Author Archives: David Hartlage

Tip: Plant Character Knowledge Before the Game

Characters in Dungeons & Dragons worlds bring knowledge that players lack. And that knowledge goes beyond sword swinging and spell crafting. Rolls that call for religion, nature, arcana, and history all check a character’s in-world knowledge. Sometimes characters know better than players. For example, as a DM, I warn players whenever their characters’ knowledge of the world says that a particular monster will likely kill them in a fight. Maybe your 1st-level characters shouldn’t attack the manticore.

For my latest game, I planned an investigation where the characters’ knowledge might help connect clues and would certainly provide perspective. For instance, the players could succeed without knowing Zuggtmoy and Lloth feuded as hated rivals, but that tidbit would help explain a discovery on the Abyssal plane of Shedaklah. I preferred not to interrupt the narrative for a Religion check and information dump. (Believe me, when the characters made the discovery, nobody wanted to pause for my lecture on religion.) I considered planting the lore in the world, but describing, say, an open book turned to a page about the rivalry seemed forced at best. So I adopted a tip from DM Tom Christy.

Before an adventure, Tom considers the essential backstory and pertinent lore that might arise, and then reveals it to individual players before play. “I love to find out which characters are trained in pertinent skills, and then feed their players information ahead of the session.” This knowledge can come from skill proficiencies but also from each character’s background, nature, and outlook. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine.

During the game, players can share their knowledge in-character. When a player reveals knowledge, Tom rewards inspiration.

slips containing written adventure background information

For my latest adventure, I wrote the useful bits of game-world lore on slips of paper. Before the game, I awarded the slips based on the characters’ experience in the world. So the elf who knew religion got facts about the demon queens. These tidbits even included personal information about a key non-player character one adventurer would have met.

I explained, “These slips list things that your character knows. Right now, they’re just some of the countless facts you happen to know. Sometime during the adventure, this information may become pertinent, and then you should share it.”

This technique boasts key advantages: The information sharing comes when players find it important and feels organic to the in-world narrative. More importantly, players get the spotlight to share lore as their character instead of just having the DM tell what characters know. DMs already spend enough time talking.

Related: In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

4 Tips For When One Player Scouts the Dungeon

Does find familiar rank as the most unbalanced spell in Dungeons & Dragons? For the price of learning a mere 1st-level spell, wizards gain a scout, an extension to all their touch spells, and a battlefield helper. If players make good use of familiars, the spell rates a better value than fireball. But still, does it rate as unbalanced?

When designers aim to balance characters’ spells and abilities, they look to give each character equal time as the focus of attention—as the lead character contributing to the party’s success. Mainly, gamers question balance whenever one character proves so deadly in combat that the other players wonder why they showed up for the game. In a fight, a familiar can use the Help action to boost allies, but no one minds that support.

Instead, familiars can feel unbalanced during D&D’s exploration pillar. Smart players can use a bat or an owl to scout cave systems from end to end or to peer into every window of the villain’s lair. Such scouting isn’t limited to familiars. Druids can wild shape into a creature like a tiny spider and creep unnoticed through a dungeon. One of my players used an arcane eye to scout 5 levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods without ever leaving the entry hall. An arcane eye can’t pass solid objects, but that dungeon’s halls, caves, and central atrium mostly lack doors. The player controlling the eye could have exhausted the entire session spying, but noticed impatient players and called the scouting short. Nonetheless, for an hour or so, I frantically scanned the adventure trying to summarize the visible parts of 50 pages of dungeon. I don’t blame the scrying wizard for smart play, I love gaining familiars and scout for as long as the other players’ patience can bear.

Familiars, wild shaping druids, and scrying wizards all challenge dungeon masters to reward smart play and the players who choose scouting abilities, without turning the rest of the party into passive bystanders who wonder why they showed up. Stealthy or invisible characters can also scout and create similar challenges. Finding a good balance proves difficult because no approach works for every dungeon and lair.

What tricks can help DMs strike the right balance?

1. Include doors and window covers.

The sort of creatures able to spy unnoticed typically lack the strength or thumbs needed to open doors, so the best limit to scouting becomes snug doors. Create dungeons with enough open paths to reward short scouting trips, but enough doors to force characters ahead. If a player quibbles that surely some doors leave gaps for a mouse or spider, roll and let the dice decide.

As for my own character’s favorite trick of sending an owl to peer into windows, consider balancing the temptation of open windows with a few drapes, shutters, soot stains, and just dark interior rooms.

2. Scout between sessions.

I like to end each session by asking for players to outline their plans for the next session. This helps my preparation. Also, if the players plan to tackle a dungeon or stronghold, you can handle scouting either through a 1-on-1 mini session or just by sketching a players’ map and planning a quick summary of discoveries for the full group. If that seems too passive, you can ask the scout to make, say, a stealth check and base the amount of information on their degree of success or failure.

3. Consider dungeon inhabitants.

Monsters and even ordinary critters can create a barrier to spying. Players scouting in a beast shape or using a familiar tend to dismiss the risk of something noticing or attacking a bat or spider. As a dungeon master, be clear about the risks and the checks a scouting critter might need to make to pass dungeon predators.

When familiars or characters scout alone, encounters that would never challenge a party or even a single adventurer can create interesting dilemmas. A servant who spots a cat prowling the manor might put a character or familiar in a pickle simply by closing the window leading out.

For creatures as small as a spider, consider adding wandering monsters, vermin really, that might try to make a meal of the scout. Sure, a cave centipede poses no risk to a druid, but in spider shape, the druid faces a choice of retreat or the price of shifting to humanoid form to squash the critter. As with any wandering monsters, I recommend making the rolls for an encounter openly. For such encounters, don’t bother creating a list of potential monsters. Just imagine one creature that suits the environment capable of forcing the scout to weigh risks and rewards.

4. Split the party.

Occasionally, entertain the idle players waiting for the scouting to finish by giving both the waiting characters and the scout something to do. By “something to do,” I mean fight. And by “entertain,” I mean threaten their characters’ lives. Characters waiting for scouts to return still face risks from patrols or wandering monsters. The most entertaining situations engage both the scout and the remaining party at the same time. In these predicaments, follow my advice for handling split parties.

These split-party jams work best when they feel like the natural consequence of a risky situation when both the scout and the waiting party know monsters lurk nearby. If scouting leads to a pattern of attacks from behind, players will feel punished for smart play. Still, the invisible, flying, or wild-shaped scout who presses their luck too far can lead to some of the game’s most exciting moments.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb: The Earliest D&D Adventure Worth Playing

The second Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Blackmoor, arrived in April 1975. It featured Temple of the Frog, the first adventure in print. A year later, three more pioneering adventures reached gamers.

The May 1976 issue of the UK magazine Games and Puzzles included an introduction to D&D by Games Workshop co-founder Steve Jackson. “D&D is an attempt to recreate fantasy adventure using greatly modified tabletop wargaming rules.” The article devotes a half page mapping and keying “The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins.” In June 1976, California gamers Pete and Judy Kerestan published D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen.

To explore D&D’s origins, some modern players have tried playing these dungeons. Don’t. Temple of the Frog runs as an infiltration mission. Players looking for classic D&D will only find a total party kill.  “The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins” and Palace of the Vampire Queen describe their rooms by pairing rare words of description with lists of monsters and treasures. Both demonstrate why D&D co-creator Gary Gygax thought adventures wouldn’t sell. Any dungeon master could easily create a similar monster zoos using the Dungeon Geomorphs and Monster and Treasure Assortments that Gary’s own TSR Hobbies would soon sell.

But one other adventure reached print in June of 1976.

The Dungeoneer

Dungeoneer01_3rdWhile still in college, Jennell Jaquays, writing as Paul, started The Dungeoneer fanzine. For the first issue, Jaquays wrote F’Chelrak’s Tomb. The pioneering adventure and its successors proved memorable. Looking back at The Dungeoneer, Jaquays said, “It’s the adventures that stand out, and not simply because no one else was doing mini-adventures in 1976. When I read comments about the magazine or talk to fans (old and new), no one talks about the monsters, or the art, or the magic items and rules variants. It’s always the adventures.

If you want to enjoy an adventure in the spirit of ’76, explore F’Chelrak’s Tomb. The tomb fits the early game’s style: It capriciously slays characters and drops magic like candy from a parade, but it also packs enough ideas to fill a game session with wild fun.

Jaquays published 6 issues of Dungeoneer, sold the fanzine, and then started work at Judges Guild. There she penned early, classic adventures like Dark Tower and the Caverns of Thracia.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb ranks as the first published adventure that remains playable in something like its original form. The cheapest legit versions of the adventure available now are in used copies of The Dungeoneer Compendium. Sadly, Judges Guild no longer sells the PDF version of that collection.

About the tomb

As soon as dungeon masters turned from megadungeons to smaller sites, they started devising tombs. F’Chelrak’s Tomb boasts plenty of save-or-die moments, but it lacks the menace of its contemporary from Origins 1975, Tomb of Horrors.

Instead, F’Chelrak’s Tomb offers the chaotic whimsy of a Deck of Many Things. One room features a gallery of objects shrouded by sheets. When revealed, each object has some crazy effect. A sculpture of the Medusa might change the revealer to stone. A statue of a gorgeous woman could either change the revealer’s gender or it could come to life and become a lover or slave. A great stone face might polymorph the revealer into a monster, grant a point of constitution, or split a character into good and evil versions. A statue of Death disintegrates the revealer. “No resurrection is possible!” One sheet covers an artifact: a shield that doubles as a mirror of life trapping. When the owner traps too many lives, the mirror makes room by freeing Morac, a 9th-level chaotic evil lord. I suppose he wants his shield back. (I didn’t know chaotic evil was an alignment in 1976).

If left on the floor, the sheets can animate and attack because, obviously.

The adventure rests on more than the gallery. A new monster merges the Human Torch with kobolds. Some vertical architecture calls for cross-section diagrams. Traps, tricks and interesting curios litter the place.

Like the Tomb of Horrors, F’Chelrak’s Tomb comes from a time when players aimed to beat dungeons and they kept score in gold. In this spirit, the dungeon can win by stumping players with the puzzle in the first room, by hiding essential paths behind secret doors, or by tricking players into leaving after they loot a false crypt. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of an adventure seems unthinkable.)

The early presentation

The entire adventure spans just four pages, including a page of maps. Maps (titled “Charts”) number 1 and 3 use a familiar overhead perspective. Maps 2 and 4 show vertical cross-sections on the same graph paper, making them look like overhead maps too. Cross-section 2 puts the high-point at the top, but 4 puts its high-point on the right. The key for map 3 lists numbered locations, interrupts those numbers with a list of numbered objects, then revisits the same locations with a lettered list of traps and secret locations. This dungeon starts as a puzzle for the DM, but it can be deciphered.

Explaining the tomb to modern standards would take at least 12 pages of text. Jaquays does it in 3 by leaving all the details to the imagination of the DM. What will F’Chelrak or Morac do if they get loose? What are the stats for an attacking sheet? (Hint: Use the rug of smothering.) If an unlucky character get polymorphed in to a monster, what one? DMs must find the most fair or interesting answer to many questions.

Running F’Chelrak’s Tomb today

Using original D&D rules, I estimate this adventure would challenge a party of level 4-6.

You could also run this adventure using fifth-edition rules.

If you wanted to run this adventure as a one-shot with the feel of the early game, let the players take a party of 12, 2nd-level characters. In 1976, adventuring parties tended to be large. Many PCs will die, but that only captures the spirit. Although many of the monsters in the tomb pose a grave threat to such low-level PCs, the PCs enjoy overwhelming numbers. Nonetheless, To reduce the chance of total party kill, put only 2 manticores in room 4. Somewhere in the adventure, give survivors a rest to heal and level up. If F’Chelrak finds them, they may need to run. That qualifies as smart play.

If you want better combat encounters and a lower body count, start each player with a 5th-level character. Make the following changes:

  • Replace the 10 gremlins with magmin. The gremlins penalize melee attacks by melting weapons, but 5E characters would sweep them away with spells and ranged attacks.
  • When the players take Morac’s shield, release 6 specters rather than just 1.
  • In the flooded tomb, put 3 ghouls rather than inventing a water gargoyle. Keep them hidden in the dark water so that only water-breathing PCs can easily confront them.
  • Make F’Chelrak a level-9 magic user based on the mage stats. If he possesses one of the PCs, he will study the rest of the party before attempting to reclaim his treasure from the party.

Related: Mark Grisham created a free, 2 room tomb for original D&D that uses F’Chelrak for inspiration.

A Game Design History of the Dump Stat

In 1974, Dungeons & Dragons introduced roleplaying games and—less significantly—dump stats where players set their least-useful ability to their lowest score. According to the original D&D rules, players rolled abilities in order. Actually, by the rules as written, “it is necessary for the referee to roll three six-sided dice in order,” but everyone let players roll instead. Innovations like point-buy character generation or even rearranging rolled scores were years away.

Still, original D&D had dump stats of a sort. Fighters could trade Intelligence for Strength, the fighter’s “prime requisite.” Clerics could trade Intelligence for Wisdom. Magic users could trade Wisdom for Intelligence. Every class came with at least one potential dump stat, and these exchanges cost 2 or 3 points for 1 point of the prime requisite. When I first read those offers, the exchange rates struck me as a bad deal. I was wrong. None of those classes gained anything from their dump stat, so the trades only benefited the characters. In the original rules, Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom just brought advantages to the class that used the ability as a prime requisite. (Intelligence brought extra languages; few players cared.) The rules prevented players from reducing Constitution and Charisma, but those abilities could help every character with more hit points or more loyal followers.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardIn 1977, the hand-to-hand combat game Melee by American designer Steve Jackson showed a different and influential approach to ability scores. Melee used just two attributes, Strength and Dexterity, but the scores brought bigger mechanical effects than in D&D. Strength permitted more damaging weapons, stouter armor, and functioned as hit points. Dexterity determined to-hit rolls and who struck first. In this combat game, dueling characters needed to enter the battlefield evenly matched, so rather than rolling attributes, players bought them with points. Modern role-playing games virtually always let players build their characters, but in 1977 the point-buy system proved a massive innovation.

Also in 1977, the obscure game Superhero ’44 used a point-buy system. In Heroic Worlds (1991), D&D Designer Lawrence Schick called that game “primitive,” but also “ground breaking.” Superhero ’44 even let players trade flaws for more points. “Characters who accept weaknesses or disabilities (Kryptonite, for instance) should be awarded with extra power.” This innovation spread to games like Champions (1981), GURPS (1986), and Savage Worlds (2003).

When I played Melee, I marveled at the balance between Strength and Dexterity. Every point moved between the two attributes traded a tangible benefit for a painful detriment, and the difficult choice between stats made character generation into a fascinating choice. Just as important, the simple choice led to fighters who played differently but who proved equally effective. No other game would ever feature such a precise balance between ability scores, but with 2 scores and just one character type, Melee’s narrow scope helped.

A magic system to accompany Melee appeared in Wizard (1978). This addition introduced a third stat, Intelligence, but wizards still needed Strength to power spells and Dexterity to cast them. Intelligence became a dump stat for the original game’s fighters, while wizards gained enough from spells to offset the need to invest in three stats. When Melee and Wizard became The Fantasy Trip roleplaying game, IQ also bought skills, so some balance between stats remained.

Some games lump Strength and some of Constitution’s portfolio together. In both The Fantasy Trip and Tunnels & Trolls (1975), wizards drew from their Strength to power their spells, and since characters in both games increased stats as they advanced, experienced TFT and T&T wizards grew muscles as swollen as steroid-fueled bodybuilders.

Choosing ability scores introduced a complication avoided when players just roll. Some stats prove more useful than others. Chivalry & Sorcery included an attribute for bardic voice. No one but bards would have invested there, and C&S lacked bard as a class. Also, the attributes that power your character’s key abilities bring much more value than the rest. The original D&D rules recognized that factor in the unequal exchanges that let players increase their character’s prime requisites.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1978), the recommended technique for generating ability scores allowed players to rearrange scores any way they liked. For most classes, Intelligence just brought extra languages and Wisdom only gave a saving throw bonus against magic “involving will force,” so these abilities became favored places to dump low scores.

In D&D, the value of ability scores mainly comes from the value the scores offer to classes that don’t require them. Constitution always comes out ahead because it adds hit points and improves a common saving throw. You may never see a fifth edition class based on Constitution because the attribute offers so much already. In earlier editions of D&D, Strength proved useful because every class sometimes made melee attacks. Nowadays, classes get at-will alternatives to melee attacks that use their prime requisite.

The value of ability score depends on what characters do in a campaign, and that adds challenge to balancing. In original D&D, shrewd players paid hirelings and henchmen to accompany their dungeon expeditions and share the danger. Characters needed Charisma to recruit and keep followers, so by some measures Charisma offered more benefits than any other attribute. But not every campaign played with hirelings. The 1977 D&D Basic Set skipped the rules for hiring and retaining help, so Charisma offered no value at all unless a DM happened to improvise a Charisma check—the game lacked formal rules for checks.

A similar factor makes Strength a common dump stat in fifth edition D&D. Strength provides the potentially valuable ability to carry more stuff, and more treasure, but few players even bother accounting for carrying capacity. The rules make dealing with encumbrance an optional variant. In the original D&D games, part of the challenge of looting the dungeon came from the logistical challenge of hauling out the loot. Runequest (1978) featured an encumbrance system that allowed characters to carry a number of “things” equal to their Strength before the weight hampered them. I remember the importance this system attached to Strength and the difficult choices of armor and equipment players faced. The secret to making Strength valuable is creating an encumbrance system that players use.When encumbrance feels like an accounting exercise that players ignore, Dexterity becomes king. By selecting ranged or finesse weapons, a Dexterity based character can approach the damage of a similar character based on Strength. Plus, a high Dexterity enables an AC nearly as stout as the heaviest armor, wins initiative, and improves common Dexterity saves rather than rare Strength saves.

Fifth edition D&D makes Intelligence another common choice for a dump stat. Of the classes in the Player’s Handbook, only wizard requires Intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. (See If a Mind Flayer Fed on D&D Characters’ Brains, It Would Go Hungry. Should PC Intelligence Matter?)

Third edition D&D boosted the value of Intelligence by awarding smart characters more skills. The fifth edition designers probably weighed the same approach, but with skills serving as key traits in the two pillars of interaction and exploration, perhaps the designers opted to award skills equally to characters of any Intelligence. So unlike in earlier editions, high Intelligence no longer brings D&D characters more skills or even languages.

Obvious dump stats limit the choices that lead to effective characters. Dump stats encourage players to create characters that fit common, optimal patterns. A fifth edition D&D party may include a wide range of classes and backgrounds, but almost everyone fits the mold of healthy, agile folks with low-average Intelligence. And not even the barbarian can open a pickle jar. (He’s dex based.)

How to Run an Ambush So Sneaky Monsters Bring More Than Claw/Claw/Bite

Dungeons & Dragons includes lots of sneaky creatures proficient in Stealth, from Abominable Yeti to Yeti. That alphabetical range somehow fails to make my point, but more than 500 creatures fit in between. The game includes creeping monsters who work as ambush predators like spiders (Stealth +7), crafty ambushers like goblins (Stealth +6), as well as potential jump scares from wights, and jumping oh-shit surprises from bulettes.

When these creatures get some chances to lie in wait or to sneak up for surprise, they show the traits that make them more interesting than a claw/claw/bite sequence. Combat scenes feel more varied. Plus the barbarian gets to show off Feral Instinct. However, I have almost never run sneaky monsters for surprise, and based on countless convention games virtually every other DM plays sneaky wrong too.

Part of the blame rests on the fifth edition rule for hiding before an attack. “Compare the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.” In the highly technical jargon of game design, this rule is rubbish.

The worst check among the hiders determines surprise, so with multiple foes and checks, the chance of success veers quickly toward impossible. Based on real life, you might suppose that ambushes often work. Based on the D&D rules, the word “ambush” describes a imaginary event that can never happen, at least for groups of sneaky monsters. (For a look at the reverse of this dynamic, see In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.)

To fix the rule so ambushers can surprise, skip the roll to hide. As a dungeon master, you can set the difficulty class to spot an ambush just as you set DCs for other checks. Then, compare each character’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score against the DC to determine if the character is surprised. This matches the procedure you might use for a trap.

As a technique for setting the DC to detect an ambush, just add 10 to the ambushers’ Stealth bonus, so hiding goblins with Stealth +6 require a DC 16 to spot. If the sneaky creature has advantage, add 5 to the DC. For disadvantage, subtract 5 from the DC. A group setting an ambush has the edge of planning, preparation, and familiarity with the location, so a DM focused on realism might allow advantage and enable many surprises, but not the kind players favor. More entertaining ambushes probably lead to a mix of surprised characters and characters who act immediately. Such situations reward characters with high perception.

This approach boosts sneaky monsters and perceptive characters, but it eliminates die rolls and the fun uncertainty that dice add. By choosing a DC, the DM essentially decides who becomes surprised, and it’s always the same, oblivious characters. The D&D designers favor passive perception because it avoids slowing the game for rolling Wisdom (Perception) checks. In dungeons that encourage players to look frequently for traps, passive checks can speed past a lot of rolls. But lurking monsters deserve a different procedure: Just have players roll a Wisdom (Perception) check before the likely roll for initiative. The characters who fail their check begin surprised.

In an ambush, initiative can start at one of two times:

  • When the monsters attack.
  • When one or more characters notice the potential ambush.

This second case leads to judgement calls from the DM, but can also lead to interesting scenes. How the realization plays depends on how the perceptive characters react to spotting the attackers.

If the ranger draws a sword and yells, “To Arms!” then initiative starts and the less perceptive players begin surprised. Meanwhile, the monsters are already aware of their foes, so they start without surprise.

If the ranger plays it cool and tries to alert the party, then the scene turns on whether the ambushers happen to attack immediately. Does the ambushers’ insight reveal that the archer spotted them? If so, they strike and may surprise some characters. Can the ranger deceive the ambushers into waiting just a moment longer while covertly signaling the party? Ask what the alert characters do, and then call for checks to play the scene.

Distance factors into the situation too. In daylight, if the eagle-eyed ranger spots a group of yuan-ti hiding among desert rocks a half-mile ahead, then any surprise hardly matters. During that first round, no one without meteor swarm is in range to attack. The players can select the best angle of approach or can just avoid the monsters. Since yuan-ti have darkvision to 120 feet, they surely wait until night when most adventurers with darkvision see 60 feet and still suffer disadvantage to Wisdom (Perception) checks unless they carry a light source. Such scenes allow characters to show their special traits, like the drow character’s enhanced night vision that lets the party turn the tables.

For that ambush in darkness, you must judge how close the party will approach the yuan-ti before any characters can detect the snakes. Perhaps at 60 feet, allow the ranger leading the party one check at disadvantage due to dim light. At 30 feet, in the moment the monsters spring their attack, allow a second check for the entire party.

Ultimately, many ambush attempts lead into situations that demand DMs ready to balance distance, skills, and traits to create fun and exciting situations. An ’80s roleplaying game might have included a table that factored Stealth scores, Perception scores, terrain and lighting into a roll that revealed encounter distance. The authors of the Player’s Handbook skipped all that complexity in favor of simplicity. The approach relies on a DM’s judgement, but isn’t that part of what makes being a dungeon master fun?

When You Describe Outcomes, Flatter Your Game’s Heroes and Monsters

Dungeons & Dragons games live in our imagination, so we can only share the action through our description. Critical hits, high-stakes saves, and successful checks against long odds all encourage dungeon masters and players to describe the game’s action in ways that flaunt the characters’ power and talent. Everyone loves a crit; even narrating one is fun.

As a DM, I look for characters’ heroic moments. In a movie, a heroic moment might come when Wonder Woman rushes a foe through a window, crashing out in a shower of glass and debris. In a game, heroic moments come when a hero grapples Acererak and heaves him into a pool of lava, or when a hero stops fleeing an onrushing boulder and turns to drive the sword Shatterspike into it. Whenever you spot a heroic moment, put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome. Many players enjoy describing their characters’ heroic moments. Invite them to.

In D&D and in fiction, a heroes prove their mettle by facing villains who seem at least as capable of winning the day. So look for villainous moments—baddass occasions when your monsters get to flaunt their menace. Think of the Darth Vader demolishing rebels in pursuit of the stolen Death Star plans. D&D monsters typically arrive outmatched by heroes, so make the most of every badass turn. Legendary resistances invite badass moments by letting villains shrug off a hero’s best shot and laugh at the character’s weakness.

Surely none of this advice surprises you. Here’s the unexpected tip: When someone fumbles, instead of describing the failure in a way the makes the hero or monster seem inept or comical, describe the stumble so the fault comes from tough opposition or an imposible situation. DMs feel tempted to narrate bad rolls for laughs. We can narrate a 1 with a description of how someone’s hat tilted to cover their eyes and gain an easy laugh that feels fun in the moment. But too many descriptions like that turn characters into clowns and their opponents into jokes. Instead, use a 1 to describe a foe’s superhuman speed or the swirling hot ash clogging the air and stinging the heroes’ eyes. When you describe outcomes, even the fumbles, flatter your heroes and monsters.

Postscript: Before anyone runs to the comment section, I know that D&D lacks fumbles, but you know what I mean. Don’t be pedantic.

Ninth-level D&D spells Were Never Intended for Players

Dungeons & Dragons first supplement, Greyhawk, raised the game’s highest level spells from 6th level to 9th. None of Gary Gygax’s players had reached the level required to cast the new spells.

Tim Kask remembers that as he and Gary worked on the Blackmoor supplement, they figured players faced little chance of even reaching level 9 or 10. “This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was level 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave’s.”

Doctor_Strange_AstralGreyhawk’s high-level spells served non-player characters and indulged Gary’s love of systematic cataloging—the same inclination that drove him to create a plane of existence for every alignment.

At level 9, Gary stashed outrageous effects from fantasy. Shape Change duplicated a scene from the movie Sword in the Stone. Wish, Time Stop, and Gate came from popular imagination. Astral Spell came from the Doctor Strange comic.

Most of the level 9 spells boasted game-breaking effects. Shape Change let casters gain the shape and abilities of any creature at will, over a duration of hours. Gate could summon a god. Wish seemed to allow anything. Astral Spell probably helped you spy, but you needed to read Doctor Strange to be certain.

To Gary, these spells stood above the players’ reach, reserved for scrolls, liches, and legends.

Gamers played D&D with more passion—and less disciple—than Gary ever expected. Player characters raced past level 17 and gained those once-legendary spells. Now the spells marked either (a) where D&D stopped playing like D&D or (b) where players rolled new characters. All of Gary’s players retired their characters at levels in the mid-teens.

Gary wrote that he designed original D&D to challenge characters between 1st and 16th level, and not 17th-level characters with their level-9 spells. Eventually, the 9th-level spells prompted the fifth-edition designers to mark a new tier for 17th-level PCs. See The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before.

lich_queen_close

When heroes oppose the lich queen, what does she wish for?

By the time Gary designed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, he knew that 17-plus-level PCs bedeviled DMs everywhere, but he kept spells like Wish and Shape Change. Gary aimed to keep the elements of his original game. Instead of eliminating troublesome spells, he imposed limits. Shape Change now consumed a 5,000 gp. jade circlet. The description for Wish now warned, “The discretionary power of the referee is necessary in order to maintain game balance.” I wish I had known that before my players wished for level-infinity PCs. Astral Spell added some baggage about silver cords and continued to discourage casting through obfuscation.

Third edition coped with the legendary spells by adding limitations. Wish stopped granting Wishes and now offered a page-long menu of magical boons. Shapechange lost a space and added hit die limits. Deities and unique beings could now ignore the Gate spell’s summons. As for Astral Spell, I must have missed the issue of Doctor Strange that explained its value.

Fifth edition continues the strategy of containing overpowered spells with long, limiting descriptions. Wish once appeared in 4 lines, now it spans a half page. Shapechange grows almost as much.

Why do these spells remain in the game, even though Gary Gygax never expected players to enjoy free access to them? In part, I blame tradition. Fourth edition eliminated Wish and its kin, but players rebelled against a game that cut so many familiar ingredients.

Designers struggle to capture a sense of wonder appropriate for the game’s most powerful spells while keeping spells playable. Meteor Swarm never aggravated any DMs, but a cluster of fireballs just feels like more of something from level 3. Of Gary’s legendary spells, Time Stop ranks as the best. It combines an epic feel with a manageable effect. In some future revision of the game, I hope to see Wish retired to legendary status and replaced by more spells in the mold of Time Stop.

Greyhawk’s description of Meteor Swarm interjects “(Jim!)” whenever it mentions the spell’s fireballs. Before Meteor Swarm reached print, Greyhawk campaigner Jim Ward’s PC acquired the spell on scrolls. He argued that Meteor Swarm should create flying rocks and overcome fire immunity. His dungeon master, Greyhawk co-author Rob Kuntz, put his final ruling in print. Years later, Jim prevailed. The spell now produces fiery rocks that deal both fire and bludgeoning damage.

The Twisting Tale of Skills in D&D

Modern Dungeons & Dragons includes both skills and character classes, but in the early days of the roleplaying hobby, gamers often saw skills and classes as incompatible. Some gamers touted skills as the innovation that freed roleplaying games from character classes. Three years after D&D reached hobby shops, new games like Traveller and RuneQuest eliminated classes in favor of skill systems. Advertisements for RuneQuest in The Dragon trumpeted, “No Artificial Character Classes!!” Such games eliminated the unrealistic class restrictions that prevented, say, a fighter from learning to climb walls or from mastering a spell. “Mages can wear armor and use blades.” The ad credits RuneQuest to designer “Steve Perrin and friends.” Remember that name, because Perrin returns to this tale later.

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax favored classes because they resonated with the fantasy archetypes everyone knew. He warned, “If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character.” He had a point. Skill-based games gave every character the ability to improve the same common adventuring skills, leading to a certain sameness among adventurers.

Classes let characters make distinct contributions to a group’s success. In a 1984 interview in DRACHE magazine, Gygax said, “The D&D game is based on the theory that there is so much to know and to do that nobody can do everything on his own. The team aspect is important. Each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

As long as Gygax controlled D&D’s development, he kept skills out of the game. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but their narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes.

Still, TSR designer Dave “Zeb” Cook saw a need for character development beyond class. “One of the things dreadfully lacking from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills.” When Cook wrote Oriental Adventures (1985), he brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies—skills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”

Checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks filled the place of ability checks. The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, although class features still covered most of the actions characters attempted during an adventure, so thieves still rolled on their private tables to climb walls and move silently.

In a convention appearance, Dave “Zeb” Cook and fellow designer Steve Winter talked about how these first-edition books led to a second edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”

Even after Gygax left TSR in 1985, designers like Cook and Winter lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary. Nonetheless, these additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

But TSR sold two D&D games, an advanced version that got more scrutiny from management, and a basic version that offered more freedom to designers. By 1988, RuneQuest designer and freelancer Steve Perrin was gaining assignments writing D&D supplements. His GAZ5 The Elves of Alfheim (1988) for the D&D campaign setting of the Known World introduced skills by name to the game. “Due to their background, elves have a variety of skills that are neither shown in the rule books, nor related directly to combat, thieving, or magic. These are optional additions to your D&D campaign.” RuneQuest’s designer put more cracks in the wall between skills and D&D’s classes.

A year later, GAZ11 The Republic of Darokin (1989) by Scott Haring expanded this skill system beyond elves.

“Each skill is based on one of the character’s Abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma). When a circumstance arises in which the DM feels the use of a character’s skill is needed, he asks the player to roll a d20 against his current score with the Ability. If the result of the d20 roll is less than or equal to the Ability, the skill use succeeds. A roll of 20 always fails, no matter how high the chance for success.”

The gazetteer listed skills from advocacy and animal training to woodworking, but the options still kept away from the class specialties of combat, thieving, and magic.

In 1991, the Dungeon & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia gathered all the rules from the basic line into a single hardcover that included the skill system. Meanwhile, AD&D would spend another decade forcing players to say “non-weapon proficiency” in place of “skill.”

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained permission to correct old drawbacks. “We knew we wanted to make a more robust set of skills,” designer Monte Cook said in an interview. “You had thieves‘ skills, which were different and they worked completely differently, because they were percentage based. So we wanted to marry all of that together.” Like RuneQuest and virtually every other contemporary roleplaying game, the new edition would adopt a single, core mechanic to resolve actions. Players made checks by rolling a d20, adding modifiers, and comparing the result against a difficulty class number. Skills now offered bonuses to these checks.

The older D&D skill system and AD&D proficiency checks had created in impression that the third-edition designers worked to avoid. In both systems, skills seemed like a requirement to attempt many tasks, so characters needed gemcutting skill to even attempt a radiant cut. That adds up. On the other hand, surely anyone could attempt bargaining and gambling, yet D&D’s original skill checks only applied to characters with a skill.

D&D’s new d20 core mechanic meant that skills expanded to include actions characters actually did in the game. For instance, rogues got skills rather than a private table listing their chance of hiding and picking pockets. “D&D was still a class based game, but the idea that you were not a thief, so you can’t climb and you can never climb, didn’t really hold a lot of water.” The system allowed any character to attempt to hide and climb. Unskilled characters just suffered worse odds of success. Good luck with the gemcutting.

By fourth edition the games designers worked hard to reach Gary Gygax’s ideal of teamwork—but only during combat. On the battlefield, each character class served a distinct role like striker and defender. For tasks outside combat, the designers contrived a skill challenge system aimed at ensuring that every character gained an equal chance to contribute.

During fifth edition’s design, the D&D designers planned to sideline skills in favor of simple ability checks. “We’re making skills completely optional,” lead designer Mike Mearls wrote. “They are a rules module that combines the 3E and 4E systems that DMs can integrate into their game if they so desire.”

But playtesters liked the depth that skills gave characters. Also finessing the game’s math so it played equally well with or without skill bonuses doubtless proved troublesome. So skills stayed part of the D&D core. The designers still chose to rename skill checks as ability checks. This further avoids from the implication that characters need a skill to attempt certain tasks. Without formal skill challenges, fifth edition allows characters with particular skills to shine more as individuals who bring special talents to contribute to the team.

And in the end, no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

If a Mind Flayer Fed on D&D Characters’ Brains, It Would Go Hungry. Should PC Intelligence Matter?

In modern Dungeons & Dragons games, intelligence vies with strength as the most common stat where players dump their characters’ lowest ability score. Of classes in the Player’s Handbook , only wizard requires intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. And unlike in earlier editions, high intelligence no longer brings more skills or even languages. Am I the only dungeon master who spots a mind flayer in an adventure, realizes that only a wizard can make an intelligence save against a psionic blast, and feels a shameful excitement? We DMs rarely get a chance to stir panic by exploiting a weakness the players chose for themselves.

In original D&D, intelligence brought even fewer benefits than in the modern game. The rules lacked intelligence saves and checks.  Magic users needed the stat, but otherwise smart characters only gained languages. Still, at some tables, low-intelligence characters came with a steep penalty.

The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson chronicles how after the release of D&D in 1974, discussion brought roleplaying from a single, revolutionary game to a mature hobby. The discourse started in fanzines like Alarums & Excursions and spread to magazines like Different Worlds, which treated roleplaying as a new art. The book shows how many seemingly modern controversies about styles of play actually date back to 1975 or so. For instance, gamers have argued about whether game masters should favor storytelling over impartiality almost since the first mention of D&D in a mimeographed zine.

One debate described in The Elusive Shift  seldom reappears now. It stems from the original D&D rules and this line: “Intelligence will also affect referees’ decisions as to whether or not certain actions would be taken.” In other words, dungeon masters could bar low-intelligence characters from taking clever actions dreamed up by a smart player.

The implications of intelligence go two ways. In 1975, Lee Gold wrote that when a player proposed an action too rash for a wise character or too dumb for a smart character, “a dungeon master should legitimately overrule a person’s call for his character.”

Especially in the days of roleplaying, when everyone generated characters randomly, many gamers saw playing low intelligence or low wisdom as both a penalty and as a demonstration of roleplaying skill.

In Alarums & Excursions issue 13 (1976), Nicolai Shapero wrote, “If I have a character with an intelligence of 6, and a wisdom of 8, I refuse to run him the same as an 18 intelligence 18 wisdom character. This has cost me characters…it hurts, every now and then.” However, he insisted that “it is a far more honest way of playing.”

Some gamers wondered if the players who ignored their character’s intelligence even counted as roleplayers. Did such gamers just play a game of puzzle-solving and battle tactics? Meanwhile, the gamers who favored tests of skill preferred games where players needed all their own wits to survive.

Nowadays, some players enjoy playing a low-wisdom character as someone who ignores signs of trouble and takes risks. Such recklessness leads to a more exciting game. But few players enjoy stifling their own ingenuity to play a lower intelligence. To be fair, the intelligence of a modern D&D character typically bottoms out at 8, just below average, but I suspect most D&D players are far more clever.

How do you roleplay intelligence and wisdom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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