Tag Archives: Brian Blume

4 Ways D&D’s Creators Tried and Failed to Balance Classes

The classes in today’s Dungeons & Dragons game are balanced to make sure that when players leave a session, everyone feels like their character contributed to the party’s success. No player should ever see their character routinely upstaged and wonder, “Why am I even here?” In a list of goals for fifth edition, designer Mike Mearls wrote, “All of the classes should feel competent when compared to each other at all levels.”

The game’s designers didn’t always aim for this target, and when they did the methods often failed. What methods of class balance have the game’s designers abandoned?

1. Ineffective in one pillar, strong in another

The D&D game focuses on three pillars of play: exploration, roleplaying interaction, and combat.

In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. The original thieves lacked any combat assets—not even backstabbing—but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusable abilities. They shined in the exploration pillar, and floundered in combat.

In an interview for Drache issue 3, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax explained, “D&D’s team aspect is important. In a D&D game, each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

Some of that spirit remains, Mearls writes, “We’re OK with classes being better at specific things. Rogues are good at checks and handling traps. Fighters have the best AC and hit points. Clerics are the best healers and support casters. Wizards are the best at area attacks and control effects.”

But the game no longer allows classes that prove ineffective in a pillar. “If each class has wildly different combat abilities and the game doesn’t account for that, the system falls apart,” Mearls wrote. Over the years, the thief class added a backstab feature, which became sneak attack and a suite of combat abilities.

See The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination.

2. Weak at low levels, mighty at high levels

In D&D’s early days, Gygax saw characters who survived to high level as proof of a player’s skills. By this notion, players able to raise a weak character to the top deserved rewards. Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon magazine, echoed this perspective when he wrote, “Anyone that gets an Illusionist [to high level] deserves whatever they can achieve.”

No class showed this attitude more than the magic user. Originally, magic users started with the no armor, the lowest hit points, feeble attacks, and just one magic missile or sleep spell. But while a high-level fighter just added more hit points and a higher attack bonus, wizards gained power in 3 ways: They gained more spells per day, higher-level spells, and more damage with spells of a given level. Their power grew to overshadow the other classes.

“Earlier, D&D balanced wizards by making them weak at low level and powerful at high level,” wrote third-edition designer Jonathan Tweet. “But we tried to balance the classes at both low level and high level. (We failed. Spellcasters were still too good at high level.)”

The current edition starts to get the formula right. Mearls explained his goal for fifth edition. “Attaining balance is something that we must do to make D&D fit in with fantasy, myth, and legend. Even if a wizard unleashes every spell at his or her disposal at a fighter, the fighter absorbs the punishment, throws off the effects, and keeps on fighting.”

See How fifth edition keeps familiar spells and a Vancian feel without breaking D&D.

3. Higher-powered classes require more experience points

Before third edition, every D&D class had a different table of experience points required to level. As far as I know, Gygax never explained this quirk. No one asked because everyone just assumed the higher-powered classes demanded more experience points to level. The charts hint at some of this: The mighty paladin requires more experience than the weaker rogue. But for the original classes of fighter, cleric, and wizard the differences seem quirky rather than systematic. “The system sometimes gave clerics more hit points than fighters because a cleric would be higher level than a fighter with the same XP total.” Until double-digit levels, the XP requirements for a magic user never left the wizard more than a level or two behind the other classes.

4. Classes with level maximums

Originally, Gary Gygax gave little thought to high-level characters. Kask recalled, “We figured the odds of even getting to level 9 or 10 were so high that it wouldn’t pose a problem. This was before the gross inflation of XP’s and the corresponding levels. The highest-level player in Gary’s Greyhawk campaign was a 7 or possibly 8 at that time, and they had been playing more than any other group with the possible exception of Dave Arneson’s.”

After D&D’s release, TSR co-owner Brian Blume lobbied to include the monk class in the game’s upcoming Blackmoor supplement. Kask wrote, “Brian rationalized the nearly super abilities of the monk’s high levels with the argument that nobody, or damned few, would ever get that high. (This illustrates a certain naivete that all of us shared back then. We had no idea people would play almost daily and rack up XP’s at a truly unimagined rate.)”

Gygax published a class that imposed harsh limits to high-level monks. For monks “there is only one man at each level above 6th.” So to rise above 6th level, a monk character had to find the one monk of that level and win a fair fight. “There will always be a higher level to fight, even if there is no player character in the role.” The class topped out at 16th level.

A year after Blackmoor, gamers had completely disproved the theory that few characters would rise to high level. So Gygax returned to the monk class’s scheme for limiting the new Druid class in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Kask explained, “Every advance beyond level 11 meant fighting and defeating a fellow druid in either magical or physical combat—and the occasional 11th-level challenger of one’s own to deal with!”

In practice such limits only steered players away from choosing the classes they wanted to play, or blocked characters from advancing with their peers in a high-level party.

Next: Number 5.

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

In Dragon magazine issue 8, published July 1977, Gary Gygax proposed the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology, a great wheel of planes surrounding the prime material. The existence of infinite planes “will vastly expand the potential of all campaigns which adopt the system—although it will mean tremendous additional work for these DMs.”

planes in Dragon magazine number 8

Diagram of planes from Dragon magazine number 8

The countless planes showed how D&D could go beyond the dungeon and the wilderness and into new worlds. The system revealed exciting potential, but Gary set an ambitious goal. “Different planes will certainly have different laws and different inhabitants (although some of these beings will be familiar). Whole worlds are awaiting creation, complete invention, that is.” The outer planes offered so many possibilities that setting an adventure in them made a formidable challenge. Players would wait years for any product to go beyond the prime material.

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits CoverIn 1978, Gary published module D3 Vault of the Drow. At its conclusion, the players locate a strange mural. “The mural itself is a scene resembling a starry sky, but a tunnel of webs stretches into space.” This vortex is a gate “to the plane of the Abyss, where Lolth actually dwells.” The text explains that this journey to the Abyss will be handled in module Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits. (For those who do not plan to play the sequel, Gary suggests that characters passing the gate be considered slain. Suggested dialog: “You could be taking your character on another thrilling adventure, but it’s not released yet. So instead, you’re dead.” In 1978, Gary could be capricious when he drew the line between the correct action and, “Wrong move—you’re dead!”)

Rereading Gary’s promise of letting PCs travel to the Abyss to confront Lolth, I remember the anticipation I felt in 1978.

But Gary seemed deterred by his own ambitious goals for planar adventures. Instead of completing Queen of the Demonweb Pits, he set the project aside “until a considerable period of time could be spent addressing it.” Soon, work on the Dungeon Master’s Guide demanded all his time. For two years, characters entering Lolth’s gate faced summary execution.

The Demonweb

The Demonweb

The delay ended when artist David C. Sutherland III pitched his own finale. Gary wrote that the adventure “was taken out of my hands by [TSR executive Brian Blume] when Sutherland discovered the ‘Demonweb’ pattern in a hand towel and talked Brian into using it as the main theme for the concluding module. I had no creative control over it.” (Although many sources report that the Demonweb pattern came from a placemat, Sutherland confirmed that his inspiration was a towel.)

The adventure reached print in 1980. Now players could venture to Lolth’s own level of the Abyss—the Demonweb. For the first time, TSR demonstrated adventure on the outer planes.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits gets some criticism for its execution. The creatures in the Demonweb—even those in Lolth’s stronghold—fail to match the setting. Players encounter ogres, trolls, ettins, bugbears, and even a roper, but no drow. In an rpg.net review Lev Lafayette describes her stronghold as a “boring zoo.” In the god-slaying finale, any dungeon master who makes cunning use of Lolth’s abilities will annihilate parties in the module’s recommended levels. On the other hand, she only has 66 hit points, so a careless DM could see her slain in a round. The module spends pages describing changes to the effects of spells cast on the Abyss, but no one liked dealing with all the changes.

You can fault some details in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but not its big ideas. This adventure took the scope of Dungeons & Dragons and blew it wide open.

Start with the Demonweb, a web of pathways floating through impenetrable fog. The material of the path moves slightly. “Close examination will reveal faces, twisted and tortured, pressed against some invisible barrier, silently mouthing screams and howls.” These are the lost souls of the Abyss. The Demonweb captured an unsettling and chaotic feeling that suited the demon queen of spiders.

Along the path, unsupported doors open into extra-dimensional spaces. At first, these doors lead to Lolth’s creatures. On the last level of the web, the doors open on alternate material planes that she targets for attack or other schemes. In a look at the module, James Maliszewski wrote, “A key to portraying planar travel effectively is grandeur—the sense that one’s home world is just a tiny speck floating on a giant ocean and you’ve only just begun to plumb its unknown depths.” The Demonweb and its portals delivers this sense of grand scope.

In the Abyss, some spell effects change in evocative ways. For example, restoring an arm with the Regenerate spell may regrow a limb demonically twisted.

Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk. I loved it. A diet of Michael Moorcock books and Arduin had already shattered my reservations about mixing such elements. The spider-ship seemed like a fitting creation for a goddess whose power spanned a multiverse. The ship’s inscrutable purpose and destination suited her chaos.

The adventure’s plot may not have matched Gary’s plan, but I suspect the Demonweb surpassed any of Gary’s ideas for the setting. In 1980, before the Manual of the Planes, before Planescape, Queen of the Demonweb Pits showed the way to the planes. Fans of Planescape can find its roots in the Demonweb.

Are you still curious about Gary’s original plan for the adventure? He wrote, “My concept was that Eclavdra was aiming at dominance of the drow through using the Elder Elemental God to replace Lolth. She, as the chief priestess of the elemental deity, would then be the mistress of all. The final scenario was to have been one in which the adventurers got involved in the battle between the evil entities and made it so that both lost and were tossed back to their own planes, relatively powerless in the Mundane world for some time to come.” Gary had an ambitious plan, heavy on intrigue, but without the vision—and hand towels—that led to the Demonweb.

The difficult origin of Blackmoor, Dungeon & Dragons Supplement II

In my last post, I explained how Temple of the Frog, the first published dungeon, failed as a dungeon crawl and baffled the first Dungeons & Dragons players.

To unlock Temple of the Frog, players needed to treat it as a James Bond villain’s lair to be infiltrated. And after their spying ran its course, they needed to follow Bond’s playbook and call in the commandos, ninjas, or their men at arms. Players needed Chainmail for that endgame.

How did an adventure that did not work as a dungeon crawl—or even work with D&D’s rules—become the first D&D adventure in print?

Dave Arneson’s creative energy shined during his games. Gary Gygax lauded him as “the innovator of the ‘dungeon adventure’ concept, creator of ghastly monsters, and inscrutable dungeonmaster par excellence.” A session of Dave’s Blackmoor game proved so compelling that Gary staked his TSR Games on a foreign and untested game concept. (For more on the scale of D&D’s innovations, see “4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.”)

The bet paid big.

BlackmoorIn the wake of D&D’s release, players hungered for more material. Supplement I Greyhawk delivered treats from Gary’s campaign, and players loved it. TSR planned the obvious follow up: a book from D&D’s other creator.

In spring and summer of 1975, Dave wrote and gathered notes. His rules for hit locations, diseases, and his concept for an assassin class would land in Supplement II Blackmoor. His megadungeon under Castle Blackmoor hosted the first dungeon crawls, but those early dungeons changed as adventurers explored them, so they resisted capture in print. See “Why Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons.” Instead, Dave submitted another Blackmoor location, the Temple of the Frog.

TSR’s first employee, Tim Kask, drew the job of shaping Dave’s “50-odd sheets of mostly handwritten material and charts” into a supplement. By then, the long-promised Blackmoor supplement had been offered for sale in the Strategic Review. Gary and TSR co-owner Brian Blume gave Tim six weeks to produce a manuscript.

I tried sorting the stuff; I re-sorted the stuff. I cataloged, alphabetized, prioritized and sanitized, all to no avail,” Tim recalls. “This was a file folder full of repetitions, contradictions, duplications and complications. But not a supplement. I found three different versions of one idea, and two different approaches to another that are at odds with each other, as well as previously published guidelines.

Dave always struggled to capture the spontaneous brilliance of his game sessions on paper. For a purer sample of Dave’s campaign notes, look to his First Fantasy Campaign, published two years later by Judges Guild. After decades, Blackmoor fans still debate how these raw notes translated into play.

The Blackmoor campaign used different rules than the guidelines Gary published for D&D, so the assassin needed reworking to match Gary’s rules. The hit-location tables fit awkwardly with D&D’s abstract combat system, but they came from Dave, so they stayed. (For more on abstract combat, see “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points.”)

To complete the supplement, Tim drew from several sources. In the Monster Manual (1977), Gary credited a fellow named Steve Marsh “for devising the creatures for undersea encounters which originally appeared in Blackmoor.” Brian Blume championed the monk, which either came from Dave or from Brian after they were inspired by either the Kung Fu TV show, or the Destroyer novels, or the hit song. In 1975, kung fu action appeared everywhere.

Tim cites the Temple of the Frog as the part of Blackmoor that Dave delivered nearly ready for print. Dave even drew the published maps. As co-author of Chainmail, Gary surely understood the temple better than D&D’s new fans. Tim recalls that Gary liked offering an “example of how to construct a major edifice in a campaign.” Gary overlooked the site’s challenges. Meanwhile, Tim welcomed the temple’s pages, but he does not call the edifice an adventure. Although the temple would baffle players like me, it became the first dungeon to reach stores.

How Queen of the Demonweb Pits opened Dungeons & Dragons to the multiverse

In Dragon magazine issue 8, published July 1977, Gary Gygax proposed the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology, a great wheel of planes surrounding the prime material. The existence of infinite planes “will vastly expand the potential of all campaigns which adopt the system—although it will mean tremendous additional work for these DMs.”

planes in Dragon magazine number 8

Diagram of planes from Dragon magazine number 8

The countless planes showed how D&D could go beyond the dungeon and the wilderness and into new worlds. The system revealed exciting potential, but Gary set an ambitious goal. “Different planes will certainly have different laws and different inhabitants (although some of these beings will be familiar). Whole worlds are awaiting creation, complete invention, that is.” The outer planes offered so many possibilities that setting an adventure in them made a formidable challenge. Players would wait years for any product to go beyond the prime material.

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits CoverIn 1978, Gary published module D3, Vault of the Drow. At its conclusion, the players locate a strange mural. “The mural itself is a scene resembling a starry sky, but a tunnel of webs stretches into space.” This vortex is a gate “to the plane of the Abyss, where Lolth actually dwells.” The text explains that this journey to the Abyss will be handled in module Q1, Queen of the Demonweb Pits. (For those who do not plan to play the sequel, Gary suggests that characters passing the gate be considered slain. Suggested dialog: “You could be taking your character on another thrilling adventure, but it’s not released yet. So instead, you’re dead.” In 1978, Gary could be capricious when he drew the line between the correct action and, “Wrong move—you’re dead!”)

Rereading Gary’s promise of letting PCs travel to the Abyss to confront Lolth, I remember the anticipation I felt in 1978.

But Gary seemed deterred by his own ambitious goals for planar adventures. Instead of completing Queen of the Demonweb Pits, he set the project aside “until a considerable period of time could be spent addressing it.” Soon, work on the Dungeon Master’s Guide demanded all his time. For two years, characters entering Lolth’s gate faced summary execution.

The Demonweb

The Demonweb

The delay ended when artist David C. Sutherland III pitched his own finale. Gary wrote that the adventure “was taken out of my hands by [TSR executive Brian Blume] when Sutherland discovered the ‘Demonweb’ pattern in a hand towel and talked Brian into using it as the main theme for the concluding module. I had no creative control over it.” (Although many sources report that the Demonweb pattern came from a placemat, Sutherland confirmed that his inspiration was a towel.)

The adventure reached print in 1980. Now players could venture to Lolth’s own level of the Abyss—the Demonweb. For the first time, TSR demonstrated adventure on the outer planes.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits gets some criticism for its execution. The creatures in the Demonweb—even those in Lolth’s stronghold—fail to match the setting. Players encounter ogres, trolls, ettins, bugbears, and even a roper, but no drow. In an rpg.net review Lev Lafayette describes her stronghold as a “boring zoo.” In the god-slaying finale, any dungeon master who makes cunning use of Lolth’s abilities will annihilate parties in the module’s recommended levels. On the other hand, she only has 66 hit points, so a careless DM could see her slain in a round. The module spends pages describing changes to the effects of spells cast on the Abyss, but no one liked dealing with all the changes.

You can fault some details in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but not its big ideas. This adventure took the scope of Dungeons & Dragons and blew it wide open.

Start with the Demonweb, a web of pathways floating through impenetrable fog. The material of the path moves slightly. “Close examination will reveal faces, twisted and tortured, pressed against some invisible barrier, silently mouthing screams and howls.” These are the lost souls of the Abyss. The Demonweb captured an unsetting and chaotic feeling that suited the demon queen of spiders.

Along the path, unsupported doors open into extradimensional spaces. At first, these doors lead to Lolth’s creatures. On the last level of the web, the doors open on alternate material planes that she targets for attack or other schemes. In a look at the module, James Maliszewski wrote, “A key to portraying planar travel effectively is grandeur—the sense that one’s home world is just a tiny speck floating on a giant ocean and you’ve only just begun to plumb its unknown depths.” The Demonweb and its portals delivers this sense of grand scope.

In the Abyss, some spell effects change in evocative ways. For example, restoring an arm with the Regenerate spell may regrow a limb demonically twisted.

Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. If Wild Wild West producer Jon Peters were cool enough for D&D, I might suppose he took his obsession with giant mechanical spiders from the spider queen. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk. I loved it. A diet of Michael Moorcock books and Arduin had already shattered my reservations about mixing such elements. The spider-ship seemed like a fitting creation for a goddess whose power spanned a multiverse. The ship’s inscrutable purpose and destination suited her chaos.

The adventure’s plot may not have matched Gary’s plan, but I suspect the Demonweb surpassed any of Gary’s ideas for the setting. In 1980, before the Manual of the Planes, before Planescape, Queen of the Demonweb Pits showed the way to the planes. Fans of Planescape can find its roots in the Demonweb.

Are you still curious about Gary’s original plan for the adventure? He wrote, “My concept was that Eclavdra was aiming at dominance of the drow through using the Elder Elemental God to replace Lolth. She, as the chief priestess of the elemental deity, would then be the mistress of all. The final scenario was to have been one in which the adventurers got involved in the battle between the evil entities and made it so that both lost and were tossed back to their own planes, relatively powerless in the Mundane world for some time to come.” Gary had an ambitious plan, heavy on intrigue, but without the vision—and hand towels—that led to the Demonweb.

Dungeons & Dragons fifth-edition Basic Rules, an annotated page 1

Wizards of the Coast has released the Dungeons & Dragons basic rules as a free download. I have yet to read past the first page, but even that invites comments.

The July 3 basic rules are labeled, version 0.1, but that does not mean that the playtest has restarted. It indicates that more basic rules will come. In “A Bit More on the Basic Rules for D&D,” lead designer Mike Mearls wrote, “As the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide near completion, we’ll add to the basic rules with more material to grow it into a complete game. Our goal is to continue to make updates to the basic rules for D&D until the end of the year, at which point it will be feature complete.

In “Five ways to create more usable game books,” I mentioned the love game publishers have for tiny, 8-point text. True to form, the PDF features tiny, 8-point text, presumably to save pages. In a PDF. Speaking to the page-layout staff on behalf of those of us in the reading glasses and bifocal demographic, I say, “Your time will come.” That’s way nicer than what I considered saying.

As for page layout, the staff at Wizards continues to make me doubt their competence. The original download included a parchment-colored background to pointlessly tax your ink or toner supply. Wizards has since added a printer-friendly version. Even in this version, if you duplex print, the page numbers and chapter titles appear on the inside of the page rather than on the outside where they can be easily spotted.

The credits cite contributors throughout the history of D&D. You probably know of E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the game’s original creators. Brian Blume, Rob Kuntz, and James Ward served as co-authors on the four supplements to the original game. Don Kay was Gary’s original partner at Tactical Studies Rules, later known as TSR.

The disclaimer on the first page is a hoot.

Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for the consequences of splitting up the party, sticking appendages in the mouth of a leering green devil face, accepting a dinner invitation from bugbears, storming the feast hall of a hill giant steading, angering a dragon of any variety, or saying yes when the DM asks, “Are you really sure?”

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

The great, green devil from Tomb of Horrors

The leering green devil face refers to the face of the great, green devil from the original Tomb of Horrors.

The dinner invitation refers to The Keep on the Borderlands, which featured this location:

BUGBEAR LAIR: The group of bugbears is not numerous, but what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in strength and cunning. There are signs beside the entrance cave in kobold, orcish, goblin, etc. Each says: “Safety, security and repose for all humanoids who enter — WELCOME! (Come in and report to the first guard on the left for a hot meal and bed assignment.)”

The feast hall refers to the great hall in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, which includes the following monsters:

Chief Nosnra & wife: HP.: 65, 41 (he fights as a frost giant, she as a male hill giant)
Sub-chief: HP.: 49
Cloud giant: HP.: 63
3 Stone giants: HP.: 51, 48, 43
22 Hill giants: HP.: 44, 3 x 40,39,5 x 38,5 x 37, 3 x 36, 33, 30, 2 x 27
8 Ogres: HP.: 31, 29, 3 x 28, 27, 26, 20
Cave bear: (beneath chiefs table) HP.: 43

Hint: Do not storm the great hall without a very good plan.

Just last week, I asked a player at a D&D Encounters table, “Are you really sure you want to do that?” The younger players at the table failed to see the warning, but their fathers sure noticed it.

That covers page 1. When I started this blog, I worried that I would run out of things to write about.