This page list the most popular articles on DMDavid by category.
Time for another visit to the comment section, starting with a request.
DM Bill writes, “Could you do an article about humans versus non-humans, and the importance of the First Edition level cap, please!”
Until third edition, Dungeons & Dragons limited non-human characters to maximum levels in most classes. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax favored the sort of human-dominated fantasy that appeared in the fiction that inspired him. To Gary, demi-human level limits explained why humans dominated D&D worlds despite the extraordinary talents and longevity of elves and dwarves. Gary wrote, “If demi-humans, already given some advantages, were as able as humans, the world would be dominated by them, and there goes the whole of having a relatively familiar world setting in regards to what cultures and societies one will find in control. So a demi-human is unlimited in thief level only, as that this a class not destined to control the fate of major groups or states.”
I doubt the rare humans who become capable enough to overshadow non-humans really explain human prevalence in a D&D world, but the level limits encouraged playing human characters and tended to fill adventuring parties with humans. Of course, some groups simply ignored the rule.
Gary wrote, “Why are humans more able to rise to higher levels than demi-humans? Because the gods say so, and don’t like pointy eared types with curly-toed shoes, squat miners with big beards, hairy-footed midgets, etc.” Gary intended the comment as harmless fun at the expense of make-believe creatures, and in 2005 most readers read it that way. But now the comment reads in a way Gary surely didn’t consider. In our history, people have justified inflicting countless horrors on other humans by claiming that God disapproved of some group. Talking about even fictional half-humans like this raises uncomfortable echoes.
Nowadays, many players feel drawn to the exotic character races. In an apt post, John Arendt compares the typical Adventurers League party to the Munsters, a collection of exotic, monstrous types with perhaps one human for contrast. “When an AL player sits down with a shadar-kai shadow sorcerer, there’s no point in even asking them what they’re doing in a large human city; the players haven’t considered it. The culture is about players assembling races and classes because the mechanical bits sound cool.” I see many players drawn to exotic characters for their story, flavor, and for the chance to play someone who seems extraordinary even in a D&D world. That urge never succeeds as well as players hope. Even in the Forgotten Realms, a party that includes a deep gnome, a tortle, a triton, a shadar-kai, and a guy with flaming hair would alarm ordinary folks, but to keep the adventure on track everyone treats such groups as unremarkable.
D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character
In D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character I touted the power of find familiar.
Seven writes, “When used correctly find familiar is way overpowered. My owl scouts ahead so we don’t get ambushed. My owl flies down the tunnel triggering the glyph. My owl scouts the dungeon as I watch. Oh, it dies. Ok, I ritually cast. Let’s burn an hour.
“I disallowed the Help action in combat for familiars and my players try not to abuse the power granted by the find familiar, but I miss the old days when you suffered a consequence when your familiar died.”
Ilbranteloth writes, “Why can’t a spirit have a personality? Gwenhwyver was a magic item, but had a personality and sting connection to Drizzt. Having a personality is up the player. It has nothing to do with being a flesh and blood creature that only exists in our imagination.”
If find familiar feels too strong for a 1st-level spell, I suggest limiting it by adding two elements:
Treat the familiar as an non-player character with an attitude and a some desire to avoid getting hurt. As controlled by the dungeon master, familiars follow orders, but not necessarily cheerfully or recklessly.
Doors. Scouting familiars lack the hands needed to open most doors.
The post also suggested find steed and find greater steed to players interested in gaining a mount.
Larissa writes, “Find greater steed is a 4th-level spell, so paladins won’t get it until level 13. For the greater steed, play a bard and take the spell at level 10, because for a paladin it’s a long wait.”
Steal This Rule: Flashbacks and Heists in Dungeons & Dragons
The post Steal This Rule: Flashbacks and Heists in Dungeons & Dragons explained how to adapt rules for flashbacks to Dungeons & Dragons.
Morten Greis writes, “It is kind of weird to see flashbacks-mechanics coming back as if it was a wholly new thing. In 2010, I wrote this: Using Flashbacks in Your Roleplaying Game. It is a great mechanic, though, and it is good to see people using it more.”
For gamers interested in flashbacks, Morten’s post gives more suggestions for using the mechanic to enhance your game.
Michael Lush writes, “‘The Arcadian Job’ episode of the Netflix series 3Below: Tales of Arcadia had an interesting flash-forward spin on this.
“The protagonists need to break into a high security military base, but the action focuses on the planning session where they narrate what they are doing and their plans appear on screen.
“We infiltrate under cover of night and cut through the wall with…BZZZZZZT!!! No, can’t do that! Look the wall is electrified…
“We infiltrate under cover of night and short circuit the wall (failed Security roll. An alarm rings, guards show up, and we die in a hail of blaster fire! No, can’t do that…
“OK. Infiltrate under cover of night, insulate the wall with rubber matting (rolls a success), and climb over the…ZAP!! Oh sentry turrets.
“Hmm. The wall is a bust. How about the gate?
“Once they bypass all the security, the flash-forward planning switches back to normal real-time play.”
In a tabletop game, such planning steps would resemble a video game where when you run into trouble, you restore to the last save. The story that develops includes no failures because the framing story shows how the players planned around all the pitfalls.
The 3Below episode finds a new take on the usual storytelling approach to planning. Typically, if the characters make a plan on screen, we know the plan will fail. The narrative lets us enjoy the surprise and tension of seeing the plan unravel. But if we never see the planning, then the plan succeeds. Narratives never show heroes making successful plans because revisiting a familiar plan as it unfolds would prove less interesting.
lunaabadia writes, “One of the mechanics I really like in Gumshoe games such as Night’s Black Agents is the Preparedness skill. It represents this concept that your character has a knack for planning. As with other skills in the game, you spend one or more points to add to a roll for what you are trying to accomplish. You might say, ‘but of course I brought night goggles,’ and you make the roll. As you noted above, the whole point is to zip past the boring hours players can spend wondering what gear to bring. Preparedness answers the question of whether you brought it and frees players’ brains to focus on the action.
“I would guess Preparedness could be done with Inspiration, and in a heist session it could make a lot of sense to give each player Inspiration at the start of the mission, representing their planning. Do you spend it on a roll? Or do you hold it in case you need to do a flashback?”
7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing
The post 7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing continues to attract readers and comments.
Geoff writes, “Disciple of Life doesn’t apply to goodberries. It says ‘whenever you use a spell of 1st level or higher to restore hit points to a creature, the creature regains additional hit points.’ Goodberry is a spell that summons magical berries, not a spell that restores hit points to a creature.”
Your interpretation adds up, but officially the interaction works. See this Sage Advice post.
Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?
In Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?, I had a bit of fun at the expense of one of the earliest fantasy roleplaying games.
Shane Devries tells how his group started playing Chivalry & Sorcery by ignoring most of the rules, and then slowly added complexity. “Over a period of a couple of years we were playing the entire system as written and NEVER looked back. Over time D&D and Palladium dropped away and by 1985 all we played was Chivalry & Sorcery, which we still play to this day. All my players prefer C&S BECAUSE of its complexity and revel in the system and what it has to offer. The older players in my group with decades of experience will not go back to D&D or any other system for this fact.”
Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start)
The post Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start) prompted some readers to share their bad experiences dropping in for Adventurers League games.
Alphastream responds, “The experience really varies, but bad areas are uncommon. I’ve traveled for work across the US and tried many different stores. I would say under 15% are truly bad, primarily due to bad store management. And, even when I’ve found a bad one, I’ve offered to DM an additional table, recruited players via MeetUp (or a similar site), and had a great time. I’ve had far better results finding AL tables and meeting cool players/DMs there than I have with trying to find decent home groups. Good stores are also very welcoming to new players. Stores overall are changing a lot these days, mastering skills to draw in customers through many different programs and creating healthy and safe spaces focused on fun.”
My local game store draws players interested in sampling D&D, and while many become regulars, many don’t return. The conversion rate rises when prospective players arrive at a table starting a new campaign or hardcover. When players get slotted into an ongoing game, they seem to find the experience more daunting. An ideal welcome would feature short seasons of low-level games that fed into a higher-level experience. Wizards of the Coast should support a program like that. I can even suggest a name for it.
How New Changes Created the 4 Most Annoying Spells in Dungeons & Dragons
In How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, I wrote, “By the end of the encounter, player characters go from one beguiled victim to the next, raining attacks on the defenseless pinatas. As a DM, I may be biased, but I think the least fun scenes in the game come when PCs beat helpless foes to death.”
Acemindbreaker writes, “Why play that out? If it’s clear that their opponents stand no chance, montage it instead of rolling the dice. ‘So, your opponents are all helpless as long as your wizard keeps up hypnotic pattern. Are you intending to kill them all?’
“‘All right, easy enough to do. Once they’re all dead, what next?’”
Zachiel cites maze as an annoying spell that can wreck most player characters. Wizards aside, PCs never boast enough intelligence to make a DC20 check on less than a 20. Lucky for players, few will ever face the 8th-level spell. However, the spell appears on Acererak’s list in Tomb of Annihilation, so I got to send someone to the labyrinth, and that delighted me. My joy probably makes me a mean DM, but we DMs so rarely get to thwart players with such potent magic.
How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less
How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less suggested ways DMs can delegate some of their tasks to players.
Daniel writes, “My players enjoyed reciting expository dialog (usually in the form of flashback conversations involving NPCs). Maybe this is because some of them had more of an acting background than a gaming one. It does mean that I had to compose and print the dialog in advance but it then saved me having to do too much talking (and switching personas) during a session.”
In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?
The post In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling? raised a question that drew plenty of interest.
RobOQ writes, “As a player I tend to get annoyed at rolling for every imaginable thing. I prefer, both as a player and a DM, to go by the rule of ‘if there isn’t an interesting outcome to both success and failure on the roll, leave the dice where they are and just describe the more interesting outcome.’ I see very little point in rolling dice where a failure means the situation doesn’t change at all.”
Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes
In Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes, I betrayed a low passive insight by suggesting that a liar might avoid eye contact.
Dr Sepsis writes, “Someone who is lying is more likely to make eye contact as they check to see if they’re being detected.”
HDA writes, “Instead of rolling dice to get information, make your players think, observe, ask questions, learn from the world around them. As the DM playing a non-player character, maybe raise your eyebrow a bit. You know, emote. What is even the point of having intrigue and deception in your game if the players can just roll to see through it?”
8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell
This answer defies the answer the design team gave when they introduced the game, but fine. In practice, the newer ruling makes magic missile an efficient way to break concentration and to finish fallen characters. (See Can a DM Have Monsters Kill Fallen Characters Without Bringing Hurt Feelings?)
After penning my 8 facts, I watched a Q&A panel by TSR editor Tim Kask that expanded on one. Gary Gygax’s debates with Tim helped shape Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “The only thing that I won was that magic missile always hits for damage,” Tim said. “It took me two-and-a-half weeks of arguing. I kept telling him that that’s the only thing the little guy gets and if it’s hit or miss, then he’s dead.”
Dan writes, “I would actually argue that the magic missile and shield spells were inspired by a bit earlier in that scene from The Raven, whereby Karloff produces magical knives and an ax and sends them toward Price, who blocks them with magic barriers.
“The small exploding balls at the beginning of your embedded video are much more likely to have been what inspired Melf’s Minute Meteors.”
Steve Blunden writes, “Seeing both these clips, and of course the wizard duels in Harry Potter inspired me to see if the rather colourless counterspell could be dramatically improved. When a character tries to cast counterspell, the player should be encouraged to describe what this might look like. E.g. if counterspell is used against fireball, the player can describe the counterspell as a jet of water leaping out of their hand to douse the fire.”
In Making Counterspell Awesome, Mike “Sly Fourish” Shea recommended this approach.
How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story
The post How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story prompted alphastream to share some history.
“Second edition and earlier simply had fragile PCs. You could die easily, end of story.
“Third edition had monsters that were absolutely brutal at all tiers, plus some really exploitable loopholes (such as non-associated class levels) that created sky-high challenges. This all meant that if the DM knew how to craft monsters,characters could easily die, even when they had full hit points. Unfortunately, it was incredibly taxing to modify monsters.
“Fourth edition gave PCs too much of a safety net between hp and healing surges, though the edition also had some amazing challenges (especially after the developers went back and corrected the monster design math).
“Fifth edition on paper looks more fragile than 4E, but it has not been in play. Characters are very resilient and have a lot of hit points compared to monster damage. Monsters are often given special abilities and to balance that they do less damage, but the abilities don’t actually threaten PCs with death. This problem is even worse at high tiers of play, where monster damage is absolutely shameful. Most monsters have no chance. If they hit 100% of the time they still could not drop all the PCs to 0 hit points. And when that isn’t the case, there is no way for the PCs to be defeated in most fights. To me, the 5E solution is pretty simple: add damage.”
Abelhawk writes, “I have a couple of house rules that make death a bit more dangerous and limiting:
“1. When a character is brought to 0 hit points, they gain a level of exhaustion. Levels of exhaustion gained in this way go away after a short rest, or if the character is brought to half their hit point maximum.
“2. When a character dies and is brought back to life, they receive one permanent death saving throw failure. A character with three permanent death saving throw failures cannot be brought back to life by any means.”
Imposing exhaustion on characters raised from 0 hp rates as a fairly popular house rule. As for the second house rule, I like the idea of limiting characters to some maximum number of resurrections.
Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story
In the post, Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story, I wrote, “If D&D players wanted a game where fighting rated as a last resort, they would play Call of Cthulhu or the Dallas Television RPG, where you can’t shoot JR.”
Jacob Blalock responds, “Most people who want to play have to take what they can get in terms of finding a group to play with, and that means they mostly play the most recent edition of the most widely recognized RPG, 5th-edition D&D.”
Jacob makes a fair point. Some roleplaying gamers play D&D because the game’s popularity makes finding a group easier, rather than because the game perfectly suits their tastes.
Cymond writes, “I was recently considering the idea of a house rule: Let a dying character remain conscious but unable to act or speak loudly. You can still have those dramatic deathbed moments where they confess their eternal love, beg to be avenged, plead with the unscrupulous rogue to please save the world, etc. Or maybe say that they don’t die immediately after 3 failed saves, but are beyond saving with anything less that the same things that would resurrect them, and save the deathbed moment until after combat.”
Tardigrade writes, “I strongly feel that if a character death is a problem for your narrative, then you’re playing the game wrong. If you are narrating a story, go write a book. If you are trying to create an experience that challenges players, then play D&D, design the game so that their choices matter and don’t fudge the dice.”
BlobinatorQ responds, “Ultimately it comes down to the group. If the group wants D&D to be nothing but challenges, and wants the stakes to be high with character death always on the table, then so be it. If the group wants to build and be invested in a narrative, and don’t want people left out of the experience due to some unlucky dice rolls, then things should be crafted to suit that. There is no one right way to play D&D, it can be a very different game for different groups.”
When I explained the problems that death creates for a story, I focused on the story a particular player imagines for their character. The story of a D&D campaign can stand some character deaths, but that doesn’t cushion the blow a dead character brings to their player.
Ilbranteloth notes that the 1st-edition rules for characters at 0 hit points were forgiving, giving players at least 7 rounds to help a fallen character.
“What differs significantly are the consequences of your near-death experience. And this is where I think 5e has made it much less of a thing. In AD&D, if you were reduced to 0 hp, then once you were restored to at least 1 hp with mundane OR MAGICAL means, you were in a coma for 10-60 minutes. Then you had to rest for a full week, minimum. A Heal spell was required to avoid this period of rest.
“There was a significant consequence already built into the game for dying and we avoided it because it generally put the adventure on hold while the party headed back to town to rest and recover.
“In most cases, it also meant nobody was out of the game. The entire party went to town to rest and resupply, and of course you didn’t have to play that out. So it was a short, we-failed moment.
“If this one rule was still in effect, then the risk of death is back, without having to kill any PCs. And it also has the effect of reducing the risk of actual character death because players try to make sure they aren’t reduced to 0 hp.”
I have now learned that when I played AD&D, everyone I played with got the rules for 0 hit points wrong.
Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk
The post Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk explained why I typically use a DM screen.
Alphastream writes, “When I run organized play games and don’t use a screen, I get maybe one person every four or so tables that can’t help but look at my notes. And when that happens, they tend to look often… enough that it distracts me! So, I tend to use a screen. Plus, I like collecting/buying screens and then I get to show them off.
“I find screens can be effective for drawing attention from others. In a public space where that’s valuable, such as to get other people walking by to be interested and sit down, it can be an asset.”
“The least valuable aspect of a screen, for me, is what’s printed on my side. Outside of a few things, such as conditions, dispel magic, and counterspell, I never look anything up. What I’ve been doing lately is draping two pieces of paper taped together over one part of my screen. Facing the players is a map of the general area of the world. Facing me is a list of the character names and info I want for help with roleplay: race, background, class/subclass, etc. I add a list of important campaign NPCs and similar notes. That’s stuff I reference all the time.”
I have one young player who finds the basilisk so irresistible that I often see his eyes rise like Kilroy over the top of my screen.
The post’s sidebar explained why I roll in the open and raised some debate.
I wrote, “If I had rolled behind the screen and simply announced a pair of crits, the event would have fallen as flat as a card trick on radio.”
Navy DM responds, “If players have that low level of trust in their DM, then that is a whole different issue.”
Sam replies, “Sounds more like the excitement and watching the dice roll than not trusting what the DM rolled to me.”
Marty replies, “Exactly. The tension comes from seeing the rolls and reacting. Rolling in the open has completely changed my game for the better.”
Most DMs who roll behind the screen acknowledge that they occasionally override rolls to shape play, aiming for a better experience. Rather than players trusting their DM to stick to a die roll, I assume the players trust the DM to not abuse their privilege in some way. What would count as a betrayal of trust?
To be clear, I make some rolls in secret to conceal information from the players. I often roll hidden perception and especially insight checks to avoid revealing secrets.
Beyond the advantages I described in the post, rolling in the open forces me to honor any surprises the dice send my way. If a secret roll upends my plans, I might feel tempted to ignore the roll and take the comfortable path I expected. For me, rolling in the open feels a bit more exciting, like dungeon mastering without a net.
Other DMs feel like sometimes overriding rolls lets them craft a more dramatic game. I respect that perspective, but it’s not for me.
In 2008, Paizo sent designer Jason Buhlman to the Winter Fantasy convention to sample the upcoming fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons and report on the game. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens recalls the outcome. “From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 System Reference Document: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.” See The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers.
While fourth edition featured a bold new design aimed at saving D&D, Pathfinder became an alternative that refined D&D’s 3.5 edition. For a time, sales of Pathfinder rivaled D&D. But after nearly 10 years, Pathfinder needed an update. So in August 2019, Paizo released a second edition. In a post, lead designer Jason Buhlman named the update’s number one goal: “Create a new edition of Pathfinder that’s much simpler to learn and play—a core system that’s easy to grasp but expandable—while remaining true to the spirit of what makes Pathfinder great: customization, flexibility of story, and rules that reward those who take the time to master them.” Even new, Pathfinder 2 offers more character options than fifth edition.
On reading the new rules and playing a short introduction, I can share 10 things I like in the new game, and 1 thing I don’t’.
1. “Ancestry” instead of “race.” In the The Hobbit, Tolkien calls hobbits a race, and started the custom of referring to elves, dwarves, and other fantastic kin to humans as races. But the term “race” has a common meaning different from the game meaning, which leads to confusion. Referring to even imaginary “races” as intrinsically talented, virtuous, or corrupt feels unsavory at best. “Species” makes a more accurate term, but its scientific flavor makes it jarring in fantasy. Pathfinder replaces “race” with the more agreeable term of “ancestry.” Unless Wizards of the Coast resists an innovation “not invented here,” expect to see “ancestry” in some future sixth edition.
2. Fewer action types. The Pathfinder team saw new players stumble over the original game’s zoo of swift, immediate, move, and standard actions. In a bid to simplify, this second edition consolidates the action types into a system that gives characters 3 actions and 1 reaction per turn. This means even new characters can attempt 3 attacks per turn, although the second strike suffers a -5 penalty and the third a -10 penalty. In practice, only more proficient attackers will land extra attacks. Most spells require 2 actions to cast. When I played a Pathfinder 2 demo, its simpler actions proved very playable, even elegant.
In a related refinement, Pathfinder adds clarity by calling a single attack a strike. This avoids the confusion that the D&D rules sometimes cause by using the same word for an attack and for an attack action that can include multiple attacks.
3. Animal companions level up. To many D&D players, animal companions offer a special appeal, but the game’s support for pets remains shaky. Pathfinder devotes an entire section to animal companions and familiars, showing pets the attention they deserve. Rather than keeping animal companions close to their natural abilities, pets improve in lockstep as characters level, making them capable of staying alive and relevant.
4. A manageable encumbrance system. D&D measures encumbrance by pound. While this system seems to add complicated bookkeeping, it proves simple in play because everyone ignores it. Pathfinder measures encumbrance by Bulk, a value representing an item’s size, weight, and general awkwardness. You can carry Bulk equal to 5 plus your strength bonus. Bulk streamlines encumbrance enough to make tracking playable. (Plus, the system charms the grognard in me by recalling a similar rule in Runequest (1978) that tracked encumbrance by “Things.”)
5. User-friendly books. Paizo devoted extra attention to making the core rulebook into an easy reference. For instance, the book includes bleed tabs, and I love them. These bleed tabs don’t show how to play a metal song on guitar; they make finding chapters easy. Unlike typical tabs that jut from the page, bleed tabs show as printed labels on the page that go to the edge and appear as bands of color. The book combines an index and glossary into a section that defines game terms, and also leads readers to pages containing more information. Every game rulebook should include these features.
6. Degrees of success. Roleplaying games often include core mechanics that determine degrees of success or failure, but D&D only offers one extra degree: a 5% chance of a critical on attack rolls. The Pathfinder 2 system delivers a critical success on a 20 and a critical failure on a 1. Also, a check that exceeds the DC by 10 or more brings a critical success and a check 10 or more less than the DC brings critical failure. Pathfinder avoids the punishing effects that make some fumble systems too swingy. For instance, a critical failure on a strike just counts as a miss. Sorry, no fumble tables that lead characters to put their eye out. Where natural, fumbles and criticals affect spell saves. For example, a successful save against Gust of Wind lets you stand your ground, and a critical save leaves you unaffected.
7. The Incapacitation trait of spells. Save-or-die spells have proved troublesome in high-level D&D play. Campaigns that build to an epic clash with a fearsome dragon instead end with the beast helpless in a force cage and stabbed to death in a dreary series of damage rolls. Pathfinder gives spells like Force Cage and Banishment the Incapacitation trait. Creatures twice or more the level of the spell typically need to fumble their save to fall under its effect. To me, this beats D&D’s solution to the same problem, legendary resistance.
8. Character customization without decision paralysis. Fourth edition D&D focused on offering players vast numbers of character options. Players uninterested in the solitary hobby of character tinkering soon found the options overwhelming. For my characters, I turned to the Internet to find character optimizers who sifted through countless options and helped me choose. Pathfinder aims to give players room for character customization without forcing a bewildering number of choices. The system works by presenting character options as feats. At each level, players make selections from small menus of feats. Even first level characters of the same class can play differently, and they grow more distinct as they advance.
9. Skill DCs replace passive checks. Pathfinder dispenses with passive perception and passive insight in favor of Skill DCs, “When someone or something tests your skill, they attempt a check against your skill DC, which is equal to 10 plus your skill modifiers.” Often skill DCs work just like passive abilities, like when a stealthy character attempts to beat someone’s perception score. In the most common use of skill DCs, a sneaking creature would roll against a character’s perception skill DC.
Without passive perception, a game master must roll secret perception checks to learn if exploring characters spot traps. Passive perception aims to eliminate such die rolls, but I consider rolls to find hidden traps useful. Without a roll, DMs just compare set DCs verses passive scores. DMs who know their players’ scores decide in advance what traps get found, with no luck of the roll to make the game surprising. Skill DCs also replace opposed ability checks—a second core mechanic with skewed odds that clutters the D&D rules.
10. Limited opportunity attacks. To encourage more movement in combat, Pathfinder 2 limits the characters and creatures capable of making opportunity attacks. At first level, only fighters start with the capability. Opportunity attacks mainly existed to help front-line characters protect the unarmored magic users in the back, but D&D and Pathfinder make once-fragile character types more robust now. Opportunity attacks make sense as a fighter specialty, especially if that encourages more dynamic battles.
That makes 10 things I like. What do I dislike?
Pathfinder 2 features a proficiency system that leads to the sort of double-digit bonuses that D&D players last saw in fourth edition.
In trained skills, every Pathfinder 2 character gets a bonus equal to at least 2 plus their level. This steady advance makes characters feel more capable as they level and rewards players with a sense of accomplishment as their characters improve. “The best part about proficiencies is the way they push the boundaries for non-magical characters, particularly those with a legendary rank,” writes designer Mark Seifter. “Masters and especially legends break all those rules. Want your fighter to leap 20 feet straight up and smash a chimera down to the ground? You can do that (eventually)!”
As in fourth edition, Pathfinder game masters can justify the sky-high DCs needed to challenge high-level characters by describing obstacles of legendary proportions. At first level, the rogue must climb a rough dungeon wall; by 20th level, she must climb a glass-smooth wall covered in wet slime—in an earthquake. At first level, you must negotiate with the mayor; by twentieth level, he’s king. And you killed his dog.
At least as often as fourth-edition dungeon masters flavored higher DCs as bigger challenges, they just paired routine challenges with higher numbers. That tendency leads to the downside of such steep increases in proficiency. In practice, characters usually just advance to face higher and higher numbers for the same challenges. In fourth edition, a steady rise in attack bonuses and armor classes meant that monsters only made suitable challenges for a narrow band of levels. This may also apply to Pathfinder 2.
I favor fifth edition’s bounded accuracy over the steep increases in proficiency bonuses featured in Pathfinder 2. For more, see Two Problems that Provoked Bounded Accuracy.
Aside from these 11 things, how does Pathfinder differ from its sibling Dungeons & Dragons?
Gamers often describe Pathfinder as more crunchy—more rules heavy—than fifth edition. After all, the core rulebook spans 638 pages! But that book includes content that D&D splits between the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and those books include almost exactly the same number of pages. In some ways, Pathfinder proves simpler. For instance, its system actions and reactions simplifies D&D’s action types. Still, Pathfinder devotes more crunch to describing outcomes and conditions. For example, in D&D, characters make a Strength (Athletics) check to climb, but the DM gets no help determining the outcome of a failure. Pathfinder describes outcomes: A climb failure stops movement; a critical failure leads to a fall. D&D describes 14 conditions; Pathfinder describes 42.
Without playing more Pathfinder 2, I feel unready to label this post as a review. Nonetheless, I like most of what I see and I’m eager to play the game more.
Time for another visit to the comment section. At the end, one reader tells a true story of how the Satanic panic drove a group’s Dungeons & Dragons games into secret, and what happened when concerned citizens learned of the underground game.
Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing
In Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing, I contrasted the moral dilemmas that reveal D&D characters against the baby-orc dilemma that dungeon masters should avoid.
Dan wrote, “The thing with the baby monsters from Keep on the Borderlands is that Gary Gygax never intended for the to be a moral dilemma. He assumed that all party members would be agreed on cleaning the place out, paladins included. When asked about it on the Internet in later years, he was somewhat incredulous that it even came up, stating that a properly-played paladin should view justice from a medieval perspective and would take the stance that ‘nits beget lice.’”
Unlike Gary Gygax, today’s players often see humanoids as reflections of humanity. So tarring entire races of humanoids as irredeemably corrupt and worthy of extermination draws troubling parallels to the real treatment of real human groups.
Rasmusnord01 wrote, “I think of three things that can help avoid making the ‘baby-orc issue’ into a problem. (1) Have a leader of the group. In the hands of the right player, a designated leader can help resolve situations and keep the discussion from taking too long. (2) Avoid allowing mercy to come back to bite the players. (3) Make ‘evil’ humanoids more nuanced.”
Teos “alphastream” Abadia wrote, “A friend of mine who used to write for Living Greyhawk said to me once that a great adventure teaches you something about your character. Over the years, that advice has stood the test of time for me. Great adventures help me better see my character’s personality and where they stand, and touch me emotionally or at a visceral level in some way.
“Since that time, I’ve tried to write adventures where decisions (often but not always moral dilemmas) help you understand your character better. Maybe you swap bodies with someone else, so you see yourself from the outside and separate your personality from your frame. Who are you? Maybe you bring a spirit into yourself. What part of that personality do you accept or reject, and what is it displacing? Maybe you face a tough choice. Do you bring a child into battle if that child is an artifact? Do you sacrifice a few to save many? Maybe you have to choose between a sure thing that isn’t so sweet, and worse odds for a chance at something better?”
Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse
In Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse, I suggested that framing monsters as natural creatures sometimes stifled the imagination. Lots of readers agreed but reminded me that developing monsters as creatures in nature can also fire the imagination.
“It’s utterly absurd to suggest that natural creatures can’t inspire stories, because they have,” wrote greatwyrmgold. “And only slightly less silly to suggest that magical creatures can be more evocative than natural ones.
“This article presents a false dichotomy between the fantastic and the naturalistic, between the magical and the dull. Creatures can be magical and dull when they pull from the same library of stock monster attributes as every half-arsed fantasy story in the past 60 years, but they can be fantastic and naturalistic with a bit of effort by the author.”
Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves
An avalanche of comments to Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves noted that Assassins shouldn’t be killing for free and certainly not targeting their allies.
For instance, Carl Torvik wrote, “Assassins may the ONLY evil character you should allow in your campaign. They kill only when hired to kill. They have no reason to attack their party. They come with ready-made attachments to the NPCs and the world (guilds, contacts, associates of former targets, etc.) And they have a reason to want a gang of people around to protect them and occasionally even help them on a difficult hit.”
Alphastream told how, in the 80s, friction between thieves and other evil characters broke up his game.
“In my very first campaigns we had two players where one would play a thief. Before long, he would start stealing from us. The other would then back him up and threaten. It was a source of friction in our Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, but when we played Barrier Peaks, it escalated. Three of us tried to stop it and three wanted the freedom to do whatever they pleased. We separated, adventuring separately. That killed the game.
“I can now look back on those events and understand what this was truly about. D&D was for me, as with many players, an escape from the social challenges of my normal life. When evil characters began to push their agenda, our D&D game ceased to become a collaborative escape from the everyday and became again a social challenge to which we had to respond. Bullying was again in my life, as were systems (here, the DM) that failed to make life better.
“The worst problem with evil PCs or thieves stealing from fellow party members isn’t the lost items or even a death. It’s the impact it has on us as individuals, and how it upsets the very reason we came together to play and tell stories. We can introduce aspects that allow for party conflict, but when doing so we should look to find ways to mitigate that at the player level, or the game will suffer.”
Quiiliitiila wrote, “Players who choose to create characters and then play them disruptively are to blame, not the classes. Any player who hides behind the class as a defense for their toxic actions is wrong and probably not suited to play in depth characters in the first place.
“In the end, D&D and AD&D may have started as a simple hack and slash board game, but it evolved into a truly unique role-playing game where you get to experience adventure as a wizard or a cleric or even a blackguard! How you choose to play those characters is up to you, it has never been dictated by the rulebooks or class descriptions.”
Alphastream agreed, but wrote, “As a designer I can choose to write mechanics that either bring people together for collaborative play or cause them to fight each other and disrupt party unity. I know which one I would rather see RPG companies design.
“David’s article is examining how important names and other design elements are for play. They are extremely important. Often more important than we may realize. Any individual player or DM may or may not react to the design, but on the whole we are creating incentives for certain types of play. Assassins might be terrible at one table and not a problem at another, but what is more important is how they play overall. Overall, they caused problems.
“When I design professionally, I’m often doing so for organized play, where I get to see how the design impacts hundreds to thousands of players. I can often see the impacts at a large convention and gain a really fascinating view into how the design works. Incentives that seem unimportant can end up being very important at that macro level. It’s good to go back and examine whether the design is encouraging heroic play, camaraderie, positive escapism, and other elements that routinely are cited by players as reasons to play D&D. Any individual group can always choose otherwise, but the overall design of D&D should point its incentives in that direction, because that’s what D&D is about.”
Alert reader Dan realized that much of this post revisited a five-year-old topic. “Wouldn’t it have made more sense to link back to your previous post on the topic instead of copying the first half nearly verbatim, picture included?”
Perhaps, but only about 1% of readers will follow a link to an earlier post. Reviving older posts sometimes helps me offer something every week. Many more folks read this blog now than did five years ago. Since few new readers browse my older posts, an old topic can still find interest.
I want to thank Dan and other dedicated readers who show enough interest in my posts to notice 5-year-old material. Your enthusiasm keeps me writing.
Sarah M Howard wrote in to identify herself in the post’s photograph. “The drow priestesses in the picture are Sarah and Kaitlin Howard.” Thanks Sarah. Your costumes and the life-sized Lolth combine for an unforgettable photo.
Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D
The post Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D brought up THAC0, which led Erïch Jacoby-Hawkins to offer a bit of history.
“Although THAC0 officially became a part of AD&D with the 2nd edition rule books, it was already being incorporated in some of the pre-2nd Edition modules in the mid to late 1980s, for example, modules I9 Day of Al’Akbar and I11 Needle from 1986 & 1987, respectively. I think THAC0 may have appeared in Dragon and Dungeon magazines around that time. The mechanic worked equally well in 1st as 2nd edition, as the AC system didn’t change, and the principle of the to-hit tables remained the same.”
Perhaps I should have included Day of Al’Akbar in The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition. Can anyone identify the first appearance of the term THAC0?
Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History
The post Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History told how the outsized attention and influence of D&D’s earliest adventures elevated their reputation.
Bryce Lynch parsed a word choice in Dungeon magazine’s list of 30 greatest adventures. “I note that the use of the word ‘greatest’ avoids the implication that they are actually good.” Bryce pens a series of entertainingly cranky reviews where he holds adventures to impossibly high standards. His consistently looks for three qualities: “Usability at the table. Interactivity. Evocative.”
The lack of accolades given to more recent adventures led to my list of the 10 greatest adventures since 1985.
The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985
The author of number 10, The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996), offered more on his classic adventure. Bruce Cordell wrote, “Thanks for the review! Much appreciated. If you’re interested, I wrote about designing the Gates of Firestorm Peak a few months ago, and the associated creation of The Far Realm (which certainly got its name in Gates, but which I further highlighted in later adventures to strengthen its importance).” See http://brucecordell.blogspot.com/2019/03/origin-of-far-realm-in-d.html.
Teos “alphastream” Abadia praised number 6, Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) and recommended a follow up. “I love this adventure, especially in how it showcased how varied 4E adventures could be. I would also mention the prequel, Siege of Gardmore Abbey by Steve Townshend. Here, Steve takes us back in time to when the abbey first fell. It has a strong innovative take on a prequel with a variety of fun encounters built for a convention one-shot. It also has some super-fun pregens, some of which have great conflicts that are revealed during play. It’s amazing design. Siege can be found in Dungeon 210.”
Teos also commented on number 5, Dead Gods (1997). “It’s also worth comparing it to other adventures of it’s time. It’s incredible how often adventures that should be amazing/fantastic (such as nearly every Planescape adventure) manage to be mundane. ‘Sure, you are in Sigil, now here is a guard duty assignment.’ More adventures need to really deliver on high fantasy.
“I liked Vecna Lives for toying with some of those concepts (the opening scene is insane, the advice on running horror is incredible), but it stops short of attaining what it could. Same with Ruins of Castle Greyhawk. In 5E, Dungeon of the Mad Mage has some very strong parts, especially given the source material.”
I admire that even the first-level adventures for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG include big, fantastic elements. Those adventures avoid caravan duty and rats in the cellar.
Responding to my list of The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985, Andrew wrote, “A key to the (good) 5e adventures is the Internet communities and third-party add-ons. By the book Tomb of Annihilation is good but falls apart here and there, but thanks to Facebook groups, Reddit and the great companion PDFs sold you can customize it with great ideas and fix weak bits really easily. Doing that back in the 1e days was quite daunting. Even a great module like Barrier Peaks was nearly impossible for me to run as a kid without any help.”
Wraithmagus challenged my list’s methodology. “I am bewildered why you would create a list like this based on POPULARITY of all things, which is by far the least useful metric. If such a list is going to be useful, surely, they should be overlooked adventures, so that readers can have their attentions drawn to buried gems. Saying ‘Let me tell you about crap you already know about just so everyone can argue about how overrated it is is as unhelpful as it comes.”
Although I did weigh each adventure’s reputation in my ratings, I consider that different from rating popularity. In the end, I cast my own judgement. My ratings won’t match anyone else’s, but a list like this needs to track the opinions of D&D fans closely enough to seem authoritative. As for finding buried gems, many readers had never heard of classics like Dead Gods and Night’s Dark Terror.
In Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985, I considered future lists of great adventures for high levels, from Dungeon magazine, and branded for a campaign setting.
Alphastream suggested some candidates. “The greatest high-level adventures from any era: I have to go with Throne of Bloodstone. While the design in many places is not exceptional, for a 1988 adventure it does a great job of showcasing how a truly awesome high-level plane-spanning adventure can work. It was very enjoyable as the end of my college campaign and took us to level 32-36 in AD&D play!
“The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting: For Dark Sun, Freedom does one of the best jobs at capturing a setting and introduces player well to the momentous events in the boxed set with the fall of Kalak. The same is true of the adventure included in the boxed set, which captures outdoor survival very well. Play those two and you get what Dark Sun is. Compare this to Dragonlance (or later Dark Sun adventures), where you feel like you get a bad version of the novels while the real stars are off doing the cool work.”
Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes
The post Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes led Thomas Christy to write, “Great article! Check out these amazing maps by Jon Pintar! If I get to run this in the future, they will be great!”
Alphastream recalled playing Q1 in high school. “The dungeon was very so-so. It did feel like a boring zoo or even a boring dungeon until the final level. It was then fantastic. The final battle was brutal. The party had a character with psionics… and Lolth does too. The old psionic combat rules had never been used until then. We looked them up, and basically everything happens in the first segment (part of a round). Party walks into Lolth’s room, psionic character drops dead as Lolth handily wins, and regular combat ensues! That was exciting!”
Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, But That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition
A few readers responded to Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D by describing the historical superiority of archers.
Todd Ellner wrote, “Think about it in the real world. The horse nomads of Central Asia from the Scythians to the Mongols pretty much swept all before them and replaced the style of warfare wherever they went. The life of the samurai wasn’t ‘The Way of the Sword.’ It was ‘The way of the Horse and Bow.’ Missile weapons are that much of a game-changer.”
Although I like the historical perspective, D&D isn’t history, but a game where characters do fantastic deeds for the fun of players. A focus on fun leads designers like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax to favor unrealistic, but fun things like hit points over realistic, not-fun things like sepsis and sucking chest wounds. Fifth edition pairs the intrinsic advantages of ranged attacks with the game’s two most overpowered feats to encourage situations where the sharpshooter player has fun and everyone else wonders why they showed up.
Some commenters raised the canard that archers tend to be “squishy,” lightly armored and vulnerable to attack. In this edition, fully-armored fighters also make the most efficient sharpshooters.
Some compared the damage dealing of sharpshooters to spellcasters. Certainly, spellcasters can shine for their ability to clear hordes of foes and for their utility. But most spellcasters really are squishy, and their spell slots force players to watch their resources.
Some cited certain melee fighting styles that can approach the damage output of sharpshooters. But melee types foster interesting fights because they stand in harm’s way and must move to attack. Meanwhile, monsters can surround their boss with enough protection for the mastermind to act before the barbarian can cut a path. Sharpshooters just turn potentially interesting encounters into point, shoot, and now it’s over.
Readers who see the trouble with sharpshooters offered advice to managing the archetype.
LordJasper wrote, “Start enforcing ammunition tracking. A lot of DMs let players get away with ‘forgetting’ to track their arrows and crossbow bolts. Make archers keep track of every bolt they fire.” The limit comes when archers capable of emptying a quiver in just a few rounds need to carry every missile.
Unfortunately, a 1 gp quiver of 20 arrows only weighs a pound, so players will argue they can easily carry 20 quivers totaling 400 arrows. Dungeon masters who rule otherwise will UNFAIRLY DESTROY an entire character concept—or so players will say.
“This is where game mechanics poorly reflects reality,” Jason Oldham wrote. “Drawing on personal experience, an average quiver MIGHT hold 20 arrows. They are bulky and need to be packaged with at least some consideration for the delicate bits. Bolts are slightly more accommodating but only slightly. I personally enforce some rather strict house rules as far as how much a player can pack around and how readily accessible equipment may be. But that’s just me, I like to make my players suffer just a little bit.”
Some readers suggested spells that hinder archers.
Oniguma wrote, “I’ve found one little, often overlooked spell that does wonders to diminish the potential of ranged attackers: Slow.”
Sapphire Crook elaborated. “Slow is a rare spell that doesn’t require sight. You just pick six targets in a pretty large cube, and they have to pick a god and pray. Fireball can kill, but Slow can save lives.”
Eric Bohm suggested Wind Wall. “‘Arrows, bolts, and other ordinary projectiles launched at targets behind the wall automatically miss.’ I don’t like using it because it is such a hard shut down, but it is useful for letting the rest of the party contribute.”
The prospect of using Wind Wall against a party dominated by archers excites me. Still, many commenters blamed any trouble with sharpshooters on DMs who fail to prepare custom encounters to thwart the archetype. I prefer to avoid D&D games where the players bring scissors, and then the DM always prepares rocks. That approach creates an adversarial dynamic and robs the game of variety. DMs who run Adventurers League can add total cover, monsters, and hit points as I suggested in the post, but we can’t remake adventures to vex archers.
Number Monsters to Stop Wasting Time Finding Them on the Battle Map
In response to my advice that DMs number monsters to stop wasting time finding them on the battle map, Scott suggested using a 3D printer to make numbered bases that cup miniature figures.
The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)
My post on The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character) ranked the popularity of D&D’s feats.
The relatively low popularity of Resilience surprised some commenters. For spellcasters who try to stay clear of attack, Resilience (Constitution) beats the most popular feat, War Caster. By the way, according to the letter of D&D rules, if you take Resilience for one stat, you can’t take it again for a second, different ability.
The popularity rankings of feats invited comparisons to each feat’s actual power. Thinkdm wrote, “Here’s some poll results I ran to break them down into tiers. You see the ‘broken’ feats aren’t even the most popular. Likely because they are suited to specific play styles. But, it’s still interesting.”
Little-known D&D classics: Fez
In reply to Little-known D&D classics: Fez, Matt wrote, “I’ve never been to Gen Con, and in fact only came to AD&D when I was in middle school in the early 1990s. I found the Fez adventures about ten years ago when I was combing Amazon for out-of-print, non-Wizards of the Coast, and pre-d20 game materials.
“They immediately changed my world.
“I would spend the next decade reading, absorbing, and preparing to run Fez with my own group of gamers whose frame of reference for D&D only begins around the year 2000 or so. I’m happy to report that we finished the first Fez adventure back in May, and I’m preparing to go into Fez II, which is really the best in the series, in defiance of the law of sequels.
“When I ran Fez I, I modified the game to accommodate some of their expectations: The players saw their characters’ stats, but they began as amnesiacs. Still, even with that change, the Fez formula engaged them immediately.”
“Fez has become one of our most memorable adventures. I highly recommend that anyone out there with a gaming group pick up these gaming classics and run them.”
The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods
The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods prompted a funny exchange.
Joel Orsatti: “Any idea why the Finnish mythos was dropped?”
Brent Butler: “They may have simply run out of K’s.”
More likely, TSR dropped the mythos to fit the abbreviated book within a smaller number of signatures—groups of pages printed together.
The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America
In The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America, I explained why Gen Con in the 80s came to ban live-action games, and the change in attitude since. Spoiler: Today, some folks accept that playing D&D can prove beneficial.
Alphastream (again. Thanks, Teos!) wrote, “I wish I had a screen shot of an old post on the Wizards of the Coast forums by Mike Mearls during the 4E era. 4E era, mind you! That’s long after this event. In it, he briefly mentioned that when WotC was looking at the design for 4E organized play, there was a push to eliminate LARP and town-fair style play. It was due to the effect it has on the perception of the game.
“I mention this not because I think WotC was necessarily wrong. (Okay, they were, but they were trying to gain acceptance for the game.) I mention it because LARPing was still seen as problematic as recently as 4E. And, because it is ironic that what has helped RPGs become mainstream during the 5E period is acting, both on livestreams and in media (Stranger Things, etc.). It is now very welcome to have people in costume, and WotC staff get in costume for livestreams and big events such as the Descent marketing event. It’s a remarkable change that has come only very recently.”
Timothy Park shared his positive tale of clear-headed parents, pastors, and teachers seeing the game’s value and encouraging play.
“There were a great many people using their intelligence and common sense and noticing and saying good things about D&D. They and their reasonable perspective won out. If it hadn’t, well, would you have this blog?”
“That story, the positive side, needs more press than the sensational bits.”
As for the sensational bits, I finish this post by relaying the account from chacochicken.
My hometown was a regular hotbed of D&D and Satanic panic. In fact, the dangers of D&D was still a contentious point there until not that long ago.
I come from a small town in rural West Virginia. Evangelicalism had completely overtaken the town in the 50’s and 60’s. My grandparents moved there in 1952 and were not church going types. Strike one. My mom was an unwed mother. Strike two. My uncle got the Holmes basic set while he was in the navy and introduced my friends and I to the game. Strike two and half. It was an open secret that my navy vet uncle was gay. Strike Five.
To set the scene, it was summer 1986 and my friends and I (fortunately most kids don’t care much about the above nonsense) played a ton of D&D, but we had to keep it a complete secret from basically everyone. Our town was small enough that everyone mostly knew everyone’s business. A ring of people were in charge. The bank manager was the pastor. The pastor’s brother was the county sheriff and the high school baseball coach. Nepotism all the way down. Well these folks decided that they were going to control the behavior of the whole town more or less.
So we played that summer. A few other kids knew but none of our parents at that point. We were known to have played before, see above uncle, so everyone was wary of us. My friend Dustin, yes his name was Dustin, his parents ransacked his room and found his character sheets, dice, and some D&D ads torn our from his comic books. I’m not exaggerating, they burned all of his toys, all of them, on the front yard as he basically had a nervous breakdown. He was not allowed to speak to us again and they couldn’t risk us meeting at school so the next year he was home-schooled.
We were torn as to whether to play anymore or not because we were afraid of the possibility of punishment. Our defiance won out and we kept playing in the loft of an old barn next to my uncle’s house. He vouched for us playing regular old board games, fishing, and running around in the woods.
Then terror struck. A dog went missing somewhere close. Then a second. Then an older man “disappeared.” People went crazy. “It was Satanists!” The Panic hit full bore. The school confiscated anything to do with heavy metal music. Prayers before baseball games asking for protection against the devil worshippers that invaded our town. D&D was the primary suspect.
To be fair, as kids, we were scared too. We just knew D&D didn’t have anything to do with it. My uncle reassured us that most of the town were a bunch of crazy backwards hillbillies. He wasn’t wrong. He made a critical mistake however. I’ll never forget what happened on August 2nd 1986, a Saturday. My uncle threw a big BBQ for some of his navy buddies. We were invited to so we got some food and headed over to our barn for D&D by lantern light. My drunk uncle let slip to a friend’s wife that we were playing the devil’s game and she called her father, the aforementioned county sheriff.
We were right in the middle of the game when the sheriff and four deputies arrested us at gun point. They pointed guns at 5 kids playing a game. They were sure we were a Satanic cult cell. They put three of us in one car and two in the other. The entire drive they kept asking us about Satanism and if we killed the dogs. They didn’t take us to our parents or the police station, they took us to the church so the sheriff’s brother could rebuke us while we were in handcuffs. It was completely insane. There were 5 of us and we were all terrified except for my friend Nathan, who thought this was hilarious. His laughing and mocking the pastor helped a ton actually. We got our wits back and demanded to see our parents and told them they had just kidnapped us and we were going to call the FBI.
The sheriff took us home after that with a stern warning and a veiled threat asking me and my friends if my uncle had ever touched any of us. The next day my mom filed a formal complaint and my friend Matt’s father challenged the sheriff to a fist fight. He did not accept. The old man that “disappeared” wasn’t dead. He was on vacation in Maine or some such that summer. One or both dogs were found. We took a break from D&D for a while, but picked it back up when the Forgotten Realms grey box came out the next year. The pastor finally died in 2012 and the newer younger pastor now let’s kids play D&D other TTRPGs and board games in the church annex on Thursday nights.
So that’s the story of how D&D destroyed the brains of the people of my town for two decades because of the the media furor.
The last two months included the two most discussed posts in the 7-year history of DM David, which calls for another trip into the comment section.
In Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters? I considered the pros and cons of asking players to share a role that usually falls to the dungeon master.
Ilbranteloth suggested turning potentially dead characters into an invitation to let players imagine a different twist. “On potentially deadly hits against the PCs, they decide if they are killed, or something more dramatic (and often worse) happens.” Perhaps the character loses a leg and a bit of speed. Or perhaps the player trades death for some dramatic complication. Players focused on story understand that character arcs benefit from setbacks and might be eager to revive a dead character in exchange for a complication that makes a richer story.
“I’m not generally a fan of the summoning spells. They can be too strong (they can be like a fireball of damage every round, round after round, for the casting of one spell), they tie up the terrain impeding movement (especially by locking down melee fighters, preventing a dynamic combat), and they make combat a slog (in almost any combat, the monsters lack the damage to kill more than a couple of the summoned monsters).
“That last bit is what kills it for me. At the meta level, the monsters should ignore the summoned creatures, because killing them is basically impossible unless they’re a horde of low CR creatures and the monsters have area attacks. So, the easy move is to target the summoner and break their concentration, but that takes away from what the player who did the summoning wants. I haven’t found a happy medium.”
Summoning spells typically offer a choice between lots of weaker monsters and fewer, stronger monsters. When the designers set choices that made summoning crowds far more efficient, they made the spells more likely to turn fights into slogs.
When I play foes with an 8 or higher intelligence who see ongoing spell effects, I start making spellcasters preferred targets. After all, characters with an 8 Intelligence practice even more savvy tactics. When players think their DM unreasonably targets them with attacks, players can get salty, but when concentrating spellcasters become targets, their players know it’s coming.
Two readers added to The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods.
Alphastream wrote, “Some readers may not appreciate how, back then, books hung around for a long time. We had decades with the same books on the shelves. Not as old stock in a corner, but as an active part of what gamers would buy and use. As an example, check out this Shannon Appelcline article where he shares White Wolf Magazine’s list of top-selling RPGs for 1992. At number 9 is the 1981 Fiend Folio!
“Books like Deities & Demigods were a presence for decades, which helped keep this bit of controversy prominent across many years.”
The long sales life of books from this era also led to a 2nd edition that remained broadly compatible with AD&D. The designers wanted to make big improvements, but TSR management wanted books like that old Fiend Folio to continue generating sales.
Zenopus Archives wrote, “There’s a whole earlier chapter to this story. The Mythos write-up in Deities & Demigods is derivative of the original write-up ‘The Lovecraftian Mythos in Dungeons & Dragons’ by J. Eric Holmes and Rob Kuntz that was published in Dragon magazine 12 in 1978. The bulk of this article was written by Holmes, and the Deities & Demigods write-up has the same entries, except for one. To me, Deities & Demigods clearly used the original article as a starting point. Read more at Dr. Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos.”
In Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League, I wrote about how D&D traditionally motivates both characters and players to seek gold. This tempts players to take the risks that help make D&D fun.
Eric Bohm wrote, “Taking the treasure out of the game seriously undermines an important component of the D&D formula. The heroic component remains mostly intact. If your character is motivated to help people for the sake of helping them, with only an abstract unquantifiable reward, everything works. Other kinds of characters are less well supported, while truly mercenary character concepts become basically unplayable.
“What about the lovable scamp who is in it for the gold? Or the many redemptive arcs of those get roped in for the base rewards and are swept up in higher motivations? How can a malefactor tempt a hero away from the path of virtue?
“The only character who grabbed any money from the hoard in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist when I ran it was an NPC. The players weren’t tempted; therefore they did not feel like it was worth roleplaying their characters being at all tempted. It just wasn’t interesting for them to play into it. Let me state that again. Players with characters standing in a vault full of gold felt that it was pointless for them to even pick up a single bag of gold. Where is the fun in that?”
Obviously, players can still create characters motivated by greed, but without the incentive of gold, taking risks for treasure seems like a sucker’s bet.
At the start of season 8, I wondered with James Introcaso why the Adventurers League would introduce rules that blocked characters from keeping gold in the season that featured Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The adventure hooks characters with a chance to win a fortune in gold. James speculated that perhaps the potential windfall triggered the need for the rules change.
In How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal, I talked about how relying on a DM’s judgement rather than on extensive rules may have helped fifth edition’s popularity.
Alphastream agreed but saw areas where fourth edition succeeded in making D&D easier to run. For instance, fourth edition’s in-store play program D&D Encounters drew tons of players. “DMs loved being able to run an hour of play with 1-2 pages of very simple (and yet engaging) adventure text. Spells turned into far simpler powers meant DMs could jump in with less experience. True story: Despite playing and DMing D&D for 17 years, when 3E came out, I waited 9 months before DMing my first organized play game because I felt I didn’t know 3E spells well enough to run a game. We’ve taken a step backwards here, in that many DMs again feel they can’t DM (especially at high levels) because of the complexity of spells.
“So, I think there is a balance to be struck between these design goals of keeping the game engaging and keeping it easy to learn and simple.”
“I would also say that while 3E really built up the game and added a lot, 4E in many ways was working to fix problems—the length of an adventuring day, the need for someone to ‘have’ to play the cleric, how many magic items a character had, and even how much experience a DM needed to feel confident. It really took the laundry list of issues, including ‘bad DMs’ and tried to fix them. The legacy of those fixes is excellent. We can see many of those improvements carried on into 5E.”
In How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs, I wrote about how D&D struggled to erase the implication that half orcs came from rape. The entry became this blog’s most read and discussed post until another post topped it.
Wil cifer argued that the original implications of half orcs fit history. “Rape was a commonplace occurrence during war in medieval times. Why would a barbaric race even in a fantasy setting be kinder and gentler? Rewriting the tone of a historical time the game is based on is stupid.”
But D&D is a game that gleefully tosses aside historical accuracy and realism in favor of fun. The game features magic and dragons. To unravel any D&D world, just pull any of countless threads and check it for historical accuracy or check how it stands in the face of magic.
Other readers argued that making half orcs the product of sexual violence turns orcs into stronger villains. Andrew wrote, “I have been playing D&D since 1981, and I have no problem with half-orcs being the result of an orc raping a human female. Orcs are monsters, created by an evil deity, Gruumsh. Taking the monster out of the monster has very little appeal to me. Can and should there be points of moral ambiguity in a D&D game? Without doubt. There should be. But monsters do monstrous things, including rape.”
To players like Andrew, crushing evil and righting wrongs feels more satisfying when the campaign shows evil and the suffering it creates. Purely evil creatures make uncomplicated foes that justify killing.
David Streever wrote, “D&D is a fantasy game that is sold to everyone from small children to adults; you can feature as much rape as you like in your version, but I’m glad it’s not in the core books, and I’ll stay away from your table.”
In your D&D game, if all the players welcome a darker tone, you can explore any origin you like for half orcs. But for a broader audience, the game benefits when it avoids saddling every half orc with a vile background.
In response to Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself, simontnm gave a suggestion. “If I have multiple NPCs talking I tend to use minis, and put my finger on the mini of the NPC actually talking.
“‘Don’t have NPCs talk to each other’ is good advice, but it’s occasionally necessary to deliver an NPC to NPC one liner. Keep it short and sweet.”
The History of Traps In Dungeons & Dragons prompted Ty to point out the difference between good, real traps and quality traps in D&D. “From a game play standpoint, traps are just a terrible idea all around. Conceptually, in order for a trap to be a ‘good’ trap, it needs to be massively unfair. It needs to kill outright or seriously maim. One minute you’re alive, and then boom, you’re dead. No saving throws, no noticing something off at the last minute, no jumping out of the way.”
Ken W replied, “You need to take the edge off your realism. A trap shouldn’t be ‘instantly lethal’ in game terms any more than a strike with a sword or great axe. In real terms, if you get hit by a swinging claymore, you are likely suffering a severe wound. But the abstraction of D&D combat and hit points means that each hit represents a depletion of stamina, not a mortal wound. Only when you reach 0 hit points does it really represent that fountaining arterial spray we would otherwise expect.
“Traps operate in the same space as combat weapons in this regard. The only difference between a trap and an enemy combatant that gets a turn while the PC is surprised is…well—nothing. Except the trap essentially ‘dies’ after its turn is over.”
Good traps in the real world make lousy traps in D&D. The best traps in D&D are in places where everyone expects a trap or that show obvious signs of their presence.
Alphastream wrote, “A trap can be a lot of fun when found, if it requires engagement to disarm. As a DM or author, I try to think through the point of the trap—not just for whatever creatures put it there—but for the game experience. The trap can be hard to find and that’s fun, or it can be easy to find and be fun as well. Think of ‘only the penitent man shall pass’ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That’s fun because you know it is there and need to figure out a way past it. Similarly, traps can be found and that can be the beginning of the engagement.”
Beoric wrote, “Perfectly good traps can be suspected because the nature of the trap is not entirely concealable. Raiders of the Lost Ark-style traps can be suspected because the tiles on the floor have no grout because they are pressure plates, or there are holes in the wall from which darts shoot.
“The trap may also be old, and detectable by signs of wear, like a layer of powdered stone on the floor or vertical gouges on the wall for a falling block trap, or soot on the walls or floor with a fire trap, or spent missiles on the floor with a dart or arrow trap.
“Also consider that some traps can be very well concealed if they are not being looked for, but still be detectable if actively searched for. A standard old-school pit trap was pretty much undetectable visually and could only be detected by tapping it.”
“None of those are actually bad traps. They just have limitations because of their nature.”
“There is a great discussion of this at the Hack and Slash Trick and Trap Index.”
Alphastream expanded on how traps worked in play across editions.
“In fifth edition, it’s still not entirely clear nor standard whether Investigation or Perception is most commonly used for finding a trap. I have my thoughts, which I think are right, but I see it run many different ways. In general, I think that if a trap is one that could be seen with the naked eye, then Perception would work. For example, a pressure plate that has slightly discolored stone, or which is slightly sunken. Otherwise, and in my game this is most of the time, the trap is not obvious and needs Investigation to be found. A well-crafted pressure plate is like any other stone. The only way to find it is to tap at it or otherwise determine what it is, which uses Investigation.”
“Fourth edition’s concept of ‘trap as monster’ failed due to the underlying math, which assumed a check per round and 4 checks to disable the trap, which was supposed to equate how monsters were envisioned as taking 4 rounds to defeat. The problem is that this cold math doesn’t understand how that 4 round concept wasn’t very accurate—players focused fire on important targets and might take them down in 1 round, while ignoring others.”
Players tended to focus fire on traps and break them more quickly than a rogue could disable them. Or players ignored traps in favor of the monsters, and then stepped around the traps.
“I like to think 4E’s trap concept is still really cool, but it takes clever authoring to communicate to the players how to engage with it. It is awesome if the cleric immediately realizes that this trap is empowered by a rival deity and they can shut it down and greatly help the party by doing so. That feels really heroic. It’s awesome if the rogue can tell the party that interacting with the trap for two rounds will move the rays of lightning to the area where the enemy archers are standing. These are great cinematic concepts if you set them up right.
“I tried my own hand at it with Dungeon of Doom. Nate and I designed a large variety of 5E traps in that adventure, and they provide a diversity of experiences. (You can get the adventure free and also see people play through them, all at https://dwarvenforge.com/descent/.) Thank you for putting up with the shameless plug, but it’s hopefully useful for people given this article.”
For Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D, Daniel Boggs contributed fascinating D&D history that I didn’t know.
“It is a quirky history, given that a primary reason ability scores were created in the first place was as a means to make ability checks—to put it in contemporary parlance. The D&D ability scores and saving throws arise as a distillation of the concept of personality traits and character skills created by Dave Arneson for Blackmoor. In pre-D&D Blackmoor, players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, or Looks, or Throwing, to see if they were successful at the attempt. When D&D came along, Arneson & co. continued to use ability checks in their games. You can see an example of a Dexterity check in Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign (1977) where a character must save versus Dexterity to remove their armor in time to avoid drowning in Blackmoor Bay. And of course ability checks are also very prominent in Arneson and Richard Sniders’ Adventures in Fantasy game (1978). In writing D&D, Gary Gygax failed to mention this purpose of the ability scores as he apparently preferred to create an arbitrary percent chance and have the players roll percentiles instead. So, you did have some early players who figured it out on their own or who learned it in some way from Arneson, most D&D players didn’t grok the intention behind the scores and thus you got that rather odd system proposed by Ives in Dragon #1. You can see some original Blackmoor characters here.”
I’ve already recanted my dislike for game worlds that unnecessarily make adventuring a common profession.
Alphastream argues that monsters that bounce from table to table at multi-table events can work, but he sees room for innovation. “I’ve written these, though they aren’t my favorite device for the reasons you mentioned. I think they work best when they are in small pods. The blue dragon in Confrontation at Candlekeep works well because it makes sense (you have 4-6 towers and parties at each tower, the dragon flying in between), it is announced dramatically (so everyone gets the concept from the start), it is central to the action (no one is forgetting about the dragon), and it lets players interact with it once it leaves their table (they can jump on it or fire at it, at the risk of failing at their table). With the second Open I tried to create a different experience, one that still made sense and which provided a combination of combat, skill, and risk-reward. I would tweak it further if given the chance. All of that is to say that I think these can be done well. I think DM David is exactly the kind of person who could come up with a cool version and submit it to an Epic author.”
I’ve grown to accept that adventures with carnival games work well as an introduction to the game. Alphastream touts another benefit. “I think carnival games can offer a lot of activity in a short time and offer something to every player. Very few things can do that.”
As for the way that using miniatures for the wrong monster sometimes confuses me, Creeper Jr wrote, “I don’t need minis to match exactly, but I find it incredibly helpful if there is some sort of rhyme and reason to it. My portable mini kit includes: 4 goblins, 4 guards, 4 archers, 2 mages, 2 knights/fighters, 2 rogues, 2 large green slaad, 2 giant spiders. Each mini has a color-coded base accent. This doesn’t take up too much room, is relatively cheap to put together, and allows us to quickly identify enemies with sort-of-thematic minis.”
Alphastream supports budding mini collectors eager to put minis on the table. “Sometimes a DM wants to buy a box of minis or two and try to use that purchase for their efforts. I get that. I still think it beats Starburst, but maybe that’s because I don’t super love Starburst. If the monsters are Belgian truffles, or Ferrero Rocher, sign me up! Here again, we can imagine we are witnessing the beautiful creation of a nascent miniature collector. They will go from this table to assemble an army of awesome minis on a bed of Dwarven Forge. It’s like seeing the future unfold before us!”
Josh rose to defend the dragon-slayer pose on page 7 of the second-edition Player’s Handbook. “I’m one of the ones who love the picture. The adventurers seem like real people, each different and interesting in his own way. The mage isn’t old. Nobody’s half dressed. The dragon’s of a size that would pose a threat to normal people and level 1’s. It’s a good level 1 accomplishment. And as for the pose, I assume there are a lot of unlisted utility spells, including one that takes the image in a caster’s mind and transfers it to paper. It’s a level 2 spell. Colored prints are level 4.”
Commenters replying to How Well Do You Understand Invisibility in Dungeons & Dragons? considered a couple of odd corners of the rules for invisibility.
Dave Barton summarized one aspect. “In essence, two foes who can’t see each other have an equal chance of hitting as if they could see each other. Think about that for a minute.”
This rule especially defies common sense because it grants ranged attackers just as good a chance of hitting when they can’t see their target. Sometimes D&D trades plausibility for simplicity.
Aside from the ability to hide anywhere, invisible creatures don’t get advantage to hide or any other increase to their chance of success.
Pewels asks “How would you handle light sources on a PC going invisible?”
Saphhire Crook answered, “The issue of invisible light sources crosses into that dangerous territory of ‘invisible eyeballs’, which is where invisible people cannot see because their eyes cannot receive light since it passes through them.”
“In 3.5, light sources continue to exist, but their origin becomes invisible, implying that the target simply reflects no visible light (or all light hitting or reflecting off them is magically duplicated and filtered).”
Every so often, someone leaves a comment that delights me. My post on Dave Hargrave, Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games, inspired such a comment from Old School, New.
“As a former associate of Hargrave, I’ve been around awhile and have seen innumerable articles written on the worlds of Arduin and its foothills. Many are bad, many are way too ‘fannish,’ and a lot of them are simply misinformed and/or myopically aligned with other gaming systems, to the point of zero objectivity.
“This article, however, rates as the finest piece on the subject of Arduin/DH, ever. Nothing else comes close. Incredibly well written, fair, meticulous, and factual.
“And you actually dug-up a pic from Different Worlds. Haha! Among other things.
“Yes, Arduin wasn’t perfect. Not hardly. But it was grand, visionary, insane, stupid, ham-handed, and utterly magnificent. Kinda like its creator, right?
“Anyway, massive cheers for a spectacular blog entry. I should think it’s the all-time definitive description of Arduin and its master—warts and all.
“Seriously, Mr. Hartlage, you’ve created something beautiful here.”
Thanks! I feed proud to garner such kind words.
For my post 6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate, I aimed to air some trivial, possibly-wrong gripes in an amusing and thought-provoking post. Usually I avoid bitching in favor of a positive slant, but my earlier list of 9 Things met a good reception, so I figured a follow up would work. This time, I fumbled. While the old post targeted things in the game and landed a much funnier tone, my new post sometimes aimed at the way people play. Many people felt criticized for their style of Dungeons & Dragons. When I fostered that impression, I missed the mark, and I apologize. Play D&D in the style you love. Use Starburst, or salt shakers, or pure imagination. I love playing D&D—even at tables that feature everything I fail to appreciate. This hobby is too great for quibbles.
I asked readers to help me appreciate the things I griped about, and I meant it. The conversation led me to change my opinions on two things.
My post targeted D&D worlds that unnecessarily cast adventuring as a common profession. I wrote, “If your D&D campaign just includes a few players, why cast them as a common rabble of wandering treasure hunters? I would rather picture the player characters as heroes of legend.” But I overlooked great campaign models where the promise of fame and fortune lures characters to a megadungeon, a frontier, or a point of light that needs help against the darkness. These models start the characters as aspiring treasure hunters and let them rise above the crowd to gain wealth and renown. “I generally don’t like ‘the chosen one’ trope,” writes Andrew Bishkinskyi. “The idea that everyone made themselves is more appealing. I think the game’s tiers also reflect this—by time you’re tier 3 or 4, you are that great, known hero. But it’s a journey.” This rise to glory forms the heart of D&D and I’m humbled because I needed readers to remind me. Plus the adventurer-as-profession trope makes hooking players into adventure easier, especially in a campaign like the Adventurers League. “It’s useful when NPCs have a baseline understanding of adventuring/mercenary work,” writes Brandes Stoddard. “Basically it’s saving me the first 5 minutes of each interaction.”
As for carnival games, several readers explained that the mini games offer a good way to introduce players to the game. Instead of dropping fragile new characters into a dungeon and risking an early death, mini games introduce players to their attributes and to D&D’s core mechanics. The barbarian in the caber toss makes a Strength (Athletics) check. The elf in the archery contest makes attack rolls. And the dwarf in the drinking contest saves versus poison. Players learn the game in a fun and familiar setting. David Gibson writes, “No one wants to die because they didn’t know how to play.” The carnival scenario works particularly well with new players who invest in their characters’ stories and personalities.
I’m used to having fringe tastes: I love Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy, and science fiction. These days, none of these passions rate as weird, but only because of a recent flip in popular tastes. As a teen, all these interests struck people as childish escapism. Worse, I failed to appreciate sports. Now books with dragons top the bestsellers, comic book movies get nominated for best picture, and I feel grateful for the change, but if I need a reminder of my weird tastes, I can just look at all the progressive rock in my music library. Giants may not be strange any more, but Gentle Giant still is.
Even in Dungeons & Dragons, I fail to appreciate things that normal fans like. In this post, I confess to six lapses in taste. As with my last post on this topic, this is a cry for help. Help me understand the appeal of these 6 aspects of our hobby.
1. Game worlds that unnecessarily make adventuring a common profession.
D&D’s original dungeon below the ruins of Blackmoor Castle drew so much traffic that a fairground filled with “hundreds of fabulous deals” catered to incoming adventurers. Turnstiles blocked entry into the dungeon (1 gp admission). Dave Arneson’s exhaustion with all the players insisting on dungeon crawls rather than Napoleonic naval battles drove him silly. In the Forgotten Realms, entry into Undermountain also costs 1 gp, but The Yawning Portal sells drinks rather than I-survived-the-dungeon t-shirts. As campaigns grow, adventurers start seeming common, so dungeons charged admission in the grand campaigns run by Dave and Ed Greenwood. Nowadays, so many adventurers crowd the Realms that they need a league.
If your D&D campaign just includes a few players, why cast them as a common rabble of wandering treasure hunters? I would rather picture the player characters as heroes of legend. Between all the time we spend waiting our turn and finding our place in the crowd, we play D&D to feel exceptional. Most campaign worlds only include 3-7 players—ample room for each to stand out as extraordinary. So why work to make adventuring seem common?
2. Characters with full names from the modern world. I’ve played D&D with Chuck Norris, Bob Ross, Walter “Heisenberg” White, Maynard G. Krebs, and many others. No, my time as a D&D blogger hasn’t landed me in games with famous and often fictional people. At my tables, players have used these names, and often these personas, for their characters. Sometimes the tone of a game fits sillier characters and everyone loves it. I want to play in a game with an entire party patterned after Muppets. Other games include cooperative storytellers crafting characters and their world. Showing up with Bill S. Preston Esquire may strike the wrong chord.
Still, I get the appeal. Some folks play D&D to hang with friends or to battle monsters, but pretending to be an elf feels awkward. Instead of an angel and a devil on their shoulders, these players have a class clown mocking Butrael’s elven name and a gym teacher saying, “Grow up!” So playing Burt Reynolds from Celene feels like taking a safe seat with the wise guys at the back of class. Players who adopt a modern persona for an elf in Greyhawk get to join the fun while declaring themselves too cool for the silly play acting.
The popularity of modern names and personas leaves me conflicted. Many players feel an affection for, say, Keith Richards and relish playing him as a swashbuckling pirate. I hate squelching the fun, particularly if it means dragging someone out of their comfort zone. That said, when I ruled to block real-world names from my game-store table, players thanked me.
Instead of writing a modern name atop your character sheet, just mash it into something like Bureyn. Dave and Gary’s players did it all the time.
3. Bungee monsters in multi-table adventures. Multi-table epic adventures join a ballroom full of adventuring parties together to battle for a common goal. Often these adventures assign one DM to take a monster from table to table, interrupting play to trade rounds of attacks. Like jumpers at the end of a bungee, these monsters plunge suddenly into a scene, and then snap away. Adventure authors hope these monsters unite the tables in a battle against a shared foe. Some players seem to like the surprise breaks from a session’s rhythms. High-damage characters particularly seem to enjoy vying for the highest output.
For me, the attacks just make an unwelcome interruption. These monsters’ sudden appearances typically defy explanation, so they destroy any sense of immersion. Also, the damage dealt to the bungee monster never matters; they always have just enough hit points to visit every table.
4. Adventures with carnival games. One shtick appears so frequently in organized play adventures that it must be popular. The characters visit a party, festival, or carnival where they compete against non-player characters in in a series of mini games: The dwarf enters the drinking contest, the bard tells tall tales, and the barbarian does the caber toss. For adventure writers, the device offers a simple way to let players flaunt their skills, presumably boosted by ample roleplaying. I know many people enjoy the setup, because I’ve heard players rank carnival-game adventures as favorites.
Nonetheless, I rate “carnival games” with “jumped by bandits” as easy ways to puff an adventure to fill a longer session. (At least the carnival games add variety.)
When I play D&D, I like to make game-altering decisions while (imaginary) lives hang in the balance. Competing for an (imaginary) blue ribbon feels like a disappointment. Much of the fun of roleplaying games comes from making choices and witnessing the consequences, but carnival games lack interesting options. Players only need to match the game to the characters with the best bonuses. Deciding not to enter the gnome wizard in the arm-wrestling competition hardly rates as deep strategy. Also, although adventure authors surely contrive to make the carnival shape the next encounter, I’ve never managed to pretend the mini games affect the adventure—aside from offering a route to end it and go to lunch.
5. Using miniatures for the wrong monster. During my last convention, I learned that I can easily become confused. Let me explain. Almost every dungeon master brought miniatures. Wonderful, right? Miniatures add visual appeal to the game. Dungeon masters who cart an assortment on a flight, and then daily through the convention center show a commitment that I value.
But no DMs carried minis that matched the monsters in the adventure. Every battle started like theater during a flu epidemic. “Tonight, the role of Lareth the Beautiful will be played by a grick. The roles of the goblins go to a barmaid, a shadow demon, and a hell hound.” I could never remember what figure represented what, so the miniatures proved a distraction. I spent two turns stabbing someone’s flaming sphere. By the end of the con, I wished for numbered bottlecaps that I could keep straight and I fretted that a miniatures fan like myself could fall so far.
To be clear, I’m only griping about games where the tracking the jumble of miniatures demands a cast list. I enjoy D&D games with coins, skittles, and pure imagination.
6. The dragon-slayer pose on page 7 of the second-edition Player’s Handbook. Many D&D fans rate this picture as a favorite, so why do I hate joy?
Most folks see the characters’ pride in slaying a baby dragon as humorous. I cringe in vicarious embarrassment at the pose. I like my dragons fierce, so the pitiful, dead one feels as sad as a pretty bird broken by an office window. And cameras don’t exist in the D&D world, so just what are these “heroes” posing for? Nobody paints that fast. See When D&D Art Put Concerned Parents Ahead of Players.
Time for another trip to the comment section.
The unfrozen dungeon master
In The Plight of the Unfrozen Dungeon Master, I wrote about DMs returning to Dungeons & Dragons and adapting the changes in the way folks play the game.
Edgewise wrote “One thing everyone needs to learn is that there are many different legit styles of GMing. There is no single new and current approach, and if there was, it wouldn’t be ‘better.’”
My post highlighted a shift in play style from cooperating to overcome deadly challenges to a style aimed at developing characters and their stories.
Even in the same campaign, D&D can accommodate both styles. To span styles, DMs need to separate their roles in the game. Unfrozen DMs like me first learned to act as impartial referees who bring challenges and control monsters. Even in a story-focused game, that role remains important because compelling tales put characters through a wringer. We unfrozen DMs know when to tell players no(sometimes). The collaborative storyteller learns to say yes and become the character’s biggest fans. We can all learn to welcome the players ideas and weave them into the game.
This post also prompted some discussion of Matthew Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, a pamphlet I mentioned in A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. The pamphlet merits a read. Just as unfrozen DMs can learn from the game’s innovations, newer DMs can learn from D&D’s original style of play.
I failed to explain why a Lair Assault game made such a bad match for an unfrozen DM’s style. Thanks go to Marty from Raging Owlbear for making up for the lapse.
“Lair Assault was an organized play event where players were challenged to optimize a party build in order to defeat a specifically designed difficult scenario.
“It was not a home game. It was not Adventurers League. It was more akin to a cooperative board game where it was the players vs. the game with the DM acting as the ‘AI’ of the scenario.
“This means that the DM changing the Lair Assault scenario is breaking the whole concept of the Lair Assault. The whole point of Lair Assault was to stick to the rules as written to “win” the scenario. If the DM changes the scenario as written, it’s not fair to the players who signed up for that specific game mode. The DM is breaking the agreed upon play style.”
Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead advised DMs to build games around situations rather encounters.
Grimcleaver offered an alternative approach that mixes specific encounters with some improvisation.
“Take your normal map with encounters scattered around, cut out all the same encounters and put them in a bullet point list. Then just sit back. When the time seems set for one of the encounters–run it. They need be in no preordained place on the map so long as the circumstances are right. They collapse the mine entrance with an avalanche? Fine, but a ways out they discover tracks–a warband of the creatures must have been out when the cave was sealed. If they do the expected thing and follow them into the woods then your first encounter can be whatever you’d planned, but in a clearing in the woods. If they come up with another crazy out of the box solution and subvert that situation? Well that’s fine, you have the encounter prepped and in your notes whenever you need it–and the PCs get to do something else clever.
“What I try to go for is to have a list of encounters that are both dramatic and balanced that I can drop in anywhere to use as filler or twists or kickoff points to further the action. If what the PCs are doing is proactive and interesting on its own, that’s better. I’ll stick with that. But when things slow down and the players need an external stimulus, bam I can throw down an encounter that works.”
This technique resembles the way I sometimes manage wandering monsters, so it makes a good addition to a preparation toolbox. But DMs who lean too heavily on the technique risk robbing players of meaningful choices. If options lead to the same encounters, do the players’ choices matter? See Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?.
Replying to How to Get D&D Players to Make Unforgettable Character Introductions That Take a Minute or Less, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia reminded us that you don’t need a DM’s invitation to make an unforgettable introduction. “It may be worth mentioning that as players, we can also plan for a generic ‘fit anywhere’ scene. When a DM asks for a character introduction, you can drop it in. ‘My introduction isn’t about me standing here before you, but what led to my arrival. It started with a few shouts down the street, as I battled a pair of ruffians…’”
Regarding How to Create Wire Spell Templates for Dungeons & Dragons, skwyd42 asked a question: “I agree that wire templates are quite nice. However, these cones (and also circles) will have the issue of ‘partial squares’ when using a grid. I’ve yet to find a satisfactory solution for this issue. Any ideas?”
The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives this answer: “Choose an intersection of squares or hexes as the point of origin of an area of effect, then follow its rules as normal. If an area of effect is circular and covers at least half a square, it affects that square.” Likewise, if a cone fills half a square, it affects the square.
Alphastream offers a method suited to making square templates. “Should it be of help, during the 4E days I used a technique one of my friends had, using window screen tubing and wire. That same technique can be used for 5E.”
Gary Gygax’s plans for AD&D
In reply to Gary Gygax’s Thwarted Plans for Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a couple of posters mentioned Joseph Bloch’s game Adventures Dark and Deep. This AD&D game attempts to capture the second edition Gary Gygax would have created, based on exhaustive research into Gary’s stated plans.
Joern Moller writes, “Isn’t Castles and Crusades (which Gary consulted on and supported) the game closest to his ideal version of D&D?”
Correct. In Gary’s later years, he favored his own Lejendary Adventure Game. But when an occasion called for a modern take on D&D, he ran Castles & Crusades.
In a response to How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, Andy Walker succeeded at diplomacy, by the standards of Internet comments.
“I will try to be diplomatic here, and probably fail. I like some of the spells you hate in this post. Banishment? Sure it upsets the table temporarily, but the target gets a save, and IT WORKS BOTH WAYS. Try letting the villain banish the Barbarian or the Wizard as his opener, and suddenly the PCs are the ones on the defensive, pinata side. When a villain is banished, have him return invisible, or in Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere. Just because the baddie is gone, doesn’t mean he/she suddenly becomes stupid or helpless.
“Counterspell? One of the best spells in the game. If you want an interesting duel between mages, this thing rocks. Nothing is more dramatic than causing the evil necromancer’s Disintegrate Spell to fail, or a PC’s high level spell, carefully selected for just this foe, to fizzle. And counterspell against a counterspell (yup, totally legal)? Mage Battle Royale!!!
“This whole column seems like ‘things that annoy me as a DM because I didn’t prepare contingencies, and I’m too nice to use them against the PCs.’”
If I ran a regular game with players who enjoyed such reprisals, I would relish banishment. However, most players find seeing their characters sidelined by banishment or counterspell more frustrating than fun. Fortunately for most players, unless DMs opt to drop spellcasters into most encounters, and then routinely switch up the stock non-player character spell lists, the annoying spells rarely work both ways.
I discovered my numbered technique for tracking initiative from Alphastream.
To use numbers, create a set of tents numbered from 1 up. When initiative starts, the players compare numbers and take the card the matches their place in the order. The highest takes 1, second highest 2, and so on. The DM takes cards for the monsters’ place in the order. Everyone sets the numbers at their spot at the table so everyone can see their place.
“I have to give all praise to Paul Lauper Ellison, an amazing gamer and friend I first met during the days of Living Greyhawk 3.5 organized play,” Alphastream commented. “Paul came up with the idea of numbered tents (and made his first ones) for special Living Greyhawk events like Battle Interactives, where time was a big factor for success. We could shave off many minutes of the DM pausing to figure out who went when by using his tents.
“During the first round, Paul would simply start placing numbers as the DM called out someone’s turn. I do the same as a player. I must say that by the end of the adventure/event, 99% of DMs have stopped tracking initiative on their end and are letting us do it, because it is so much better. Every player knows when their turn comes up, no one gets skipped, and we know when monsters go (typically, we place a number in front of the DM for each group of monsters, so a DM might go on both 4 and 9). It really is a brilliant system. These days, you see the system used all around Adventurers League, and it is all thanks to Paul!
As for handling monster initiatives, Alphastream writes, “I still assign them a number. Because most encounters have a few types of creatures (a bugbear, three orcs), and cards are used for each group of monsters, the players are used to seeing the DM have several numbers at the start of combat. They don’t know if a number belongs to one of the orcs (maybe one of them is a spellcaster) or something else, until the initiative passes (and even then, they may not notice).
“It can also be fun to announce it. ‘And on number 5… nothing happens!’ It creates mystery and excitement at the table, as they wonder what will happen. If you use initiative numbers for things like traps and events (on every number 4, the volcano causes the ground to shake and all creatures make a Dex save to avoid falling), the players won’t always assume it’s a hidden monster. It really works well overall.”
Dynamic combat scenes
In response to D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes Alphastream offered more suggestions. (As you see, Alphastream’s comments make half this post. Thanks, buddy!)
“One thing I would add is to give the characters obvious goals inside the room, to draw them in and give them things to do. Some examples: A monster is heading towards a lever, so it probably should be stopped. The treasure is in a clearly visible alcove, but a huge stone wall is dropping down to seal it off. A clockwork device begins to slowly count down.
“When it comes to foes, making them interesting really helps. Four goblins and a wizard… everyone will target the wizard. But when you have goblins throwing strange alchemical or mechanical devices at the party, or if the goblins control levers that activate traps, suddenly players won’t know where to focus fire, and the battle gets interesting and dynamic. Even vivid descriptions can be effective. A common outcome in my home campaign is that they don’t focus fire (despite being very tactical) because the monsters all demand attention.
“Terrain is also worth underscoring. Cover is important, but the design of the room itself will drive how players react. A ramp up the middle, elevated places, stacks of crates that can topple over, a chasm, a pit, a rope bridge with ropes you can clearly use to swing across, and other such terrain will all change the behavior of players and encourage at least a few of them to engage the battle in fun ways.”
In the same post, I faulted the adventure Hecatomb for a lack of terrain, which set up monsters for execution by sharpshooters and other ranged attackers.
Stevey writes, “I helped with Hecatomb last spring also here in Montreal. I was to be DMing Tier 3. Upon reading it, I immediately noticed the open battle field effect you mentioned. I proceeded to create a dozen ‘Claws’ and a huge box of scatter terrain to hand out to the 10+ DM’s to help with this. I really think it helped. We even used it to help raise money (the Epic was for a charity) and gave away the terrain to those that donated.”
Check out Steve’s stunning terrain props.
The terrain post led Duncan Rhodes from Hipsters & Dragons to create a list of terrain features that would improve a combat scene. See 101+ Terrain Features for Better Combats. I plan to draw from the list for inspiration.
From the authors of a 40-year-old adventure
Finally, during this site’s first year, I praised one of my favorite adventures, Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a 1980 tournament adventure Judges Guild sold for a mere $2. Authors’ Allen Pruehs and Ree Moorhead Pruehs, found my review and wrote, “Wow. Thank you for the compliments. We are blown away!” Their notice delighted me. Incidentally, I also listed Astigar’s Lair, among the 5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1978-2000.
When I launched DMDavid.com, I considered disabling the comments. I worried that the comment section would fill will stupid and insulting responses. I’ve heard that can happen on the Internet. Still, I left comments on, and they proved one of most rewarding parts of writing this blog. My readers made smart and insightful replies. Sometimes commenters who disagreed with my posts swayed my opinions. Often I learned.
I used to join the discussions more than I do now. I used to make time to write a post, warm up by replying to a few comments, and then run short of time. My posting schedule lapsed, and I felt disappointed. Still, I want to reply. So today, I try a solution. The post features replies to some recent reader comments. It won’t lure casual readers from Facebook with a provocative headline, but perhaps loyal readers will enjoy it. I’ve subscribed to magazines where I most enjoyed the letters section and the editor’s replies. I hope to capture some of that.
Tell me, would you like to see future dips into the comments section?
Rob Paul Davis wrote:
I do require a roll for Assists. Succeed, and the player gets a +2 on the roll, fail and it’s a -2.
When new fifth-edition players learn the rules for advantage and disadvantage, they tend to assume that cover imposes disadvantage. The advantage/disadvantage rule’s elegance leads to that assumption, and that reveals the brilliance of the rule. But the designers wanted degrees of cover and wanted cover to stack with advantage and disadvantage, so cover imposes a -2/-5 penalty.
I wonder if a similar approach would improve assistance. After all, experienced players tend to assist frequently, and that makes other advantages disappear. Most situations merit a +2 bonus, while extraordinary aid could gain a +5 bonus.
For assisting, I often find players will test out a DM the first time. With a new table I’ll usually look for them to give me a reason for why they are offering help. If it’s just another set of eyes, I’ll say that in this situation additional persons won’t provide advantage. After that, it’s easier to involve them and not have it become an assumption. And, I think that the more players assume it will usually be just an individual, the more that individuals are getting the spotlight. Otherwise, it can feel like everyone is always jumping on top of the person who proposed doing something and taking away the spotlight. A common example is where someone says, “does this look magical,” and another player yells, “I’ll make an Arcana check.” That’s a prime case where I’ll say to the second person, “Hold on, the first player is already doing that.” Over time, the table learns that they don’t have to jump onto someone else’s idea… they will get their own time to shine later if they stay engaged.
Assisting and especially checks that anyone can attempt all tend to take attention from players who deserve it. We’ve all seen a high roll let a character, say, with an 8 intelligence steal the spotlight from the party’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Players who invest in talents deserve to flaunt them, but when everyone rolls, a lucky result tends to win. I always work to find reasons to limit checks to fewer players. As you suggest, players eventually learn not to jump in.
Something I’ll often do when a second player wants to help is ask them how they are doing so, and then have both players roll. I’ll take the highest die roll, but the primary player is making the check – basically rolling with advantage but the helping player is rolling the second die. It lets more people roll and gives that feeling of helping.
Brilliant! Many times, I’ve seen long-time players rise to assist, start to roll, and then realize that unlike in past editions, assistance requires no roll. The helper visibly deflates. People like to roll. Letting the helper roll the advantage die turns the help into a tangible deed.
Daniel Boggs wrote:
Rules are Boring.
When I run games for my home group or at conventions I try to build an atmosphere of suspense and exploration, and avoid talking numbers and rules except when needed. Usually that means the only time numbers are discussed are in combat, usually the player telling me the result of a roll or a particular stat on their sheet. The advice I try to follow – and I can think of no better guide – is that given by Jaquays in her Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, especially chapter 3, Pacing and Theatrics.
This comment led me to take the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide from my shelf. The book features cover-to-cover DM advice co-authored by Jennell Jaquays. To lure buyers, TSR felt willing to give the guide a misleading title, and still somehow settled on something stuffy and dull. The title never convinced me to read the book. Don’t judge me until you read all your game books. Now, I’ve decided to read the guide ASAP.
As for rules and immersion, see the next comment.
All too often I find an experienced player joining my campaign “playing to the rules.’ That is, they expect the rules to tell them what they can do, and don’t consider that there are lots of other options. The new players, though, aren’t constrained by that. And most of the time I find that it’s the new players that “teach” the experienced players that I don’t limit you to what the rules say you “can do.”
Some of the joy of playing with newer Dungeons & Dragons players comes from seeing them engage the game world without thinking of rules. All of us old grognards need to foster that approach. Your style encourages immersion and freedom.
Every interview with a D&D personality seems to start with, “How did you start playing?” Almost always, the person tells of being handed a character sheet and dropping in a game with no knowledge of the rules. They can hardly follow the game, but they still have the time of their lives. Part of the D&D’s magic is that you can play it—and love it—without knowing any rules. The dungeon master describes a situation, and you just imagine what your character would do. If a goblin attacks, just say, “I hit him with my axe.” You can immerse yourself in your character without thinking of the rules.
I found lots to like in fourth sedation, but to me, the edition faltered when it required mastery of the rules to play a character. See Immersive vs. Gamey in D&D Next, the score is 1-1.
That said, the game’s numbers help communicate the game world to the players. Knowing the rules lets players understand the likely outcomes of their actions, and that helps players act with confidence.
We can see many players trying to gain advantage (not sneak attack) on every single attack even though they have emerged from hiding to attack. That confusion extends even to many of the game’s designers when you ask them about it!
Correct me if I’m wrong about this: The fifth-edition designers judged that hiding, and then popping up to attack from range qualifies as attacking while hidden. This gains advantage. The attack reveals the rogue, but rogues can drop down and hide again for their next turn. Meanwhile, moving from hiding to make a melee attack reveals the rogue, foiling the advantage of hiding.
How much do the designers love ranged attackers? Attacking from range offers an intrinsic advantage. Plus, the game grants benefits to ranged attackers, and then offers feats that erase any disadvantages. Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert would be strong without erasing cover and penalties for ranged attacks from melee. Don’t get me started.
Daniel Boggs traced the the thief class to it’s origin:
Just as an FYI, Switzer didn’t invent the class. it was actually Daniel Wagner, who played in the same group as Switzer. Wagner is one of the authors of The Manual of Aurania. There’s a pretty in depth discussion on the topic with Mr. Wagner here: http://odd74.proboards.com/thread/9279/manual-aurania
In 1976, a game group attached to Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica gathered new monsters, treasures, races, and classes from their Aurania campaign into a booklet they sold for 3 dollars. The book probably rates as the first unofficial, published supplement for D&D. The manual’s introduction states that “several ideas” from Aurania “were outright stolen and soon appeared in published form.” When Switzer shared Daniel Wagner’s thief idea, Gary Gygax still held to the wargaming culture where everyone in a tiny community shared ideas and no one made more than lunch money. Gary first presented the thief in an amateur zine and there he tried to give credit. Between 1974 and 1976, the estimated value of the thief idea climbed.
Do you know that good DM everyone always talks about? I hate that guy. Actually, the guy could be a gal. We’ve never met. I just imagine a guy so I can picture myself punching him. Does that make me a bad person?
I’m sure plenty of good dungeon masters read this blog. I love you folks. I hope I play at your table.
The DM I hate is some guy people keep talking about. Shut up about a good DM.
Apparently, we DMs have to put up with grief because a good DM can fix it.
If an adventure suffers from poor organization, lapses in logic, dull encounters, weak hooks, or any other faults, a good DM can fix it. Any of us who struggle with it obviously don’t measure up to a good DM.
When it comes to role-playing games, a good DM is willing to forgive any lapse and eager to fix any fault. No amount of extra effort is too much for the guy.
Has a rule ever caused trouble in your game? A good DM just patches problems with house rules. His players never mind stumbling across extra rules locked in a good DM’s head. A good DM apparently never runs a table for strangers in organized play.
To a good DM, broken character features don’t exist. If anything consistently lets one character outshine the others, a good DM just designs encounters to single out and thwart the overpowered character. A good player doesn’t mind.
I suspect a lot of companies print adventures with a good DM in mind. They know that he reads a 256-page adventure like a novel and masters every word. A good DM hates white space and headings. Cram more text on the page! A good DM doesn’t need an index.
When a good DM uses a published adventure, he prefers sandboxes that lack hooks that draw characters through a narrative. Such hooks might lead players to think that, say, questing for the sun sword stands as a more valid choice than opening an inn in Barovia. That’s too close to railroading!
I think good improvisation skills help a DM, but a good DM improvises as much as possible. Game prep only tempts bad DMs to limit their players’ options. To a good DM, my game preparation must seem unsavory.
A good DM hates boxed text. How dare a writer put words in his mouth? For some reason, a good DM can fix anything but boxed text.
So you can see why a good DM gets my goat. Any time I have trouble in my game, someone tells me why a good DM never suffers the same problems. Any time I claim that a role-playing product could be better, someone always tells me that good DM would just fix it. I can’t measure up.
I wonder if auto mechanics enjoy driving unreliable cars because they know a good mechanic can replace the parts that fall off.