Category Archives: Role-playing game design

Paladins, Barbarians, and Other Classes Once Balanced by Rules of Behavior

Early in the history of Dungeons & Dragons, the game’s creators made classes that rewarded strict rules of behavior with extra power. For instance, a player taking the challenge of playing a chivalrous cavalier always fought fairly, but also gained a bonus to attack with sword and lance.

Arguably, cleric stands as the first class limited by rules of behavior. Some holy men in history attempted to straddle the gulf between peaceful servant of god and spilling the blood of enemies by opting to bash their foes’ skulls while claiming not to spill blood. Based on that lore, original D&D required clerics to choose not to wield edged weapons or arrows. Back then, all weapons dealt 1d6 damage, so this limit only counted as a disadvantage because the treasure tables made magic swords 20 times more common than non-edged weapons.

Former Wizards of the Coast head Peter Adkison shepherded D&D’s third edition design. He wanted to purge “restrictions that did a good job of reinforcing play balance but still didn’t make sense.” Why would a cleric devoted to Apollo the Archer refuse a bow? For third edition, D&D’s designers replaced the rule that prevented clerics from using swords with a proficiency system that made swords a poor option. Modern D&D follows the same pattern, but it still includes a class that requires characters who choose to limit themselves. More on that at the end.

With D&D’s first Greyhawk supplement, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax started adding classes that clearly balanced extra power with limitations that required certain behavior. Paladins started as a version of fighter who always acted lawfully. (D&D lacked good and evil alignments then.) “Any chaotic act will immediately revoke the status of paladin, and it can never be regained.” The paladin’s generosity required the class to give away inessential magic items and other loot. “Gifts must be to the poor or to charitable or religious institutions, i.e. not to some other character played in the game.”

The first editor of The Dragon, Tim Kask, wrote, “It was so rigid a PC class; that smacks of Gary’s fiendish wit. Make a character truly extraordinary and make it really tough to play in terms of always having to do the ‘right’ thing, ALWAYS.”

By the Unearthed Arcana book for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, many classes offset power with a roleplaying catch. “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items.”

Gygax knew this created a recipe for party conflict and embraced it. “When I played a barbarian, I would indeed attempt to get at newly discovered magic items and rid the world of their bane, and if some mage was foolish enough to flaunt such an object before the character, and he could lay hands on it, then…” When a monster turned Gygax’s barbarian to stone, it ended the character’s career. “No cleric or mage in the group was much interested in having the poor chap returned to life.”

In most games, players saw such restrictions as problems to solve with ingenuity. Part of the paladin’s reputation for lawful stupid comes from all the do-gooders conned into leaving the room when the thief wanted to question or kill prisoners. And how many barbarian players opted for characters just stupid enough to fail to realize that their +2 sword and cloak of protection happened to be magical? Sample dialog: “Tan-kor, you should wear this cloak we found because it, um, matches your eyes.”

Second edition introduced class kits that made characters more distinctive and powerful, often in exchange for behavior restrictions. For instance, the bladesinger from the Complete Book of Elves ranked as one of the most powerful kits. The catch: Having to protect elves whenever the opportunity comes. Players got a boost for simply committing to bite on a certain sort of adventure hook. A more onerous code weighed cavaliers, who always had to fight fairly and chivalrously. So if a cavalier’s foe slips off a cliff and hangs by the edge, the cavalier must help the foe up before resuming the fight.

Such restrictions only worked in campaigns where every player valued roleplaying. In a mix of actors and power gamers, behavior limits cause friction—even when the code doesn’t require destroying magic items. Players who value immersing into character grow annoyed by the players who just look for loopholes in codes of conduct. Dungeon masters dislike the role of mandating or penalizing behavior that ignores the hindrances built into a character kit.

By third edition, the D&D team mostly dropped roleplaying limits from the class-design toolbox.

Still, one code of conduct remains in the modern druid class. The fifth edition Sage Advice Compendium explains, “Druids don’t lack the ability to wear metal armor. They choose not to wear it. This choice is part of their identity as a mystical order. Think of it in these terms: a vegetarian can eat meat, but chooses not to.” This restriction brings enough teeth for class balance while proving clear enough to defy most players seeking loopholes.

Related: 4 Ways D&D’s Creators Tried and Failed to Balance Classes

4 Ways D&D’s Creators Tried and Failed to Balance Classes

The classes in today’s Dungeons & Dragons game are balanced to make sure that when players leave a session, everyone feels like their character contributed to the party’s success. No player should ever see their character routinely upstaged and wonder, “Why am I even here?” In a list of goals for fifth edition, designer Mike Mearls wrote, “All of the classes should feel competent when compared to each other at all levels.”

The game’s designers didn’t always aim for this target, and when they did the methods often failed. What methods of class balance have the game’s designers abandoned?

1. Ineffective in one pillar, strong in another

The D&D game focuses on three pillars of play: exploration, roleplaying interaction, and combat.

In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. The original thieves lacked any combat assets—not even backstabbing—but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusable abilities. They shined in the exploration pillar, and floundered in combat.

In an interview for Drache issue 3, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax explained, “D&D’s team aspect is important. In a D&D game, each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

Some of that spirit remains, Mearls writes, “We’re OK with classes being better at specific things. Rogues are good at checks and handling traps. Fighters have the best AC and hit points. Clerics are the best healers and support casters. Wizards are the best at area attacks and control effects.”

But the game no longer allows classes that prove ineffective in a pillar. “If each class has wildly different combat abilities and the game doesn’t account for that, the system falls apart,” Mearls wrote. Over the years, the thief class added a backstab feature, which became sneak attack and a suite of combat abilities.

See The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination.

2. Weak at low levels, mighty at high levels

In D&D’s early days, Gygax saw characters who survived to high level as proof of a player’s skills. By this notion, players able to raise a weak character to the top deserved rewards. Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon magazine, echoed this perspective when he wrote, “Anyone that gets an Illusionist [to high level] deserves whatever they can achieve.”

No class showed this attitude more than the magic user. Originally, magic users started with the no armor, the lowest hit points, feeble attacks, and just one magic missile or sleep spell. But while a high-level fighter just added more hit points and a higher attack bonus, wizards gained power in 3 ways: They gained more spells per day, higher-level spells, and more damage with spells of a given level. Their power grew to overshadow the other classes.

“Earlier, D&D balanced wizards by making them weak at low level and powerful at high level,” wrote third-edition designer Jonathan Tweet. “But we tried to balance the classes at both low level and high level. (We failed. Spellcasters were still too good at high level.)”

The current edition starts to get the formula right. Mearls explained his goal for fifth edition. “Attaining balance is something that we must do to make D&D fit in with fantasy, myth, and legend. Even if a wizard unleashes every spell at his or her disposal at a fighter, the fighter absorbs the punishment, throws off the effects, and keeps on fighting.”

See How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D.

3. Higher-powered classes require more experience points

Before third edition, every D&D class had a different table of experience points required to level. As far as I know, Gygax never explained this quirk. No one asked because everyone just assumed the higher-powered classes demanded more experience points to level. The charts hint at some of this: The mighty paladin requires more experience than the weaker rogue. But for the original classes of fighter, cleric, and wizard the differences seem quirky rather than systematic. “The system sometimes gave clerics more hit points than fighters because a cleric would be higher level than a fighter with the same XP total.” Until double-digit levels, the XP requirements for a magic user never left the wizard more than a level or two behind the other classes.

4. Classes with level maximums

Originally, Gary Gygax gave little thought to high-level characters. Kask recalled, “We figured the odds of even getting to level 9 or 10 were so high that it wouldn’t pose a problem. This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest-level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was a 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave Arneson’s.”

After D&D’s release, TSR co-owner Brian Blume lobbied to include the monk class in the game’s upcoming Blackmoor supplement. Kask wrote, “Brian rationalized the nearly super abilities of the monk’s high levels with the argument that nobody, or damned few, would ever get that high. (This illustrates a certain naivete that all of us shared back then. We had no idea people would play almost daily and rack up XP’s at a truly unimagined rate.)”

Gygax published a class that imposed harsh limits to high-level monks. For monks “there is only one man at each level above 6th.” So to rise above 6th level, a monk character had to find the one monk of that level and win a fair fight. “There will always be a higher level to fight, even if there is no player character in the role.” The class topped out at 16th level.

A year after Blackmoor, gamers had completely disproved the theory that few characters would rise to high level. So Gygax returned to the monk class’s scheme for limiting the new Druid class in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Kask explained, “Every advance beyond level 11 meant fighting and defeating a fellow druid in either magical or physical combat—and the occasional 11th-level challenger of one’s own to deal with!”

In practice such limits only steered players away from choosing the classes they wanted to play, or blocked characters from advancing with their peers in a high-level party.

Next: Number 5.

Scrutinizing the 9 Most Popular House Rules for D&D

In the beginning, Dungeons & Dragons required house rules to run. For instance, for 10 years the game suffered from an unplayable initiative system, so everyone used a house rule. Every dungeon master grew accustomed to tinkering with the game, leading to a generation of amateur game designers who sometimes graduated to the pros.

Fifth edition has proved sound enough that the game’s designers resist tweaking even the worst parts of the game. The reluctance makes sense: No customer wants to learn that the rules in their game book are changed by some notice on the Internet.

Nonetheless, everyone who plays the game long enough wishes something played a bit differently, perhaps a bit better. Forty-some years on, the roleplayer’s urge to design and redesign remains. My search for fifth-edition house rules turned up an avalanche of favorites.

What are the most popular house rules for D&D and how do they stand to scrutiny?

Players may spend inspiration to a gain a reroll.

Spending inspiration gives you advantage an attack roll, saving throw, or ability check, so you must choose to use inspiration before the roll. Meanwhile, so many people think that inspiration allows a reroll that every convention DM who runs by the book can tell a story of being falsely accused of not knowing the rules. “You may be right,” we lie. “Go ahead and look that up for me.”

Advantage. The original conception of Inspiration supposed that players would gain inspiration more frequently than typical now. During the edition’s design, Mike Mearls wrote, “A player can gain it once per significant scene or important combat. Inspiration fades quickly, so you must spend it within a few minutes in game time before you lose it.” The lighter benefit of advantage suited this frequency. With most DMs awarding Inspiration less often, a stronger reroll benefit works fine.

Disadvantage. You may foster a misunderstanding that causes your players to call out some poor DM who plays by the book.

Players roll their characters’ death saves in secret.

Groups who adopt this house rule allow players to override their secret saving roles to spare their character or, I suppose, speed a tragic end. This change doesn’t actually change D&D rules, so the pedant in me wants to call it a table convention.

Advantage. By rolling their character’s death saves secretly, players gain more control over whether their character dies. This suits groups who emphasize story and would rather not see the campaign arc overturned by a blown save.

Disadvantage. Allowing players to choose not to die may seem like a violation of the game’s spirit to players who value a genuine threat of death.

See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.

DMs roll the characters’ death saves in secret.

Advantage. If you play fifth edition long enough, you suffer through this scene: Your character drops early in a fight, and because you never fail a death save, no one bothers to heal you. The players know your character remains 3 turns from death, so no one feels urgency. Meanwhile, for all the characters know, their friend is hearing her dead parents calling her toward the light. (As an adventurer, her parents are as inevitably dead as a Disney lead’s mother.)

If the DM rolls death saves, or the player rolls and only shares the result with the DM, the rest of the party stops gaining metagame information about a dying character’s closeness to the final curtain. This adds urgency to the need to heal fallen characters and can heighten feelings of peril. Such secrecy encourages players to quickly bring their friends back into the action.

Disadvantage. Particularly if the DM rolls, the players lose a sense of control over their fate, even if that false sense only comes from throwing the die.

Precedent. If Gary had invented death saves, you know that he would have rolled them secretly for players.

Critical hits deal maximum damage plus damage from a second roll of the dice.

Advantage. In fifth edition, we’ve all experienced the excitement of a critical, followed by the roll of a handful of dice that yields mostly ones, twos, and a big letdown. Reinforcing critical hits guarantees big damage. This favors divine smiters, sneak attackers, and the kid at my game table whose “practice” rolls uncannily end when he rolls a 20. “Look! Another critical!”

Disadvantage. Apparently, none of the folks bolstering criticals have played a paladin and realized that the class rates as almost too good without smites backed by stronger crits.

Criticals offer fun, but they are secretly bad for players because characters endure far more critical hits than any monster. Dialing up extra damage increases the chance that a monster’s attack will kill a character dead. For criticals that avoid the bummer of low rolls without adding risk to player characters, make criticals deal maximum damage.

Precedent. In third edition, criticals let you double your damage bonuses along with your damage dice. Fourth edition backed away from doubling damage bonuses by just making criticals deal maximum damage. That favored players, but eliminated the fun of the roll and the chance of huge damage against monsters. The fifth-edition system opts for a mechanic converging on maximum damage, but with extra dice to roll.

Lesser Restoration and remove curse won’t automatically remove diseases, poisons, and curses.

Lesser restoration and remove curse turn poisoning, diseases, and curses in D&D into the loss of a spell or a donation at the local temple. To match folklore and for story, we want curses and other afflictions to prompt quests, so many groups add limits to the spell remedies. The limits run from an ability check similar to dispel magic, to a requirement for special material components, to more. Adventurers League administrator Greg Marks writes, “I’m a big fan of any story-based poison or disease requiring a story-based solution in addition.” If a character gets hit with a bestow curse spell in a random encounter, then remove curse fixes it. If the party is cursed by the dying breath of a witch queen, then that’s an adventure to fix.

Advantage. Limiting lesser Restoration and remove curse opens D&D to a type of story that pervades the tales that inspired the game.

Disadvantage. Limiting these spells hurts characters who prepare them, but not as much as in earlier editions. Originally, clerics who prepared a just-in-case spell like remove curse lost a spell slot, which they could have devoted to a healing spell that would always prove useful.

Precedent. Many adventures through D&D’s history include curses and other afflictions that resist mere spells.

Healing potions can be consumed with a bonus action.

A character can spend a bonus action to drink a healing potion. Administering a potion to another character still requires an action.

Advantage. When a typical round takes several minutes of real time, losing an action to drink a healing potion feels like a bummer. Also, a player who needs a potion probably needs that action to turn the tide of battle.

Disadvantage. If your campaign awards a typical amount of treasure, then the 50 gp cost of a healing potion quickly becomes negligible, especially when characters have little else to spend money on. If drinking becomes a bonus, expect smart players to litter battlefields with empty vials. Still, this change probably won’t upset the game’s balance.

Lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford might prefer that you not mistreat bonus actions as just a lesser sort of action though.

Characters gain a bonus feat at first level.

Advantage. Granting characters an extra feat enables more customization, especially for groups who tend to shorter, low-level campaigns. Some DMs even allow characters who reach ability score increases to gain both an increase and a feat rather than choosing one.

Disadvantage. Some feats grant big boosts in power. See The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves, How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter, and How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D. Also, the Lucky feat may as well be called Never Fail a Save. The power of feats means that bonus feats steeply increase the power curve for characters. Some groups don’t mind because they see combat as a way for characters to show off their prowess rather than a challenge that endangers heroes. Some DMs don’t mind because they happily dial up the opposition to match.

Also, pairing extra feats with ability score increases strongly encourages multi-class characters to take class levels in blocks of 4.

Precedent. If you like this rule because it allows extra customization, you may benefit by switching game systems. Pathfinder 2 modularizes character advancement into choices of feats and allows much more customization of characters.

Players can delay their turn to take a later place in initiative.

Advantage. Too often, the slow, tough characters who open the dungeon door roll a low initiative while the quicker skirmishers in back roll high. The tanks in front wind up bottling up the door because the rules offer no way for the bladesinger in back to just wait for the paladin to step out of the damn way.

Also, some groups enjoy the tactical options unlocked by letting characters delay.

Disadvantage. The D&D designers sought faster play and a leaner game by dropping the delay option. For more, see 3 Actions D&D Players Want That Defy the Game’s Design Choices.

I favor a lightweight alternative to a full delay option. Before combat starts, let players opt for a lower initiative than they rolled.

Precedent. Third and fourth edition both included a delay option. For a suggested delay rule adapted from those editions, see What to Do When a D&D Player Wants to Be Ready, Call a Shot, or Delay.

Characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion.

Advantage. Players intent on wringing every advantage from the game rules will only heal characters when they drop, because damage below 0 heals for free. Imagine being injured but denied healing until you lie dying on the dungeon floor because the magic somehow works better that way. As an adventurer, I would find a less psycho group of comrades in arms.

By making characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion, the dying condition becomes something to be realistically feared rather than an inconvenience where players can exploit their metagame understanding of fifth edition’s lack of negative hit points.

Disadvantage. Although this penalty encourages players to keep their friends in the game rather than incapacitated by 0 hit points, the rule remains a penalty that will sometimes prove unavoidable.

Precedent. In first edition, characters brought to 0 or fewer hit points needed a week of rest. “The character cannot attack, defend, cast spells, use magic devices, carry burdens, run, study, research, or do anything else.” However, due to house rules, I never saw this penalty enforced.

What to Do When a D&D Player Wants to Be Ready, Call a Shot, or Delay

Without knowing any rules—without knowing a d20 from a d12—new Dungeons & Dragons players can join a party and love the game at least as much as veteran players. Everything feels fresh and thrilling, so often the newcomers have more fun. They play without rules by just imagining themselves as heroes and asking what they would do.

For the rest of us, knowing the rules can interfere with that primal experience. Instead of interacting with the D&D world, we slip into interacting with the rules. So when we hear footsteps approaching a door, instead of nocking an arrow and drawing a bow, we ask to ready an attack action for when a monster opens the door. In this example, that ready action breaks the rules because ready only applies during combat’s initiative order.

My last post described 3 times when players ask to use rules not even in the game. The game omits the supposed rules because they would run against D&D’s design approach. Often, past editions of the game even included these extra rules, but fifth edition’s more economical design forced them out. That post explained the designers’ choices and how to explain the missing rules to players.

Still, although the rules only allow ready actions in combat, lack a system for called shots, and omit the delay action, characters can still aim a drawn bow at a closed door, shoot for the tentacle gripping a friend, and perhaps even wait for the slow paladin to stop blocking the door.

This post offers advice for ruling on all those requests without inventing rules that the designers skipped for good reasons.

1. Readying an action outside of combat.

Players usually ask to ready outside combat for one of two reasons:

  • They expect trouble and want to stay alert.

  • They want to attack first. 

D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford explained how he handles the request to stay alert. “Usually what that means is they won’t be surprised at my table.” Alternately, you could grant the character advantage on perception checks and a cooresponding +5 to passive perception until the situation changes or you judge that the characters’ attention would ease to a normal level. Nobody can stay especially alert all the time except barbarians with Feral Instinct. Impinging on a class feature would make barbarians angry. You wouldn’t like that.

Often, attempts to gain the first attack fall under surprise rules. When a party prepares to attack something inside a closed door and that foe remains unaware of the threat, then the monster starts combat surprised. If the monster knows about the threat, then the situation matches the usual start of a fight: Everyone is ready. Roll initiative to see who goes first. DMs who rule that a character with an arrow pulled only needs an instant to aim and shoot might give that character advantage on initiative. Don’t make the first attack automatic. We’ve all seen countless scenes where some skilled fighter stares down a poised weapon, and then uses lightning reflexes to strike first.

2. Called shots.

Usually players ask to call shots to gain a quicker route to taking a foe from a fight. To that I say, “Your characters are experts at combat. With each attack, they use their skills to find the best opportunity to land a blow that deals the most damage and that offers the best chance of taking your foe out of the fight.”

The second-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide limited called shots with a rule that remains sound in fifth. “Against a creature, a called shot will only cause the normal amount of damage allowed by the weapon. Attempts to blind, cripple, or maim will not succeed.”

Such a limit quashes most interest in called shots, so the designers opted for rules economy over adding rules for called shots. Still, players may want to temporarily impose a condition like Blinded, Deafened, or Prone. Conditions in D&D typically last a round or allow saves every turn. Players could also aim to distract, slow movement, or disarm.

The latest Dungeon Master’s Guide includes rules for disarming a foe (p.257). For other conditions, game designer Justin Alexander suggests some sensible, but untested rules. His post details the design decisions behind called shots. Called shots typically suffer a penalty of -2 or -4 as judged by the DM. (Don’t impose disadvantage, because that creates an incentive to call a shot whenever an attack would suffer disadvantage anyway. D&D lacks double disadvantage.) If the called shot succeeds, then you deal damage normally and the target must make an appropriate saving throw or suffer the effect. I recommend calculating a saving throw DC using a formula similar to the Battle Master fighter’s Maneuver save DC. Add 5 + your proficiency bonus + your choice of Strength or Dexterity modifier. 

Delay a turn.

Fifth edition skips the delay action because the extra option adds extra rules baggage and may slow play.

Nonetheless, in one case players who delay their place in initiative can smooth play without adding any complexity to the rules. That case comes when you first arrange initiative before any creature takes an action. Too often, the slow, tough characters at the door roll low while the quicker skirmishers in back roll high. Those tanks wind up bottling up the door because the rules offer no way for the bladesinger in back to just wait for the paladin to step out of the damn way. Before initiative starts, let players opt for a lower initiative count.

For the players who enjoy the tactical intricacies brought by the delay action, groups can import the delay rules in earlier editions of D&D and in D&D’s sister system Pathfinder. Here are the rules the designers wished to avoid.

Delay

By choosing to delay, you take no action and then act normally on whatever initiative count you decide to act. When you delay, you voluntarily reduce your own initiative result for the rest of the combat. When your new, lower initiative count comes up later in the same round, you can act normally. You can specify this new initiative result or just wait until sometime later in the round and act then, thus fixing your new initiative count at that point.

You never get back the time you spend waiting to see what’s going to happen. You also can’t interrupt anyone else’s action (as you can with a readied action).

Your initiative result becomes the count on which you took the delayed action. If you come to your next action and have not yet performed an action, you don’t get to take a delayed action (though you can delay again).

If you take a delayed action in the next round, before your regular turn comes up, your initiative count rises to that new point in the order of battle, and you do not get your regular action that round.

When you Delay, any persistent damage or other negative effects that normally occur at the start or end of your turn occur immediately when you use the Delay action. Any beneficial effects that would end at any point during your turn also end. You can’t Delay to avoid negative consequences that would happen on your turn or to extend beneficial effects that would end on your turn.

3 Actions D&D Players Want That Defy the Game’s Design Choices

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons players ask to do things that the rules don’t handle—and not just because no roleplaying game’s rules can cover everything. The game omits the added rules because they would run against D&D’s design approach. Often, past editions of the game even included these extra rules, but fifth edition’s more consistent design forced them out.

This post isn’t about the rules fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons could have included, but which the design skips for brevity. The D&D designers intentionally avoid providing rules for everything. “We want a system that trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation,” writes designer Rodney Thompson.

What actions aren’t covered by the D&D rules because they defy the game’s design choices?

1. Readying an action outside of combat.

In the early days of D&D, players liked saying, “I ready my sword” or “I nock an arrow.” Back then, initiative ran by house rules and DM whim, so this sort of declaration might win an edge. In an example of playing D&D that Gary Gygax wrote for the Europa zine in 1976, the DM grants the party +1 to a d6 initiative roll for being prepared. Only Unearthed Arcana (1985) actually put a benefit for readiness into print. “A bow specialist who begins the round with arrow nocked, shaft drawn, and target in sight is entitled to loose that arrow prior to any initiative check.” (See For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots.)

Despite the lack of rules benefits, such declarations might prevent an adversarial dungeon master from deciding that because you never said that your sword was drawn, a fight caught you unprepared. In those days, many gamers saw thwarting and punishing players as part of the DM’s role. That attitude has fallen from favor. Nowadays, even though you never mention that your character started the day by putting on pants, we still assume pants.

The old spirit of readiness continues today. In a Sage Advice segment, D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford says, “People often want to ready actions before combat has even started.”

Why “readying” does nothing. Jeremy says, “The ready action is an action you take in combat, so there’s really no such thing as readying before combat has started.”

What a DM should say. Maybe nothing. “I rarely correct them,” Jeremy says. He interprets the ready request as the player signaling their intent to stay alert. “Usually what that means is they won’t be surprised at my table. So even though I won’t have the mechanics of the ready action play out, I will still reward them for thinking in advance and signaling intent.”

To more rules-oriented players say, “In D&D, everyone who isn’t surprised starts a fight ready. Initiative lets us decide who among the ready combatants goes first.” (Surprised combatants also have a place in initiative, but they take no actions while surprised.) For more on what to tell players about initiative, see What to do when a player interrupts a role-playing scene to start a battle.

2. Called shots.

Sometime in every player’s D&D career, they get the idea of skipping the process of hacking through all a creature’s hit points by simply chopping off their weapon hand or blinding them with a blow to the eyes. Earlier editions of D&D termed attacks that aimed for a specific body part “called shots” and the game once included rules for such strikes. No more.

Why the rules don’t include called shots. The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook explains, “Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.” That’s a lot of possibilities. The game rules rely on this vagueness to allow characters to regain all their hit points after a short rest rather than a long hospital stay.

The moment characters start attempting to gouge their foes’ eyes out and villains return the favor, the game loses the useful abstraction of hit points. Also, if aiming for a particular body part proved more effective, why would anyone bother with regular attacks? The second-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed called shots, but explained, “Because the AD&D game uses a generalized system for damage, called shots cannot be used to accomplish certain things. Against a creature, a called shot will only cause the normal amount of damage allowed the weapon. Attempts to blind, cripple, or maim will not succeed.”

What a DM should say. “Your characters are experts at combat. With each attack, they use their skills to find the best opportunity to land a blow that deals the most damage and that offers the best chance of taking your foe out of the fight.”

3. Delaying an action.

In third and fourth edition, players could delay their actions to later in the initiative count. This helped players coordinate actions with other players using an advanced strategy called you set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em down. Players who remember the flexibility of delaying still ask for it.

Why the rules don’t include delaying. The fifth-edition designers chose to eliminate delaying to simplify the rules and speed play.

Many spell durations and combat effects last until the beginnings and endings of turns. An option to delay complicates the rules for such effects and the bookkeeping needed to track them. “Simply by changing when your turn happens, you could change the length of certain spells,” explains the Sage Advice Compendium. “The way to guard against such abuse would be to create a set of additional rules that would limit your ability to change durations. The net effect? More complexity would be added to the game, and with more complexity, there is greater potential for slower play.”

An option to delay encourages players to analyze and discuss the optimal order for their turns during every round. “Multiply that extra analysis by the number of characters and monsters in a combat, and you have the potential for many slow-downs in play.”

What a DM should say. “Everyone in a fight acts at once. We just have turns to make some sense of that activity. If you delay, you do nothing while everyone else acts. At best, you can start an action and attempt to time it so that it finishes right after something else happens. That’s called readying an action.”

The 3 Most Annoying High-Level Spells in D&D

When I named the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, my list topped at 4th-level with the banishment spell. That list came from D&D players and dungeon masters who named the spells they find the least fun in play. Some players nominated higher-level spells, but at the time my lack of high-level play left me unsure of those picks. Four years later, 3 powerful spells that stood accused have proven annoying.

The original list revealed that fifth-edition versions of the 4 spells all added changes that turned them from forgettable to powerful—and aggravating. The 3 spells on this new list all started powerful, even among 6th- and 7th-level peers. Two of the spells’ 1st-edition descriptions start, “This powerful spell…”

If anything, these spells falter because the designers worked too hard to avoid disappointment. No player likes to cast one of their most potent spells, only to see it amount to little. Here, the designers worked so hard to avoid such bummers that they steer right into aggravation.

Animate Objects

Animate Objects proves annoying for two reasons.

First comes sadness. In the popular imagination, magic causes brooms, tables, chairs or, best of all, statues to spring to life. That scene resonates so strongly that it appears in countless stories. Sadly, animate objects never leads to that scene. Instead, casters just use the spells to make 10 pebbles fly up and pepper a victim. Why such a dull choice? The spell description makes 10 flying coins into a far more dangerous onslaught than say, animating a wagon, Transformer like, into a huge attacker. That’s just sad. Plus, animated objects that lack legs or other appendages gain flying, a clear advantage.

The decision to make objects fly comes from a good place. The designers never want a player who prepared animate objects to be disappointed by a lack of suitable objects, so they made the most suitable target a handful of coins.

In effect, animate object rates as a more efficient telekinesis spell that robs the game of the attacking tables, statues, and fruit carts that we all want.

Those flying coins lead to the second annoyance: 10 more attack rolls every damn round. If the wizard player insists on rolling each attack and its damage separately, then the game becomes insufferable. A better spell would create an incentive to animate fewer objects.

Animate object entered D&D as a 6th-level cleric spell in the 1976 Greyhawk supplement by Gary Gygax. From Mickey Mouse, we all recognized animate objects as a wizard spell learned from a book. The 5th-edition designers spotted Gary’s error and moved the spell to its proper place. But why did Gary originally give the spell to clerics? Greyhawk introduced 6th-level cleric spells to D&D. Perhaps Gary struggled to find enough spells with a religious flavor to fill the new levels. Gary probably hoped to evoke stories of faith bringing life, turning sticks to snakes or vitalizing clay into a golem.

Clerics get few offensive spells, so animate object should have proven popular, but that early version suffered from a lack of stats for animated objects. The spell description mentions a few things DMs might consider when they improvise hit dice, armor class, movement, and damage for a sofa, but that still dropped a big burden on DMs in the middle of running a fight. Meanwhile, players hesitated to prepare a spell that only hinted at an outcome. The spell only grew popular when the third-edition Monster Manual set monster statistics for the animated objects.

Forcecage

I dislike spells that turn battles into murder scenes where characters beat down helpless foes. Nothing could feel less heroic. Forcecage doesn’t leave every foe helpless and vulnerable, but still, no spell generates those dreary executions as reliably. The spell’s victims don’t even get a save. In past versions of forcecage, the rare creature capable of teleporting could escape. Now, as a way to avoid disappointing players seeking their murder scene, such an escape requires a saving throw.

Whenever I gripe that some overpowered spell or feat hurts the game, some folks inevitability tell me to level the imbalance by having foes bring the same attack against the players. A little of that goes a long way, especially in a case like forcecage. As Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea notes, trapping a character in forcecage throughout a long battle might cause a player to rage-quit the game. Besides, serving players a regular diet of wizards casting forcecage seems a touch adversarial.

The original version of forcecage dates to the 1985 Unearthed Arcana book credited to Gary Gygax. That book includes some classic material among lesser entries that betray the book’s inspiration—an urgent need for cash flow. Earlier versions of forcecage consumed 1,500 gp worth of ruby dust. Ideally, the ruby dust made forcecage feel like a trap set for a powerful foe at great expense. The latest version works without the recurring expense.

Heroes’ Feast

Years ago, I ran a tier-3 Adventurers League epic adventure centered on a green dragon and its poison-themed allies. Like any group with a level 11 or better cleric, the party started with heroes’ feast, which grants immunity to fear and poison. No doubt through hour 1, the players relished laughing off all their foes’ attacks. By hour 4, the slaughter of toothless foes must have felt a bit empty.

Perhaps D&D’s designers imagined that the cost of components limited heroes’ feast. The spell consumes a 1,000 gp bowl. But by the time characters who earn fifth edition’s expected treasure rewards can cast 6th-level spells, they can effortlessly spare 1,000 gp for every adventuring day. So every day, the whole party enjoys immunity to poison and fear.

Mike Shea writes, “Many high challenge creatures are built around the damage they inflict with poison and the status effects they impose with both poison and fear. With every character in a party immune to these effects, certain monsters become much easier. This might be fine, but many of these monsters are intended to be truly powerful threats.” While I’m content to gripe, Mike’s post offers advice for handling the spell. Perhaps the best remedy comes from the Adventurers League, which now limits gold rewards enough to make 1,000 gp a serious cost.

Heroes’ feast works the same as when it first appeared in Unearthed Arcana, so don’t blame the spell’s problems on recent changes. Over 35 years, the spell has proven too good. Perhaps it invited a bit of tinkering, even if that risked disappointing fans of a good breakfast.

Related: What the Player’s Handbook Should Have Explained about 6 Popular D&D Spells

How D&D Got an Initiative System Rooted in California House Rules

Some groups playing first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons might have run initiative by the book, but with the incomprehensible rules text, no one knew for sure. Besides, the full rules proved so complicated and cumbersome that most groups threw some out in favor of a faster pace. Even AD&D author Gary Gygax ignored most of it. “We played to have fun, and in the throws of a hot melee, rules were mostly forgotten.” (See For 10 Years Dungeons & Dragons Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots.)

For the designers working on second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, updating these rules posed a challenge. D&D’s management had required the designers to make their new version of AD&D broadly compatible with the original. Even after years on store shelves, plenty of first-edition products continued to sell. TSR wanted to keep that income coming. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

So second edition needed a version of the first-edition initiative rules, but which rules? First-edition players handled initiative in countless ways, none precisely by the book. The second-edition team settled on all of those ways. Like before, each side rolled a die and the winning roll went first. Beyond that, second edition offered enough optional rules to reconstruct whatever system a group already used. Groups that favored a system complicated by spell casting times and weapon speed factors could keep it.

Second edition also kept the wargame-inspired rule where players declared their actions before a round, and then had to stick to plan as best they could. Many groups chose to ignore this rule. Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison says, “I’ve had many conversations with fans who were really big fans of AD&D and who never really left second edition. I would say, ‘So you like the declaration phase?’ And the answer would always be, ‘Oh we don’t play that way.’ So you like AD&D better because you don’t play by the rules!”

When Adkison led Wizards of the Coast to buy TSR, he granted the third-edition design team permission to redesign initiative—and the rest of D&D—without keeping broad compatibility. Adkison simply charged the team with creating the best D&D game possible.

To start, the team looked at how gamers actually played second edition. Few groups declared actions before a round, and groups that did found the process slowed the game. Third-edition lead designer Jonathan Tweet explains, “Eventually what you ended up doing is you had to tell the DM what you were doing every round twice.”

Most tables did roll initiative every round. That added some exciting uncertainly, but also friction. “It takes forever to go through the round because no one knows who’s next and people get dropped.”

Despite having so many systems to choose from, none of the options pleased anyone. Co-designer Monte Cook says, “Initiative was probably the longest knock down drag out kind of fight. We must have gone through—no exaggeration—like 8 different, completely different, initiative systems.”

Meanwhile, in Tweet’s home games, he used a system that he hesitated to propose to the other designers. “I said to the group, ‘I want to try this cyclical initiative. It’s always worked for me, but it’s so different from AD&D. You know what, it’s probably so different that even if it’s better, people would not like it.’”

For the origin of cyclical initiative, the story goes back to D&D’s early days.

The original D&D books omitted a rule for who acts first in a fight. For that, co-designer Gary Gygax supposed gamers would refer to his earlier Chainmail miniatures rules. In practice, players rarely saw those old rules. As the game spread virally from the creators’ local groups and from the conventions they attended, gamers in the Midwest learned to play D&D.

Gamers in the West found D&D too, but those communities lacked the same word-of-mouth connection to the game’s creators. Necessity forced those players to make up rules to patch the gaps in the rule books. Copies of these fans’ informal game supplements spread from table-to-table.

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

A group of gamers around Caltech created Warlock. “What we have tried to do is present a way of expanding D&D without the contradictions and loopholes inherent in the original rules and with various supplements.”

Future RuneQuest designer and D&D supplement author Steve Perrin wrote a set of house rules that came to be called The Perrin Conventions. He distributed his rules at California’s DunDraCon I in March 1976.

The enthusiasts working on these West coast D&D enhancements lacked Dave and Gary’s deep roots in wargaming, so they found fresh answers to the question of who goes first. Instead of an arcane system built on weapon types, they worked from the description of the Dexterity attribute in original D&D’s Men & Magic booklet (p.11). Dexterity indicates the characters “speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.” So Warlock lets the spellcaster with the highest Dexterity goes first, and The Perrin Conventions explain, “First strike in any situation, whether melee combat, spell casting, or whatever depends on who has the highest dexterity.”

Meanwhile, D&D hooked California physician J. Eric Holmes, but the original game’s obtuse and incomplete rules frustrated him as much as anyone. So he contacted Gygax and volunteered to write rules for beginners. Gygax already wanted such an introduction, but he lacked time to write one because he also wanted to create his new advanced version of D&D. He welcomed Holmes’s unexpected offer and compared it to divine inspiration.

Starting with the original rule books plus the Blackmoor and Greyhawk supplements, Holmes made D&D comprehensible while keeping “the flavor and excitement of the original rules.” As much as he could, he reused wording from the original game. But J. Eric Holmes had learned to play D&D from the Caltech Warlock rules and he probably had seen The Perrin Conventions. That experience led him to pitch Warlock’s spell-point system to Gygax. We know how that turned out. Gary hated spell points. However, Holmes’s take on D&D included one West coast innovation: The character with the highest Dexterity struck first. Back then, monster stats lacked a number for Dexterity, so the rules explain, “If the Dungeon Master does not know the dexterity of an attacking monster, he rolls it on the spot.”

Holmes’ revision became the 1977 Basic Set known for its rule book’s blue cover. That version of the rules introduced young Jonathan Tweet to D&D. Even when new versions of D&D appeared, Tweet stuck to his interpretation of the 1977 initiative rule. “It was really fast. Everyone knew what order you went in.”

Fast forward twenty-some years to the design of third edition when Tweet proposed his home initiative system inspired by that blue rule book. He called the system cyclical because instead of re-rolling initiative every round, turns cycled through the same order.

The design team’s third member, Skip Williams brought deep roots into AD&D. Williams had played in Gary Gygax’s home campaign and came from years of experience answering AD&D questions as Dragon magazine’s sage. Tweet suspected Williams would hesitate to test an initiative system that defied AD&D tradition, but Williams said, “Well, let’s try it.”

“We played one battle using initiative that goes around in a circle instead of being different every round and it was so much faster,” Tweet recalls. “It feels more like combat because it’s faster. By the end of the turn, by the end of the 5 hours playing D&D, you’ve had way more fun because things have gone faster.

“One of the big things that I learned from that experience is how well people took to a rule that on paper they rejected but in practice they saw how well it played.”

Monte Cook says, “If you can look at something that happens 20, 30, 50 times during a game session, and eliminate that or decrease it hugely, you’re going to make the game run faster, more smoothly. That idea is now a big part of my game designer toolbox.”

In today’s fifth edition, cyclic initiative now seems like an obvious choice, but the D&D team still considered alternatives. Some players tout the side initiative system described on page 270 of the fifth-edition Dungeon Masters Guide. The opposing groups of heroes and monsters each roll a die, and then everyone in the group with the highest roll goes. Unlike in past editions, nobody re-rolls initiative; the sides just trade turns. The designers chose against this method because the side that wins initiative can gang up on enemies and finish them before they act. At low levels, when a single blow can take out a foe, winning side initiative creates an overwhelming advantage.

Many players find side initiative even faster than individual initiative. Side initiative could also encourage tactically-minded players to spend time each round planning an optimal order for their turns. Some players enjoy that focus. However, if you aim for fast fights where rounds capture the mayhem of 6-seconds of actual battle, avoid encouraging such discussion.

Why do you prefer your favorite method for deciding who goes first?

Related: 13 of the Craziest Quirks in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules

For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots

While every version of Dungeons & Dragons has a rule for who goes first in a fight, no other rule shows as much of the game’s evolution from what the original books call rules for “wargames campaigns” into what the latest Player’s Handbook calls a roleplaying game about storytelling.

Before you old grognards rush to the comments to correct my opening line, technically the original books lacked any way to decide who goes first. For that rule, co-creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson supposed gamers would refer to Gary’s earlier Chainmail miniatures rules. In practice, players rarely saw those old rules. The way to play D&D spread gamer-to-gamer from Dave and Gary’s local groups and from the conventions they attended. D&D campaigns originally ran by word-of-mouth and house rules.

Gygax waited five years to present an initiative system in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). Two things made those official rules terrible.

  • Nobody understood the system.

  • Any reasonable interpretation of the system proved too slow and complicated for play.

Some grognards insist they played the first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons initiative system by the book. No you didn’t. Read this 20-page consolidation of the initiative rules as written, and then try to make that claim. Grognardia blogger James Maliszewski writes, “Initiative in AD&D, particularly when combined with the equally obscure rules regarding surprise, was one of those areas where, in my experience, most players back in the day simply ignored the official rules and adopted a variety of house rules. I know I did.”

Not even Gygax played with all his exceptions and complications. “We used only initiative [rolls] and casting times for determination of who went first in a round. The rest was generally ignored. We played to have fun, and in the throws of a hot melee, rules were mostly forgotten.”

With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D story grows complicated, because original or basic D&D soldiered on with workable initiative systems. My next tale will circle back to D&D, but this one focuses on first-edition AD&D, the game Gygax treated as his own. (See Basic and Advanced—the time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games.)

Some of the blame for AD&D’s terrible initiative system falls back on Chainmail and Gygax’s love for its wargaming legacy.

Chainmail lets players enact battles with toy soldiers typically representing 20 fighters. The rules suggest playing on a tabletop covered in sand sculpted into hills and valleys. In Chainmail each turn represents about a minute, long enough for infantry to charge through a volley of arrows and cut down a group of archers. A clash of arms might start and resolve in the same turn. At that scale, who strikes first typically amounts to who strikes from farthest away, so archers attack, then soldiers with polearms, and finally sword swingers. Beyond that, a high roll on a die settled who moved first.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the 1-minute turns from Chainmail became 1-minute melee rounds. Such long turns made sense for a wargame that filled one turn with a decisive clash of arms between groups of 20 soldiers, but less sense for single characters trading blows.

Even though most D&D players imagined brief turns with just enough time to attack and dodge, Gygax stayed loyal to Chainmail’s long turns. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gygax defended the time scale. “The system assumes much activity during the course of each round. During a one-minute melee round many attacks are made, but some are mere feints, while some are blocked or parried.” Gygax cited the epic sword duel that ended The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) as his model for AD&D’s lengthy rounds. He never explained why archers only managed a shot or two per minute.

Broadly, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons held to Chainmail’s system for deciding who goes first. Gygax also chose an option from the old wargame where players declared their actions before a round, and then had to stick to plan as best they could. “If you are a stickler, you may require all participants to write their actions on paper.”

Why would Gygax insist on such cumbersome declarations?

In a D&D round, every character and creature acts in the same few seconds, but to resolve the actions we divide that mayhem into turns. This compromise knots time in ridiculous ways. For example, with fifth edition’s 6-second rounds, one character can end their 6-second turn next to a character about to start their turn and therefor 6 seconds in the past. If they pass a relay baton, the baton jumps 6 seconds back in time. If enough characters share the same 6 seconds running with the baton, the object outraces a jet. Now expand that absurdity across AD&D’s 1-minute round.

Years before D&D, wargamers like Gygax had wrestled with such problems. They couldn’t resolve all actions simultaneously, but players could choose actions at once. Declaring plans in advance, and then letting a referee sort out the chaos yielded some of the real uncertainty of an actual battle. Wargamers loved that. Plus, no referee would let players declare that they would start their turn by taking a relay baton from someone currently across the room.

Especially when players chose to pretend that a turn took about 10 seconds, the Chainmail system for initiative worked well enough. In basic D&D, turns really lasted 10 seconds, so no one needed to pretend. Many tables kept that system for AD&D.

But nobody played the advanced system as written. Blame that on a wargamer’s urge for precision. Despite spending paragraphs arguing for 1-minute rounds, Gygax seemed to realize that a minute represented a lot of fighting. So he split a round into 10 segments lasting as long as modern D&D’s 6-second rounds. Then he piled on intricate—sometimes contradictory—rules that determined when you acted based on weapon weights and lengths, spell casting times, surprise rolls, and so on. In an interview, Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison observed, “The initiative and surprise rules with the weapon speed factors was incomprehensible.”

In a minute-long turn filled with feints, parries, and maneuvering, none of that precision made sense. On page 61, Gygax seemed to say as much. “Because of the relatively long period of time, weapon length and relative speed factors are not usually a consideration.” Then he wrote a system that considered everything.

Some of the blame for this baroque system may rest on the wargaming hobby’s spirit of collaboration.

Even before D&D, Gygax had proved a zealous collaborator on wargames. Aside from teaming with other designers, he wrote a flood of articles proposing variants and additions to existing games. In the early years of D&D, Gygax brought the same spirit. He published rules and ideas from the gamers in his circle, and figured that players could use what suited their game. In the Blackmoor supplement, he wrote, “All of it is, of course, optional, for the premise of the whole game system is flexibility and personalization within the broad framework of the rules.”

I doubt all the rules filigree in AD&D came from Gygax. At his table, he ignored rules for things like weapon speed factors. Still, Gygax published such ideas from friends and fellow gamers. For example, he disliked psionics, but he bowed to his friends and included the system in AD&D. (See Gary Gygax Loved Science Fantasy, So Why Did He Want Psionics Out of D&D?.)

Weapon speed factors fit AD&D as badly as anything. In theory, a fighter could swing a lighter weapon like a dagger more quickly. Did this speed enable extra attacks? Not usually. Instead, light weapons could strike first. But that contradicted Chainmail’s observation that a fighter with a spear had to miss before an attacker with a dagger could come close enough to attack. Gygax patched that by telling players to skip the usual initiative rules after a charge.

AD&D’s initiative system resembles a jumble of ideas cobbled together in a rush to get a long-delayed Dungeon Master’s Guide to press. The system piled complexities, and then exceptions, and still failed to add realism. In the end, AD&D owed some success to the way D&D’s haphazard rules trained players to ignore any text that missed the mark.

In creating D&D, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax faced a unique challenge because no one had designed a roleplaying game before. The designers of every roleplaying game to follow D&D copied much of the original’s work. Without another model, Gygax relied on the design tools from wargames. His initiative system may be gone, but ultimately Gary’s finest and most lasting contribution to D&D came from the lore he created for spells, monsters, and especially adventures.

Next: Part 2: “It’s probably so different that even if it’s better, people would not like it.”

The Obvious Innovation in Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons That No Designer Saw Before

Stirrups. Zero. Shipping containers. Luggage with wheels. All these innovations seem obvious in hindsight. But they went undiscovered for millennia, until someone’s bright idea changed the world—or at least put airport porters out of work. Even those hotel shower rods that curve made someone rich.

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons includes one obvious-in-hindsight innovation that the game’s past designers failed to spot. Alas, it won’t make anyone rich.

Sverrir by ArboUp until fourth edition, D&D fighters gained extra attacks, but fourth edition avoided them. The designers shunned extra attacks partly to speed play by reducing the number of attack and damage rolls. Sure, spells attacked lots of targets, but at least spells only required one damage roll.

Also fourth edition, like all earlier editions of D&D, aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. In theory, this made the difference in power between, a 4th- and 5th-level character about the same as the difference between levels 5 and 6. Characters at similar levels could adventure together without someone routinely dealing twice as much damage. But a second attack on every turn brings a fighter a big jump in power.

The designers of past editions worked to smooth these jumps in power by granting fighters something less than a full extra attack. AD&D gave fighters extra half attacks, and a need to remember half attacks. Third edition traded half attacks and the memory issue for weaker attacks and fiddly attack penalties. These solutions complicated the game with awkward memory demands and calculations.

So playtest versions of fifth edition did not grant fighters and other martial characters an Extra Attack feature. Rather than gaining more attacks, these classes earned features that enabled attacks to deal more damage. But this approach put fighters at a disadvantage against weaker foes easily dropped by a single blow.

When a fighter confronts a goblin horde and only makes one attack per turn, no amount of extra damage matters because one strike can only fell one goblin per turn. To help martial types against weak foes, the playtest included cleaving-attack powers that swept through groups. But such features failed to remedy another trouble: To-hit bonuses in fifth-edition increase at a slower rate and never grow as big as in earlier editions. The designers call this bounded accuracy, because they do not come from marketing. Bounded accuracy means that fighters hit weaker foes less easily than in past editions.

Fighter types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. But in the playtest, even the mightiest spent turns muffing their one attack against some mook. With an extra attack, misses matter less because there’s more where that came from.

During the playtest, I wrote, “If D&D Next’s designers can find a good way to allow fighters to gain multiple attacks against weaker opponents, then a key piece of the Next design puzzle falls into place.”

Late in fifth edition’s creation, the designers compared the benefits each class gained as they leveled and noticed that wizards leap in power at 5th and at 11th levels. These jumps come from quirks of a spell list that date to the beginning of the game. At 5th level, wizards gain potent attack spells like Fireball, plus unbalancing buffs like Haste. At 11th level, wizards gain 6th-level spells, which bring save-or-die effects like Disintegrate. At the 9th spell level, Gary Gygax felt comfortable stashing world-altering spells like Wish and Time Stop, because his players never reached 17th level and never gained easy access to them.

Earlier editions of D&D aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. Those editions’ designers ignored the leaps in power certain spells brought; the fifth-edition designers embraced the leaps.

This brought the obvious-in-hindsight innovation: Rather than offering fighters half attacks or fiddly attack penalties, fifth edition matches the leaps in power brought by additional attacks to the leaps brought by 3rd, 6th, and 9th-level spells. Fighters gain extra attacks as wizards gain these spells. At the same levels, other classes gain potent powers and spells of their own. For instance, the bard’s Hypnotic Pattern spell got a fifth-edition redesign that moves it to 3rd level and dramatically increases the spell’s power. 

Third and fourth editions arbitrarily aligned the game’s tiers with 10th and 20th levels, because of round numbers. The fifth-edition tiers match to the levels where characters gain the best new powers and spells. These leaps in ability mean 4th- and 5th-level characters cannot adventure together without displaying big power differences, but characters in the same tier can join a party and contribute.

It all seems obvious now. Designer Mike Mearls says that a lot of innovations in game design work that way.

5 Ways Magic the Gathering Changed the Rules of D&D

Magic the Gathering designer Richard Garfield rates Dungeons & Dragons as the most innovative game of all time. Nonetheless, in any ranking of influential games, Magic’s revolutionary design surely vies for a top spot. You might suppose that a card game like Magic would differ too much from a roleplaying game to have any influence on D&D’s rules, but Magic’s design shaped the D&D editions to follow. Today, innovations from Magic extend to the roots of fifth-edition D&D.

5. Templated text changed how rules get written—and the 3rd-edition design team.

When Magic’s designers faced the problem of bringing order to countless cards, they used templated text: they described similar game rules with consistent wording imposed by fill-in-the-blank templates. Today, the patterns of templated text appear throughout modern D&D’s rules.
But the move to templated text also lifted a D&D-outsider to lead the game’s third-edition team. Ben Riggs tells this story in a convention seminar.

Early in the development of third-edition D&D, Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR. Skaff Elias had served as a designer on several early Magic sets and ranked as Senior Vice President of Research and Development. Skaff felt that the upcoming D&D edition could fix “sloppiness in the rules” by using templated text. Skaff and Wizard’s CEO Peter Adkison told the D&D design team to switch the spell descriptions to templated text, but the team kept resisting his directives.

Eventually, the D&D team readied the release of a playtest document that still lacked templated text. They claimed rewriting all the spell descriptions according to formula would prove impossible because hundreds of spells would need templating in 48 hours to meet their delivery deadline. Nonetheless, Adkison and Skaff took the challenge themselves, working through the night to rewrite the spells and meet the deadline. Even after that heroic effort, the rules document that reached playtesters lacked the templated descriptions from the CEO and the Design VP. The design team had simply ignored their bosses’ hard work.

The failure infuriated Adkison. He lifted Jonathan Tweet to the head of the third-edition team. Designer Monte Cook remembers Adkison’s new directive: “If Jonathan says something it’s as though I said it.” Unlike the TSR veterans on the rest of the team, Tweet had started his career by designing the indie roleplaying game Ars Magica and the experimental Over the Edge. As a member of the D&D team, he convinced the team to adopt some of the more daring changes in the new edition.

4. Keywords now get careful use throughout the rules.

Much like Magic, D&D uses keywords to describe many elements in the game. Often the keywords bring few rules of their own, but other things in the game interact with the keywords. So Magic has no rules specifically for “white” or “green,” but cards with “protection from white” work in a special way.

In D&D, conditions like “charmed,” creature types like “beast,” and descriptors like “melee” work as keywords. Such keywords power templated descriptions like, “While charmed by this spell, the creature is…” and, “The next time you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack…” In early editions of D&D some words got treatment that resembled keywords. But before Magic proved the technique’s power, keywords in D&D hardly saw the pervasive, rigorous treatment they do now.

3. Specific beats general came from Magic, but started in a hugely-influential board game nearly as old as D&D.

In Magic, the text on any card can change the rules of the game, so a card like Platinum Angel can say, “You can’t lose the game and your opponents can’t win the game.” Among traditional games where all the rules fit on the underside of a box lid or in a slim pamphlet, this made Magic revolutionary. The original Magic rules explain, “If a card contradicts the rules, the card takes precedence.” In other words, specific beats general. Similarly, page 3 of the Player’s Handbook explains how when a game element breaks the general rules in some way, it creates an exception to how the rest of the game works.

Earlier editions of D&D included game elements that broke general rules, but the unwritten principle left new players to struggle with the apparent inconsistencies. Judging by how frequently D&D lead Jeremy Crawford restates the principle, players still struggle with it.

The principle of specific beats general dates to the revolutionary 1977 game that inspired Magic the Gathering and countless others. Bored with the familiar patterns of their Risk games, the designers of Cosmic Encounter wanted a game where every play felt different from the last. In Cosmic Encounter, each player controls a different alien species able to break the general rules of the game in some specific way. With more than 150 rule-breaking alien species in the game and its expansions, Cosmic Encounter offers endless, disruptive combinations.

2. With more reliance on rulings, D&D does less to separate flavor from rules.

Magic the Gathering cards typically fill any space left after their rules text with italicized flavor text. So, Platinum Angel might say, “She is the apex of the artificer’s craft, the spirit of the divine called out of base metal.” Other Platinum Angels share the same rules, but different flavor text.

Traditionally, D&D mingled rules and flavor text, but fourth edition fully adopted such separation. The power descriptions even duplicate the practice of putting flavor in italics. This practice fit fourth edition, which defined combat powers as tightly as cards. The designers aspired to create a game where flavor never bent the rules, so a DM never needed to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time.

In fifth edition, the separation mainly appears in the monster books, where rules appear in formal boxes while flavor comes between the rectangles.

1. Reactions came from Magic’s instants and interrupts by way of D&D miniatures.

In Magic the Gathering, players can act at any time, stopping another player with cards originally called interrupts. The constant activity helps make the game so compelling, but it forced the designers to develop rules to make sense of the actions and reactions.

In early editions of D&D, players might interrupt another turn for an improvised action, but such acts needed a DM’s ruling. By third edition these actions counted as free and still mainly relied on a DM. Counterspells used the system’s only means of interrupting—the readied action.

When Wizards planned a line of D&D miniatures in 2003, the company aimed to expand sales beyond roleplayers to gamers who favored competitive wargaming. The Miniatures Handbook turned third edition’s combat rules into “a head-to-head skirmish system for fighting fast, tactical battles.” The book’s authors included D&D designers Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo along with Magic designers Skaff Elias and Mike Donais. The new miniatures would come boxed in randomized assortments complete with cards describing rules for each figure, so in ways, the package resembled Magic. The competitive skirmish game could no longer rely on a DM’s rulings to resolve interruptions, but the team wanted some of the richer play suggested by a game like Magic.

The design collaboration worked. Elias and Donais brought experience from a competitive game with strict rules for timing interrupts and reactions. “While designing Miniatures Handbook, we realized that free actions hid a potential smorgasbord of cool new mechanics,” wrote designer Bruce R. Cordell. “We subdivided the free actions into immediate actions (a free action you can take when it isn’t your turn), and swift actions (a free action you can take when it’s your turn).”

Swift and immediate actions entered the D&D roleplaying game through Cordell’s Expanded Psionics Handbook (2004). “The concept that swift and immediate actions could serve as one more resource available to a player opened up new vistas of possibility, expanding options in the game.”

In fifth edition, swift and immediate actions evolve into bonus actions and reactions.