Author Archives: David Hartlage

The Dungeon Mapper: From Half of D&D to a Forgotten Role

In 1977, when I found the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, I noticed that the dwarf description included a lot of fluff: stocky bodies, long beards, and an ability to detect slanting passages, shifting walls and new construction. I figured the slanting-and-shifting thing would never affect the game unless some dwarf skipped adventuring for a safer job as a building inspector. “Your rolling-boulder ramp isn’t up to code. Someone might not trip.”

Years later, I realized the dwarven fluff actually helped players draw the accurate maps needed to keep characters alive. Sloping floors and shifting walls made more than a nuisance. In the mega-dungeons of the era, greater threats prowled on lower levels, so tricks that lured characters too deep threatened their lives. Lost explorers deep in a sprawling multi-level dungeon could run out of resources before they got out. Originally, the spell find the path found an escape path.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle photographed in 2007 by Matt Bogen

In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. The original rules present mapping as half of the game. In the example of play, the referee—the title of dungeon master had not been coined yet—spends half the dialog reciting dimensions. The rules’ example of “Tricks and Traps” only lists slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to vex mappers. The text’s author, Gary Gygax, suggests freshening explored parts of the dungeon by adding monsters, but also through map “alterations with eraser and pencil, blocking passages, making new ones, dividing rooms, and filling in others.”

Despite the emphasis, many gamers found mapping less compelling. By 1976, the first D&D module Palace of the Vampire Queen included players’ maps to spare explorers the chore of transcribing dimensions. By fourth edition, labyrinths had changed from mapping challenges into skill challenges. Such mazes were no more fun, but they saved graph paper.

Today, only players who play D&D in an older style draw their own maps as they explore a dungeon.

Did anyone ever think translating distances to graph paper added fun? Or was mapping another way to thwart players who tried to steal the quasi-adversarial referee’s treasure. (In that original example of play, the Caller finds hidden loot, and the Referee responds by “cursing the thoroughness of the Caller.” Rules question: Must the Referee curse aloud or can he just twirl his mustache?

Blackmoor scholar Daniel H. Boggs describes mapping’s appeal. “If the DM is running the game with a proper amount of mystery, then mapping is one of the joys of dungeon exploring. In my experience, there is usually at least one person in the group who is good at it, and it is lots of fun to see your friends pouring over maps trying to figure out where to go or where some secret might be.”

In 1974, D&D seemed so fresh and intoxicating that even duties like mapping found love—just less love than the game’s best parts. Then, exploring a hidden version of the game board seemed revolutionary. Even the wargames that relied on umpires to hide enemies from opposing players let everyone see the terrain—and only a tiny community of enthusiasts played such games. In 1975, when Tunnels & Trolls creator Ken St. Andre attempted to explain dungeoneering to potential players, he could only reach for a slight match. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon. He tells the players what they see and observe around them.”

As fans of competitive games, D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax relished tests of player skill more than many D&D players do now. To the explorers of the mega-dungeons under Blackmoor and Greyhawk, map making became proof of dungeoneering mastery. In the game’s infancy, different groups of players mounted expeditions as often as Dave and Gary could spare them time. Separate groups might compile maps and keep them from rivals.

While recommending slanting passages and sinking rooms, Gary seemed to relish any chance to frustrate mappers. Describing a one-way teleporter, he crows that “the poor dupes” will never notice the relocation. “This is sure-fire fits for map makers.”

Dave favored fewer tricks. Daniel Boggs writes, “Arneson would actually help map for the players by drawing sketches of what players could see in difficult to describe rooms.” In early 1973, Dave Megarry, a player in the Blackmoor campaign and designer of the Dungeon! board game, mapped much of Blackmoor dungeon during play. Megarry’s maps proved more accurate than the versions published in The First Fantasy Campaign (1980), a snapshot of Arneson’s Blackmoor game.

Still, Dave Arneson expected players to show mapping skill and deal with setbacks. In a 2009 post on the ODD74 forum, he wrote, “A referee ‘happy moment’ was when the mapper was killed and the map lost. ‘OK guys now where are you going?’ What followed was 15 minutes of hilarious, to me, fun. A non-player character gave them a general direction. Another was when the mapper died and the players couldn’t figure out how to read the map. Again an NPC saved them.”

“In terms of tricks, Arneson primarily relied on complexity,” Boggs writes. Despite ranking as the first dungeon ever, Blackmoor includes rare vertical twists. “The combination of connecting shafts, pits, elevators, and literally hundreds of stairs across levels is just astounding. There is also the fact that the dungeon is segmented, so portions of certain levels could only be accessed by stairs on other levels or via secret doors. Secret doors abound in Blackmoor dungeon and most of Arneson’s dungeons.”

Nowadays, the task of transcribing explored rooms and halls to graph paper lacks its original novelty, but turning unexplored space into a map brings as much satisfaction as ever. Sometimes as my players explore, I draw the map for them on a grid. For some sessions, I bring a dungeon map hidden by scraps of paper fastened with removable tape. Players can become so eager to reveal rooms that they vie for the privilege of peeling away the concealment. While running Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I loaded the maps on a tablet and concealed them under an erasable layer. All these techniques eliminated the chore of mapping for the pure fun of discovery.

Steal This Rule: Numenera and XP for Discovery

By popular reckoning, the original Dungeons & Dragons play style centered on killing monsters and taking their loot. But D&D’s experience rules focused less on killing than folks think. The monster and treasure tables provided as much as three times as many XP for gold as for slaying. Savvy players learned to snatch treasure without a fight. Their characters lived longer that way.

Still, gamers criticized the rule for awarding experience for gold as unrealistic. For example, in the original Arduin Grimoire (1977), Dave Hargrave wrote that in his campaign experience “points are given for many reasons, but NOT for gold or other treasure. After all, it is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience.” The second-edition designers agreed, because they removed XP-for-gold from D&D.

But D&D co-creator Gary Gygax never aimed for realism. He intended to reward players with XP and levels for doing the things that made D&D fun—for exploring dungeons and for taking risks when surely the Oerth merchant trade promised wealth with no chance of a painful death in some murder pit. D&D’s third-edition designer Monte Cook gets the point. He writes, “I’m a firm believer in awarding players experience points for the thing you expect them to do in the game. Experience points are the reward pellets players get. Give the players XP for doing a thing and that thing is what they’ll do.”

Over time, D&D players started spinning stories about topics other than that time we killed a troll for gold. Originally, every character chased treasure; now, characters pursue adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure. For this sort of campaign, the classic awards of XP for gold and XP for slaying both fall short. In Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling, I suggest awarding XP for overcoming obstacles, but during D&D’s exploration pillar, the obstacles often miss the point.

If a party finds a secret door to the magic fountain, should they earn less XP than the party that killed the monsters guarding the obvious route? If obstacles bring rewards, then the party who finds the secret misses XP. If discoveries win points, then both groups gain for finding the fountain, and perhaps the observant party gains for finding the secret way.

Discovery is the soul of Monte Cook’s Numenera roleplaying game, so the game awards XP for discoveries rather than for overcoming challenges or killing foes. In D&D, similar awards can spotlight the goal of exploration: discovery.

For investigation and exploration adventures, the obstacles come from a lack of information. Reward the party for the discoveries they make.

To reward explorers for discovery, get a copy of your map and highlight the features to find: magic fountains, hidden shrines, magic items, keys, maps, hidden passages, and clues to the prince’s disappearance. Divide the number of XP characters need to level by the number of discoveries you hope they make before advancing. Then mark each discovery with the point award it brings. (See Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling for a helpful table of points.) If you like precision, adjust the points so bigger discoveries bring bigger rewards. Optionally, you can mark obstacles the group must overcome and include them with the discoveries. Some gamers favor calling D&D’s exploration pillar its discovery pillar instead. This XP method fits that notion perfectly.

Flashing back to 1973, perhaps Gary should have chosen this XP system for his dungeon-crawling game. How would that small change have shaped the way we played?

Related: XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas. Now the Designers Don’t See the Point

Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains

How to Build a D&D Cleric Who’s Super Fun in a Fight

In Dungeon & Dragons, clerics suffer from a reputation as the dull class that folks dutifully play to support the party. Forget that. In fifth-edition D&D, clerics can enter a fight like a tornado, damaging every foe around them, dodging blows, and attacking, all in the same turn.

Plus, their faith gives clerics a ready-made hook for playing the sort of big personalities that make roleplaying fun.

At level 5, D&D classes leap in power. Martial classes typically gain an extra attack, potentially doubling their damage dealing. Monks gain Stunning Strike. Wizards and Sorcerers gain fireball, which delivers 5th-level power for a 3rd-level slot. Bards and Warlocks gain hypnotic pattern, a spell that turns fights into beatdowns. (See How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve.) The 3rd-level spell that lifts clerics in power lacks the flash of fireball or hypnotic pattern, but it makes clerics more fun in a fight.

Spirit guardians summons spirits that surround you to 15 feet and that damage enemies who enter or start their turn in that sphere. Spirit guardians rates as one of the most efficient spells to up-cast with a higher-level slot. I played a cleric to 20th level and loved casting spirit guardians at 8th or even 9th level to deal 8d8 or 9d8 damage to any foes near me. Clerics on the move take their 15-foot sphere of divine fury across the battlefield, forcing more foes into the destruction. If the party ever gains boots of speed, give them to the cleric!

Spirit guardians suffers from an obvious drawback and an overlooked one. Obviously, the spell requires concentration while encouraging clerics to go into the thick of a fight. Also, the spell requires clerics to see allies to exempt them from the guardians. That means invisible allies or even friends around the corner can’t be spared.

Tactics

Starting at 5th level, the fun battlefield cleric starts combat by casting spirit guardians and moving into the thick of battle. On turn two, cast your favorite combat cantrip—or just dodge—plus cast spiritual weapon for another strike, and then keep moving to include the biggest groups of foes in your radiant doom.

Ability scores

To build a cleric, make Wisdom your highest score, followed by Constitution. Choose an odd-numbered Constitution score. Traditionally, clerics rely on Strength, but a cleric’s cantrips can bring more damage than weapon attacks, especially with the Blessed Strike option in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Only domains that grant heavy armor proficiency might actually benefit from Strength. A 13 Strength enables you to wear an affordable suit of chainmail without losing speed. A 15 Strength enables you to wear plate without slowing. Low strength dwarves can wear heavy armor without losing speed, so ironically the D&D rules reward creating agile, pencil-necked dwarves who defy their archetype. If your domain lacks heavy armor proficiency, choose Dexterity as your third highest score.

Why choose an odd Constitution score? Clerics surrounded by spirit guardians become an immediate target for attack. Through any damage, they must maintain concentration by making Constitution saves. The War Caster feat can help, but the Resilient (Constitution) feat proves better. If you start with a Constitution of 13, then taking Resilient (Constitution) before level 5 adds 1 to Constitution and helps your save about as much as War Caster. Then your save continues to improve with your proficiency bonus. If you play your cleric to high levels, you can add War Caster later.

Race

If your campaign uses the standard rules for ability scores in the Player’s Handbook, hill dwarves and variant humans make particularly good clerics. Wood elves also work well if you favor Dexterity and speed over Strength. If your campaign uses the custom origins from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything and you prefer weapon attacks, pick a high elf and choose Booming Blade as your bonus cantrip. You can strike a foe, and then when they flee your spirit guardians, they take thunder damage. This combination works best with cleric domains such as life and tempest that grant the Divine Strike feature.

Domain

The forge and tempest cleric domains excel for clerics capable of fun battlefield fury. Both domains grant heavy armor proficiency.

Forge. The forge cleric brings improved AC to heavy armor and the 1st-level searing smite spell powers weapon attacks until you gain better spells to concentrate on. Opt for Strength over Dexterity. At level 7, you get the underrated wall of fire spell. Sadly though, wall of fire also competes for concentration.

Tempest. Once tempest clerics cast spirit guardians and become a target, they can use Wrath of the Storm to heap punishment on foes who hit back. Plus, the spell thunderwave and the Thunderbolt Strike feature both let you push away creatures so you can move freely around the battlefield. The tempest domain makes a flavorful combination with that high elf who makes attacks backed by the booming blade cantrip.

Other domains gain some versatility while remaining especially fun in a fight.

Life. Choose a life cleric to gain the durability of heavy armor while becoming the best healer in the game. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything adds the aura of vitality spell to the cleric list. This domain gives that spell game-breaking power. (See The 7 Supreme D&D Character Builds for One Thing.)

Light. Choose the light domain if your notion of fun in a fight includes blasting things with fireball. For a light cleric, opt for a high Dexterity and ignore Strength.

Essential spells

Cantrips. Select guidance. Forge, tempest, and other clerics who favor weapon attacks should prepare sacred flame for the undead-slaying potency of radiant damage. Clerics who rely on damaging cantrips should choose toll the dead for maximum damage—unless you roleplay your light or life domain cleric as someone loyal to their ideals. (If you’re not a grave domain cleric, you can still prepare toll the dead, but you should feel bad about it.)

1st level. Prepare healing word to heal without slowing your attack. Add guiding bolt for attacks at range. Before 5th level, prepare bless. Once you reach 5th level, spirit guardians becomes a better spell to concentrate on.

2nd level. Prepare spiritual weapon. Aid makes one of the game’s best spells to cast using a higher-level slot. Although silence requires concentration, prepare it. Silence hinders enemy spellcasters, stops guards from calling for help, and lets you chop through doors without announcing your location.

3rd level. Prepare spirit guardians, mass healing word, and revivify. Invest 300 gp in diamond dust for revivify’s components. You may rarely cast revivify, but when you do, you become party MVP.

How to Improve Your D&D Game by Posing Difficult Dilemmas

As a game master, my favorite moments during session come when I sit idle as the players’ debate the tough choices open to their characters. Each option balances hope with a price. All the options lead to consequences that will spin the game in a different direction. Watching these discussions, I know the game world has come alive. No one tries to metagame what they’re supposed to do. Later, when those same players wonder what might have happened if they had chosen the other path, I bask in that moment.

If players just wanted to follow a story, they could have read a book. In role-playing games, much of the players’ fun comes from making choices and then experiencing the consequences as the game spins into a new direction. A hard choice lets players reveal their characters, reminds players that they control their characters’ fates, and turns the game world into a vibrant place that reacts and changes.

Occasionally tough choices spring naturally from the twists of your game, but you can plan your game to pose more dilemmas for players.

What makes a good dilemma?

Dilemmas have consequences

Much of the fun of making game choices comes from seeing the effects. If the adventurers get a call for help from a fishing town threatened by raiders, the hard choice comes when they learn of a far more lucrative job: The cunning Lady Redblade wants a magical curiosity retrieved before her rivals can snatch it. When the curiosity proves to be a dangerous artifact, the hard choice comes when the players must decide whether to hand it over. Every GM can tell such choices matter, but the consequences must ripple into the game. If the players spurn the town, it burns (even if you prepared for a rescue session). If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies (even if your plot assumed she would remain an ally). If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Still, consequences don’t make a good game. If you put a dracolich behind door number 1 and a pile of +5 swords behind door 2, you just offered a choice with consequences. But your players will still drop out of your crummy game.

Dilemmas require information

Let's Make a DealIf you play Dungeons & Dragons long enough, you hear of a Monty Haul dungeon master who loads treasure on players. The name comes from the Monty Hall, host of a game show called Let’s Make a Deal. He handed out so much treasure that every bumblebee and Raggedy Ann left his studio with a vorpal sword. Sometimes, Monty offered contestants a choice of whatever lay behind three doors that concealed prizes ranging from a toilet plunger to a Chrysler Cordoba. Guess a door makes a dull decision, but Monty’s game entertained by creating dilemmas.

After a contestant picked door 1, but before revealing its prize, Monty would pull out wad of cash and count off bills that he offered in exchange for the unseen prize. Now players faced a dilemma.

Interesting choices start with information.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, the choice only merits a coin flip. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the thief a favor. Now the choice becomes interesting. Players can expect their choice to take the adventure on a different spin.

Menus of choices like these let players reveal their characters or steer the game toward their own preferences. I like offering such options near the end of each game session so I can prepare for the road ahead.

Dilemmas defy correct answers

Sorry Monty, but choices with one right answer don’t count as dilemmas.

Such choices might serve as puzzles. Suppose the PCs want to pursue the Dread Baron, but wonder whether to follow the low road or the high road. If they see he left his fur boots in his tower or if they find an invitation from Auntie Boil tied to a bird in the rookery, then they know which road to take.

Puzzles like this enhance your game, especially if you occasionally allow the players to miss the clues. Virtually every adventure spins clues and other leads into the threads that draw players along. But such clear answers only offer a choice between continuing the adventure or dropping out. If players know which road to take, they gain no sense of freedom.

In a dilemma, every option brings a price

In the choice between the high road and the low road, each option brings a price: The high road means calling a giant’s dept and hoping a he will honor it; the low road requires some wicked deed.

“To craft a good dilemma,” Wolfgang Baur advises, “Don’t give the players any good options.” (See “Dungeoncraft – Temptations and Dilemmas” in Dungeon issue 148.)

Clever players may still find good options—players relish the chance to crack an unsolvable problem, but you don’t need to hand them a solution. And definitely don’t hand them a fight. Usually, a good dilemma puts PCs between forces too strong for an assault. If you make Auntie Boil or those giants look like a problem that just needs a few smacks with a warhammer, you created skirmish rather than a dilemma.

Creating dilemmas

The limits of loyalty and time can easily create dilemmas for players.

As player characters gain in renown, powerful non-player characters will begin to request or demand their loyalty. If Lady Redblade and the Master of Eyes both want the players to retrieve the same magical curiosity, then the players choose more than an ally—they choose an enemy.

The limit of time can create many torturous dilemmas. The players must understand that accepting Lady Redblade’s job means risking that besieged town.

We DMs tend to offer quests with no particular urgency. This spares us from having to rework a mission because the game world moved on. The fishing town perpetually waits on the verge of doom until the players arrive to save it.

Sometimes though, time must force the players to choose which fires to fight. This does more than test the players. Such dilemmas make the game world seem like a dynamic place that moves and changes even when the PCs turn away.

Let’s Make a Deal

Suppose you know that the paladin in the party would never spurn the townsfolk for Lady Redblade’s bounty. Now you can play Let’s Make a Deal. The heart of Monty’s game came when he started counting off the hundred-dollar bills that he would exchange for whatever prize lay behind door number 3.

For the paladin’s help, the Lady can offer that magic sword he covets. “So armed, imagine the good you could do.” If she offers to send her own men to aid the town, will the party take her job? After closing a deal, what happens when the party learns that the man assigned to rescue the town is corrupt and possibly incompetent? Do you betray the Lady and your word, or do your leave the townsfolk to their uncertain fate?

Let players feel powerful sometimes

Don’t turn every decision into test of the characters’ limits. A few tough choices add to the game, but people also play to feel powerful enough to sweep away trouble with an stroke of the blade and a fireball. Read the mood of your players.

Still, even if you work to put players in dilemmas, hard choices can be hard to create. That’s what makes them so delicious.

Related: Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing
Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?

D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books

The prior edition of Dungeons & Dragons, its fourth, welcomed too many players with a feel-bad moment. Eager new players would join a table with a character built from their new copy of their Player’s Handbook and learn the character was unplayable—full of errors created by fourth edition’s errata. The potential message: Your character is bad and you can’t use the book you just bought without embarrassing yourself.

The fourth-edition team strived to get rules right the first time, but they faced a relentless publishing schedule focused on releasing as many hardcovers as the market would bear, all packed with character options. To fix the inevitable missteps, the designers relied on players able to download errata. The game’s business strategy centered on online subscriptions to D&D Insider, so the finished rules existed on the internet, while the books attracted completists and folks who enjoyed reading the latest D&D lore from a comfy chair.

For fifth edition, the D&D team completely reverses this strategy, striving to avoid any changes that contradict text in print. In newer printings, wording gets an occasional change for clarity, but the game’s mechanics remain virtually unchanged. Surely this stability accounts for a measure of the newest edition’s success in winning new players.

To perfect new content before it reaches print, the D&D team relies on a slower release schedule and on letting players preview and test new game elements as Unearthed Arcana. Only the rare overpowered features that prove game breaking get tweaks. While the D&D team avoids errata, they feel comfortable assuming that players and dungeon masters can ignore feats, spells, and archetypes that don’t suit their game. If we find some spells annoying, then we can skip them.

Still, the D&D designers see the game’s flaws. The 12th printing of the fifth-edition Player’s Handbook includes some corrections. On rare occasions, the designers feel compelled to make functional changes to printed rules. For example, errata to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything changes the healing spirit spell from game altering to adequate.

Newer D&D books give the D&D team chances to improve on the Player’s Handbook without actually invalidating anything. Mainly the new books offer options that improve on the original versions. Players can still opt for the original, but the newer alternatives rank as stronger, easier, or just as a more flavorful realization of an archetype. So Xanathar’s Guide To Everything revisits the rules for downtime with a more evolved take, and Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything includes new beast master companions that strengthen the ranger archetype.

During the typical edition cycle of a roleplaying game, years of play expose flaws, while new supplements build a complexity that rewards obsessed players while deterring newcomers. But the D&D team’s careful release strategy has let the game attract new players when most RPGs—including past D&D editions—introduce a new edition. The rules foundation of fifth edition remains strong enough that even an enthusiast like me just names a couple of feats as the worst thing in the game. New editions fuel a surge of sales as a game’s existing fans replace their books, but they also lose players who choose not to leave their experience and old books behind.

Given the success of fifth edition, I suspect the D&D team would feel content keeping the lightly-edited Player’s Handbook in print for years to come. However, I predict that one change in emphasis will lead to a quicker revision. In an article on diversity, the team writes that in the six years since fifth edition’s release “making D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible has moved to the forefront of our priorities.”

This new emphasis shows in Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything and the book’s options for customizing characters.

The original, 1974 D&D game avoided linking ability scores to a character’s race. Nearly 5 years later the game’s Advanced version added ability score penalties and bonuses for elves, dwarves, halflings, and half orcs. This change reinforced fantasy archetypes, but it also limited player freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes. Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. Sure, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are imaginary species, but they become relatable reflections of us in the game world. After all, imaginary halflings, I mean hobbits, just started as Tolkien’s stand-ins for ordinary folks.

Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything offers an alternative to ability score modifiers. “If you’d like your character to follow their own path, you may ignore your Ability Score Increase trait and assign ability score increases tailored to your character.” In a post previewing the change, the D&D team writes, “This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.”

The old approach to races in the Player’s Handbook hinders the book as a welcome to D&D. I predict that by the end of 2022, Wizards of the Coast will release of new version of the Player’s Handbook that revisits the old ability score adjustments in favor of the more flexible version. To be clear, this will not represent a 6th edition, but merely a better welcome to the existing game. That book will join revised versions of the other core books by swapping some of the original elements of the edition with the improved alternatives that appeared in more recent books. Meanwhile, the revisited Monster Manual will make some of our more fearsome reflections in the game world clearly “as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.” After all, isn’t that freedom to decide a lot of the reason we love D&D?

Related: 3 Posts that Need Updates Thanks to Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

How To Adjust Combat Difficulty on the Fly Using the Magic of Roleplaying

In Sly Flourish’s DM Deep Dive, Mike Shea explains how he adjusts encounter difficulty. “I don’t fudge dice, but I fudge everything else. A die roll is a die roll. That’s sacrosanct. But everything else around it is malleable.” This leads Mike to change things like the monsters’ hit points and damage numbers. The Dungeons & Dragons rules grant dungeon masters this freedom. The range of possibilities created by, say, a deathlock’s 8d8 hit points ranges from 8 to 64. DMs can choose the average of 36 hp or opt for another value.

I favor tweaking the numbers before the fight. This gains the minor benefit of letting me describe creatures as frailer or stouter than normal. I often dial up hit points for leaders, solo monsters, and other obvious targets for focused fire. In an encounter where a deathlock spellcaster leads a horde of lesser undead, the caster becomes an obvious target for focused fire and probably needs all 64 hp to live to cast a second spell. Some monsters need a damage boost to pose a threat. For example, gargoyles deal such feeble damage compared to their toughness that they turn fights into chores. My gargoyles may deal max damage rather than average damage.

Mainly, I refrain from changing the numbers during a fight. This helps me avoid the temptation to steer the game to suit my plans and expectations. Instead, the players’ actions and the dice guide the narrative. Sometimes during a battle I lower hit points to bring a battle to a quicker end, but by then the outcome is settled. Does this self-imposed restriction lead to more fun? Perhaps only for me. Players typically never learn whether adjustments came before or during combat.

In the Deep Dive, Mike Shea and his guest Ryan Servis mention a powerful way to adjust difficulty on the fly. Have the foes make better or worse tactical decisions—usually worse. Most often this means holding back a big attack or spell when using it could destroy the party. Sometimes it means changing targets instead of finishing a character, or focusing fire on an armored paladin or stout barbarian able take the blows.

Most DMs base some of a creature’s tactics on one roleplaying factor: the creature’s intelligence. They use smarter tactics with brainier monsters. DMs seldom dial up difficulty by playing low-intelligence creatures with cunning, but often this makes sense. Even beasts instinctively know to use their fighting traits in dangerous ways. Wolves gang up on the weak. Rats duck and cover. Tyrannosauruses bite before they swallow.

The most room to adjust difficulty comes from letting smart foes make weak tactical choices. Such poor choices can stem from roleplaying. In stories, villains frequently make bad decision, often because of the same character flaws that led them to evil. Their rage drives them to focus attacks on the wrong target. Their overconfidence leads them to save a devastating spell. Their sadism makes them leave a foe to suffer rather than dealing a killing blow. Their cowardice tempts them to run when they could have won. Their arrogance leads them to tell their henchmen to finish killing an apparently defeated party. A villain’s hubris can change a total-party kill into a second chance for victory.

In a battle scenes, bringing out such character flaws add a dimension to a villain while they explain the poor choices that spare the heroes. Still, you rarely need an explanation. Ryan Servis says, “The players never complain when the enemy makes a bad decision, but if you admitted to your players that you were fudging dice, they would all be upset.” Players rarely track all a monster’s abilities, so they seldom notice those fatal errors.

To Find the Fun in Traps, Did D&D Miss the Search Check?

Traps add fun to Dungeons & Dragons when players can (a) make choices that help uncover them or (b) interact with them. Interaction includes crawling to evade scything blades or stuffing the mouth of the green dragon statue to block a jet of poison gas. Fun interaction favors discovery over die rolls and certainly doesn’t include just subtracting damage from hit points.

The standard routine for traps in fifth edition skips all the entertainment. The game’s example goes like this: A character’s passive perception reveals a trap, then a player rolls a Intelligence (Investigation) check to discover how the trap works, and then someone tries a Dexterity (Thieves’ Tools) check to disable the thing. This rote mostly dodges any potential fun. Passive perception just skips any engagement, and a trap’s discovery leads to zero choices. The only activity comes from die rolls. The only decisions come during character building. I daresay the procedure’s designer dislikes traps, but dutifully includes them based on D&D tradition.

Because the fun of traps comes from finding and interacting, dungeon masters can watch players evade them all and rate the session a success. Still, characters may overlook a few gotchas. Unnoticed traps that spring on characters serve three purposes:

  • To make careless and reckless choices lead to consequences.
  • To set a mood of peril.
  • To warn of more dangerous traps ahead.

For setting the mood and as a signal of more traps, the devices players do find work just as well. Even spent traps and their victims’ remains serve the purpose.

When players spot traps and use ingenuity to evade them, they gain the pleasure of figuring things out and feel clever. But even traps where the interaction goes wrong can prove fun. On the Mastering Dungeons podcast, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia says, “I recall an adventure that had a series of traps that were engaging enough that my party activated all of them after spotting all of them, and we were all laughing and having a great time. At one point a player found this pressure plate, and somehow, she concluded that this was the safe spot, so she jumped on it.” Later in the gauntlet, the group found a pit that dropped to a strange growth that hit the bottom, so someone dropped a torch to see. The growth was brown mold, which grows with fire.

The advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for running traps favors using passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to decide when characters notice traps. This advice aims to speed play by skipping time wasted looking for non-existent traps. But passive perception also loses the surprise and fun of rolling the dice. (See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.) Also, passive checks eliminate decisions that lead to uncovering traps, except for choices during character creation. Sure, no one wants a game slowed by fruitless checks for traps, but traps work best where players expect them—preferably past the spiked and burned corpses of previous explorers in dungeons with words like “horrors,” “death,” and “Tucker’s” in the name.

Passive perception can fill a role in a dungeon master’s trap game. Perception enables characters to notice things that simply require keen senses, such as a trip wire strung across a corridor. Passive perception can feel like a rule where the DM just chooses whether someone finds a trap. After all, the DMs who set DCs often know their group’s perception scores. But when only the characters at the front get close enough to spot traps, the choice of marching order factors into success. Sometimes the choice to light a torch also leads to success by eliminating the -5 penalty darkvision suffers in total darkness.

If someone observant leads and that character inevitably spots a trip wire, then the incident still sets a mood and signals more traps to come. Plus, players who chose the Observant feat feel rewarded for their choice.

Even the highest passive perception score falls short of trap radar. Totally concealed traps such as a pressure plate buried under dust require a search to uncover. For searching, choose Intelligence (Investigation) checks. Someone skilled at Investigation spots ordinary but significant details such as the residue around the gaping mouth of the dragon statue or the scratch left by the swing of scything blades. When players must ask for searches, they make the choice that a uncovers a trap. Plus, the roll for success adds the uncertainty that passive checks lack, and that roll adds surprise for the DM.

Traditionally, the D&D rules granted thieves and rogues a special knack for finding traps. Arcane tricksters aside, fifth edition’s rogue class fails to reward the Intelligence scores needed for skilled investigation or the Wisdom scores needed for keen perception. Not even the so-called Mastermind archetype requires brains. Even a rogue who chooses to pair Perception or Investigation with expertise will probably fall short. This makes either clerics or wizards best at finding traps, depending on how the DM runs the process of looking. (Hint: Wizards.) The rules for tool proficiency in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything help rogues meet expectations. Characters proficient in thieves’ tools gain advantage when they use Investigation or Perception to find traps. This amounts to a +5 to passive perception. Perhaps the thief can lead the marching order.

If I were to redesign a rogue class, I would consider more abilities that reward a high Intelligence. This would yield thieves more apt at spotting traps and spies more capable of investigation. Character optimizers call classes that require high scores in more than one attribute multi-ability dependent or MAD. Such requirements weaken classes a bit. Fortunately, MAD paladins bring power to spare. Sorry, MAD rangers. A hypothetical MAD rogue would get a small boost to compensate. My dream rogue would also become a capable backstabber, unlike the current version where daggers only rate as a strategy for players seeking the roleplaying challenge of playing an inferior character.

9 Facts About the First D&D Module, Palace of the Vampire Queen

Before Curse of Strahd and Ravenloft came Palace of the Vampire Queen, a dungeon written by California gamers Pete and Judy Kerestan and distributed by TSR Hobbies.palace_of_the_vampire_queen_folder

1. Palace of the Vampire Queen may count as the first Dungeons & Dragons adventure module published, but only after a few disqualifications.

Book 3 of the original D&D game devoted two pages to a dungeon level, but the sample falls short of a complete dungeon. Supplement II Blackmoor (1975) includes Temple of the Frog, but that location plays as a Chainmail scenario rather than a dungeon. As Palace reached print in June 1976, Jennell Jaquays published Dungeoneer issue 1. The magazine including a dungeon called F’Chelrak’s Tomb. So Palace of the Vampire Queen rates as the first standalone D&D adventure in print.

2. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax thought no one would buy published dungeons, because dungeon masters could easily create their own.

The key to Palace makes dungeon creation seem trivial, so you can see Gary’s point. Each room appears as a row on a table with a monster quantity, a list of hit points, and a line describing the room’s contents. Anyone with enough imagination to play D&D could create similar content as quickly as they could type.

palace_of_the_vampire_queen_key

3. TSR Hobbies distributed Palace because they found success reselling blank character sheets from the same authors.

In February 1976, Strategic Review announced the Character Archaic, a set of character sheets for D&D and Empire of the Petal Throne.

4. Palace came as a collection of loose 8½ by 11 pages tucked into a black folder with a copyright notice taped inside the cover.

Adding to the low-budget feel, TSR fixed missing pages in some kits by adding Xerox-streaked duplicates from the office machine.

5. Most of the adventure’s text comes in a 1-page background.

The page tells of a beloved queen, slain by a vampire, and entombed on the dwarvish island of Baylor. She rises to bring terror to the night.

In addition to launching the standalone adventure, Palace gives D&D players their first shot at rescuing the princess. The vampire queen has abducted the king’s only daughter. “The people wait in fear at night. The king wanders his royal palace, so empty now without his only child. Neither the king nor his people have hope left that a hero or group of heroes will come to rid them of the Vampire Queen. For surely the Vampire Queen lies deep within the forbidding mountains, protected by her subjects, vengeful with hate for all truly living things and constantly thirsting for human blood on which to feed.

In the early days of the game, when players raided dungeons for treasure and the experience points it brought, this qualified as an unprecedented dose of plot.

6. Palace shows a dungeon designed before anyone worried about making things plausible.

Even though the dungeon’s background presents it as a tomb for a queen-turned-vampire, it features assorted monsters waiting in rooms to be killed. In any natural underground, the creatures would wander away for a meal. And the bandits in room 23 would search for a safer hideout near easier marks. And the Wizard selling magic items in room 10 would find a store with foot traffic that doesn’t creep or slither.

7. In 1976, nobody worried about dead characters much.

When someone opens a chest on level 2, a block drops and kills the PC and anyone else in a 3×6’ space. No damage rolls, no save—just dead. The dungeon’s threats escalate quickly. Level 2 includes orcs and a giant slug; level 5 includes 35 vampires and a balrog.

Despite these menaces, players in 1976 stood a better chance than they would now. The balrog was just a brute with 2 attacks and 41 hit points, not the modern balor with 262 hit points and a fire aura. Vampires suffered significant disadvantages: “Vampires cannot abide the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of cross. They will fall back from these if strongly presented.” Level 4 even includes a Garlic Garden so players can stock up.

When the players reach the vampire queen’s tomb, she flees their garlic and crosses, and tries to take the dwarf princess hostage.

8. In 1976, no one knew how to present a dungeon—or agreed on how to play the game.

palace_of_the_vampire_queen_mapThe key sketches just the most essential information: a quantity of monsters, their treasure, and an occasional trick or trap. The text lists no stats other than hit points, but lists them as Max Damage. Apparently, D&D’s terminology remained unsettled. Back then, DMs rolled hit points, so pre-rolling counted as a time saver.

In one room, a PC can adopt a lynx kitten as a pet, which lets him “add 3 to his morale score.” D&D lacked morale rules for player characters, but in those days popular house rules spread though regions. Folks writing about D&D regularly confused their regional practices for canon.

Each level of the dungeon includes a keyed and unkeyed map. “The Dungeon Master may give or sell the player map to the players to speed game play.” Even in 1976, players saw mapping as a chore.

9. The dungeon master needed to work to bring the Palace to life.

Palace of the Vampire Queen isn’t called a “module” or “dungeon adventure,” but a “Dungeon Masters Kit.”

The authors realized that dungeon’s brief descriptions fell short of adventure. “Feel free to use your imagination for dialog or any extra details you feel would add to more exciting play. The kit itself is only a basic outline—you can make it a dramatic adventure.

The kit uses fewer words to describe 5 levels than some modern adventures lavish on a single room. Nevertheless, it presents some charming bits. On level 4, PCs find a petrified lammasu missing a jewel eye. Replacing the eye causes the creature to come to life as an ally.

On level 3, room 24 holds 3 sacks of sand. Room 25 says, “Sand alarm rings in room 26 when door is opened.” I searched the web for “sand alarm” to determine if it were some kind of widely-known trick, perhaps requiring a supply of sandbags. Finally, I realized room 26 holds a sound-making alarm.

One room holds an Invisible Chime of Opening. I have no clue how the PCs might find the thing unless they literally sweep the floor. Just for kicks, I would have put a broom in the room.

Just a couple of years after Palace of the Vampire Queen reached gamers, the D&D community forgot about it. But this first adventure showed Gary that adventure modules could attract buyers, so he rushed to publish the giant series.

Stop Favoring Perception for Searches in D&D

When Dungeons & Dragons characters search, what check should players make? Based on my experience playing with a hundred or so fifth-edition dungeon masters, most answer Wisdom (Perception). Nonetheless, many DMs ask for Intelligence (Investigation) checks instead.

So what character should search a door for traps? Based on the Dungeon Master’s Guide, pick the wise cleric. Based on the skill descriptions, pick the clever wizard. Based on tradition, pick the thief and—if you play fifth edition—run for cover because they can’t spot anything. Besides initiative checks, search checks rate as the second most common in the game, so you would think everyone would agree. We don’t.

All this uncertainty means that as a DM making a call for your table, you decide. I’m here to help.

Some players like to call for their own checks. A character enters a room and the player announces something like, “I use perception and roll a 17. What do I find?” Rolling a check that the DM didn’t request counts as a small lapse of table decorum. Only the DM decides whether a situation merits a check, whether the character can succeed, what check suits the circumstances, and which characters deserve the roll. If a player just announces such a check, say “First, tell me what you’re examining. Do you touch it?” That question grabs attention.

To complement Perception, D&D’s fifth-edition playtest included a Search skill. So during exploration, PCs “make a Wisdom (Perception) check to detect hidden creatures and an Intelligence (Search) check to detect hidden objects (such as traps and secret doors)”. This makes the difference between Perception and Search seem like noticing creatures versus spotting objects—surely not the intended distinction, and perhaps one source of confusion that led the designers to drop Search in favor of Investigation. At least everyone could agree to use Search for searching.

The game rules for Investigation explain, “When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check.” The bit about looking around for clues makes Investigation seem like a more useful superset of Search. Aside from treasure, clues rank as the most common thing for a search to uncover. Even traps only prove fun when players find clues to their presence. Falling down a pit: no fun. Investigating a puddle and finding an edge where the liquid meets a seam in the floor: fun.

For searches, opt for Intelligence (Investigation) checks. Investigators notice clues and uncover things outside of plain sight. Investigators know where to look, so they check under a drawer to find the envelope tucked in the joint. Most characters ignore the scuffs on a stone floor, but an investigator notices them because the marks show where the statue slides to reveal a trap door. Someone skilled at Investigation spots the ordinary but significant details that the keen-sensed barbarian overlooks because such details seem insignificant. Sometimes players know where to look too, so if a player asks to peer under drawers, they spot that letter.

In contrast, perception enables characters to notice things that simply require keen senses, for example the sounds of an invisible creature, the master rogue Waldo in a crowd, or the cat obscured by shadows. “Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses.” Perception can reveal the obscure, but it can’t expose something hidden from all the senses.

Many D&D fans, including me, tend to think of Investigation and searching as active in contrast to passive Perception. While this pattern frequently holds, don’t rely on it to distinguish the skills.

Such thinking leads players to make two checks to look around, one for percieving and one for investigating. Better to avoid such repetition. See How to Avoid Boring Rerolls of D&D’s Ability Checks. Players who make one check to find nothing in an empty room feel disappointed. Why invite a second, time-wasting check?

Freelance designer Teos “Alphasteam” Abadia explains how a distinction between active and inactive skills leads players to game the system. “Spycraft did that, with one skill for actively looking and another for possible noticing. It led to absurd behavior. You would enter an enemy camp, but state you were not looking around. That way, your better Notice skill would kick in.”

Sometimes the difference between Investigation and Perception blurs. Typically, when characters pause to examine and interact as they look, call for an Investigation check. This tends to reinforce the distinction of an investigator noticing the details in the mundane, plus it balances the value of the overvalued Wisdom (Perception) check with the undervalued Intelligence ability and Investigation skill.

D&D is a team game and when different character architypes skills and abilities contribute to a group’s success. By using the Intelligence ability and the Investigation skill, players who excel at those less pervasive knacks gain a chance to shine.

This approach amplifies the importance of not completely blocking a group’s progress with an Intelligence (Investigation) check. Fifth edition minimizes the value of the Intelligence ability so much that unless a party includes a Wizard, then no character may have a score higher than 10. In an essential investigation, give any required information, and then reward the sleuths with additional insights.

As for all those 8 and 10 Intelligence characters played by smart D&D players, they show the changing fashions of tabletop roleplaying. In the hobby’s early days of random ability scores, players who valued character immersion often felt obligated to play a low intelligence character as a knucklehead, complete with dangerously foolish decisions. Now, I rarely see such a commitment.

To Run a Great Dungeon, Write All Over the Map

For running a dungeon, the familiar map with numbers sets dungeon masters up for trouble. Many times when characters enter a dungeon room, I turn to a room’s key, and then learn that the party just passed a trapped door. “Wait! You can’t go in yet because…no particular reason.” Other times, when dungeon expeditions recklessly make noise, I want to find any monsters that hear. After all, dungeons should feel like active places where dangers lurk and where actions bring consequences. I check the map, spot 10 or so nearby room numbers, and realize that paging through the adventure text would stall the game for minutes. So I wind up supposing the werebats next door failed to hear the thunderwave. I guess monsters can wear headphones. Meanwhile, a dog in the yard hears a bag of chips opening in the attic.

Really, as a tool for running a dungeon, the typical map with just numbered locations sucks. But DMs can easily improve maps and the process leaves you better prepared for adventure.

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

My best tip for running a great dungeon: Write all over the map.

This tradition of minimally-useful maps dates to the publication of Palace of the Vampire Queen and F’Chelrak’s Tomb. For 40-some years published adventures almost always include maps that suck. Designers should stop following a bad example. For a better example of useful dungeon maps, look to entries in the one-page-dungeon contest.

Meanwhile, few DMs considered improving their maps by marking up a brand new copy of, say, G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. In 1978 its $4.49 price amounted to $18 today. You couldn’t even mark a copy of the maps, which TSR printed in blue to thwart Xerox.

For published adventures, make a copy of dungeon map pages. For your own maps, either write on your original or save a clean copy. Then get out your colored pens and highlighters and mark the maps with the notes you need to run.

  • List monsters in their locations.
  • Mark traps and locked doors.
  • Circle areas where characters may hear or smell things in the dungeon like waterfalls, forges, unholy rituals, and so on.
  • If guards might call for reinforcements, mark the travel times between key locations.
  • Circle areas controlled by factions.

Time spent writing on the map doubles as preparation for running the adventure. If you mark enough, you can run direcly from the map.

Smaller map marked for adventure

Smaller map marked for adventure

Lacking a copier, I used sticky notes