Author Archives: David Hartlage

From B1 to Pinebrook: Every D&D Adventure That Includes DM Advice and What They Taught

Over the 50-year history of Dungeons & Dragons, the game has changed enough that some gamers prefer the early versions of the rules to duplicate the play style of 1974. Have the qualities of good dungeon master changed too? For a tour of DM advice over D&D history, I sought the D&D adventures that included advice, from In Search of the Unknown (1979), to Peril in Pinebrook (2023), and pulled the best, worst, and most dated guidance. Most advice remains timeless, revisited in print over the decades, so this post only mentions guidance when it first appears.

B1 In Search of the Unknown (1979) by Dave Carr

Most adventures that include advice aim to help new DMs through their first session. Later printings of the 1977 Basic Set packaged In Search of the Unknown as a start. Originally, this Basic Set just included unkeyed dungeon maps that DMs could cut apart and rearrange into different configurations. Following the original dungeon design standards, new DMs could just roll for monsters and treasure to stock the map. B1 keeps some of this learn-by-doing approach. The adventure included vacant locations along with separate lists of monsters and treasures to pair with the open locations.

Designate a caller

One player in the group should be designated as the leader, or ‘caller’ for the party, while another one or two players can be selected as mappers (at least one is a must!).

Early on, DMs proved much scarcer than players so groups often included 8-12 players and D&D co-creator Gary Gygax ran sessions for as many as 20. Designating a caller to speak for the group helped speed play. For more on the lost role of mapper, see The Dungeon Mapper: From Half of D&D to a Forgotten Role.

Make the game enjoyable and challenging

The DM’s foremost concern should be to provide an enjoyable game which is challenging to the players. A good DM does not attempt to influence player actions or channel the activity in a particular direction. Although you may set up situations to challenge players, you must understand that you are not their adversary, nor are you necessarily out to defeat them. However, if your players abandon caution or make stupid mistakes, let them pay the price—but be fair.

As Dungeon Master, you are the game moderator. This means you set the tempo of the game and are responsible for keeping it moving. If players are unusually slow or dilly-dally unnecessarily, remind them that time is wasting. If they persist, allow additional chances for wandering monsters to appear—or at least start rolling the dice to make the players think that you are doing so.

In the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax suggests speeding characters by rolling dice behind the screen, mainly to hint at the threat of wandering monsters. As random encounters fell out of favor, I figured this advice became outdated, but a recent adventure discussed in this post, The Hidden Halls of Hazacor (2018), recommends the same trick. For some of my advice on the subject, see Getting Players Moving, Especially When No One Wants to Drive.

Lastly, it is important to remember that the Dungeon Master is the final arbiter in his or her game. If players disagree with you, hear them out and reasonably consider their complaint. With human nature as it is, players will undoubtedly attempt to try to talk you into (or out of) all sorts of things; part of the fun of being a DM is this verbal interplay. But in the end, what you say is what goes.

T1 Village of Hommlet (1979) by Gary Gygax

By 1979, D&D publisher TSR had split Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from the original game. As an introduction to AD&D, Gygax penned Village of Hommlet, a module that added a village as a home base complete with non-player characters the players might not kill. For more on creating NPCs that players might not kill, see How to Create Loveable Non-Player Characters While You Supercharge Your Sex Appeal. (That title is not pure click bait; the post really does explain how to supercharge your sex appeal.)

Roleplaying NPCs

The persons met at the inn, along the road, and so forth, are you; for the Dungeon Master is all-monsters, NPCs, the gods, everything. Play it to the hilt. Do it with flair and wit. Be fair both to the characters and to yourself. Be deceitful, clever, and thoroughly dishonest when acting the part of a thief. Be cunning but just when in the role of a warding ranger. Actually think of it as if the part you are taking is that of a character you are playing, and act accordingly, but temper actions with disinterest in the eventual outcome and only from the viewpoint of that particular role. Wearing two, three, or a half dozen or more different hats is challenging, but that is part of being an outstanding DM.

For more on roleplaying NPCs and modelling good roleplaying for players, see Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.

B2 Keep on the Borderlands (1979) by Gary Gygax

In 1981, Keep on the Borderlands replaced B1 in the Basic Set. The adventure reprises the familiar advice, but Gygax adds a lofty pep talk for novice DMs.

As DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow. The others in your group will assume the roles of individuals and play their parts, but each can only perform within the bounds you will set. It is now up to you to create a magical realm filled with danger, mystery, and excitement, complete with countless challenges. Though your role is the greatest, it is also the most difficult. You must now prepare to become all things to all people.

If all of this seems too difficult, never fear! Just as your players are learning and gaining experience at D&D play, so too will you be improving your ability as a DM. The work necessary to become a master at the art is great, far greater than that necessary to be a top player, but the rewards are even greater. You will bring untold enjoyment to many players in your role as DM, and all the while you will have the opportunity to exercise your imagination and creative ability to the fullest. May each of your dungeon adventure episodes always be a wondrous experience!

Roleplaying monsters

When the players experience their first encounter with a monster, you must be ready to play the part fully. If the monster is basically unintelligent, you must have it act accordingly. Make the encounter exciting with the proper dramatics of the animal sort – including noises! If the encounter is with an intelligent monster, it is up to the DM to not only provide an exciting description but also to correctly act the part of the monster.

B10 Night’s Dark Terror (1986) by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris and Phil Gallagher

In the 80s, the D&D line sold in a series of boxed sets. The Basic Set started players with dungeon adventures, and then the Expert Set expanded the game to the wilderness. Night’s Dark Terror helped introduce players to the great outdoors. This adventure rates as one of the best ever.

Fudging rolls

Adventuring is, above all, about enjoying yourself, and sometimes in order to do so it is necessary to overrule some dice throws. It is your job as DM to give your players an exciting and fun time, relying entirely on the dice is not always the best way to do so—they are an aid, not a means in themselves. But be discrete—you don ‘t want your players to get the idea that you are pulling any punches!

No other adventure suggests fudging die rolls, but when Peril in Pinebrook (2023) suggested that DMs play to avoid killing player characters, the recommendation took heavy criticism from some gamers. That adventure appears later in this post.

B11 King’s Festival (1989) by Carl Sargent

By 1989, most of the earlier introductory adventures lapsed out of print, so TSR started a new set with B11 King’s Festival.

Description and the senses

Never forget that you are the eyes and ears of the player characters during the game. Players are wholly dependent on you to tell them what their PCs see, hear, and so on. Good DMs are able to convey the feel and atmosphere of an adventure, the thrills and scares, by using good descriptions of what actions are taking place and what the PC can see around them.

A good DM details more than simply what PCs see. Don’t forget noises (scurrying vermin, voices, whistling wind, owl hoots, the scraping of something on stone-is it metal, chitinous claws, or something even more horrid?), smells (food, garbage, the reek of a filthy ogre aiming a club at a PC), and tactile senses (“you feel hair rising at the nape of your neck,” or “the stone feels cold and slimy as you touch it”).

For more, see Narrating Your D&D Game: The Essentials and How To Make Descriptions Vivid and Evocative.

DDA2 Legions of Thyatis (1990) by John Nephew

Legions of Thyatis continued the line of B-series adventures that started with B1, but TSR feared the high module numbers hurt sales, so they restarted the series with DDA1 and DDA2.

Characterizing NPCs

One quick way to characterize an NPC is to visualize him as an animal, and picture that animal as you describe and play him. Another way to create stock characters is to use foils, or opposites. One example is the wimpy, fast-talking thief teamed up with a hulking mountain of a thug.

Winging it

“Winging it” means running an adventure without a detailed script or area key. Like all skills, doing it will be easier after you’ve tried it a few times. When winging a plotted adventure, just identify the main turning points of the plot; how the players get there is less important than the fun they have doing it.

Don’t worry at first if the encounter sends the party away from the main plot—you can practice steering them back to it! Players depend on you dropping clues to guide them, and they can easily get lost if they miss something vital. Don’t panic; keep giving them chances to get on the right track until they connect, if your first clues were too subtle. If they don’t connect, you can decide after the session whether you want to get them back on track or modify the adventure to go in their direction.

If the player characters scatter, think ahead to the next point in your plot at which you can bring them all back together. Try to do this as soon as possible; it’s most important to have all the players in the game, for player boredom is certain death for an evening’s fun.

Finally, you may have a situation where things have gone out of control. In such cases, stopping the game for a few minutes to sort things out is perfectly okay.

WGA4 Vecna Lives! (1990) by David Cook

Unlike all the prior adventures on this list, Vecna Lives! targeted experienced DMs. However, this module aimed to create a more structured story and a more horrific mood than a typical D&D romp.

Story beats

Allowing the player characters to succeed against a seemingly major villain, deadly trap, or a puzzle increases their confidence. This victory may be followed by a stinging defeat or the discovery that their accomplishment was only a small part of something greater and more powerful.

This technique must be used sparingly, however. You don’t want to take away all your player’s accomplishments or they will get discouraged. Wait until they are overconfident and cocky, then give them a reverse and it will remind them that things are not as easy as they seem.

Building tension

To make your players sweat, you must let them know they are in danger before anything actually happens.

Which creates more tension—the player characters open the door and discover the monsters, or the player characters hear a strange noise on the other side before they open the door? In the second case, the players suddenly stop and have to judge the amount of risk. They know something is there, but don’t know what.

The trick is to give your players hints that they are in danger without revealing enough for them to avoid that danger. In movies, this can be done by showing the audience the threat (the monsters lurking behind the door) but not showing it to the hero (about to open the door). This is a little harder in a role-playing game, since players are both audience and heroes.

You can use foreshadowing techniques to some extent. Fleeting, incomplete, and inaccurate glimpses of the major villains will put characters on their toes. The characters can discover Vecna’s grim handiwork just moments after the fact. Ancient manuscripts suggest the full extent of Vecna’s power. Even his Hand and his Eye, as powerful artifacts, only suggest the full extent of Vecna’s power.

Eye of the Wyvern (1999) by Jeff Grubb

Eye of the Wyvern and its twin adventure Wrath of the Minotaur both teach the game using sections with titles like “Funky Dice,” “The Physics of a Gaming Session,” and “The Fine Art of Winging It.”

The adventures even include scripted text for the DM to read to new players who apparently have no idea what activity awaits them.

“What we’re going to do here is tell a story, a story that you’re going to help create. Each of you has a character: a fighter, a wizard, or a rogue. The story takes place in a world filled with monsters, treasure, and adventure. I’m going to be the Dungeon Master, or DM. I’ll describe what your characters see, and you’re going to tell me what your characters do in response.“

Dead characters

The adventure gives advice for character deaths that I’ve never seen before or since. “Just replay.” in video games gamers routinely replay bad outcomes often, but on the tabletop the suggestion feels like a violation of the social contract. Perhaps replaying should not feel like a transgression, especially with a table of new players.

With some lucky dice rolls for the ghoul and some unlucky ones for the characters, the ghoul might be able to paralyze and defeat all the characters if it decides to stay around and fight. This might be a cruel thing to do to the characters (and their players), but it would be a good way to show the players how dangerous a monster like the ghoul can be. (And you can always back up and start the adventure over, or just replay the scene in the library, if you want to give the characters another chance.)

Sock puppets

Eye of the Wyvern includes ravenous little lizard-gremlins called wyverlings, and Grubb gives DMs fun advice for playing them while using your hands as puppets.

One easy prop to use to show wyvernling action is to hold up your hand, thumb in front of the palm. Touch the ring and middle fingers to your thumb and extend the whole outward. You now have a rough approximation of a wyvernling head, which you can use to demonstrate all types of wyvernling activity. Sock puppets work, too, but this is good on the fly.

Crypt of the Smoke Dragon (1999) by Jeff Grubb

Despite already publishing two starter adventures in the same year, TSR later printed a third, free intoduction also by Jeff Grubb. Crypt of the Smoke Dragon uses a “demo version” of D&D that only requires d6s. It includes 3d6 rolls to hit and for ability checks. Plus, none of the foes have parents, so it meets another of my starter adventure rules. (See 6 Things to Include in a 1st-Level D&D Adventure.) It even includes a (smoke) dragon boss battle.

Make the adventure your own

When the heroes try something that isn’t covered in the text, just make it up! Even better, make something up in each scene so that the adventure is uniquely your own. That’s the fun of the D&D game.

Call to adventure

Crypt of the Smoke Dragon gives each pregenerated PC a motivation to go adventure even though the players will proceed just because they sat for a D&D game. One seeks the destruction of evil, one treasure, one knowledge, and one just feels loyal to the other PCs. For more on motivating adventurers, see The D&D Adventures That Stumble by Missing the Hook.

H1 Keep on the Shadowfell (2008) by Bruce Cordell and Mike Mearls

The fourth edition’s introductory adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell, makes subtle change that marks a big improvement. The 1999 introductory modules included four characters, three male and one female. This adventure leaves the names and genders of the pregenerated character blank so players set a gender. Too bad all the PCs’ illustrations appear male.

Way back in 1987, I embarrassed myself by creating a batch of male pregenerated for my event at Gen Con. A woman sat down and asked if any of the characters were female.

Hint: If you ever create characters for other players, always leave the gender unspecified. The (hopefully) ambiguous names I used for my last batch of PCs include Doc (cleric), Lucky (rogue), Sparky (wizard), Sprig (druid), Moxie (fighter), Roamy (Ranger). I could have left the names blank, but making names proved too much fun.

Make the adventure your own, part 2

You want to create a seamless world that seems both deep and exciting. You can accomplish this by adding story elements to the game when the opportunity arises.

Perhaps you think Wrafton’s Inn needs a bard stroking a lyre by the fire as he sings of Sir Keegan’s tragedy. Or perhaps you want to add flavor to a mundane object, such as the wyrmpriest’s necklace from the Kobold Ambush encounter.

Anything you can do to add your personal touch to an adventure makes it that much more distinctive and memorable to your players. Immerse them in the story, and you’ll all be rewarded with a unique experience.

The adventure recommends making NPCs distinct by giving them an accent or favorite saying, showing them with a favorite thing like a lucky coin or pet cat, or adding a personality-related adjective like “greedy, bored, suspicious, tired, enthusiastic, sly, nervous, dumb, zealous, and so on.”

Helping indecisive players

Sometimes when you ask players what they want to do next, they won’t know. If this happens, try to move them in a certain direction by asking a leading question. For example, if players spend a long time after the kobold fight considering what to do next, you can ask, “Are you ready to continue toward Winterhaven?”

This advice works for novice DMs running their first adventure, but if the players have already decided to travel to Winterhaven, you can typically let their decision stand without revisiting whether they want to continue. To break through indecision while giving players a better sense of autonomy, list their most promising three options, and then remind them that they can chose an entirely different action. See The Best DM Tricks for Helping a Party Make Choices.

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins

Fifth edition’s introductory adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, still rates as one of the best for the game’s current version.

Don’t let rules questions stall the game

When in doubt, make it up! It’s better to keep the game moving than to get bogged down in the rules.

Be consistent. If you decide that a rule works a certain way in one session, make sure it works that way the next time it comes into play.

For advice on delegating rules questions, see Delegate to run better role-playing game sessions by doing less.

Share the narrative

It’s a shared story. It’s the group’s story, so let the players contribute to the outcome through the actions of their characters. Dungeons & Dragons is about imagination and coming together to tell a story as a group. Let the players participate in the storytelling.

Make sure everyone is involved. Ensure every character has a chance to shine. If some players are reluctant to speak up, remember to ask them what their characters are doing.

This reverses the early advice to designate a caller to speak for the party.

Read the table

Pay attention. Make sure you look around the table occasionally to see if the game is going well. If everyone seems to be having fun, relax and keep going. If the fun is waning, it might be time for a break, or you can try to liven things up.

Cloud Giant’s Bargain (2016) by Teos Abadia

When an Acquisitions Incorporated game streamed live to theaters, audiences received Cloud Giant’s Bargain as a perk. Although the adventure works for character levels 5-7, it also seeks to encourage fans of live play to run their first game.

If you are a new DM, it is perfectly normal to feel a bit apprehensive before your first session. Just remember: players need DMs to play. What you are doing is valuable and coveted. You don’t need a perfect understanding of the rules or to have Chris Perkins’ improvisational skills for players to have a great time. When in doubt, make decisions that you think the players will enjoy. The more often you run games as a DM, the easier it gets!

See Why Faking Confidence Makes You a Better Dungeon Master.

Name tents

Create a name tent by taking a note card or similar piece of cardstock and folding it in half. Open the fold to a right angle, so that it forms a display tent when the edges are placed on the table. Give one to each player and have them write their character’s name, race, and class on each outer side of the tent. This will allow you and the other players to remember character names and important details.

For advice on name tents and more, see 11 Great Dungeon Master Tips Revealed at Winter Fantasy 2020.

Going off script

If players lose sight of their goals or start chasing red herrings, the adventure recommends luring them back. “One thing to remember is that players often respond to something exciting, interesting, or profitable.”

An old school approach to failure

Unlucky dice can always turn against characters, however, allowing them to be overwhelmed. Defeat is always a possibility in Dungeons & Dragons-but that’s what makes victory so sweet.

The Hidden Halls of Hazacor (2018) by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Most introductory D&D adventures come directly from the TSR or Wizards of the Coast. After all, D&D’s publisher stands to reach virtually all new DMs first. Nonetheless this independent adventure, The Hidden Halls of Hazacor, gives first-time DMs an adventure stocked with guidance. And the adventure stands out for being the first and only adventure to give advice for some situations that have vexed DMs since 1974. The adventure targets kids and the writing aims for youngsters, but the advice works for any age.

Dealing with murderous treasure hunters

When some new players start playing a game that allows any choice of action, they relish the chance to shatter society’s rules of behavior, often in ways that disrupt the game for players who want to work together without making war with villagers.

Characters can be arrested in the stronghold for getting into fights, stealing from NPCs, climbing the stronghold walls, or trying to break into shops or apartments. So if any players talk about their characters wanting to do such things, it’s up to you to convince them it’s a bad idea.

Describe how there are guards everywhere in Purdey’s Rest, patrolling the streets and the market court. But also, characters will see guards eating in the taverns and visiting people at the inn. Purdey’s Rest is a safe place for its people, and the guards will keep it that way by kicking troublemakers out of the stronghold. If you need to, remind the players that they’ll have lots of chances to fight things in the dungeon.

For more on players who feel tempted to attack townsfolk, see Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.

Helping distressed players

If you see that a player is uncomfortable with your descriptions, change what you say so it doesn’t seem as real. A player will feel better about monsters and scary descriptions after they play for a while. One way to help with that is to give the player a chance to feel like a hero. During combat, describe how a successful hit by a character makes a monster stagger or fall back. This lets the player know they are in control, and that they don’t need to worry.

For a time my scary descriptions may have wrecked the fun, see My 5 Biggest Game Mastering Blunders Ever and What I Learned.

Running for empathetic players

When you run adventures as a GM, you might see that some players don’t like the idea of killing intelligent creatures, or monsters they feel sorry for. Some players might be upset if they feel as though the game is making them kill other creatures. So it’s important for you to remind the players that they always get to decide what their characters do. Instead of killing intelligent creatures like orcs, goblins, and kobolds, the characters can defeat them in combat, then threaten them into leaving.

The crates, barrels, and boxes of loot that the orcs and the goblins have collected are all stolen from merchants and travelers. It’s okay for the characters to take the stolen loot and sell it if that’s what they want to do. If any players are worried about taking things that were stolen, they can return the stolen goods to the guards in Purdey’s rest instead of selling them.

Arguments among players

Sometimes arguments are more serious. But you can still solve many serious arguments by talking to the players. If two of them want their characters to kill goblin bandits but the other players want to let the goblins go, ask all the players why they feel the way they do. The players who want to kill the goblins might just be worried that the sneaky goblins will come back and attack the party again. So ask for Wisdom (Insight) checks if you want the characters to know that the goblins are too scared to come back, and that the players don’t need to worry.

Sometimes you might have a different situation. Most of the players don’t want to kill the goblins because they feel sorry for them. But one player says they’re going to kill the goblins just to make the other players feel bad. You might have a player who ignores other players when they want to talk to monsters, and who always attacks instead. Or a player might say that since their character killed most of the monsters in an encounter, they deserve more treasure than anyone else. Fixing those kinds of arguments is harder. Because when a player tries to wreck the fun for other players on purpose, that’s a kind of bullying.

Just like with other arguments and problems in the game, you should try to fix bullying first by talking. Remind everyone that characters do best in the game when they work together. Tell the player that as the GM, you want everyone to have fun, and what they’re doing is hurting the fun for the other players. But sometimes a player who’s being a bully won’t stop. And if that happens, that’s the one time when you get to use your power as the GM to tell the player that their character can’t do what they want. You might even need to tell the player that if they don’t stop, they won’t be allowed to play in your game.

For more on player cooperation, see A Roleplaying Game Player’s Obligation.

Summarize the boring parts

When you decide things aren’t important, you can give the players a short summary instead. Traveling is often best summarized. If the characters leave the dungeon to rest up, then come back, you don’t need to play out having them move through every room like you did when they first explored. You can just tell them that the dungeon is dark and quiet as they go back to where they left off.

See Just Because a Dungeon Numbers Every Room Doesn’t Mean Players Have To Explore Room-by-Room and What Choose-Your-Adventure Books Can Teach Game Masters About Pacing and Decisions.

Peril in Pinebrook (2023) by Shawn Merwin

Peril in Pinebrook is a free, introductory adventure designed for new and young Dungeons & Dragons players and inspired by The Practically Complete Guide to Dragons. For a more accessible experience, it includes a simplified version of fifth edition’s rules and premade character sheets.

Let players succeed

Use “Yes, and …” or “No, but …” Allow the players to succeed as much as possible, and let them participate in the telling of the story. If they want to try something unexpected, try to say “yes” and then work their ideas into the story. If you have to say “no” to a player’s idea, suggest options that let them do something similar.

Allow Alternatives. D&D is a game of fantasy, where heroes use wits, skill, and determination to overcome obstacles. Sometimes those obstacles are defeated with weapons and spells. But characters can succeed in other ways. Communicating with monsters, tricking them or frightening them away, or avoiding a fight while cleverly sneaking past a challenge can be just as much fun. Such options are ideal if anyone playing the game wants to avoid violence.

The advice to let players succeed reminds DMs to allow player ingenuity rather than looking for whatever solution we have in mind, but still acknowledges that not every idea works. See Challenging Your Players’ Skill Without Risking Frustration and Sometimes I Tell Players No, but “Say Yes” Made Me a Better Dungeon Master.

Listening as a safety tool

Encourage your players to speak to you, publicly or privately, if something in the game upsets them. Then respond appropriately. For instance, you can move past upsetting topics by quickly narrating a resolution to a scene, then quickly move to the next part of the story.

Avoid character deaths

Peril in Pinebrook started a controversy by suggesting ways for DMs to avoid killing new player’s characters. “You can intervene if the characters seem to be losing the battle. For instance, you can give the characters advantage on attack rolls or give the monsters disadvantage on attack rolls.” The adventure also advises DMs to avoid focusing fire on a single PC. For more on sparing characters, see How To Adjust Combat Difficulty on the Fly Using the Magic of Roleplaying.

Before scorning the advice, consider that even Gary Gygax recommended occasional mercy for characters. In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.110), he wrote, “Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. In the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time. Yet you do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonable severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for-player character when they have played well.

The Latest D&D Studio Update on the 2024 Core Rule Books Should Have Excited Me, but It Just Made Me Apprehensive

The latest D&D Studio update on the 2024 core rule books should have excited me, but it just made me apprehensive.

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons started as a game with a strong foundation, strong enough that when I imagined the changes that would best improve the game, I just wished for replacements for the annoying spells, overpowered feats, and toothless monsters—the game’s features atop the foundation.

So far, the playtest and design team’s reports excited me, because the preview showed that the team understood the pain points in the 2014 game and sought ways to relieve them. But now I’m concerned.

Until now, only one change struck me as a bad idea: The design team chose to strengthen 1st-level characters in the worst way. Instead of making new characters more durable by giving them a few extra hit points, the designers opted to make new characters more complicated by adding an extra feat.

Gen Con D&D welcome signTo welcome new players, 1st-level characters need to become a bit more durable—just another 5 hp or so. This boost would spare them from starting as fragile as soap bubbles. D&D should not prove deadliest at 1st level. Sure, some of us love the challenge of 1st level, but to a new player who invested time creating a character often with a personality and backstory, a quick death just feels like a major loss. Such failures push players away from the game. We all know the problem. To avoid such disappointments, the D&D team seems to love the now worn trope of starting characters safely at a fair or carnival. I typically contrive a way for characters to gain the benefit of an aid spell as reward for a good deed.

At conventions and game stores, I’ve introduced hundreds of players to D&D and a key lesson stands out: Simpler characters work better. The 2014 design team made a winning choice when they kept new characters streamlined, but the 2024 redesign adds complexity by giving new characters another feat to choose and to play. For new players, the addition risks making the game feel overwhelming. Maybe that’s fine. New players confronted with a pre-generated character always find it overwhelming, but at the end of the session, they typically feel comfortable with the basics.

Surely, lead designer Jeremy Crawford can point to Unearthed Arcana surveys that show the sort of super-invested D&D players who spent an hour completing the playtest surveys love the extra feat, but that just proves players who mastered the game enjoy characters sweetened with more power. Candy isn’t always good for us or the game.

D&D fans already knew about the extra feat and I accept that not every aspect of D&D will suit me. However, another reveal from the studio update leads me to worry. Jeremy Crawford says, “We’re making sure that every major piece of class design does appear in Unearthed Arcana at least once, but there are going to be some brand new spells that people won’t see until the book is out. There are a bunch of monsters people won’t see until the books are out. There are magic items people won’t see until the books are out.”

Apparently the team feels that class features deserve the scrutiny of the D&D public, but spells don’t. Apparently the team failed to learn from the public playtest leading to the 2014 core books.

In D&D, if you play a spellcaster, your spell list forms the bulk of your abilities. So every wizard tends to prepare the same powerful spells on the list. Spells deserve the same scrutiny as class features. In 2016, when I looked at the most annoying spells in the D&D game, I learned that none of the problem spells appeared in the public playtest documents. Back then, the design team figured their in-house playtesting would suffice for these spells. That proved wrong. Thanks to the power of certain annoying spells, the spells weighed on just about every session with a character able to cast one.

Now the team seems to be falling victim to the same overconfidence. Perhaps the team would say they’ve learned from 10 years of experience and can better evaluate new game elements. Surely that’s true, but still they recently released twilight domain clerics and silvery barbs, so I see a some hubris behind touting all the new surprises in the new books.

I don’t want all new surprises. I want a game polished to perfection because it benefits from 10 years of play.

Related: The One D&D Playtest: Big and Small Surprises and Why I Like the Controversial Critical Hit Rule

 

What Choose-Your-Adventure Books Can Teach Game Masters About Pacing and Decisions

The play loop at the heart of a roleplaying game session focuses on decision making. The game master describes a situation. When the players face a decision they make a choice, and then the rules help determine an outcome and the game master describes that result. The situation changes, leading to a new decision. Repeat until everyone breaks for pizza.

In a role-playing game, scenes focus attention on the times when players fight a battle, talk to a non-player character, or or rush to escape the caverns beneath an erupting volcano. During scenes, players take moment-by-moment control of their characters. In combat, decisions come with each turn and the rules spell out the results. In roleplaying scenes, players speak for their characters and the game plays like a conversation. Scenes simplify the game’s core play loop so much that the game master can focus on running the players’ friends and foes.

Outside of scenes, game masters have a harder time knowing when to stop narrating and when to ask, “What do you want to do?” Every game master knows to pause to give the players chances to make decisions, but the challenge comes from finding the right moments to ask. If you ask players who lack a goal, they may just shrug. If you ask players with a goal who face no obstacles, then they only face a choice between carry on and quit. If you narrate past the moment characters want to act, then players become spectators. If you pause too often, then players feel mired in minutiae. But if you pick the perfect moments, the pacing in your game improves and players feel like they guide the action.

In a How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure, I used the term summary for the game time out of scenes, dividing play into scenes and summary. That article helped game masters start successful scenes by looking for moments when the characters’ goal reaches an obstacle. A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time, speeding past the times when players travel a safe road, search a library, or collect a reward from a patron.

Buffalo Castle solo dungeon (1976) for Tunnels & Trolls

Buffalo Castle solo dungeon (1976) for Tunnels & Trolls

However, a lot of gameplay happens outside of scenes, and my categories of scene and summary fail to include most exploration. Scenes aside, the situation-decision loop most resembles choose-your-adventure books. Such books distill a roleplaying game’s core loop to a printed page. A passage describes a situation that readers imagine themselves in. At the end of the description, the text offers a menu of choices. The reader picks one and pages to the numbered passage that describes the outcome and sets the new scene. Solo adventures like the ones for Tunnels & Trolls follow the same format. Roleplaying games beat choose-you-adventure books by featuring a game master ready to allow surprising decisions and to run the supporting cast in scenes, but the pattern matches.

Choose-your-adventure books set a good example because they typically avoid the missteps that GMs make running the situation-decision loop in live games.

Choose-your-adventure books start characters with a goal. Characters need a goal or they have no reason to act. When D&D started, the game’s goal was to gather loot, but as the story and character started driving the game, players opted for higher goals. Nowadays, most players create characters with individual goals, often in collaboration with the group. See A Roleplaying Game Player’s Obligation.

To start an adventure, before you ever ask players for a decision, you typically hook them with a short-term goal for the whole party. The best hooks appeal to characters’ individual goals and often add an enigma to arouse players’ curiosity. When you don’t know the characters, create hooks that appeal to both paladins and rogues, to both do-gooders and treasure hunters. For more on hooks, see Whether You Call Them Rumors, Secrets, Clues, Hooks, or Leads, These Nuggets of Information Power Adventures and Campaigns.

Choose-your-adventure books offer choices that seem to lead toward the characters’ goal. Imagine trying to start an adventure by revealing that long ago a mighty warrior hid a magic sword in a long-forgotten location, and then asking the players what they want to do. The mere rumor would leave players with no clear choice of action, so the game stalls. Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal.

Even after you set the hook, future decision points should come when the players see options that might lead to success. Otherwise, players feel stuck. For more about options that lead to a goal, see How the Flawed Hooks in Descent Into Avernus Might Make D&D Players Feel Railroaded.

The Cave of Time (1979) choose your own adventure book

The Cave of Time (1979) choose your own adventure book

Choose-your-adventure books offer multiple options. The author of a choose-your-adventure book would never dare end a passage with one option, because the fun comes from choosing. But game masters never feel obligated to list the players’ options, so a lack of choices is less obvious. Nonetheless, if an adventure only ever gives one choice, players will notice the pattern. While dutifully following the one clear choice, they may feel railroaded.

As a game master, my favorite moments during a 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. Players only occasionally face decisions so compelling, but a choice of one option becomes no choice at all. Asking for a decision just hides a shameful lack of options.

A D&D game can offer choices between two similar doors, and players will appreciate the option, but the best decisions come with enough information to make each selection different and promising.

Characters in a roleplaying game have freedom to attempt any action. Sometimes that latitude leaves players struggling to sift through options in search of a few promising choices. Too often, players may feel confused by their predicament in the game world. Either way, summarizing the situation and listing the most obvious choices cuts through the fog and brings focus.

If a decision leaves players struggling to choose an action, list the three most promising options, and then remind the group that they can also choose an option of their own. After all, unlike a book, you’re ready for anything.

For more on choices and information, see Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?. Also see How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices and The Best DM Tricks for Helping a Party Make Choices.

Choose-your-adventure books describe time passing until the character’s situation changes. Until the players face a decision, you can summarize any amount of game-world time in narration, from seconds to years. Don’t feel like you have to keep pausing to revisit decisions the players already made. Only pause when the situation changes.

If the players have already made the relevant choices, describe passing time until the situation changes, typically until players face obstacles. Pacing falters when DMs ask for a decision even when players just have a choice to keep going toward their goal or to give up. None of this means that players have to dutifully sit through narration that covers a month’s journey. Invite players to interrupt at any time. A good summary leaves players with a sense of passing events and with chances to pause and make decisions.

For example, dungeons tend to start with key choices over marching order, light, and strategy. Does the party plan to explore carefully or rush ahead to stop the midnight ritual? Will they listen at doors or check for traps? Does someone scout? Once these choices set a pattern and the dungeon starts to seem familiar, DMs can summarize the exploration until the situation changes. You can switch your pace between methodical exploration and summary many times during a session. In the areas with nothing new to discover and no threats to face, and no new decisions to make, take the shortcut of summarizing. Then when the players encounter something new, slow to a pace that lets them account for every action.

See Just Because a Dungeon Numbers Every Room Doesn’t Mean Players Have To Explore Room-by-Room.

Choose-your-adventure books end descriptions when readers feel eager to act. As a GM, you stop talking when (1) players have something to do or a decision to make and (2) the players understand enough to make a sensible decision. The barbarian needs to know about the lava-filled trench before making the choice to charge the dragon. All this may seem obvious, but it leads to some less obvious advice.

When you set a scene, the end of your narration should highlight something that dares the heroes to act. The best narration can skip the what-do-you-want-to-do question because they leave players eager to take action. Sometimes, that invitation to action comes from the monsters in the room. More often, some curious feature simply begs a closer look.

See End Your Descriptions With Something That Inspires Players To Act

Resist the temptation to start scenes late. The authors of choose-your-adventure books can succumb to the same weaknesses as game masters, I suspect we share a fault: As we narrate the start of a scene, things happen that make readers or players want to act. We talk about a changing situation, and then we keep talking. While choose-your-adventure readers can only grumble, players can stop the game.

If you run D&D for long enough, you’ll come to a situation where you must rewind game time because your enthusiasm for the villain’s big moment leads you to keep talking well after the players decide to act. Who can blame game masters? We planned for the bad guy’s monologue or culminating ritual and we want to follow it through before the players ruin it. Meanwhile, the players start throwing dice.

Sometimes even adventure boxed text suffers from the same authorial hubris. The author of a long, boxed passage becomes so eager to describe a scene develop that it becomes the tabletop equivalent to a cut scene. For a while, published adventures routinely offered boxed text that spanned columns. Sometimes the boxed text even narrated actions for the players. “As you step into the room…” In practice, no DM ever finished such readings before a player blurted, “I attack!” (In the authors’ defense, at times TSR published adventures written for an audience of readers rather than dungeon masters because no one could possibly play the avalanche of game content the company printed.)

The tempo of decisions sets the pace of the game. Gamers joke that in D&D, seconds of combat take hours to play out, while weeks of travel pass in seconds. Much of a difference in pace stems from how frequently players make decisions. Combat encounters and roleplaying scenes fill time with nonstop choices, but can still feel fast paced. During the game’s slower periods, the game master merely summarizes the passage of time with few choices. Either way, the amount of narration between choices affects pacing. By adding more descriptions, the game’s pace slows. This might give players a break from the intensity of a major battle.

Roleplaying game sessions typically alternate between fast-paced scenes where players face rapid decisions, and slower spans of time where players travel or explore while making fewer choices. This ebb and flow creates a pleasing contrast between intense action scenes, suspenseful periods of exploration and discovery, and easy breaks where characters recover and players plan.

Related: For D&D Travel, Steer Clear Of Rolls Versus Random Punishment

D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—1. D&D Becomes a Target of the Satanic Panic

Content warning for discussion of murder, suicide, and mentions of child abuse.

Through the 1980s, Satan made regular headlines. Folks kept blaming the devil for luring kids to murder, suicide, and ritual sacrifice. Police dutifully investigated. The falsely accused sometimes went to prison only to be cleared years later. And the media trumpeted every lurid moment. Concerned parents found the devil’s work in heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, and especially day care centers. The fervor became known as the Satanic Panic.

The panic started in 1980, but its power came from the culture of the seventies.

Throughout the seventies, the counterculture of the sixties lingered as a new age passion for astrology, crystals, and such. To some, things like tarot cards and witchcraft just seemed like a way to explore their spirituality in daring ways, but Christian fundamentalists saw the fad as an invitation to the devil.

In 1969, Charles Manson led his followers to perform a series of murders. The group staged the killings to appear ritualistic, leading the public to search for other murderous cults potentially inspired by the devil. The seventies had no more serial killers than other eras, but serial killers now got nationwide attention. The public learned how killers could seem like friends and neighbors, and how their bloody crimes might follow a ritual pattern. The Zodiac Killer even coined his nickname from astrology.

In the media, The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey reached bookstores in 1969 and went to sell over a million copies. In 1973 the The Exorcist set box office records. The movie claimed to be based on a true story.

Meanwhile, the number of women working outside the home surged. They put their children in day care, but they felt guilty about it and feared time outside the home might somehow damage their children.

To battle what seemed like a rise of a depraved and godless culture, conservative Christians like Jerry Falwell organized the religious right into a voting block and helped elect Ronald Reagan as president.

Together, these trends created the right culture for a panic. The furor started when a 1980 book titled Michelle Remembers became a bestseller. The book tells how its author, psychiatrist Dr. Larry Pazder, treated a housewife named Michelle Smith using a technique called “recovered-memory therapy.” Prazder claimed to have uncovered Smith’s repressed memories from when she was five years old. She claimed to remember being given to a satanic cult and enduring 14 months of captivity and torture, while seeing ritual murders and mutilations, often involving babies. Today, recovered memory therapy is discredited as pseudoscience, but then many accepted Smith’s stories as fact. Pazder and Smith established themselves as authorities in “Satanic Ritual Abuse,” and they became resources for psychologists and law enforcement authorities. They made television appearances on shows like Oprah.

An anxious public came alert to the threat of satanic cults hiding next door, and they started seeing the devil’s influence everywhere.

In 1983, a California mother named Judy Johnson accused staff at her son’s preschool of abusing him. Questioned by investigators, her accusations grew to include sexual encounters with animals and a story of one teacher flying through the air. Prosecutors found no evidence, but the investigation expanded to interviewing several hundred children who had attended to school. Interviewers used suggestive techniques that invited children to pretend or speculate on supposed events. Children told of sexual abuse, and also of flying witches, hot air balloon trips, animal sacrifices, and a goat man. During the interviews, one child identified Chuck Norris from a photo as one of the abusers. Based on media reports, the day care seemed like a front for a satanic cult. The investigation lasted until 1987, and trials until 1990, when all charges were dropped without convictions. After a 12-day psychiatric examination during the affair, Judy Johnson was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

Original Proctor & Gamble logo

Original Proctor & Gamble logo

News media and talk shows made the scandal into a national spectacle. Across the country, people found clues that seemed to reveal satanic cults hiding everywhere. Rumors spread that the consumer goods corporation Proctor & Gamble supported Satan. The evidence came from the company’s man-in-the moon logo from 1882. Part of the man’s beard resembled a reversed number 666 and the image included thirteen stars, a reference to the thirteen original U.S. colonies. Law enforcement officers trained to spot cult activities and traded information about satanic calendars, symbols, and supposed organizations. Authorities spent millions investigating hundreds of accusations of satanic abuse, especially in day care centers. They put suspects in jail and ruined lives and families. Eventually though, the cases proved baseless.

While this panic raged, D&D featured devilish-looking creatures and idols on the covers of its rule books. Inside, concerned parents found descriptions of demons, devils, and spells that could summon them. In 1979, the public learned about the game from reports that painted the game as “bizarre” and its players as “cultish.” During the Satanic Panic, D&D became a lightning rod.

D&D co-creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson both identified as Christians. Gary’s devotion even led him to refuse to celebrate Christmas, in part because of the holiday’s pagan roots. But Gygax recognized D&D as make believe and happily added elements from real Christian religion to the game. That included holy men who could walk on water and turn sticks into snakes. He added demons named in Christian sources. If demons and devils served as foes to kill, Gygax saw them as fair game for pretending.

However, fundamentalists saw the game differently. In 1980, Utah parents demanded that Wasatch High School ban its D&D club because the game’s lack of holy reverence for biblical miracles like water walking and resurrection. Christian Life Ministries examined D&D and reported on the dangers they perceived. “If it’s only a game, why do they use hundreds of traditional Christian terms? And why do they use them in such blatantly blasphemous ways?? Why??” Across the country, parents fought to rid D&D from their schools.

In 1982, teenager Irving “Bink” Pulling II committed suicide. The Washington Post reported that the boy had trouble fitting in. A classmate said, “He had a lot of problems anyway that weren’t associated with the game.” On his death, his mother Patricia Pulling learned for the first time that Irving had been playing D&D for the last two years. She blamed the strange game for her son’s death and started a crusade against D&D. She founded the group BADD, short for Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons. She sued her son’s high school principal for negligently allowing D&D play at the school. She sued D&D publisher TSR and accused the company of brainwashing kids and leading them to the occult. “If kids can believe in a god they can’t see then it’s very easy for them to believe in occult deities they can’t see.”

Televangelists like Pat Robertson, whose Christian Broadcasting Network reached millions, connected the game to “news reports of murders, suicides, fantasy mental changes. Young people are going totally crazy as a result of this game.” Evangelist Jack Chick published Dark Dungeons (1984), a comic that aimed to show readers how D&D led to Satan.

Many parents saw the alarm about devil worship as silly, but they still worried that the game blurred reality and fantasy in unhealthy ways, potentially causing psychological damage. The news offered plenty of stories to support that fear. For a while in the eighties, anytime a young victim of suicide happened to play D&D, the media reported on the D&D angle. A youth convicted in a murder case even tried to use D&D as part of his defense, claiming the game accustomed him to violence and led him away from God. Whenever tragedy struck the lives of young people who happened to play D&D, parents looked for something to blame, and the strange new game they didn’t understand seemed like an obvious culprit.

In 1985 more than 22 million people watched a segment linking Dungeons & Dragons to suicide and murder on the prime-time news show 60 Minutes. The report interviewed Pat Pulling and her tearful daughter. Gygax defended his game, but he stood little chance against the emotional appeal. On 60 Minutes, part of the entertainment comes from showing apparently guilty culprits squirm under the camera. Gygax tried to explain that D&D’s surging popularity meant that millions of kids played the game and, separately, some of those kids happened to be involved in tragedy. He aptly called criticism of D&D a witch hunt. The segment steered away from the devil-worship angle and toward the notion that the game damaged young minds. Still, psychiatrist Thomas Radecki talked about parents who saw their son “summon a Dungeons & Dragons demon into his room before he killed himself.”

To defend D&D from claims that the game threatened emotional harm, TSR hired psychologist and TV personality Dr. Joyce Brothers. TSR avoided ever showing gameplay that blurred reality with fantasy, so Gen Con banned any “live action events.”

To defend D&D from claims that the game lured kids to the occult, TSR removed the devilish idols and efreet from the covers of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide in favor of more wholesome pictures in 1983. Then they renamed Deities & Demigods to Legends & Lore. The game’s second edition removed the words “devil” and “demon” and replaced them with the purely make-believe terms “tanar’ri” and “baatezu.”

Today, most parents’ opinion of D&D completely reverses the fears of the eighties. Parents see the game as a creative activity that teaches teamwork, encourages reading, practices arithmetic, fosters social skills, and creates real-world friendships. Today’s parents fear that children spend too much time glued to screens, so best of all, D&D games encourage kids to spend time with friends together at the kitchen table.

Go back to number 10.

D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—2. Child Genius Disappears, Creating the Media Furor That Introduced D&D to America

On August 15, 1979, a 16-year-old college student and computer nerd named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from Michigan State University. His parents hired private detective William Dear to find their missing boy.

Dallas Egbert played D&D, a game that seemed strange enough to becomes Dear’s key lead. The detective focused his hunt on the notion that Egbert had played Dungeons & Dragons in the eight miles of steam tunnels under the university and remained lost, hidden, or trapped. Dear wondered if D&D had broken the “fragile barrier between fantasy and reality.” Perhaps D&D left Egbert so deluded that he believed he was a wizard exploring the dungeon. Perhaps his attempt to make the game real had left him hurt or even dead in the tunnels. “Dallas might actually have begun to live the game, not just to play it.”The Dungeon Master by William Dear

Egbert’s disappearance introduced Dungeons & Dragons to America. The reports painted the game as “bizarre” and its players as a “cult.” A story in The New York Times speculated that Egbert became lost “while playing an elaborate version of a bizarre intellectual game called Dungeons & Dragons.”

“Students at Michigan State University and elsewhere reportedly have greatly elaborated on the game, donning medieval costumes and using outdoor settings to stage the content.”

On September 9, The San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner published an article titled, “Fantasy cult angle probed in search for computer whiz.”

“Police hunting for a missing 16-year-old computer whiz, yesterday completed a futile search of tunnels beneath the Michigan State University campus where fantasy lovers acted out roles in a bizarre game.”

Reporters consistently painted D&D as a “bizarre” game enjoyed by “secretive” and “cultish” players. Under the story lies the notion that D&D pulls players so deeply into fantasy that they lose touch with reality—that the game lures players to play out the fantasy in real life.

On September 13, less than a month after the disappearance, Egbert called and revealed his location. The teen’s attempt to flee depression had led him on a trek that took him to the home of an older male “admirer,” to Chicago, and then to Morgan City, Louisiana. During his trek, he survived two suicide attempts.

Egbert had turned to D&D for respite from his other troubles. He faced intense academic pressure from parents who had pushed him to skip two grades. He was gay at a time when few people accepted or tolerated the trait. (Later, he would beg Dear to keep this secret hidden.) In the book Perfect Victims, journalist Bill James writes, “Egbert was living among older kids who had nothing in common with him and who didn’t particularly like him. He was regarded as an irritating little twerp. He was 16, but looked 12. He got involved in numerous campus activities and groups, each of which devised a new kind of rejection for him.”

In a press conference, Dear said the teenager’s disappearance was not related to Dungeons & Dragons. But the detective still saw D&D as a bad influence. “You’re leaving the world of reality into the world of fantasy,” Dear said. “This isn’t a healthy game.”

The story of James Dallas Egbert ends sadly. In 1980, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Perhaps if he had lived just a little longer, his tale could have led to a happier ending. The intelligence that isolated him could have become an asset. The secret that tormented him became more accepted. Perhaps, in more time, D&D could have helped him find his people.

For the full story, see The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America.

Next: Number 1.

D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—3. Wizards of the Coast Attempts To Revoke the Current Open Gaming License

In 1997 Wizards of the Coast bought Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR, rescuing the company from bankruptcy. New D&D head Ryan Dancey looked for ways to turn the game into a healthy business. Dancey saw fan contributions as an enhancement to the D&D community that strengthened the game’s place in the market. Support from fans and from third-party publishers encouraged more people to play D&D. Dancey wrote, “This is a feedback cycle—the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is.” Besides, the numbers showed that the D&D business made money selling core books. Why not let fans and other companies bear the weight of supporting the game with low-profit adventures, settings, and other add-ons?

Dancey’s thinking led to the introduction of the Open Gaming License and the d20 License. Using these licenses gamers and gaming companies could create and distribute products compatible with the D&D rules. Sometimes the products competed with Wizard’s own publications, but the overall contributions from the community helped the game flourish. Other role-playing game companies recognized the success of this strategy and introduced similar licenses for their games.

The OGL granted a perpetual license, encouraging game publishers to view the OGL as a safe agreement to base investments on. “When v1.0a was published and authorized, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast did so knowing that they were entering into a perpetual licensing regime,” Dancey said. However, the OGL does not grant an irrevocable license, and to lawyers, perpetual licenses can sometimes be revoked.

In 2022, Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks and Wizards of the Coast CEO Cynthia Williams appeared in a presentation for investors. Williams touted D&D’s popularity but described the game “under monetized.” Wizards aimed to do a better job of gaining income from the game, bringing more earnings to stockholders.

With monetization in mind, Wizards executives probably looked at other publishers profiting from D&D-compatible products and felt D&D’s owner deserved a cut. Royalties on a million-dollar Kickstarter for a D&D-compatible product would hardly move the bottom line of a company the size of Hasbro, but multiply that cut by 10 or more multi-dollar dollar kickstarters per year, every year, and the payoff adds up. So, the company asked lawyers to find a way break the OGL, and the legal team found a potential out in the word “authorized.”

The OGL states, “You may use any authorized version of this License.” What if Wizards simply declared current version of the license “unauthorized,” and then replaced the OGL with a new version containing terms that favored the company? Wizards prepared a FAQ that explained, “OGL 1.0a only allows creators to use ‘authorized’ versions of the OGL which allows Wizards to determine which of its prior versions to continue to allow use of when we exercise our right to update the license. As part of rolling out OGL 2.0, we are deauthorizing OGL 1.0a from future use and deleting it from our website. This means OGL 1.0a can no longer be used to develop content for release.”

The new OGL license required publishers to register their products, demanded royaties from larger publishers, and enabled Wizards to revoke the new agreement. Wizards surely knew such a move would meet resistance from the D&D community, but they made some allowances to minimize criticism.

  • The new OGL introduced some high-minded changes such as rules that prohibited material that is “blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, trans-phobic, bigoted or otherwise discriminatory.” Wizards undoubtedly supported such additions, but they also gave the company a way to claim that the new agreement came from noble goals. In a FAQ, Wizards states, “OGL wasn’t intended to fund major competitors and it wasn’t intended to allow people to make D&D apps, videos, or anything other than printed (or printable) materials for use while gaming. We are updating the OGL in part to make that very clear.”
  • The new OGL only demanded royalties from the few companies who grossed more than $750,000 on D&D-comparable products. Wizards probably hoped that this would leave the vast number of D&D creators with no cause for complaint. That proved a miscalculation, perhaps because most D&D creators eyeing a million-dollar Kickstarter think, someday that could be my project.
  • The high-royalty rates in the new OGL only represented an opening offer in a negotiation. In late 2022 Wizards gathered about 20 third-party creators to outline the new OGL and to offer 15% royalty rate rather than 25% to publishers willing to sign a separate agreement. For growing companies, the OGL promised, “If You appear to have achieved great success…from producing OGL: Commercial content, We may reach out to You for a more custom (and mutually beneficial) licensing arrangement.”

Likely Wizards executives hoped big publishers would come to terms before the new OGL became public, smaller publisher and fans would consider themselves unaffected by the OGL, and any lingering objections would be forgotten. They miscalculated. A draft of the new OGL leaked, igniting a firestorm of criticism.

For eight days, Wizard’s avoided commenting on the leak. According to insiders, the company’s managers saw fans as overreacting and calculated that in a few months everyone would forget the uproar. The company drafted a FAQ they hoped would soothe fans and help speed acceptance.

Meanwhile, many of the biggest OGL publishers announced plans to drop the OGL or to introduce their own gaming licenses for their product. A fan-led campaign to send a clear message to Wizards by canceling D&D Beyond subscriptions went viral. So many gamers went to the site to stop payments that the traffic temporary shutdown the page. The story reached mainstream news.

Wizards of the Coast got the message. They scrambled to make accommodations, first by promising to remove the most onerous provisions from the new license, and then by committing to keep the existing OGL. Ultimately, Wizards put the Systems Reference Document for D&D 5.1 into the Creative Commons using a perpetual, irrevocable open license agreement outside the company’s control.

Related: The Legal Fight Over Happy Birthday and What It May Tell Us About D&D’s Rumored OGL 1.1

Next: Number 2.

D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—4. Fourth Edition Sparks an Edition War and the Creation of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game

While the Dungeons & Dragons team developed the game‘s fourth edition for a 2008 release, they faced problems from several directions. Corporate owners Hasbro brought a big corporate cost structure and return on investment expectations set by Magic the Gathering and Pokémon. As third edition sales sagged, the D&D team endured annual Christmas-season layoffs. World of Warcraft debuted in 2004 and experienced surging popularity. By 2008, the WoW community hit more than 11 million players. D&D fans saw fellow players switch their attention to the online game and disappear from tabletop games.

To compete, D&D needed a big advance—a new edition that didn’t just improve the game but an edition capable of winning Warcraft players by matching some of what drew players to online games. “As far as I know, fourth edition was the first set of rules to look to videogames for inspiration,” D&D designer Mike Mearls said. “I wasn’t involved in the initial design meetings for the game, but I believe that MMOs played a role in how the game was shaped. I think there was a feeling that D&D needed to move into the MMO space as quickly as possible.”

So, the new edition focused on the elements that might appeal to fans of online fantasy games. Mearls recalled that the team felt that “building a player character was the real thing that drove people to play the games. You wanted to choose your feats, your prestige classes and whatnot.” Lead designer Rob Heinsoo sought to give the game an irresistible hook that tied the game together and compelled gamers to play. “The solution James Wyatt, Andy Collins, and I were excited about was to give every PC an ongoing series of choices of interesting powers. Most every time you gain a level you select a new power or a feat. Every combat round you have an interesting choice of which power or powers to use.”

The game didn’t just need to be fun to play. It needed to be easy to run online. Casual DMs could simply buy an adventure, read the boxed text, and then run a sequence of skill challenges and combat encounters. In a skill challenge, the DM just had to decide if a skill helped the players—but only when the challenge’s description neglected to list a skill in advance. Ideally, Players could drop into the virtual tabletop at any hour, join any available DM, and feel confident that a stranger could deliver a fun experience. A thriving virtual table would let players join a game 24/7, just like Warcraft. And all those players would pay monthly, just like Warcraft.

Despite the lofty goals, the new edition divided D&D’s existing players and failed to win a generation of new fans.

While the D&D team readied their game for release, magazine and D&D adventure publisher Paizo planned their response. They sent future Pathfinder designer Jason Bulmahn to a convention that offered gamers and chance to preview the new edition. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens recalled, “We had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for.” She led her company to create Pathfinder, a game that boasted compatibility with the existing, third edition of D&D.

For gamers who shared the Paizo team’s distaste for the direction of fourth edition, Pathfinder offered an obvious alternative. And plenty of gamers chose the alternative. By 2010, rumors circulated that Pathfinder outsold D&D. The rumors proved false, but Pathfinder seemed to dominate many conventions and game stores. At Gen Con, its players filled the massive Sagamore Ballroom that had once hosted D&D play. Meanwhile, D&D players became exiles in a much smaller space.

“No one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them.’ That was never the intent,” Mike Mearls explained later. “With fourth edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say ‘hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.’”

From the D&D designers’ perspective, the market’s rejection of fourth edition stemmed from two causes: The game dared to change too much at once and suffered from a lack of design time.

The designers came to regret changing so much so fast. Steve Winter, a designer since D&D’s 2nd edition, wrote, “Fourth Edition was a glorious experiment that succeeded technically. Unfortunately, its breaks from the past were too severe for many fans, who didn’t pick up the new banner.” Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Knowing what I know now, I might have worked for smaller changes in the world, since shifting both the world and the mechanics at the same time proved difficult for some of the D&D faithful to swallow.”

More players might have accepted the change if the developers had gained time to perfect the edition. “We just ran out of runway.” Mearls explained “That’s kind of the story of fourth edition in a lot of ways. We ran out of runway as we were trying to get the plane up in the air.”

Fourth edition never emphasized D&D’s unique strengths. As Mearls put it, “I think what was happening was [fourth edition] was really focusing on really hardcore mechanics, the intricacies of how the rules interact. It really became about the rules and about mastering the rules, rather than about the story, or role-playing, or the interaction between the DM and the players.”

By the end of fourth edition’s run, the designers had perfected a game about building characters and showing them off in dynamic fights. Perhaps they lost some of what makes D&D uniquely compelling.

For the full story, see The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice.

Next: Number 3.

D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—5. D&D Splits Into Two Games With “No Similarity,” Provoking Lawsuits

D&D’s original Basic Set arrived in stores in the fall of 1977, but in only reached third level. For higher levels, the set directed players to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons—except the advanced game would take two more years to complete. The AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, which included the advanced combat tables, came in 1979. For 2 years, D&D players blended combat rules and magic items from the game’s original brown books with monsters from the AD&D Monster Manual, and later with the new races and classes from the AD&D Player’s Handbook (1978).

In the June 1979 issue of The Dragon, Gary Gygax made claims that baffled D&D fans used to playing with a mix of original, basic, and advanced D&D rules. “ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a different game. Readers please take note! It is neither an expansion nor a revision of the old game, it is a new game. It is necessary that all adventure gaming fans be absolutely aware that there is no similarity (perhaps even less) between D&D and AD&D than there is between D&D and its various imitators produced by competing publishers.”

Gary Gygax

AD&D never proved as different as Gygax claimed. His new version of D&D remained roughly compatible with the original. Supposedly, AD&D featured strict rules while original D&D featured room for customization, but everyone—even Gygax—changed and ignored AD&D rules to suit their tastes. Later, Gygax wrote, “I just DMed on the fly, so to speak, and didn’t use the rules books except for random encounters, monster stats, and treasure.”

Why did Gygax vehemently argue that AD&D held “no similarity” to D&D when the game’s fans found the claim laughable? Because D&D co-creator Dave Arneson felt that TSR owed him royalties for AD&D, while the company claimed Arneson only deserved royalties for the original game.

From Dave Arneson’s perspective, D&D came from his ideas. He had started with a sort of miniature game that had existed for generations and that appealed a tiny hobby, and then he had added the concepts that made a revolutionary game. Arneson invented a game where each player controlled a single character, and where a referee enabled players to attempt any action. He discovered the fun of looting dungeons. His fantasy game added characters defined by numeric attributes, and characters who could improve through experience.

From Gary Gygax’s perspective, he had labored for years on D&D. He had turned 20 pages of notes into the original rules. He had bet every cent he could scrape together on publishing an odd, risky game. In supplements and magazine articles, he enriched D&D. He defended it in letters and editorials. His friend Frank Mentzer wrote that for D&D, Gygax “paid the costs in stress on himself, his marriage, family, and friends.” Arneson had only planted an idea.

Dave Arneson (photo Kevin McColl)

Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax each argued that D&D’s success rested on his contribution. Both were correct, but that didn’t make sharing the wealth any easier. The court fight lasted until March 1981. The settlement granted Arneson a royalty of 2.5% of the cover price of core AD&D books. (In 1985, Arneson sued TSR again. His lawyers argued that the Monster Manual II—a collection of new monsters—qualified as a “revision” of the Monster Manual. Stop laughing. The court agreed.)

After Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR, they dropped the “Advanced” brand for the game’s third edition. In 30 Years of Adventure, Wizards CEO Peter Adkison wrote, Arneson “was supposed to get a royalty off of any product TSR published in the Dungeons & Dragons line. Previous owners ‘got around’ this royalty by publishing everything as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. To me this seemed silly. I talked with Dave, and we agreed that he would release all claims to Dungeons & Dragons if I simply gave him a big check. I did.”

For the full story, see Basic and Advanced—The Time Dungeons & Dragons Split Into Two Games.

Next: Number 4.

D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—6. The Melnibonéan and Cthulhu Mythoi Disappear From Deities & Demigods

In 1980, TSR published Deities & Demigods complete with sections describing the Melnibonéan mythos of Elric and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Meanwhile, another game publisher, Chaosium, prepared to release the licensed games Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu based on the same stories. They sent cease-and-desist letters to TSR.

The legal demand put TSR in a bind. TSR had gained letters granting permission to include the sections from Lovecraft publisher Arkham House and from Elric author Michael Moorcock. Armed with these letters, TSR could have fought. “The company wasn’t rich at that point,” explained TSR executive James Ward. Brian Blume, TSR’s head of operations, “didn’t want to go to California, get a California lawyer, and spend time and money winning the case.” TSR could have stopped selling Deities & Demigods, but it sold great. Pulling the book meant pulping copies on hand, reprinting, and paying new costs. Reprinting the book with fewer pages would take time. During the lapse, some customers would lose interest and TSR would lose sales.

So TSR worked a deal with Chaosium. In exchange for keeping the Elric and Cthulhu content in Deities & Demigods, TSR allowed Chaosium to make their Thieves’ World supplement compatible with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Despite trading for permission to keep the mythoi, TSR removed them from new printings of the book. Brian Blume likely feared the content would lead gamers to a competitor’s games. And besides, the change led to a shorter, more profitable book.

For the full story, see The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods.

Next: Number 5.

D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—7. D&D changes the game’s original handling of races and humanoids

When D&D creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax adopted the word race for the playable species in D&D, they used the term in the same sense as the human race. More commonly, “race” refers to human groups who share superficial traits common to their ancestry, and that use recalls a long history of people using ancestry and appearance to justify mistreating and exploiting people. The choice of the word “race” weighed the game with problems that lasted until today. And D&D’s issues with race go beyond the baggage that weighs on the word.

“In the old days, elves and dwarves and some of the other playable options were very much the product of folklore, and in folklore, elves and dwarves were embodied metaphor,” said D&D’s lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford. “They were metaphors for different aspects of the human psyche. So elves were often associated with more elevated lofty aspects of the human psyche. Dwarves were often associated with the industriousness that some people manifest.” If fairy tales, these metaphors became talking creatures. “You can meet a demon that’s embodied evil. You can meet an angel that’s embodied good. You can meet a dwarf that’s the embodiment of industriousness and hardiness.”

Often gamers enjoy playing metaphors and relish taking the role of an ale-loving, hammer-smacking dwarf who craves gold. Sometimes gamers like to play characters who stand out for their unique qualities, such as a dwarf wizard who happens to love tea and gardening. When the D&D team made faeries a playable race, tiny barbarians became widely popular. A chance to play a raging fairy that felt one of a kind delighted players.

Through most of D&D’s history, the rules penalized or blocked players who wanted a character who defied a race’s archetype. At first, rules blocked many combinations of race and class, so a dwarf simply couldn’t become a wizard. Later, the game added racial ability score modifiers that encouraged characters to fit the archetype of their chosen race, so half-orcs gained strength and constitution, but lacked charisma. Originally, half-orcs only excelled as assassins. The modifiers meant a player who wanted to play something like a dwarf wizard had to settle for a less efficient character. Most players disliked suffering a penalty just to play a certain combination of race and class.

Also, ability score modifiers raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. D&D’s unfortunate use of the word “race” makes those reminders far more powerful. D&D races can include robot-like warforged, tiny fairies with wings, and humanoid dragons that breathe fire and lay eggs, but they all represent sorts of people in the game world.

In 2020, the D&D team decided that some of the game’s rules and lore aimed at treating non-human game people as metaphors had to go. To “pave the way for truly unique characters,” Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything stopped linking ability modifiers to race. Now, players could create a dwarf wizard with a green thumb without settling for a less efficient build than a similar character who happened to be an elf.

Players also wanted game people to have just as much potential to be good and virtuous—or to be wicked—as real people.

Humans have a knack for imagining human-like qualities for animals, monsters, and even inanimate objects like desk lamps. When a human-like character also shares qualities associated with a human group, we tend to imagine that that character as part of the group, so a cartoon truck with eyelashes and a bow seems female. When imaginary creatures share qualities associated with real human groups, this tendency can create troubling associations. For example, Gary Gygax created drow to resemble the photo-negative of Tolkien’s elves. Instead of having dark hair and white skin, drow featured white hair and black skin. A dark-skinned race characterized as evil without exception creates a troubling association. Drow are imaginary, and Gygax never intended to link drow to real races, but the association remains. Suppose you read a children’s book featuring imaginary talking dogs. In the tale, all the golden dogs are good and pure, while all the brown dogs are wicked and savage. Instead of thinking, “Well, they’re just imaginary talking dogs,” you would say, “Oh, hell no,” before hurling the book across the room.

The D&D team wrote, “Throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game—orcs and drow being two of the prime examples—have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated. That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in.”

This belief shows in the alignments listed for creatures in the game. The 2014 Monster Manual listed drow and orcs as evil, but newer books characterize them as having “any alignment.” Even demons and angels now get “typical” alignments rather than unvarying ones. Some of this just reflects an extra emphasis. The 2014 Monster Manual already explained that “the alignment specified in a monster’s stat block is the default. Feel free to depart from it and change a monster’s alignment to suit the needs of your campaign.”

More recently, the D&D team announced that the 2024 update to the game would scrap the term race, likely in favor of the word species. Unlike races, the differences between character species go beyond superficial, so the term “species” fits better, even if its flavor seems a bit scientific for a fantasy game.

Some folks have pointed out that the word “species” brings as much historical baggage as “race,” because real world racists once pretended that people who looked different were different species, and then used that as a way to justify all sorts of injustices. Still, “species” likely rates as the best of all the imperfect options.

The controversy came from different perspectives. Some gamers favored characters that fit mythic archetypes—a valid preference. Some gamers loved the D&D they grew up with and felt angry about any changes that implied the old game included elements that felt racist. Some gamers wanted a game with unalterably evil humanoids, so young and old orcs could be killed without question. And many just followed an allegiance to their ideological team and raged at change.

Next: Number 6.

Related: How D&D’s Rules Changed To Encourage More Varied Groups of Heroes Than Those in the Pulp Fantasy That Inspired the Game