Category Archives: Adventurers League

Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start)

If you want to play more Dungeons & Dragons, but can’t find opportunities, then you must try the D&D Adventurers League. The League runs an ongoing, official campaign for D&D. This campaign lets you create a character and bring it from table to table, game store to store, convention to convention. In online league games, I’ve joined players connecting from Germany, Russia, and New Zealand—and I only occasionally play online.

For most players, the league solves the problem of finding a D&D game.

Many local game shops host regular league games. These programs thrive on new players and they welcome guests. Some business travelers who live on the road make a point of seeking games in the places they visit.

Most D&D games at conventions follow the league. For some D&D players, league games at one annual convention amount to all their D&D play for the year.

To start with the league, I suggest going to the Adventurers League site and looking for a game store hosting games. Then contact the store. If nothing is close enough, find a regional convention and make a weekend of gaming. Or play online.

Even if you prefer to find or start a home game with a consistent group of players in an ongoing campaign, the league makes a great place to start. In league games, you will meet players and dungeon masters whose style matches yours. You can find and recruit like-minded players for a home game.

While the league’s campaign rules create a certain consistency, the league aims to accommodate players who favor different play styles, whether role playing, story, or combat. DMs and players vary from table to table and they bring their tastes to the game. If one session doesn’t suit you, try a different DM or a different location.

The league operates in seasons matched to the hardcover adventures published by Wizards of the Coast. The 9th season, supporting Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, launched in September. 

Until now, the league administrators have coped with troublesome players by weighing the campaign with more and more cumbersome rules. See The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win. This season marks a change of direction toward lightweight, elegant campaign rules. By season 8, the league required players with a stubborn commitment to mastering legalities. Season 9 makes the league more welcoming to casual players than ever.

The league offers an unmatched opportunity for DMs and adventure writers to boost their skills. For DMs, no practice works as well as running games for strangers. For adventure authors, running games for strangers gives you a better sense of the characters that players bring, the choices they make, and the tactics they adopt. No home game can bring the same experience. I suspect the best new authors penning Adventurers League scenarios bring ample experience running for strangers.

To help you start with the league—and to help veterans bring new players on board—I present a 1-sheet, quick start guide for the league’s new Season 9. My thanks go to Adam Corney, who did the heavy lifting of updating the sheet for season 9.

Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League

Dungeons & Dragons started as a game about treasure hunting. The rules awarded as much of 80% of total experience points for finding gold, so no one missed the point. Co-creator Gary Gygax knew a thirst for gold resonated with players. “If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more than the lure of riches?” (See The Fun and Realism of Unrealistically Awarding Experience Points for Gold.)

D&D no longer awards experience points for gold, but for all the game’s storytelling and heroics, treasure hunting remains the game’s core motivation.

Treasure drives characters to take risks. Safe characters leave the sarcophagus alone and the chest unopened. Safe choices make D&D boring. A treasure hunter risks undead and traps for a chance at riches, which makes the game fun. But players who take risks for no chance of gold feel like chumps, and feeling like a chump isn’t fun.

In D&D, parties of characters join together in a group venture. Players can come up with endless characters, but for the game to work, they must invent characters able to cooperate to reach a shared goal. That’s the magic of treasure hunting. Whether characters aim to feed the orphans or to swim in coins like Scrooge McDuck, they can all quest for gold. (See A Role-Playing Game Player’s Obligation.)

Treasure hunting resonates. When our characters strike it rich, we all feel a vicarious thrill.

In a global campaign like the D&D Adventurers League, treasure becomes a vital, universal aim. In a home game, the players can agree to create characters who only dream of defending the trees. But in a game where players join strangers in an undertaking set by whatever adventure the dungeon master prepared, treasure hunting gives everyone a goal we can share.

For the D&D Adventurers League’s eighth season, the campaign’s new rules stop characters from keeping the gold and magic they find in an adventure. Instead, for each hour of play, characters gain a treasure point spendable on magic items. When characters level, they get an allowance of gold. (See My Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Quick Reference Sheet for a compact introduction to the new rules.) When I counted four ways the new rules reshape the campaign, I felt optimistic about the changes. I knew the bar on keeping treasure defied D&D’s original nature, but perhaps the game had outgrown base motivations. Players could still roleplay a hunger for gold. Now, after seeing the rules for six months of play, I’m ready to rate the revised campaign.

The new rules reached their goals of opening adventures to more styles of play and reducing the exploits players used to claim the best magic items. (See The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win..) However, one change in particular hurt the league.

Preventing characters from keeping the gold they find damages D&D’s foundation.

Ironically, the new rules arrived with two hardcover adventures that showcase D&D’s classic aim of treasure hunting. In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, the characters race to claim a hoard of 500,000 gp—except league characters can’t keep any of it. In Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, characters risk the perils of a massive dungeon for riches, which league characters can’t keep. The safe play sees characters working to monetize Trollskull Manor. Why brave dungeons when you can reach franchise agreements? “Our group isn’t so much an adventuring party as an adventuring sub-committee.”

Because my players left home to play D&D, their characters ventured into Undermountain. But they kept asking why, and a little enthusiasm died. Players who take risks for no chance of gold feel like chumps, and feeling like a chump isn’t fun.

Season eight’s gold allowances brought one positive change: Characters gain far less gold than they used to. For the league’s first seven seasons, players gained tons of gold, but found nowhere to spend it—except on healing potions. Before season 8, characters had access to effectively unlimited healing potions. (See D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose.) Also before season 8, the cost of magic such as Heroes Feast and Simulacrum hardly dented the wealth of characters able to cast the spells. If a tier 3 party brought a cleric, they routinely ignored fear and poison and laughed at yuan-ti and green dragons. If they brought a level-13 wizard, they gained a spare and the pair won D&D for everyone. Before, gold served as a motivation that players roleplayed. Now, gold becomes a motivation they value for spells, healing, and armor. The smaller gold supply forces players into spending choices, and choices make games fun.

A simple fix could solve the trouble. Make gold a reward that characters keep, and then write adventures that award less gold. The league could gain the benefits of limited wealth, without ripping the treasure hunting from the heart of D&D.

Of course, such a change leaves years of league and hardcover adventures that award way too much gold.

Prolific league DM Tom Christy created a set of Adventurers League Recommendations that offers a solution: Limit the gold awards to a set amount per advancement checkpoint earned. Alternately, the league’s content catalog could list updated treasure amounts for each hoard awarded in an adventure. The league administrators could avoid this job by giving volunteers a budget based on each adventure’s expected play time, and letting them crunch the numbers. The hardcovers lack play times, but the league boasts many members who recorded the times they spend playing each chapter in character logs. Surely someone could collect the data.

As much as players seem to dislike the level-based gold allowances, they favor using treasure checkpoints to buy unlocked magic items. To players, finding and unlocking a useful magic item feels rewarding, especially now that another player can’t snatch the item away for “trade bait.” Plus, the system frees adventure designers from having to stock most scenarios with bland items like +1 weapons just so every character can find usable items.

Still, the treasure-point system would benefit from a couple of tweaks:

  • Unlock superior items in adventures, while limiting the evergreen and seasonal unlock items to broadly-useful but less extraordinary items. At Winter Fantasy, players joked about all the adventures that unlocked drift globes and rings of warmth—great for cozy nights scribing franchise agreements. Some epic adventures failed to unlock anything at all. Remember when epics promised special rewards? Meanwhile, even for level-appropriate characters who play safe, the season unlocks some of the game’s most powerful items. Who cares what an adventure brings when anyone can claim a cloak of invisibility or staff of the magi?

  • When characters unlock magic items during the course of an adventure, let them borrow treasure points to claim the item immediately. No one enjoys waiting to play with new toys. The need to bank treasure points particularly frustrates new and lapsed players returning to D&D. New players find a toy they can’t use because of legalese that makes no sense in the game world. Returning players just think D&D no longer resembles the game they used to love. (Credit Tom Christy’s proposals for this idea too.)

For almost 50 years, the vicarious joy of finding treasure brought players to D&D. To thrive, the Adventurers League must recapture some of that thrill.

My Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Quick Reference Sheet

The end of a session in my local game store brings the worst part of my role as a dungeon master. Then, I inevitability struggle to explain the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League advancement and reward system to casual players who just stopped by to roll dice, kill monsters, and collect loot. “No, you don’t keep the gold. Instead, you get treasure checkpoints.” As players grapple with D&D without XP and with a treasure allowance, I show pages from the campaign documentation. “See, this evergreen list shows things you can get with points.” The players take the pages, and I start searching through another document. “The costs aren’t printed there, so you have to check this list, but then you need to reference the table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.” Casual players who just drop in for a D&D game often lack a Dungeon Master’s Guide.

I don’t see new players every week, but even repeat players need repeat explanations. Sure, I recommend downloading the campaign documents, but few players do the assigned readings.

Between the confusion and the homework, the current Adventurers League rules form a barrier that some players just bounce off. I want to reduce that barrier, so I created a quick-start guide that consolidates the essentials on two sides of a sheet. This reference draws from four campaign documents and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It might list more high-level loot than necessary, but I see players reach tier 3 without ever getting their own copy of the Player’s Handbook. Besides, I wanted a reference for myself too. Plus, everyone likes to browse the rewards that wait at higher levels.

Download the reference, share it, and then please tell me about any mistakes that need correction.

Four Ways the New D&D Adventurers League Rules Reshape the Campaign, and One Way They Don’t

The new Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League campaign rules change treasure from a prize for looting to an award for the real hours players spend pursuing an adventure’s goal. This change aims to reward more styles of play, to balance the power characters gain from magic items, and to offer players a better choice of items. While the new rules promise improvements, they reshape the campaign in unexpected ways.

1. Treasure does much less to drive exploration and tempt characters to take risks.

D&D started as a game where characters plundered dungeons and kept score in gold. The rules awarded as much of 80% of experience points for gold, so no one missed the game’s point. Tomb of Horrors stands as co-creator Gary Gygax’s earliest dungeon to reach print, and its villain has no grand plot, just a knack for killing grave robbers. In Gary Gygax’s home games, his players beat the tomb by snatching the treasure while ignoring the demi-lich.

Modern D&D adventures still use treasure to tempt and motivate players. Recently, my players in the Tomb of Annihilation landed in a classic Dungeons & Dragons situation: They entered a room with a deadly monster and heaps of treasure. The monster caught them unprepared, so they fled, and then they debated whether the treasure merited the risk of battle.

Does this predicament still have a place in the D&D Adventurers League?

Single-session League adventures usually rely on loot as a symbolic motivation for players. In the first scene, a patron might offer a reward, but also a job that does good. To finish within a set time, these adventures avoid treasure-hunting tangents. Authors contrive these adventures so a well-behaved do-gooder will win as much treasure as grave robbers and thieves. I have never played or run a single-session League adventure where players lost treasure because they failed to find it or failed to slay a monster. The new rules for treasure awards won’t change how these scenarios play.

The hardcover adventures stay closer to D&D’s tradition: Treasure drives exploration and tempts characters to take the risks that make D&D exciting. The new League rules for treasure undermine some of the rewards that propel these adventures. Characters probably won’t choose to risk a battle for a promise of gold.

To be fair, the new rules offer a sliver of motivation for grave robbers and treasure hunters. Characters who find a magic item don’t just keep it, but they do unlock the ability to spend treasure points for the item.

Still, few players will feel lured to a risky fight by treasure, and I’ll miss that predicament. On the other hand, my players spent hours looting the seemingly endless crypts under Castle Ravenloft. I won’t miss another grind like that.

The flavor of treasure points takes some adjustment. In my mind’s eye, heroes open a chest and a golden glow lights their faces as they look down in wonder at a treasure point.

2. Tables will stop fighting for imaginary items.

By the old League rules, players seeking the best magic items worked to take as few magic items as possible. A low count of items meant your character could claim an adventure’s permanent item. It also might mean that another character particularly suited to the item lost it. In a way, this made sense. In the imaginary world of the game session, only one wand exists. By delivering only one wand each time an adventure runs, the campaign imposes some scarcity. But the League’s campaign world might include thousands of the same item. A character who claimed a “unique” wand might spend their next adventure with 2 other characters wielding the same wand.

Why should a particular character be denied the item just because another character who happens to play at the same table wants the item too? The new League rules still impose scarcity, but not in a way that capriciously denies some characters the magic items they want.

3. Scarce gold imposes tight limits on healing potions, spellbooks, and material components.

In most D&D campaigns, characters get tons of gold, but have nowhere to spend it. That applies to fifth-edition games that award hoards by the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and to the first 7 seasons of the League. All that gold meant characters could easily afford enough healing potions to enter every fight a full health. From level 11 up, parties with a cleric would always split the 1000 gp cost for Heroes’ Feast and laughed at poison and fear effects—and at assassins, yuan-ti, and green dragons. Power-hungry, teen-level wizards brought simulacrums and, in one case, soured an adventure by winning D&D for me. Of all the classes, only wizards might run short of gold. They bore the cost of adding spells to their books. At conventions, when wizard players shared a table, they snapped photos of each others spell lists, and then spend gold and downtime to share spells. Avid wizards collected every spell.

By delivering a fraction of the gold to players, the new League rules rebalance the campaign’s economy. Level 11 through 16 characters who sink all their gold into healing potions can still only afford 11 per level. Simulacrums come at a cost few will pay. Heroes’ Feast becomes a luxury rather than an automatic buff.

The limitations tax wizards most. Forget collecting all the spells; now you face difficult choices. Eleventh-level wizards can add Contingency to their spell books, but even if they save every gold piece, they can’t afford the material component until level 12.

Meanwhile, in a campaign without gold for unlimited healing potions, Healing Spirit now stands as the key to starting every encounter at full health.

4. Characters don’t get magic weapons until level 5.

By the old League rules, a party of new characters will probably find a permanent magic item during their first adventure. By the time the party reaches level five, about half the group will own a magic item. By the new rules, only characters who opt for colorful trinkets like a Bag of Holding will gain permanent items in levels 1 through 4. Characters who rely on weapon attacks will save their points and, at level 5, buy the most useful item: a +1 weapon.

This changes how monsters resistant or immune to non-magical weapon attacks play. For instance, wererats make a popular foe in low-level urban adventures. They boast immunity to non-magic weapons that aren’t silvered. With scarce gold, few characters will lavish 100 gp on a silvered weapon. So until level 5, only spellcasters can hurt a humble wererat. Then, at level 5, everyone grabs a magic weapon and the immunity becomes meaningless. In the new League, resistance to non-magical attacks becomes impotent at level 5. I miss the grades of resistance in third edition.

5. Most characters will select distinctive sets of magic items.

Just like with the old campaign rules, players intent on optimizing their characters will seek adventures that unlock choice items. Every bard will still play that adventure that unlocks the Instrument of the Bards. Now, an all-bard party can play and everyone gets one! I’ll pass on that table, but I will watch that session’s movie version. In my imagination, it’s the D&D movie staring Fred, Ginger, Gene, and a tone-deaf actress voiced by Marni Nixon.

Beyond optimizers, most characters will still carry a unique mix of magic items.

For one, characters of the same type will tend to play different mixes of adventures, unlocking different sets of magic. Few items prove as compelling to a class as that violin for bards.

Also, the point costs encourage variety. A character will earn 48 treasure points advancing through tier 2, levels 5-10. By rule, those points must be spent on items available to a tier 2 character. Some characters may select three uncommon, 16-point items from table F. Others might choose rare items from table G for 20 points, and then have points remaining for curios and wonders. They could choose 2 rares and an irresistible item like an Alchemy Jug or an Immovable Rod. I expect many players to select items that catch their fancy or fit their character’s personality. The hardcover adventures even include unusual, permanent items available for just 2 treasure points.

If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”

As I wrote last week’s post about players who gamed the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League rules, I feared misleading folks. Years before I started participating in organized play, players told me stories about the Living City and Living Greyhawk campaigns. Sometimes they boasted of their character’s unbeatable combination of magic items and the ingenious ways they won their gear; sometimes they complained about another player’s overpowered cheese and the metagame exploited to collect it. Either way, I drew the same lesson: Don’t join the campaign, because the play style won’t suit you.

I drew the wrong conclusion. If I had only played, I would have had fun.

I have played and run 100s of Dungeons & Dragons organized play sessions in third though fifth edition and even in the Alternity Living Verge campaign. Gamers seldom talk about all the game sessions where a bunch of strangers sat at a table and enjoyed a few hours playing D&D, but those sessions come almost every time we play. No, we talk about the unusual: The rare games spoiled by an annoying player. The characters that stretch the rules to the breaking point.

The new Adventurers League campaign rules aim to reward more styles of play, to give characters a better selection of magic, to level power between characters, and to free players from bookkeeping. The Adventurers League is already fun and welcoming. If successful, the changes will make the league a bit more of both.

Despite all the ways gamers play the campaign rules to win, I have never seen this metagame spoil my fun as a player or DM.

In all those organized play games I have joined, another character has only interfered with my fun two times.

As a DM for the fourth-edition Living Forgotten Realms campaign, one player brought an optimized, high-level defender. In this edition, defenders filled their role too well. This character featured maximized defenses that no level-appropriate monsters could hit on less than a natural 20. With an action, he could mark every foe on the map. His mark imposed such severe penalties that the monsters could only target him. So for hours of play, the monsters could only paddle uselessly at the defender while serving as bags of hit points for target practice.

If his play style could talk, it would say, “I won D&D for you. You’re welcome.”

For me as DM, none of those combats offered enjoyment, but I can also draw fun from players having fun. Did they enjoy being an audience for one player’s 4-hour character demonstration? I couldn’t tell. Maybe they enjoyed target practice.

Fifth edition no longer enables characters who can lock down every foe. I still see characters with armor classes or hit point totals that say, “no one can hurt me.” If a player enjoys a sense of invulnerability, they can get sell out for it. But still, every fifth-edition character suffers some weak saves. And no defender can shield every ally.

The second bad game came years later, when I played a fifth-edition convention session. One wizard brought a simulacrum, a duplicate able to act as a second wizard. The double meant that one player effectively took the turns and actions of two characters. Normally, such a character makes a minor nuisance. This time, the monsters proved badly overmatched. Meanwhile, my plodding cleric kept rolling low initiatives. Through every combat in the adventure, my character never contributed. The wizard and simulacrum blasted, and then the battle would end before I reached my first turn. Obviously, the DM could have dialed up the difficulty, but the wizard’s player drew my ire. Every fight, he played two turns for my none.

“I won D&D for you. You’re welcome.”

DM Tom Christy has run over 300 Adventurers League sessions, more than half for strangers on the Internet. “I ask that players avoid bringing extra, action-consuming creatures.” This helps grant each player equal time to act in combat. The request extends to simulacrums, golems, shield guardians, and charmed creatures, but not to class-feature-specific sidekicks like familiars, animal companions, and mounts. By league rules, the request is purely voluntary. “So far, all players have been understanding of that and happily agreed.” The new adventurers league rules bar shield guardians and slaad control gems, but such restrictions need to go further.

I wish I had more stories of other people’s characters ruining my fun, because a post filled with such tales would draw readers. After years of Adventurer’s League, I just have two accounts. Mostly in Adventurers League new and experienced players, strangers and friends, optimizers and storytellers just join at a table and have a great time playing D&D. Oh well. I suppose non-bloggers prefer it that way.

The Adventurers League Campaign Rules Offered a Game. How Gamers Played to Win.

Starting on August 30, the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League will introduce a sweeping overhaul of the campaign rules. These changes affect how characters in the campaign advance levels, gain gold, and win magic items.

The new level-advancement system aims to reward players who enjoy guile or roleplaying as much as monster slaying. The change seems obvious. The old system centered on killing foes, so a new method based on hours of play encourages more styles of play.

The new treasure rules also base awards on hours of play. The change seeks to help players gain items that suit their characters, partly by offering a bigger choice of items.

D&D started as a game about raiding dungeons for magic and gold, so the old league rules gave characters the loot they claimed in the course of an adventure. The new rules turn away from the in-game treasure grabs, and that makes a dramatic change.

What went wrong with the old way of awarding treasure?

The campaign rules extend the core D&D rules. To no one’s surprise, when tens of thousands of gamers face a set of game rules, some will play to win. Players sought the most, and most powerful items for their characters. When this quest for power meant braving traps and facing evil, everyone won—except evil. When the quest for power led to other shenanigans, the players who ignored the game-within-a-game lost. For instance, items one character might prize could be claimed by someone else for “trade bait.”

For insight, I turned to Thomas Christy, who has logged over 16,000 hours prepping and dungeon mastering on Roll20. Currently, he runs 2 Adventurers League games a week online, and serves as a DM at conventions. Tom opens about half of his games to any player who cares to sign up. About 20% of his players come from outside the United States.

Bearer of unwanted magic items

Tom rarely minds if everyone in a party brings powerful magic, “I can tailor the difficulty.” But he favors treasure rules that balance character power so every player can contribute. “I want a casual player with only one PC who has never traded a magic item or played the great loot-dropping, companion-gaining adventures to have as much time in the limelight as a prolific player with a dozen characters.”

A player with a catalog of PCs can trade magic among them, ensuring that each gets the best matched items. “Trading causes a large differential in power levels between characters of prolific players and those of casual players. I will be happy to see that go away if possible.”

While trading brings characters the power to occasionally overshadow others, it does help items reach the characters best able to use them.

Trading meets both the rules and the spirit of the campaign. But some practices that follow the letter of the rules could cause characters to miss out—or lose out—on the fun magic items can bring to D&D.

Players interested in winning the best loot would track the items available in adventures. As a misdeed, this ranks with peeking at presents before Christmas. As long as you don’t misuse insider knowledge and you act surprised, no one loses.

Sometimes players would come upon the treasure information honestly. They would play an adventure with one character, spot an item another of their characters could use, and then replay the adventure with the second character. These players would show up at my convention table and passively sit through four hours just so they could legally claim a magic item. Have you wondered what a lawful neutral alignment looks like in real life? A chaotic player would just fake their logs.

Some questionable tricks emerged because hardcover authors seemed oblivious to how their treasure awards would affect play in the Adventurers League.

Curse of Strahd grants a particularly powerful item to players who do something impulsive and foolhardy. In a world of death traps, I’m not snatching things that appear in the air. An improbably high number of players proved reckless enough to win the prize. Or maybe they either snooped or they played with Monty Haul. (My players claimed the item. Call me Monty.)

Many hardback chapters included too few magic items to interest players who looked to boost their characters. A few chapters offered legendary items and boons more powerful than anything in the League’s single-session adventures. So aggressive players just ran the chapters with the best loot. “It was getting really bad with a certain chapter of Storm King’s Thunder and a certain ability bump from a chapter of Curse of Strahd.”

Tom resorted to asking players not to bring certain dodgy items unless the character played the majority of the hardback. Even though Tom understands that campaign rules allow players to bring any legal items, most players prove very understanding of the request.

The old treasure rules brought some perverse incentives that sometimes hurt the campaign.

League rules grant first choice of items to the character with the fewest items. This made players avoid taking fun or useful items that lacked combat power. At most tables, nobody wants the helm of comprehend languages. Driftglobes may as well be cursed. Better to wait for something that kills monsters.

I’ve seen a few characters who give up on keeping a low item count—and magic of their choosing. These players take every item other characters spurred for being unworthy of their count. If it weren’t for all their bags of holding, these collectors could never haul all their magical trinkets.

In the hardcovers, players would avoid taking a perfectly useful +1 weapon in chapter 1 so they could be guaranteed the belt of giant strength or staff of power 6 months later. Tom asks players in his campaigns to agree to allocate treasure based on rarity, so players don’t skip the useful uncommon items in hope of getting a very rare item at the end.

Characters who want to lower their magic-item count can’t just donate unwanted items. So what do you do with a +1 sword after you gain a +2 blade? The rules block giving away treasure or equipment. Even if a character destroys an item, it still counts toward total items. To unload items, players seek trades for limited-use items like Keoghtom’s ointment, the chime of opening, elemental gems, and Quaal’s feather token. Once you traded your unwanted loot for a limited-use item, you could expend the item and lower your magic item count.

In addition to changing how characters earn magic items, the upcoming league rules remove some items from the campaign. Characters with these banned items must trade them for other treasure. Many of these problematic items served the story in a hardcover and should never have left that adventure. For instance, the elemental weapons in Princes of the Apocalypse were meant to be destroyed at the adventure’s conclusion.

Some items bring role-playing baggage that prove hard for DMs to track and enforce. For example, when a character brings the mighty sword Hazirawn to a convention table, the DM may be unaware that the sentient blade acts as an non-player character, bending its owner toward evil. DMs running games for strangers have enough on their plate.

The league also removed the sentient blade Dawnbringer. While not murderous or evil, this sword brings its own role-playing challenges. Dawnbringer sheds bright sunlight, useful in battles against light-sensitive undead and drow. But if a party includes a drow, the blade might foster conflict.

Once when Tom served as DM at a convention, someone brought Dawnbringer to his table. Unfortunately, the party included a drow rogue. Unfortunately, the drow rogue brought Dawnbringer.

Some players excel at portraying the quirks and drawbacks of their items, but many just become blinded by power.

When the drow’s adult player attempted a sneak attack, Tom told him he couldn’t. Rogues can’t sneak attack while they suffer disadvantage, and Dawnbringer’s bright light imposed disadvantage on all the drow’s attacks. When the rogue tried to sneak ahead, Tom reminded him that carrying a sliver of sunlight made stealth impossible. “Fine,” the player fumed. “I’ll turn it off.” Tom reminded the player that Dawnbringer is afraid of the dark. By now, the player was seething, but he offered to leave Dawnbringer behind. Tom reminded the player that Dawnbringer suffers a fear of abandonment.

Unlike Tom, most DMs don’t know the details of every unique item in the campaign—nobody should have to. Few DMs would steadfastly enforce the drawbacks of an item in the face of a angry player—nobody should have to, but I admire Tom’s lawful DM style.

By the way, Adventurer’s League administrator Claire Hoffman had joined this session as a player. She didn’t intervene then; Tom ran the game. As the administrators discussed removing items from the campaign, I wonder if she told the tale of the drow rogue who wielded Dawnbringer.

Tom streams his online D&D sessions on Twitch and then posts them on YouTube. You can follow Tom on Twitter @d20play. For a schedule of his upcoming games, see his web page.

Four Essential Qualities of a 4-Hour Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

Running adventures by other authors has raised my Dungeons & Dragons game. As a dungeon master for organized play, I have prepared adventures that seemed like duds. Sometimes, at the table, I followed an author’s script and saw that their adventure worked despite my concerns. When I had little experience with adventures other than my own dungeons, I found lots of pleasant surprises. I learned a lot.

Those surprises happen less often now. I feel confident judging which 4 elements I always want in something like a 4-hour Adventurers League session.

I have the voice of authority to back me up. The book Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games by Lawrence Schick includes a list of adventure tips from legendary designer Jennell Jaquays. Goodman Games publisher Joseph Goodman listed advice for penning a good adventures to accompany How to Write Adventures that Don’t Suck. This post features select tips from the experts’ lists. Believe them.

All 4 qualities in my list resist easy adjustments at the table. This post’s draft included, “Give it the villains a fighting chance,” but I cut it. If an adventure puts a beholder in a tiny room where the heroes can make it into a piñata, I can adjust at the table. If an adventure fails to include a variety of challenges, only a rewrite will help.

In every 4-hour adventure, I want 4 qualities:

1. A variety of challenges. This ranks as my number 1 by a wide margin. Typical D&D groups bring varied tastes, and few players like 4 hours of the same. Any session should include (1) a social scene, (2) a combat encounter, and either (3a) a thinking problem or (3b) a secret to investigate.

To qualify, the social scene must start with a goal and pose an obstacle. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure. Social scenes that dump purposeless characters into a banquet or marketplace confound most players.

“Make sure some role-playing interaction with other sentient beings is necessary for success.” – Jaquays

A typical 4-hour adventure features two or three battles, and I like variety in the combat encounters. When I ran the D&D Encounters program and saw the adventure for a new season, I eagerly scanned the pages, noting which monsters would appear. A variety of foes excited me. (I remain easily amused.)

At Gen Con 2017, I ran adventures set on the streets of Hillsfar. Typically, city adventures suffer from recurrent fights against thugs, thieves, and assassins. Same fight, different alley. The authors of this Hillsfar series imagined ways to pit players against a variety of monsters, and that made me happy.

“Pace it well. Long, tiresome combats should be followed by quick rooms. Thought-provoking puzzles should be followed by bloodbaths. Slow, trap-filled hallways should be followed by a rousing fight.” – Goodman

2. A fast start. When players sit for an organized-play adventure, their characters land in the the adventure too. I like adventures that speed through the chore of getting the characters to agree to the mission their players already accepted. DDEX03-14 Death on the Wall by Greg Marks includes a favorite hook: Someone fleeing pursuit dumps a pack containing a message on the characters. Bang! We’re off!

“Always begin a new adventure with action: a fight, a chase, a breathtaking escape, a witnessed crime, and so on.” – Jaquays

Nothing vexes me more than an adventure that challenges players to uncover the secret of their goal for the adventure.

Most organized-play adventure hooks should also promise a reward in gold early on. Not all characters aim to do good or to seek adventure. Players will take adventures without seeing the rewards ahead, but on behalf of their characters, they still wonder why are we doing this?

“Maintain a ‘cut to the chase’ feeling—start with a bang and get to the action fast.” – Goodman

Some critics argue that starting an adventure with a fight ranks as a cliché. Ignore them. For many D&D players, the game only starts when they start rolling dice. At my weekly D&D game, the kids can sit without a battle, but at least one parent pines for action. (Not me. Well, not just me.)

3. A choice. Players accept that a 4-hour time limit leaves no room for open worlds, but when an adventure shunts the party through a fixed sequence of scenes, players notice—and they grumble. Every adventure should feature an option that leaves players wondering what would have happened if we had….

I love DDEX2-13 The Howling Void by Teos Abadia and DDEX03-15 Szith Morcane Unbound by Robert Adducci for offering players unusual freedom. Both also demand more from a DM than a typical session. Some overwhelmed convention DMs bridle at the prospect of prepping many encounters that may not occur.

In practice, just a couple of choices satisfy players. But avoid false choices that could lead to the same scene. Players should know enough about their options to expect a different outcome from each possibility. See Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?

4. A dash of the fantastic. In D&D, authors sometimes reserve the mind-bending fantasy for high-level characters. But I like every adventure—even that 1st-level strike against bandits—to include a fantastic element. Have the goblins uncovered some lost bit of magic that lets them do something wondrous?

I remember a D&D adventure that relied on a bomb as a threat, and how that made me sad. In the fantastic world of D&D, could the most interesting threat really be a bomb? I turned the bomb into a magical box that opened a door to the spirit world and lured vengeful souls onto the material plane.

Not all the fantastic elements need to be dangerous or useful. Interesting trinkets and strange phenomena can create the same wonder. The magic fountain feels tired by now, but you can create fresh wonders that put enhantment into your world.

“Convey a sense of the fantastic. Convey this through encounters, descriptions, and most importantly, magic. The fantastic is what makes D&D so much fun, and that has to come across in the adventure.” – Goodman

Three Traits that Good Dungeon Masters Need to Shine in Convention Games

At game conventions, I like to wander the Dungeons & Dragons game tables, watching dungeon masters in action. I see plenty of skills worth copying. Nearly all DMs bring enough from their home games to run a fun session. But sometimes I see weaknesses too. All of us have areas to improve. By far, the most common flaws stem from traits seldom practiced at a kitchen table or at a friendly little game store. Convention games demand extra skills.

Project your voice. At home, you can look down at your papers while speaking like a golf announcer. At a convention, the din of 50 tables means conversational speaking gets lost. Players feel reluctant to stall the game, so they rarely ask you to repeat. Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon, played his first D&D game at Gen Con in 1974. He only heard half what the DM said, so he felt “completely bewildered.” Today’s players react the same way. They sit politely, lost and hoping to catch up. At a convention, look at the players as you speak, and then project your voice to the next table over. When I DM, I like to take the seat nearest to the wall so players facing me don’t hear extra noise from a table behind me. It can’t hurt.

Own the adventure. At a convention, most DMs work from an adventure written by another author. We probably don’t even get to choose which adventures we run.

A few dungeon masters muddle through such adventures with the enthusiasm they would bring to reading assembly instructions to someone with a screwdriver. Perhaps they apologize for aspects they don’t like, or share a monologue on their interpretation of the text, or meditate aloud on a non-player character’s motives. Stop that. When you run another author’s work, adopt it and find a way to love it as your own. If you need to make a few tweaks, then make them, but keep the adventure’s essentials intact. Some of the fun of organized play comes from sharing a common experience with folks who played the same adventures as you.

For an example of how I tweaked an adventure to suit me, see Running Shackles of Blood: Making the good adventure into a great session.

Fill the available time with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When I DM convention games, I often check my watch. I worry that players might suspect I have somewhere I would rather be, but really I’m tracking our progress. When folks sit down for a convention game, they want to experience a beginning, a middle, and an end. Also, they paid about $10 for the slot, so they want the game to fill most of the time.

To pace a convention adventure, you must estimate how long the finale will take. As you play through the middle, if scenes run long, plan short cuts that can take the characters to the end. Perhaps this means the players reach the final scene without meeting every challenge in the adventure. Or maybe the monsters in a drawn-out combat suddenly have 1 hit point. See How to end combat encounters before they become a grind.

In episode 3 of the DM’s Deep Dive podcast,  Shawn Merwin gives more advice on pacing D&D under time constraints. For the story of my struggle stretching a 2-hour adventure into a 4-hour slot, see What Murder in Balur’s Gate Taught Me About Engaging Players in Role Playing.

If you ever DM in public, mind your volume, enthusiasm, and the clock. All three skills come more from attention than from special expertise. These three small additions to your game will let your players see the talent you bring to your home game.

Preparing to run an adventure as a dungeon master at a convention

In 1984 at Gen Con, I first served as an official dungeon master for a table full of strangers. I ran the adventure that would become I11 Needle. As I explained in “Running I11 Needle at Gen Con in 1984,” the session fell short of my standards. Frank Mentzer, please forgive me.

Needle Gen Con 17

Judges’ copy of Needle from Gen Con 17

In the years since, I’ve run many more convention games. I’ve improved. Sometimes I even meet my standards.

This year at Gen Con, I ran 8 D&D Adventurers League sessions. This post explains how I prepare these sessions.

I start by reading the adventure twice.

My first, quick read provides a high-level view. When I finish, I want to know the important characters, the expected course of events, and the clues that lead the player characters through these events.

Most adventures feature an overview intended to serve the purpose of my first read, but these summaries never seem to help me. When I take my first look at an adventure, I’m keenly interested in what leads the PCs through the narrative. But a typical summary just lists events: “After finding the casket of wrath, the characters go to confront Lady Frost.” I need to know what motivates the characters to go from one event to the next. Those leads become the most important clues I must communicate to the players.

The first read enables me to reread knowing which details merit careful attention. I can sift clues from set dressing, key characters from extras.

During the second read, I pay careful attention to the decisions the characters will face. When I run the adventure, I can miss a bit of color, but I must communicate the details that weigh on decisions. I tend to think a lot about the actions players might take during a session. Although I enjoy when players surprise me, I still imagine their likely choices and consider how to handle each one.

A 4-hour convention slot leaves little time for decisions that swing the course of an adventure. I want to present any real options to make them as interesting as possible. See “How running an adventure eight times can be fun and educational.”

Even the best adventure authors sometimes make bad assumptions about what the players will do. See “Actions players always take and choices players never make.” For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen assumes players will join a caravan with some cultists transporting looted treasure and then travel for weeks—instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold. Like every D&D player ever. I wondered have the authors even played this game? (Answer: Yes. More than me, but perhaps not with so many strangers at recent conventions.)

Whenever I spot such an oversight, I plan on how to account for it. Will I reinforce the need to infiltrate the caravan? Will I present the cultists as too tough to confront? Will I let the players slay the cultists and then contrive a way to get the PCs to the next chapter. Sometimes I let players discover the risks of each option so players reach a dilemma. See “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.” Sometimes, I just make players understand the facts that make a bad strategy bad.

On my second read, I may mark up the pages. I cannot bear to mark up a hardcover adventure, but Adventurers League pages call for the red and blue pens.

Red and blue notes on page

Red and blue notes on page

In blue, I break the wall of text with sub-headings that flag key information. In play, I rarely scan my headings, but when I do, they can cut minutes of text skimming. Plus, the process of writing headings turns me into an active reader. I notice things that I might otherwise overlook. I remember more at the table, so I look down less.

In red, I write names and other bits of text I must find at a glance. Names always go in red, as do quotes that I might read as I glance down.

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

On any dungeon maps, I note everything I need to know. My captions include monsters, locks, objects of interest, difficulty classes and so on. Ideally, I can run all the rooms from the map.

When I first started running organized-play adventures, I would work from a packet of pages. This led to disaster. As I referenced maps, monsters, and descriptions of encounter areas, I plucked them from the pile. Half way through the session, I faced a shuffled heap. While I spent minutes hunting for that one sheet, I stammered apologies.

color reference sheets and player handouts

Color reference sheets and player handouts

Now, all my adventures go into a loose-leaf binder with tabs separating each module. Double-sided printing makes the best use of space.

I print second copies of the maps and monsters on single-sided sheets of colored paper. I can pull my green, monster stats at a glance and I never lose them in a stack.

Player handouts, including magic-item descriptions and story awards, also go on colored paper and in the binder. If I plan to run an run an adventure more than once, I use card stock.

Printed urban battle map fits the encounter

A pre-printed, urban battle map fits this encounter

For any of the adventure’s encounter areas, I look for pre-printed maps in my collection that suit the location. Many encounters rely on few specific details, so any map that captures a location’s flavor will serve.

When none of my existing maps fit, I might print or sketch a map in advance. If an adventure always lands PCs in a location, I’ll wind up drawing the map anyway. Drawing in advance saves time at the table. Plus, if I’m running an adventure more than once, more players can enjoy any effort I invest in maps.

Szith Morcane Unbound - Dengor’s palace

Szith Morcane Unbound – Dengor’s palace on Dungeon Paper

Maps go into sheet-protector pockets and then into the binder near the encounter description. (For more on printing maps, see “How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software.”)

Map in sheet protector paired with encounter

A map in a sheet protector paired with an encounter

After years chasing miniatures, I can match most monsters with suitable figures. If I lack figures, I may use the excuse to add to my collection, or even fabricate a figure.

Miniatures for an adventure

Miniatures for the CORE 2-2 adventure

No one leaves a D&D table annoyed because they needed to use imagination. So if you lack miniatures, you can bring tokens or even candy to represent monsters.

Finally, creating monster initiative tents in advance pays off at the table. When combat starts, ready-made monster tents avoid delay. Plus, pre-rolling gives me time to note key monster stats on the tents. This keeps things like Armor Class front-and-center rather than somewhere in a pile of green sheets. For my initiative tents and more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

How do you prepare for a published adventure?