Category Archives: Role-playing game design

The Latest D&D Studio Update on the 2024 Core Rule Books Should Have Excited Me, but It Just Made Me Apprehensive

The latest D&D Studio update on the 2024 core rule books should have excited me, but it just made me apprehensive.

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons started as a game with a strong foundation, strong enough that when I imagined the changes that would best improve the game, I just wished for replacements for the annoying spells, overpowered feats, and toothless monsters—the game’s features atop the foundation.

So far, the playtest and design team’s reports excited me, because the preview showed that the team understood the pain points in the 2014 game and sought ways to relieve them. But now I’m concerned.

Until now, only one change struck me as a bad idea: The design team chose to strengthen 1st-level characters in the worst way. Instead of making new characters more durable by giving them a few extra hit points, the designers opted to make new characters more complicated by adding an extra feat.

Gen Con D&D welcome signTo welcome new players, 1st-level characters need to become a bit more durable—just another 5 hp or so. This boost would spare them from starting as fragile as soap bubbles. D&D should not prove deadliest at 1st level. Sure, some of us love the challenge of 1st level, but to a new player who invested time creating a character often with a personality and backstory, a quick death just feels like a major loss. Such failures push players away from the game. We all know the problem. To avoid such disappointments, the D&D team seems to love the now worn trope of starting characters safely at a fair or carnival. I typically contrive a way for characters to gain the benefit of an aid spell as reward for a good deed.

At conventions and game stores, I’ve introduced hundreds of players to D&D and a key lesson stands out: Simpler characters work better. The 2014 design team made a winning choice when they kept new characters streamlined, but the 2024 redesign adds complexity by giving new characters another feat to choose and to play. For new players, the addition risks making the game feel overwhelming. Maybe that’s fine. New players confronted with a pre-generated character always find it overwhelming, but at the end of the session, they typically feel comfortable with the basics.

Surely, lead designer Jeremy Crawford can point to Unearthed Arcana surveys that show the sort of super-invested D&D players who spent an hour completing the playtest surveys love the extra feat, but that just proves players who mastered the game enjoy characters sweetened with more power. Candy isn’t always good for us or the game.

D&D fans already knew about the extra feat and I accept that not every aspect of D&D will suit me. However, another reveal from the studio update leads me to worry. Jeremy Crawford says, “We’re making sure that every major piece of class design does appear in Unearthed Arcana at least once, but there are going to be some brand new spells that people won’t see until the book is out. There are a bunch of monsters people won’t see until the books are out. There are magic items people won’t see until the books are out.”

Apparently the team feels that class features deserve the scrutiny of the D&D public, but spells don’t. Apparently the team failed to learn from the public playtest leading to the 2014 core books.

In D&D, if you play a spellcaster, your spell list forms the bulk of your abilities. So every wizard tends to prepare the same powerful spells on the list. Spells deserve the same scrutiny as class features. In 2016, when I looked at the most annoying spells in the D&D game, I learned that none of the problem spells appeared in the public playtest documents. Back then, the design team figured their in-house playtesting would suffice for these spells. That proved wrong. Thanks to the power of certain annoying spells, the spells weighed on just about every session with a character able to cast one.

Now the team seems to be falling victim to the same overconfidence. Perhaps the team would say they’ve learned from 10 years of experience and can better evaluate new game elements. Surely that’s true, but still they recently released twilight domain clerics and silvery barbs, so I see a some hubris behind touting all the new surprises in the new books.

I don’t want all new surprises. I want a game polished to perfection because it benefits from 10 years of play.

Related: The One D&D Playtest: Big and Small Surprises and Why I Like the Controversial Critical Hit Rule

 

D&D’s Biggest Controversies Ranked—3. Wizards of the Coast Attempts To Revoke the Current Open Gaming License

In 1997 Wizards of the Coast bought Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR, rescuing the company from bankruptcy. New D&D head Ryan Dancey looked for ways to turn the game into a healthy business. Dancey saw fan contributions as an enhancement to the D&D community that strengthened the game’s place in the market. Support from fans and from third-party publishers encouraged more people to play D&D. Dancey wrote, “This is a feedback cycle—the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is.” Besides, the numbers showed that the D&D business made money selling core books. Why not let fans and other companies bear the weight of supporting the game with low-profit adventures, settings, and other add-ons?

Dancey’s thinking led to the introduction of the Open Gaming License and the d20 License. Using these licenses gamers and gaming companies could create and distribute products compatible with the D&D rules. Sometimes the products competed with Wizard’s own publications, but the overall contributions from the community helped the game flourish. Other role-playing game companies recognized the success of this strategy and introduced similar licenses for their games.

The OGL granted a perpetual license, encouraging game publishers to view the OGL as a safe agreement to base investments on. “When v1.0a was published and authorized, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast did so knowing that they were entering into a perpetual licensing regime,” Dancey said. However, the OGL does not grant an irrevocable license, and to lawyers, perpetual licenses can sometimes be revoked.

In 2022, Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks and Wizards of the Coast CEO Cynthia Williams appeared in a presentation for investors. Williams touted D&D’s popularity but described the game “under monetized.” Wizards aimed to do a better job of gaining income from the game, bringing more earnings to stockholders.

With monetization in mind, Wizards executives probably looked at other publishers profiting from D&D-compatible products and felt D&D’s owner deserved a cut. Royalties on a million-dollar Kickstarter for a D&D-compatible product would hardly move the bottom line of a company the size of Hasbro, but multiply that cut by 10 or more multi-dollar dollar kickstarters per year, every year, and the payoff adds up. So, the company asked lawyers to find a way break the OGL, and the legal team found a potential out in the word “authorized.”

The OGL states, “You may use any authorized version of this License.” What if Wizards simply declared current version of the license “unauthorized,” and then replaced the OGL with a new version containing terms that favored the company? Wizards prepared a FAQ that explained, “OGL 1.0a only allows creators to use ‘authorized’ versions of the OGL which allows Wizards to determine which of its prior versions to continue to allow use of when we exercise our right to update the license. As part of rolling out OGL 2.0, we are deauthorizing OGL 1.0a from future use and deleting it from our website. This means OGL 1.0a can no longer be used to develop content for release.”

The new OGL license required publishers to register their products, demanded royaties from larger publishers, and enabled Wizards to revoke the new agreement. Wizards surely knew such a move would meet resistance from the D&D community, but they made some allowances to minimize criticism.

  • The new OGL introduced some high-minded changes such as rules that prohibited material that is “blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, trans-phobic, bigoted or otherwise discriminatory.” Wizards undoubtedly supported such additions, but they also gave the company a way to claim that the new agreement came from noble goals. In a FAQ, Wizards states, “OGL wasn’t intended to fund major competitors and it wasn’t intended to allow people to make D&D apps, videos, or anything other than printed (or printable) materials for use while gaming. We are updating the OGL in part to make that very clear.”
  • The new OGL only demanded royalties from the few companies who grossed more than $750,000 on D&D-comparable products. Wizards probably hoped that this would leave the vast number of D&D creators with no cause for complaint. That proved a miscalculation, perhaps because most D&D creators eyeing a million-dollar Kickstarter think, someday that could be my project.
  • The high-royalty rates in the new OGL only represented an opening offer in a negotiation. In late 2022 Wizards gathered about 20 third-party creators to outline the new OGL and to offer 15% royalty rate rather than 25% to publishers willing to sign a separate agreement. For growing companies, the OGL promised, “If You appear to have achieved great success…from producing OGL: Commercial content, We may reach out to You for a more custom (and mutually beneficial) licensing arrangement.”

Likely Wizards executives hoped big publishers would come to terms before the new OGL became public, smaller publisher and fans would consider themselves unaffected by the OGL, and any lingering objections would be forgotten. They miscalculated. A draft of the new OGL leaked, igniting a firestorm of criticism.

For eight days, Wizard’s avoided commenting on the leak. According to insiders, the company’s managers saw fans as overreacting and calculated that in a few months everyone would forget the uproar. The company drafted a FAQ they hoped would soothe fans and help speed acceptance.

Meanwhile, many of the biggest OGL publishers announced plans to drop the OGL or to introduce their own gaming licenses for their product. A fan-led campaign to send a clear message to Wizards by canceling D&D Beyond subscriptions went viral. So many gamers went to the site to stop payments that the traffic temporary shutdown the page. The story reached mainstream news.

Wizards of the Coast got the message. They scrambled to make accommodations, first by promising to remove the most onerous provisions from the new license, and then by committing to keep the existing OGL. Ultimately, Wizards put the Systems Reference Document for D&D 5.1 into the Creative Commons using a perpetual, irrevocable open license agreement outside the company’s control.

Related: The Legal Fight Over Happy Birthday and What It May Tell Us About D&D’s Rumored OGL 1.1

Next: Number 2.

How Shadowdark Delivers Old-School D&D Intensity With Modern Game Mechanics

The Shadowdark game by Kelsey Dionne of The Arcane Library bills itself as delivering old school gaming with modernized mechanics. Shadowdark hardly rates as the first game with this approach. Into the Unknown (2019) boasts 5E compatibility combined with old-school mechanisms such as “morale, reaction rolls, random encounters, gold for XP, and henchmen.” Still, with a Kickstarter closing in on a million dollars, Shadowdark stands as an unprecedented success.

I played Lost Citadel of the Scarlet Minotaur, an adventure from the Shadowdark free quickstart set, and marveled at how well the game duplicated so much of the charm of D&D in 1974—except with zero confusion over inches, initiative, and what Gary Gygax meant by writing that elves could “freely switch class whenever they choose.” Make that year 1975; Shadowdark has thieves.How does Shadowdark create the experience of early fantasy gaming with rules that echo fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, from the ability score bonuses, to advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration?

Death always seems near

In my Shadowdark party, two characters started with 1 hp and one had 2. Sixty percent of the group would likely drop from a single hit! Those rock bottom numbers come from the game’s randomly rolled hit points and from the lowly stats that result from rolling 3d6 in order. My character suffered a -2 Constitution adjustment. To be fair, Shadowdark offers PCs one advantage over brown box D&D. Characters who drop to 0 can be revived. But stabilizing a character takes a DC 15 check and spells often fail, so forget the popular fifth-edition strategy of just letting characters drop to 0 before healing because damage beyond 0 heals for free.

This risk of sudden death gives Shadowdark a sense of peril that I’ve never felt in a fifth-edition game. That makes for a tense, exciting game.

Treasure is the goal

Shadowdark awards experience points for treasure gained and not for monsters slain. This mirrors the original D&D game, which awarded characters much more experience for winning gold than for killing monsters.

D&D players could take their characters anyplace they chose, but the XP-for-gold mechanic rewarded them for risking the dungeon crawls that made the original game irresistible fun. The lure of gold joined priests and rogues, law and chaos, together with a common goal. Plus the quest for treasure resonated with players. Gary wrote, “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.

Battle becomes a last resort

In addition to rewarding players for seeking fun, the XP-for-gold system offers another benefit: It creates a simple way to award experience points for succeeding at non-combat challenges. As a new character, potentially with 1 hit point, you stand little chance of leveling through combat. Players joke that D&D is about killing things and taking their stuff, but in the original game and in Shadowdark, you are better off using your wits to take stuff. So long as your cunning leads to gold, you get experience.

In modern D&D games, fights routinely drag on until one side is wiped out, often because monsters that surrender or run can spoil the fun unless dungeon masters cope with the hassles of broken morale. To most D&D players, an escape feels like a loss, and nobody likes to lose. But when battle is a dangerous setback in a quest for treasure, monsters who break and run give players a quick and welcome victory. Shadowdark offers morale rolls that make fights quick and unpredictable.

Wandering monsters quicken the pace

Wandering monsters can improve D&D play, mainly by giving players a sense of urgency. Gary recommended “frequent checking for wandering monsters” as a method to speed play. In a perilous game like Shadowdark, players can slow the game with meticulous play, searching everything, checking everything, accomplishing nothing. But the game’s wandering monsters turn time into danger. Every passing minute gives foes more chances to find the party. Wandering monsters rarely carry loot and the XP reward that it brings, so idle characters just face danger with scant reward. Players keep moving, risking the next room in search for treasure.

Players choose their difficulty

In the early D&D game, players chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level of the dungeon corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—as they went deeper. This system gives players a choice they rarely get in today’s D&D, and it adds a element of strategy. To lure characters to danger, the 1974 game doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. (See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.)

The Shadowdark quick start game doesn’t explain this approach, but the structure is there. Treasure and XP rewards escalate as characters rise in level, coaxing players to delve as far down as they dare.

This design frees DMs from the burden of designing encounters that make players feel challenged without killing characters. Instead, players decide on the risks they dare to face, and if an encounter proves unbeatable, players can run. After all, skilled players avoid fights.

Success requires conserving resources and planning for escape

In the 1975 Greyhawk supplement to D&D, the 6th-level cleric spell find the path focused on escaping dungeons. “By means of this spell the fastest and safest way out of a trap, maze, or wilderness can be found.” In the original books, the sample tricks and traps aimed to get PCs lost in the dungeon where wandering monsters and dwindling resources might finish a party. When Gary’s shifting rooms and unnoticed slopes made the PCs hopelessly lost, find the path offered a way out. (See Spells that let players skip the dungeons in Dungeons & Dragons.)

Shadowdark includes rules that make dungeons as risky as the underworlds that made find the path merit a 6th-level spell. All characters need light to see, so the guide explains, “In this game, a torch only holds back the pressing darkness for one hour of real-world time. There isn’t a moment to waste when the flames are burning low.” In darkness, the characters suffer disadvantage and wandering monsters rush to prey on the vulnerable.

A supply of torches and other light sources become essential, and the tracking the supply becomes more than bookkeeping. The game boasts a simple encumbrance system that matches the one Runequest offered as an old-school innovation in 1978. Characters can carry one item per point of strength. Torches and other light sources fill those precious inventory slots.

Shadowdark also lifts the burden of totaling time in the dungeon by dropping 10-minute turns in favor of the simple method of making 1 hour of play equal 1 hour in the dungeon. This speeds play by spurring players to act with the same urgency as their characters.

In the game I played, as we lit our last torches, we knew we only had an hour to escape the dungeon with our loot. And the wandering monsters made that escape no sure thing. This made our run to the exit as tense as our descent into the underworld.

Ability checks become unusual

Some gamers say that ability checks make modern D&D less fun. These fans of an older style prefer a game where instead of rolling perception to spot a trap door, characters tap the floor with their 10-foot pole.

Shadowdark includes D&D’s modern rules for d20 ability checks, but the game favors an old-school reluctance to make checks. The Game Master Guide recommends “giving players the opportunity to make decisions that rely on their creativity and wits, not on their dice rolls or stat bonuses.”

Faced with a challenge, players must observe and interact with the game world. Instead of scanning their character sheet for solutions, players rely on their wits and ingenuity. Ideally, the game tests player skill more than character stats.

Characters develop through play.

Before starting my Shadowdark game with my 1 hp character, I joked that I’d just finished writing his 8-page backstory. For modern D&D games, I appreciate players who invest in backstories; for a 1 hp character, such a document is pure folly. Instead, the story of a Shadowdark character evolves from playing the game and from the random luck of the die. Starting with characters rolled using 3d6 in order, Shadowdark asks players and GMs alike to surrender control to the dice. Forget planning a story and nudging characters along. Things like wandering monsters and morale rolls take the game into into an unknowable future. Even when characters advance, they roll their hit points and new talents. This trades the fun of building characters in favor of the challenge of playing a character that fate and the dice delivered. Characters stories begin and end as part in the shared story everyone experienced at the game table. (See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.)

Modern mechanics

With so many nods to the D&D of 1975, why play Shadowdark instead? The game gains from a foundation built on the fifth edition rules and the nearly 50 years of innovation in the modern game.

So Shadowdark includes cyclical initiative instead of a reference to a system that only appeared in the Chainmail rules.

In the original D&D game, ability scores hardly mattered. Characters with a high score in the most important ability for their class might get at 10% bonus to XP, but otherwise the scores meant little more than a +1 on certain attacks.

In the Blackmoor campaign that led to D&D, Dave Arneson used ability scores as the basis of tests that resemble modern saving throws or ability checks. “Players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, to see if they were successful at an attempt,” writes Blackmoor scholar D. H. Boggs. However, when Gary penned the D&D rules, he lost that effect. Gary favored estimating the odds and improvising a roll to fit. Now, GMs and player alike prefer a clearer system for deciding whether a character succeeds. The d20 mechanic delivers that transparency. (See How Dungeons & Dragons Got Its Ability Scores and Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D.)

Rather than the system of ranges and movement in inches that made sense to a tiny audience of miniature wargamers fluent in inches on a sand table, Shadowdark puts distances into close (5 feet), near (up to 30 feet), and far (within sight during an encounter or scene). You can still play on a grid, but narrative battles play fine too.

Gary’s early games would sometimes put as many as 20 players into a party. The 1975 D&D tournament at Origins gathered parties of 12 for a trip into the Tomb of Horrors. Such large parties designated a caller to speak for the group. Nowadays, gamers speak for themselves. In Shadowdark, everyone takes turns, even outside of combat. No one feels like a spectator. Disciplined parties avoid scattering and becoming easy prey for wandering monsters.

As for elves switching classes, Shadowdark opts for the the 1979 innovation of separating race and class, and the 2020-something innovation of calling “race” something else (ancestry).

As a mix of old and new, Shadowdark lands in a good place.

Fourth Edition Improved D&D Design For Good, But One of Its Innovations Still Leads to Bad Adventures

Some gamers say that ability checks make D&D less fun. These fans of an older style of Dungeons & Dragons prefer a game where instead of rolling perception to spot a trap door, characters tap the floor with their 10-foot pole. I like that style of play just fine, but I like ability checks too. Making a successful check gives me fleeting satisfaction. Checks give a clearer way of deciding success than the method Gary Gygax used in 1974. (He estimated the odds and improvised a roll.) Plus, rolled checks add a random element that can bring surprises, especially to DMs who call for a check despite being unprepared for failure.

Still, ability checks lack enough entertainment value to carry a D&D game. I know because lately I’ve played too many published and organized play adventures that leaned hard on ability checks for any amusement. I would share examples, but I’ve forgotten them.

Adventure designers hoping to plan fun D&D sessions sometimes string ability checks together into encounters, travel sequences, and even adventures, but those batches of ability checks just turn into forgettable games. I understand the temptation that leads to a reliance on ability checks. Dreaming up obstacles that characters can overcome with checks seems effortless. Traveling through the woods? How about a survival check. Talking to the innkeeper? Give me a diplomacy check. I could do this all day, and my game session only lasts a few hours. Inventing challenges that players need to overcome with their own ingenuity proves much more work. Besides, we DMs would all rather focus on the story behind challenges.

The fun of D&D comes from immersing in the role of a character, and from making decisions and seeing the results in the game world. But ability checks tend to eliminate the players’ decisions from the game. So one of the dungeon’s diabolical challenges just becomes a Wisdom (Perception) check followed by an Dexterity check. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “Roleplaying can diminish if players feel that their die rolls, rather than their decisions and characterizations, always determine success.” Ability checks challenge characters while leaving players idle. “Today we’re playing White Plume Mountain. Everyone roll an ability check and tell me how your success helped the party win one of the three magic weapons.”

Some roleplaying games feature rules that make checks reveal character. Such mechanics allow talented experts to flaunt their skills, but in D&D, the d20 tends to make skilled, talented characters seem inconsistent or inept. A single d20 yields numbers like 1 and 20 as frequently as middle numbers, so D&D tests rolled on a d20 often result in the extreme numbers that cause experts to botch checks and the untrained and untalented to luck into success. In D&D worlds, the mighty barbarian fails to open a pickle jar, and then hands it to the pencil-necked wizard who easily opens the lid. (For help making the most of swingy d20 tests, see
How to Turn D&D’s Swingy d20 Checks Into a Feature That Can Improve Your Game.)

The joy of the d20 comes from how the die delivers extreme swings that can add surprising twists to a game session. This merit also means that game challenges built around bunches of skill checks play like a series of coin flips.

The most engaging adventures challenge players to

Adventure designers don’t deserve the blame for thinking ability checks can sustain a fun adventure. The fault lies with fourth edition and its skill challenges.

Ability checks entered Dungeons & Dragons 6 years after the game’s debut, and then checks took twenty more years to become a core mechanic. See (Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D.) Even when third edition settled on a core d20 check mechanic, adventures rarely made batches of checks into a focus until fourth edition and its skill challenges reached gamers.

Skill challenges satisfied three design goals.

  • To give the non-combat parts of the game the same mechanical rigor as the fights. This helped refute the notion that all the rules for combat proved D&D was just a game about fighting. Plus the designers felt that if they “made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.” (See How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal.)
  • To make the DM’s role undemanding. Casual DMs could simply buy an adventure, read the boxed text, and then run a sequence of skill challenges and combat encounters. In a skill challenge, the DM just had to decide if a skill helped the players—but only when the challenge’s description neglected to list a skill in advance.
  • To avoid frustrating players who struggled to overcome an obstacle. Without checks, D&D challenges could sometimes lead to players becoming stuck, especially if a DM focused on one “correct” action required to overcome an obstacle. Fourth edition attempted to eliminate such frustrations by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills.

None of these goals aimed to add fun for the players, although players who dislike puzzles may approve of the third benefit. Tip: If players dislike brain teasers, skip those challenges or let stuck players make Intelligence rolls for hints. If everyone rolls, someone virtually always succeeds.

Ability checks aren’t much fun. I enjoyed fourth and as the designers say without fourth there would never be a fifth, but its skill challenges created the myth that a series of ability checks offer enough fun to sustain a game, and that myth has led to some dull games.

When the game emphasizes character skill, the players never need to make meaningful decisions or engage the game world. They just look at their character sheet for the best applicable skill. I suppose this improves on playing guess-the-solution-I-thought-of with an inflexible DM, but picking a skill and rolling is much less fun than D&D can be.

Related: My account of the story of fourth edition starts with The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice.

D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter

The skill challenge: good intentions, half baked

Player skill without player frustration

How to Turn D&D’s Swingy d20 Checks Into a Feature That Can Improve Your Game

Dungeons & Dragons uses d20 rolls to randomly determine success and failure. A single d20 yields extreme numbers like 1 and 20 as frequently as middle numbers, and this shapes the game. In the real world, experts attempting routine tasks rarely fail and novices making a first try rarely succeed. But D&D tests rolled on a d20 often lead experts to botch checks and the untrained and untalented to luck into success. The d20 often makes experts look inept, defying everyday experience.

Seeking a better match with reality, some roleplaying game designers create games with core mechanics that total the results of multiple dice. This creates a bell-shaped curve of probabilities that makes the highest and lowest numbers rare, and lets players build heroes that show the sort of reliable competence we see in fiction.

Meanwhile, in D&D worlds, the mighty barbarian fails to open a pickle jar, and then hands it to the pencil-necked wizard who easily opens the lid. Such outcomes feel wrong, but with the right mindset, that swingy d20 can become a storytelling feature rather than a bug.

To start, as a DM, don’t ask the barbarian for a check to open the damn jar. “Remember that dice don’t run your game—you do,” explains the Dungeon Master’s Guide. “At any time, you can decide that a player’s action is automatically successful.” This means skipping rolls on tasks “so easy and so free of conflict and stress that there should be no chance of failure.” For best results, rate “easy” generously. Let talented or skilled characters skip the rolls where only a comical fumble would explain failure.

For knowledge and information checks, drop the roll and tell players what their characters should know. I often reveal lore based on characters’ proficiencies and background. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine. This technique works especially well for the information players must learn to continue. Essential backstory feels like a reward for a character’s choices. Players won’t know what knowledge comes from their characters’ aptitude and what you had to reveal to advance the plot.

If everyone at the table rolls a check with the swingy d20, someone usually rolls high. In D&D, letting everyone roll certain checks practically guarantees success. The one wizard proficient in, say, the Arcana skill will seldom roll a better success than every one of the other 4 know-nothings in the party.

For a real test that acknowledges the skilled and talented characters, allow fewer characters to roll. Limit the check to characters with proficiency. This rewards the cleric proficient in religion even if their knowledge is hampered by low Intelligence.

Granting an expert character advantage reduces the chance of an unlikely fumble, and improves the chance that talent will lead to success.

  • Limit a check to the active character, possibly just the person who asked, and then grant advantage based on the party’s advice and assistance. This encourages groups to have the character most suited to a challenge to lead the way.
  • Limit a check to the skilled characters and then grant advantage based on the party’s help. I love when this enables a quiet player to gain the spotlight based on their character’s aptitude.

When someone fumbles a roll, instead of describing the failure in a way that makes the hero or monster seem inept or comical, describe the stumble so the fault comes from tough opposition or an impossible situation. DMs feel tempted to narrate bad rolls for laughs. We can narrate a 1 with a description of how someone’s hat tilted to cover their eyes and gain an easy laugh that feels fun in the moment. But too many descriptions like that turn characters into clowns and their opponents into jokes. Instead, use a 1 to describe a foe’s superhuman speed or the swirling hot ash clogging the air and stinging the heroes’ eyes. When you describe outcomes, even the fumbles, flatter your heroes and monsters.

Despite all these techniques, the d20 brings extreme numbers that create shocking failures and inexplicable successes. To cope, treat the swings as a storytelling challenge to embrace. The dice make us surrender some control, adding the risk that the story won’t go as we plan. Events beyond our control make the game unpredictable and exciting. Savor that.

“As often as possible, I like to stick with whatever the dice tell me, partly because as a DM I love to be surprised,” explains D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford. “I love that sense whenever I sit down at any table where I’m DMing. I don’t actually know what’s going to happen because I don’t know what the dice are going to say. The dice can turn something I thought was going to be a cakewalk into a life or death struggle.”

The dice nudge, and sometimes shove, D&D games out of their expected course. They give D&D games a way to surprise us, and to challenge us to become more creative—to invent storytelling twists we would not have imagined without the random nudge.

Why D&D’s d20 Tests Make Experts Look Inept and How to Make the Best of It

Decades ago, I read game designer Steve Jackson explain why he swapped the d20 to-hit roll in Dungeons & Dragons for the 3d6 roll used in his alternative combat system Melee (1977). Steve considered the 3d6 bell curve so superior that he trashed the d20 without a second thought. His roleplaying games The Fantasy Trip and GURPS use 3d6 core mechanics. Then, I struggled to grasp Steve’s dislike of the d20.

Now, I understand Jackson’s disdain, but I love D&D. Like esteemed game designers such as Jeremy Crawford and Monte Cook, I find reasons to embrace the d20.

In Cook’s designer’s notes for his Numenera RPG, he describes the d20’s flaw. “Using the d20 introduces a great deal of randomness into a game. It’s difficult to use a d20 as a task resolution die and still have character aspects play a big part in success or failure without all of a sudden finding yourself using pretty big numbers.” He gives an example like this: Suppose two archers try to hit a bullseye by rolling a 20 or higher. An untrained person with a decent 12 Dexterity gets +1 and hits 10% of the time. In comparison, a 12th-level ranger trained in the bow and boasting an 18 Dexterity gets a +8, but still only hits the bullseye 45% of the time.

D&D games show this dynamic when the DM asks everyone to roll an Intelligence (Arcana) check to recognize ancient sigils, and then the brainy wizard fails while the barbarian knucklehead succeeds. That outcome may seem funny the first time, but similar scenes play frequently and can feel disappointing. Instead of rewarding the player who chose to make a character good at something, the d20 roll often makes experts look inept.

If D&D used bigger bonuses, then experts would get a boost. Suppose the expert archer gained a +25 and hitting the bullseye required a roll of 30. Now, the sharpshooter feels more like Annie Oakley. But that arrangement makes difficult tasks impossible for unskilled characters when we really want success to become rare.

Instead of using big modifiers, fifth edition’s bounded accuracy uses modest bonuses that give every character a chance of success at the price of making experts inconsistent.

Monte describes an alternative. “Now imagine that you used 2d10 instead. 2d10 gives us a more normal distribution. In other words, you end up with a much better chance of getting a 10 than a 20. Using the same bonuses, the archer still hits the bullseye 45% of the time, but the unskilled guy only 3% of the time. That makes more sense.” With a 2d10-based game, clumsy newcomers at Faerûn athletic competitions luck into fewer medals. (In one of my very first posts, I grappled with a related issue.)

This more natural range of outcomes leads game designer Steffan O’Sullivan to write, “I’m not fond of dice systems with a flat distribution. I’m solidly in the bell-curve camp.” O’Sullivan created the Fudge RPG, which became the basis for the popular Fate system. Both games use a set of four special 6-sided dice marked on two sides with a plus (+), two with a minus (-), and two blanks. “When you need to roll dice in Fate, pick up four Fate dice and roll them. When you read the dice, read every + as +1, every blank as 0, and every – as –1. Add them all together. You’ll get a result from –4 to +4, most often between –2 and +2.” No roll requires counting past 4, so even little kids add the results easily. “The fewer mathematical calculations used to figure out a dice result, the more likely you are to stay in roleplaying,” O’Sullivan writes. “So Fudge Dice were born, and I like them a lot. They’re a joy to use and don’t slow the game down at all, one of my early design goals.” The system’s bell curve makes results of -4 and +4 rare, but possible. So a +4 (1.23%) matches my real-life chance of a bullseye, while an Olympic archer scores a bullseye on any roll better than -4.

Despite the virtues of the bell curve, Monte Cook still opted for a d20 for Numenera and D&D creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson chose the d20 for to-hit rolls and saving throws. The d20 rolls beautifully, it generates a big range of numbers without adding, and the icosahedron feels deliciously different from the bland cubes in countless games like Monopoly. Gygax became particularly enchanted with the exotic new dice from Japan.

Most importantly, d20s yield predictable odds compared to mechanics that combine multiple dice. Monte Cook explains, “If you’re using a system where the GM has to assign a target number for a task, it’s a lot easier to do that on the fly with a d20 than, say 3d6 or 2d10. Why? Because with a d20, the difference between, say, 17 and 18 is the same as the difference between 8 and 9. They’re basically just 5% increments. With a bell curve, that’s a lot harder to figure for the GM, particularly on the fly.”

In 1974, D&D lacked ability checks. To decide between success and failure, Gary Gygax suggested that DMs estimate the chance of success, and then improvise a roll that fits the odds. A d20 roll made the math easy.

Playing D&D means learning to embrace the d20’s swings. To help gamers love the d20, D&D’s current rules architect Jeremy Crawford offered advice on the October 3, 2019 episode of the Dragon Talk podcast. “Any time the d20 is in the mix, that is a swingy die so get ready for the unexpected. What I encourage groups, players and DMs alike to do, is rather than viewing that as something to chafe against or be unhappy about, embrace it as a storytelling opportunity. Over the years, the longer I play D&D and DM D&D, the more I have come to love the unpredictability of the d20, because so often it will create moments that will challenge the DM and the players to really stretch their storytelling ability to come up with a fun reason for why this transpired. Why did the ace rogue who triggered this battle, why did she end up going last?

“When the d20 throws you a curve ball, catch it and follow through with the curve. Just see where it leads you rather than saying, ‘this is dumb’ or ‘this isn’t how it should play out.’ No, in D&D, what the d20 does is really showing how this is going to play out. Let’s ride it and see where this craziness goes.”

If I were magically transported back to a version of 1974 that somehow lacked Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, would my attempt to bring dungeons and dragons to the world use a d20? I might choose Fudge Dice, but I would never stop giving those new icosahedrons from Japan forlorn looks.

Related: D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter
When You Describe Outcomes, Flatter Your Game’s Heroes and Monsters
In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

The 5 Unwritten Goals of the One D&D Rules Update

Six months before then D&D head Ray Winninger announced an new set of Dungeons & Dragons core books for 2024, I predicted the update. I based my prediction on a declaration from the D&D team, which made their top priority “making D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible.”

To reach that goal, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything featured a new way to distribute ability scores. “This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.” New books portrayed “all the peoples of D&D in relatable ways, making it clear that they are as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.”

But the 2014 core books still showed an outdated approach, so when the D&D team wrote, “Our priority is to make things right,” predicting new core books seemed easy. I wrote, “By the end of 2022, Wizards of the Coast will release a new version of the Player’s Handbook that revisits the old ability score adjustments in favor of the more flexible version.”

The rest of my prediction proved wrong, because I expected a speedy, modest update that simply added Tasha’s rules for ability scores and replaced some troublesome spells, class features, and so on with the improved versions already printed in newer books.

Wandering Troubadour by Rudy Siswanto

Given fifth edition’s continuing growth, such a careful update seemed sensible. New editions fuel a surge of sales as a game’s existing fans replace their books, but they also lose players who choose not to leave their game mastery and their investment in old books. The worst case of a new edition follows the path of fourth edition, where as much as half of the player base split to play Pathfinder, a game that felt more like D&D to its fans. Hypothetically, a disastrous One D&D release could strangle D&D’s burgeoning growth. In D&D management’s nightmare, Matt Mercer dislikes One D&D and opts to stream Critical Role games based on his own fifth edition offshoot called Mattfinder.

Nonetheless, the One D&D playtest packets suggest changes that resemble a new edition. What explains the bolder update that has players using the word “sixth,” even if no one on the D&D team dares?

Some gamers say a major update will sell more books, and that might be true for a replacement to a stagnant edition. A mature roleplaying game with shelves of rule expansions can intimidate potential players, because they feel like they could never catch up. A new edition feels more welcoming. But fifth edition avoided flooding game store shelves with new rules, opting for adventures and settings instead. Besides, the edition continues to gain players at an unprecedented rate.

Anyway, a careful refresh would have led millions of gamers to replace the books already on their shelves, vaulting a trio of D&D books to the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists. Such an update would skip One D&D’s 18-month playtest or any risk of slowing sales as some gamers spend 18 months avoiding purchases ahead of the new release.

Some gamers suspect that the designers aim to create a game that works better online. After all, One D&D includes a Digital Play Experience that “will be a virtual play space that allows Dungeon Masters to create truly immersive campaigns and players to enjoy a D&D experience where we offload a lot of the rules referencing.” Offloading “referencing” could mean nothing more than what players gain from D&D Beyond, but a virtual tabletop would probably add automation like attack buttons that roll to hit and total damage. A few playtest rules would prove easier to automate. For example, the Hide action simplifies sneaking to just a DC 15 Dexterity Check (Stealth). That rule’s programmer can take an early lunch.

Still, just as many playtest rules replace a rule easy for computers with one easier for humans. For example, the Special Speeds rule eliminates the math of mixing flying and climbing with regular movement. No computer struggles with the old math. The Jump action seems designed to free designer Jeremy Crawford from explaining how to include a jump in a Move action. Computers could handle the original rule effortlessly. I see no signs that the revision systematically favors play on a VTT. It systematically favors sparing Jeremy from answering the same damn questions about sneaking. Some changes match the game rules to the way players misunderstand the 2014 rules. This category includes changes like eliminating critical hits for attack spells and making Heroic Inspiration a re-roll.

Lead designer Jeremy Crawford says he keeps a list of pain points and sources of confusion in D&D. Likely the aggressive One D&D update stems from that list and similar lists from other designers. None of this makes the 2014 edition a bad game, but 8 years of play surfaces ample opportunities for improvement. Happily, based on the playtest, the designers’ lists match most of the pain points I would include in a list of my own—or in my 10 years of blog posts.

So just two playtest packets include improvements to exhaustion, dual-weapon fighting, Hunter’s Mark, Guidance, and much more. All these updates replace rules in the 2014 Player’s Handbook without breaking any of the game’s existing adventures or subsequent character options.

The One D&D team promises new core books compatible with the other fifth edition books. Second edition’s most important goal was “to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed,” and that goal applies to One D&D too. Still, if your definition of “compatible” means new classes and character features that equal the power of the 2014 versions, then One D&D will disappoint you. On average, One D&D characters and feats bring more power, but surely not as much power as some characters optimized for the 2014 rules. When I changed my human fighter with Great Weapon Fighter and Polearm Master to the playtest rules, his power plunged.

So, most of the playtest changes come from 4 goals, listed by importance from the essential number 1 to a number 4 that makes the D&D Sage’s life easier.

  • Make D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible.
  • Keep One D&D compatible with existing adventures and new class options.
  • Fix pain points revealed by 8 years of play.
  • Avoid common questions and points of confusion prompted by the current rules.

The playtest rules show one more goal that I rate as the least important, but with One D&D opening the door to other, vital changes, the designers gain cover for working a fifth goal:

  • Adjust the game to the tastes of the current design team and how they read the tastes of D&D players

For example, the 2014 design team sought to make new characters as simple as possible. This returned to D&D’s 1974 roots. Now, the idea of pairing backgrounds with feats and mechanical benefits clearly enchants Jeremy Crawford. “I’m super excited about this whole approach that we’re taking with backgrounds,” he explains. “It’s all about building your character’s story and making certain meaningful game-mechanic choices that reflect the story you have in mind for your character.” Background-based feats appear in the playtest, but make no mistake, recent D&D products show that this change is already set.

Also, the 2014 design team felt comfortable making 1st-level characters as fragile as soap bubbles. After all, players have little investment in new characters. But today’s players more often lavish creative energy on the background and personality of characters, so the playtest offered a rule making new characters a bit harder to kill by preventing monsters from scoring critical hits. I suspect this critical hit rule tested poorly, so look for different tweaks that make new characters more durable.

I suspect the rules for awarding heroic inspiration on 5% of d20 rolls fits goal 5, although I’m unable to explain what the designers hope to achieve. Perhaps the inspiration rule takes us closer to a game where characters just show off their abilities on the way to easy success. Over 8 years, the design team has shown less and less appetite for letting characters fail.

Perhaps I could do without goal number 5, but the D&D team would say that if a change fails to match the tastes of D&D players, then playtest feedback will block it.

The One D&D Playtest: Big and Small Surprises and Why I Like the Controversial Critical Hit Rule

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons started as a game with a strong foundation, strong enough that when I imagined changes that would best improve the game, I just wished for replacements for the annoying spells, overpowered feats, and toothless monsters—the game’s features atop the foundation.

The D&D team agrees. “We did a smart thing with fifth edition by listening to the fans and what came out of that process was a system that is stable, that is well loved, that incorporates the best elements of earlier editions.” Designer Chris Perkins says. “Now that we have that, we are no longer in a position where we think of D&D as an edition. It’s just D&D.”

The D&D team started fixing trouble spots years ago. For example, newer books like Xanathar’s Guide To Everything revisits the rules for downtime with a more evolved take. Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything includes the most updates, with a new way to assign ability score bonuses, alternatives to game-stopping summoning spells, and new beast master companions that strengthen the ranger archetype. The changes improve the game without invalidating anything in the 2014 Player’s Handbook. (See D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books.)

In 2024, the D&D team will release new core books, making that 2014 Player’s Handbook obsolete. In a way, this 2024 update resembles the jump between first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and second edition. In the 80s when designers started work on second edition, copies of first edition adventures and books like Oriental Adventures were staying in print and selling well for years. TSR management wanted to keep those evergreen products earning, so they required that second edition remain broadly compatible with first. Second edition’s most important goal was “to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed.” Of course, first edition had already seen changes and new options would continue to evolve second edition. (See The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition.)

For the next 12 to 18 months, the D&D design team plans to release monthly playtest packets, enabling gamers to sample and provide feedback on the game’s 2024 release. “You’re going to be able to use all of these playtest docs with your existing core books,” says designer Jeremy Crawford. “We’ve designed these docs so you can take each one, and other than the places where we tell you here’s an update, all of this material works with the core books you already have.”

The D&D team emphasizes how the new release will just build on the game we play today. Their claim and my feeling that the game’s foundation is good leads to the playtest package’s biggest surprise: The document makes changes to rules such as critical hits and conditions—changes at D&Ds foundation. Make no mistake: I’m fine with these changes and the package convinces me that the designers will improve the game.

The changes to D&D’s foundation hide in the packet’s unremarkable sounding “Rules Glossary.” Roleplaying game design often means making choices between the benefits and drawbacks of a particular choice. To weigh the choices revealed by the playtest, I like looking at both sides of this equation. My listing of the drawbacks of a choice doesn’t mean I wouldn’t choose the same.

Critical Hits rate as the candy of D&D. No one ever accused D&D co-creator Gary Gygax of giving players too much candy, and he hated crits. (See page 61 of the original Dungeon Masters Guide.) Like candy, crits give joy, but they’re also bad for us, and especially bad for our new characters. Forget bugbears and goblins; blame most new character deaths on a natural 20. First-level characters lack enough hit points to survive the extra damage. D&D’s designers aim for a game that makes players feel like characters can die while rarely actually killing them. (Some gamers enjoy a more dangerous game, but fifth edition needs optional rules to cater to that taste.) Removing crits helps D&D avoid wasting new characters, but we love our candy, so the test rules allow only player characters to score crits—a change that would have appalled Gary. I like it.

As a DM who speeds play by using average monster damage, monster crits add extra friction. That 20 interrupts my flow and forces me to hunt for damage dice to roll and total. (Yeah, I know I could find a short cut.) A crit and a miss deal less damage than two hits, so the slowdown adds little to play.

Some folks complain that not letting monsters crit makes them too weak, and I’m sympathetic because D&D’s mid- and high-level monsters are too weak, and I’ve complained as much as anyone. But the fix comes from much more damage than the occasional critical hit delivers. Hopefully, the 2024 Monster Manual will deliver the power bump foes need.

The test critical hit rule also affects players. Spell attacks no longer deal crits. This just brings the rule in line with what new players expect: Only weapon attacks and unarmed strikes crit. We D&D enthusiasts can master this change.

The new critical rule also changes the damage formula: Only weapon damage dice get doubled. The designers probably aimed to weaken characters designed to farm criticals with feats like Elven Accuracy. The new formula hinders paladins and rogues by eliminating doubled smite and sneak attack damage. Paladins rate as one of the game’s strongest classes, so this change helps bring them down to Oerth. Rogues suffer more from losing a double sneak attack damage.

Still, in D&D specific rules beat a general rule. The critical rule works like this in general, but a class like rogue might gain a feature that adds additional damage to crits. If that feature worked for melee attacks and not ranged attacks, then it would help make up for the inferiority of melee-focused rogues. A guy can dream.

Rolling a 20. Another change deals monsters a more serious blow than losing critical hits. Based on the new rules for rolling a 20 and inspiration, characters will rarely fail saving throws. Now players gain inspiration whenever they roll 20 on an ability check, saving throw, or an attack roll. Players gain more fun candy for their high rolls. If you already have inspiration, you can pass the award to another character. “We wanted a way to feed people inspiration through the system itself. What the system is intentionally doing is encouraging you to use the inspiration.” Dream on. Inspiration proves so much more valuable for saving throws that I plan to continue hoarding it until I need to make a save. I suspect this will bring my characters closer to never failing a save. When I run games, players like me who hoard inspiration make monsters much less fun to run because characters rarely fail a save and so many monster abilities amount to “Action: Waste a turn while every single character laughs off your biggest threat.” At tables using the widespread house rule that lets players spend inspiration to re-roll, the heroes’ edge grows even stronger.

Instead of the players fighting ice cold dice who could use a lift, the inspiration-on-a-20 mechanic awards more success to the character already rolling 20s. Perhaps if a 20 let you inspire another character in the party, the rule would feel better.

Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings about the inspiration-on-a-20 rule. As a player, I love rolling natural 20s and hate failing saves. But even more, I love challenges that press my characters to the limit.

Ability score bonuses. The playtest’s update to ability score improvements rates at the playtest’s least surprising change. Now instead of pairing each race with set of ability score bonuses that reinforce a fantasy archetype, every player chooses where to put a +2 and a +1 bonus, or alternately three +1 bonuses.

Since first edition AD&D, each race has gained ability score modifiers that match the fantasy archetypes of robust dwarves, agile elves, and so on. This started back when everyone rolled characters at random and when good play meant making the most of whatever the dice gave you.

Now most players build characters to match their tastes, so ability score bonuses limit freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes. Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. Sure, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are imaginary species, but they become relatable reflections of us in the game world. After all, imaginary halflings, I mean hobbits, just started as Tolkien’s stand-ins for ordinary folks.

Setting ability scores should require just one step: Assign the scores you want to suit your character. Instead, the current design asks players to assign scores and add bonuses as separate steps, likely adding some back-and-forth friction as players find the right values. I would like to see a process that folds the two steps into one. That would work easiest if the game simply offered a few standard arrays of scores with the ability score bonuses included.

Feats at first level. Originally, the fifth-edition designers sought to make new characters as simple as possible. This returned to D&D’s 1974 roots. Then, characters just started with 6 ability scores and a class. Characters developed in play. Those simple characters proved especially easy for new players. You could immerse yourself in your role and play without knowing the rules. If you’re a hero with a sword and a monster charges, then you know your options: talk fast, hit it, or run. Now text like “a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus” weighs races, 1st-level feats, and classes. If you’re coaching a new player, prepare to explain “proficiency bonus.”

The playtest rules make a new character’s history feel more important by bolstering it with mechanics. “I’m super excited about this whole approach that we’re taking with backgrounds,” says Jeremy Crawford. “It’s all about building your character’s story and making certain meaningful game-mechanic choices that reflect the story you have in mind for your character.” Or instead, you can take the Lucky feat.

For new players, the added “game-mechanic choices” risk making the game feel overwhelming. Maybe that’s fine. New players confronted with a pregenerated character always find it overwhelming, but the end of the session, they typically feel comfortable with the basics.

The designers seem enchanted by the phrase “a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus,” but I wish fewer feats added things to track.

The playtest feats include a change that strike me as ingenious. Each feat includes a level. “One of the ways to make sure that feat selection is not overwhelming is to break feats up into smaller groups, and one of the ways that were doing that is with levels.” Credit Pathfinder second edition for adding this innovation first.

Grappling. The playtest changes the rules for grappling. Now, if your Unarmed Strike hits versus AC, then you can grapple the target. Likely this change aims to make grappling for characters work like all the monsters that grapple by hitting a target. Starting a grapple with an attack strikes me as odd because it defies a fifth edition design principle.

Fifth-edition designer Mike Mearls once explained that to determine whether to use an attack roll or a save, designers asked, “Would a suit of plate mail protect from this?” Armor protects against darts, scythes, and so on, so traps using such hazards make attacks. Poisonous fumes, lightning, and mind blasts all ignore armor, so targets make saves. Attacks to grapple fail this test. Surely though, rules for saves to avoid a grapple would add more complexity than the designers want. Besides, D&D hardly needs another reason to favor Dexterity over Strength.

7 Discarded D&D Rules That Could Still Improve the Game

Past editions of Dungeons & Dragons include many, many rules that fifth edition drops. No one misses racial level caps, any of the old grappling rules, or the unplayable AD&D initiative system. But old editions also included rules that improved the game, often in subtle ways. Some might have improved the fifth edition. Still, the D&D designers dropped each rule for a reason, but did they make the right choices?

1. Add the bloodied condition

Fourth edition included a bloodied condition triggered when creatures lost half their hit points. The designers likely dropped bloodied because it seemed to offer too little benefit to merit the weight of another condition. Besides, DMs hardly need a rule to describe the status. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “You can describe a monster taken to half its hit points as bloodied, giving the players a sense of progress in a fight against a tough opponent, and helping them judge when to use their most powerful spells and abilities.”

But the bloodied condition added more than a sense of progress. The bloodied condition can trigger extra abilities that show a creature’s rage or desperation, adding a useful way to bring a second stage to boss battles. Just as a showdown settles into a familiar pattern, a bloodied monster could gain new powers, transforming to add new excitement. The bloodied trigger proved so irresistible that the D&D designers designed something similar when they gave some high-level monsters the mythic trait. “If you wish to increase a battle’s stakes, though, using a monster’s mythic trait results in some mid-battle twist that changes the way the monster behaves, restores its resources, or provides it with new actions to use.” The bloodied condition could enhance monsters of all levels.

2. Limit hit point increases after 10th level

By the time fifth edition D&D characters near level 10, few monsters inflict enough damage to seem threatening. Obviously, DMs can still create challenging encounters by adding more and more dangerous monsters, but that solution can prolong battles, turning exciting fights into grinds.

The obvious fix to high-level creatures and their feeble damage is to make monsters’ attacks deal more damage. This adds challenge, but it makes concentration spells much weaker.

What if the solution doesn’t come from the monsters? What if characters at double-digit levels just have too many hit points? If high-level characters had fewer hit points, high-level monsters with their puny attacks would suddenly become a bit more threatening. Lower-level monsters could pose more of a threat to high-level heroes without becoming too dangerous to low-level characters. High-level PCs would still rip through weak foes, but the survivors could deal enough damage to seem dangerous rather than laughable.

Lower hit points at high levels would suit the reality that characters typically enter every fight at maximum health. In more battles, foes would seem like credible opponents.

Up to D&D’s third edition, when D&D characters reached level 9 or so, they started gaining hit points at a much slower rate. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, fighters rising above 9th level gained 3 hit points per level with no bonus for constitution. Other classes gained even fewer points. Continuing to let characters gain a full hit die plus a constitution bonus at every level defies D&D’s origins.

In a fifth edition version of this rule, after level 10, barbarians that gain d12 hp per level would only gain 3 hp, d10 classes like fighter would gain 2 hp, d8 classes like cleric would gain 1 hp, and wizards would gain 0 hp. High-level wizards get plenty of goodies to make the difference.

Suppose Gary Gygax had hit points right all along. Would D&D play better if characters stopped gaining so many after level 9? For more, see Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points?.

3. Award skills for high Intelligence

In modern D&D, Intelligence vies with Strength as the most common stat where players dump their characters’ lowest ability score. See Should PC Intelligence Matter? Of the classes in the Player’s Handbook , only wizard requires Intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. Unlike in earlier editions, high Intelligence no longer brings more skills or even languages, contributing to the attribute’s low value.

The D&D designers found good reasons to stop awarding smart characters more skills. Fifth edition awards skills based on background instead. This emphasizes the importance of a character’s history by pairing it with mechanical benefits. By ignoring Intelligence, the designers let every character gain enough skills to get ample mechanical benefits based on their history. Besides, if Intelligence led to even more skills, wizards would check almost every box and those brainiacs show off enough.

If the game awarded fewer skills based on background, class, and race, and awarded more skills based on Intelligence, then Intelligence would switch from an easy place to dump a score of 8 to a worthwhile choice.

4. Require some recovery period after dropping to 0 hp

In first edition, characters reduced to 0 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.”

All that rest seems too limiting for a heroic game, but fifth edition not only lacks any consequences for reaching death’s door, the game offers a sort of reward. Players intent on wringing every advantage from the rules will only heal characters when they drop to 0 hp, 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.

The remedy ranks as one of fifth edition’s most popular house rules: Characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion.

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.

Players gain an incentive to heal their allies before anyone drops to 0, losing the incentive to let party members drop and revive in a macabre dance.

5. Require magic ammunition to overcome resistance

When you blog about D&D long enough you gain a limited ability to see the future. So when I post, I can predict many of the comments. For example, if I gripe about an overpowered character feature, some readers will advise countering by giving foes the same capability. As if players would return for a campaign where every monster took the Sharpshooter feat.

If I gripe that the fifth edition rules make archers too effective, readers will remind me that historically, bows do beat swords. Weapons that let you poke holes from a distance always rule. For example, polearms also beat swords. Still, thanks to millennia of promotion by a ruling class of men on horses with swords, we romanticize swords and most D&D players favor them over polearms.

Like punching monks and loincloth-wearing barbarians, D&D gives swords and other melee weapons a boost to make fun but fanciful characters attractive options.

Still, the boost falls short. The rules make ranged weapons far better than swords, axes, and such. This imbalance weakens the game. Players choosing swords and spears for their characters must accept weaker characters. Also ranged combat usually proves less fun. Movement and terrain disappears. Instead, characters stand at the door and shoot, tallying damage until the battle ends. I could list more consequences, but I already did.

Fifth edition skips a few rules that made ranged attacks a bit less attractive in past editions.

  • Arrows shot into melee used to suffer a chance of hitting allies.
  • Ranged attacks used to lack a damage bonus based on Dexterity to match the damage bonus melee attacks gained from Strength.
  • To overcome resistance to magic weapons, attackers used to need magic ammunition rather than a magic bow.

The first rule deserves to stay on the scrap heap. Hitting allies hardly feels heroic and the risk creates bad feelings between archers and melee attackers. No one wants to shut down their ranger once the barbarian reaches melee.

As for the second rule, D&D’s math rests on damage bonuses based on Strength or Dexterity. Removing the Dexterity plus for ranged weapon damage would crack the game’s foundation.

The third rule boasts potential. In D&D, ranged martial attacks gain their biggest edge because no one bothers tracking arrows or crossbow bolts. Even if a DM required the chore, a 1 gp quiver of 20 arrows only weighs a pound, so players will argue they can easily carry 20 quivers totaling 400 arrows. Some gamers recommend using toothpicks to track arrows. That’s a lot of toothpicks. But what if only magic ammunition overcame resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks?

Such a rule makes sense; after all, the silver arrow hurts the werewolf, not the silver bow. Even if DMs give out more magic ammo, magic arrows merit counting. At low levels the lack of magic arrows would hardly matter, but as levels rose and more foes brought resistance, a demand for magic arrows would create interesting and realistic resource management choices.

6. Use healing surges or hit dice as a limit to healing

In early D&D editions, limited healing challenged players to carefully manage their hit points and healing spells. Except for days of bed rest, the game offered no easy substitutes for healing spells. Players faced thorny decisions over how to best use their healing resources. Should the party delve deeper into the dungeon toward greater rewards despite the risk of running low on hit points and healing?

Third edition erased that resource management strategy. Even 2nd-level characters could afford enough wands of cure light wounds to completely heal between fights without using a single spell. In modern D&D, inexpensive healing potions create the same effect.

The fourth edition designers aimed to return some of the old resource management strategy to the game. The edition added healing surges to limit the healing characters could use between encounters. Characters had a set number of healing surges. During a short rest, players could spend surges to restore lost hit points, so healing surges worked much like fifth edition’s hit dice. But healing surges also capped the magical healing available to characters. In battle, spells and healing magic like potions let characters trade surges for hit points without stopping to rest. Fourth edition’s treatment of hit points and healing ranks as one of the edition’s best innovations.

Without a limit like healing surges, fifth edition campaigns can’t recapture the slow loss of healing resources and the strategy that limit created.

For a house rule that turns hit dice into a resource more like healing surges, see D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose.

7. Add the dazed condition

The stunned condition brings a harsh penalty. Stunned shuts down a player for a turn or more. A stunned monster can’t take actions, turning a potentially fun battle against a legendary evil into a quick beatdown of a helpless opponent. I’ll roll my damage in advance and go make a snack. The most common source of the stunned condition comes from the monk’s Stunning Strike ability, a power that can turn every boss into a piñata and that tempts DMs to “cheat.” Well-designed monks stun frequently enough to diminish the fun. Other players wind up beating helpless foes while the DM just counts damage and runs monsters with cartoon stars circling their heads.

A redesigned monk that remains fun to play calls for a condition that counts as half stunned, something like fourth edition’s dazed condition. Attacks against dazed creatures gained advantage. On a dazed creature’s turn, they could choose between moving, taking an action, or taking a bonus action. A more fun Stunning Strike ability could daze first and then stun if the dazed creature took a second strike. Such an adjustment would bring Stunning Strike down to the power of the monk’s other abilities that cost ki points. This lesser stunning strike would weaken the monk class, but a bigger allotment of ki points could make up for the change.

Of course, returning the dazed creatures could improve more than the monk. The dazed condition would add flexibility, allowing new character and monster abilities that just won’t work with a condition as punishing as stunned.

How Playing on Streams and at Conventions Sharpens D&D’s Designers

In the 80s into the 90s, I would see convention panels or magazine interviews where game professionals said that their game writing left them no time for game playing. Those writers might admit to an occasional session of Call of Cthulhu—that was the role-playing game the pros played once they felt too mature for bashing monsters in dungeons. But writers of the era’s countless Dungeons & Dragons setting books rarely seemed to play the game much anymore.

Prolific adventure author Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Especially in the third-edition era, some Wizards staff seemed not to play their own game and seldom saw it played. In the Living Greyhawk community (a 3E organized play campaign) there was the sense that a large portion of new rules needed errata solely because the designers weren’t familiar enough with the game to see (obvious) exploits and problems.”

fameFor many of the game products of the time, play experience mattered less. People bought game books to read. RPG writers could succeed by satisfying game readers more than players. See “How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books.”

Speaking in an episode of the Misdirected Mark podcast, veteran RPG freelancer Shawn Merwin said, “One of the criticisms I’ve had in the past of [D&D] staff, especially through third and fourth edition, was that they would sit in Renton, Washington and create this game, but they never really got out and saw how the game was played by the different kinds of fans, or the fans that may play a little bit differently than the designers’ own home games or their games within their company.”

The designers of fifth edition play more with the D&D community, and the edition benefits. “We know that D&D is a big tent,” explains lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford. “Not only do people of many sorts play in the D&D, but also people of many tastes play D&D. We know some people really love heavy improvisational role-playing and other D&D players, for them, that’s all about the tactical nuances of D&D combat, and everything in between.”

Over the past few years, I‘ve seen D&D designers at conventions run games for random tables of Adventurers League players lucky enough to draw the celebrity DM. Speaking in the podcast, Teos Abadia said, “This is a really important thing for Wizards to do. To meet with players and see how players play [the designer’s] game in this kind of environment.”

In a convention game, you will join players who may play differently. “You’re just randomly dipping into the pond to see who ends up at your table and to see how they play the game that you create. And I think that’s very important,” Teos said. “For me as a fan, I want to see Wizards involved with fans in this kind of way as much as possible.”

The D&D designers play with non-designers even more on liveplay streams. “One of my favorite parts of the rise of RPG celebrities running liveplay games is that they have to then play their games with other people,“ Teos writes. “I really think it is fantastic that so many at WotC have run and played in the games.” Of course, streamed play intends to entertain an audience, making these performances different from most D&D sessions—the ones at basements, kitchen tables, or game stores‘ back rooms.

People who think about D&D’s future wonder how livestreams will influence designers to change the rules, and whether streaming should shape the rules. Jeremey Crawford says, “We’re concerned about supporting traditional tabletop play well, but also the types of D&D experiences people have in streams.”

Streaming certainly affects the interests of new players discovering D&D. Traditionally, new D&D players tended to focus on the joy of bashing monsters and developing more powerful characters. Those same new players found acting in character off putting. Before steaming, virtually nobody new to D&D spoke in character. The prospect of adopting a funny voice seemed odd and potentially embarrassing. Now, new players typically want to play the sort of personalities and scenes they see in streams. (In my experience, new players act in character, but they still hesitate to use a funny voices. Perhaps the vocal talents of actors seem unreachable.)

Based on experience running games at conventions, the people guiding D&D’s Adventurers League organized play campaign work harder than ever to accommodate different play styles. The recent League seasons have encouraged authors to welcome the three D&D pillars of exploration, roleplaying interaction, and combat when designing adventures, and to especially consider non-combat answers to encounters. The league’s Ravenloft: Mist Hunters campaign aims to “focus on story, atmosphere, and immersive interaction.”

If you want to write games and adventures for strangers to play, then you benefit from playing with strangers. Every regular group settles into a play style. Do they play recklessly or cautiously? Heroically or ruthlessly? How do they settle conflict between PCs that pull in opposite directions? Regular groups seek activities they all enjoy. A group’s style makes them predictable. When we play long enough in one style, we tend to forget other ways.

DMs who operate in public eventually see groups that defy even the most common customs of D&D. New players love to split the party. Authors with experience as dungeon masters for strangers become better at anticipating what random players might do, and do better at writing scenarios that account for players who veer off the path.

Organized play authors understand the challenges of running an adventure from a text. Their adventures sometimes even include troubleshooting sidebars that help DMs account for actions that threaten to break an adventure.

Every group is different. You can’t play with everyone, but if you want to write games for everyone, you benefit from reaching out to game with random strangers.

This post revists a topic from 2016.