Author Archives: David Hartlage

9 Best Collections of Inspirational Tables and Lists to Help DMs Create and Improvise

Never underestimate the value of a good list seeded with ideas or just evocative words. Inspirational tables include numbers for die rolls. I suspect the tables for traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws in the fifth edition Players Handbook developed more characters’ personalities, and therefor encouraged more role playing than anything in past Dungeons & Dragons history. And the table of trinkets on page 161 has probably been rolled against more than any other in the current game.

The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.” (For more on how M.T. Black creates, see his book The Anatomy of Adventure.)

Use the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity. I like to generate ideas by taking two notions that strike my interest, but that seem unrelated, and then inventing ways to put the two thoughts together. (See Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention and D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.) M.T. Black uses the same trick to create. “Some of my best adventures had their genesis through the amalgamation of two seemingly unrelated ideas. So very often in this business, the magic happens through an inspired combination.”

What’s the quickest source of random thoughts? Tables like ones for adventures starting on page 73 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide or for dungeons on page 292. You probably already have that book. Count it as number 10.

Random tables especially help give life to the parts of the game world that seem routine. Recently, I needed market square vendors colorful enough for roleplaying scenes. A few rolls on tables gave enough inspiration for me to imagine merchants that excited me.

For improvisation, random tables help me avoid the first thought that comes to mind—the thought process that lead to my introduction of a recurring NPC named Kendle Stick. Never again.

Books of this sort benefit from indexes that organize various tables. When I reference these documents from my tablet, I like hyperlinks from the lists of tables to the tables themselves. Alas, neither feature is common.

What are the best resources for DMs who want more inspiration than the Dungeon Master’s Guide can offer?

9. GM Gems: A Tome of Game Master Inspiration
$11.99. 84 pages.

GM Gems devotes most of its pages to creations like 6 memorable caravans (described in 3 pages) or 15 unusual holidays (spanning 5 pages). All these nuggets suggest adventure hooks and reward browsing. My favorite tables include Memorable NPC Frills and Empty Rooms Worth Describing. The list of smell words appeals to both writers and 8-year-olds.

Sample roll from Short Encounters for Short Attention Spans. 32: The party finds an enormous tome written in Draconic with the title “Indigestion: What Creatures to Avoid.”

8. The Mother of All Treasure Tables
$15.99. 162 Pages.

While I like the idea of giving characters unique and evocative loot rather than lists of coinage, the chore of imagining such hoards exhausts me. The authors of The Mother of All Treasure Tables did my homework. Tables inside list treasure parcels by values up to 50,000 gp and even epic treasure.

Sample roll from 50 Gold Pieces. 25: A wooden box [1 gp] is as long as a dagger but twice as wide, and is painted black. Inside you find a thin bed of red wax that is dimpled with dozens of small depressions. Five gems are pressed into the wax: an azurite, a piece of blue quartz, a chunk of lapis lazuli, a freshwater pearl and a moss agate [10 gp each]. [Total 51 gp]

7. 650 Fantasy City Encounter Seeds & Plots
Free. 65 pages.

This document features a single list of urban adventure seeds and scene ideas.

Sample roll. 599: The PCs come across a tavern where an artist is trying to trade one of his paintings for drinks. The painting is truly bad.

6. d30 Sandbox Companion
$4.95. 56 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

The d30 Sandbox Companion presents a way to improvise a wilderness, sandbox adventure using the rarely seen 30-sided die. (Hint: Ask your phone to roll.) Surely author Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr. ranks as the world biggest fan of the die that just won’t stop rolling. Some of the most useful tables describe NPCs, shops and shopkeepers, and name taverns.

Sample rolls from NPC Background, Eccentricities, and Talents. 30: Baker 21: father was a noble, had title stripped after “incident” 8: hates their life 29: whistles incessantly 24: talent for reading body language.

5. Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game
$16.95. 338 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

Masks presents 3 to 4 characters per page, with sub-headings for appearance, roleplaying, personality, motivation, and background. The book divides characters into sections for the fantasy, sci-fi, and modern genres. The index lets you find NPCs by traits like “Charming” and “Merchant.”

4. Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to inspire Game Masters
$16.95. 316 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

Eureka presents 2 adventure plots per page divided into sections for the fantasy, sci-fi, and modern genres. The index lets you find plots using tags like “Intrigue,” “Combat-heavy,” and “Betrayal.”

3. Dungeon Dozen
$8. 225 pages. Indexed.

Tables in Dungeon Dozen range from the useful ones (Also in Residence at the Inn and What’s on the Guard Monster’s Mind?) to gonzo (Occupants of the Colossal UFO Anchored to the Mountaintop). Everything seems evocative enough to supercharge your imagination.

Sample roll from Even the Doors are Weird. 5: Randomly opens and closes with damaging force.

2. Tome of Adventure Design
$12.60. 308 pages. Indexed.

The 400-something tables Tome of Adventure Design starts with help outlining adventure plots and villains, venture to dungeon tricks and decoration, and finish in cities and crossing planes.

Sample roll from Specific Tactical Situations. 77: Areas where spells have unusual effects; possibly weapons or movement also (underwater, for example).

1. GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing, Urban Dressing, & Wilderness Dressing
$13.99 each; discounted in a bundle. Linked tables of contents.

The GM’s Miscellany series rates as the best of the random-table genre. These volumes mix inspirational tables and a dash of advice into collections focused on dungeon, urban, and wilderness environments. A bundle that includes print and PDF versions of all the volumes offers the best value.

GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing. 216 pages.

Sample roll from Mundane Chest Contents: Wizard’s Chests. 95: The charcoal-rubbed papers in this chest appear to be of gravestone etchings.

GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing. 178 pages.

Sample roll from Market Stalls: Hooks, Complications & Opportunities. 4: An irate young man complains that he was almost killed by his last purchase. When pressed he explains ludicrous extraordinary circumstances.

GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing II. 118 pages.

Sample roll from Decadent Town: Sights & Sounds. 80: At least a dozen footmen and attendants clear the street to make way for a woman reclining on an opulent litter.

GM’s Miscellany: Wilderness Dressing. 122 pages.

Sample roll from Desert: Minor Events. 88: Two small scorpions are engaged in their own duel for a dead beetle.

How to Avoid Boring Rerolls of D&D’s Ability Checks

Dungeons & Dragons plays best when players can only retry ability checks if something changed after the first roll.

For many ability checks, this makes sense because failing makes trying the same thing again impossible. The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives this example: “If the rogue loses a contest of Charisma (Deception) against the guard’s Wisdom (Insight), the same lie told again won’t work.” Typically, Intelligence and Charisma checks only allow one attempt.

Still, the realization that DMs should avoid allowing rerolls surprised me because some checks naturally invite retries. Typically, Strength and Dexterity checks seem open to multiple attempts. Why not try to pick a lock again? The Dungeon Master’s Guide even includes advice for multiple checks. “In some cases, the only real cost is the time it takes. To speed things up, assume that a character spending ten times the normal amount of time needed to complete a task automatically succeeds at that task.”

That suggestion seems like advice for retrying checks, but at the core, it tells when to skip them. If a character can succeed and has time, then skip the roll. This guideline never explains how to determine whether characters have enough skill and talent to succeed. (Spoiler: I will recommend rolling a check.)

DMs aim to run an exciting game, and skipping rerolls helps. The outcome of a roll should launch—or at least nudge—the game ahead or into a new direction. Even a failure that blocks progress should inspire ingenuity. If a failure does nothing more than prompt a player to fish for a higher number, then the game stalls. Boring. Third edition even created rules to avoid such fizzles. A player could take 20 and spend 20 times as long in exchange for an automatic 20 on a check attempt.

For checks that seem to allow multiple retries, the take 20 rule answers the can-I question using addition. While fifth edition skips the take-20 rule, the math remains the same. If a character’s check bonus plus 20 meets or beats a task’s DC, then mathematically the character could succeed. But this take-20 math leads to unsatisfying play for two reasons:

If bending the bars of dungeon cells requires success against a DC 20, which the game calls “hard,” then anyone with an average Strength of 10 and time to spare gets loose. The same goes for a hard lock and an untrained thief with no aptitude. For dungeons to hold athletes and locks to deter thieves, the iron and the mechanisms need a DC 25 and talented beginners still get through. I think we can all agree that prisons work better than that. But we contrive DCs to create a fun and challenging game. D&D aims for heroics where the barbarian bends the portcullis and the rogue picks the lock, all before the approaching monsters arrive. So the game recommends DCs based on the assumption that characters only get one attempt.

Instead of using take-20 math to decide whether a character has enough talent and skill to succeed, the game usually plays better when one ability check decides. Knowledge checks already work that way. When players ask if their characters know the history of Netheril, a check answers without rerolls or taking 20. For any check where failure blocks a retry, one die roll decides whether a character can succeed. Can the paladin persuade the mayor? Can the wizard decipher the sigil?

Checks that decide what a character can accomplish date back to first edition and attempts to bend bars or lift gates. “The attempt may be made but once, and if the score required is not made, the character will never succeed at the task.” Does a failed check reveal thicker bars? Maybe. Such checks fit D&D’s long tradition of rolling to learn things about the game world, things like whether a door is locked or if the skies are clear.

Die rolls bring more fun than letting take-20 math or a DM’s ruling decide between success and failure. Plus, you only roll once so the game never stalls while someone fishes for a higher number.

Now that you know to never allow a character to repeat a check, I will weaken that principle by revealing exceptions.

One obvious exception: Sometimes a change in approach allows a reroll. If a character failed to move a stone, perhaps a lever will help. Gain another attempt.

The second exception requires a DM’s judgement, something right in the DM job description.

When characters risk paying a price for failure, allowing retries can create a more exciting game. If a climber can fall or if someone attempting to disarm a trap can suffer the device’s effects, the character can retry and bear the risks again. Often the price of failure comes from losing time against a ticking clock—a draining hourglass in most D&D worlds. In classic D&D games, every moment wasted raises the risk of wandering monsters. When attempting to break a door, the price of failure is often noise, whether it alerts wandering monsters or nearby guards.

Fifth edition allows for setbacks more interesting than damage or delays. Failure can mean that a character “makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.” For example, if a rogue blows a roll to pick a lock, the DM can decide that the lock opens but the attempt made a noise that leads to complications. Gamers call this failing forward.

The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game includes a “pushing the roll” rule that lets players agree to pay a price for a second failure in exchange for a retry. Players describe the extra effort or time taken to justify a second chance. Plus, they give the game master “permission to bring dire consequences” if the next attempt fails. You may steal this rule for your D&D game. The idea works especially well for checks with a potentially harsh penalty for failure. For example, a character who fails a first climb attempt realizes the cliff seems too treacherous and makes no progress. If the climber pushes on despite the risk, and then fails again, they fall.

DMs who ask for a check must be ready for failure. Sometimes even published modules include checks where a failure blocks the rest of the adventure—checks with no room for failure. At conventions, I have seen bad rolls test DMs who abruptly realized that a failure left the adventure no way to continue. These DMs switched to improvising new checks as a way to drag the group to success. When we kept failing, the damage control turned comical. Failing forward lets characters fail checks and still pass ahead, but search checks and especially knowledge checks can make inventing a setback a hard challenge for a DM.

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

5 Roleplaying Products That Shaped How I Play Dungeons & Dragons 1978-2000

Tomb of Horrors (1978)

In the early days, I enjoyed plenty of time to create my own adventures, so I had little interest in playing the published ones. But I still drew inspiration from them. Nothing inspired like Tomb of Horrors.

tomb-of-horrors-1e-coverBefore the tomb, dungeons tended to lack personality. Dungeon masters followed the examples in the rule books, serving players bland tunnels, square rooms, and monsters waiting to be killed.

The tomb overflowed with the personality of its fictional creator and its real-world author. Gary Gygax admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The tomb brought a menace unmatched by other dungeons. Its legend still draws players, despite its reputation for dead characters and tedious play.

The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations. The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so adventurers encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.

For more, see Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980)

You can fault some details in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but not its big ideas. This adventure took the scope of Dungeons & Dragons and blew it wide open.

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits CoverStart with the Demonweb, a web of pathways floating through impenetrable fog. The material of the path moves slightly. “Close examination will reveal faces, twisted and tortured, pressed against some invisible barrier, silently mouthing screams and howls.” These are the lost souls of the Abyss. Along the path, unsupported doors open into extradimensional spaces. At first, these doors lead to Lolth’s creatures. On the last level of the web, the doors open on alternate material planes that she targets for attack or other schemes. In unlocking these planes, the adventure made the world of Greyhawk and its kin seem like specks floating an a sea of creation.

Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk, but I loved it. A diet of Michael Moorcock books and Arduin had already shattered my reservations about mixing such elements. The spider-ship seemed like a fitting creation for a goddess whose power spanned a multiverse. The ship’s inscrutable purpose and destination suited her chaos.

Lolth’s spider-ship, the Demonweb, and its portals suggested a D&D game with a scope that felt breathtaking.

For more, see How Queen of the Demonweb Pits opened Dungeons & Dragons to the multiverse

Escape from Astigars Lair (1980)

In 1980, Judges Guild published Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a slim module that sold for just $2. The adventure so charmed me that after I ran it, I created a similar challenge of my own to unleash on players.

Escape From Astigar's LairThe action starts when the wizard Egad dons a cursed helm and becomes possessed by the evil spirit of the mighty Astigar. Players take the roles of the druid Danier and the ranger Therain, who begin shackled to a wall in Astigar’s dungeon complex. The escape encourages shrewd problem solving. How can you cross a chamber swarming with flying lizards as voracious as piranha? How can you force Egad to remove the cursed helm? The obstacles in the lair inspired challenges that I would add to my own game.

I loved how Escape from Astigar’s Lair showed that combining oddball powers with ingenuity could prove more fun than blasting away.

For more, see Little-known D&D classics: Escape from Astigar’s Lair.

Fez (1980-1985)

In 1981, my buddies and I, at our first Gen Con, stumbled into the Fez tournament and had a blast, more fun than we had in that year’s AD&D Open. For several years, even as our interests wandered from AD&D to other role-playing games, Fez remained the Gen Con event we most eagerly anticipated.FezI The Wizard’s Vale was originally printed as Fez I Valley of Trees

In this blog, I’ve shown how a reliance of skill checks tends to encourage players to focus on their character stats and to take focus from the game world. When a skill check solves any problem in the game world, the details of the problem become unimportant.

When I played Fez, little seemed to demand a roll. Behind the dungeon master’s screen, Fez was a D&D game complete with AC and HP. From my perspective, Fez factored rules out of the game, making immersion the game world all important. Normally, I would not want to play battles without character stats, but in Fez, the objective seemed to be to avoid fights.

Fez featured a play style different from the typical D&D game, and it blew my impressionable mind.

For more, see Little-known D&D classics: Fez.

Dungeons & Dragons third edition (2000)

Game historian Shannon Appelcline calls D&D’s original design chaotic modeling, with inconsistent game systems handling different parts of the game world. So Strength has a range of 3-17, and then 18/01 to 18/00, while other attributes range from 3-18. Thieves roll under a percentage to gain success, attackers try to roll high on a d20, and (in some versions) ability checks require a d20 roll under an ability score. “The fact that the game couldn’t even keep its core range straight (was it yards or feet?) says a lot.”

3E edition launch shirtIn Thirty Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, Steve Winter wrote, “By 1987, the science and/or art of roleplaying game design had progressed significantly since AD&D’s first appearance. Games such as Runequest, The Fantasy Trip, Chivalry & Sorcery, Paranoia, Pendragon, Warhammer Fantasy, Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, and many others showed that there were innumerable ways to build a quality, innovative RPG.”

Second edition designers Steve Winter and David “Zeb” Cook did their best to sort out D&D’s “ugly little systems that didn’t integrate with each other,” but the system’s core remained mired in the RPG stone age. In a D&D podcast episode examining the second edition, Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in third edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.” So D&D held to chaotic modeling.

In 1997, Wizards of the Coast took over TSR and new head Peter Adkison set the direction for a new edition of D&D. In Thirty Years of Adventure, he wrote, “After twenty-five years D&D was due for a major overhaul, but that the changes to the game should make the games rules more consistent, more elegant, and support more possibilities for different styles of play.” Adkison gave lead-designer Jonathan Tweet and the rest of his team the freedom to bring 25 years of innovation into D&D. The centerpiece of the revamp came in the form of the d20 core mechanic that became the name of the game’s foundation.

Future_of_D+DIn addition to the chaotic rules, D&D’s characters suffered from limitations Gary had created either for game balance or just to make humans the dominant race. “My biggest beef with the older rules were the consistent limitations on what characters could become,” Adkison wrote. “Why couldn’t dwarves be clerics. Why could wizards of some classes only advance to some pre-determined level limit? Why couldn’t intelligent monster races like orcs and ogres pick up character classes? In my mind these restrictions had no place in a rules set but should be restrictions established (if at all) at the campaign-setting level.”

I shared Peter Adkison’s beefs. When Wizards of the Coast made their big announcement leading to the third edition, they produced a shirt giving a taste of the barriers that the new edition shattered. For me, this shirt showed how third edition would embrace 30 years of role-playing game design ideas, and how it swept away senseless limitations. After years often away from D&D, mostly playing other games, third edition welcomed me back.

Related: 1977–1978

5 Roleplaying Products That Shaped How I Play Dungeons & Dragons 1977–1978

Holmes Basic Set (1977)

The blue box of the 1977 Holmes Basic Set introduced me to D&D. To 99% of Dungeons & Dragons players, the edition that introduced them to the game stands as their most important. Why should I be different?

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetPlayers who came later never saw how revolutionary the game and its brand of fantasy seemed in the 70s.

Then, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. These games offered minimal choices. In them, the winner became obvious well before the end, yet they took forever to finish.

Before I saw D&D, I heard of the game in a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch. After school, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

So in a mere 48 pages, the 1978 basic Dungeons & Dragons rule book edited by J. Eric Holmes shattered my notion of what a game could be.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N.

For more, see 4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed.

City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977)

When I discovered D&D, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements. For a break from dungeon adventures, the original rules suggested wandering the hex map boxed in Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game and rolling encounters.

City State of the Invincible OverlordSo when the City State of the Invincible Overlord reached me, the scope of my game exploded. The $9 setting included a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.

The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each.

Instead of adopting the entire City State, I cherry picked stuff I liked. My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting my favorite bits. The best inspiration came from the rumors seeding every location. Now we would call them adventure hooks. In an era when most players just wandered, these ideas suggested a way to steer the game from aimless looting to plot.

For more, see A Butcher, a Baker, and Naughty Nannies in D&D’s First Setting Book: City State of the Invincible Overlord.

Arduin (1977).

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Dave Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in 3 little, brown books named after his world, The pages of the Arduin Grimoire teemed with fresh ideas. When I discovered the books, I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of a map paired with encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later.

The Arduin TrilogyDave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. He preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” He wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. His specific rules hardly mattered. The message mattered: Hargrave encouraged me to own the rules and my games and to create a game that suited me and my players.

For more, see The Arduin Grimoire: The “Coolest RPG Book Ever,” also the Book Gygax Mocked As Costing Readers 1 Int and 2 Wis.

Melee (1977) and Wizard (1978)

Over my first years years of playing D&D, the fun of the game’s battles waned. My games drifted away from the fights, and toward exploration and problem solving.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardGame designer Steve Jackson understood the trouble. In Space Gamer issue 29, he wrote, “The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.” Steve turned his desire for better battles into elegant rules.

In the late 70s, ads in Dragon magazine convinced me to spend $2.95 on Jackson’s combat game Melee and $3.95 on the magic addition Wizard. I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters. (Melee and Wizard would become The Fantasy Trip roleplaying game.)

I loved playing the games so much that they changed the way I played D&D.

The revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at Gen Con, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.

I failed to realize how much battle maps would transform the game. Without a map, players struggle to follow the action unless things stay simple. In virtually ever fight, players just opted for the front, swinging a weapon, or the back, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”

Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.

For more, see Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map.

Runequest (1978)

With Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax invented the role-playing game. With Runequest, Steve Perrin and Ray Turney showed how to design a role-playing game.

Runequest second edition

Steve Perrin first entered the hobby when he distributed his D&D house rules, The Perrin Conventions, at DunDraCon in 1976. This led to Runequest, a game that replaced every aspect of D&D with more flexible, realistic, and simpler alternative: Skills replaced the confining class system. Experience came from experience, not from taking treasure. Armor absorbed damage from blows that landed. Combat simulated an exchange of blows, dodges and parrys. Damage represented actual injuries. Rather than a hodge-podge of mechanics, Runequest introduced the idea of a core mechanic that provided a way to resolve every task. Rather than the game setting implied by all of Gary’s favorite fantasy tropes, Runequest supported Glorantha, a unique world built as a consistent, logical setting.

Suddenly, D&D’s rules seemed as dated as gas lights and buggy whips. I enjoyed an occasional D&D game, but I switched to electric lighting until D&D adopted much of the same technology for third edition.

Today, simulation seems less important than in 1978. I now see that rules that made D&D unrealistic also added fun by enabling the game’s combat-intensive dungeon raids. For more, see The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points and The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold.

However, elegance remains as important as ever. Aside from earlier D&D editions, D&D’s current design owes more to Runequest than any other game. Third-edition D&D’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet called Runequest the role-playing game that taught how to design RPGs. Actually, Runequest taught everyone how.

Jonathan Tweet credits Runequest with a long list of innovations that reached D&D.

  • prestige classes (rune lords, rune priests, and initiates)
  • unified skill-combat-saving-throw system
  • ability scores for monsters
  • 1 in 20 hits are crits
  • ability scores that scaled up linearly without artificial caps
  • a skill system that let anyone try just about anything
  • armor penalties for skill checks and spellcasting
  • creature templates
  • faction affiliations
  • hardness for objects
  • chance to be hit modified by Dexterity and size
  • iconic characters used in examples throughout the rule book
  • rules for PCs making magic items.

Next: 1978-2000

Getting Players Moving, Especially When No One Wants to Drive

If you game master enough roleplaying games, you will eventually land a session that keeps stalling because no one wants to drive—no one wants to speak for the group. For instance, if the party has to pick a restaurant, then everyone spends 10 minutes saying “I don’t care. What do you want?” We’ve all been there, just probably not while in a dungeon. Most often, such tentative groups form when strangers meet for a game, often at conventions. But any group can lag, and the techniques for nudging a party ahead can prove useful beyond a convention hall.

To be clear, not every lull in a game needs an intervention. If the group enjoys slowing to roleplay, let it flow. If a group starts planning for the challenge ahead, then sit back and relish it. These situations show a group immersed in the game world. Score a win for the dungeon master.

Sometimes folks in a group of strangers feel presumptuous speaking for the whole group. When everyone keeps hesitating to call shots for the group, many DMs smooth the way by asking for individual decisions. “Making a choice for your character seems less daunting than making one for the group. Low stakes choices can break the ice,” writes Louis Bamberger. “Recently I ran a group that was pretty quiet. Their characters were at a town carnival, so I asked them what game they would play and what food or drink they would order. After each person explained their choices, a snowball of enthusiasm grew with each person’s answer.” By the end of the session, a group of players new to roleplaying games felt eager for another go.

Die rolls, even inconsequential ones, make another good ice breaker. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia gives an example. “In a marketplace, have an arcane character make a bogus check to point out a vendor’s wares could be spell components, just to get them to talk. Data tends to help us make decisions, so skill checks, even granting minor information, tend to help move us to action.”

When I serve as DM for tentative group, I tend to make two adjustments.

First, I pose more choose-your-adventure-style choices.

This helps narrow a limitless range of options to a menu of sensible actions. At worst the table can vote. Often I nominate one player as caller-for-the-moment to make a decision. DM Tom Christy sometimes selects the most charismatic character—the natural leader. You can also nominate a leader based on circumstantial qualifications. Underground, let the dwarf choose the way. At a masquerade, the bard would lead.

Second, I may increase the amount of information I give before I ask the players what they want to do. This decreases the number of minor, often inconsequential, choices slowing the group.

With a typical group, when the players meet a character with clues to share, or when the players enter a new location, I withhold some easy discoveries. This gives players more to learn as they talk and investigate. This rewards action and leads to a more interactive game. So if the room has a mosaic, I’ll assume someone will take a closer look. If a wizard’s apprentice reveals that the archmage sought reagents, I’ll assume the party will ask for details. For most groups, this technique leads to a better game.

But if a tentative group needs to know that the archmage intends to make a golem, then the apprentice may become chatty. And I’ll just tell a hesitant group that the mosaic shows a priestess burying a scepter under a mountain with three peaks.

I don’t welcome such adjustments. They can feel like I’m dragging a particularly halting group to the finish, but no one wants a game that lags.

Phil Vecchione notes that groups become indecisive when they lack enough information to make a choice. He suggests bridging that information gap. Start by recapping what the players already know. Players feel confused more often than they ever admit—and more than we DMs care to admit. Share any useful information that the characters may know based on their in-game expertise. The characters live in the game world; the players just visit.

As an ultimate remedy, Phil suggests upping the urgency by adding new developments in the game world. So if the party continues to dither at the door, have something open it from the other side.

Use the Small World Principle to Build a Better Game

Before you introduce a new non-player character to your game, seek to reuse an existing character who can fill the role.

I think of this as the Small World Principle, because I sometimes extend it beyond NPCs. Other writers call it the Law of Conservation of NPCs.

The Small World Principle brings a few benefits:

  • NPCs become more memorable and better developed because players spend more time with them.
  • The smaller number of characters creates more interaction, conflict, and drama within the cast. Drama builds rather than dissipates.
  • Game masters save the work of creating new and potentially interesting NPCs by relying on proven ones.

When I run one of the published D&D campaign adventures, I may consolidate the cast to focus on the non-player characters that I favor. Many DMs prefer to audition lots of NPCs in play and see who players fancy. Watch how players react to the characters they meet. If one sparks interest, then look for ways to expand the character’s role. See How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like.

The Small World Principle extends beyond NPCs. Instead of letting the game sprawl, look to circle back to existing locations.

Creators of fiction rely on the Small World Principle, even when they work on larger canvases. The Star Wars tales span a galaxy, but somehow everything happens to the Skywalkers, usually on Tatooine. In Marvel comics, almost every hero and villain lives in New York City. What are the odds? Sure, the Hulk spends time in the desert, but he seems to visit New York monthly for a team up or two. People notice the unlikeliness, but few seem overly bothered by it.

Sometimes an NPC brings some qualifications to a role, but seems disqualified for some reason. For example, perhaps the character last appeared a continent away. Or maybe they were dead. Before you conclude that the existing character won’t fit, reconsider the NPC in the part and ask, How could this be true? See Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention. Perhaps the character’s reappearance just requires a line of explanation. Perhaps it sparks a mystery that enriches the game.

Related: How to Create Loveable Non-Player Characters While You Supercharge Your Sex Appeal

The 4 Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break

In Dungeons & Dragons the dungeon master gets to break the rules, but only so much. The amount of breakage varies from group to group. Some DMs stick to the rules as written, only overriding them when they defy the logic of the game world. Other DMs never track hit points and just declare monsters defeated when it suits the drama of a battle.

Despite a DM’s dominion over the rules, D&D includes some rules DMs must never break—at least if they want their players to stick with the game. Oddly, these rules never appeared in print, so successful DMs learned them by observation and insight. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax made these lessons difficult for many early DMs to learn. He set an example that seemed to encourage dungeon masters to beat players. As soon as players gained an edge, Gary created something to foil them. He and his players enjoyed the battle of wits brought by this style of play. Still, Gary just aimed to challenge players and he mostly stuck to these rules that he never wrote down.

Meanwhile, struggling DMs never deduced the unwritten rules, and often unknowingly broke them to defeat the players and to “win” D&D. Eventually, these DMs either lost all their players or they learned.

What are the dungeon master’s laws of fair play?

1. Never confront characters with threats they cannot either defeat or avoid.

The avoid part of this rule is important.

In D&D’s early days, players controlled the game’s difficulty by choosing how deep to delve into the dungeon. Certainly Gary introduced tricks aimed at luring characters deeper than they intended, but he saw such traps as avoidable tests of mapping skill. The early rules made fleeing easier and clever players knew when to run. See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.

In today’s game, DMs more often contrive threats that the party can beat. DMs can still throw deadly, even lethal challenges, but not without giving players a warning or a way to avoid the peril. See How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes.

An outrageous violation of this rule appears as a living hill monster described in Booty and the Beasts, the 1979 collection of monsters and treasures co-authored by legendary D&D artist Erol Otus. Living hills look like normal, grassy hills. “They feed upon unwary travelers who camp upon their seemingly benign summits.” Campers only have a 1 in 6 chance of noticing a lost—and digested—party member. Blogger Mr. Lizard writes, “This is a perfect example of the classic ‘gotcha!’ monster. Basically, unless you actually go out of your way to check to see if you’re on a living hill, your character is dead.”

2. Assume players have taken reasonable actions.

Imagine this rule worded in a more amusing way: DMs should always assume the characters are wearing pants, even if no players said that they put them on. Obviously, this guideline exempts the anthropomorphic ducks in RuneQuest.

In the more adversarial days of D&D, some DMs insisted that players announce their intent to draw a weapon before attacking. If the battle started without weapons drawn, characters wasted a turn pulling out blades. Frustrated players took to readying weapons at every sign of danger, as if just entering a monster-infested underground death trap fell short of a sign.

3. Never let players ignorantly take a substantial risk.

We all love when players stake their characters’ lives on some reckless, nearly impossible stunt. Whether they succeed or fail, such moments make unforgettable gaming. But before any foolhardy undertaking, make sure the players know (1) the odds and (2) the result of failure. I typically share difficulty classes before players roll. These DC numbers help span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and what a player learns from a DM’s description. DCs prevent misunderstandings.

As for risks, make sure players know that, say, falling from the Earth mote means plunging into a sea of lava. That works better than rewinding the action for a player who heard “sea” and not “lava.”

4. Never plan to take the players’ freedom or stuff to support your plot.

In the early days of D&D, some gamers coached DMs to deal with excess treasure by having thieves steal it as the characters slept. Often the caper succeeded because the players never listed the reasonable precautions they would take to protect their treasures. (See rule 2.)

Early spells like Leomund’s Secret Chest seem designed to thwart thievery, so perhaps Gary indulged in such thefts. Gary had an excuse: He invented most of the game’s magic items and wanted to test them in play. His players grew accustomed to seeing gear won, lost, and melted by fireballs. Also Gary’s players probably stole from each other—they played to win back then. See Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

None of this applies to today’s game. Never take the character’s hard-won gear. They will resent the loss.

Often DMs who steal gear aim to create a powerful hook, which leads players to chase their treasure through a campaign arc. Those good intentions may make the theft seem permissible, but those schemes only make the situation worse. Such rough hooks make players feel railroaded.

The same rules for gear also apply to the loved ones players invent for their backgrounds. Those casts count as the player’s stuff. Never kill such characters to create a cheap motivation.

The most common and egregious violation of this rule comes when a DM wants players taken captive. In adventure fiction, heroes get captured regularly. So DMs dream up similar stories, and then try to force a capture despite the players’ determination to never get taken alive.

Sometimes DMs opt for capture as alternative to a total party kill. While a fair exception to this rule, don’t violate rule 1 in the process by confronting characters with a threat they cannot defeat or avoid. Save your escape-from-the-dungeon scenario for a time when players ignore warning signs, make bad choices, suffer setbacks, and ignore any chance to run. Those times happen—trust me. Then, instead of rolling new characters, have the old characters wake in chains. The players will feel grateful for a second chance.

What unwritten rules have you spotted in D&D?

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

The latest Dungeons & Dragons release, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, brings a host of additions to D&D’s fifth edition. These extensions prompt updates to at least 3 posts on this site.

1. Fast, Unkillable, Deadly: The 7 Supreme D&D Character Builds for One Thing

Just two weeks before this post, I delivered a list of 7 supreme D&D builds, including best healer. Tasha’s Cauldron enables a new build to take that crown.

The older best-healer build combined of life domain cleric with enough bard levels to gain the paladin spell aura of vitality via the bard’s Magical Secrets feature. Tasha’s Cauldron paves a short cut by simply adding aura of vitality to the cleric’s spell list. Forget multiclassing; just play a life cleric. For each of the 10 rounds of aura of vitality’s 1 minute duration, you can use a bonus action to heal 2d6 hit points. The cleric’s Disciple of Life feature boosts that to 2d6+5 hp.

Now, to claim the crown as best healer in D&D, take the Metamagic Adept feat, also in Tasha’s Cauldron. “You learn two Metamagic options of your choice from the sorcerer class.” Select the Extended Spell option. “When you cast a spell that has a duration of 1 minute or longer, you can spend 1 sorcery point to double its duration, to a maximum duration of 24 hours.” When you cast aura of vitality, spend 1 of your 2 sorcery points to double the duration and the healing. One third-level spell heals an average of 240 hp. At just level 5, you can perform the trick twice. Remember when folks fretted about pairing the life domain with goodberry for 40 points of healing?

2. Concentration Frustrates D&D’s Rangers More than Paladins and Hexblades, but Unearthed Arcana Helps

In a post on concentration, I explained the trouble concentration brings rangers. “The hunter’s mark spell underpins the ranger’s flavor as someone who targets prey and pursues it to the finish. With a duration marked in hours, hunter’s mark seems meant to last through a ranger’s daily adventures. But the spell requires concentration, so rangers who need another spell lose their mark and what feels like a key feature. Also, rangers who aim to enter melee with say, a sword in each hand, suffer an outsized risk of losing their mark.”

Unearthed Arcana trialed a new Favored Foe feature that erased the problem of concentration and hunter’s mark. Unfortunately, the final version in Tasha’s Guide brings back the pain. “When you hit a creature with an attack roll, you can call on your mystical bond with nature to mark the target as your favored enemy for 1 minute or until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).”

The offhand mention of concentration confused me, but a ruling on another feature sharing the wording clears up the intent. The trickery domain cleric’s Invoke Duplicity feature also works “until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).” Lead rules designer Jeremey Crawford explained that this wording means that you must concentrate on the feature to maintain it, just like a spell.

The new Favored Foe skips the need to spend a bonus action, but otherwise it weakens the version tested in Unearthed Arcana in every way. In addition to requiring concentration, the new feature does less damage, only damages once per turn, just lasts a minute, and can’t be moved. Why do the D&D designers hate rangers?

3. D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character

My post on choosing the right pet for your character continues to rank near the top of my daily page views, proving the appeal of animal companions.

The post began with the easiest route to a pet or companion. “Through roleplaying and ability checks (most likely Animal Handling or Persuasion), you can have a buddy,” Jeremy Crawford explained, “As long as your DM is OK adding a creature to the group.”

But this simple approach posed one problem: After the party befriended a creature, the party leveled up to meet greater threats while the friend remained the same fragile creature. At just level 5, most characters survive a flameskull’s fireball, but an 11 hp wolf needs extraordinary luck to live, and a 5 hp tressym goes to meet Sharess, goddess of cats.

My favorite part of Tasha’s Guide offers a remedy: The sidekick rules offer an easy way to add a special companion to a group of adventurers. “A sidekick can be any type of creature with a stat block in the Monster Manual or another D&D book, but the challenge rating in its stat block must be 1/2 or lower.” This means that sidekicks could range from that wolf or tressym, to a bullywug rescued from a monster who enjoys frog legs, to the kobold Meepo, future dragonlord.

Whenever a group’s average level goes up, the companion gains a level in a sidekick class of warrior, expert, or spellcaster. They gain the additional abilities and hit points required to survive and contribute without ever overshadowing the rest of the party.

My post on pets ends with advice for beast master rangers. This archetype’s animal companions earn a reputation for weakness, partly because the Player’s Handbook offers poor direction. The beast master’s description suggests taking a hawk or mastiff as an animal companion. D&D designer Dan Dillon says that such choices set players up for failure. Beast masters should not take beasts with a challenge rating below 1/4.

To enhance the beast master archetype, Tasha’s Guide presents three primal companions typed for land, sea, and sky. Beastmasters can summon these primal beasts as a companion instead of befriending the creatures in D&D’s monster books. You can choose to describe your creature as a hawk or mastiff or anything that fits a type, without the risk of selecting a creature too weak to prove effective.

Rangers can spend a bonus action to  command the primal beasts to attack or to take an action other than the dodging they do on their own. This marks a big improvement from archtype’s original companions, which typically required an action to command.

The primal beasts offer effective companions that can feel warm, fuzzy, and charismatic. The primal companions tend offer more hit points than real creatures. Plus, if these spirt beasts drop to 0 hit points, you can revive them for the price of a spell slot. As spirit creatures, you can summon new and different beasts after a long rest.

You Can Play These Supreme D&D Characters, But Should You?

When I drafted my list of supreme character builds for Dungeons & Dragons, I originally included a section that asked, “You can play this, but should you?” The answer became this post, but why even ask?

In a comment, designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia identified the supreme builds as enjoyable concepts, but “generally horrible at the table.” Although any character can fit the right game, some optimized builds reduce the fun at most tables. Teos writes, “For me, the biggest social contract item for players is to contain whatever optimization they cook up to reasonable and fun levels.”

D&D’s design aims to create a game where all a party’s characters get to contribute to the group’s success. When a single member of the group starts battles by one-shotting the monster with a huge burst of damage, or one character learns every skill to meet all challenges, then that character idles or overshadows the rest and makes the other players wonder why they showed up.

Most skilled

DM’s guild designer Andrew Bishkinskyi singles out one optimization to skip. “The most skilled character is made to do everything, and exists by design to exclude others from play, which I don’t want.”

Early editions of D&D embraced this kind of specialization. Thieves started as the only class with any capabilities resembling skills, but rated as nearly useless in a fight. Nowadays, D&D’s class designs aim give every class ways to contribute through all the game’s three pillars of exploration, combat, and roleplaying interaction.

Most damaging

Combat makes a big part of most D&D games, so characters optimized for extreme damage tend to prove troublesome. I’ve run public tables where newer players dealing single-digit damage would follow turns where optimized characters routinely dealt 50-some points. I saw the new folks trade discouraged looks as they realized their contributions hardly mattered. DM Thomas Christy has hosted as many online D&D games for strangers as anyone. He says, “I have actually had players complain in game and out about how it seemed like they did not need to be there.” In a Todd Talks episode, Jen Kretchmer tells about asking a player to rebuild a combat-optimized character. “The character was a nightmare of doing way more damage off the top, and no one else could get a hit in.” See Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D.

D&D’s strongest high-damage builds make ranged attacks from a distance. Such builds can leave the rest of the party to bear the monsters’ attacks. Teos Abadia writes, “Even if we don’t have character deaths or a TPK, a ranged character can create a frustrating situation for the other characters, who find themselves relentlessly beaten up, constantly targeted by saving throws, and harried by environmental and terrain damage. Over the course of a campaign, this can be tough for the party. Players may not even realize the cause. They simply find play frustrating and feel picked on. If the ranged player keeps saying, ‘hey, I didn’t even take any damage—again!’ the rest of the party might start to realize why.”

If you, like everyone, enjoy dealing maximum damage, I recommend a character powered by the Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master feats. See How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter. If you favor a ranged attacker, the strongest builds combine Sharpshooter, Crossbow Expert, and an Extra Attack feature. In a typical game, pick two.

Biggest damage novas

A few D&D players welcome characters capable of starting a fight with a huge burst of damage for an unexpected reason: These gamers find D&D’s combat pillar tiresome. By bringing a fight to an immediate end, a nova just brings the session back to their fun. Perhaps these games need a better approach to combat, or even a switch to a different game.

In groups more interested in roleplaying and exploration, players might not mind letting an optimized character showboat during the battles. Or perhaps others in the group feel content in roles other than damage dealing. Perhaps the bard and wizard both enjoy their versatility, the druid likes turning into a bat and scouting, and nobody minds letting you finish encounters at the top of round 1.

But most gamers enjoy a mix of the D&D’s three pillars. For these players, characters designed to start fights with maximum damage prove problematic because when they work, no one else participates. “The issue is that even if those characters don’t completely trivialize an encounter, they can reduce the fun of other players by taking a disproportionate amount of the spotlight,” writes @UncannyPally.

You can’t blame the players aiming for these builds. The occasional nova can create memorable moments.

“It’s only fun the first few times a character charges in and essentially one-shots the boss before you get to do anything,” writes @pocketfell. “And of course, upping the hp of the monsters just means that when the mega-damage PC doesn’t get lucky, it’s a slog through four times the usual number of hp.”

I suspect that D&D class features that power damage spikes steer the game in the wrong direction. However, I respect D&D’s designers and they seem to welcome such features. For example, paladins can smite multiple times per turn. In more recent designs, rangers with the Gloom Stalker archetype begin fights with an extra attack plus extra damage. The grave domain cleric’s Path to the Grave feature sets up one shots by making creatures vulnerable to the next attack.

Surely, the designers defending such features would cite 2 points:

  • Players relish the occasional nova. They can feel like an exploit that breaks the game, delivering a quick win.
  • Some spells shut down an encounter as well as massive weapon damage. Fair’s fair.

I argue that encounter-breaking spells rate as problematic too, but D&D traditionally limits such spells to a few spellcasting classes, often at higher levels and only once per day.

Highest AC

I accept that as a DM controlling the monsters, I will almost always lose. A defeat for my team evil counts as a win for the table, so I welcome the loss. But I must confess something:  For my fun, I like the monsters to get some licks in. Is that so wrong? Under suggestion and zone of truth, I suspect other DMs would echo the same admission. Some gamers even float the courageous suggestion that DMs deserve fun like the players.

A character with an untouchable AC doesn’t rob the spotlight from other players, but for DMs, such characters become tiresome. If you back up a maximum AC with, say, a class able to cast shield and block those rare hits, then your DM might not show disappointment when you miss game night.

To be fair, players who sell out for maximum defense wind up with few other strengths. These players enjoy their chance to shine at the end of every fight when they crow about not taking damage—again! I’ve learned to accept their source of bliss and welcome their characters. They may soak attacks, turning claw, claw, bite into useless flailing, but I can always add more attacks to go around.

Toughest

In theory, tough characters should trigger the same annoyance as untouchable characters, but the barbarians and Circle of the Moon druids actually suffer hits, so their durability feels different.

In tactically-minded parties, tough characters and characters with high AC fill a role by preventing monsters from reaching more fragile characters. If your group favors that play style, your DM surely dials up the opposition past very strong and also pairs smart foes with clever strategies. Optimized characters of all sorts often fit that style of play.

Fastest

Nobody minds a fast character. I love playing monks who speed around the battlefield stunning everything in their path. However, those stun attacks certainly bring less acclaim. See How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat.

Most healing

If you play the healer and miss game night, everyone feels disappointed. ’Nuff said.

Related:
If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”
10 Ways to Build a Character That Will Earn the Love of Your Party

Fast, Unkillable, Deadly: The 7 Supreme D&D Character Builds for One Thing

Have you ever wanted to play a Dungeons & Dragons who boasted the highest armor class, the fastest speed, the deadliest attacks, or another extreme ability? This post shows the way to making the most amazing character at one of 7 things.

Fastest

For the fastest character, start as a monk. Your choice of race depends on what your campaign allows.

  • Wood elves gain the fastest walking speed.
  • Tabaxi from Volo’s Guide to Monsters make better 1-turn sprinters. Their Feline Agility trait doubles their speed for a turn, but they must spend a turn moving 0 to use it again.
  • Aarakocra, also from Volo’s Guide, gain a flying speed of 50 feet, which combines perfectly with the monk class. Not every campaign allows flying characters, especially to start.

Take 10 levels of monk for a 20-foot speed bonus. Then add 5 levels of barbarian for Fast Movement and another 10-foot bonus. Choose the Path of the Elk Totem Warrior from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide to increase your walking speed by 15 feet while raging. Sadly for aarakocra, this bonus doesn’t improve your fly speed.

For even more speed, add two levels of fighter for the Action Surge.

Along the way, choose the Mobile feet to add another 10-foot speed bonus. Also consider the Magic Initiate feat to learn the longstrider spell, which adds another 10-foot speed bonus for an hour. Obviously, seek Boots of Speed, Potions of Speed, and friends able to enchant you with haste.

Even without the magic, this build yields a 70-foot base, doubled to 140 by feline agility. For maximum speed, choose a dash action, add a dash using the monk’s Step of the Wind ability, plus a dash using Action Surge to move 560 feet in 6 seconds. That amounts to 63 mph or 102 kph!

See How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat.

Most skilled

For the most-skilled character, start as a half-elf rogue. This gains you 4 rogue skills, plus 2 skills from being a half-elf and 2 more from your background. Don’t pick proficiency in Nature or Survival. You gain those skills when you select the Scout archetype at level 3.

Remain a rogue until level 4 when you can choose the Skilled feat for 4 more skills.

For level 5, multiclass into bard for another skill. At level 7, select the College of Lore for 3 more skills. Then at level 8, elect the Prodigy feat for that last untrained skill plus Expertise in a choice of skill. Expertise doubles your proficiency bonus for that skill.

At level 8, your character boasts proficiency in every skill in the game.

Most damaging

The highest, most consistent damage output comes from characters who combine the Sharpshooter and Crossbow expert feats with a hand crossbow.

Start as a human with the Sharpshooter feat. Your class can either be fighter or ranger. Either way, select the Archery fighting style to gain +2 on your ranged attacks.

For a fighter, choose either the Battle Master or the Samurai archetype from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. As a ranger, choose the Gloom Stalker archetype, also from Xanathar.

At level 4, take the Crossbow Expert feat to gain the ability to make extra attacks with a hand crossbow as a bonus action.

For more, see How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D.

Highest AC

The simplest route to a maximum AC uses heavy armor. Select a paladin or fighter and then select the Defense fighting style. Equip plate mail and shield for AC 21. Then seek magic that improves AC. If you find +3 plate, +3 shield, plus a Cloak of Protection, a Ring of Protection, and an Ioun Stone of Protection for your three attunement slots, your AC reaches 30. If you attune a Staff of Power instead, you reach AC 31, the highest permanent level you can achieve. Plus, the munchkins make you their king or queen. Also your absurdly indulgent dungeon master wants to date you. If you learn the shield spell, then you can vault your AC 36 for a turn.

Someone in half plate with a 16 Dexterity and the Medium Armor Master feat can reach the same ACs.

A barbarian with just a shield can reach a 24 AC without any magic, but that requires a 20 Dexterity and the 24 Constitution attainable by the class at level 20.

Toughest

For the toughest character, start as a hill dwarf for a +1 hp bonus per level. Select the Barbarian class. At 3rd level, pick the Path of the Bear Totem Warrior to gain resistance to all damage but psychic while raging. At fourth level, take the Toughness feat for 2 more hp per level, and then use your ability score increases to maximize Constitution.

Biggest damage nova

When characters unload all their abilities to deal maximum damage in a single turn, they go nova. You could just level a Wizard up to level 17 and cast meteor swarm on a hoard of foes, but true nova builds aim for focused damage more than once a day. Thanks to the Divine Smite ability, paladins bring big nova potential, but the class lacks enough spells slots to fuel maximum damage. For the biggest numbers, combine 2 levels of paladin with either sorcerer or warlock.

For a sorcerer combination, your dream turn starts when you cast a quickened hold monster on your foe, and the hit with green flame blade plus a smite that spends your highest-level spell slot. On a paralyzed enemy, you automatically score a critical hit and double all your damage dice. (If you don’t paralyze your target, booming blade makes a better cantrip combination.)

While sorcerers bring more spell slots, the warlock combination boasts better synergy. Start by creating a paladin with maximum charisma and the 13 strength required for multiclassing. After reaching 2nd level as a paladin, multiclass to a warlock and choose the Hexblade pact. At warlock level 3, choose the Pack of the Blade boon, and then at level 5, choose the Thirsting Blade invocation for multiple attacks. Your dream turn starts when you lay a Hexblade’s Curse on your foe for a damage bonus, and then strike twice, scoring critical hits on a roll of 19 or 20. Back each hit with a smite. After a short rest, you can reload slots to repeat the combination.

An all-in nova build adds 2 levels of fighter for an Action Surge, another swing or two, and as many smites as you have spell slots to fuel.

See D&D’s Best Multiclass Combinations With Paladin.

Most healing

Update: Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything enables a new build to take the best healer crown.

The older best-healer build combined of life domain cleric with enough bard levels to gain the paladin spell aura of vitality via the bard’s Magical Secrets feature. Tasha’s Cauldron paves a short cut by simply adding aura of vitality to the cleric’s spell list. Forget multiclassing; just play a life cleric. For each of the 10 rounds of aura of vitality’s 1 minute duration, you can use a bonus action to heal 2d6 hit points. The cleric’s Disciple of Life feature boosts that to 2d6+5 hp.

Now, to claim the crown as best healer in D&D, take the Metamagic Adept feat, also in Tasha’s Cauldron. “You learn two Metamagic options of your choice from the sorcerer class.” Select the Extended Spell option. “When you cast a spell that has a duration of 1 minute or longer, you can spend 1 sorcery point to double its duration, to a maximum duration of 24 hours.” When you cast aura of vitality, spend 1 of your 2 sorcery points to double the duration and the healing. One third-level spell heals an average of 240 hp. At just level 5, you can perform the trick twice. Remember when folks fretted about pairing the life domain with goodberry for 40 points of healing?

For the easy path to a character who vies for the best healing, play a cleric and choose the Life domain. Done. By the time you reach 17th level, nothing else comes close. But hardly anyone plays at tier 4. In tiers 2 and 3, you can become the best healer as a bard with just a one level dip into cleric.

Start 1st level as a human Life domain cleric. Choose the Healer feat, which lets you spend one use of a healer’s kit to restore 1d6 + 4 hit points, plus additional hit points equal to the creature’s maximum number of hit dice. A creature can only regain hit points this way once between each rest, but this still counts as the cheapest healing in the game. See The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character).

After level 1, switch to only taking bard levels. At bard level 3, choose the College of Lore, and then at level 6 choose the paladin spell aura of vitality for your Magical Secrets feature. For each of the 10 rounds of aura of vitality’s 1 minute duration, you can use a bonus action to heal 2d6 hit points. The cleric’s Disciple of Life feature boosts that to 2d6+5 hp. One third-level spell heals an average of 120 hp. You will have 3 third-level spell slots.

Plus, the bard spell list includes most of the cleric’s best remedies, including the restoration and resurrection spells. You can raise dead through song!

Related:
You Can Play These Supreme D&D Characters, But Should You?
7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing