too.

Surely tense dungeon-survival sessions can bring fun. In those campaigns, parties struggle to escape the dungeon with their loot before their supplies of torches and oil run out. But most D&D players favor heroism over such grit. Besides, D&D gives so many characters darkvision that calling out the stumbling humans and halflings seems pointless.

I’ve changed. When I run dungeons now, I pay some attention to light without getting mired in detail. The benefits of a little consideration surprised me.

As a party explores a dark space, I pay attention to just one thing: about how far they can see past their front row. For most groups, that’s 60-feet from the character with darkvision closest to the lead. And then when I describe, I mention what they can’t see because of the cover of darkness. When possible, I describe any sounds that come from that shrouded space. Imagine the scratches, the whispered malevolent voices, the creak of doors, the drip of water. Sometimes perceptive characters see glowing eyes that suddenly wink out in the depths. If the party recklessly chases ahead into the unseen, they deserve the panicked moment when monsters close from every direction. When I draw maps as players explore, my lines for the walls end where the darkness starts.

That small regard pays off with a sense of tension, atmosphere, and mystery.

In cramped dungeon rooms, light hardly matters, but in long corridors, underground cathedrals, vaulting caverns darkness easily swallows the feeble glow of a lantern. Darkvision only makes 60 feet seem like dim light. Beyond that who knows what spies the party’s glow and clamor?

Paladins, Barbarians, and Other Classes Once Balanced by Rules of Behavior

Early in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, the game’s creators made classes that rewarded strict rules of behavior with extra power. For instance, a player taking the challenge of playing a chivalrous cavalier always fought fairly, but also gained a bonus to attack with sword and lance.

Arguably, cleric stands as the first class limited by rules of behavior. Some holy men in history attempted to straddle the gulf between peaceful servant of god and spilling the blood of enemies by opting to bash their foes’ skulls while claiming not to spill blood. Based on that lore, original D&D required clerics to choose not to wield edged weapons or arrows. Back then, all weapons dealt 1d6 damage, so this limit only counted as a disadvantage because the treasure tables made magic swords 20 times more common than non-edged weapons.

Former Wizards of the Coast head Peter Adkison shepherded D&D’s third edition design. He wanted to purge “restrictions that did a good job of reinforcing play balance but still didn’t make sense.” Why would a cleric devoted to Apollo the Archer refuse a bow? For third edition, D&D’s designers replaced the rule that prevented clerics from using swords with a proficiency system that made swords a poor option. Modern D&D follows the same pattern, but it still includes a class that requires characters who choose to limit themselves. More on that at the end.

With D&D’s first Greyhawk supplement, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax started adding classes that clearly balanced extra power with limitations that required certain behavior. Paladins started as a version of fighter who always acted lawfully. (D&D lacked good and evil alignments then.) “Any chaotic act will immediately revoke the status of paladin, and it can never be regained.” The paladin’s generosity required the class to give away inessential magic items and other loot. “Gifts must be to the poor or to charitable or religious institutions, i.e. not to some other character played in the game.”

The first editor of The Dragon, Tim Kask, wrote, “It was so rigid a PC class; that smacks of Gary’s fiendish wit. Make a character truly extraordinary and make it really tough to play in terms of always having to do the ‘right’ thing, ALWAYS.”

By the Unearthed Arcana book for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, many classes offset power with a roleplaying catch. “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items.”

Gygax knew this created a recipe for party conflict and embraced it. “When I played a barbarian, I would indeed attempt to get at newly discovered magic items and rid the world of their bane, and if some mage was foolish enough to flaunt such an object before the character, and he could lay hands on it, then…” When a monster turned Gygax’s barbarian to stone, it ended the character’s career. “No cleric or mage in the group was much interested in having the poor chap returned to life.”

In most games, players saw such restrictions as problems to solve with ingenuity. Part of the paladin’s reputation for lawful stupid comes from all the do-gooders conned into leaving the room when the thief wanted to question or kill prisoners. And how many barbarian players opted for characters just stupid enough to fail to realize that their +2 sword and cloak of protection happened to be magical? Sample dialog: “Tan-kor, you should wear this cloak we found because it, um, matches your eyes.”

Second edition introduced class kits that made characters more distinctive and powerful, often in exchange for behavior restrictions. For instance, the bladesinger from the Complete Book of Elves ranked as one of the most powerful kits. The catch: Having to protect elves whenever the opportunity comes. Players got a boost for simply committing to bite on a certain sort of adventure hook. A more onerous code weighed cavaliers, who always had to fight fairly and chivalrously. So if a cavalier’s foe slips off a cliff and hangs by the edge, the cavalier must help the foe up before resuming the fight.

Such restrictions only worked in campaigns where every player valued roleplaying. In a mix of actors and power gamers, behavior limits cause friction—even when the code doesn’t require destroying magic items. Players who value immersing into character grow annoyed by the players who just look for loopholes in codes of conduct. Dungeon masters dislike the role of mandating or penalizing behavior that ignores the hindrances built into a character kit.

By third edition, the D&D team mostly dropped roleplaying limits from the class-design toolbox.

Still, one code of conduct remains in the modern druid class. The fifth edition Sage Advice Compendium explains, “Druids don’t lack the ability to wear metal armor. They choose not to wear it. This choice is part of their identity as a mystical order. Think of it in these terms: a vegetarian can eat meat, but chooses not to.” This restriction brings enough teeth for class balance while proving clear enough to defy most players seeking loopholes.

Related: 4 Ways D&D’s Creators Tried and Failed to Balance Classes

4 Ways D&D’s Creators Tried and Failed to Balance Classes

The classes in today’s Dungeons & Dragons game are balanced to make sure that when players leave a session, everyone feels like their character contributed to the party’s success. No player should ever see their character routinely upstaged and wonder, “Why am I even here?” In a list of goals for fifth edition, designer Mike Mearls wrote, “All of the classes should feel competent when compared to each other at all levels.”

The game’s designers didn’t always aim for this target, and when they did the methods often failed. What methods of class balance have the game’s designers abandoned?

1. Ineffective in one pillar, strong in another

The D&D game focuses on three pillars of play: exploration, roleplaying interaction, and combat.

In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. The original thieves lacked any combat assets—not even backstabbing—but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusable abilities. They shined in the exploration pillar, and floundered in combat.

In an interview for Drache issue 3, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax explained, “D&D’s team aspect is important. In a D&D game, each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

Some of that spirit remains, Mearls writes, “We’re OK with classes being better at specific things. Rogues are good at checks and handling traps. Fighters have the best AC and hit points. Clerics are the best healers and support casters. Wizards are the best at area attacks and control effects.”

But the game no longer allows classes that prove ineffective in a pillar. “If each class has wildly different combat abilities and the game doesn’t account for that, the system falls apart,” Mearls wrote. Over the years, the thief class added a backstab feature, which became sneak attack and a suite of combat abilities.

See The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination.

2. Weak at low levels, mighty at high levels

In D&D’s early days, Gygax saw characters who survived to high level as proof of a player’s skills. By this notion, players able to raise a weak character to the top deserved rewards. Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon magazine, echoed this perspective when he wrote, “Anyone that gets an Illusionist [to high level] deserves whatever they can achieve.”

No class showed this attitude more than the magic user. Originally, magic users started with the no armor, the lowest hit points, feeble attacks, and just one magic missile or sleep spell. But while a high-level fighter just added more hit points and a higher attack bonus, wizards gained power in 3 ways: They gained more spells per day, higher-level spells, and more damage with spells of a given level. Their power grew to overshadow the other classes.

“Earlier, D&D balanced wizards by making them weak at low level and powerful at high level,” wrote third-edition designer Jonathan Tweet. “But we tried to balance the classes at both low level and high level. (We failed. Spellcasters were still too good at high level.)”

The current edition starts to get the formula right. Mearls explained his goal for fifth edition. “Attaining balance is something that we must do to make D&D fit in with fantasy, myth, and legend. Even if a wizard unleashes every spell at his or her disposal at a fighter, the fighter absorbs the punishment, throws off the effects, and keeps on fighting.”

See How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D.

3. Higher-powered classes require more experience points

Before third edition, every D&D class had a different table of experience points required to level. As far as I know, Gygax never explained this quirk. No one asked because everyone just assumed the higher-powered classes demanded more experience points to level. The charts hint at some of this: The mighty paladin requires more experience than the weaker rogue. But for the original classes of fighter, cleric, and wizard the differences seem quirky rather than systematic. “The system sometimes gave clerics more hit points than fighters because a cleric would be higher level than a fighter with the same XP total.” Until double-digit levels, the XP requirements for a magic user never left the wizard more than a level or two behind the other classes.

4. Classes with level maximums

Originally, Gary Gygax gave little thought to high-level characters. Kask recalled, “We figured the odds of even getting to level 9 or 10 were so high that it wouldn’t pose a problem. This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest-level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was a 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave Arneson’s.”

After D&D’s release, TSR co-owner Brian Blume lobbied to include the monk class in the game’s upcoming Blackmoor supplement. Kask wrote, “Brian rationalized the nearly super abilities of the monk’s high levels with the argument that nobody, or damned few, would ever get that high. (This illustrates a certain naivete that all of us shared back then. We had no idea people would play almost daily and rack up XP’s at a truly unimagined rate.)”

Gygax published a class that imposed harsh limits to high-level monks. For monks “there is only one man at each level above 6th.” So to rise above 6th level, a monk character had to find the one monk of that level and win a fair fight. “There will always be a higher level to fight, even if there is no player character in the role.” The class topped out at 16th level.

A year after Blackmoor, gamers had completely disproved the theory that few characters would rise to high level. So Gygax returned to the monk class’s scheme for limiting the new Druid class in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Kask explained, “Every advance beyond level 11 meant fighting and defeating a fellow druid in either magical or physical combat—and the occasional 11th-level challenger of one’s own to deal with!”

In practice such limits only steered players away from choosing the classes they wanted to play, or blocked characters from advancing with their peers in a high-level party.

Next: Number 5.