Category Archives: Uncategorized

One More Inspiration: Why I Made Color Maps for Battle Walker From the Abyss

At Winter Fantasy in 2018, Teos Abadia and I landed at a table run by DM Luke Reid, who wowed us with this skill as a dungeon master and his hand-drawn color maps. Luke created such an impression that Lysa Penrose interviewed him for a post that shared his mapmaking tips.

Map by Luke Reid

Map by Luke Reid

Inspired by Luke and eager to give life to some of my fantastic locations, decided to draw color maps of my own. After all, I took all the art classes in high school. Also, I wanted to try drawing on my iPad with a stylus. Ultimately, creating the maps took far more time than I imagined. Still, I’m pleased with the results. And for me, drawing feels relaxing and meditative. My adventure Battle Walker From the Abyss features a couple of climactic battles includes my maps for your VTT or for printing.

Shedaklah in the Abyss

Shedaklah in the Abyss (partial map)

Grand Abyss bridge

Grand Abyss bridges (partial map)

Iron fortress partial map

Iron fortress (partial map)

Monsters of the Multiverse Should Have Given Foes a Boost, But it Didn’t. Next Chance: 2024

As part of setting the math at the foundation of a Dungeons & Dragons edition, the game’s designers target the number of rounds a typical fight should last. Fifth edition aims for 3-4 rounds. Monsters deal enough damage to feel threatening to level-appropriate characters over those 3 or so rounds. In a deadly fight, that damage might match the characters’ hit points.

PCs Avg HPs/PC Party HPs CR of 4-5 monsters, barely deadly challenge Avg MM/Volp’s Dmg, monster of that CR Avg Dmg/rnd, 4 monsters Rounds to defeat all PCs
Five Level 2 PCs 17 85 5 x CR 1 10 50 1.7
Five Level 4 PCs 31 155 2 x CR 1
2 x CR 2
10
15
50 3.1
Five Level 8 PCs 59 295 5 x CR 4 25 125 2.36
Five Level 12 PCs 87 435 5 x CR 6 35 175 2.485714
Five Level 16 PCs 115 575 4 x CR 6
3 x CR 5
30
35
230 2.5
Five Level 20 PCs 143 715 4 x CR 9 45 280 2.553571

According to a table calculated by freelance designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia, fifth edition lands that 3-round target . At most levels, a deadly group of monsters needs about 2.5 rounds to slay typical characters. That number assumes every monster attack hits, and that the characters never bother to heal while failing to kill a single foe. Short of terrible luck, most groups will survive 5 rounds or more, finish their foes in 3-4 rounds, and win a potentially deadly encounter.

Fifth edition’s linear math seems sound, but as characters level, they keep adding on extra abilities that resist, block, and heal. Character power doesn’t grow linearly, it surges. As levels climb, that linear increase in monster damage becomes increasingly ineffectual.

From player feedback, the D&D team learned that monsters often fail to bring as big a threat as their challenge rating suggests.

Combat encounters can be fun for many reasons: Sometimes players relish a chance to flaunt their characters’ power by destroying overmatched foes. Sometimes players think of an ingenious tactic that leads to an easy victory—everyone loves when a plan comes together. But for most players, such romps would become tiresome if the game never offered hard battles. Difficult fights challenge players to fight smart, work as a team, and stretch their characters’ abilities. Tension builds until the group almost always wins. Fifth edition’s design makes hard fights feel more dangerous than they are. That’s one of the edition’s best features. But fifth edition lacks monsters able to consistently deliver fights that feel hard at higher levels.

When a battle falls short of expectations, we all feel disappointed. Teos writes, “The worst games I encounter are those where the story of the game, and the expectations of players and DM, don’t match the challenge level. It’s supposed to be the cinematic clash with the great demon, but it’s lame. It’s an ambush by a terrifying beast…that can’t deal any real damage.”

Sure, DMs can swap tougher monsters, but as levels rise, the options dwindle. And the game’s weak monsters force changes to every published adventure not aimed at low-level characters.

DMs can always add more monsters, but that approach suffers drawbacks too. More monsters means more mental load and more time running foes for the DM. all that adds more idle time for the players. More monsters also take more damage to defeat, potentially turning a slugfest into a grind. Fewer monsters mean faster paced, more exciting fights, as long as the monsters can threaten.

To help DMs run foes at the threat set by their challenge rating, Monsters of the Multiverse changes some monsters. These changes mainly appear in monsters that cast spells. Rather than burying the best combat options in a spell list, the new stat blocks spotlight the most potent powers with full descriptions. This helps DMs run a creature effectively during its typical 3-4 rounds of survival.

Still, better tactics can only do so much. If every monster book included a copy of The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, the poor creatures would still prove overmatched.

The problem circles back to how the monsters’ linear rise in damage fails to match the characters’ escalating ability to heal, block, and avoid damage. Somewhere in tier 2 the monsters start falling behind and the gap widens as levels increase.

So I hoped that Monsters of the Multiverse might update monsters to close the gap by increasing damage. The book does not.

To be clear, extra damage doesn’t aim to kill characters. At low levels, the designers assume players have little invested in their characters and will accept a few casualties. But for experienced characters, fifth edition boasts a design that makes deaths rare. By level 5, revivify makes total-party kills more common than individual deaths. By level 9, raise dead and more powerful spells can make death a dramatic choice. Players only fear disintegration. Extra damage does make players feel jeopardy though, even in a game that makes death a mere setback.

So what are the D&D designers afraid of? Why no changes?

Are the designers aiming for a game where monsters just serve to help PCs show off? I call this the Washington Generals style of game, and it offers a perfectly fine style for folks who enjoy it. The Washington Generals were the deliberately ineffective opponents who enabled the Harlem Globetrotters to showcase their basketball skills.

Are the designers afraid of making the game too dangerous for newer players who happen to play mid- to high- level games? Ironically, the game causes far more deaths at 1st and 2nd level. Just look at the 1.7 rounds 2nd-level characters survive a near-deadly encounter. Every fifth-edition character I’ve lost died at 2nd level.

Are the designers wary of side effects? For example, in games I’ve played where monsters automatically deal double damage, concentration spells become much weaker. I love wall of fire and spirit guardians and want them to last.

Do the designers want to avoid trashing their challenge rating spreadsheet and the game’s assumptions so close to an edition update coming in 2024? Surely the designers take some pride in their game and feel reluctant to change the math behind its monsters. The designers know DMs can adjust their games to account for what might seem like matters of taste. Besides, most campaigns hardly reach the levels where monsters fall seriously behind.

Obviously, DMs have the tools to adjust, just like we adapt all our games to the taste of our players. I just wish the D&D team had seized the chance to offer us better monstrous tools.

Why Does Rime of the Frostmaiden Have Just One Magic Weapon?

Spoilers for magic items in Rime of the Frostmaiden.

As written, Rime of the Frostmaiden includes a typical number of magic items, but only one useful magic weapon, a +2 trident. That count excludes the Berserker Axe, which attaches a harsh curse, and 6 laser rifles, which I don’t count as magic. Some players will relish letting their rogues and rangers become raygun-blasting snipers, but many players, including those with greatsword-wielding barbarians, may not fancy where a laser rifle steers their character.

Dunegon masters can change the adventure’s loot to fit their players, and you, I, and the designers all know it. Surely though, the lack of magic weapons comes by design, from a choice the authors made because they felt it enhanced the adventure.

What motivated this choice?

The stinginess reinforces the scarcity and struggle that sets the adventure’s early tone. ThinkDM writes, “It’s meant to convey desolation at the surface level of Icewind Dale, literally and figuratively. This sets a contrast to the high magic stuff happening later in the adventure.”

The adventure mainly avoids granting magic items that only suit a particular class or character, favoring wondrous items, protective items, and even a wand of magic missiles that any character can use. This avoids the awkward moment when the party finds a +2 longsword even though everyone wants a rapier. (DM hint: When you announce the find to that party, pronounce “longsword” as “rapier.”)

D&D’s fifth edition design aims to play fine without magic items, but a lack of magic weapons weakens fighters, rangers, and rogues against creatures resistant to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from non-magical attacks. Every character suffers moments like when the fireball-blasting sorcerer enters the forge of salamanders. However, the game makes creatures resistant to non-magic weapons common enough to lead the designers to give monks and druids fist and claw attacks that count as magic. The D&D Adventurers League gives out magic weapons to any fifth-level character who wants one. This avoids both penalizing the classes that need them and the awkward moments when a group finds the wrong type of magic sword.

In Frostmaiden, a certain infestation of vampires could overwhelm a party without magic weapons. At best, that barbarian spends a night feeling ineffective. Hope you found a laser rifle.

Dungeons Are Contrived for Fun Games

The ancient Egyptians used canopic jars to store the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver of corpses embalmed as mummies. I’m surprised that as a longtime D&D fan, I learned that fun fact only recently. Credit Jen Kretchmer, the author of The Canopic Being from Candlekeep Mysteries. The group for my D&D weekend started our tier 3 games with this standout adventure that built mummy lore into an ingenious villain.

After playing the adventure, I remembered that the dungeon’s lack of stairs caused a silly controversy. A preview by James Haeck reveals the feature. “It’s filled with fantasy elevators, and ledges are accessible by ramps rather than by stairs. If you have a player in your gaming group who wants to play a wheelchair-using character, this is a great adventure to borrow dungeon design ideas from. After all, it is a fantasy world. If it’s a player’s fantasy to kick ass in a wheelchair, why not?”

Some D&D fans grumbled that such a dungeon defied history or D&D tradition. In D&D, any closed environment meant to be explored, infiltrated, or raided qualifies as a dungeon, and those places almost always include substantial allowances to make play more fun, most often including oversized spaces with plenty of room for fights. D&D dungeons owe as much to history as fire-breathing dragons do. As for D&D tradition, the original 1974 D&D books recommend sloping passages and sinking rooms as tricky dungeon features. Dungeons can make such allowances and still murder characters.

James asks, “If we didn’t mention that the dungeon was fully accessible here, would you have even noticed that there were ramps instead of stairs?” True. Nobody noticed.

Upcoming on DM David

A month back, I gathered with five other gamers for a weekend of non-stop Dungeons & Dragons, an event that I overheard my mom saying sounded like “just an awful time.” She comes from a generation that recognized golf and fishing as the only leisure activities grown men could admit to enjoying, but she would not have rated those as a pleasant either. Her assessment of a fun weekend amuses me because we both understand that people like different things, and I like D&D. My group of enthusiasts started with new characters and jumped levels after each adventure until we capped the weekend at level 20.

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

For 9 years, I’ve written here about D&D. When I started, I figured I might run out of topics after a few months and stop. The ideas kept coming, and part of the fuel came from gaming conventions where I spoke with other gamers. For March 2020, I had a trip to GaryCon scheduled, but the pandemic pulled the plug. So a lack of such fan gatherings left me feeling short on inspiration.

The 6-person convention brought D&D thoughts, discussion, and a fresh surge of ideas. Our high-level play led to three posts on tier 4 games. Some of the thoughts lead to a variety of shorter posts that I plan to deliver twice a week until I run out.

Also today: Without encumbrance, Strength is a roleplaying choice for sub-optimal characters

How to Make a Mind-Controlling Sorcerer Who Forces DMs to Keep up with Some Fast Thinking

I made a character who can short-circuit adventures and force dungeon masters to do some fast thinking. Does that make me a troublemaker? I feel guilty as charged, but I blame curiosity. I wondered how experienced Adventurers League DMs accustomed to quick thinking would manage the character. While I haven’t played Poggry enough for a statistically significant sample size, I have made DMs visibly pause and ponder ways to make success in social encounters a bit less sudden.

My sorcerer Poggry favors spells like suggestion that influence the unwise and weak-willed. Normally, in a Dungeons & Dragons world, suggestion raises the anger of folks who prefer to keep spellcasters out of their heads.

According to the Player’s Handbook (p.203) spells like suggestion with verbal components require “the chanting of mystic words.” After making that incantation, the caster gives the suggestion in what D&D designer Jeremy Crawford calls “a separate, intelligible utterance.” Most Dungeons & Dragons worlds make magic common enough for ordinary folks to recognize spellcasting when it starts. In a D&D world, suggestion starts fights or finishes them. Unlike charm person, targets of suggestion don’t necessarily know they succumbed to a spell, but the mystic words reveal the magic.

So Poggry took the Subtle Spell metamagic option. “When you cast a spell you can spend 1 sorcery point to cast it without somatic or verbal components.” Suggestion still requires a material component like a spellcasting focus, but the caster just needs it in hand, so sorcerers able to hide their hands under something like a cloak can cast spells without notice. No wonder evil sorcerers favor capes. And just as real-life magicians sport bare arms to show that they have nothing up their sleeves, perhaps spellcasters in D&D worlds keep their hands empty to appear trustworthy.

Aside from the need to hide a focus, Subtle Spell turns suggestion into a sort of Jedi mind trick. If a target saves, they just ignore a bad recommendation. If they fail, they follow the suggestion and feel persuaded. The Sage Advice Compendium explains, “Assuming you failed to notice the spellcaster casting the spell, you might simply remember the caster saying, ‘The treasure you’re looking for isn’t here. Go look for it in the room at the top of the next tower.’ You failed your saving throw, and off you went to the other tower, thinking it was your idea to go there.” You can never know the source of the impulse, although a rash enough action might imply magic at work.

As a bonus, sorcerers boast real charisma, so when a subtle charm person seemed like too much, Poggry could charm to persuade. He combined a talent for deception with disguise self. I like heroic characters, so I imagined Poggry as a positive fellow from a bad situation who gained such talents for survival. Sample dialog: “It’s nice that you get to sleep on top of beds here. Where I come from, we always had to hide underneath them.”

If you opt to explore evil impulses by combining similar magic with a sociopath, share your plans with the rest of your group and gain their consent. A darker take on a manipulative sorcerer makes establishing hard and soft limits as described in Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything especially important.

Players of sorcerers commonly complain that their characters’ know too few spells, and choosing spells like disguise self over attack spells makes that limit even tighter. For a more versatile alternative with the same spellcasting tricks, you could design a caster such as a bard with Subtle Spell from the Metamagic Adept feat. Pick the College of Eloquence for maximum persuasion.

Using suggestion to tell enemy combatants to go jump in a lake gets old. When I played Poggry in combat-intensive adventures, he proved a bit dull. When I finally played him an adventure with a masquerade ball, intrigue, and exactly one fight, he became a delight. My poor DM for that session might disagree.

Spells like a subtle suggestion can potentially reduce an adventure full of diplomacy and intrigue to a few failed saves. Combined with a knack for deception, a spell like disguise self can turn an assault on a stronghold to retrieve some mcguffin into a solo milk run. Either spell can wreck the expectations of a written adventure. Such magic can force DMs to imagine ways to reward a characters’ talents while leaving room for the rest of the party to contribute. Think fast! (Or just call for a break to dream up new complications.)

Related: Should Charm Person Work Like a Jedi Mind Trick?

D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books

The prior edition of Dungeons & Dragons, its fourth, welcomed too many players with a feel-bad moment. Eager new players would join a table with a character built from their new copy of their Player’s Handbook and learn the character was unplayable—full of errors created by fourth edition’s errata. The potential message: Your character is bad and you can’t use the book you just bought without embarrassing yourself.

The fourth-edition team strived to get rules right the first time, but they faced a relentless publishing schedule focused on releasing as many hardcovers as the market would bear, all packed with character options. To fix the inevitable missteps, the designers relied on players able to download errata. The game’s business strategy centered on online subscriptions to D&D Insider, so the finished rules existed on the internet, while the books attracted completists and folks who enjoyed reading the latest D&D lore from a comfy chair.

For fifth edition, the D&D team completely reverses this strategy, striving to avoid any changes that contradict text in print. In newer printings, wording gets an occasional change for clarity, but the game’s mechanics remain virtually unchanged. Surely this stability accounts for a measure of the newest edition’s success in winning new players.

To perfect new content before it reaches print, the D&D team relies on a slower release schedule and on letting players preview and test new game elements as Unearthed Arcana. Only the rare overpowered features that prove game breaking get tweaks. While the D&D team avoids errata, they feel comfortable assuming that players and dungeon masters can ignore feats, spells, and archetypes that don’t suit their game. If we find some spells annoying, then we can skip them.

Still, the D&D designers see the game’s flaws. The 12th printing of the fifth-edition Player’s Handbook includes some corrections. On rare occasions, the designers feel compelled to make functional changes to printed rules. For example, errata to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything changes the healing spirit spell from game altering to adequate.

Newer D&D books give the D&D team chances to improve on the Player’s Handbook without actually invalidating anything. Mainly the new books offer options that improve on the original versions. Players can still opt for the original, but the newer alternatives rank as stronger, easier, or just as a more flavorful realization of an archetype. So Xanathar’s Guide To Everything revisits the rules for downtime with a more evolved take, and Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything includes new beast master companions that strengthen the ranger archetype.

During the typical edition cycle of a roleplaying game, years of play expose flaws, while new supplements build a complexity that rewards obsessed players while deterring newcomers. But the D&D team’s careful release strategy has let the game attract new players when most RPGs—including past D&D editions—introduce a new edition. The rules foundation of fifth edition remains strong enough that even an enthusiast like me just names a couple of feats as the worst thing in the game. New editions fuel a surge of sales as a game’s existing fans replace their books, but they also lose players who choose not to leave their experience and old books behind.

Given the success of fifth edition, I suspect the D&D team would feel content keeping the lightly-edited Player’s Handbook in print for years to come. However, I predict that one change in emphasis will lead to a quicker revision. In an article on diversity, the team writes that in the six years since fifth edition’s release “making D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible has moved to the forefront of our priorities.”

This new emphasis shows in Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything and the book’s options for customizing characters.

The original, 1974 D&D game avoided linking ability scores to a character’s race. Nearly 5 years later the game’s Advanced version added ability score penalties and bonuses for elves, dwarves, halflings, and half orcs. This change reinforced fantasy archetypes, but it also limited player freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes. Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. Sure, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are imaginary species, but they become relatable reflections of us in the game world. After all, imaginary halflings, I mean hobbits, just started as Tolkien’s stand-ins for ordinary folks.

Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything offers an alternative to ability score modifiers. “If you’d like your character to follow their own path, you may ignore your Ability Score Increase trait and assign ability score increases tailored to your character.” In a post previewing the change, the D&D team writes, “This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.”

The old approach to races in the Player’s Handbook hinders the book as a welcome to D&D. I predict that by the end of 2022, Wizards of the Coast will release of new version of the Player’s Handbook that revisits the old ability score adjustments in favor of the more flexible version. To be clear, this will not represent a 6th edition, but merely a better welcome to the existing game. That book will join revised versions of the other core books by swapping some of the original elements of the edition with the improved alternatives that appeared in more recent books. Meanwhile, the revisited Monster Manual will make some of our more fearsome reflections in the game world clearly “as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.” After all, isn’t that freedom to decide a lot of the reason we love D&D?

Related: 3 Posts that Need Updates Thanks to Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

D&D’s Advice for Dungeon Masters Offers Nothing on Running Dungeons

Even as a game with dungeons in the title, Dungeons & Dragons offers zero advice for dungeon masters aiming to run dungeons. The game provides plenty of help for the solo fun of sitting with a blank sheet of graph paper and designing dungeons, but nothing for sitting behind a DM screen across from players entering the underworld.

Seeking to fill this gap, I paged through a stack of guides and volumes of advice, many with titles like Dungeonscape and even just Dungeons. The dungeon-related content breaks down like this:

65% designing dungeons
35% exploring dungeons
0% running dungeons

To be fair, the 0% appears because I never counted D&D’s original volume 3, Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. That book includes Gary Gygax’s attempt to describe dungeon crawls in terms familiar to miniature-wargame grognards. So the explanation has parties taking turns marking inches of movement. Today, only groups seeking D&D’s roots attempt such formality.

Why so few tips for running the dungeon part of a dungeon adventure?

Partly, we givers of advice tend to suppose that dungeon masters already know how to master dungeons. After all, the game’s 3-step loop works underground. (1) Describe the situation. (2) Ask what the players want to do. (3) Resolve the action. Newcomers easily learn these 3 steps at the heart of roleplaying games, becoming players and potentially DMs. Beyond that, most advice for game masters works perfectly well underground.

Also, dungeon advice can prove situational. That original procedure with turns and movement works fine in a mythic underworld, but in other locations it amounts to tedium.

Still, when I started writing tips for running dungeons, and then asked for help from D&D fans on Twitter, I uncovered plenty of help specific to running secrets and challenges mapped on a sheet of graph paper. In a follow-up post, I reveal my favorite tip.

Start Here: My Most Popular and Favorite Posts

This page list the most popular articles on DMDavid by category.

Signed Greyhawk CoverD&D History

Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

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

Meet the Woman Who by 1976 Was the Most Important Gamer in Roleplaying After Gary

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

Behind D&D’s Design

Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve

The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit

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

The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition

The Dungeons & Dragons Spells Gary Gygax Never Meant for Players

Character Building

7 Dungeons & Dragons Character Builds Absurdly Good at One Thing

7 Best Classes to Add to Multiclass a Dungeons & Dragons Character

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

The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat

Dungeon Master Advice

In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons

You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (and So Do I)

5 Tricks for Creating Brilliant Dungeon Maps From Will Doyle

How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure

Reference and Play Aids

A Complete List and Gallery of Dungeon Tiles Sets

New Photo Guide to Dungeon Master’s Tools

Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk

What Is the Typical Amount of Treasure Awarded in a Fifth-Edition Dungeons & Dragons Campaign?

Gallery of poster battle maps published for Dungeons & Dragons

How to Print Map Graphics As Battle Maps Using Free Software

Great Adventures

Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985

How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures for Good

How Running Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan Reversed My Opinion of It

Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes

Opinion

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

How New Changes Created the 4 Most Annoying Spells in Dungeons & Dragons

Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes As Much as They Think

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

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

Dungeon Masters: Why Your Players Might Not Love Theater of the Mind As Much as You Do