Category Archives: Role-playing game design

XP Versus Milestone Advancement—At Least We Can All Agree That Awarding XP Just for Combat Is Terrible

When Dungeons & Dragons arrived in 1974, players rated experience points (XP) as one of the game’s most irresistible features. Now, all of D&D’s official adventures ignore the experience point system, and the official Adventurers League campaign has dropped XP. See XP started as one of D&D’s breakthrough ideas. Now the designers don’t see the point.

In the place of experience, the official adventures and the league substitute what folks commonly call milestone advancement—leveling after story-driven accomplishments. The Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.261) calls this method story-based advancement.

“I have no quarrel with you sir, but I need the XP.”

Dungeon masters typically favor milestone advancement because it spares them the chore of planning and calculating XP awards. Instead, milestones give DMs lazy and total control over when characters advance.

While DMs dislike accounting for XP, adventure writers hate fitting XP in their designs. Organized play campaigns typically required designers to write their adventures around combat encounters that net a specific number of XP. Some authors met their XP quotas by adding bandit encounters until ambushed by thugs became a cliché of awkward design. Adventure paths pose an even bigger challenge. “Designers have to jam in the ‘correct’ number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace,” writes D&D head Mike Mearls. “Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot.” Designers who wanted fewer fights could add XP awards for accomplishing story goals, but these awards lead to the same outcome as just telling players to level up. Just telling players to take a level skips the math and planning.

Experience points come weighed with another negative: Everyone agrees that the XP system commonly used for D&D’s last 30 years is terrible. Those three decades began when D&D’s second edition stopped awarding experience for winning gold, leaving the notion that characters only gained XP for killing monsters. That has never been strictly true, but players, organized play, and designers most often treated XP-for-slaying as the rule.

D&D builds around three core activities: roleplaying interactions, exploration, and combat. Awarding XP just for monster slaying rewards just one of those pillars. This twisted incentive shapes play. For example, players in the third-edition Living Greyhawk campaign understood that their experience came from killing monsters, so many players felt resigned to solving every problem with violence. You might be able to succeed through stealth or diplomacy, but only battle guaranteed XP. “I once had a player tell me they were 40 XP short, so they wanted to go kill a few bears,” writes SwampRob. We’ve all known that player.

Erin Adams writes, “As a story-focused player, I’m not a huge fan of XP because it seems to skew the focus towards combat. I enjoy letting the DM decide when it’s time to level up because it often feels like a reward. Leveling after a tough social combat feels just as satisfying as leveling after a boss fight.”

When the Adventurers League stopped counting XP, the administrators cited a desire to support the roleplaying and exploration pillars.

DMs and adventure designers tend to dislike XP because milestones offer an easier route to the same bottom line. But computer games prove how compelling XP feel to players. With every battlefield victory, gamers see their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards keeps gamers hooked. We all love stacking wins and watching our scores rise.

Fifth-edition D&D includes an excellent XP system that allows players to gain points for overcoming challenges and achieving their goals. Characters can gain levels without grinding through combat. But the system still requires some bookkeeping. Do XP feel compelling enough to tabletop players to merit the math? Many players say yes.

Players like how winning XP gives a sense of progress. Nicholas Qualls writes “I enjoy the wrap up at the end of the game to see how well we did, and actually seeing a quantifiable measurement of progress.” Players enjoy anticipating the next level.

Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm describes the positive feedback loop that experience points create. “Growing in power feels good. Making progress with your character feels good. Making progress in the game feels good. Winning feels good. And connecting the extrinsic rewards with the intrinsic good feelings makes everything feel even better.” Some players like to beat monsters, some like to achieve progress in the game, some like to gain power, and some like watching their score zoom higher. Most of us enjoy a mix. Experience points connects all those good feelings into a loop where one joy leads to another. “Everyone gets something out of it. And therefore everyone can celebrate together even if their motives are different.”

XP Gives players a measure of control, which encourages players to take risks that make the game more fun and exciting. Peter James Mann writes, “I find that XP makes everyone at the table gamble for higher rewards, and that end game tally can really be a nail-biter. Unfortunately, milestone advancement has felt a little anticlimactic over time.”

Tom Henderson writes, “It makes me feel like I am actively involved with leveling my character as opposed to having a GM decide when I get to advance.”

XP makes an especially good fit for more open campaigns where characters wander without an overriding narrative shaped by a hardcover or a DM’s plan.

In more story-driven campaigns, where hooks and clues lead players through an adventure, and where the DM adds achievement XP awards, the players’ control over their advancement looks more like an illusion. Nate Finch writes, “The GM always just chooses when you level up. It’s just less work if you don’t have to bean count.”

The players who preferred milestones all touted the freedom from bookkeeping. Instead of feeling distracted by the game of seeking XP, they felt focused on story and character.

Milestone advancement works best when players know what achievement will earn their next level. Adam N. Dobson writes, “My group unanimously prefer milestones. The goals are made clear and they pursue them without feeling that they have to kill everything. Milestones are more inventive, immersed, and versatile.”

“If a DM uses [milestones],” Graham Ward writes, “I like to have some information on what those are. Even the illusion of an objective measure makes a difference for me. I hate when DMs decide on the fly.”

Next: Doing experience points right and the XP award Gary Gygax should have used instead of giving XP for gold.

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

Concentration rates as one of the best additions to the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. In earlier editions, higher-level parties might enter a fight layered with spells like haste, invisibility, fly, blur, protection from energy, and on. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while dungeon masters struggled to create any challenge. Concentration simplifies the game by limiting the magical effects in play.

In earlier editions, the same caster behind the buffs could also immobilize foes with Evard’s black tentacles, and then smother them with cloudkill. Now, the need for concentration limits the power of spellcasters, helping to eliminate D&D’s old problem of wizards who surged in power with every level until they overshadowed other classes. (See How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D.)

Plus, concentration enriches the game by adding a fresh, tactical element. Combatants can end spell effects by targeting casters and breaking their concentration.

While concentration improved D&D and put wizards in their place, the innovation proved mixed for class archetypes that cross swords and spells.

For exhibit A, see the paladin. In my last game, the party’s smite-happy paladin relished the chance to lock down a monster with compelled duel. This 1st-level spell boosts the paladin’s flavor of champion and protector. But compelled duel requires concentration, so while the paladin trades blows, every hit threatens to end the duel. Paladins want to bear the brunt of attacks, and they lack proficiency with Constitution saves, so their concentration is fragile. Why would a paladin ever cast shield of faith?

Worse, the paladin’s smite spells also require concentration, so even momentary attention to a smite spell ends the compelled duel. With smites serving as a cornerstone of the paladin’s offense, the need for concentration brings some frustration. Spells like magic weapon, heroism, and bless seem perfect for paladins, but all demand concentration.

In the D&D Next playtest, the paladins smite spells skipped the concentration requirement, but spells like banishing smite and blinding smite impose ongoing effects that merit concentration. The designers added concentration to add the tactical element where foes can break concentration to end punishing effects.

The same tension between concentration and a melee archetype hinders warlock hexblades and pact of the blade warlocks who aim to use their pact blade for more than posing. Hexblades gain smite spells that require concentration, yet the class also features spells like hex that demand attention.

Surely rangers suffer the most friction between concentration and the class’s featured abilities. The hunter’s mark spell underpins the ranger’s flavor as someone who targets prey and pursues it to the finish. With a duration marked in hours, hunter’s mark seems meant to last through a ranger’s daily adventures. But the spell requires concentration, so rangers who need another spell lose their mark and what feels like a key feature. Also, rangers who aim to enter melee with say, a sword in each hand, suffer an outsized risk of losing their mark. (This exposes another spot where fifth edition punishes melee archetypes, but I’ve written about that already.)

The D&D design team uses their Unearthed Arcana series to test player reaction to potential game additions. A collection of class feature variants reveals one feature intended to smooth the rough spots from hunter’s mark. Read my annotated description.

Favored Foe
1st-level ranger feature (replaces Favored Enemy)¹
You can call on your bond with nature² to mark a creature as your favored enemy for a time: You know the hunter’s mark spell, and Wisdom is your spellcasting ability for it.³ You can use4 it a certain number of of times without expending a spell slot5 and without requiring concentration6—a number of times equal to your Wisdom modifier (a minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

When you gain the Spellcasting feature at 2nd level, hunter’s mark doesn’t count against the number of ranger spells you know7.

1. Instead of changing the base ranger class by adding a new feature missing from the Player’s Handbook, this variant adds an option that replaces a weak class feature. Most players would opt for Favored Foe, but rangers built from the core book keep a unique feature. The D&D design team has chosen not to make changes to the game that supplant anything in the published books. New players should never join a game and then learn that their Player’s Handbook character fails to match the latest rules.

2. The hunter’s mark spell implements a 4th-edition power called Hunter’s Quarry, a non-magical exploit that seemed to behave in some magical ways because the rules said so. Now, the replacement works like magic because it is.

3. First-level rangers can’t normally cast spells, but this feature needs the hunter’s mark spell. This line adds the one spell to a 1st-level ranger’s knowledge.

4. Oddly, the description says “use” rather than “cast”. This shows the designer thinking of this feature as an ability more than a spell. The whole feature description reads like something written by committee, but surely a final version will show more polish.

5. Because hunter’s mark implements a marquee ranger class feature, having to spend a spell slot on it feels like a tax. Here the ability goes tax free.

6. This waives the concentration requirement. Dual-wielding Drizzt admirers everywhere can cheer.

7. Hunter’s mark no longer taxes a ranger’s list of known spells either.

Favored Foe offers a good way eliminate a frustrating edge in the ranger class. I predict we’ll see it in a class options book toward the end of 2020.

Update: Unfortunately, the final version of Favored Foe in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything brings back the frustration. “When you hit a creature with an attack roll, you can call on your mystical bond with nature to mark the target as your favored enemy for 1 minute or until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell).”

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

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

Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

A few years ago, I heard someone suggest what I then considered the worst bit of roleplaying game advice ever: Let players choose whether to allow their characters to die. Except, hear me out, maybe something like that could work. Keep reading.

Character death has always torn Dungeons & Dragons between game and story. The threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an unsatisfying end that can disrupt a campaign. See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.

Making character deaths optional declares story most important, and games focused on storytelling can thrive with such a rule. The Fate roleplaying game rules explain, “Most of the time, sudden character death is a pretty boring outcome where compared to putting the character through hell.” Plus a journey through hell can emerge from the other side.

To remove death from a roleplaying game, make success and failure about stakes less final than shredding a dead character’s sheet.

D&D makes a tough candidate for this approach. Mainly, D&D tends to feature fighting evil with an emphasis on fighting. Combat is a life or death situation, especially when most players’ refuse to retreat or surrender. If D&D players wanted a game where fighting rated as a last resort, they would play Call of Cthulhu or the Dallas Television RPG, where you can’t shoot JR.

D&D has never been good with setbacks short of death. Co-creator Gary Gygax invented some, including level draining and equipment loss aided by things like rust monsters, but players hated all of them. Somehow a lost level or a ruined magic item seemed more punitive that a dead character.

Making death optional risks leaving D&D lifeless. In the Investigation Check podcast, Josh remembers a campaign where the players learned that no characters could die. “It started to feel stale when we didn’t feel like our characters were in any real danger. I didn’t feel motivated to level up or even get equipment, because I felt we were always going to make it out fine.” D&D needs a consequence of failure that is less disruptive and painful than character death, but that holds enough sting to keep a sense of danger.

To cope with character death, try bridging the gap between game and story by bargaining.

A good story requires two ingredients: (1) characters with a goal and (2) obstacles that test and reveal the characters. To serve the story of a D&D game, players and the dungeon master take opposing interests. Players handle the characters while DMs pose the obstacles. In a healthy game, none of this makes the DM and players into opponents competing to win. As a player focused on story, understand that the best stories include some setbacks and perhaps even defeat. As a DM, become a fan of the characters. In Your Best Game Ever, Monte Cook recommends game masters take this approach: “Have a playful attitude of, ‘I’m making this really challenging for you.’ This isn’t adversarial, just a way to—on a metagame level—inject a bit of tension into the game. When the PCs are victorious, the players will feel even greater satisfaction from believing that you were pushing them to their limits.”

When the dice rule that a character dies, and the player feels unready to end the character’s story, consider making a deal between the player and DM that improves the tale by substituting death for a different setback. The more the setback complicates the character’s imaginary life, the more the story wins.

My inner old-school gamer, who started playing before Tomb of Horrors reached stores, fears that sparing rightfully-dead characters coddles players and ruins D&D. Fortunately, trading deaths for lesser penalties has support from a man with perfect old-school credentials. In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax wrote, “Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. You do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well.”

As the simplest consequence for letting a character live, accept a roll on the permanent injuries table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.272). Or perhaps that last death save never failed, but the next 3 times the character faces undead, he suffers from the frightened condition until he ends a turn with a successful Wisdom save.

Perhaps the character loses an item needed to reach the party’s ultimate goal. The dragon’s breath somehow missed the character and destroyed the party’s astral skiff. The death blow sundered the sword specifically forged to kill the Dragon King. This setback should still allow a final victory, but the path to success becomes more complicated. Maybe now the players must free the imprisoned smith with the skill to reforge the dragonslayer. Complications turn into adventure hooks.

The deal need not explain why the character lived, although a hunt for some explanation can fuel creativity. The deal swaps death—a bad outcome for the character and (probably) a bad outcome for the story—with an outcome that by provides a more interesting reversal of fortune. This means any unplanned plot twist can buy a life so long as it also complicates the character’s life. For example, normally DMs should avoid having non-player characters betray the party. Such treachery encourages players to see everyone as a foe. But if the twist comes from a unplanned complication that buys a character’s life, it works. Let’s make a deal.

Space battles pose a problem for roleplaying games. A photon torpedo or plasma bolt can destroy a space ship, vaporizing all on board. In scripted science fiction tales, the crew’s plot armor protects them, but in a roleplaying game, a space battle threatens to wreck a campaign with an instant total-party kill. The game Stars Without Number solves the problem with an ingenious solution: When a space ship takes critical damage, players can opt to substitute a crisis aboard the ship. The game swaps death for complications that enrich the adventure. In Stars Without Number, players roll on a table to determine the exact crisis. This takes the GM out of the process and makes the swap feel entirely impartial.

A player can opt to let a character die. Sometimes players have a new character in mind and feel ready to move on. Sometimes a noble sacrifice defending the bridge or holding the door seems like exactly the right end for a character’s arc.

Even if a player feels ready to accept a character’s fate, the deal might be to die forever, but not just yet. Perhaps instead of bleeding out, the character rises to her feet to defend the bridge or to strike the killing blow. And then, when her moment has passed, her mighty heart finally gives out. That’s a death for heroes.

By allowing players to escape death, DMs can run more tense, dangerous games while making the tale of the characters’ adventures more heroic and more compelling.

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

Character death has always torn Dungeons & Dragons between game and story. The threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an unsatisfying end that can disrupt a campaign.

Without characters facing the potential of dying, the game lacks tension and stakes. Decisions lose consequences because however characters act, they emerge unharmed—stronger thanks to experience. At his crankiest, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax railed against players who wanted campaigns that never threatened characters. “How I detest namby-pamby whiners that expect to play a real RPG without threat of character death or loss of a level, stat points, or even choice magic items! Without such possibilities, what it the purpose of play, a race to see which character can have the greatest level, highest stats, and largest horde of treasure? That is just too flaccid for words.” (See The Game-Design Trends That Turned D&D Into a Game Gary Gygax Disliked.)

The D&D Open moments before my character (lower left) died to a Marilith

My favorite D&D sessions came in the D&D Open, tournaments where long odds made casualties almost inevitable. (See Why the Awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship Should Return.) The peril adds a weight and urgency to play that made ordinary game sessions pale. In D&D campaigns, the threat of death makes the characters feel like heroes because they brave real risks that can end their imaginary lives.

But while the threat of character death adds excitement and vitality to D&D, actual character deaths usually sour the game.

In those tournament games, dying meant dropping from the session. One player’s fun ended. In campaign games, death proves much worse. We players invest time in our characters. Creating one takes a half hour or more of effort to build, and then to invent a history, personality, and so on. Playing a character to higher levels demands hundreds of hours. A dead character seems to waste that investment. (Funny how we simply stop playing characters without feeling the same loss.) We become emotionally attached to our characters. We imagine story arcs for them where they grow and change and reach a meaningful conclusion to their journey. Death stifles those plans. Losing a character hurts.

Character deaths can also hurt campaigns. Today’s roleplayers foster connections between characters in a party. Dungeon masters strive to link a campaign world and its conflicts to characters. A death cuts all those connections and stalls story threads without resolution. The group faces the problem of introducing a new character into play and possibly reviving broken plot threads.

Through the years, D&D’s designers coped with the problem of death by making characters harder to kill. Originally, in the Blackmoor campaign that led to D&D, a single hit killed a character. “It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters,” D&D co-creator Dave Arneson said. He introduced hit points. (See The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit.)  In the 1974 D&D game, a character reduced to 0 hit points dropped dead, beyond healing. By the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1979) characters fell unconscious at 0 hp, and only died at -10 hp.

Even in original D&D, spells like raise dead often made death into a brief setback rather than a permanent loss. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary wrote, “Death due to combat is no great matter in most cases, for the character can often be brought back by means of a clerical spell.”

Resurrection magic spares characters from dropping out of play, but to hold some stakes, death must keep enough sting to make it feared. The original raise dead forced characters into two weeks of rest. In busy campaigns like Gary’s, that sidelined a character and forced players to bring one from the bench. (See Dungeons & Dragons and the Dream of the Grand Campaign.) Still, a two week break rates as a trivial setback, especially when few campaigns keep a calendar. AD&D added a risk of failed resurrections and a limit to the number of resurrections. Third edition features the best version of raise dead: Revived characters lost a level. This consequence adds enough fear of death to lend tension to the game, while limiting the chance of removing a character from the game.

AD&D’s reincarnation spell rates as the worst example of resurrection magic. Players would have characters kill themselves until they reincarnated as an ogre mage. Clearly, those campaigns featured very little role playing.

Fifth edition suffers from D&D’s most namby-pamby version of raise dead. After a long weekend, resurrected characters shake all the effects of death. Further, most characters can afford resurrections without a loan. (See Dungeons & Dragons Stopped Giving XP for Gold, but the Insane Economy Remains.) This lack of risk can drain the game of excitement. No wonder the designers of the Tomb of Annihilation adventure felt a need to make death more threatening. The circumstances of the adventure temporarily blocked raising the dead and imposed a risk of permanent death. Gary would be proud.

While raise dead can benefit the game, resurrection magic must give D&D novelists fits. How do you place characters in peril when rules-savvy readers know how easy resurrection should be? I’m told most D&D writers just ignore such easy miracles in their tales. Who can blame them for looking away and whistling past the empty graveyard?

Fifth edition’s forgiving rules for character death make characters above 4th level just about impossible to kill. Because fallen characters usually survive if anyone stands to revive them, total party kills have become more common than individual deaths.

In modern D&D, only new characters typically die. The designers embrace this quirk. To them, a new character represents a small enough time and emotional investment to feel disposable. Still, new players typically play new characters, so the design risks distressing potential converts by dealing abrupt deaths. (See Sly Flourish on Building 1st Level Combat Encounters. Hint: Have a kindly priest cast aid on your players’ 1st-level party.)

While the risk of character death has shrunk, the threat of death has always remained part of D&D. Despite ranting against players who failed to risk characters’ lives, Gary saw the tension between needing death in the game and the pain of actually losing characters. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, he writes, “It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well,” and then he suggests ways to avoid killing a character. But in the same paragraph, he warns DMs to never tamper with the system shock roll that a character must make to be successfully raised from the dead. “There MUST be some final death or immortality will take over and the game will become boring because the player characters will have 9+ lives each.”

Next: Death, stakes, and bargaining. How letting characters opt out of death might improve a D&D game and its story.

Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, but That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition

What would you think of Dungeons & Dragons feats that gave these benefits?

  • You gain immunity to all melee attacks.

  • Before making a melee attack, you can teleport to within melee attack range of your target, attack, and then teleport back to your original position.

Overpowered? Absolutely. I’m not competing for worst D&D designer. My broken feat designs make a provocative way to show the big advantages of attacking from range.

When you attack from a distance, melee attackers can’t hit you. You can fire past obstacles that hamper movement. You can switch targets without having to move. No wonder melee attackers tend to be barbarians and paladins; no sensible person would opt for such inefficiency and risk.

Ranged attacks suffer drawbacks: Targets can gain cover. If foes move next to you, then your attacks suffer disadvantage and you stop being immune to their melee attacks.

Fortunately for ranged attackers, the game’s two most broken feats dismantle all these disadvantages. With Sharpshooter, you ignore cover. With Crossbow Expert, you can make ranged attacks while within 5 feet of enemies without suffering disadvantage. With these feats, melee attacks no longer endanger you because you inflict such massive damage that by the time a foe reaches you, it’s dead.

D&D’s designers seem to think ranged and melee attacks represent two different, but mostly equal styles, when really, ranged attacks offer massive intrinsic advantages. Why else would the game’s design so often reward ranged attackers with extra benefits that surpass anything melee combatants get?

Exhibit A: Ranged rogues can hide and then pop up to attack from hiding, gaining advantage and a sneak attack. Melee rogues almost never get to attack while hidden, but at least backstabbers can sneak attack without advantage when an ally stands next to a target. If that edge only applied to melee rogues, then the game would offer different but comparable boosts to archers and backstabbers. But archers benefit from adjacent allies too. Remember backstabbing? Now it rates as a strategy for players seeking the roleplaying challenge of playing an inferior character.

Exhibit B: The Sharpshooter feat offers more proof that D&D’s design favors ranged attackers. Compare Sharpshooter to its melee counterpart, Great Weapon Master. Both feats let characters exchange -5 to hit for +10 damage. But rangers and fighters—the classes most likely to take Sharpshooter—can also opt for the Archery fighting style, which grants a +2 bonus to attack rolls with ranged weapons. In practice, sharpshooters gain 10 damage for a mere -3 attack penalty. Great weapon fighters get no such boost to accuracy.

Also, great weapon masters must stand in harm’s way.

Also, great weapon masters usually must move to attack and to switch targets—so inefficient.

Sharpshooter rates as the strongest feat in the game, but the Crossbow Expert feat multiplies the power. Crossbow Expert nullifies the biggest weakness of ranged attackers—the disadvantage of attacking with an adjacent foe. Plus, by using a hand crossbow, the feat allows an additional attack. Sure, a hand crossbow averages a point less damage than, say, a longbow, but when each hit still deals 13-15 points of fixed damage, the damage die is just gravy.

On the occasional critical hit, great weapon masters get an extra attack. Crossbow experts get one every damn turn.

My exhibit C further proves the D&D designers’ brazen favoritism toward ranged attackers. Fifth edition drops the spell Protection from Normal Missiles, a spell that dates to the original little, brown books. The prosecution rests.

What makes sharpshooters the worst thing in D&D?

Before I explain, understand that by labeling sharpshooters as the worst, I’m aiming a backhanded compliment at the strength of the edition. In any other edition of D&D, a feat as overpowered as Sharpshooter would not even rate on a list of the system’s flaws. Old editions suffered cracks at the foundation. Fifth edition suffers from an absurd feat.

When compared to other character types focused on dealing damage, sharpshooters overshadow other characters. DM Thomas Christy has hosted as many online D&D games for strangers as anyone. He says, “I have actually had players complain in game and out about how it seemed like they did not need to be there.” In a Todd Talks episode, Jen Kretchmer tells about asking a player to rebuild a crossbow expert. “The character was a nightmare of doing way more damage off the top, and no one else could get a hit in.” Pity the poor players who thought playing a hulking barbarian swinging a 2-handed great sword seemed like a recipe for maximum damage. Every turn, they’ll be embarrassed by a pip-squeak who reaps monsters with a toy crossbow.

I don’t aim to slam archers. They make an evocative archetype. And if you want to play an archer, play a sharpshooter. Next week, I’ll explain how to build a good one. I rarely want my players to feel obliged to build weakened characters. Dungeon masters can adapt to make sharpshooters a little less dominant.

By including overpowered feats that erase all the disadvantages of ranged attacks, the D&D design collapses the options for martial characters to two: (1) pick Sharpshooter or (2) pick something plainly weaker. Anything another build can do, a sharpshooter does better. Crossbow Expert enables fighters to gain all the out-sized benefits of Sharpshooter while attacking from melee and sporting enough hit points and armor to serve as a front-line tank.

Sharpshooters deal damage so efficiently that they throw D&D’s encounter math in the trash. Potentially interesting encounters against low-hit-point foes like spellcasters resemble an execution by firing squad. The evil wizard never acts. Unless DMs want every encounter to become a romp, they need to toughen the monsters and adopt tactics that slow ranged attackers. Dungeon masters: Do both.

Toughen the monsters. Before encounters, use your prerogative as a DM to boost the monsters’ hit points. The hit point totals in the creatures’ stat blocks just represents an average. Giving the monsters an increase within the die formula falls within the D&D rules.

Slow ranged attackers. Setting up encounters to slow sharpshooters isn’t about thwarting them. It creates situations more tactically interesting, situations that give other characters more chances to shine.

Start by adding total cover to your encounters, and then play creatures with the good sense to duck between their turns. This hardly counts as high strategy. If you throw a rock at a rat, it runs for cover. Faced with melee and ranged attacks, many foes will stay out of sight and let intruders come into reach. That usually works. By reputation, treasure hunters are bloodthirsty and undisciplined.

Such tactics encourage characters to move to engage. Melee fighters get more to do. They deserve to shine.

Total cover takes just a few columns or stalagmites.

One caution: Newer players can find foes that duck behind total cover frustrating. You may need to dial down the tactic or explain the rules for readying actions.

Start some monsters out of sight—especially the boss.

In the typical D&D battle, all the party’s foes start in plain sight. This makes the strongest monster an easy target for focused fire. Too often the evil mastermind dies before acting, or even before mocking the foolish do-gooders who dare to oppose them. The players never learn of the fiendish plan that will end their pitiful lives. Start that climactic battle with the main foe positioned somewhere the players cannot see. Let the characters spread out to attack the guards and lieutenants, and then have the biggest threat move into view on its turn. In D&D, villains must fight and monologue at the same time.

When some enemies begin out of sight, fights benefit. First, this gives some total cover. Plus, the battle feels more fluid; the situation more uncertain. As characters move into the room, they spot unseen foes. As monsters emerge, the players wonder what other surprises wait.

Battles with movement and cover tend to play to the strengths of melee characters. The monk finally gets to flaunt her speed! That hopeless, sub-optimal backstabber gains places to dash, disengage, and reasons to engage. The paladin can drive foes from hiding. Sure, these sorts of encounters may frustrate and threaten sharpshooters, but that just adds an extra benefit.

Next: How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D (If the Rest of Your Group Doesn’t Mind.)

Related: How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter

How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal

How much should the outcomes of characters’ actions be decided by the dungeon master instead of the rules?

Before roleplaying games, the rules of a game specified every action players could take, and then decided the outcome of each possibility. The invention of the dungeon master freed players from the tyranny of the rules. Most editions of Dungeons & Dragons expected the DM to make frequent decisions about the characters’ fates—especially in the many situations the rules didn’t cover. “Prior to 3rd edition,” designer Monte Cook wrote, “‘the DM decides’ wasn’t just a fallback position; it often was the rule.”

The DM’s power to augment the rules enabled the hobby we love, but this power enabled capricious DMs to zap characters when players failed to laugh at their puns, to curry favor by lading treasure on their girlfriend’s characters, and to win D&D by killing the rest of the party.

So the designers entered what D&D’s Creative Director Mike Mearls calls “the business of trying to ‘fix’ obnoxious people.”

“D&D’s 3.5 and 4th editions were very much driven by an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance,” Mearls explained in a Twitter thread. “The designers aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.”

So D&D’s fourth-edition designers devised rules that shrank the DM’s role as much as possible. Potentially, a DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. As much as possible, fourth edition shifts the game to the combat stage with its well-defined rules. In stark contrast to earlier editions, spells lacked effects outside of combat. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic: the Gathering cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For action outside of combat, fourth edition presents the skill challenge, where the DM only must decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance.

In Mearls’ opinion, this basic design premise suffers from a fatal flaw. “It misses out on a ton of the elements that make RPGs distinct and doesn’t speak to why people enjoy D&D in the first place.”

Fifth edition’s design returns dungeon masters to their traditional role in the game. During the design, Rodney Thompson described the goal. “We want a system that makes it easy to be the DM, and at the same time 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.”

“With fifth edition,” Mearls explained, “We assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”

The design team referred to the goal as “DM empowerment.” The phrase may be misleading, because the goal of DM empowerment is not to tickle a DM’s power fantasies. DM empowerment lets DMs fill gaps in the rules—and sometimes override the rules with their own judgement. DM empowerment lets your wizard use spells outside of combat, among other things.

Monte Cook touted the advantages of the approach. “Empowering DMs from the start facilitates simulation. No set of rules can cover every situation, and the DM can address fine details in a way no rulebook can. When it comes to how much of your turn is spent opening a door, perhaps it depends on the door. A large, heavy metal door might be your action to open, while opening a simple wooden door might not be an action at all. Another door might fall in between. Do you want the rules to try to cover every aspect of this relatively insignificant situation?”

DM empowerment reduces the volume of rules a game needs. Original D&D’s rules fit into a few pages because the game relied on the DM to resolve all the areas the rules failed to cover. Rodney Thompson explained that fifth edition also “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.”

“Fewer rules coupled with DM empowerment also facilitate story-focused play, because nothing slows down an exciting narrative like consulting a book or two . . . or ten,” Monte wrote. “Giving the DM the ability to adjudicate what you can and can’t do on your turn then players to be more freeform with their actions. They don’t need to worry about action types and can just state what they want to do. A player’s crazy plan might not fit into the tightly defined rules for what you can do in a round, but a good DM can quickly determine on the fly if it sounds reasonable and keep the story and action moving.”

None of this means that D&D’s rules lack a purpose. D&D remains a game about making choices and seeing the consequences (often while in dungeons with dragons). The rules serve as the physics of the game world. As much as convenient, rules should enable players to see the likely consequences of an action, make wise or reckless choices, and then let the dice settle the outcome. Rules help span the gulf between a character’s real experience in the game world and what players learn from a DM’s description. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.) Elegant games cover most of the actions players may take with compact rules that deliver verisimilitude. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

In a roleplaying game, characters face perils, and sometimes harsh consequences. Without such possibilities, the game lacks tension and everyone grows bored. The rules help the DM avoid becoming the players’ adversary—the person to blame when something goes wrong. Monte wrote, “If the rule is printed in a book, it’s easier to assume that it’s balanced and consistent, and players are less likely to question it.” When I run a game and the players succeed, I want them to credit themselves; when something goes bad, I want them to blame the die rolls set by the rules.

The best roleplaying games strike a balance between rules and empowered game masters. D&D owes some of its recent success to elegant rules, some to DM empowerment, and some to modern dungeon masters better suited to their empowered role.

Early in the life of D&D, DMs struggled more with their role keeping the group interested, excited, and happy. Everyone came to D&D from a life seeing and playing only competitive games, so DMs tended to fall into a familiar style of playing to win. And let’s face it, the example set by co-creator Gary Gygax reinforced some of the DM-to-win archetype. After all, when his group made smart plays by listening at doors and searching rubbish for treasure, Gary struck back by creating ear seekers and rot grubs.

Until recently, if you didn’t go to conventions, you could be a dungeon master for decades and almost certainly only see a couple of other DMs in action. Today, every potential DM can stream examples of other DMs acting as fans of the characters. Plus, DMs grow up exposed to electronic roleplaying games. Today’s DMs rarely need to be tied by rules to enable a fun game.

The biggest competitor to D&D is not another tabletop game, it’s World of Warcraft and countless other computer and video games that duplicate most of the D&D experience, 24/7, with better graphics. D&D enjoys two competitive advantages: face-to-face social interaction, and the DM’s ability to account for actions outside of the game’s rules. When D&D’s designers worked to eliminate the DM’s judgement from the game, they threw out a key advantage. Without a DM, why bother to log off?

Related: Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points?

In a typical fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure, characters will reach every battle with full hit points. Healing comes too easily to enter a battle at less than full health. Above level 10 or so, spells like Aid and Heroes Feast mean parties routinely pass their day with hit point totals above their ordinary maximums.

By the time characters near level 10, few monsters inflict enough damage to seem threatening. Except for a few outliers like giants, foes lack the punch to dent characters at maximum hit points. If round of combat results in a gargoyle hitting a 90-hit-point character 6 damage, then the fight seems like a bookkeeping exercise. “At this rate, I can only survive 14 more rounds!”

The fifth-edition design limits the highest armor classes so weaker monsters can attack stronger characters and still hit on rolls less than a natural 20. This design aims to enable hordes of low-level monsters to challenge high-level characters. In practice, the hits inflict such pitiful damage that the hero would feel less pain than the bookkeeping causes to the player. It’s the pencils that suffer the most.

The obvious fix to high-level creatures and their feeble damage is to make monsters’ attacks hurt more. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea routinely makes creatures inflict maximum damage on every hit.

But 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 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.

D&D no longer focuses entirely on dungeon crawls where characters judge when to rest based on their remaining store of hit points and spells. The game’s move to storytelling means characters often face just one fight per day. Healing comes cheap and easy, so characters start fights at full hit points. Lower hit points at high levels would suit the reality that characters enter every fight at maximum health. In more battles, foes would seem like credible opponents.

Of course, no one has ever argued that low-level characters sport too many hit points. New characters feel as fragile as soap bubbles. Before level 5, don’t get too attached to your hero. As characters near level 10, they begin to seem stout. They rarely go down in anything short of a slugfest, so they feel like superheroes, but not invulnerable.

But in double-digit levels character hit points keep rising at the same steep rate until DMs resort to letting monsters routinely deal maximum damage. D&D might play better if, somewhere around level 10, characters stopped gaining so many hit points.

When I first considered this notion, I dismissed it as too big a break from the D&D’s conventions. For nearly two decades, characters have gained a full die worth of hit points at every level.

Except for most of D&D’s history, somewhere around level 10, characters stopped gaining so many hit points.

From the original game through second 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 classed gained even fewer points. Continuing to let characters gain a full hit die plus constitution bonus at every level defies D&D’s origins.

The original limits to hit dice served as co-creator Gary Gygax’s way of putting a soft level cap on D&D. The cap kept the game’s link to the Chainmail mass-combat rules, where the best fighters acted as “superheroes” who could match the power of 8 soldiers. Gary wanted a game where crowds of orcs or goblins could still challenge the heroes.

Admittedly, when I started playing D&D, I disliked how characters’ hit points topped out. Gary and his hit-dice tables seemed to punish players of high-level characters—especially fighters.

Although the soft cap on hit points lasted 25 years, the cap on the other perks of leveling started to disappear as soon as the first Greyhawk supplement reached gamers. While the original box topped out at 6th-level spells, Greyhawk included spells of up to 9th level. Gary never intended player characters to cast the highest-level spells, but that didn’t stop players.

By the time designers started work on third edition, they aimed to deliver perks to every class at every level from 1 to 20. The soft cap on hit points must have seemed vestigial. The designers felt the game’s math could handle a steep rise in hit points past level 10. The design abandoned any aim of making groups of low-level mooks a match for high-level heroes. Besides, a steady rise in HP made the multi-classing rules simpler.

Today’s D&D game does a fine job of awarding every class—even fighters—perks at every level. Nobody leveling into the teens gets excited about another helping of hit points. Reverting to smaller hit point advances doesn’t spoil anyone’s fun.

Fifth edition keeps levels and monsters at power levels broadly similar to those in original game. This loose compatibility makes adventures written during D&D’s first 20 years continue to work with the new edition. In theory, a DM can just swap in monster stats from the new game and play. In practice, higher-level characters have more hit points, more healing, and the creatures fail to do enough damage to keep up. Story-centered adventures make the mismatch worse.

Suppose Gary Gygax had hit points right all along. Would D&D play better if characters stopped gaining so many after level 9?

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

“Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons is all about taking that things that work in D&D, keeping them in the game, and fixing everything else,” designer Mike Mearls wrote after the edition’s announcement in 2007.

“That’s the goal, and I think we’re heading there.”

Later, he put the goal in a different light. “No one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them.’ That was never the intent. With fourth edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say ‘hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.’”

By 2010, when Mearls defended the goals of fourth edition D&D, nearly all the team behind the game had left Wizards of the Coast. The virtual table top was 2 years late and on life support. Pathfinder, a game descended from the D&D edition that fourth edition tried to replace, now drew players alienated by fourth edition. Rumors circulated that Pathfinder sales exceeded D&D sales.

On the fourth-edition team, Mearls ranked as a secondary contributor. Now, with the most of the team sacked, Mearls rose to head D&D’s design. He remained to take the heat for “ruining D&D” and to salvage fourth edition until something new could replace it.

What had gone so wrong?

The business plan for fourth edition centered on enticing players to subscribe to D&D Insider, where they could play online using a virtual tabletop. At the edition’s announcement, the team emphasized online play so much that some wondered if D&D would remain playable without a computer.

But weeks after the game’s release, real-life tragedy shattered plans for a virtual table top. Joseph Batten, the senior manager leading development murdered his estranged wife and then killed himself. Apparently, Batten’s work on the project proved unusable. A beta version of the tabletop took 2 more years to reach users, and that version looked nothing like the demos shown in 2008. While the demos promised 3D rendering and an extension of other DDI tools, the beta version retreated to 2D tokens and still lacked integration. Nothing set the beta apart from other VTTs already available. In 2012, after the announcement of D&D Next, Wizards pulled the plug. “We were unable to generate enough support for the tool to launch a full version to the public.”

Of course, D&D Insider had moved ahead without the tabletop. Subscribers still gained access to rules, a character builder, and magazine-style articles. But the lack of a tabletop forced Wizards to charge less and to scrap plans for selling digital assets like virtual miniatures and dungeon tiles. Without the virtual tabletop, the D&D team could never gain the $50 million in revenue needed to lift D&D to a core brand.

Despite trouble with the online initiative, a hit game might have carried the edition. But while many current players loved the new edition, as many others rejected it.

From the designers’ perspective, the rejection stemmed from two causes: The game dared to change too much at once, and the designers ran out of time.

D&D’s second edition tried to be broadly compatible with the original game. Third edition succeeded by adopting decades of role-playing game design experience while preserving “sacred cows” that made D&D familiar. Players had embraced the leap. The fourth-edition designers felt confident that existing players were ready for another step. “I expect that the improvements in game play will convince even reluctant players to switch over to fourth edition,” designer Chris Perkins wrote.

For the new edition, the design team “took time to imagine D&D games that took a different slant than any of us would have imagined,” team lead Rob Heinsoo explained. They turned sacred cows into barbecue and delivered a game very different from any other edition.

To designers the gap between third to fourth edition seemed smaller than the gulf most gamers saw. “I think of D&D as a conversation, in terms of game design, between the designers and the audience,” explained Mike Mearls. “To designers—and players who followed every release—the transition to fourth made sense.” Some fans followed the conversation by playing 3.5, Player’s Handbook 2, Complete Arcane, and then playing with the at-will magic in Complete Mage and the martial powers in Book of Nine Swords. To them, the step to fourth seemed small. (See The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition.)

But few players kept up. “If you got a 3.5 Player’s Handbook and that’s the only D&D book you have and the only one you read, and then you got the fourth edition Player’s Handbook there was a gap,” Mearls said.

Steve Winter, a designer since D&D’s 2nd edition, wrote, “Fourth Edition was a glorious experiment that succeeded technically. Unfortunately, its breaks from the past were too severe for many fans, who didn’t pick up the new banner.”

The designers came to regret changing so much so fast. Fourth edition’s lead, Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Knowing what I know now, I might have worked for smaller changes in the world, since shifting both the world and the mechanics at the same time proved difficult for some of the D&D faithful to swallow.”

More players might have accepted the change if the developers had gained time to perfect the edition. “We just ran out of runway.” Mearls explained “That’s kind of the story of fourth edition in a lot of ways. We ran out of runway as we were tying to get the plane up in the air.”

The rush to deliver hurt the system. For example, player surveys reveal that the simplest character classes rate as the most popular, but fourth edition lacked simple classes. And all the classes played the same. “The things I would have wanted to change about fourth edition mostly center on the knowledge that the class design project wasn’t entirely finished upon release,” Heinsoo said. “I’d never wanted to use the exact same power structure for the wizard as every other class, for example, but we ran out of time, and had to use smaller variations to express class differences than I had originally expected.”

Also, the lack of development left more than the usual number of bugs in the new system. The numbers behind complex skill challenges made success nearly impossible. The math behind difficulty classes needed revision too. Higher-level monsters lacked the punch to challenge characters.

The power system designed as the game’s irresistible hook led to unintended consequences. As characters rose in level, their growing number of choices overwhelmed players, slowing decisions. Characters gained more ways to interrupt combat turns, so each player’s decision paralysis extended into other player’s turns. Characters gained powers that targeted every foe on the battle map leading to more attack rolls than ever. Instead of delivering dynamic combat, battles showed to a crawl.

In 2010, the D&D team’s bid to salvage fourth edition reached players in a line of Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products. The designers had solved the bugs. Classes played differently. Some were simple, others granted ample options. Monsters challenged characters. The math worked. The newest classes sped combat by limiting choices, reactions, and battlefield-spanning powers. Essentials recaptured familiar spells, monsters, and even the look of past editions. But the rescue came too late. By 2010, the D&D team knew Essentials could only buy the time needed to develop a new edition.

Imagine an alternate history. What if the design team had been given time to deliver a game as polished as Essentials? Would the game have succeeded? Surely such a launch would have kept more players loyal, but would it lure the flood of MMO players the designers sought? Computer games offer frantic action and vivid graphics that D&D can never duplicate. By trying to match the appeal of a video game, the edition stumbled.

“We really lost what made D&D unique, what made Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing game distinct from other types of games that you could play,” Mearls said.

The new fifth edition of D&D ranks as the most successful yet. Rather than attempting to match the strengths of online games, fifth edition offers limited, elegant rules so players can focus what makes D&D special: playing through a story created when a 5 or 6 people join together as characters in a world open to anything.

Video games can never duplicate the same experience because they lack the same personal interaction and a dungeon master ready for the unexpected.

The fourth-edition designers aimed to make the dungeon master’s role easy—something a computer could handle. So the rules discouraged the sort of ingenious or outrageous actions that break the game and create unforgettable moments.

Fifth edition lead designer Jeremy Crawford even credits making the grid optional with some of the newest game’s success. “It’s a really simple thing, but in 5th, that decision to not require miniatures was huge. Us doing that suddenly basically unlocked everyone from the dining room table and, in many ways, made it possible for the boom in streaming that we’re seeing now.” Fourth edition did more than require a grid; it dwelled on one.

Fourth edition never emphasized D&D’s unique strengths. As Mike Mearls put it, “I think what was happening was [fourth edition] was really focusing on really hardcore mechanics, the intricacies of how the rules interact. It really became about the rules and about mastering the rules, rather than about the story, or role-playing, or the interaction between the DM and the players.”

By the end of fourth edition’s run, the designers had perfected a game about building characters and showing them off in dynamic fights. Perhaps they lost some of what makes D&D uniquely compelling.

Next: The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers

Related: How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books

Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?

Adventure paths reveal their linear design in the name: They follow a path. In a linear adventure every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to content that reaches play.

Adventure paths are episodic campaigns that look linear from a distance. Such adventures offer choices in each episode or chapter, but at the end of each chapter, the path leads to the next chapter. This device enables an entire campaign to fit into a book.

Adventure paths serve dungeon masters by making a campaign with a story arc that leads from start to finish easy to run from a book.

In 2003, the Shackled City adventure path in Dungeon magazine led the format to prominence. Shackled City and its successors proved so popular that Paizo made adventure paths the foundation of their publishing strategy, and the inspiration for the name of their Pathfinder role-playing game.

In the classic adventure path, each episode ends with clues or hooks that lead to the next episode. This arrangement dates to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). The steading’s treasure room contains a map of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magic chain capable of transporting 6 to the site.

When the designers of the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons paired a line of hardcover adventures to the game, they aimed to grant players more freedom than a classic adventure path allows. Each book finds ways to break from the adventure-path model.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures avoided hooks connecting the adventure into a narrative. Perhaps the designers felt the lack of threads benefited the adventures by adding some of the freedom of a sandbox. Explaining his design for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Steve Winter said, “There are specific tasks characters should undertake and a sequence in which they happen, but we don’t hand the DM a script.”

Many reviewers judged this design strategy harshly. Bryce Lynch wrote that the designers of Hoard of the Dragon Queen “clearly have an idea of how the adventure should proceed, but are terrified of being accused of railroading.”

The adventures that followed Hoard of the Dragon Queen avoided a specific sequence of tasks. Most chapters described locations and the designers invited players to roam.

While these adventures experimented with sandboxes, they still expected a good dungeon master to prepare or improvise leads for players who need a nudge.

The 2nd adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse, poses as a sandbox with strongholds to raid and ruins to explore. But the “character advancement” sections on page 41 and 75 reveal a problem with granting so much freedom. Each note lists the character level best suited to the dungeons and sites on the pages to follow. For example, one site is “appropriate” for 6th-level characters; another “works best” for 9th level characters. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford explained, “For a lot of our published adventures, we’ll have broad difficulty targets for different parts of the adventure. For example, we might decide that one chapter of one of our adventures is really designed to be not too much trouble for characters of 6th level. Characters of any level can go into that chapter, but really what we’re doing is we want to ensure when an optimal group is there, it’s not too much trouble.

In Princes of the Apocalypse, players can stumble into areas too dangerous or too easy for their characters. “If characters aren’t careful, they can definitely ‘dig too deep,’ going down into dungeons for which they are woefully underpowered,” Mike “Sly Florish” Shea wrote. “Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a fourth-level dungeon to an eighth-level dungeon with just a few steps.”

Jeremy Crawford and the D&D team see such design as a feature. “Our starting assumption in 5th edition is that the game is pretty open ended and sandboxy, and we often like—particularly in our published adventures—dangling out the possibility that you might wander into a fight that you can’t win. We don’t view the game as a series of combat encounters that you are expected to face in a predictable way and then march off with a set amount of experience points and treasure. We view the game as a set of potential combat encounters, some of which you might not turn into combat encounters at all.”

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire dungeons that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level dungeon, they can only fight to escape. No player enjoys fleeing a dungeon, and then starting a quest for weaker foes—especially if the dungeon seemed like the best route to reaching their aims.

If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout. Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored—and I’m not alone. Mike Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge. See Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

Like its predecessor, the 3rd adventure, Out of the Abyss, featured loosely-tied locations, each designed to suit characters of a particular level.

In a guide to Out of the Abyss, Sean “Powerscore” McGovern wrote, “This adventure thinks it is a sandbox, but really it is a railroad in serious denial.” To Tim “Neuronphaser” Bannock, the lack of story threads made Abyss resemble “a sourcebook disguised as an adventure.”

The adventure leaves connecting the locations to the DM. “Be ready to build quest threads and hooks between each of the big areas so the players have one to three clear paths to take as they explore the Underdark,” Mike Shea explained.

Such requirements make designers seem blind to plight of DMs running a 256-page adventure. The designers wrote the book. When they play their own material, they enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than any DM can gain from the text. This mastery makes adjustment and improvisation easy for them. If they need a hook, they know just the walk-on character on page 167 who can offer it. If their players go off book in chapter 2, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot assumed in chapter 7.

The designers seem to assume that DMs resist a written playbook as an unwelcome limitation, but most DMs appreciate the help. If a hook or clue doesn’t suit their game, DMs know to ignore or adapt it.

The 4th adventure, Curse of Strahd, ranks as the most successful “sandboxy” design. The Tarokka card reading brings one advantage by hinting at the means to Strahd’s defeat and providing clues that might guide the adventure. The card reading assigns destinations, but as Sean McGovern explains, “it’s up to the DM to figure out how to get the group to these places, and new DMs are going to have a hard time with that. The hooks that take you from one area to another are buried deep in each chapter.” To complicate the challenge, DMs must deal with hooks likely to lead inexperienced characters to their deaths.

The 5th adventure, Storm King’s Thunder, starts with sandbox exploration and finishes as a linear adventure. In between, the adventure leads through 1 of 5 possible strongholds. On the plus side, the choice of giant strongholds gives the adventure unusual variation. As a minus, the strongholds stand as a highlight, but most groups will only explore one. (Still, a party at my local game store chose to battle through them all.)

Of the fifth-edition hardcover adventures, Storm King’s Thunder suffered the second-lowest rating among reviewers on enworld. Reviewers praised the strongholds while criticizing the sandbox chapters.

To start, the adventure shows the menace of the giants, but leaves characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters run errands until they reach the adventure’s true beginning. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either need to rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expects it. Mike Shea advised DMs to “Be ready to fill in a lot of blanks with your own stories, quests, motivations, and dungeons; particularly early on.”

Weak hooks and blank spots can leave DMs to struggle. “I’ve been running Storm King’s Thunder and the first three chapters of the adventure presented nothing but trouble for me,” Snazzy wrote in comments on this site. “I basically did what the book recommended, trusting that it would make sense and my players would want to do what the book suggests. And it turns out that it doesn’t really work. Which is disheartening! I’m a pretty new DM and so when the campaign book I spent all this money on has issues which require significant patching in the very beginning, it shakes some confidence in the product. The whole point of me buying a campaign was so I could game with less prep time required.”

Many experienced DMs share this dissatisfaction. Sean “Power Score” McGovern writes guides that help DMs running the adventures. “My guides to these adventures are by far the most popular articles on my site. To me, that says that DMs need help with these books. That should not be the case! The point of a published adventure is to make it so that the DM does not have to do a lot of work!

“I still think they should be organizing these adventures like Pathfinder adventure paths—linear. If you want a sandbox, It’s not hard at all to make a sandbox out of a [linear adventure]. But it is very time-consuming to turn a sandbox into a path.

“Every single 5e adventure requires a ridiculous amount of homework and I think that is a shame.”

McGovern wrote those words in the wake of Curse of Strahd. But Storm King’s Thunder presents a flow chart to help DMs, and the latest book, Tomb of Annihilation, scored higher with reviewers than any of its predecessors. Is the fifth-edition D&D team helping DMs more? Perhaps. The hardcover line shows consistent improvement and Tomb of Annihilation rates as the entry that best serves DMs. Some of that success comes because Tomb draws from proven styles of play. The first half offers a hex crawl patterned after  Isle of Dread (1981). The second half lays an adventure path through chapters inspired by classic adventures from Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) to Tomb of Horrors (1978). The authors Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter deserve some credit too. Will Doyle once said,  “Adventures are playbooks not novels.”

Still, I’ve heard nothing from the D&D team that suggests they share Will’s insight. Too often, the designers seem to think DMs who read a 256-page adventure can match its author’s comfort and mastery. Sometimes, the designers have hidden linear designs like a stain of dishonor. But an adventure path offers players plenty of choice and freedom within its chapters. And besides, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as designers think.

As works of imagination, the fifth-edition hardcovers contain the some of the best D&D adventures ever. They teem with vivid characters, fantastic locations, and unforgettable scenes that few DMs could match—especially throughout a campaign. But too often they work better as books to read and admire than as blueprints for DMs to run games at the table.

Do Dungeons & Dragons Players Hate Linear Adventures? Not When DMs Avoid Two Pitfalls

A linear adventure is written, or at least planned, so every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. In Dungeons & Dragons, linear dungeons set the pattern, with walls and doors that channel players along a single route. Without walls, a linear adventure only ever shows players one course of actions to a successful end.

At best, critics accuse linear adventures of robbing players of choices between scenes. At worst, critics say linear adventures require dungeon masters to abuse their power to shunt players along a railroad. Instead of steering the adventure, players follow a fixed story.

Despite the criticism, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as DMs think. We tend to judge harshly because we see the lack of options. But in a successful adventure, players never see the walls.

When the walls become plain, players may complain about a lack of freedom. Linear dungeons, with their obvious walls, always risk criticism. Adventures without walls can also flaunt a lack of options. Imagine an adventure where players follow a patron’s plan or a commander’s orders from scene to scene. Unless catastrophe upsets the plan—or assassins reach the commander—the adventure would feel scripted and less satisfying.

Linear adventures work best when success in each scene brings the clues that lead to the next scene. Then, for all the players know, a different choice in the scene or unseen clue could have spun events in a different direction. To players, each success leads to the clues needed to set a new objective. Players favor one choice over an overwhelming number of choices, and certainly over feeling stuck without a direction.

Make no mistake, players still like to face a few, clear choices. Linear adventures grow better when they include decision points that pose options. (Of course, such adventures no longer qualify as linear.)

For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to developing content that reaches play. No DM with an ingenious dungeon room wants players to miss it.

The limits of a convention time slot makes linear adventures particularly common in programs like the D&D Adventurers League. Linear adventures can consistently fit in a convention time slot. Players in organized play tend to forgive the limits imposed by a 4-hour session, but some do complain when adventures reveal a lack of choices.

But organized-play adventures with more options draw complaints too.

Adventurers League administrator Claire Hoffman explains that when adventures offer more choices, some DMs gripe about prepping content that may not reach play.

Most DMs understand the value of extra prep, but some players fuss too. Those who enjoy the accomplishment of clearing a dungeon or of completing every quest feel frustrated when an adventure teases them with more options than they can explore. The Howling Void by Teos Abadia sets a brilliant example of a 4-hour adventure with a wealth of options. In an elemental node, Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players must choose which to visit. Teos explains that some players left the adventure disappointed because they could not explore every location. The adventure proved so fun that players wanted it all. Still, adventures shouldn’t cater to completists. Better to leave players wanting more.

Linear adventures may fall short of an ideal, but if they avoid flaunting their limits, players seldom mind. One exception bothers players. When the only choice suggests a style of game that players dislike, they will resist.

During these rebellions, the players telegraph what the want to do in the game. In a podcast, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea explained, “If the king is speaking, and the barbarian charges him, maybe you ought to start the players in the dungeon.” Clearly players crave a fight. “I’ve seen it the other way too, where in my DM-head I’m thinking, now they’re going to fight 12 orcs, and the players are doing everything they can to negotiate with the orcs. ‘Just fight the orcs!’ But the players are telegraphing their desire to have an interaction.”

If your players dislike intrigue, and the next clue in a linear adventure suggests they infiltrate a masquerade, that’s when they rebel.

You can avoid such problems by setting up situations tailored to the style your players favor. If you know your players, such tailoring probably becomes natural. If not, then an ideal episode lets players choose styles. Let players enter the castle by infiltrating the masquerade, sneaking over the walls, or battling through a secret entrance into the dungeons below.

Players don’t hate linear adventures; players hate being driven into a style of game they dislike. Players who read gaming blogs may resist by accusing your adventure of railroading, but the rest will start a fight at the masquerade.