Category Archives: Role-playing game history

Credit D&D’s Push Into to the Multiverse for Spelljammer

Wizards of the Coast releases new settings for Dungeons & Dragons faster than ever. Those settings include worlds borrowed from Magic: The Gathering like Ravnica and Theros, a world taken from Critical Role, older settings like Eberron and Ravenloft, and now the Spelljammer setting. The last time the D&D team released so many settings, the flood of options split the D&D market and helped send TSR, the game’s owner, to the brink of bankruptcy. Then as now, D&D players only have so much time and money. Faced with a game store full of D&D campaign options, most customers will skip some. Each setting still costs to develop, but it competes with others, splitting the D&D customer base and potentially leading to financial losses.

Clearly, today’s D&D team doesn’t fear repeating the history that brought TSR to ruin. Part of that fearlessness comes from D&D’s surging popularity. So many folks play the game now that numerous campaign releases can profit despite a diluted audience. Of course, some enthusiasts buy them all, so more of my money goes to Hasbro.

Also, the product lines for D&D settings released now just include a set of miniatures and a book, or for Spelljammer a slipcase of 3 slim harcovers. From 1989 to 1993, the original Spelljammer line included 4 boxed sets, 6 adventures, 11 accessories, plus novels and comics. A committed Spelljammer fan could spend their entire budget on D&D in space without buying other products. TSR spent money creating all these products to support a setting that surely trailed other D&D settings in popularity.

In 2015, Wizards polled to rank their campaign settings’ popularity and then reported the results. “Our most popular settings from prior editions landed at the top of the rankings, with Eberron, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Planescape, and the Forgotten Realms all proving equally popular. Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and Spelljammer all shared a similar level of second-tier popularity, followed by a fairly steep drop-off to the rest of the settings. My sense is that Spelljammer has often lagged behind the broad popularity of other settings, falling into love-it-or-hate-it status depending on personal tastes.”

Gamers mostly remember Spelljammer for its silliest ideas, like hippo people and giant space hamsters powering ships by running on wheels attached like paddle wheels. “The infamous giant space hamster also came out of ship designs,” writes original Spelljammer designer Jeff Grubb. “The gnome ship looked like a galleon and a sidewheeler slammed into each other. Someone asked what the big paddle wheel housings were for, since there was no air other than in the air bubbles. I said they were giant hamster wheels. Roger Moore (editor of Dragon) thought that was hilarious and it was off to the races with the giant space hamster.” Sometimes Spelljammer treats D&D as seriously as the 60s Batman TV show treated the dark knight. To some fans, Spelljammer felt like a setting that mocked their passion for D&D by making the game seem ridiculous and childish.

For years, D&D enthusiasts online joked about any slim hint of a Spelljammer revival by announcing, “Spelljammer confirmed!” The humor came from treating a sometimes ridiculous second-tier setting as an eagerly awaited release when in truth Spelljammer seemed like one of the least likely targets for return. Even Chris Perkins, the architect of Spelljammer’s return, jokes about Spelljammer’s lesser popularity.

So if the gleeful shouts of “Spelljammer confirmed’’ come from a joke rather than a groundswell of fans, then how did Spelljammer get confirmed? Credit Chris Perkins’s true passion for the setting. He even embraces the setting’s gonzo elements like killer space clowns and murder comets—ideas that made some gamers snub the original.

Mainly credit D&D’s new emphasis on the multiverse for Spelljammer. D&D’s lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford explained the shift. “We’ve been letting fans know for the last year or two that we are going out there to other worlds, to other planes, and there’s going to be a lot of exciting journeys ahead.” D&D is headed to “this wonderful array of worlds that make the D&D multiverse special because it’s not just one fantasy setting, it’s a dizzying array of fantasy settings, including each DM’s home setting all in one massive multiversal setting.”

Rather than asking players to select a world and stick to it, the focus on a multiverse encourages D&D fans to dabble in different settings, skipping from world to world or gathering their favorite bits for their own worlds in the wonderful array. Hints of a D&D multiverse date back to Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980) where the Demonweb included gates to parallel worlds on the material plane, but Spelljammer made the game’s worlds accessible by Spelljamming ships.

The multiverse gives D&D room for settings that feel less conventional. By design, Spelljammer delivers. “I wanted to push the envelope on what D&D fantasy was,” Jeff Gubb writes. “We had done Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, but those had been written down as typical fantasy worlds. Vanilla fantasy. Default fantasy. Background static. Here was a chance to go out on more of a limb and push the envelope. So this was the chance to do D&D in space. I’m sorry—Innnnn Spaaaaaaace!” Spelljammer brings a different tone than those grounded settings. Fans love the setting’s swashbuckling flavor, ships like the mind flayer nautiloid, heroes like the hippo folk on safari, villains like the half-spider/half-eel neogi, and the chance to explore strange new D&D worlds.

Jeff Grubb pitched Spelljammer by describing a knight standing on the open deck of a ship in space. Based on the preview of the new Spelljammer, the setting moves from shining armor and wizards in pointy hats to the Guardians of the Galaxy and a cast as varied as the Star Wars cantina scene.

Spelljamming lets characters take the scenic route while they travel the D&D multiverse, leading to more adventure than using spells like plane shift. “Spelljammer was initially thought of as being AD&D in space, but soon became obvious as a way to tie the existing campaigns together.” In the revised setting, D&D worlds exist in spheres of magical space called wildspace. In wildspace, even objects as small as ships have enough gravity to capture bubbles of air and for sailors to walk the decks.

The emphasis on the multiverse shows in changes to the Spelljammer cosmology. In the old version, indestructible crystal spheres locked each world into a bubble suspended in phlogiston, “a turbulent, unstable, multicolored, fluorescent gas.” The designers imagined the crystal shells to account for different gods and rules in different spheres. “Want to run a hard science version? It works that way in the sphere. Want the constellations to move around? There you go. Want a flat world resting on elephants, with iterative turtles below? Go for it.” But the crystal barriers strike me as unnecessarily clutter separating magical pockets. Meanwhile, phlogiston overlaps too much with existing D&D lore around the astral plane. So at the edge of wildspace, the bubbles now transition to the astral sea where explorers might meet gith, astral dreadnoughts, and planetoid-sized bodies of dead gods. Here, Spelljammer blends into Planescape. Planescape confirmed!

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.

If Dungeons Offer Riches, Why Don’t the Authorities Loot Them?

During the 70s, the debates that raged in the pages of fantasy game fanzines mostly matched the gaming topics argued on Facebook and Reddit today. For example, forty-some years ago, gamers debated if dungeon masters should break the rules for the sake of story.

But we have forgotten some arguments that raged in places like Alarums & Excursions. Today’s post revisits an interesting debate that now seems as contentious as angels on pinheads.

First, some background. The original Dungeons & Dragons rules recommend 20 players as an ideal number for a campaign, although the text says one referee can handle as many as 50 players. Of course, 50 D&D players probably never crowded a basement at once. Smaller parties formed from the available players and mounted treasure hunts into the huge dungeons that dominated play. At the peak of the  Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns run by D&D co-designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, such sessions ran several times a week.

Instead of talking about a dungeon master’s campaign or game world, most gamers talked about a DM’s dungeon, because that’s what they played. (See When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) Active players took characters from one DM’s dungeon to another. As long as DMs played in similar styles, that worked. (Early fanzines included much talk about coping with PCs coming from incorrectly run dungeons, but no one agreed on, say, the correct ratio of casualties to treasure.)

Popular dungeons saw lots of traffic from twenty or more players, each with a collection of characters at different levels, some recuperating from injury. Gamers started to notice that these dungeons resembled tourist attractions that drew crowds hoping a few risks would lead to a quick score, much like Las Vegas.

Dave Arneson and his group saw how much his dungeon resembled a tourist trap and they exaggerated it. The elves who managed the site of Blackmoor dungeon created a faire at the entrance boasting “hundreds of fabulous deals (some worth what you pay for!)” The elves constructed turnstiles at the dungeon entrance and charged 1 gp admission.  “You can also sign the Adventurers Book, which gets you a genuine ‘I Visited Blackmoor Dungeon’ button when you come out the main entrance. No winners yet.”

In the First Fantasy Campaign (1977), Arneson described the entrance to his dungeon.

After the second destruction of Blackmoor Castle, the EIves were made responsible for the care and protection of the area and it’s defense. Our
Elf player took a number of steps to do this:

  1. They have set up a barricade at the foot of the hill leading to the Castle that forces each entrant to pass a test of Purity (generally anti-Vampire), including a drink of Holy Water for each (provided at bargain rate by the Church of the Facts of Life run by Bishop Carr).
  2. Making it through that, the would-be adventures enter the Castle where the Elves have set up a great fair that fills the courtyard. There are  hundreds of fabulous deals (some worth what you pay for!) and some shady types (cutpurses and the like). This lets the Judge wheel and deal with the players to empty their purses and make them wonder what is going on.
  3. There are now turnstiles into the Dungeon (1 GP admission as well as taking an Elven Tour (since canceled when the two Dwarves let Fang out of his box) (see attached short tout sample). You can also sign the Adventurers Book, which gets you a genuine “I Visited Blackmoor Dungeon” Button when you come out the main entrance. No winners yet.
  4. Each of the regular exit/entrances from the Dungeon are heavily guarded by Elves armed with Holy Water Hoses, and other anti-Evil charms plus an Elven Prince and two Elven Lords! So, if you can reach a door and are still good, the pursuit will break off and the Elves let you in.

Other DMs treated dungeons as tourist attractions, although with less silliness.  In the Forgotten Realms, a famous tavern called the Yawning Portal monetizes the main entrance into the Undermountain dungeon. The innkeeper “Durnan charges adventurers 1 gp each to descend into the well, whether they opt to use the rope or not. The return trip also costs a piece of gold, sent up in a bucket in advance.”

The debate came when game masters wondered how authorities would react to the heavily trafficked dungeons that made homes to monsters and sources of treasure.

Arduin Grimoire Volume IX End War

Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus, the creators of Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), favored adventures outside dungeons. They imagined a society that eliminated dungeons. “A large concentration of ‘evil’ will attract the Church and might bring down a ‘Crusade’ against it. A large concentration of loot will attract the King, a personage always in need of money. Nor is it possible to keep such a dungeon complex secret for long. Myths and legends about such a place and what is to be found in it soon become common knowledge.”

Meanwhile, Dave Hargrave loved dungeons. Page 1 of The Arduin Grimoire Volume IX includes the topic, “Dungeons and why the authorities don’t shut them down,” which counters the opinion voiced in C&S.

Nowadays, few campaigns run in the style that made Blackmoor seem like Six Flags, so few wonder why the Lords of Waterdeep never send their troops into Undermountain for coin. But if anyone asks, some of Dave Hargrave’s points seem plausible.

Dungeons and Why the Authorities Don’t Shut Them Down by Dave Hargrave

I am sure the question of why local authorities don’t just run troops into the “dungeons” of the land has come up now and again. I mean, what could be a more intelligent and logical method to deal with the creature-ridden madness and loose magik of these places? Here are a few reasons to wet your appetite on why they don’t just do that.

  1. With such a large contingent of troops away from their stations, it would be easy to attack the kingdom directly since there would be fewer defenders to face.
  2. It would be too easy for a “bad guy” associated with such a place to trap the soldiers in the dungeon, perhaps sealing them away forever. This directly relates to point one above.
  3. With the high casualties of this kind of action, soon there would be few willing to join the constantly thinning ranks of the army, no matter what the price. Most men are not fools when it comes to dying for no good cause. Again, this directly relates to point # 1.
  4. The troops mucking about in one of these places could open some old gate or cause some awesome and terrible bane to come forth upon the land, thus turning the people against the fool who caused such a calamity.
  5. The “dungeons” act as a constant “honey pot” that ensnares the more adventurous (read that as trouble makers) and any loot they manage to bring out, is, of course, taxable. A hell of a lot cheaper way to make money.
  6. With such a spot to attract undesirable things, it is easier to be aware of just what nasty beings are about. You don’t have to go hacking about the dark and dreary countryside; you know where all the uglies are hiding.

There are still other reasons, but I hope I have made my point. It just isn’t worth all the risk for a king to send his troops into such a mess.

The Movies and Stories than Inspired Dave Arneson to Invent the Dungeon Crawl

Around 1971 Dave Arneson and his circle of Minneapolis gamers invented games where players controlled individual characters who grew with experience and who could try anything because dice and a referee determined the outcomes. The group tried this style of play in various settings, but Dave invented one that proved irresistible: the dungeon.

Dave’s Blackmoor game—the campaign that spawned Dungeons & Dragons—began with a gaming group playing fictional versions of themselves in a fantasy world. The characters became champions in a series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. Without dungeons, the Blackmoor game might have stayed miniature wargaming rather than becoming D&D and a game nearly as well known as Monopoly. But by creating the dungeon crawl, Dave invented a new activity that transformed the campaign and ultimately made a lasting addition to popular culture.

The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit. In a recollection of that first dungeon adventure, player Greg Svenson writes, “By the end of the weekend I had fallen in love with the game.” Dave Megarry of the Blackmoor game wanted to capture the dungeon experience during Arneson’s down time, so he created the Dungeon! board game.

The dungeon crawl contributed as much to the initial popularity of D&D as roleplaying. In the dungeon, D&D brought a fun and evocative activity for a group of players. See (How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games.

The strangest thing about focusing a game on parties of adventures who explore monster-infested dungeons for treasure is that this activity never happens in the fantasies that inspired the game. At best, you can find elements: traps and treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, and so on.

The Kibri Castle Branzoll like the one owned by Dave Arneson

The Blackmoor campaign first adapted the Chainmail rules, co-written by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. But Chainmail never mentions dungeons. At most, the rules suggest using graph paper to map efforts to tunnel under fortifications.

Dave’s Blackmoor games featured a toy castle, which served as the focus for the above-ground battles. Castles can have dungeons, although in 1971 the dungeon of popular fiction was an underground jail rather than a sprawling compound stocked with monsters and treasure.

Nonetheless, in 1972’s second issue of the campaign newsletter, the “Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger”, Arneson reported on dungeons below the castle where “heroes went looking for adventure and treasure.” In Playing at the World, Jon Peterson writes, “By this point, Arneson had mapped, on a pad of graph paper, a dungeon six levels deep beneath the castle, with each level containing progressively more formidable adversaries.”

How did Dave Arneson invent the dungeon crawl? By the time people started asking about it, he no longer remembered all the details. Enough clues remain to reveal the specific stories and movies that probably inspired his creation, likely during a June weekend in 1971.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings offer obvious inspiration. J.R.R Tolkien imagines parties of heroes who keep finding themselves in sprawling, underground compounds.

The Hobbit takes readers into the goblin king’s warrens under the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo gets lost in the tunnels and encounters Gollum. Later, Bilbo and his party reach the abandoned dwarven city under the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug sleeps in the “great bottommost cellar or dungeon-hall of the ancient dwarves right at the Mountain’s root.” Even though the tunnels under Lonely Mountain do not fit the definition of a dungeon as an underground jail, Tolkien takes a bit of poetic license and refers to the halls as a dungeon. The Lord of the Rings revisits the dungeon again with Moria, the vast underground compound where the fellowship encounters both orcs and the demonic Balrog.

Dave cites a different inspiration for dungeons. In a 1978 interview that appeared in Wargaming issue 4, he explains. “A local TV station had on several old monster movies, which I watched while eating popcorn and reading old Conan novels. It was then that Blackmoor Dungeon was first conceived.”

Different Worlds issue 3 June/July 1979

His next account of inventing the dungeon crawl comes from his “My Life in Role Playing” article for Different Worlds issue 3, from June/July 1979. “How did it all start in Blackmoor? I can’t really say. I had spent the previous day watching about five monster movies on Creature Feature weekend (ch. 5), reading a Conan book (I cannot recall which one but I always thought they were much the same) and stuffing myself with popcorn, doodling on a piece of graph paper. I was also quite tired of my [Napoleonic] Campaign with all its rigid rules, etc., and was perhaps rebelling against it too (in fact I’m sure I was!!).”

Dave forgot the Conan book and never names the movies that sparked his imagination, but clues lead to some likely answers.

To start, the Horror Incorporated Project compiles a list of all the creature features broadcast on KSTP-TV in Saint Paul – Minneapolis throughout the 1970s.

Blackmoor started with Dave’s toy castle. “I had this neat German plastic kit and I just imagined what sort of fantasy setting it would make,” he recalled in a 2009 interview in Kobold Quarterly issue 9. Meanwhile, on Saturday May 29, 1971, The Black Room (1935) aired on the local station. The movie features a baron’s castle that, like Castle Blackmoor, sits atop a rocky hill and includes a bricked, secret room. But most revealing, the names of the movie and of Dave’s creation just swap two letters. “All this happened a few weeks before the first adventurers caught sight of [the castle].”

So Dave had a castle backdrop for fantasy miniature battles, but perhaps no dungeons yet.

Two weeks later, House of Dracula (1945) aired. This one movie might seem like five because it features all of Universal’s most famous monsters, Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s creation. In a remarkable piece of detective work, Daniel H. Boggs lists several similarities between the House of Dracula castle and Blackmoor. Both stand on rocky pinnacles overlooking a graveyard, a village, and the sea. Both include laboratories and torture chambers. Tunnels underneath both lead to seaside caves.

Castles with underground tunnels, monsters, and torture chambers offer much inspiration, but the Conan book surely provided even more.

While Robert E. Howard never has Conan willingly enter a dungeon, the barbarian often finds himself trapped in dungeons, forced to overcome monsters to earn freedom.

Weird Tales 1935 -The Hour of the Dragon

In “Hour of the Dragon,” Conan is imprisoned in the dungeon under the palace of King Tarascus in the Nemedian empire. A sympathetic slave girl gives Conan a rough map of the tunnels, and then warns, “Beyond these dungeons lie the pits which are the doors to Hell.” To escape, Conan defeats a monster that was one of “the goblins of Hyborian legendry, and were in reality ogres of the natural world.”

In “Rogues in the House,” Conan is lost in the pits below the house of the Red Priest, where he evades the traps that slay companions who lack Conan’s “steel-spring quickness.” Although the covered city of “Red Nails” lies above ground, its interior shares the ambiance of a dungeon.

Still, one story presents a dungeon that best resembles those in D&D. In the “Scarlet Citadel,” Conan escapes from “tunnels and dungeons” where an evil sorcerer “performed horrible experiments with beings human, bestial, and, it was whispered, demoniac, tampering blasphemously with the naked basic elements of life itself.” With a torch and sword, Conan explores a maze of tunnels while overcoming monsters.

In 1971, Dave Arneson started with a toy castle, a location inspired by creature features,  and the notion that something might lurk underneath. “[The model] was too small for the scale I wanted,” Dave said. “But it was a neat kit and I didn’t want to abandon it, so the only way to go was down [into the dungeons].”

He added a treasure hunt from Tolkien, traps from Robert E. Howard, lurking monsters from both authors—and perhaps from some creature features—to invent a new activity for the characters in his Blackmoor campaign. When Gary Gygax played one of Dave’s Blackmoor games, the experience so fired Gary’s imagination that he went on to flesh out the game that would become Dungeons & Dragons. In the process, Gary’s imagination and broad knowledge of sword and sorcery would add countless details inseparable from the game. Ultimately, the dungeon crawl proved so compelling that it took root in popular culture.

The Strange Mystery of the D&D Monster Called a Thoul

A theory of mine led me to check the dungeon encounter tables in the original Dungeons & Dragons rules booklets. There, I spotted a monster that made me immediately stop chasing my theory and start investigating a new mystery.

What’s a thoul?

The dungeon encounter tables in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures include a listing for Thouls, a D&D monster that I’ve never seen mentioned in my decades of playing the game. What’s a thoul? Why do thouls lack a description or statistics?

Theory 1: The “Thouls” entry should read “Ghouls”, but was mistyped. But an entry for “Ghouls” appears immediately after “Thouls,” wrecking this theory. None of the dungeon monster tables include duplicate entries.

Theory 2: Thouls come from the Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. D&D author Gary Gygax loved Burroughs’ Mars series and stocked volume 3’s desert wilderness tables with Barsoom creatures like tharks, thoats, and sith. Like the thouls, all these creatures lack game descriptions. However, a quick search reveals that thouls never appear in Barsoom or anywhere but D&D.

Theory 3: Gary Gygax invented thouls, but forgot to include a description. If the lack of statistics came from an oversight, no one rushed to correct it. All the D&D supplements omit thouls, as does the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual in 1977. The first mention of a thoul appears in 1978 in the Monster & Treasure Assortment – Set 3. The entry reveals almost nothing. “#AT: 2/1; AL: 8; AC: 6; ST/F 3; SA: Paralysis by touch.” The monster finally gains a description in the 1981 edition of the D&D Basic Set from Tom Moldvay.

None of these descriptions come from Gary’s lost notes. Other D&D designers spotted the creature’s name in the original book, and then created the monster.

The 1981 description explains why thouls failed to gain much traction in D&D lore. They look and play like hobgoblins with a gotcha, which hardly seems memorable.

The mystery has one more clue: Thouls first appear in the fifth printing of the original D&D box. The table in earlier printings includes “Toads” in the same spot, right before the entry for ghouls. This makes thouls seem like a typo.

Thoul from Mystara Monsterous Compendium Appendix

In 1975, typesetters entered a document’s text at a keyboard to get printed strips of text. Then layout artists would paste the columns onto boards representing the document’s full pages. Printers duplicated those camera-ready, paste-up boards.

So a typesetter in 1975 started entering the table row for “Toads” when their gaze skipped one row down to the line for “Ghouls.” They mistyped “Thouls” and made D&D history. Who can blame the typesetter? Half the manuscript surely seemed like nonsense words. Who has ever heard of a sith?

But why would such a mistake appear in the fifth printing rather than the first? Because TSR corrected rough-looking text in the first four printings by redoing the type for the fifth. Before desktop publishing, that meant a typesetter needed to retype the text. That person accidentally contributed a monster to D&D.

Meanwhile, I failed to find support for my theory.

The original Charm Person reads, “If this spell is successful, it will cause the charmed entity to come completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such time as the ‘charm’ is dispelled.” That seems strong. By my theory, original Charm Person rated as less powerful than it seems because the game focused on places that lacked any persons to charm stronger than 1 hit die bandits or brigands. But the encounter tables include plenty of higher-level targets, listed by level titles like superhero, sorcerer, and evil high priest. A lucky first-level magic user could charm someone quite powerful.

Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons

Jon Peterson’s earlier books aimed for readers with an unusual appetite for role-playing game history. Playing at the World sprawls past 425,000 words, rooting the design of Dungeons & Dragons in chess variants and Prussian wargames. The Elusive Shift tells how fans mainly writing in amateur zines shaped the often esoteric theory behind roleplaying games. Thanks to my taste for such arcana, I jumped to get a copy of Peterson’s most recent book, Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, but I didn’t expect this book to keep me up at night reading and telling myself I would only stay up for a few more pages. This book can captivate anyone interested in the business of roleplaying games or in the people who created D&D.

Game Wizards focuses on battles that go from the game table to the boardroom and courtroom. The book reveals the pride and ambitions of the men who created D&D, and of their feuds over credits, awards, and money. This tale even includes backstabbing, though thankfully not the sort with knives.

Jon Peterson pulls the story from letters and other documents written by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and other players as the events occurred. “Many of the direct quotations in this piece are thus taken from their correspondence.” Much of this book’s magic stems from the breadth of sources Peterson uncovers, from the contract establishing the original game’s royalty agreement to an audio tape Arneson recorded of a Gygax television appearance. “When Gary enumerates the character classes available in the game, at the point when he mentions that there is a thief class, you can hear Arneson mutter, ‘That’s you.’” Arneson and Gygax were then battling over credit and royalties for their creation.

The story starts in 1969, when Arneson attended the second GenCon, which Gygax hosted in his hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The two gamers first partnered to create a set of rules for naval miniatures titled Don’t Give Up the Ship.

By the early 70s, Arneson and his group of Minneapolis gamers invented a style of campaign that broadly resembled D&D. When Gygax played Arneson’s Blackmoor game, its innovations inspired Gygax to turn the seed into a publication. “I’ll whip out a booklet for your approval, so groups can play their own games,” he wrote Arneson. Later Arneson described the role of Gary and his circle of gamers in creating D&D.  “At the time, they had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules. They sent theirs to us and we fooled around with them for a while.” When Gygax had reasons to exaggerate his role, he claimed, “D&D, I wrote every word of that. Even my co-author admits that.” Arneson admitted no such thing. Still, Gygax’s tireless work as a writer, publisher, and well of ideas proved essential too.

Gary Gygax started Tactical Studies Rules to publish D&D and other games. In September 1973 Gygax wrote to Arneson, “We’re getting ready to roll.” When the costs of printing the first D&D sets ballooned, Brian Blume invested $2,000 dollars to become a partner in the company. In 1975 the company was incorporated as TSR Hobbies with Gygax and the Blume family holding nearly equal shares.

The revolutionary D&D game spread from Lake Geneva by word of mouth, from tabletop to tabletop, and especially from the gamers attending conventions like GenCon. In 1974, one GenCon visitor reported, “This year’s convention was centered mainly around the new set of Gygax and Arneson rules Dungeons & Dragons.” It was “the hit of the convention with gamemasters having games going in all parts of the Hall.”

By 1976, sales had grown enough for TSR to hire Arneson as Director of Research—and to work shipping. “Everyone who worked in the building had a nominal job, but had to pitch in wherever the need arose. In a personal letter dated February 2, Arneson explained his situation at the beginning of his employment at TSR: ‘My work here in Lake Geneva is going quite well and keeps me very busy from 8:30 to 6:00 every day of the week. In addition to my job as Director of Research I am also in charge of the Shipping Department.’”

But by summer Arneson felt growing dissatisfaction. None of his work related to D&D. Instead he had spent four months doing shipping and editing other designers’ rules.” He felt “no prospect of any of my work being published by TSR.”  Arneson would accuse Gygax of taking the company’s choicest design assignments. When work started on a D&D set for beginners, drafts of the future basic rules listed the authors as Gary Gygax and Eric Holmes with no mention of Arneson. Also, Gygax excluded Arneson from work on the design that would become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Still, naval miniatures ranked as Arneson’s first love. Before hiring on, he had promised two sets of naval rules to TSR in exchange for company stock, but his drafts languished unfinished. “Gygax repeatedly asked for urgent revisions to them both, and Arneson repeatedly avowed his faith in their imminent publication to his friends, even as late as October 1976, but they simply never materialized. As of the summer of 1975, TSR had announced both as forthcoming titles in the third Strategic Review.” Clearly TSR planned to publish the games, but Arneson’s projects stagnated, frustrating Gygax. By September, Arneson routinely left TSR offices at lunch to work afternoons at his apartment. Despite the time away from shipping, he produced virtually nothing for TSR. Before long, he and the company started squabbling over unexcused time away.

In November, Arneson resigned from TSR. He and Gygax drew battle lines over their creation. Arneson argued that D&D stemmed from his essential ideas. He planned a company and roleplaying game to rival TSR and D&D.

Copyright law sided with Gygax, the author who penned the game’s rules. He planned a new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which he presented as a completely different game, free of any royalty obligations to Arneson. Their war for hearts and minds extended to convention appearances and magazine interviews. The creators fought in shareholder meetings and in courtrooms. Reaching a settlement would take years.

While Arneson battled for credit and royalties on one front, Gygax fought with TSR on multiple fronts.

In 1979, a 16-year-old college student named Dallas Egbert disappeared from his dorm at Michigan State University. His parents hired a publicity-seeking private detective named William Dear to find the boy. The investigator blamed D&D for Ebert’s disappearance and his lurid speculation stormed to the national news. By the time Egbert turned up safe, few were paying attention. (See The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America.)

Even as Gygax and TSR staff fought to clear up negative myths about the game, the publicity drove a sales boom. “At the beginning of 1981, no ceiling for sales of Dungeons & Dragons was in sight: the game was like a magic item that relentlessly generated gold.”

The gold rush inspired a spending spree: The Blume’s added much of their extended family to the payroll. In 1982, TSR funded an effort to raise a shipwreck from Lake Geneva and announced sponsorship of the U.S. Bobsled Team. “It would be a year of lavish gestures like this, of a company spinning virtually out of control. Events piled on events so rapidly that its management structures simply had no way to manage them. It ensured the foundering of the company Gygax and Blume had created in 1975.”

By 1983 the bubble burst, leaving D&D sales stagnant. Weary of battling the Blumes over business decisions, Gygax left Wisconsin to live in a Los Angeles mansion that cost TSR $10,000 a month, $25,000 adjusted for inflation. To be fair, the D&D movie Gygax hoped to produce could renew TSR’s growth, but to the gaming industry, the move looked like a retreat to an opulent lifestyle in Hollywood.

Game Wizards wraps in 1985, with TSR on the brink of bankruptcy, but Gygax back from Hollywood and poised to take sole control of the company from the Blume family. By then a new player, Lorraine Williams, had entered the game. As granddaughter of the original publisher of Buck Rogers, Williams brought wealth plus experience licensing intellectual property. Gygax interested her in making the investment TSR needed to avoid bankruptcy.

Before Gygax could take full control over TSR, Williams made other plans. “‘Gygax and I were not talking very much during the time because we had very fundamental differences,’ she would remark. Furthermore, informing Gygax that she intended to purchase the Blume family shares would be, as she put it, ‘an invitation for him to get in and just try to screw it up, and to once again try to thwart the ability of the Blumes to sell their stock and to get out and to go about their lives.’” Williams purchased a controlling interest in TSR and forced its founder out.

In Game Wizards Peterson reveals the conflict with a turn-by-turn account played over years. It makes a story as riveting as any yarn played out at the D&D game table.

Related: The time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games

F’Chelrak’s Tomb: The Earliest D&D Adventure Worth Playing

The second Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Blackmoor, arrived in April 1975. It featured Temple of the Frog, the first adventure in print. A year later, three more pioneering adventures reached gamers.

The May 1976 issue of the UK magazine Games and Puzzles included an introduction to D&D by Games Workshop co-founder Steve Jackson. “D&D is an attempt to recreate fantasy adventure using greatly modified tabletop wargaming rules.” The article devotes a half page mapping and keying “The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins.” In June 1976, California gamers Pete and Judy Kerestan published D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen.

To explore D&D’s origins, some modern players have tried playing these dungeons. Don’t. Temple of the Frog runs as an infiltration mission. Players looking for classic D&D will only find a total party kill.  “The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins” and Palace of the Vampire Queen describe their rooms by pairing rare words of description with lists of monsters and treasures. Both demonstrate why D&D co-creator Gary Gygax thought adventures wouldn’t sell. Any dungeon master could easily create a similar monster zoos using the Dungeon Geomorphs and Monster and Treasure Assortments that Gary’s own TSR Hobbies would soon sell.

But one other adventure reached print in June of 1976.

The Dungeoneer

Dungeoneer01_3rdWhile still in college, Jennell Jaquays, writing as Paul, started The Dungeoneer fanzine. For the first issue, Jaquays wrote F’Chelrak’s Tomb. The pioneering adventure and its successors proved memorable. Looking back at The Dungeoneer, Jaquays said, “It’s the adventures that stand out, and not simply because no one else was doing mini-adventures in 1976. When I read comments about the magazine or talk to fans (old and new), no one talks about the monsters, or the art, or the magic items and rules variants. It’s always the adventures.

If you want to enjoy an adventure in the spirit of ’76, explore F’Chelrak’s Tomb. The tomb fits the early game’s style: It capriciously slays characters and drops magic like candy from a parade, but it also packs enough ideas to fill a game session with wild fun.

Jaquays published 6 issues of Dungeoneer, sold the fanzine, and then started work at Judges Guild. There she penned early, classic adventures like Dark Tower and the Caverns of Thracia.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb ranks as the first published adventure that remains playable in something like its original form. The cheapest legit versions of the adventure available now are in used copies of The Dungeoneer Compendium. Sadly, Judges Guild no longer sells the PDF version of that collection.

About the tomb

As soon as dungeon masters turned from megadungeons to smaller sites, they started devising tombs. F’Chelrak’s Tomb boasts plenty of save-or-die moments, but it lacks the menace of its contemporary from Origins 1975, Tomb of Horrors.

Instead, F’Chelrak’s Tomb offers the chaotic whimsy of a Deck of Many Things. One room features a gallery of objects shrouded by sheets. When revealed, each object has some crazy effect. A sculpture of the Medusa might change the revealer to stone. A statue of a gorgeous woman could either change the revealer’s gender or it could come to life and become a lover or slave. A great stone face might polymorph the revealer into a monster, grant a point of constitution, or split a character into good and evil versions. A statue of Death disintegrates the revealer. “No resurrection is possible!” One sheet covers an artifact: a shield that doubles as a mirror of life trapping. When the owner traps too many lives, the mirror makes room by freeing Morac, a 9th-level chaotic evil lord. I suppose he wants his shield back. (I didn’t know chaotic evil was an alignment in 1976).

If left on the floor, the sheets can animate and attack because, obviously.

The adventure rests on more than the gallery. A new monster merges the Human Torch with kobolds. Some vertical architecture calls for cross-section diagrams. Traps, tricks and interesting curios litter the place.

Like the Tomb of Horrors, F’Chelrak’s Tomb comes from a time when players aimed to beat dungeons and they kept score in gold. In this spirit, the dungeon can win by stumping players with the puzzle in the first room, by hiding essential paths behind secret doors, or by tricking players into leaving after they loot a false crypt. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of an adventure seems unthinkable.)

The early presentation

The entire adventure spans just four pages, including a page of maps. Maps (titled “Charts”) number 1 and 3 use a familiar overhead perspective. Maps 2 and 4 show vertical cross-sections on the same graph paper, making them look like overhead maps too. Cross-section 2 puts the high-point at the top, but 4 puts its high-point on the right. The key for map 3 lists numbered locations, interrupts those numbers with a list of numbered objects, then revisits the same locations with a lettered list of traps and secret locations. This dungeon starts as a puzzle for the DM, but it can be deciphered.

Explaining the tomb to modern standards would take at least 12 pages of text. Jaquays does it in 3 by leaving all the details to the imagination of the DM. What will F’Chelrak or Morac do if they get loose? What are the stats for an attacking sheet? (Hint: Use the rug of smothering.) If an unlucky character get polymorphed in to a monster, what one? DMs must find the most fair or interesting answer to many questions.

Running F’Chelrak’s Tomb today

Using original D&D rules, I estimate this adventure would challenge a party of level 4-6.

You could also run this adventure using fifth-edition rules.

If you wanted to run this adventure as a one-shot with the feel of the early game, let the players take a party of 12, 2nd-level characters. In 1976, adventuring parties tended to be large. Many PCs will die, but that only captures the spirit. Although many of the monsters in the tomb pose a grave threat to such low-level PCs, the PCs enjoy overwhelming numbers. Nonetheless, To reduce the chance of total party kill, put only 2 manticores in room 4. Somewhere in the adventure, give survivors a rest to heal and level up. If F’Chelrak finds them, they may need to run. That qualifies as smart play.

If you want better combat encounters and a lower body count, start each player with a 5th-level character. Make the following changes:

  • Replace the 10 gremlins with magmin. The gremlins penalize melee attacks by melting weapons, but 5E characters would sweep them away with spells and ranged attacks.
  • When the players take Morac’s shield, release 6 specters rather than just 1.
  • In the flooded tomb, put 3 ghouls rather than inventing a water gargoyle. Keep them hidden in the dark water so that only water-breathing PCs can easily confront them.
  • Make F’Chelrak a level-9 magic user based on the mage stats. If he possesses one of the PCs, he will study the rest of the party before attempting to reclaim his treasure from the party.

Related: Mark Grisham created a free, 2 room tomb for original D&D that uses F’Chelrak for inspiration.

A Game Design History of the Dump Stat

In 1974, Dungeons & Dragons introduced roleplaying games and—less significantly—dump stats where players set their least-useful ability to their lowest score. According to the original D&D rules, players rolled abilities in order. Actually, by the rules as written, “it is necessary for the referee to roll three six-sided dice in order,” but everyone let players roll instead. Innovations like point-buy character generation or even rearranging rolled scores were years away.

Still, original D&D had dump stats of a sort. Fighters could trade Intelligence for Strength, the fighter’s “prime requisite.” Clerics could trade Intelligence for Wisdom. Magic users could trade Wisdom for Intelligence. Every class came with at least one potential dump stat, and these exchanges cost 2 or 3 points for 1 point of the prime requisite. When I first read those offers, the exchange rates struck me as a bad deal. I was wrong. None of those classes gained anything from their dump stat, so the trades only benefited the characters. In the original rules, Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom just brought advantages to the class that used the ability as a prime requisite. (Intelligence brought extra languages; few players cared.) The rules prevented players from reducing Constitution and Charisma, but those abilities could help every character with more hit points or more loyal followers.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardIn 1977, the hand-to-hand combat game Melee by American designer Steve Jackson showed a different and influential approach to ability scores. Melee used just two attributes, Strength and Dexterity, but the scores brought bigger mechanical effects than in D&D. Strength permitted more damaging weapons, stouter armor, and functioned as hit points. Dexterity determined to-hit rolls and who struck first. In this combat game, dueling characters needed to enter the battlefield evenly matched, so rather than rolling attributes, players bought them with points. Modern role-playing games virtually always let players build their characters, but in 1977 the point-buy system proved a massive innovation.

Also in 1977, the obscure game Superhero ’44 used a point-buy system. In Heroic Worlds (1991), D&D Designer Lawrence Schick called that game “primitive,” but also “ground breaking.” Superhero ’44 even let players trade flaws for more points. “Characters who accept weaknesses or disabilities (Kryptonite, for instance) should be awarded with extra power.” This innovation spread to games like Champions (1981), GURPS (1986), and Savage Worlds (2003).

When I played Melee, I marveled at the balance between Strength and Dexterity. Every point moved between the two attributes traded a tangible benefit for a painful detriment, and the difficult choice between stats made character generation into a fascinating choice. Just as important, the simple choice led to fighters who played differently but who proved equally effective. No other game would ever feature such a precise balance between ability scores, but with 2 scores and just one character type, Melee’s narrow scope helped.

A magic system to accompany Melee appeared in Wizard (1978). This addition introduced a third stat, Intelligence, but wizards still needed Strength to power spells and Dexterity to cast them. Intelligence became a dump stat for the original game’s fighters, while wizards gained enough from spells to offset the need to invest in three stats. When Melee and Wizard became The Fantasy Trip roleplaying game, IQ also bought skills, so some balance between stats remained.

Some games lump Strength and some of Constitution’s portfolio together. In both The Fantasy Trip and Tunnels & Trolls (1975), wizards drew from their Strength to power their spells, and since characters in both games increased stats as they advanced, experienced TFT and T&T wizards grew muscles as swollen as steroid-fueled bodybuilders.

Choosing ability scores introduced a complication avoided when players just roll. Some stats prove more useful than others. Chivalry & Sorcery included an attribute for bardic voice. No one but bards would have invested there, and C&S lacked bard as a class. Also, the attributes that power your character’s key abilities bring much more value than the rest. The original D&D rules recognized that factor in the unequal exchanges that let players increase their character’s prime requisites.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1978), the recommended technique for generating ability scores allowed players to rearrange scores any way they liked. For most classes, Intelligence just brought extra languages and Wisdom only gave a saving throw bonus against magic “involving will force,” so these abilities became favored places to dump low scores.

In D&D, the value of ability scores mainly comes from the value the scores offer to classes that don’t require them. Constitution always comes out ahead because it adds hit points and improves a common saving throw. You may never see a fifth edition class based on Constitution because the attribute offers so much already. In earlier editions of D&D, Strength proved useful because every class sometimes made melee attacks. Nowadays, classes get at-will alternatives to melee attacks that use their prime requisite.

The value of ability score depends on what characters do in a campaign, and that adds challenge to balancing. In original D&D, shrewd players paid hirelings and henchmen to accompany their dungeon expeditions and share the danger. Characters needed Charisma to recruit and keep followers, so by some measures Charisma offered more benefits than any other attribute. But not every campaign played with hirelings. The 1977 D&D Basic Set skipped the rules for hiring and retaining help, so Charisma offered no value at all unless a DM happened to improvise a Charisma check—the game lacked formal rules for checks.

A similar factor makes Strength a common dump stat in fifth edition D&D. Strength provides the potentially valuable ability to carry more stuff, and more treasure, but few players even bother accounting for carrying capacity. The rules make dealing with encumbrance an optional variant. In the original D&D games, part of the challenge of looting the dungeon came from the logistical challenge of hauling out the loot. Runequest (1978) featured an encumbrance system that allowed characters to carry a number of “things” equal to their Strength before the weight hampered them. I remember the importance this system attached to Strength and the difficult choices of armor and equipment players faced. The secret to making Strength valuable is creating an encumbrance system that players use.When encumbrance feels like an accounting exercise that players ignore, Dexterity becomes king. By selecting ranged or finesse weapons, a Dexterity based character can approach the damage of a similar character based on Strength. Plus, a high Dexterity enables an AC nearly as stout as the heaviest armor, wins initiative, and improves common Dexterity saves rather than rare Strength saves.

Fifth edition D&D makes Intelligence another common choice for a dump stat. Of the classes in the Player’s Handbook, only wizard requires Intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. (See If a Mind Flayer Fed on D&D Characters’ Brains, It Would Go Hungry. Should PC Intelligence Matter?)

Third edition D&D boosted the value of Intelligence by awarding smart characters more skills. The fifth edition designers probably weighed the same approach, but with skills serving as key traits in the two pillars of interaction and exploration, perhaps the designers opted to award skills equally to characters of any Intelligence. So unlike in earlier editions, high Intelligence no longer brings D&D characters more skills or even languages.

Obvious dump stats limit the choices that lead to effective characters. Dump stats encourage players to create characters that fit common, optimal patterns. A fifth edition D&D party may include a wide range of classes and backgrounds, but almost everyone fits the mold of healthy, agile folks with low-average Intelligence. And not even the barbarian can open a pickle jar. (He’s dex based.)

Ninth-level D&D spells Were Never Intended for Players

Dungeons & Dragons first supplement, Greyhawk, raised the game’s highest level spells from 6th level to 9th. None of Gary Gygax’s players had reached the level required to cast the new spells.

Tim Kask remembers that as he and Gary worked on the Blackmoor supplement, they figured players faced little chance of even reaching level 9 or 10. “This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was level 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave’s.”

Doctor_Strange_AstralGreyhawk’s high-level spells served non-player characters and indulged Gary’s love of systematic cataloging—the same inclination that drove him to create a plane of existence for every alignment.

At level 9, Gary stashed outrageous effects from fantasy. Shape Change duplicated a scene from the movie Sword in the Stone. Wish, Time Stop, and Gate came from popular imagination. Astral Spell came from the Doctor Strange comic.

Most of the level 9 spells boasted game-breaking effects. Shape Change let casters gain the shape and abilities of any creature at will, over a duration of hours. Gate could summon a god. Wish seemed to allow anything. Astral Spell probably helped you spy, but you needed to read Doctor Strange to be certain.

To Gary, these spells stood above the players’ reach, reserved for scrolls, liches, and legends.

Gamers played D&D with more passion—and less disciple—than Gary ever expected. Player characters raced past level 17 and gained those once-legendary spells. Now the spells marked either (a) where D&D stopped playing like D&D or (b) where players rolled new characters. All of Gary’s players retired their characters at levels in the mid-teens.

Gary wrote that he designed original D&D to challenge characters between 1st and 16th level, and not 17th-level characters with their level-9 spells. Eventually, the 9th-level spells prompted the fifth-edition designers to mark a new tier for 17th-level PCs. See The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before.

lich_queen_close

When heroes oppose the lich queen, what does she wish for?

By the time Gary designed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, he knew that 17-plus-level PCs bedeviled DMs everywhere, but he kept spells like Wish and Shape Change. Gary aimed to keep the elements of his original game. Instead of eliminating troublesome spells, he imposed limits. Shape Change now consumed a 5,000 gp. jade circlet. The description for Wish now warned, “The discretionary power of the referee is necessary in order to maintain game balance.” I wish I had known that before my players wished for level-infinity PCs. Astral Spell added some baggage about silver cords and continued to discourage casting through obfuscation.

Third edition coped with the legendary spells by adding limitations. Wish stopped granting Wishes and now offered a page-long menu of magical boons. Shapechange lost a space and added hit die limits. Deities and unique beings could now ignore the Gate spell’s summons. As for Astral Spell, I must have missed the issue of Doctor Strange that explained its value.

Fifth edition continues the strategy of containing overpowered spells with long, limiting descriptions. Wish once appeared in 4 lines, now it spans a half page. Shapechange grows almost as much.

Why do these spells remain in the game, even though Gary Gygax never expected players to enjoy free access to them? In part, I blame tradition. Fourth edition eliminated Wish and its kin, but players rebelled against a game that cut so many familiar ingredients.

Designers struggle to capture a sense of wonder appropriate for the game’s most powerful spells while keeping spells playable. Meteor Swarm never aggravated any DMs, but a cluster of fireballs just feels like more of something from level 3. Of Gary’s legendary spells, Time Stop ranks as the best. It combines an epic feel with a manageable effect. In some future revision of the game, I hope to see Wish retired to legendary status and replaced by more spells in the mold of Time Stop.

Greyhawk’s description of Meteor Swarm interjects “(Jim!)” whenever it mentions the spell’s fireballs. Before Meteor Swarm reached print, Greyhawk campaigner Jim Ward’s PC acquired the spell on scrolls. He argued that Meteor Swarm should create flying rocks and overcome fire immunity. His dungeon master, Greyhawk co-author Rob Kuntz, put his final ruling in print. Years later, Jim prevailed. The spell now produces fiery rocks that deal both fire and bludgeoning damage.

The Twisting Tale of Skills in D&D

Modern Dungeons & Dragons includes both skills and character classes, but in the early days of the roleplaying hobby, gamers often saw skills and classes as incompatible. Some gamers touted skills as the innovation that freed roleplaying games from character classes. Three years after D&D reached hobby shops, new games like Traveller and RuneQuest eliminated classes in favor of skill systems. Advertisements for RuneQuest in The Dragon trumpeted, “No Artificial Character Classes!!” Such games eliminated the unrealistic class restrictions that prevented, say, a fighter from learning to climb walls or from mastering a spell. “Mages can wear armor and use blades.” The ad credits RuneQuest to designer “Steve Perrin and friends.” Remember that name, because Perrin returns to this tale later.

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax favored classes because they resonated with the fantasy archetypes everyone knew. He warned, “If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character.” He had a point. Skill-based games gave every character the ability to improve the same common adventuring skills, leading to a certain sameness among adventurers.

Classes let characters make distinct contributions to a group’s success. In a 1984 interview in DRACHE magazine, Gygax said, “The D&D game is based on the theory that there is so much to know and to do that nobody can do everything on his own. The team aspect is important. Each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

As long as Gygax controlled D&D’s development, he kept skills out of the game. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but their narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes.

Still, TSR designer Dave “Zeb” Cook saw a need for character development beyond class. “One of the things dreadfully lacking from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills.” When Cook wrote Oriental Adventures (1985), he brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies—skills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”

Checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks filled the place of ability checks. The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, although class features still covered most of the actions characters attempted during an adventure, so thieves still rolled on their private tables to climb walls and move silently.

In a convention appearance, Dave “Zeb” Cook and fellow designer Steve Winter talked about how these first-edition books led to a second edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”

Even after Gygax left TSR in 1985, designers like Cook and Winter lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary. Nonetheless, these additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

But TSR sold two D&D games, an advanced version that got more scrutiny from management, and a basic version that offered more freedom to designers. By 1988, RuneQuest designer and freelancer Steve Perrin was gaining assignments writing D&D supplements. His GAZ5 The Elves of Alfheim (1988) for the D&D campaign setting of the Known World introduced skills by name to the game. “Due to their background, elves have a variety of skills that are neither shown in the rule books, nor related directly to combat, thieving, or magic. These are optional additions to your D&D campaign.” RuneQuest’s designer put more cracks in the wall between skills and D&D’s classes.

A year later, GAZ11 The Republic of Darokin (1989) by Scott Haring expanded this skill system beyond elves.

“Each skill is based on one of the character’s Abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma). When a circumstance arises in which the DM feels the use of a character’s skill is needed, he asks the player to roll a d20 against his current score with the Ability. If the result of the d20 roll is less than or equal to the Ability, the skill use succeeds. A roll of 20 always fails, no matter how high the chance for success.”

The gazetteer listed skills from advocacy and animal training to woodworking, but the options still kept away from the class specialties of combat, thieving, and magic.

In 1991, the Dungeon & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia gathered all the rules from the basic line into a single hardcover that included the skill system. Meanwhile, AD&D would spend another decade forcing players to say “non-weapon proficiency” in place of “skill.”

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained permission to correct old drawbacks. “We knew we wanted to make a more robust set of skills,” designer Monte Cook said in an interview. “You had thieves‘ skills, which were different and they worked completely differently, because they were percentage based. So we wanted to marry all of that together.” Like RuneQuest and virtually every other contemporary roleplaying game, the new edition would adopt a single, core mechanic to resolve actions. Players made checks by rolling a d20, adding modifiers, and comparing the result against a difficulty class number. Skills now offered bonuses to these checks.

The older D&D skill system and AD&D proficiency checks had created in impression that the third-edition designers worked to avoid. In both systems, skills seemed like a requirement to attempt many tasks, so characters needed gemcutting skill to even attempt a radiant cut. That adds up. On the other hand, surely anyone could attempt bargaining and gambling, yet D&D’s original skill checks only applied to characters with a skill.

D&D’s new d20 core mechanic meant that skills expanded to include actions characters actually did in the game. For instance, rogues got skills rather than a private table listing their chance of hiding and picking pockets. “D&D was still a class based game, but the idea that you were not a thief, so you can’t climb and you can never climb, didn’t really hold a lot of water.” The system allowed any character to attempt to hide and climb. Unskilled characters just suffered worse odds of success. Good luck with the gemcutting.

By fourth edition the games designers worked hard to reach Gary Gygax’s ideal of teamwork—but only during combat. On the battlefield, each character class served a distinct role like striker and defender. For tasks outside combat, the designers contrived a skill challenge system aimed at ensuring that every character gained an equal chance to contribute.

During fifth edition’s design, the D&D designers planned to sideline skills in favor of simple ability checks. “We’re making skills completely optional,” lead designer Mike Mearls wrote. “They are a rules module that combines the 3E and 4E systems that DMs can integrate into their game if they so desire.”

But playtesters liked the depth that skills gave characters. Also finessing the game’s math so it played equally well with or without skill bonuses doubtless proved troublesome. So skills stayed part of the D&D core. The designers still chose to rename skill checks as ability checks. This further avoids from the implication that characters need a skill to attempt certain tasks. Without formal skill challenges, fifth edition allows characters with particular skills to shine more as individuals who bring special talents to contribute to the team.

And in the end, no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).