Author Archives: David Hartlage

6 Things to Include in a 1st-Level D&D Adventure

The best 1st-level adventures make a great first impression. To start a campaign, we want 1st-level adventures that excite players and leave them eager for the adventures to come. More importantly, new players typically get introduced to Dungeons & Dragons with 1st-level adventures. That’s good because starting at 1st level makes a better impression than a plunge into the deep end with a higher-level character sporting a bewildering array of abilities.

As an introduction to D&D, I favor starting adventures that offer a sampler of all the game offers. Even at first level, I prefer adventures with a feeling of risk and with something at stake. I like to feel like a daring hero at all levels, and nothing feels so brave and scary as playing a new character risking their life to become a hero. But starting adventures need to avoid a big downer: dead characters.

By tradition, new D&D characters start as fragile as soap bubbles. The fifth edition design team felt comfortable sticking to this tradition because players lose very little play-time investment when their new character dies. Just write a new name on the sheet and play the deceased’s twin! Still, plenty of players invest creative energy in their new character’s personality and background. Even without that emotional attachment, losing a character feels like a loss. Nobody likes to lose.

If you’re reading this, then you probably qualify as a D&D fan, and I know the game hooked some of us despite new characters who died minutes after creation, but I suspect the potential fans scared away by a quick loss outnumber us. I want to win new fans to the game, not to haze potential fans with casualties.

Many starter adventures, even recent ones from the D&D team, seem to welcome the likelihood of dead characters. Lost Mine of Phandelver starts with a deadly ambush. Dragon of Icespire Peak can pit 1st-level characters against a manticore powerful enough to rout the party.

When I want to make a deadly starting adventure a little safer for new players, I contrive a way to give their characters the benefit of and aid spell. Have the priest reward a good deed by giving the party a boost. Or perhaps returning a holy symbol to the chapel earns divine favor. Five extra hit points makes 1st-level characters almost twice as durable.

Aside from such tricks, a 1st-level adventure can spare characters by including the right foes. See number 2 of my list of 6 things to include in a starting adventure.

A place to explore. The game starts with dungeons, and I like delivering what new players expect with a tiny dungeon. A size of 3 to 4 rooms leaves time for play outside the dungeon, showing new players that the modern game offers much more than gilded holes.

Weak foes in multiples to fight. Many new players will look at the spells and attacks listed on their character sheets and feel eager to test them in battle. Even long-time players like me like to see a fight or two. The ideal starting foes prove easy to hit and kill, rarely deal enough damage to one-shot the mage, and never had parents.

“Never had parents” depends on the players, but I choose foes younger players will feel happy to fight. Think undead, constructs, and plants. Spiders, insects, and the like also work, although they don’t technically qualify. These foes avoid second thoughts about what to kill.

Sadly, the fifth edition bestiary includes almost no weak creatures that qualify. Twig blights rate as best. Skeletons work well enough, especially if players learn and prepare for their vulnerability to bludgeoning, or with lower hit point versions as, say, snake or lizard skeletons. No one tries to befriend a twig blight or to capture a skeleton for questioning. You can easily reskin both types of creatures, so turn twig blights into animated furniture that deal bludgeoning damage.

A reluctant ally to win. A roleplaying scene makes an essential ingredient to adventure, but if players don’t enter the scene with a goal, then they often don’t know what to do. If the scene lacks an obstacle, then it lacks interest. Gaining help from someone who seems reluctant or even hostile feels like a win and adds an upward beat to the adventure’s drama.

See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens and Improve Roleplaying Investigation Scenes With These 23 Reasons an NPC Won’t Cooperate

Something to figure out. Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world, and we love finding order in a jumble. In D&D, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions like traps and magic. For a new adventure, make the thing to figure out very easy. Just figuring out that the holy idol belongs back in the indentation of the altar qualifies. If the adventure includes a trap, make the trap obvious and the challenge figuring out how to avoid it.

See The Fun Thing D&D Players Love that No One Mentions and that the Game Almost Lost

Something magical and fantastic. Sometimes low-level adventures falter by sticking close to the mud and the mundane. If the rats-in-the-basement adventure rose above cliché, then it still rates as bad because it lacks any magic or wonder. D&D brings the fantastic to our lives, and new players deserve a taste of it. So if the villager has trouble in the cellar, make it from a gate to hell that needs closing. Bonus: Manes and lemures make suitable monsters. (Kids will have no trouble destroying fiends, but watch out for concerned parents.)

A secret that hooks the next adventure. A starting adventure should leave players with a clear path to their next outing, even if that simply means a treasure map leading to a magic sword. Just avoid hooking the second episode too early. You might lead the party away from the current goals.

The Right Monster for the Job: D&D Monsters Listed by Function

The idea for this post comes from my son Evan, who DMs a weekly game for his friends. He noticed that the gem stalker from Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons has a Protective Link feature that enables the creature to absorb damage meant for another target. The ability means that a challenge rating 5 gem stalker can serve a protective role much like a CR 7 shield guardian. DMs writing adventures with a part for a less-powerful bodyguard could cast a gem stalker in place of a shield guardian. Evan suggested an article listing different creatures, at different power levels, able to fill the same game role.

Gem StalkerThis led me to think of other monster jobs that a dungeon master could fill for a particular adventure. Many campaigns need masterminds to plot evil schemes, guards to defend hoards, and perhaps assassins to attack when the meddling do-gooders become a nuisance. DMs creating dungeons often need undying foes that can survive a vault for a 1,000 years until foolhardy treasure hunters invade.

These lists come from the Monster Manual and  Monsters of the Multiverse and all the categories that I thought would prove useful. But I consider them a work in progress. What other jobs deserve lists? Each monster includes a short list of aspects, including types, terrain, and typical allegiances.  For now, I’ve omitted most humanoid type monsters.

Agents

Creatures that carry messages or conduct strikes and other missions for masterminds and other leaders.

CR Creature
0 Homunculus (Construct wizard)
1/4 Pseudodragon (Dragon wizard)
1/2 Jackalwere (Shapechanger lamia Graz’zt)
1/2 Magmin (Elemental fire)
1 Imp (Devil)
1 Quasit (Demon)
2 Spined devil (Devil)
3 Deep Scion (Monstrosity aquatic)
3 Redcap (Fey hags mages)
3 Wight (Undead)
4 Deathlock (Undead warlock)
4 Succubus/Incubus (Fiend shapechanger)
5 Banderhobb (Monstrosity hags)
5 Cambion (Fiend)
5 Mindwitness (Aberration telepathic)
7 Draegloth (Demon Lolth)
7 Oni (Giant)
9 Hydroloth (Yugoloth aquatic)
10 Yochlol (Demon Lolth)
12 Boneclaw (Undead)
12 Death Knight (Undead)
13 Devourer (Undead Orcus)
13 Narzugon (Devil)
17 Dragon Turtle (Dragon aquatic)

Ambushers

Creatures that attack from hiding to gain surprise.

CR Creature
1/2 Darkmantle (Monstrosity Subterranean Shadowfell)
1/2 Piercer (Monstrosity Subterranean)
1 Choker (Aberration)
2 Ankheg (Monstrosity)
2 Mimic (Monstrosity)
3 Cave Fisher (Monstrosity Subterranean)
3 Grell (Aberration Subterranean)
3 Trapper (Monstrosity)
5 Bulette (Monstrosity)
5 Otyugh (Aberration Garbage)
5 Roper (Monstrosity Subterranean)
5 Shambling Mound (Plant Forst Swamp)
11 Remorhaz (Monstrosity Cold)

Bodyguards

Protectors of other creatures.

CR Creature
2 Shadow Mastiff (Monstrosity)
3 Displacer Beast (Monstrosity)
4 Clockwork Stone Defender (Construct)
4 Flameskull (Undead)
5 Gem Stalker (Monstrosity Gem Dragon)
5 Unicorn (Celestial Forest)
7 Shield Guardian (Construct)
12 Gray Render (Monstrosity)

Collectors of secrets and lore

Creatures that find and hoard secrets and magical lore.

CR Creature
2 Berbalang (Aberration)
2 Nothic (Aberration)
4 Bone Naga (Undead)
8 Spirit Naga (Monstrosity)
10 Guardian Naga (Monstrosity)
11 Gynosphinx (Monstrosity)
17 Blue Abishai (Devil Tiamat)
17 Androsphinx (Monstrosity)
17 Nagpa (Monstrosity)
18 Sibriex (Demon)
20 Morkoth (Aberration)

Commanders

Creatures that lead groups into battle.

CR Creature
3 Chordrith (Monstrosity Lolth)
5 Wraith (Undead)
7 Mind Flayer (Aberration Illithid)
9 Flind (Fiend Gnoll)
9 Drow House Captain (Humanoid Lolth)
12 Death Knight (Undead)
13 Nalfeshnee (Demon)
14 Ice Devil (Devil)
16 Marilith (Demon)
18 Aminzu (Devil),
19 Balor (Demon)
19 Red Abishai (Devil Tiamat)
20 Pit Fiend (Devil)

Controllers

Creatures that support other fighters with tricks or magic.

CR Creature
1/4 Kobold Inventer (Dragon)
1/4 Kobold Scale Sorcerer (Dragon)
1 Firenewt Warlock Of Imix (Elemental Imix)
5 Kraken Priest (Monstrosity Aquatic Kraken)
8 Green Slaad (Aberration)
9 Gray Slaad (Aberration)
10 Death Slaad (Aberration)
12 Arcanaloth (Yugoloth)
12 Oinoloth (Yugoloth)
15 Skull Lord (Undead)

Enforcers

Brutish thugs and enforcers for masterminds and other leaders.

CR Creature
6 Chasme (Demon)
7 Elemental Myrmidons (Elemental)
8 Chain Devil (Devil)
9 Bone Devil (Devil)
14 Cadaver Collector (Construct)

Friends, guides, and patrons

Creatures likely to help or guide adventurers.

CR Creature
1/8 Flumph (Aberration Underdark)
1/4 Pixie (Fey Forest)
1/4 Sprite (Fey Forest)
2 Centaur (Monstrosity)
2 Pegasus (Celestial)
3 Dolphin Delighter (Fey Aquatic)
4 Couatl (Celestial)
5 Unicorn (Celestial Forest)
5 Werebear (Shapechanger Forest)
9 Treant (Plant Forest)
10 Deva (Celestial)
10 Guardian Naga (Monstrosity)
10 Stone Giant Dreamwalker (Giant)
11 Gynosphinx (Monstrosity)
12 Ki-Rin (Celestial)
16 Planetar (Celestial)
17 Androsphinx (Monstrosity)
21 Solar (Celestial)
23 Empyrean (Celestial)

Guards

Protectors of treasure or locations.

CR Creature
0 Shrieker (Plant Underdark)
1/4 Flying Sword (Construct)
1/4 Skeleton (Undead)
1/4 Zombie (Undead)
1 Animated Armor (Construct)
1 Scarecrow (Construct)
1 Stone Cursed (Construct)
2 Gargoyle (Elemental)
2 Guard Drake (Dragon)
2 Rug Of Smothering (Construct)
2 Shadow Mastiff (Monstrosity)
3 Basilisk (Monstrosity)
3 Displacer Beast (Monstrosity)
3 Hell Hound (Fiend Fire)
3 Owlbear (Monstrosity)
3 Spectator (Aberration)
3 Water Wierd (Elemental)
3 Wight (Undead)
4 Chuul (Aberration Aquatic)
4 Clockwork Iron Cobra (Construct)
4 Flameskull (Undead)
4 Girallon (Monstrosity)
4 Helmed Horror (Construct)
5 Barbed Devil (Devil)
5+ Golem (Construct)
5 Clockwork Oaken Bolter (Construct)
6 Galub Duhr (Elemental)
8 Canoloth (Yugoloth)
10 Guardian Naga (Monstrosity)
10 Yochlol (Demon Lolth)
11 Gynosphinx (Monstrosity)
12 Eidolon (Undead)
16 Stone Giant Quintessent (Giant)
17 Androsphinx (Monstrosity)
18 Demilich (Undead Tomb)

Haunts and corruptions

Creatures that bring chaos or corruption to locations and people.

CR Creature
1/8 Boggle (Fey)
1/2 Skulk (Monstosity Shadowfell)
4 Dybbuk (Demon)
4 Succubus/Incubus (Fiend Shapechanger)
5 Allip (Undead)
7 Bheur Hag (Fey)
6 Annis Hag (Fey)
9 Glabrezu (Demon)
11 Alkilith (Demon)
11 Balhannoth (Abberation)
13 Wastrilith (Demon Aquatic)

Impersonators

Creatures that can disguise to infiltrate.

CR Creature
3 Doppelganger (Monstrosity)
4 Succubus/Incubus (Fiend Shapechanger)
7 Maurezhi (Demon Gnoll)
7 Oni (Giant)
8 Green Slaad (Aberration)
9 Gray Slaad (Aberration)
10 Death Slaad (Aberration)
10 Yochlol (Demon Lolth)
13 Rakshasa (Fiend)
15 Green Abishai (Devil Tiamat)

Masterminds and arch-villians

Creatures that lead and plot, often while avoiding direct action.

CR Creature
2 Sea Hag (Fey Aquatic)
4 Deathlock Mastermind (Undead Warlock)
4 Lamia (Monstrosity Desert Graz’Zt)
5 Night Hag (Fiend Planes)
7 Mind Flayer (Aberration Illithid)
7 Oni (Giant)
8 Spirit Naga (Monstrosity)
10 Aboleth (Aberration)
10 Alhoon (Aberration Illithid Wizard)
10 Death Slaad (Aberration)
11 Genie (Elemental)
12 Death Knight (Undead)
13 Beholder (Aberration)
13 Rakshasa (Fiend)
13 Vampire (Undead)
13 Ultoloth (Yugoloth)
14 Death Tyrant (Undead)
14 Elder Brain (Aberration Illithid)
15 Mummy Lord (Undead Tomb)
15 Skull Lord (Undead)
17 Nagpa (Monstrosity)
18 Sibriex (Demon)
19 Balor (Demon)
20 Pit Fiend (Devil)
21 Lich (Undead Wizard)
23 Empyrean (Celestial)
23 Kraken (Monstrosity)
V Dracolich (Undead Wizard)
V Dragon (Dragon)

Mounts

CR Creature
1 Hippogriff (Monstrosity)
1 Steeder (Monstrosity)
2 Griffon (Monstrosity Cliffs)
2 Pegasus (Celestial)
3 Nightmare (Fiend)
6 Wyvern (Dragon)
11 Roc (Monstrosity Mountain)

Protectors of nature

Creatures that defend natural places.

CR Creature
1/4 Sprite (Fey Forest)
1 Dryad (Fey Forest)
5 Unicorn (Celestial Forest)
5 Wood Woad (Plant Forest)
9 Treant (Plant Forest)

Soldiers

Creatures who follow orders to fight in number.

CR Creature
1/4 Skeleton (Undead)
1/2 Chitine (Monstrosity Loth)
1/2 Nupperibo (Devil)
1/4 Zombie (Undead)
1 Firenewt Warrior (Elemental Imix)
1 Sea Spawn (Monstrosity Aquatic)
3 Bearded Devil (Devil)
3 Bulezau (Demon)
3 Wight (Undead)
4 Merregon (Devil)
5 Barlgura (Demon)
5 Mezzoloth (Yugoloth)
5 Red Slaad (Aberration)
5 Salamander (Elemental Fire Efreet)
5 Tanarukk (Demon)
6 White Abishai (Devil Tiamat)
7 Armanite (Demon)
7 Blue Slaad (Aberration)
7 Dhergoloth (Yugoloth)
8 Hezrou (Demon)
8 Howler (Fiend)
11 Horned Devil (Devil)
14 Fire Giant Dreadnought (Giant)
V Giant (Giant)

Spies and assassins

Creatures that spy or assassinate using stealth.

CR Creature
0 Cranium Rat (Aberration Illithid)
0 Homunculus (Construct)
1/4 Pseudodragon (Dragon Wizard)
1/2 Darkling (Fey)
1 Clockwork Bronze Scout (Construct)
1 Imp (Devil)
1 Quasit (Demon)
2 Darkling Elder (Fey)
5 Cambion (Fiend)
5 Oblex Adult (Ooze Illithid)
7 Black Abishai (Devil Tiamat)
10 Oblex Elder (Ooze Illithid)

Support soldiers

Creatures that typically augment other troops.

CR Creature
1 Half-Ogre (Giant)
2 Ogre (Giant)
2 Ogre Bolt Launcher (Giant)
2 Ogre Howday (Giant)
2 Ogre Zombie (Undead)
3 Hell Hound (Fiend Fire)
3 Manticore (Monstrosity)
3 Ogre Chain Brute (Giant)
4 Ogre Battering Ram (Giant)
5 Troll (Giant)
8 Shoosuva (Demon)
9 Nycaloth (Yugoloth)
11 Horned Devil (Devil)
12 Erinyes (Devil)
17 Goristro (Demon)

Stalkers

Creatures that seek targets for termination.

CR Creature
3 Slithering Tracker (Ooze)
4 Yeth Hound (Fey)
5 Revenant (Undead)
6 Chasme (Demon)
6 Invisible Stalker (Elemental)
8 Canoloth (Yugoloth)
10 Orthon (Devil)
14 Retriever (Construct Lolth)
16 Steel Predator (Construct)

Story creatures

Creatures that work better as story elements than as combat foes.

CR Creature
1/2 Gas Spore (Plant)
2 Nothic (Aberration)
4 Ghost (Undead)
25 Marut (Construct Inevitable)

Threats, subterranean

Dangers that lair underground.

CR Creature
1/4 Grimlock (Humanoid Illithid)
1/2 Gray Ooze (Ooze)
2 Quaggoth (Humanoid Lolth)
3 Hook Horror (Monstrosity)
4 Black Pudding (Ooze)
5 Umber Hulk (Monstrosity)

Threats, undying

Creatures that can perpetually survive in a location until disturbed

CR Creature
1/4 Mephit (Elemental)
1/4 Skeleton (Undead)
1/2 Shadow (Undead)
1 Specter (Undead)
2 Gibbering Mouther (Aberration)
2 Will-O’-Wisp (Undead Desolation)
3 Deathlock Wight (Undead Warlock)
3 Mummy (Undead Tomb)
4 Banshee (Undead)
4 Shadow Demon (Demon)
5 Spawn Of Kyuss (Undead Aquatic)
5 Wraith (Undead)
6 Medusa (Monstrosity Ruins)
8 Sword Wraith Warrior (Undead)
6 Bodak (Undead Orcus)
8 Sword Wraith Commander (Undead)
14 Cadaver Collector (Construct)

Threats, urban

Creatures typically met in cities.

CR Creature
2 Wererat (Shapechanger)

Threats, wandering or hunting

Creatures that roam, often seeking to slake their hunger.

CR Creature
1/2 Jackalwere (Shapechanger Lamia Graz’Zt)
1/2 Rust Monster (Monstrosity Subterranean)
1 Ghoul (Undead)
1 Meazel (Monstrosity)
1 Vargouille (Fiend)
2 Carrion Crawler (Monstrosity)
2 Gelatinous Cube (Ooze Subterranean)
2 Intellect Devourer (Aberration Subterranean Illithid)
2 Ochre Jelly (Ooze Subterranean)
2 Ogre (Giant)
2 Meenlock (Fey)
2 Merrow (Monstrosity Shore Aquatic)
2 Rutterkin (Demon Abyss)
3 Displacer Beast (Monstrosity)
3 Flail Snail (Elemental)
3 Vampiric Mist (Undead)
3 Yeti (Monstrosity Cold)
5 Xorn (Elemental Subterranean)
5 Tlincalli (Monstrosity Desert)
6 Drider (Monstrosity Underdark Spider)
6 Vrock (Demon)
8 Cloaker (Aberration Subterranean)
8 Hydra (Monstrosity Shore Aquatic)
9 Abominable Yeti (Monstrosity Cold)
10 Death Kiss (Aberration)
11 Roc (Monstrosity Mountain)
13 Devourer (Undead Orcus)
13 Neothelid (Aberration Subterranean)
15 Nabassu (Demon)
15 Purple Worm (Monstrosity Subterranean Mountain)
17 Dragon Turtle (Dragon Aquatic)
20 Leviathan (Elemental Aquatic)
20 Nightwalker (Undead)

Threats, wild

Dangers that appear in wild places often in or near a lair.

CR Creature
1/8 Stirge (Beast)
1/2 Cockatrice (Monstrosity)
1 Harpy (Monstrosity Cliffs)
1 Hippogriff (Monstrosity)
2 Ettercap (Monstrosity Spider)
2 Giffon (Monstrosity Cliffs)
2 Merrow (Monstrosity Shore Aquatic)
2 Peryton (Monstrosity Mountain)
3 Basilisk (Monstrosity)
3 Manticore (Monstrosity Pack)
3 Owlbear (Monstrosity)
3 Werewolf (Shapechanger Pack)
4 Wereboar (Shapechanger Orc)
4 Ettin (Giant Solo)
4 Girallon (Monstrosity)
4 Weretiger (Shapechanger Jungle)
5 Catoblepas (Monstrosity Swamp)
5 Gorgon (Monstrosity)
5 Troll (Giant)
6 Chimera (Monstrosity)
6 Wyvern (Dragon)
8 Corpse Flower (Plant)
9 Frost Salamander (Elemental Cold)
10 Froghemoth (Monstrosity Swamp)
11 Behir (Monstrosity)
11 Remorhaz (Monstrosity Cold)

Creatures that cause cataclysms

Creatures that cause unnatural disasters.

CR Creature
16 Phoenix (Elemental)
23 Elder Tempest (Elemental)
23 Kraken (Monstrosity)
30 Tarrasque (Monstrosity)

Tricksters and troublemakers

Creatures that favor mischief over battle.

CR Creature
1/8 Boggle (Fey)
1/4 Pixie (Fey Forest)
1/4 Mephit (Elemental)
1/2 Satyr (Fey)
1 Quickling (Fey)
1+ Faerie Dragon (Dragon)
2 Will-O’-Wisp (Undead Desolation)

D&D’s Best Monsters for Fun and Utility

I love beholders and I know most Dungeons & Dragons fans share my affection, but fights against beholders tend to fizzle into disappointment. At first, the eye beams incapacitate a character or two, so the monster feels threatening even if fear or paralysis idles a couple of players who stop having fun. But beholders can’t damage reliably enough to threaten level-appropriate foes, so the battle turns into a series of rolls to see if bad luck kills a character who suffers random disintegration.

At the table, beholders disappoint, but some less glamorous monsters prove more better than they seem at a glance. The lowly twig blight offers my favorite example. As foes for new characters, blights boast several advantages:

  • They’re creepy.
  • They’re supernatural, unlike the mundane foes that tend to appear a low-levels.
  • Even new characters can fight several.
  • Needle blights and vine blights team to ranged and special attacks.
  • No one worries about their families.
  • Not rats.

Blights may lack flash, but they make useful foes.

For similar reasons, I love giants. Aside from giants, the D&D monster toolkit includes few foes able to challenge higher-level characters without complicating battles with a bunch of special attacks and abilities. Plus giants logically appear in groups that hardly make sense for beholders, dragons, or other more exotic monsters. The simplicity of giants isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.

Gith boast similar virtues: They logically appear in numbers, threaten higher level characters than other humanoids, and don’t slow fights with complexity. Geoff Hogan writes, “I always present them as being friendly but with a culture and history that is hard to understand, so players are always scared of breaking a taboo.” Plus, elite types of Gith give DMs more options for adventures.

When I asked D&D enthusiasts to name their favorites, John touted animated armor as simple troops. “Their blindsight makes them good guards, but as programmed automatons with Intelligence 1, players might invent fun tricks to avoid battle.”

“I love ghouls because they’re dangerous for many levels,” writes Eric Stephen. The ghoul’s appearance in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide example of play “scared the shit” out of him at age 12. “You see a sickly gray arm strike the gnome as he’s working on the spike, the gnome utters a muffled cry, and then a shadowy form drags him out of sight. What are you others going to do?” I love describing ghouls with milky eyes and ragged dagger nails, scuttling to tear and feast on living flesh.

Dave Clark recommends wyverns as a lower-level alternative to dragons. Wyverns give a taste, but save a real dragon showdown for later in a campaign. When a wyvern stings and players learn the high damage total, I love the fear and surprise at the table. Does that make me a mean DM?

Other surprisingly scary monsters include shadows and skulks. Marty Walser favors shadows. “Players start crapping their pants after losing several points of Strength, which is basically the new dump stat in 5e since few people go with Strength fighters.” “I think skulks are great as terrifying tier 1 foes, and they scale well into tier 2 in large numbers because of invisibility and advantage,” writes Graham Ward. Graham notes that players who research and prepare for skulks can overcome their invisibility and prevail. That adds a rewarding story thread.

Of course many monsters shine because they feature special attacks and abilities that, unlike the beholder’s eye rays, tend to create fun battles. I’ve run several entertaining fights against bulettes. Their burrow speed lets them hit and run, leaving worried players to wonder where the land shark will next erupt from the ground and crash down.

Ropers gained recommendations. Ropers grab and reel characters, while players worry about the nearing maw and try to decide how best to escape. “Every roper encounter is hilarious,” writes ThinkDM.

Creatures that swallow characters usually create fun encounters. When characters get swallowed and then cut their way out, players feel badass and love it. Teos Abadia’s list includes froghemoths, behirs, and giant toads. Teos also favors creatures that deal damage on contact, making a remorhaz a double win.

Jeffrey S. Mueller recommends manticores for challenging, low-level fights. “A few of them can really create a lot of fun scenarios for an encounter other than the usual stand and bang it out fights.”

Some monsters flop when miscast in a typical, three-round D&D combat, but they excel in other roles. Arithmancer Ken suggests hobgoblin iron shadows as spies able to cast charm person and disguise self. If caught, powers like Shadow Jaunt and the silent image spell give them a good chance of escaping.

Eric Menge casts doppelgangers for similar roles. “They make great spies, thieves, and grifters.” He also takes a page from the Fantastic Four comics where one of Doctor Doom’s robot doubles takes the fall. “You killed the villain! Oh no! It’s just a doppelganger! Wahwah!”

As mere combat foes, nothics never live up to their creepy appearance, but as story pieces they excel. Before running a nothic, read the advice from Keith Ammann in The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. Eric Menge also likes nothics as patrols. “They’re better watchdogs than serious threats. Use them in creepy search parties or in patrols around objectives to give PCs a challenge.”

One More Inspiration: Why I Made Color Maps for Battle Walker From the Abyss

At Winter Fantasy in 2018, Teos Abadia and I landed at a table run by DM Luke Reid, who wowed us with this skill as a dungeon master and his hand-drawn color maps. Luke created such an impression that Lysa Penrose interviewed him for a post that shared his mapmaking tips.

Map by Luke Reid

Map by Luke Reid

Inspired by Luke and eager to give life to some of my fantastic locations, decided to draw color maps of my own. After all, I took all the art classes in high school. Also, I wanted to try drawing on my iPad with a stylus. Ultimately, creating the maps took far more time than I imagined. Still, I’m pleased with the results. And for me, drawing feels relaxing and meditative. My adventure Battle Walker From the Abyss features a couple of climactic battles includes my maps for your VTT or for printing.

Shedaklah in the Abyss

Shedaklah in the Abyss (partial map)

Grand Abyss bridge

Grand Abyss bridges (partial map)

Iron fortress partial map

Iron fortress (partial map)

My 5 Biggest Game Mastering Blunders Ever and What I Learned

As a dungeon master, I’ll never stop making mistakes. Between the demands of the task and my own limitations, missteps will come and I try to forgive myself for them, and then learn from them. Looking back at all the games I’ve run, a few blunders stand out as the memories that my brain insists on fretting about late at night when I struggle to sleep. Most of these goofs came at conventions, where the strangers at the table added to my shame. At least the lessons from these five mistakes made me a better game master.

1. I meddle with a player’s character.

Very early in my journey as a dungeon master, the party scried the campaign’s villain, the anti-paladin twin-brother of a paladin in the group. (I pioneered connecting a characters’ backstories to the campaign in reckless ways that I would avoid now.) The anti-paladin had gained a wish and as the party watched, this blackguard wished that his brother could become just as good as him, meaning not good at all. All this seemed to make sense at the time. In my memory of the scene at the game table, I hear a record scratch. The paladin’s player stood and said, “No way. I won’t play that character. If you do that I quit.” So I improvised a reason to make the wish fail. Perhaps in the Gygaxian tradition of perverse, literal interpretation, the anti-paladin suddenly became good. Meanwhile, I learned that DMs can kill and curse characters, but their players still deserve creative control over their characters.

2. I arrive overconfident and under-prepared.

In 1984, my gaming interests had wandered from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to other role-playing games. I was not an RPGA member then, but I had run an event of my own at Gen Con, landing me on the RPGA DM mailing list. Perhaps the RPGA found themselves pinched for judges, because they asked if I would run an RPGA slot, and I agreed. The RPGA sent a dot-matrix printing of the module that would reach stores as I11 Needle.

Needle for convention DMs

Needle for convention DMs

With the confidence of youth, I gave the adventure a quick read and assumed I could return to the AD&D rules after a couple of years away, and I expected to dazzle my players. The event failed to go as planned. As we played, I found myself scrambling to read the adventure ahead, and at the end, my players politely filled me on on the rules I’d forgotten. I got no complaints, so I cannot be certain that I left unhappy players, but thinking back on this event makes me cringe. I suspect that in a box in the Wizards of the Coast headquarters sits a file transferred from TSR that includes a permanent record of any poor feedback scores I received. I wish I could run that table over again and do it properly.

Whenever I sit down as a dungeon master, especially with strangers at a convention, I feel a keen responsibility to make them pleased they spent hours gaming with me. Every time I sit in the DM’s chair, I try to redo that table in 1984 and do it right.

3. I cut short a game instead of failing forward.

At Gen Con 1985, I brought no lack of confidence despite my 1984 misstep. Inspired by Fez, I created a tournament of my own, a three-round, science fiction roleplaying event. I wrote and adventure, previewed it for friends, and recruited some to help me as game masters. This listing from the event catalog describes my game.

HOMEBOUND: 2029
Description:
2000: Begin journey to Alpha Centauri. 2012: Communications w/ earth are cut short. 2015: Alien life is discovered on Alpha Centauri. 2029: You return to a vastly changed world.

No, my blunder was not my optimistic date of 2000 for interstellar travel. I imagined an economic boom fueled by cheap fusion power. Oops. At least we have social media.

Like Fez, Homebound mostly factored rules out of the adventure. The outcome of the players’ choices came from natural consequences rather than die rolls. But one puzzle proved so hard that no one solved it. Instead, every party found themselves captured by secret police in the train station. Steeped in the unforgiving roleplaying tournament style of the time, I saw the players’ failure as the end of the adventure. In my defense, decades later I would play in tournaments where falling rocks caused sudden TPKs. Better luck next year.

But my buddy Mike also ran tables, and he improvised an escape from the secret police. He let players fail forward. Guess what? His players had more fun. I still regret creating an adventure—even a tournament—that failed to put fun first.

4. I fail to warn a new player of a risk their character would understand.

Flashing forward a few years, I was running a science fiction campaign set on a colony planet cut off from civilization and fallen to ruin. Mike invited a friend who had played some D&D and relished the chance to revisit some monster bashing fun. Meanwhile, we were playing a more realistic and more lethal game using a version of Basic Roleplaying from Chaosium. The new player decided to ambush some guards, rolled a series of misses, and then died suddenly to returned fire. Our guest player felt enraged. “I just wanted to play a fun game, and you kill me just like that?” To the new player, his character’s death felt unreasonable and personal.

Setting aside the problem of matching the game to expectations, I should never have let him take a substantial risk without explaining the danger. This became the third of my Four Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break.

5. I fail to consider my players’ emotional reactions.

Not all my mistakes come from thirty years in the past. I still learn. In 2019, I ran Blood on the Moors multiple times for the Adventurers League at the Origins convention. Players filled out feedback forms and weeks later I got rating scores. To my dismay, I scored lower than I usually do. Where did I go wrong? I only have theories, but I know a mistake I made.

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

Blood on the Moors works as a creepy adventure where players enter a dungeon and hear unsettling voices in their heads. “The characters should occasionally hear whispers they can’t block, geared to their vulnerabilities. If they have lost someone, perhaps they are whispering about their loneliness. If they did not want to descend into the darkness, perhaps the whispers are about being lost and forgotten.”

The adventure succeeds at setting a disquieting mood, and although my draft lacked a content content warning, the published version includes one. “This adventure contains themes of abandonment, grief, mental illness, and mind control. Player discretion is advised.”

I should have started the adventure by advising players of the the troubling aspects, gotten feedback on whether I should voice the whispers or just summarize the mood, and then given ways players could tell me to skip past any uncomfortable bits during play. Instead, I performed the voices.

I don’t know that my voices ruined anyone’s fun, maybe other mistakes led to my poor scores. But I know I would never run a similar adventure without taking steps to ensure every player feels comfortable.

Later, when I received my scores for Gen Con, I saw a big increase and never felt so much performance anxiety lifted.

The Inspirations for Battle Walker From the Abyss Could Also Inspire You

My first DMs Guild adventure, Battle Walker From the Abyss is out and you should get it. The adventure draws inspiration from countless sources. Either another D&D creator offered guidance that inspired my thinking, or another author’s adventure achieved something that I wanted to attempt in my own creation. While crediting my influences, this post includes minor spoilers.

When Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea distills his Lazy DM preparation method to a minimum, his method includes just three essential steps:

  • Develop fantastic locations
  • Create a strong start
  • Define secrets and clues

As I wrote, all three steps guided me, but nothing inspired me as much as developing fantastic locations. D&D allows an unlimited special effects budget and I wanted to spend it all. My adventure hops from a ruined city in the sands of Anauroch, across multiple levels of the Abyss, to battle in an iron fortress standing over a lake of molten metal.

The adventure Dead Gods (1997) by Monte Cook inspired me to imagine wondrous adventure sites in a plane-spanning adventure. Dead Gods brings the party to the astral plane where they battle atop the 4-mile-long corpse of a demon lord. Battle Walker also includes a nod to Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980), a classic by David Sutherland.

The strong start proved a little harder. Originally the adventure started with a battle where the characters tumbled down a gate to the Abyss, but playtesting showed that players needed more context to start. Now that battle comes later. In the published version a simulacrum asks the players for help stopping his chaos-tainted original from gaining a weapon capable of leveling cities. I hope the situation’s novelty and mystery captures the players’ attention.

Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the AbyssA few years ago, when I prepped Blood in the Water by Ashley Warren, I felt charmed by how deeply Ashley drew from the Sea of the Fallen Stars (1999) sourcebook to add richness to her adventure. The Forgotten Realms ranks as one of the most documented fictional worlds, and the DMs Guild allows authors to borrow from it all. I drew ideas from Netheril: Empire of Magic, the Fiendish Codex: Hordes of the Abyss, and from the adventure The Wells of Darkness by Eric L. Boyd in Dungeon issue 148. Only a few D&D superfans will recognize my nods, but I think my research lends an extra depth to my adventure.

I aimed to write an adventure that I could run to a satisfying conclusion at a convention, but I also wanted one that didn’t feel linear, where players chose their destinations from options. The Howling Void by Teos Abadia offered a model. In an elemental node, Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players must choose which to visit. Teos explains that some players left the adventure disappointed because they could not explore every location.

Battle Walker doesn’t lay out options quite so plainly. Instead, much of the scenario works as an investigation where players uncover secrets and clues that lead to more investigation. The principles of node-based design explained by Justin Alexander provide the engine that makes the adventure work. Each location, encounter, or “node” unlocks multiple clues leading to other locations. I aimed to drop enough clues to ensure players never feel stuck, and to create some choices.

The Lich Queen’s Begotten by M.T. Black ends with the sort of fascinating dilemma that reveals character. An innocent youth in the adventure seems destined for evil. Should the characters let her live? My adventure ends with a dilemma a bit less thorny. Should the simulacrum of the Abyss-tainted wizard be spared? The construct is just ice and snow and magic, but it still feels like a living thing. Does the duplicate share guilt or have the same potential to be snared by demons?

No one knows more about high-level D&D adventures than Alan Patrick, so I interviewed him seeking help for DMs running tier 4 games. Even though top-level characters can play like demigods, Alan looks for ways to ground them with an emotional connection to the adventure. For my creation, I couldn’t bring the character’s back to their roots, but I worked to create some emotional resonance with the ordinary characters snared in the plot.

To create more compelling foes for top-level characters, Alan raises the monsters‘ damage output until it matches the proportions of the damage low-level foes inflict on low-level characters. For groups interested in facing stronger combat challenges, I include “Scaling the Adventure” notes that mostly suggest increased damage, and then I invented game-world reasons for the extra punishment.

Designers tout the value of letting other gamers playtest an adventure, so I dutifully recruited playtesters. But I started the process with laughable overconfidence. After all, I ran the adventure twice myself. How much more polish could it need? I came from the process with a greater appreciation for playtesting. Feedback drove me to work harder to improve bits of the adventure that seemed good enough before. The adventure became much stronger.

Battle Walker From the Abyss and Why I Took a High Dive Into the Shallow End of the D&D Pool

For my first DMs Guild adventure, I turned a rough start into a high dive into the shallow end of the D&D pool. Don’t try this at home. Read on for the story, but first I’m excited to introduce Battle Walker From the Abyss, my fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for 17th to 20th level characters. In the adventure, a wizard’s simulacrum asks for help stopping his demon-corrupted original from gaining a walking weapon capable of leveling cities. The quest takes characters across the Abyss, from the market town of Broken Reach, to the demon goddess Zuggtmoy’s fungal plane, and then to a confrontation in an iron fortress over a lake of molten iron. The adventure mixes roleplaying and senses-shattering combat encounters in a plane-hopping mission that tests epic level characters. It typically takes 6-8 hours to play.

The adventure’s rough start came when I opted to create an entry for the D&D Adventurers League open design call for potential tier 4 adventure authors. I wrote about creating for tier 4 and shared my entry. However, my entry failed to interest the judges. When I played my submitted encounter, I learned that it overreached. Blame that on the same creative mindset that leads a player to write a 12-page backstory for new character. For a one shot.

As I created my entry, I imagined it as the slam-bang start to an adventure, which led me to weigh the encounter with details that went nowhere outside my imagination. I suspect the result felt cluttered. Later playtesting also revealed that the encounter included too many moving parts, distractions that I trimmed from the final version.

My encounter featured a magic gate tunneling from a ruined city down to the Abyss—a fantastic location appropriate for legendary heroes. I hoped the setting would create a sense of wonder while enabling mighty characters to flaunt their abilities, but the location proved hard to visualize without an abstract map. The final version includes a map.

The Adventures League team probably needed new tier 4 authors for two reasons:

  • Tier 4 adventures can prove difficult to write, especially for a random party of league characters. A table might include all martial types or all spellcasters with wish. Accounting for the possibilities means more work for authors. I’ve learned this first hand.
  • Very few D&D players participate in such high-level games. Data from D&D Beyond suggests that 90% of Dungeons & Dragons games stop by level 10. That means level-17-and-up adventures sell far less to comparable low-level outings.

Despite the lack of interest in my encounter, despite the extra effort, and despite the slight rewards of creating a tier 4 adventure for sale, I pressed on to create a complete adventure. More work for fewer sales? Sign me up! Why? Because once I started the story behind the encounter, my imagination failed to let it go. You’re a D&D fan; you know how that goes.

I love the plane-shifting heroics of tier 4. At the highest levels, Dungeons & Dragons lets super-powered characters travel otherworldly realms and battle threats that approach the power of gods. That grand scale lets dungeon masters enjoy the fun of stretching our imaginations’ unlimited special effects budgets, and of pitting the characters against any threat we can dream while feeling confident the players will win.

Battle Walker From the Abyss captures all that, plus a bard’s tale that some playtesters said provided the best part of the adventure. Plus color digital battle maps for some legendary locations.

As for the rough edges in that one encounter, they’re gone. Credit feedback from more than 30 playtesters for a far better adventure than I drafted.

The adventure makes a great tier 4 one shot and also works as a side-quest that fits easily into a high-level campaign. So grab a copy for yourself or as a gift for your favorite dungeon master.

Related: All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them

Making High-Level D&D Click: Advice from Alan Patrick, the DM Who Has Run More Tier 4 Than Anyone

Challenging High-level Characters Without Breaking the Dungeon Master

How to Bring Player Character Backstory Into Campaigns Without Overstepping

The Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook tells players to create backstories for new characters. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything adds pages of tables to help players invent their characters’ backstories. The books‘ support for backstory makes sense: Such imagined histories help roleplay and when dungeon masters connect the characters’ backstories to their campaign, the game feels more personal to players.

Like any creative collaboration, using character backstory in a campaign proves harder than it seems. When a DM adapts or elaborates on a character’s backstory to fit the campaign, the additions might not fit the player’s vision. In a game, players only enjoy full creative control over their own characters. They deserve to keep that control without unwanted meddling, and that goes beyond not seeing people in their character’s backstory killed for dramatic effect. When a DM tinkers with backgrounds, player characters may stop feeling familiar and the players may lose a sense of owning their characters. I’m always hesitant to introduce important NPCs from PC backgrounds because I’m worried I won’t do the characters justice or portray the relationship the way the player envisioned it.

One method of incorporating character backstory works without ever returning to the people or places in a character’s history. Create new situations or characters that resemble the events from the character’s history. So if character left magic school after being falsely accused of stealing a valuable tome, put them in situations where other folks face false accusations or face exile from their home. If a character lost someone, don’t try to kill more of their family, but do create new situations that recall those memories. Such rhymes with the past help players reveal their characters.

Of course, most DMs want to go beyond mere rhymes. For a more powerful use of backstory, visit people and places from the characters’ histories. Reappearances highlight a player character’s unique importance to the campaign and follow the Small World Principle, but using characters from backstories takes more care.

I once played in an Adventurers League scenario that the DM started by asking everyone to name someone beloved from their character’s background. I named my monk’s master teacher. Later my teacher and the other beloved non-player characters appeared as prisoners to be rescued by the bad guy. The master my monk idolized died. Although I felt comfortable with the twist, this wasn’t the story I imagined.

Back when few players invented a backstory for characters because new characters died so often, I ran a campaign that included a paladin, and I invented an anti-paladin twin for the character. I liked the drama and failed to notice how trite and campy evil twins would eventually seem. I got lucky. My contribution to the character’s backstory worked. The player liked his character’s special importance as the brother of the group’s arch enemy. And no one mocked the evil twin trope. That was a different time.

Both those examples of DMs meddling in backstory ended fine, but either could have ended with hard feelings because the riskiest method for including character backstory is when DMs surprise players by plundering their histories for cheap motivation or lazy pathos. The motivation comes when, say, a character’s teacher just happens to be kidnapped for human sacrifice. The pathos comes when villain murders your character’s parents. Both combine when the DM opts to make a loved one into a villain. This I’m-your-father twist starts with a backstory that includes kind grandmother, and then ends when the DM turns her into a cult leader spilling blood for Orcus. Surprise!

Such surprises can sink a campaign even though similar twists can work fine in fiction. Writers of fiction create their characters and make them suffer as parts of the same job. In a D&D campaign such tricks can feel like the DM has forced a character into certain choices or trashed the creative work a player invested in backstory. A player could see Nana wielding the sacrificial blade and think not in my world and check out of the game. Early in D&D’s history, such stunts proved so irresistible to some DMs that many players felt most comfortable imagining their characters as orphans without a single attachment to their past.

Finding victims and villains from backstory works in D&D when the DM and player settle which parts of the backstory should be preserved in history and which parts a DM can revisit and elaborate for the campaign. Some players would welcome villains from their backstories as ongoing foes. Some might happily see Nana leading the cult of Orcus and the teacher they idolize captured despite his deadly fists of fury.

Collaborative planning does lose a potential surprise, but only to the one player behind the backstory. You can surprise the other players, the biggest audience for their story.

So, discuss ways to bring backstory into the game before play. As a DM, look over a character’s backstory and ask questions like these:

  • What characters and places from your backstory would you like to revisit in the game?
  • Based on your background, what unfinished business does your character have?
  • What sorts of situations would give your character a chance to resolve those loose ends, and how do you imagine the outcome?

None of this discussion means that you need to let players script situations and outcomes. D&D remains a game with dice, where unplanned twists can add to the fun, but the players‘ answers to these questions can inspire your preparation.

Credit D&D’s Push Into to the Multiverse for Spelljammer

Wizards of the Coast releases new settings for Dungeons & Dragons faster than ever. Those settings include worlds borrowed from Magic: The Gathering like Ravnica and Theros, a world taken from Critical Role, older settings like Eberron and Ravenloft, and now the Spelljammer setting. The last time the D&D team released so many settings, the flood of options split the D&D market and helped send TSR, the game’s owner, to the brink of bankruptcy. Then as now, D&D players only have so much time and money. Faced with a game store full of D&D campaign options, most customers will skip some. Each setting still costs to develop, but it competes with others, splitting the D&D customer base and potentially leading to financial losses.

Clearly, today’s D&D team doesn’t fear repeating the history that brought TSR to ruin. Part of that fearlessness comes from D&D’s surging popularity. So many folks play the game now that numerous campaign releases can profit despite a diluted audience. Of course, some enthusiasts buy them all, so more of my money goes to Hasbro.

Also, the product lines for D&D settings released now just include a set of miniatures and a book, or for Spelljammer a slipcase of 3 slim harcovers. From 1989 to 1993, the original Spelljammer line included 4 boxed sets, 6 adventures, 11 accessories, plus novels and comics. A committed Spelljammer fan could spend their entire budget on D&D in space without buying other products. TSR spent money creating all these products to support a setting that surely trailed other D&D settings in popularity.

In 2015, Wizards polled to rank their campaign settings’ popularity and then reported the results. “Our most popular settings from prior editions landed at the top of the rankings, with Eberron, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Planescape, and the Forgotten Realms all proving equally popular. Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and Spelljammer all shared a similar level of second-tier popularity, followed by a fairly steep drop-off to the rest of the settings. My sense is that Spelljammer has often lagged behind the broad popularity of other settings, falling into love-it-or-hate-it status depending on personal tastes.”

Gamers mostly remember Spelljammer for its silliest ideas, like hippo people and giant space hamsters powering ships by running on wheels attached like paddle wheels. “The infamous giant space hamster also came out of ship designs,” writes original Spelljammer designer Jeff Grubb. “The gnome ship looked like a galleon and a sidewheeler slammed into each other. Someone asked what the big paddle wheel housings were for, since there was no air other than in the air bubbles. I said they were giant hamster wheels. Roger Moore (editor of Dragon) thought that was hilarious and it was off to the races with the giant space hamster.” Sometimes Spelljammer treats D&D as seriously as the 60s Batman TV show treated the dark knight. To some fans, Spelljammer felt like a setting that mocked their passion for D&D by making the game seem ridiculous and childish.

For years, D&D enthusiasts online joked about any slim hint of a Spelljammer revival by announcing, “Spelljammer confirmed!” The humor came from treating a sometimes ridiculous second-tier setting as an eagerly awaited release when in truth Spelljammer seemed like one of the least likely targets for return. Even Chris Perkins, the architect of Spelljammer’s return, jokes about Spelljammer’s lesser popularity.

So if the gleeful shouts of “Spelljammer confirmed’’ come from a joke rather than a groundswell of fans, then how did Spelljammer get confirmed? Credit Chris Perkins’s true passion for the setting. He even embraces the setting’s gonzo elements like killer space clowns and murder comets—ideas that made some gamers snub the original.

Mainly credit D&D’s new emphasis on the multiverse for Spelljammer. D&D’s lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford explained the shift. “We’ve been letting fans know for the last year or two that we are going out there to other worlds, to other planes, and there’s going to be a lot of exciting journeys ahead.” D&D is headed to “this wonderful array of worlds that make the D&D multiverse special because it’s not just one fantasy setting, it’s a dizzying array of fantasy settings, including each DM’s home setting all in one massive multiversal setting.”

Rather than asking players to select a world and stick to it, the focus on a multiverse encourages D&D fans to dabble in different settings, skipping from world to world or gathering their favorite bits for their own worlds in the wonderful array. Hints of a D&D multiverse date back to Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980) where the Demonweb included gates to parallel worlds on the material plane, but Spelljammer made the game’s worlds accessible by Spelljamming ships.

The multiverse gives D&D room for settings that feel less conventional. By design, Spelljammer delivers. “I wanted to push the envelope on what D&D fantasy was,” Jeff Gubb writes. “We had done Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, but those had been written down as typical fantasy worlds. Vanilla fantasy. Default fantasy. Background static. Here was a chance to go out on more of a limb and push the envelope. So this was the chance to do D&D in space. I’m sorry—Innnnn Spaaaaaaace!” Spelljammer brings a different tone than those grounded settings. Fans love the setting’s swashbuckling flavor, ships like the mind flayer nautiloid, heroes like the hippo folk on safari, villains like the half-spider/half-eel neogi, and the chance to explore strange new D&D worlds.

Jeff Grubb pitched Spelljammer by describing a knight standing on the open deck of a ship in space. Based on the preview of the new Spelljammer, the setting moves from shining armor and wizards in pointy hats to the Guardians of the Galaxy and a cast as varied as the Star Wars cantina scene.

Spelljamming lets characters take the scenic route while they travel the D&D multiverse, leading to more adventure than using spells like plane shift. “Spelljammer was initially thought of as being AD&D in space, but soon became obvious as a way to tie the existing campaigns together.” In the revised setting, D&D worlds exist in spheres of magical space called wildspace. In wildspace, even objects as small as ships have enough gravity to capture bubbles of air and for sailors to walk the decks.

The emphasis on the multiverse shows in changes to the Spelljammer cosmology. In the old version, indestructible crystal spheres locked each world into a bubble suspended in phlogiston, “a turbulent, unstable, multicolored, fluorescent gas.” The designers imagined the crystal shells to account for different gods and rules in different spheres. “Want to run a hard science version? It works that way in the sphere. Want the constellations to move around? There you go. Want a flat world resting on elephants, with iterative turtles below? Go for it.” But the crystal barriers strike me as unnecessarily clutter separating magical pockets. Meanwhile, phlogiston overlaps too much with existing D&D lore around the astral plane. So at the edge of wildspace, the bubbles now transition to the astral sea where explorers might meet gith, astral dreadnoughts, and planetoid-sized bodies of dead gods. Here, Spelljammer blends into Planescape. Planescape confirmed!

The No-Prep Way to Use Character Backstory In a Campaign

When dungeon masters connect the characters’ backstories to their campaign, the game feels more personal to players. Revisiting a backstory shines a spotlight on a character and includes them in a way that highlights a character’s unique importance to the campaign. Through character backstory, players contribute to the campaign world. Using that backstory in the game recognizes the value of the player’s creative contribution. That recognition feels great.

But the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks include no advice for dungeon masters aiming to use these backstories in play. I’m here to help.

The easiest method for pulling a backstory into a D&D game follows the techniques of another type of real-time, collaborative storytelling: improv theater. “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES,” Tina Fey writes in Bossypants. “When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt.”

Improv’s “Yes and…” principle enables DMs and players to work together to bring character backstory into scenes. Suppose the party visited Waterdeep and you, as DM, wanted to use something from a character’s backstory to draw them in. If a character’s backstory included a history as a gambler wandering from town to town, fleeing angry marks and gambling debts, then the scene might start like this.

DM: Zand, have you ever gambled in Waterdeep?

Zand’s player: Yes, and I’m keeping my eyes open for… (looks at hands) …Knuckles. I owe him.

DM: As luck would have it, you spot Knuckles going across a crowded market square. He looks your way.

Zand’s player: I walk to Knuckles and say, “Hello friend, I have an irresistible opportunity that will pay you back for what I owe.”

Sometimes players can contribute backstory to suit a scene without much improvisation, because they imagined more of their characters’ histories than the DM knows or remembers.

“Yes and…” builds creatively. The scene and the game moves forward instead of getting stuck finding agreement. Second City explains, “The basic concept of these two words is that you are up for anything, and will go along with whatever gets thrown your way.”

Unlike performers in an improv scene, players don’t need to be up for anything. When a DM elaborates on a character’s backstory to fit the campaign, the additions might not fit the player’s vision. In a game, players invest time and imagination in their characters, so they deserve to keep control of their proxies. Players can always pause the game and explain that a bit of invented backstory doesn’t match their vision.

This sort of spontaneous addition of character backstory resembles another technique where the DM has the players contribute to the world-building during a session. Examples range from asking the players to invent a distinguishing feature for a monster to having players describe the folks in the inn. That practice can become a jarring reminder that the characters live in a made-up world without any truth. Inventing or recalling backstory feels more comfortable because players feel accustomed to imagining that part of the story. The DM asks questions and the characters know the answers, even if the players have to dream up the details.

Of course just a few actors and storytellers understand this sort of in-game collaboration. Sometimes such offers stumble. The DM says, “As you eat your meal, someone you recognize from your battalion walks in. Which one grew up here?” And then the player locks up. I don’t remember anything about that, the player thinks. What do you want from me? You can nudge the scene along by spelling out the offer. “Would you like to expand on your character’s backstory by telling me the name of someone you fought beside in the last war? What do you remember about them?”

When the technique works, it feels like creative magic—the best case for connecting backstory to the game in progress.

Related:

Next: More on bringing backstory into campaigns.