Tag Archives: Chainmail

How D&D Got an Initiative System Rooted in California House Rules

Some groups playing first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons might have run initiative by the book, but with the incomprehensible rules text, no one knew for sure. Besides, the full rules proved so complicated and cumbersome that most groups threw some out in favor of a faster pace. Even AD&D author Gary Gygax ignored most of it. “We played to have fun, and in the throws of a hot melee, rules were mostly forgotten.” (See For 10 Years Dungeons & Dragons Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots.)

For the designers working on second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, updating these rules posed a challenge. D&D’s management had required the designers to make their new version of AD&D broadly compatible with the original. Even after years on store shelves, plenty of first-edition products continued to sell. TSR wanted to keep that income coming. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

So second edition needed a version of the first-edition initiative rules, but which rules? First-edition players handled initiative in countless ways, none precisely by the book. The second-edition team settled on all of those ways. Like before, each side rolled a die and the winning roll went first. Beyond that, second edition offered enough optional rules to reconstruct whatever system a group already used. Groups that favored a system complicated by spell casting times and weapon speed factors could keep it.

Second edition also kept the wargame-inspired rule where players declared their actions before a round, and then had to stick to plan as best they could. Many groups chose to ignore this rule. Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison says, “I’ve had many conversations with fans who were really big fans of AD&D and who never really left second edition. I would say, ‘So you like the declaration phase?’ And the answer would always be, ‘Oh we don’t play that way.’ So you like AD&D better because you don’t play by the rules!”

When Adkison led Wizards of the Coast to buy TSR, he granted the third-edition design team permission to redesign initiative—and the rest of D&D—without keeping broad compatibility. Adkison simply charged the team with creating the best D&D game possible.

To start, the team looked at how gamers actually played second edition. Few groups declared actions before a round, and groups that did found the process slowed the game. Third-edition lead designer Jonathan Tweet explains, “Eventually what you ended up doing is you had to tell the DM what you were doing every round twice.”

Most tables did roll initiative every round. That added some exciting uncertainly, but also friction. “It takes forever to go through the round because no one knows who’s next and people get dropped.”

Despite having so many systems to choose from, none of the options pleased anyone. Co-designer Monte Cook says, “Initiative was probably the longest knock down drag out kind of fight. We must have gone through—no exaggeration—like 8 different, completely different, initiative systems.”

Meanwhile, in Tweet’s home games, he used a system that he hesitated to propose to the other designers. “I said to the group, ‘I want to try this cyclical initiative. It’s always worked for me, but it’s so different from AD&D. You know what, it’s probably so different that even if it’s better, people would not like it.’”

For the origin of cyclical initiative, the story goes back to D&D’s early days.

The original D&D books omitted a rule for who acts first in a fight. For that, co-designer Gary Gygax supposed gamers would refer to his earlier Chainmail miniatures rules. In practice, players rarely saw those old rules. As the game spread virally from the creators’ local groups and from the conventions they attended, gamers in the Midwest learned to play D&D.

Gamers in the West found D&D too, but those communities lacked the same word-of-mouth connection to the game’s creators. Necessity forced those players to make up rules to patch the gaps in the rule books. Copies of these fans’ informal game supplements spread from table-to-table.

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

A group of gamers around Caltech created Warlock. “What we have tried to do is present a way of expanding D&D without the contradictions and loopholes inherent in the original rules and with various supplements.”

Future RuneQuest designer and D&D supplement author Steve Perrin wrote a set of house rules that came to be called The Perrin Conventions. He distributed his rules at California’s DunDraCon I in March 1976.

The enthusiasts working on these West coast D&D enhancements lacked Dave and Gary’s deep roots in wargaming, so they found fresh answers to the question of who goes first. Instead of an arcane system built on weapon types, they worked from the description of the Dexterity attribute in original D&D’s Men & Magic booklet (p.11). Dexterity indicates the characters “speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.” So Warlock lets the spellcaster with the highest Dexterity goes first, and The Perrin Conventions explain, “First strike in any situation, whether melee combat, spell casting, or whatever depends on who has the highest dexterity.”

Meanwhile, D&D hooked California physician J. Eric Holmes, but the original game’s obtuse and incomplete rules frustrated him as much as anyone. So he contacted Gygax and volunteered to write rules for beginners. Gygax already wanted such an introduction, but he lacked time to write one because he also wanted to create his new advanced version of D&D. He welcomed Holmes’s unexpected offer and compared it to divine inspiration.

Starting with the original rule books plus the Blackmoor and Greyhawk supplements, Holmes made D&D comprehensible while keeping “the flavor and excitement of the original rules.” As much as he could, he reused wording from the original game. But J. Eric Holmes had learned to play D&D from the Caltech Warlock rules and he probably had seen The Perrin Conventions. That experience led him to pitch Warlock’s spell-point system to Gygax. We know how that turned out. Gary hated spell points. However, Holmes’s take on D&D included one West coast innovation: The character with the highest Dexterity struck first. Back then, monster stats lacked a number for Dexterity, so the rules explain, “If the Dungeon Master does not know the dexterity of an attacking monster, he rolls it on the spot.”

Holmes’ revision became the 1977 Basic Set known for its rule book’s blue cover. That version of the rules introduced young Jonathan Tweet to D&D. Even when new versions of D&D appeared, Tweet stuck to his interpretation of the 1977 initiative rule. “It was really fast. Everyone knew what order you went in.”

Fast forward twenty-some years to the design of third edition when Tweet proposed his home initiative system inspired by that blue rule book. He called the system cyclical because instead of re-rolling initiative every round, turns cycled through the same order.

The design team’s third member, Skip Williams brought deep roots into AD&D. Williams had played in Gary Gygax’s home campaign and came from years of experience answering AD&D questions as Dragon magazine’s sage. Tweet suspected Williams would hesitate to test an initiative system that defied AD&D tradition, but Williams said, “Well, let’s try it.”

“We played one battle using initiative that goes around in a circle instead of being different every round and it was so much faster,” Tweet recalls. “It feels more like combat because it’s faster. By the end of the turn, by the end of the 5 hours playing D&D, you’ve had way more fun because things have gone faster.

“One of the big things that I learned from that experience is how well people took to a rule that on paper they rejected but in practice they saw how well it played.”

Monte Cook says, “If you can look at something that happens 20, 30, 50 times during a game session, and eliminate that or decrease it hugely, you’re going to make the game run faster, more smoothly. That idea is now a big part of my game designer toolbox.”

In today’s fifth edition, cyclic initiative now seems like an obvious choice, but the D&D team still considered alternatives. Some players tout the side initiative system described on page 270 of the fifth-edition Dungeon Masters Guide. The opposing groups of heroes and monsters each roll a die, and then everyone in the group with the highest roll goes. Unlike in past editions, nobody re-rolls initiative; the sides just trade turns. The designers chose against this method because the side that wins initiative can gang up on enemies and finish them before they act. At low levels, when a single blow can take out a foe, winning side initiative creates an overwhelming advantage.

Many players find side initiative even faster than individual initiative. Side initiative could also encourage tactically-minded players to spend time each round planning an optimal order for their turns. Some players enjoy that focus. However, if you aim for fast fights where rounds capture the mayhem of 6-seconds of actual battle, avoid encouraging such discussion.

Why do you prefer your favorite method for deciding who goes first?

Related: 13 of the Craziest Quirks in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules

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

While every version of Dungeons & Dragons has a rule for who goes first in a fight, no other rule shows as much of the game’s evolution from what the original books call rules for “wargames campaigns” into what the latest Player’s Handbook calls a roleplaying game about storytelling.

Before you old grognards rush to the comments to correct my opening line, technically the original books lacked any way to decide who goes first. For that rule, co-creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson supposed gamers would refer to Gary’s earlier Chainmail miniatures rules. In practice, players rarely saw those old rules. The way to play D&D spread gamer-to-gamer from Dave and Gary’s local groups and from the conventions they attended. D&D campaigns originally ran by word-of-mouth and house rules.

Gygax waited five years to present an initiative system in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). Two things made those official rules terrible.

  • Nobody understood the system.

  • Any reasonable interpretation of the system proved too slow and complicated for play.

Some grognards insist they played the first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons initiative system by the book. No you didn’t. Read this 20-page consolidation of the initiative rules as written, and then try to make that claim. Grognardia blogger James Maliszewski writes, “Initiative in AD&D, particularly when combined with the equally obscure rules regarding surprise, was one of those areas where, in my experience, most players back in the day simply ignored the official rules and adopted a variety of house rules. I know I did.”

Not even Gygax played with all his exceptions and complications. “We used only initiative [rolls] and casting times for determination of who went first in a round. The rest was generally ignored. We played to have fun, and in the throws of a hot melee, rules were mostly forgotten.”

With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the D&D story grows complicated, because original or basic D&D soldiered on with workable initiative systems. My next tale will circle back to D&D, but this one focuses on first-edition AD&D, the game Gygax treated as his own. (See Basic and Advanced—the time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games.)

Some of the blame for AD&D’s terrible initiative system falls back on Chainmail and Gygax’s love for its wargaming legacy.

Chainmail lets players enact battles with toy soldiers typically representing 20 fighters. The rules suggest playing on a tabletop covered in sand sculpted into hills and valleys. In Chainmail each turn represents about a minute, long enough for infantry to charge through a volley of arrows and cut down a group of archers. A clash of arms might start and resolve in the same turn. At that scale, who strikes first typically amounts to who strikes from farthest away, so archers attack, then soldiers with polearms, and finally sword swingers. Beyond that, a high roll on a die settled who moved first.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the 1-minute turns from Chainmail became 1-minute melee rounds. Such long turns made sense for a wargame that filled one turn with a decisive clash of arms between groups of 20 soldiers, but less sense for single characters trading blows.

Even though most D&D players imagined brief turns with just enough time to attack and dodge, Gygax stayed loyal to Chainmail’s long turns. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gygax defended the time scale. “The system assumes much activity during the course of each round. During a one-minute melee round many attacks are made, but some are mere feints, while some are blocked or parried.” Gygax cited the epic sword duel that ended The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) as his model for AD&D’s lengthy rounds. He never explained why archers only managed a shot or two per minute.

Broadly, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons held to Chainmail’s system for deciding who goes first. Gygax also chose an option from the old wargame where players declared their actions before a round, and then had to stick to plan as best they could. “If you are a stickler, you may require all participants to write their actions on paper.”

Why would Gygax insist on such cumbersome declarations?

In a D&D round, every character and creature acts in the same few seconds, but to resolve the actions we divide that mayhem into turns. This compromise knots time in ridiculous ways. For example, with fifth edition’s 6-second rounds, one character can end their 6-second turn next to a character about to start their turn and therefor 6 seconds in the past. If they pass a relay baton, the baton jumps 6 seconds back in time. If enough characters share the same 6 seconds running with the baton, the object outraces a jet. Now expand that absurdity across AD&D’s 1-minute round.

Years before D&D, wargamers like Gygax had wrestled with such problems. They couldn’t resolve all actions simultaneously, but players could choose actions at once. Declaring plans in advance, and then letting a referee sort out the chaos yielded some of the real uncertainty of an actual battle. Wargamers loved that. Plus, no referee would let players declare that they would start their turn by taking a relay baton from someone currently across the room.

Especially when players chose to pretend that a turn took about 10 seconds, the Chainmail system for initiative worked well enough. In basic D&D, turns really lasted 10 seconds, so no one needed to pretend. Many tables kept that system for AD&D.

But nobody played the advanced system as written. Blame that on a wargamer’s urge for precision. Despite spending paragraphs arguing for 1-minute rounds, Gygax seemed to realize that a minute represented a lot of fighting. So he split a round into 10 segments lasting as long as modern D&D’s 6-second rounds. Then he piled on intricate—sometimes contradictory—rules that determined when you acted based on weapon weights and lengths, spell casting times, surprise rolls, and so on. In an interview, Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison observed, “The initiative and surprise rules with the weapon speed factors was incomprehensible.”

In a minute-long turn filled with feints, parries, and maneuvering, none of that precision made sense. On page 61, Gygax seemed to say as much. “Because of the relatively long period of time, weapon length and relative speed factors are not usually a consideration.” Then he wrote a system that considered everything.

Some of the blame for this baroque system may rest on the wargaming hobby’s spirit of collaboration.

Even before D&D, Gygax had proved a zealous collaborator on wargames. Aside from teaming with other designers, he wrote a flood of articles proposing variants and additions to existing games. In the early years of D&D, Gygax brought the same spirit. He published rules and ideas from the gamers in his circle, and figured that players could use what suited their game. In the Blackmoor supplement, he wrote, “All of it is, of course, optional, for the premise of the whole game system is flexibility and personalization within the broad framework of the rules.”

I doubt all the rules filigree in AD&D came from Gygax. At his table, he ignored rules for things like weapon speed factors. Still, Gygax published such ideas from friends and fellow gamers. For example, he disliked psionics, but he bowed to his friends and included the system in AD&D. (See Gary Gygax Loved Science Fantasy, So Why Did He Want Psionics Out of D&D?.)

Weapon speed factors fit AD&D as badly as anything. In theory, a fighter could swing a lighter weapon like a dagger more quickly. Did this speed enable extra attacks? Not usually. Instead, light weapons could strike first. But that contradicted Chainmail’s observation that a fighter with a spear had to miss before an attacker with a dagger could come close enough to attack. Gygax patched that by telling players to skip the usual initiative rules after a charge.

AD&D’s initiative system resembles a jumble of ideas cobbled together in a rush to get a long-delayed Dungeon Master’s Guide to press. The system piled complexities, and then exceptions, and still failed to add realism. In the end, AD&D owed some success to the way D&D’s haphazard rules trained players to ignore any text that missed the mark.

In creating D&D, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax faced a unique challenge because no one had designed a roleplaying game before. The designers of every roleplaying game to follow D&D copied much of the original’s work. Without another model, Gygax relied on the design tools from wargames. His initiative system may be gone, but ultimately Gary’s finest and most lasting contribution to D&D came from the lore he created for spells, monsters, and especially adventures.

Next: Part 2: “It’s probably so different that even if it’s better, people would not like it.”

How Dungeons & Dragons Got Its Ability Scores

The earliest character sheet for the game that inspired Dungeons & Dragons includes 8 character traits: Brains, Looks, Credibility, Sex, Health, Strength, Courage, and Cunning. The character comes from Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, which launched in 1971. See A History of D&D in 12 Treasures from author Jon Peterson.

The sheet organizes these traits under the heading, “Personality,” and measures of personality dominate the list more than abilities like strength and health. The Blackmoor campaign represented Charisma with three scores—Credibility, Looks, and Sex, as in “sexual prowess.”

Blackmoor evolved from miniature wargame campaigns. These games only represented individuals when they served as commanders for military units or as leaders of countries. When the referee needed to determine how well a commander followed orders or honored an alliance, measures of personality such as courage and loyalty mattered. One early campaign adopted a system for generating life events such as marriages and sickness for important characters. You can imagine how health and even sexual prowess could factor in such a game. Abilities like strength never figured in play.

Blackmoor started with players controlling single characters who would act in political intrigue and as leaders in battle, so the game emphasized traits for personality and leadership. The characters could fight solo or learn magic, so Strength, Health, and Brains found a place in the game.

In the Blackmoor campaign, Dave used ability scores as the basis of tests that resemble modern saving throws or ability checks. “Players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, to see if they were successful at an attempt,” writes Blackmoor scholar D. H. Boggs. For example, on page 28 of The First Fantasy Campaign (1977), Dave describes how characters had to roll under their Dexterity score to remove their armor before drowning in Blackmoor Bay.

That example cites D&D’s Dexterity attribute, a score the original Blackmoor characters lacked. If Dave and his players used ability scores for saves, how did the rules omit a score for dodging? For his game, Dave also borrowed the saving throw categories from Chainmail—a 1971 set of rules for miniature-figure battles. Boggs speculates that these types for Dragon Breath, Spider Poison, Basilisk Gaze, and Spells covered enough cases to make a Dexterity attribute unnecessary.

How did Blackmoor’s personality traits turn into D&D’s six ability scores?

In 1972, Dave introduced his Blackmoor campaign to Gary Gygax, the author of Chainmail. Dave’s game transformed bits of Chainmail into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. Dave recalled that Gary and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.”

In the case of ability scores, Gary reworked the Blackmoor attributes into D&D’s. For example, Gary never favored simple, informal terminology like “Brains” and “Health,” so he opted for Intelligence and Constitution.

Gary consolidated Credibility, Looks, and Sex into Charisma. (Later, Unearthed Arcana and other roleplaying games would experiment with splitting Charisma back into traits for charm and beauty.)

Gary’s early games paired players with gangs of followers, so Charisma helped recruitment and retention. As play styles turned away from henchmen and hirelings, Charisma became less important. The 1977 Basic Set provided no rules crunch for Charisma.

On the Blackmoor character sheet, Cunning looks like a late addition. In both Dave and Gary’s pre-D&D campaigns, Cunning became the prime requisite for clerics. “Cunning” suggests a faith-healing charlatan more than a priest who’s spells worked. Still, the first cleric character, as played by Mike Carr in Dave’s Blackmoor game, had working spells. So eventually Cunning turned to Wisdom and became a measure of spirituality.

Unlike fighters, wizards, and thieves, the cleric lacks a clear archetype in the fantasy tales that inspired D&D. Instead, the class draws inspiration from bits of Christian priest and crusader, from Friar Tuck and Van Helsing. These clerics made an awkward fit in the pulp-fantasy world of D&D and lacked a place in other games. In 1975, when TSR adapted the D&D rules to different settings to create Metamorphosis Alpha and Empire of the Petal Throne, the games dropped clerics and their Wisdom attribute.

Instead designers saw a need to measure a character’s mental toughness with a sort of mental counterpart to Strength and Constitution. Metamorphosis Alpha swaps Wisdom for Mental Resistance. Empire of the Petal Throne replaces Wisdom with Psychic Strength.

Apparently, these games led Gary to see a need for a similar rating for D&D characters. Instead of adding a new attribute, Gary broadened Wisdom to include willpower. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook grants characters with high wisdom a bonus to saves against “mental attack forms involving will force.” Only a strained definition of wisdom includes willpower, but until then Wisdom only served clerics. The broader scope gave Wisdom similar weight to the other attributes.

Years later, Wisdom would gain an association with perception. Games without Wisdom tend to associate perception with Intelligence.

Dexterity arrived to the game last. Gary must have felt that Strength needed a counterpart for characters wielding crossbows, so Dexterity showed aptitude for ranged weapons. After the original books reached the public, the Thief entered the game and took Dexterity as a prime requisite.

Even though the original D&D release turned the scores from measures of personality into measures of ability, the game still says that the scores aid players “in selecting a role” like one of those personality tests that help students select a career.

When Gary wrote D&D, he never explained how to use ability scores for checks. In his own game, Gary preferred a loose method where he decided on a character’s chance of success and improvised a die roll to match. For saves, Gary just elaborated on the system from the Chainmail rules.

So according to D&D’s original rules, ability scores counted for little. The abilities barely deliver any game effects: At most a +1 to hit or an extra hit point per die.

These slight effects mean that early D&D characters in the same class all played much the same. But ability scores ranging from 3 to 18 seemed to promise bigger game effects than a mere +1. With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Wisdom and Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on.

With that development, D&D started down the road to the modern game, which builds on ability scores as the foundation for every check and save.

Related:
The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing.

Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

For 25 Years, D&D Put Saving Throws In Groups Made For Just 3 Creatures and 2 Spells

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

In 1977, when I first read the Dungeon & Dragons basic rules, the way armor class improved as it shrunk from 9 to 2 puzzled me. Shouldn’t higher numbers be better? Players just used AC to find a row on a table, so rising ACs would have worked as well. Magic armor introduced negative ACs, making the descending numbers even more awkward. Also, many of the demons described in 1976 in the Eldrich Wizardry supplement sported negative armor class.

D&D’s designers seemed to think rising armor classes made more sense. The game rules stemmed from co-creator Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules for miniature-figure battles. Chainmail rated armor from 1 to 8, with better armor gaining higher values. Co-creator Dave Arneson based his Blackmoor fantasy campaign on Chainmail. His campaign developed into D&D. In Blackmoor, higher armor classes represented better armor.

So how did the first D&D rules set the puzzling convention of descending armor class?

The answer lies toward the end of the genesis of D&D’s combat system.

In the original D&D rule books, the combat system that everyone used appears as the Alternative Combat System. “Alternative” because players could just use the combat system from Chainmail instead. When Dave launched Blackmoor, he tried the Chainmail system. But it focused on battles between armies sprinkled with legendary heroes and monsters. For ongoing adventures in the dungeon under Castle Blackmoor, the rules needed changes. Original Blackmoor player Greg Svenson recalls that within about a month of play, the campaign created new rules for damage rolls and hit points. (More recently, Steve Winter, a D&D designer since 1st edition, tells of playing the original game with the Chainmail combat rules.)

Much of what we know about how Dave adapted the rules for his Blackmoor campaign comes from two sources: a 2004 interview and The First Fantasy Campaign, a raw publication of notes for his game. Most quotes in this post come from those sources.

Chainmail’s melee combat matrix

To resolve melee combat, Chainmail used a combat matrix. Players matched the attacking weapon or creature against the defender, rolled a pair of 6-sided dice, and consulted the table for an outcome. “That was okay for a few different kinds of units, but by the second weekend we already had 20 or 30 different monsters, and the matrix was starting to fill up the loft.”

Dave abandoned the matrix and extended Chainmail’s rules for missile attacks to melee combat. In Chainmail, ranged attackers rolled 2d6, and tried to roll higher than a target number based on increasing armor classes. Blackmoor gained melee to-hit rolls.

Chainmail’s man-to-man combat and ranged combat tables

In Chainmail, creatures lacked hit points, so a single hit killed. But with extraordinary individuals like heroes, wizards, and dragons, a saving throw allowed a last chance to survive. For example, the rules say, “Dragon fire will kill any opponent it touches, except another Dragon, Super Hero, or a Wizard, who is saved on a two dice roll of 7 or better.”

Under rules where one hit destroyed a character, Dave tried to spare player characters by granting saving throws against any hit. “Thus, although [a character] might be ‘Hit’ several times during a melee round, in actuality, he might not take any damage at all.”

But the system of saving throws still made characters too fragile to suit players. “It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn’t have,” Dave explains.

Chainmail battle on a sand table

“I adopted the rules I’d done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer.” In a Chainmail battle that featured armies spanning a sand table, hit points would have overwhelmed players with bookkeeping. But the Blackmoor players liked the rule. “They didn’t care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn’t care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn’t want the monster to kill them in one blow.”

When players rolled characters, they determined hit points. For monsters, hit points were set based “on the size of the creature physically and, again, on some regard for its mythical properties.” Dave liked to vary hit points among individual monsters. To set the strength of a type of monster while rolling for an individual’s hit points, he probably invented hit dice.

Dave said he took the armor class from Ironclads, but the concept came from Chainmail and the term came from its 1972 revisions. I suspect Dave meant that he pulled the notion of hit points and damage from a naval game that featured both armor ratings and damage points. Game historian Jon Peterson explains, “The concepts of armor thickness and withstanding points of damage existed in several naval wargames prior to Chainmail.” Still, nobody has found the precise naval rules that inspired Dave. Even his handwritten rules for ironclad battles lack properties resembling armor class. Perhaps he just considered using the concept in a naval game before bringing the notion to D&D.

In Blackmoor, Dave sometimes used hit locations. Perhaps naval combat inspired that rule. When ships battle, shells that penetrate to a boiler or powder keg disable more than a cannonball through the galley. Likewise, in man-to-man combat, a blow to the head probably kills.

Dave’s rules for hit locations only reached D&D in the Blackmoor supplement, which came a year after the game’s release. But hit locations made combat more complicated and dangerous. Realistic combat proved too deadly for the dungeon raids in D&D. So D&D players never embraced hit locations. Even Dave seemed to save the rule for special occasions. “Hit Location was generally used only for the bigger critters, and only on a man-to-man level were all the options thrown in. This allowed play to progress quickly even if the poor monsters suffered more from it.” Dave ran a fluid game, adapting the rules to suit the situation.

By the time Dave’s fantasy game established hit points, 2d6 to-hit rolls, and damage rolls, he showed the game to Gary Gygax.

Next: Gary Gygax improves hit points by making them more unrealistic, and then adds funny dice

The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons

The first Arduin Grimoire starts by explaining how to play Dungeons & Dragons. Sure it claims to be an explanation of how to play “a fantasy game,” but in 1976, when Dave Hargrave penned the tutorial, the range of fantasy games included D&D, D&D set in a world called Tékumel, and a game designed under the generic name of D&D until it reached stores as T&T.

Gamers needed the how-to. The original D&D rules read as a summary for people who already knew how to play. D&D arrived as a companion to a miniature battle game called Chainmail, and the rules built on a foundation of turns and moves. Gary Gygax’s peers felt comfortable with rules for inches of movement and for how many 10-foot squares a character could search in a 10-minute turn. To Gary’s audience, D&D made sense. But the rule books confused folks accustomed to rolling dice to see how many squares a wheelbarrow could move.

Hargrave’s how-to amounts to this: move, roll for monsters, repeat. If monsters appear, roll for distance, surprise, reaction, and then initiative.

As hard as D&D proved to grasp, this “sequence of play” isn’t too different from Risk. Aside from the referee, the game seems nearly as constrained as Clue—except D&D features a hidden board like Battleship.

Ken St. Andre wrote T&T—Tunnels & Trolls—because he found the D&D rules “nearly incomprehensible.” He describes T&T as having the same relationship to D&D as “Chevrolet does to Ford.” His explanation of how to play T&T worked for D&D too. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon.” In 1975, games needed boards. (See 4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.)

There exist numerous enchanted tunnel complexes (call them dungeons or underworlds if you wish) that are liberally loaded with many types of treasure, and abundantly guarded by every imaginable form of monster, magic, and trap. Generally speaking, the greatest treasures and most powerful monster are found further below the surface. Brave men and women arm themselves and venture within the tunnels at risk of body and soul to seek treasure and experience.

In 1975, games also needed a way to win. St. Andre explained how. “Every time your character escapes from a tunnel alive, you may consider yourself a winner. The higher the level and the more wealth your character attains, the better you are doing in comparison to all the other players.” (See But how do you win?)

Neither D&D’s original rules nor interpreters of those rules describe the loose play of D&D today. They describe a tightly-focused game where treasure hunters enter dungeons, spend turns moving and fighting, and keep score in gold.

From 1974 through the 80s, the evolution of role-playing games marks a move from D&D’s medieval fantasy to universal systems like GURPS, the HERO System, and Basic Roleplaying. In the early 90s, universal systems peaked, and the hobby started moving toward games optimized for one genre or even a narrow range of activities. You could play Kung-fu or vampire campaigns in GURPS, but for many players, optimized systems like Feng Shui and Vampire the Masquerade offered a more compelling experience.

D&D followed the same evolution. Original D&D didn’t aim for the same scope of a modern D&D campaign. The 1974 game arrived laser-focused on dungeon expeditions—and not even on naturalistic lairs, strongholds, and tombs. Original D&D assumed multi-level undergrounds with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. (See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die in dungeon crawls.

Almost everything in the little, brown books supports dungeon expeditions. Sure, the books included rules for wilderness adventures, but as a way for characters to find castle sites. The rules for castles and followers only build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. Few players crossed that bridge. Even subsequent editions of D&D largely ignored it.

As a focus, the dungeon crawl proved a massive success. Dungeons provided an evocative environment with built-in threats and rewards. Plus, dungeons kept characters on that secret board behind the DM’s screen. The walls made the game manageable for new DMs, and all but two DMs were new. (See How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.)

Even though the D&D’s turns and hidden boards felt familiar to gamers in 1974, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured the imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. Hardly anyone held to the rigid structure or stayed in the dungeon. A city, The City State of the Invincible Overlord, became the first setting for D&D. (See A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.) By 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery offered rules for everything in a medieval fantasy world, from kings to peasants, and from jousting to courtly love. That game stemmed from a D&D campaign where players had tired of dungeons and embraced the larger world. (See Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun? Newer games with more realistic combat systems even made dungeon crawls too lethal to be a campaign’s focus. (See The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points.)

As the role-playing hobby broadened, D&D’s scope grew too. By 2000, third edition arrived late to the universal system party. D&D became a branch of the d20 system, which extended to modern settings and Star Wars role playing.

By 2007, the trend toward systems optimized for a narrow range of activities reached D&D and its fourth edition. This version returned to the narrow focus of the original game, but with a completely different choice of optimal activities. Now the game focused on designing characters capable of dynamic battlefield stunts, and then showing them off in combat encounters. Dungeon expeditions became an interchangeable backdrop for combat encounters and skill challenges. This new focus drew criticism from players who felt that a miniature skirmish game, or perhaps a video game, had replaced the original role-playing game. Sure, most players knew you could run fourth edition in the same wide-open style as the prior editions, but plenty saw the new focus as a sign that D&D no longer invited role playing.

Today, D&D returns to a comfortable balance between the sharp focus of the original game and the sprawl of d20. Rather than optimize a system for a narrow focus, the game seeks to embrace three pillars of exploration, combat, and interaction. The game is bigger, but you can still dungeon crawl in the original style—as long as you can live without 10-minute turns.

For 25 Years, D&D Put Saving Throws In Groups Made For Just 3 Creatures and 2 Spells

Today, Dungeons & Dragons of matches saving throws to ability scores. But for most of the game’s history, D&D grouped saving throws by 5 sources: spell or staff, wand, death ray or poison, turned to stone, and dragon breath. These categories and the game’s saving throw table made me wonder: What made clerics so resistant to poison? Of all possible threats, why set aside a specific save for being turned to stone? (Also, “stone” isn’t even a source, just shorthand for a list of creatures.) Dragon breath seemed overly specific too, but at least the game’s title featured dragons. And how could the remaining 3 types of save cover every other hazard in a fantastic world?

Gary Gygax based his Chainmail rules on a 1966 pamphlet by Tony Bath titled Rules for Medieval Wargames. In those rules, attackers make a roll to hit, and then defenders roll a “saving throw” to see if their armor protects them. The heavier the armor, the easier the save.

Attack rolls in Dungeons & Dragons combine Bath’s to-hit roll and saving throw. But Gary reused the name “saving throw” for another, similar purpose. This rework begin in Chainmail, the mass-battle rules that formed the basis for D&D. In Chainmail, creatures lacked hit points, so successful attacks destroyed units. But with extraordinary individuals like heroes, wizards, and dragons, a saving throw allowed a last chance to survive. For example, the rules say, “Dragon fire will kill any opponent it touches, except another Dragon, Super Hero, or a Wizard, who is saved on a two dice roll of 7 or better.”

Chainmail’s rules for spells, magical attacks, and similar hazards led to saving throws in original D&D. The first Dungeon Master’s Guide explained the concept. “Because the player character is all-important, he or she must always—or nearly always—have a chance, no matter how small, of somehow escaping what otherwise be would be inevitable destruction.”

“Someone once criticized the concept of the saving throw as ridiculous,” Gary wrote. “Could a man chained to a rock, they asked, save himself from a blast of red dragon’s breath? Why not? I replied. Imagine that the figure, at the last moment, of course, manages to drop beneath the licking flames, or finds a crevice in which to shield his or her body, or succeeds in finding some way to be free of the fetters. Why not?” Saving throws grant a last chance, but they leave the details of why a save worked to the storytelling of the player and DM. The brilliance of hit points comes from their abstraction, and in original D&D saves are just as abstract as hit points.

Chainmail only includes saves for 4 effects: dragon breath, basilisk gaze, spider poison, and spells (just fireball and lightning). Original D&D turned those 4 saves into categories, and then added “wands” as a 5th.

The detailed numbers in the saving throw table suggest that Gary set saves to simulate nuances of the game world. However, the original saving-throw table reveals no nuances and few patterns. Fighters grow to become the best at dragon slaying. Wizards gain the best spell saves and so become best at dueling other spellcasters. But why, say, should magic users boast the best resistance to petrification? And why does the death ray from a Finger of Death spell get grouped with poison rather than staying in the tougher spell category? Apparently, when Gary Gygax told players to save or die, he also gave them a break. Go figure.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the revamped saving-throw matrix reveals more patterns.

Clerics show the best saves versus paralyzation, poison, and death magic. Perhaps divine favor helps spare them from death.

Magic users start with the best saves and end with the worst. Did Gary intend to help low-level mages and to balance high-level wizards?

Fighters start with the worst saves and end with the best. Was this designed to balance the class, or just to simulate the resilience of a front-line survivor?

Although the saving throw categories lasted 25 years, these types proved clumsy.

As D&D added countless threats, the designers folded them into the same 5 categories descended from Chainmail. For dungeon masters, these peculiar categories made guesswork of choosing the right save for a new effect.

In AD&D, characters with high wisdom or dexterity gained bonuses to saves that demanded willpower or agility. But neither bonus matched a saving-throw category. The bonuses could apply to some saves in multiple categories. Remembering these bonuses—and sometimes gaining the DM’s approval to use them—added a awkward extra step.

Third edition switched to grouping saving throws by the aptitude needed to survive the danger. Now a high wisdom or dexterity cleanly benefited will or reflex saves. Finally, a high constitution helped shake the effect of poison.

The switch made saving throws simpler, but they became less abstract. The odds of someone chained to a rock using quick reflexes to survive dragon fire seemed lower than ever—low odds that fifth edition simulates by imposing disadvantage on a restrained character’s dexterity save.

When I imagine someone making a reflex or dexterity save, I picture someone leaping and tumbling from rushing flames. Then I look at the battle map and see a figure in the same square. In my overly-complicated version of D&D, evasion would make targets move out of an area of effect.

Next: Fourth edition proved D&D works without saving throws, so why did they come back?

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.

Why the Temple of the Frog, Dungeons & Dragons’ first printed dungeon, seemed unplayable

In the winter of 1977, the Dungeons & Dragons basic set introduced me to the game. Hooked, I sought everything I could find for the game. The new Monster Manual delivered a treasury of creatures—with pictures! The white box gave spells to 6th level, and then Supplement I Greyhawk raised spells to 9th level.

But Supplement II Blackmoor disappointed me. My dungeon had no room for aquatic monsters. Monks broke my notion of fantasy. Assassins invited trouble. A strange dungeon obsessed with frogs stole half the pages. Anthropomorphic frogs belonged in children’s books; not in this daring new game.

I resolved to overcome my bias against monstrous frogs. As far as I knew, no other dungeons were in print, and Temple of the Frog came from the creators of the game. Surely the temple showcased the best of my new passion, and I decided to run it for my friends.

Temple of the Frog begins with pages of backstory. Eager for a peek at an dungeon from D&D’s creators, I skipped past the dense history to the underground’s room key.

So my trouble started on that first level, where the party could easily stumble into an encounter with 200 soldiers, part of an army housed in connected barracks. On the next level, the breeding pool contains over a 1000 killer frogs. Few of these rooms include interesting content, just hordes of soldiers, frogs, and coinage. Even if my players could handle the threats, I saw no way to make it fun.

I kept setting the temple aside and then returning to it, hoping to unlock whatever secrets enabled D&D’s designers to play this adventure. I never cracked it. I did not realize you couldn’t play the temple as a D&D adventure, because it still fit the style of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and the Chainmail mass-combat rules that spawned it. Even some of its terminology reached back to Chainmail, with creatures who “take 3 hits” rather than “have 3 hit points,” and trolls who “fight as” ogres.

The temple vexed me, but I had skipped the introduction, so I never even saw the strangest parts. The high priest, Stephen the Rock comes from a sci-fi version of our world. His +3 flying battle armor and +3 shield combine to grant 18(00) strength, 18 dexterity, invisibility, and protection from any magical, mental, or energy attacks. His +3 sword shoots lightning. He enjoys instant communication with 179 ring-bearing henchmen. Blackmoor’s version of Kang the Conqueror has a medical kit that heals any damage short of an anatomical jigsaw puzzle and a communication module that teleports to anywhere on the planet or to an orbital scout ship.

Blofeldpleasance67The high priest is a super villain. The Temple of the Frog exists as a lair fit for plotting world conquest. Like any villain’s lair, this one comes with a messy way of disposing of Mr. Bond and the henchmen who fail to kill him. Rather than piranha, alligators, or laser sharks, the temple’s trap door leads to killer frogs. Add a monorail and Blofeld could move in.

Between his wish-fulfilling gear and ordinary name, Stephen the Rock shows his origin as a villainous Mary Sue.

Dave Arneson’s campaign started as miniature battles with the players taking all the sides, hero and villain. In 1973, he collaborated with Stephen Rocheford to create a nefarious persona for the game. Pronounced Rockford, Stephen’s last name gained him the nicknames Rocky and the Rock, which led to a name for his baddie. Stephen recalls, “Dave approached me to invent an evil character that would be different from the norm in this world. Ergo, I thought and settled on a character that was not of this world of Blackmoor. My inspiration eventually was from an old episode of the original Star Trek television series. In it, Captain Kirk found a planet of Nazi’s and found the earthling, an historian, who founded it in the hope eliminating it’s excesses and organizing this society for the betterment of all in the name of efficiency. I told Dave Arneson and he was delighted.

My character was a soldier (I was an Army Officer) who crash landed in Blackmoor with several others from a spaceship. He found a village organized around a group of monks. They and the villagers thought the stranger was a very powerful wizard; in fact he was a man who used a phaser and so overawed the indigenous people that he was proclaimed the High Priest of the Monks of the Swamp.

Dave Arneson’s friend from the era, Jeff Berry, thinks H. P. Lovecraft inspired the frog theme. “You just had to have frogmen and other servants of the Old Ones infesting the [swamp],” he writes. “It gave the players something to do when they weren’t exploring the dungeons.” Dave’s exact inspiration may be the frog-like deity Tsathoggua, as described by Clark Ashton Smith in his story “The Seven Geases.” Plus, legend says that Dave used a ceramic frog from his mother’s garden as a game prop.

As Stephen’s account continues, he seems like someone playing a character in a one-on-one role-playing session. “I set about to organize a theocracy based on the worship of frogs, which were in great supply in the swamp. These frogs were bred and genetically improved over time until some special breeds grew to enormous size. A temple was erected and an Order of Monks reorganized around this hall of worship.” Stephen’s Roman Catholic upbringing led to the temple’s Catholic flavor, complete with a pipe organ and papal robes.

Eventually, rumors of a secret society in the swamp led the heroes of Blackmoor to investigate, but they came unprepared for a confrontation with the “weird guy in the robes who shot an immensely powerful lightning bolt.” They woke later in the swamp with gaps in their memory.

Blackmoor’s heroes probably never returned to the temple, but if they had, the rules would have changed—literally—to Chainmail and its mass-combat scale. D&D historian Jon Peterson explains, “How could a party of adventurers be expected to assault a temple with twenty men at its gate tower, thirty at its main gate, ten men per corner tower and a thousand guards in reserve in case of trouble? Or to deal with the first level of the dungeon, where a given barracks room might contain hundreds of men? The answer of course is to bring an army, and stage a wargame rather than a dungeon crawl.

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 would need follow Bond’s playbook and call in the commandos, ninjas, or their men at arms. Players needed Chainmail for that endgame.

No wonder this adventure vexed a generation of players.

Next: 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?

In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The game within a game

The baseline Dungeons & Dragons game offers player characters plenty of chances to gain treasure and few chances to spend it.

When Dave Arneson opened the dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor, Chainmail miniature battles served as a game within his game of dungeon crawling (or technically vice versa). Player characters spent gold to raise armies, launch fleets, and build castles.

Since then, various rules for clashing armies have complimented D&D’s editions. For more, see Dungeoneering and the Art of War by Shannon Appelcline. Few D&D players care to trade their characters’ adventures for a miniature wargame, so none of these war games within D&D lasted. Without the miniature game, PCs could still buy strongholds, but their clubhouses entered play about as much as a fancy hat drawn in a character portrait. Some players happily feather their characters’ caps, but most players will not chase simple trophies.

Instead, players favor investments that factor into play. Magic items affect the game’s core of adventuring, so they make a popular way to spend. To create a campaign where players eagerly spend on more than magic, expand the campaign’s scope beyond dungeon crawling and dragon slaying. Follow Dave Arneson and add a game within the game.

If you want to create a war game within your campaign, fifth edition D&D offers a set of mass-combat rules. The spirits of Dave and Gary will smile down on you as you play D&D as they always intended.

However, unless your group features a rare bunch of grognards, you probably need a secondary game that better suits roleplayers.

In this post, I review some history of the game within the D&D campaign and show how the story leads to 5 lessons.

D&D expands beyond fighting men

When D&D grew, many new classes did not suit the original goal of building castles and commanding armies. Perhaps thieves could build a hideout, but druids could only plant a tree. The original, stronghold-building game unraveled.

Lesson 1: The game within a game must match the players’ characters and their goals.

You need not tailor a game for each character, although you can. As a dungeon master, when you start a campaign, you can establish a goal for it. For example, the PCs must fight to free their homeland or scheme to raise a princess to the throne against her rivals and their shadowy supporters. The players can decide how their characters come to share the campaign goal, but they all need a reason to join together and work toward that goal.

A game within the D&D campaign should let players advance their characters’ goals.

D&D Companion Rules

TSR1013_Dungeons_&_Dragons_-_Set_3_Companion_RulesThe best attempt at a game within a game came when Frank Mentzer wrote the D&D Companion Rules (1984), supporting play from levels 15 through 25. These rules included Dominion rules to drag the PCs’ strongholds into the game. The rules give players something to do with their domains, even if it’s mostly bookkeeping.

PCs start with a county, build a castle, and watch its population and economy grow. Players do the calculations. When I read the rules, I admired the design, but the activity seemed colorless. The dominion rules seem like tending an aquarium, with more paperwork.

Lesson 2: Losing must seem possible.

Now imagine that the PCs hold a dominion at the last bastion on a hostile border. Imagine the PCs defending their subjects with shrewd administration, diplomacy, and typical PC heroics. This dominion game becomes compelling. Once defeat seems possible, the dominion turns from a bookkeeping activity into a game.

D&D War Machine rules

The D&D Companion Rules also included a War Machine mass-combat system that let players resolve battles without building a basement sand table. “To use the system, all you need is a pencil and paper, plus some knowledge of simple arithmetic.”

Lesson 3: The game within a game typically must to be simple, because the players sat to play D&D .

Traditionally, adding mass combat to a D&D campaign meant adopting another game—almost another hobby. When Frank Mentzer and Douglas Niles created the War Machine mass combat system, they made a key insight: For their game within D&D to work, it needed to be simple enough not to distract from the usual D&D adventures. If anything, War Machine brings too much realism. Most D&D players would happily adopt something as simple as the Risk rules.

Lesson 4: Players must see how their choices will lead to outcomes.

The pursuit of a simple rules might tempt you to reduce the game within a game to DM fiat. Instead of inventing some simple rules, you just rule on an outcome. Don’t make this mistake. Relying on DM fiat will rob the players of their agency: their sense that they control their destiny in the game. Players will wonder if your ruling just follows whatever narrative you dreamed up at the start.

Instead, the players should understand understand the rules of the secondary game well enough to plot strategy. They should know how their bribes will affect diplomacy rolls, and how the mercenaries they hire will swing the battle.

Battle Interactives and Epics

Some of my favorite games within a D&D game only spanned a single session: the convention games known as Battle Interactives or Epics. These games gather hundreds of D&D players into a ballroom, where they cooperate to reach a common objective. While players at each table race to win battles, the event’s organizers create a game within the game to track progress toward winning—or losing—the war. For more, see “Living Forgotten Realms Battle Interactive.”

These events work best when the organizers use a projector to display progress: battles won and lost, territories claimed, and so on. The players may not know the rules of the game within the game, but they see how its outcome turns on their actions.

Lesson 5: Show players their progress toward success.

Good games within a game tend to focus on a game board. This board might show provinces freed from the dread emperor’s rule, or it could just list electors and show their willingness to support the princess’s claim to the throne.

Advantage

In the typical D&D game, PCs wander the game world, looking for troublemakers to kill while increasing their battle prowess.

The game within a game helps transform your game world from a backdrop to something vibrant. It can transform PCs from drifters into people with a home. PCs can use their wealth to extend influence and change the world—and not just by murdering the troublemakers.

Disadvantage

Even the simplest game within a game demands a lot of work. Some players just want to slay monsters.

Next: In fifth-edition D&D, what is gold for? The cash-poor, big-score campaign

Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it

The original Dungeons & Dragons game awarded characters an experience point for each gold piece they claimed from the dungeon. See “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.” This provided a simple method of awarding non-combat experience and motivating players to loot dungeons—the activity that made the game fun. The success of awarding XP for gold rested on three premises of the early D&D game.

  • Adventures always occur within the dungeon or wilderness.
  • Players choose the difficulty of the challenges they dared to face.
  • Characters will find ways to spend their riches.

By the time second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, none of these premises remained true.

Premise: Adventures stick to the dungeon. When D&D adventure expanded beyond the dungeon into civilization, players felt tempted to treat towns and cities as massive gold and experience farms. Why bother facing terrors and traps underground when the local townsfolk offer sources of wealth, and the XP it brings? For more, see “Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

This problem invites an easy solution: By the 1981 Basic Set, characters needed to recover gold from a dungeon or similar adventuring location to gain experience for it.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess, a recent game with an old-school XP-for-gold system, lists many sources of gold that do not count for XP.

The following may gain the characters wealth, but they do not count for XP purposes:

    • Coins looted from bodies outside of adventure locations
    • Rewards
    • Selling equipment stripped from foes
    • Selling magical items that have been used by a PC or retainer
    • Tax income
    • Theft of wealth from mundane merchants, rulers, and citizens
    • Trade, commerce, and other business activity (including selling of mundane items stripped from foes)

If you want XP, you must earn it.

Premise: Players set the challenge. In most modern D&D campaigns, dungeon masters devise adventures that will challenge their players without proving too difficult. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes pages of budgets and formulas aimed providing just enough challenge.

In the early D&D game, players chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level of the dungeon corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—as they went deeper.

This system gives players a choice that they lack now, and it added a element of strategy.

When Gary created this aspect of the game, he needed to find ways to entice players deeper into the dungeon. If a cautious party could gain nearly as much loot on an easy dungeon level as on a deeper one, why go down? Gaining experience could become a safe—and dull—grind.

To lure characters to danger, Gary doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. To rise in level at a tolerable rate, players needed to delve as far down as they dared.

Doubling both experience requirements and rewards offered a second benefit: First-level characters could join a higher-level party and catch up quickly. This gave new players a boost, and made dead characters easier to replace. Also, the quicker advancement made level draining a bit less punishing.

Premise: Players have meaningful ways to spend their riches.

Before 2E, most of the experience players gained came from gold. For example, in the 1981 D&D Basic Rulebook (p. 45), Tom Moldvay wrote that characters could expect to gain 3/4 or more of their XP from treasure. With experience requirements roughly doubling at each level, players needed tons—as in thousands of pounds—of gold to advance. In an evaluation of the basic-expert rules set, Blackrazor calculates that to advance from 8th to 9th level, a party of characters must claim 40 tons of gold.

In a real world, such a bounty would cause runaway inflation and threaten an economic collapse. Luckily, PCs typically leave these bounties unspent, keeping a tally on the character sheet instead. No DM makes the party round up the 80 Bags of Holding needed to carry 40 tons of loot.

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge #254Of all the versions of D&D, these basic-expert rules present a worst case, but every edition serves up enough gold to fill Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pools.

In Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign, players could spend their riches in an end game. In Blackmoor, player characters served as leaders and champions in series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. PCs explored dungeons to gain wealth that could enable them to raise armies, build fleets, and erect strongholds.

Gary had designed the Chainmail miniature rules that Dave used, so a progression from green adventurer to battlefield champion to baron seemed natural to both men. The original D&D game includes prices for castle structures and ships, along with costs for the men at arms and sailors needed to build a kingdom. The game served up riches, but the wealth led PCs out of the dungeon and onto the miniature battlefield.

This scheme suffered one problem: Almost no one went on to the stronghold-building, army-raising part of the game. That sort of play made sense to miniature players like Dave and Gary, but the game’s new players had no experience with sand tables and lead figures. The price lists for barbicans and medium horsemen puzzled us. Even the miniature grognards kept going back to the dungeon. The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Dave Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit.

So D&D characters gained riches fit for kings, but they kept returning to the dungeons for another score.

Next: D&D stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains.