Tag Archives: Chris Perkins

19 Adventures in the Running for 10 Greatest Adventures Since 1985

For my list of the 10 greatest adventures since 1985, nominations, reviews, and reputation led me to consider many more excellent adventures than fit a list of 10. Today’s post reveals the adventures that fell short of my 10 greatest, but merited consideration.


Treasure Hunt (1987) is a first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Aaron Allston.

Raw characters with no class levels wash up on the lost island of the pirate Sea King. They advance to first level and beyond.

“As a first adventure for initiates, this can’t be beaten. For old hands who may be tiring of AD&D, it will be a welcome change.” – Carl Sargent in White Dwarf issue 93.


King’s Festival and Queen’s Harvest (1989) are basic Dungeons & Dragons adventures by Carl Sargent.

A pair of adventures that introduces new players to D&D with a variety of linked missions.

“Absolutely the best introductory adventures in print for D&D-game-style fantasy role-playing games (FRPGs). Presented simply and clearly enough for young folks, these adventures are also challenging and entertaining enough for experienced gamers.” – Ken Rolston in Dragon 171.


Ruins of Undermountain (1991) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Ed Greenwood.

The first three levels of the mega-dungeon under the city of Waterdeep presents its content with different levels of detail: Some rooms have complete descriptions, while others have terse notes. Most sections remain empty, a canvas for the dungeon master’s creation.

Rated 17th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

Ruins of Undermountain was as much stuff from Ed Greenwood’s original gaming sessions as he could fit into a box. I give Ruins of Undermountain an A+. It will make you a better DM regardless of your skill level. This is a glimpse behind Ed Greenwood’s screen, giving the reader a chance to study his methods, which are very sound.” – Advanced Gaming and Theory


Vecna Lives! (1991) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by David “Zeb” Cook set in Greyhawk for characters of level 12-15.

After the Circle of Eight, Greyhawk’s legendary adventurers, die trying to stop Vecna’s return, their successors hunt the villain in a chase the across the world of Greyhawk.

Vecna Lives! is one of my favorite adventures from second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and I’m ecstatic that it’s been made available on dmsguild.com. Even if you never play the adventure, you should go out of your way to read/download/borrow it just to see what an incredible example of storytelling and adventure writing it is.” – Die Hard Game Fan


Night of the Walking Dead (1992) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft adventure by Bill Slavicsek for characters of level 1-3.

Characters investigate a series of murders an disappearances in a village plagued by walking dead.

“The actual adventure is one of the better blends of plotted adventures and old-school adventuring found in the ’90s. Though, there’s a deep, underlying story, it’s not a railroad. Instead, players must investigate and interact with NPCs to figure out what’s happening. Some events act as set encounters, but there’s also a big dungeon (cemetery) to crawl through at adventure’s end. The result maintains player agency while still telling a real story.” – The Fraternity of Shadows


Merchant House of Amketch (1993) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dark Sun adventure by Richard Baker for characters level 4-7.

In an event-driven adventure, characters work to end a trade in beetles with a bite that neutralizes psionic power. The quest pits the party against the most powerful merchant house in Tyr.

“This adventure has everything for me: intrigue and adventure coupled with the potential to save the world from a great threat that has just been exposed. So it’s 5 out of 5 stars.” – Warpstone Flux


City of Skulls (1993) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Carl Sargent for characters of level 9-12.

Players infiltrate the demi-god Iuz’s nightmare capital to free a military commander needed to defend the Shield Lands.

Rated 26th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“Periods of stealth and quiet punctuated by short bursts of terrifying combat.” – Retro Gaming Magazine


Night Below: An Underdark Campaign (1995) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Carl Sargent that takes characters from 1st level to as high as 14th level.

Billed as the “ultimate dungeon adventure,” this campaign goes from a ruins crawl, to a mine crawl, to a long journey through the Underdark.

“Night Below won’t be to some peoples’ taste, but the vast majority will absolutely adore it. Quite simply, it’s one hell of an adventure.” – Cliff Ramshaw in Arcane magazine.


Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998)  by Bruce Cordell.

Years after adventurers gutted the original Tomb of Horrors, a dark community has built a city of necromantic evil on the tomb’s site. Even the inhabitants of this fell city have no idea of the true evil that waits beneath them.

Rated 10th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“The new material is really excellent. Return is a whole mini-campaign, not some rehash of previous work … It offers more by far than the old Tomb of Horrors, and it is more deadly too.” – Gary Gygax


Dawn of the Overmind (1998) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for characters of level 8-10.

To stop a resurgent mind flayer empire, character visit a world of ancient ruins in search of an artifact of Illithid manufacture. This adventure brings a taste of Spelljammer and sword and planet adventure to conventional D&D.

“This is the third part of the Mind Flayer Trilogy, which was pretty much awesome from start to finish. One of the best D&D adventures of all time.” – Power Score


Die Vecna Die! (2000) is a second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Adventure for characters of level 10-13 by Bruce R. Cordell & Steve Miller.

Die Vecna Die! takes the heroes from the Greyhawk campaign to the demiplane of Ravenloft and then to the Planescape city of Sigil in a quest to claim the Hand and Eye of Vecna—the key to stopping the evil demigod Iuz.

Die Vecna Die! pulls out all the stops, and the result is a massive but tightly constructed adventure with a truly apocalyptic feel. I’m surprised I’m recommending Die Vecna Die! as strongly as I am, but it’s just that good. It’s a great high-level adventure for any campaign.” – Fearful Impressions


Forge of Fury (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 3-5 by Richard Baker.

In a dungeon that captures the flavor of some of D&D’s original, classic adventures, characters battle though five levels of a dwarven stronghold overrun by evil.

Rated 12th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“I’ve always been impressed with the adventure; for my money it’s one of Wizards of the Coast’s best 3rd Edition era modules. As a basic, flavoursome dungeon crawl I think Forge of Fury is particularly well executed.” – Creighton Broadhurst


Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (2001) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons by Monte Cook designed to take 4th-level characters as high as level 14.

Power rises again in the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Characters battle the power of darkness in Hommlet and beyond, forging their way through hundreds of encounters before reaching the fiery finale.”

Rated 8th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“Go out and buy the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. You will not regret it, and it will become a valuable part of your D&D library. It is one of the best adventure modules ever written.” – Talon on ENWorld


City of the Spider Queen (2002) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt designed to take 10th-level characters up to level 18.

“Daggerdale is reeling from a sudden series of murderous drow raids. As a grave threat to the entire surface world develops in the war-torn dark elf city of Maerimydra, intrepid heroes must discover its source and destroy it, if they can.”

Rated 24th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

City of the Spider Queen is an excellent addition to anyone’s Forgotten Realms campaign or with modifications, any Dungeons and Dragons third-edition game.” – Mania.com


Reavers of the Harkenwold (2010) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for characters of level 2-4 by Richard Baker.

In an adventure patterned after Red Hand of Doom, the characters join the resistance and take missions to thwart the army of evil that invaded the Duchy of Harkenwold.

“Definitely one of the best 4E adventures. – Will Doyle.

“I would love to see a 5E update of Reavers of Harkenwold.” – Chris Perkins


The Slaying Stone (2010) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for 1st-level characters by Logan Bonner.

Years after goblins overran and occupied a town once settled by humans, the characters enter seeking a lost Slaying Stone, the last of the magic stones created to protect the settlement.

“This is an adventure you won’t want to miss: Not only is it fun and non-linear, but it shows a DM how to better design her own adventures, and that’s something worth reading for any DM, no matter how experienced.” – Kevin Kulp


Dreams of the Red Wizards: Dead in Thay (2014) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for characters level 6-8 by Scott Fitzgerald Gray.

Teams of adventurers cooperate to explore a massive dungeon in search of the keys to a phylactery vault held by the evil Red Wizards of Thay.

“A ton of fun. Things get more and more hectic as the alert level of the Doomvault rises. It’s got good pacing, a narrative to it, and some fairly challenging encounters.” – Bell of Lost Souls


Cloud Giant’s Bargain (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for level 6 characters by Teos Abadia.

Led by a talking skull, Acquisitions Incorporated interns enter a cloud castle floating over Neverwinter to determine what threats it holds. This superb adventure combines combat, exploration, and interaction with interesting choices into a single session of play. Plus it adds a touch of humor and an unforgettable guide.

The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985

This list of the 10 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures since 1985, draws from ratings, reviews, and appraisals from D&D fans, and then uses my completely unscientific aggregation of opinions to rank the 10 entries. The list only includes adventures printed as stand-alone titles under the D&D or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons brands. For more on why I chose to rank adventures published after 1985, see Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

10. The Gates of Firestorm Peak
The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 5-8. The adventure that introduced the Far Realm to D&D starts as a well-crafted dungeon crawl, and then builds into an unsettling confrontation with Lovecraftian monstrosities. See the full review.

9. Tomb of Annihilation
Tomb of Annihilation (2017) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Chris Perkins. Will Doyle, and Steve Winter for levels 1-11. Tomb of Annihilation mixes the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, with the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, with a deathtrap dungeon inspired by Tomb of Horrors. Every one of those influences appears on the Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list of 30 greatest adventures, and the mix plays better than any of them. See the full review.

8. Sunless Citadel
The Sunless Citadel (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 1-3. As the introductory adventure to third edition, Sunless Citadel delivers the monsters, treasures, and even the dragon that new players expect from D&D, but the adventure serves much more than D&D comfort food. Start with a deeply evocative location: a castle dropped into a rift by some cataclysm. Add a lost dragon wyrmling, a tainted tree at the heart of the ruin, a fresh humanoid monster, and one of D&D’s most unforgettable characters, Meepo. See the full review.

7. Vault of the Dracolich
Vault of the Dracolich is a D&D Next adventure By Mike Shea, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and Teos Abadia for level 4 characters. Vault of the Dracolich rates for its outstanding execution of a multi-table adventure. By design, a team of dungeon masters runs several tables of players who explore different parts of a dungeon at the same time. As the adventure runs, groups can interact, briefly gathering, exchanging resources and coordinating plans. The event ends with all the groups fighting a climactic battle. See the full review.

6. Madness at Gardmore Abbey
Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt with Creighton Broadhurst and Steve Townshend for levels 6-8. Madness at Gardmore Abbey combines the best qualities of fourth edition’s encounter design with a sandbox of adventure locations, villains, and a single powerful thread that binds them all together. That thread comes from the scattered cards of a Deck of Many Things, perhaps the most irresistible artifact in D&D. See the full review.

5. Dead Gods
Dead Gods (1997) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Monte Cook for levels 6-9.
Dead Gods boasts more than the best title of any D&D adventure, it features the most audacious storytelling. For example, in one chapter, players create temporary characters to play out past events. The adventure spans the planes, ending in a climax that brings the party to the astral plane where they battle atop the 4-mile-long corpse of the demon lord to stop the creature’s resurrection. See the full review.

4. Curse of Strahd
Curse of Strahd (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 1-10 by Chris Perkins with Adam Lee, Richard Whitters, and Jeremy Crawford. Curse of Strahd captures everything great about I6 Ravenloft and expands it into a full campaign. While Ravenloft mainly stayed in a castle, Curse of Strahd gives players the freedom to roam the cursed land of Barovia. Although Curse of Strahd features a strong design, the vampire Strahd and the fearful gloom of his domain make the adventure’s best parts. See the full review.

3. Lost Mine of Phandelver
Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) is fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins for levels 1-5.
The adventure that introduced fifth edition serves D&D’s expected and favorite ingredients. To longtime fans, the elements may be familiar, but superb execution makes the adventure a winner. After the first encounter, players experience samples of dungeon crawls, quests, and mini-adventures. The adventure provides enough clues to keep even new players from feeling lost. See the full review.

2. Red Hand of Doom
Red Hand of Doom (2006) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and James Jacobs for levels 6-12.
Red Hand of Doom starts with the fantasy trope of an army of evil sweeping the land, and then casts the characters as heroes working to slow the march. Their missions span the landscape and vary from diplomatic meetings to dungeon delves. Along the way, the adventure accounts for the players choices, successes, and failures. See the full review.

1. Night’s Dark Terror
Night’s Dark Terror (1986) is Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher for levels 2-4. The adventure starts strong with a widely-imitated episode where the characters defend a freehold against a goblin attack. The events of the siege make the night of terror. After the first episode, the adventure’s scope expands. Players explore more than a wilderness, with eighteen locations, including a number of mini-dungeons, a ruined city, a riverside village, a frontier town, and a lost valley, while active villains oppose the characters. See the full review.

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 3

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) is fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins for levels 1-5.

Adventures created to introduce new dungeon masters to D&D must be simple to run. Sunless Citadel offered DMs an easy recipe by sticking to the dungeon, but Lost Mine of Phandelver brings a more ambitious design and succeeds brilliantly. The adventure rates so highly because it allows players freedom to roam while offering enough structure and guidance to ensure that a new DM succeeds.

For new players, the adventure serves D&D’s expected and favorite ingredients. To longtime fans like Mike “Sly Florish” Shea, the elements may be familiar, but superb execution makes the adventure a winner. “Even years after its release, Phandelver remains one of the most popular D&D adventures for 5e and is my personal favorite.”

The adventure takes place in and around the town of Phandalin. This setting introduces more of D&D than a dungeon crawl can offer. Alex Lucard describes the scope. “There’s a mix of straightforward dungeon crawls, fetch quests and even sandbox-style mini-adventures, so DMs and players alike get a sampling of various adventure tropes. It’s very well done!”

Merric Blackman explains the design. “Phandelver has a directed storyline, where you’re investigating the kidnapping of a dwarf and the secret of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, and a sandbox feel where many of the characters you meet have their own goals and can send you on missions not directly related to the main quest. This isn’t a linear quest: after the initial encounter, you can choose which way to proceed through the storyline. There’s enough clues and direction so that you’ll rarely feel lost.”

The individual encounters invite more approaches than combat, so players get chances to win friends and outsmart foes.

“Phandelver is a great adventure full of opportunities for you to relax, play loose, and let the story evolve from the choices of the players and the actions of the characters,” writes Mike Shea.

“Overall I have to say Lost Mine of Phandelver is fantastic,” writes Alex Lucard. “Not only is it a great way to introduce new gamers to Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s a very solid campaign in its own right.”

Merric Blackman rates the module this way: “This is an extremely well-designed and well-written adventure. It’s fun to play and run, and offers a lot of scope to the players and DM to make it their own, while still being accessible to newcomers.”

Next: Number 2

Start at 10

Curse of Strahd (2016): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 4

Curse of Strahd (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 1-10 by Chris Perkins with Adam Lee, Richard Whitters, and Jeremy Crawford.

Fifth-edition hardcover adventures like Tomb of Annihilation pull inspiration from a catalog of classic modules. Curse of Strahd just draws from just one: Ravenloft (1983) by Tracy and Laura Hickman. Ravenloft’s 32 pages spawned a campaign setting, so it easily brings enough inspiration to fill a hardcover. Ravenloft ranked second on Dungeon magazine’s list of the 30 greatest adventures, beaten only by a compilation of 7 adventures.

Curse of Strahd captures everything we loved in I6 Ravenloft, and expands it into a full campaign,” writes Mike “Sly Fourish” Shea. “Of all of the published campaigns, this one is the most solid, with a clear motivation and excellent locations.”

While Ravenloft mainly stayed in a castle, Curse of Strahd gives players the freedom to roam the cursed land of Barovia. Most of the fifth-edition hardcovers aspire to play as a sandbox, but only Curse really succeeds as one. Credit a foundation borrowed from Ravenloft. To defeat Strahd, characters must collect 3 artifacts. Early on, the party gains clues to the items’ locations. This structure gives players a goal and a sense of direction.

Curse of Strahd borrows another brilliant device from Ravenloft. A card reading from Barovia’s version of a tarot deck reveals the location of the magic items and the roles of key non-player characters. This gives the story a random element that feels vital.

Although Curse of Strahd features a strong design, the vampire Strahd and the fearful gloom of his domain make the adventure’s best parts.

Strahd’s history sometimes makes him seem relatable—or even capable of redemption. But that lie just makes him more horrifying. Tracy Hickman calls Strahd “a selfish beast forever lurking behind the mask of tragic romance, the illusion of redemption that was only ever camouflage for his prey.”

The adventure never lets characters forget Strahd’s threat. “Stahd isn’t a villain who remains out of sight until the final scene. Far from it—he travels as he desires to any place in his realm. The characters can and should meet him multiple times before the final encounter,” the text explains. “When Strahd wants to terrorize the characters, he pays them a visit, either under cloak of night or beneath overcast skies. If they’re indoors, he tries to charm or goad a character into inviting him inside.”

Strahd’s presence taints his land with dread. “Many of the locations and towns seem to be quite ordinary or mundane at first glance…until you dig deeper,” explains Tyler Biddle. “The imagery is at times hauntingly beautiful and tragically grotesque. Barovia’s characters as well as its horrors will stay with you long after you’ve left the table.”

Wary of making the adventure too gloomy, the authors added notes of twisted humor. No player will forget Blinsky’s toys.

“Creepiness abounds, with locations and characters who just drip gothic horror,” Chris Stevenson writes. “Groups that hate being ‘railroaded’ will love the sandbox nature of Barovia. Curse of Strahd is the best 5E campaign book yet.”

After playing the adventure, the author of the Mindlands blog summarizes the experience. “Curse of Strahd is the best published adventure that I’ve ever played in. The atmosphere is fantastic, the locations, non-player characters, and villains are interesting, tragic and funny.”

Next: Number 3

Start at 10

Tomb of Annihilation (2017): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 9

Tomb of Annihilation (2017) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter for levels 1-11.

Chris Perkins approach to adventure design seems to start with a collision of classic influences. Out of the Abyss mixes the Underdark with Alice In Wonderland. Storm King’s Thunder crosses Gary Gygax’s classic giant modules with King Lear. And Tomb of Annihilation mixes the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, with the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, with a deathtrap dungeon inspired by Tomb of Horrors. Every one of those influences appears on the Dungeon magazine list of 30 greatest adventures, and the mix plays better than any of them.

The story lands characters in tropical jungle land of Chult, a place with dinosaurs, volcanoes, pirates, and, well, frost giants. The players work to stop a world-spanning curse that blocks resurrection magic and wastes away anyone who returned from the dead.

“By far and away the ‘best bit’ of Tomb of Annihilation is the inclusion of some of the most fantastic and exotic locations seen in fifth edition so far,” writes Simon Yule for Geek Dad. “Most of these are stumbled upon as the party explores the thick jungles of Chult. They include the giant mud shrine at Dungrunglung, home of the frog-like grungs; the epic 300-foot-tall spire of Firefinger, patrolled by ferocious Pterafolk; the floating cave the Heart of Ubtao, complete with lich and zombie gorilla monsters; and the carnivorous garden of Nangalore.”

J.R. Zambrano from Bell of Lost Souls writes, “There’s a sense of adventure that pervades each of the book’s 5 Chapters. Everywhere you turn, there’s a cool location or a unique NPC or some sequence of events that makes you excited to get out there and play.”

Part of that flavor stems from the best, most evocative art of any D&D book. Pictures depicting the Port Nyanzaru street scene, the flametongue-wielding, snake-tailed villain Ras Nsi, and especially the overgrown first level of the tomb all make unforgettable calls to adventure.

The players’ quest leads to lost city, and then a multi-level deathtrap created by Acererak, the architect of the Tomb of Horrors. “Careful thinking, genuine puzzle-solving skills, and thorough trial-and-error exploration is something players will need to get through it all,” Jonbolds explains for Critical-Hits. “The dungeon beneath the city is a living environment with awesome links between areas requiring strategy and tactics from the players to overcome.”

Shawn Ellsworth reviewed the adventure for Tribality. “This is my favorite adventure to come out for this edition of D&D. Many of my favorite adventures have my players exploring deadly wilderness, searching ancient ruins full of puzzles and traps, and battling some mysterious lost people. If you are a fan of Indiana Jones, Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt, and Tomb Raider, this adventure brings a real pulp adventure feel to Dungeons & Dragons.”

“From beginning to end, this is a masterclass in adventure building,” writes J.R. Zambrano. “Tomb of Annihilation takes players into the forgotten lands of Chult and really brings it to life. If I had to pick the one thing this book does best: it captures the character of the setting.”

Next: Number 8.

Start at 10

5 Tricks for Creating Brilliant Dungeon Maps From Will Doyle

If you played the Dungeons & Dragons adventures Tomb of Annihilation or Storm King’s Thunder, you adventured through dungeon maps created by Will Doyle.

In an episode of the Official D&D Podcast, D&D’s principle story designer, Chris Perkins, explained why he called on Will. “I realized I would not be able to justice to the maps unless I brought in someone to help. There’s this wonderful collaborator, a freelancer named Will Doyle. He had done some work for me back when I was editing Dungeon magazine and I was always impressed with the style of his maps and the amount of effort and devotion that he put into them. I’m very, very meticulous when it comes to map creation, and he has those same qualities.”

In Tomb of Annihilation, Will mapped and designed the adventure’s centerpiece, the Tomb of the Nine Gods. He made Acererak proud.

Will’s maps attracted notice when his adventure Tears of the Crocodile God appeared in Dungeon issue 209. Chris Perkins called the adventure one of the best to appear in the magazine. You don’t have to take his opinion alone, because I agree. Chris has only worked professionally on D&D for decades; I have a blog.

When I gained a chance to talk with Will, I asked him for a secret to making a great dungeon map. He gave me five:

1. Cross the map with a river, rift, or similar connecting feature.

Will recommends splitting your dungeon map with some kind of central feature that characters can travel. Tomb of the Nine Gods includes three connecting elements:

  • An underground river links sites on the first and fifth levels.
  • A grand staircase and vertical shaft connect the dungeon’s first five levels.
  • An underground lake spans the fifth level.

During players first hour exploring the tomb, they could easily find all these features.

These features connect many rooms and passages, giving players choices. Instead of forcing players along a linear path, the dungeon teases explorers with perils and routes to discover. In a study of designer Jennell Jaquays’ dungeon maps, Justin Alexander explains how a well-connected dungeon gives groups agency and flexibility. “They can retreat, circle around, rush ahead, go back over old ground, poke around, sneak through, interrogate the locals for secret routes. The environment never forces a pre-designed path.”

Of course, a corridor could also serve as a connecting feature, but such features feel dull. Rivers and the like add variety to dungeon travel. “You row down the river, rope across the rift, fly down the magic wind tunnel, which makes it fun and memorable,” Will explains. “In play, it’s also easier to say, ‘let’s go back to the river and try another route, rather than ‘let’s go back to that long corridor and try another route.’”

2. Show the final room first.

Will suggests revealing the player’s final destination early in the adventure. Perhaps this location shows the locks to open or a task to complete. Such designs set the characters toward their goal and gives the adventure focus.

While more video games use this technique, a few table-top adventures follow the pattern. In Tomb of Annihilation, both the Lost City of Omu and the Tomb of Nine Gods make finding the players’ goal easy, but both send characters searching for keys.

In Storm King’s Thunder, the forge of the fire giants has massive, adamantine doors that lead from the mountainside directly to the hall of Duke Zalto, the players’ target. But to reach the Duke, the characters probably need to climb 1500 feet and battle down through the mountain’s interior.

If the final room is a metaphor for a visible goal, many more adventures start to follow Will’s advice. For example, in Curse of Strahd, Castle Ravenloft looms visible through the adventure, but the players learn they must gather certain artifacts to stand against Strahd. Teos Abadia drew inspiration for his adventure DDEX2-13 The Howling Void from Will’s Tears of the Crocodile God. The characters enter an elemental node where Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players can see the node the must reach to stop a ritual, but they will visit others to weaken their foes before a final confrontation.

3. Give players goals that compel them to explore.

Linear dungeon adventures come from designers who only plant one goal in the dungeon, usually its villain and its hoard. Players have nothing to find but the end, so authors feel tempted to put all their ideas along the path to the end.

Instead, Will designs his dungeons with elements that draw characters to explore.

For example, the dungeon in Tears of the Crocodile God draws players with several goals. First, the characters aim to save four human sacrifices wandering the dungeon. Second, the dungeon’s four areas include clues that enable the characters to confront the crocodile god. As a bonus, this premise leads the characters to hurry to rescue the sacrifices before the dungeon’s monsters and traps claim them.

In another example, Tomb of Annihilation sends players chasing five wandering skeleton keys.

4. Make the dungeon a puzzle.

In the D&D Adventurers League scenario DDAL07-14 Fathomless Pits of Ill Intent by Eric Menge, the dungeon becomes a puzzle. Early in, players find a puzzle that unlocks a portal to the main villain. Players must explore the dungeon to find the keys to the puzzle. This design combines two of Will’s other suggestions: It shows the final room first and and draws players to explore. Plus, the adventure turns the dungeon into a puzzle. Tears of the Crocodile God mixes a similar brew with its scattered clues.

Most dungeons will follow this suggestion less rigidly. Perhaps the dungeon merely works as something to unravel, location by location. As an inspiration, Will cites the levels of the Doom video game. To progress, players must find a series of keys. Each key brings the heroes deeper into hell.

5. Give each level a distinctive theme.

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

In larger dungeons, flavor the levels or areas with themes that add variety and make regions seem distinct. This practice dates back to D&D’s second dungeon, which sprawled under Castle Greyhawk. Gary Gygax included levels themed around types of monsters.

Large, contemporary dungeons such as the Doomvault in Tales From the Yawning Portal or Undermountain in Dungeon of the Mad Mage feature stronger themes. For instance, Doomvault includes areas bubbling with slime and oozes, overrun by underground gardens, and corrupted by the far realm.

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

“Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons is all about taking that things that work in D&D, keeping them in the game, and fixing everything else,” designer Mike Mearls wrote after the edition’s announcement in 2007.

“That’s the goal, and I think we’re heading there.”

Later, he put the goal in a different light. “No one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them.’ That was never the intent. With fourth edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say ‘hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.’”

By 2010, when Mearls defended the goals of fourth edition D&D, nearly all the team behind the game had left Wizards of the Coast. The virtual table top was 2 years late and on life support. Pathfinder, a game descended from the D&D edition that fourth edition tried to replace, now drew players alienated by fourth edition. Rumors circulated that Pathfinder sales exceeded D&D sales.

The Story of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

On the fourth-edition team, Mearls ranked as a secondary contributor. Now, with the most of the team sacked, Mearls rose to head D&D’s design. He remained to take the heat for “ruining D&D” and to salvage fourth edition until something new could replace it.

What had gone so wrong?

The business plan for fourth edition centered on enticing players to subscribe to D&D Insider, where they could play online using a virtual tabletop. At the edition’s announcement, the team emphasized online play so much that some wondered if D&D would remain playable without a computer.

But weeks after the game’s release, real-life tragedy shattered plans for a virtual table top. Joseph Batten, the senior manager leading development murdered his estranged wife and then killed himself. Apparently, Batten’s work on the project proved unusable. A beta version of the tabletop took 2 more years to reach users, and that version looked nothing like the demos shown in 2008. While the demos promised 3D rendering and an extension of other DDI tools, the beta version retreated to 2D tokens and still lacked integration. Nothing set the beta apart from other VTTs already available. In 2012, after the announcement of D&D Next, Wizards pulled the plug. “We were unable to generate enough support for the tool to launch a full version to the public.”

Of course, D&D Insider had moved ahead without the tabletop. Subscribers still gained access to rules, a character builder, and magazine-style articles. But the lack of a tabletop forced Wizards to charge less and to scrap plans for selling digital assets like virtual miniatures and dungeon tiles. Without the virtual tabletop, the D&D team could never gain the $50 million in revenue needed to lift D&D to a core brand.

Despite trouble with the online initiative, a hit game might have carried the edition. But while many current players loved the new edition, as many others rejected it.

From the designers’ perspective, the rejection stemmed from two causes: The game dared to change too much at once, and the designers ran out of time.

D&D’s second edition tried to be broadly compatible with the original game. Third edition succeeded by adopting decades of role-playing game design experience while preserving “sacred cows” that made D&D familiar. Players had embraced the leap. The fourth-edition designers felt confident that existing players were ready for another step. “I expect that the improvements in game play will convince even reluctant players to switch over to fourth edition,” designer Chris Perkins wrote.

For the new edition, the design team “took time to imagine D&D games that took a different slant than any of us would have imagined,” team lead Rob Heinsoo explained. They turned sacred cows into barbecue and delivered a game very different from any other edition.

To designers the gap between third to fourth edition seemed smaller than the gulf most gamers saw. “I think of D&D as a conversation, in terms of game design, between the designers and the audience,” explained Mike Mearls. “To designers—and players who followed every release—the transition to fourth made sense.” Some fans followed the conversation by playing 3.5, Player’s Handbook 2, Complete Arcane, and then playing with the at-will magic in Complete Mage and the martial powers in Book of Nine Swords. To them, the step to fourth seemed small. (See The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition.)

But few players kept up. “If you got a 3.5 Player’s Handbook and that’s the only D&D book you have and the only one you read, and then you got the fourth edition Player’s Handbook there was a gap,” Mearls said.

Steve Winter, a designer since D&D’s 2nd edition, wrote, “Fourth Edition was a glorious experiment that succeeded technically. Unfortunately, its breaks from the past were too severe for many fans, who didn’t pick up the new banner.”

The designers came to regret changing so much so fast. Fourth edition’s lead, Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Knowing what I know now, I might have worked for smaller changes in the world, since shifting both the world and the mechanics at the same time proved difficult for some of the D&D faithful to swallow.”

More players might have accepted the change if the developers had gained time to perfect the edition. “We just ran out of runway.” Mearls explained “That’s kind of the story of fourth edition in a lot of ways. We ran out of runway as we were tying to get the plane up in the air.”

The rush to deliver hurt the system. For example, player surveys reveal that the simplest character classes rate as the most popular, but fourth edition lacked simple classes. And all the classes played the same. “The things I would have wanted to change about fourth edition mostly center on the knowledge that the class design project wasn’t entirely finished upon release,” Heinsoo said. “I’d never wanted to use the exact same power structure for the wizard as every other class, for example, but we ran out of time, and had to use smaller variations to express class differences than I had originally expected.”

Also, the lack of development left more than the usual number of bugs in the new system. The numbers behind complex skill challenges made success nearly impossible. The math behind difficulty classes needed revision too. Higher-level monsters lacked the punch to challenge characters.

The power system designed as the game’s irresistible hook led to unintended consequences. As characters rose in level, their growing number of choices overwhelmed players, slowing decisions. Characters gained more ways to interrupt combat turns, so each player’s decision paralysis extended into other player’s turns. Characters gained powers that targeted every foe on the battle map leading to more attack rolls than ever. Instead of delivering dynamic combat, battles showed to a crawl.

In 2010, the D&D team’s bid to salvage fourth edition reached players in a line of Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products. The designers had solved the bugs. Classes played differently. Some were simple, others granted ample options. Monsters challenged characters. The math worked. The newest classes sped combat by limiting choices, reactions, and battlefield-spanning powers. Essentials recaptured familiar spells, monsters, and even the look of past editions. But the rescue came too late. By 2010, the D&D team knew Essentials could only buy the time needed to develop a new edition.

Imagine an alternate history. What if the design team had been given time to deliver a game as polished as Essentials? Would the game have succeeded? Surely such a launch would have kept more players loyal, but would it lure the flood of MMO players the designers sought? Computer games offer frantic action and vivid graphics that D&D can never duplicate. By trying to match the appeal of a video game, the edition stumbled.

“We really lost what made D&D unique, what made Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing game distinct from other types of games that you could play,” Mearls said.

The new fifth edition of D&D ranks as the most successful yet. Rather than attempting to match the strengths of online games, fifth edition offers limited, elegant rules so players can focus what makes D&D special: playing through a story created when a 5 or 6 people join together as characters in a world open to anything.

Video games can never duplicate the same experience because they lack the same personal interaction and a dungeon master ready for the unexpected.

The fourth edition designers aimed to make the dungeon master’s role easy—something a computer could handle. So the rules discouraged the sort of ingenious or outrageous actions that break the game and create unforgettable moments.

Fifth-edition lead designer Jeremy Crawford even credits making the grid optional with some of the newest game’s success. “It’s a really simple thing, but in 5th, that decision to not require miniatures was huge. Us doing that suddenly basically unlocked everyone from the dining room table and, in many ways, made it possible for the boom in streaming that we’re seeing now.” Fourth edition did more than require a grid; it dwelled on one.

Fourth edition never emphasized D&D’s unique strengths. As Mike Mearls put it, “I think what was happening was [fourth edition] was really focusing on really hardcore mechanics, the intricacies of how the rules interact. It really became about the rules and about mastering the rules, rather than about the story, or role-playing, or the interaction between the DM and the players.”

By the end of fourth edition’s run, the designers had perfected a game about building characters and showing them off in dynamic fights. Perhaps they lost some of what makes D&D uniquely compelling.

Related: How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books

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

Adventure paths reveal their linear design in the name: They follow a path. In a linear adventure every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to content that reaches play.

Adventure paths are episodic campaigns that look linear from a distance. Such adventures offer choices in each episode or chapter, but at the end of each chapter, the path leads to the next chapter. This device enables an entire campaign to fit into a book.

Adventure paths serve dungeon masters by making a campaign with a story arc that leads from start to finish easy to run from a book.

In 2003, the Shackled City adventure path in Dungeon magazine led the format to prominence. Shackled City and its successors proved so popular that Paizo made adventure paths the foundation of their publishing strategy, and the inspiration for the name of their Pathfinder role-playing game.

In the classic adventure path, each episode ends with clues or hooks that lead to the next episode. This arrangement dates to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). The steading’s treasure room contains a map of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magic chain capable of transporting 6 to the site.

When the designers of the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons paired a line of hardcover adventures to the game, they aimed to grant players more freedom than a classic adventure path allows. Each book finds ways to break from the adventure-path model.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures avoided hooks connecting the adventure into a narrative. Perhaps the designers felt the lack of threads benefited the adventures by adding some of the freedom of a sandbox. Explaining his design for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Steve Winter said, “There are specific tasks characters should undertake and a sequence in which they happen, but we don’t hand the DM a script.”

Many reviewers judged this design strategy harshly. Bryce Lynch wrote that the designers of Hoard of the Dragon Queen “clearly have an idea of how the adventure should proceed, but are terrified of being accused of railroading.”

The adventures that followed Hoard of the Dragon Queen avoided a specific sequence of tasks. Most chapters described locations and the designers invited players to roam.

While these adventures experimented with sandboxes, they still expected a good dungeon master to prepare or improvise leads for players who need a nudge.

The 2nd adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse, poses as a sandbox with strongholds to raid and ruins to explore. But the “character advancement” sections on page 41 and 75 reveal a problem with granting so much freedom. Each note lists the character level best suited to the dungeons and sites on the pages to follow. For example, one site is “appropriate” for 6th-level characters; another “works best” for 9th level characters. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford explained, “For a lot of our published adventures, we’ll have broad difficulty targets for different parts of the adventure. For example, we might decide that one chapter of one of our adventures is really designed to be not too much trouble for characters of 6th level. Characters of any level can go into that chapter, but really what we’re doing is we want to ensure when an optimal group is there, it’s not too much trouble.

In Princes of the Apocalypse, players can stumble into areas too dangerous or too easy for their characters. “If characters aren’t careful, they can definitely ‘dig too deep,’ going down into dungeons for which they are woefully underpowered,” Mike “Sly Florish” Shea wrote. “Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a fourth-level dungeon to an eighth-level dungeon with just a few steps.”

Jeremy Crawford and the D&D team see such design as a feature. “Our starting assumption in 5th edition is that the game is pretty open ended and sandboxy, and we often like—particularly in our published adventures—dangling out the possibility that you might wander into a fight that you can’t win. We don’t view the game as a series of combat encounters that you are expected to face in a predictable way and then march off with a set amount of experience points and treasure. We view the game as a set of potential combat encounters, some of which you might not turn into combat encounters at all.”

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire dungeons that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level dungeon, they can only fight to escape. No player enjoys fleeing a dungeon, and then starting a quest for weaker foes—especially if the dungeon seemed like the best route to reaching their aims.

If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout. Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored—and I’m not alone. Mike Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge. See Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

Like its predecessor, the 3rd adventure, Out of the Abyss, featured loosely-tied locations, each designed to suit characters of a particular level.

In a guide to Out of the Abyss, Sean “Powerscore” McGovern wrote, “This adventure thinks it is a sandbox, but really it is a railroad in serious denial.” To Tim “Neuronphaser” Bannock, the lack of story threads made Abyss resemble “a sourcebook disguised as an adventure.”

The adventure leaves connecting the locations to the DM. “Be ready to build quest threads and hooks between each of the big areas so the players have one to three clear paths to take as they explore the Underdark,” Mike Shea explained.

Such requirements make designers seem blind to plight of DMs running a 256-page adventure. The designers wrote the book. When they play their own material, they enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than any DM can gain from the text. This mastery makes adjustment and improvisation easy for them. If they need a hook, they know just the walk-on character on page 167 who can offer it. If their players go off book in chapter 2, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot assumed in chapter 7.

The designers seem to assume that DMs resist a written playbook as an unwelcome limitation, but most DMs appreciate the help. If a hook or clue doesn’t suit their game, DMs know to ignore or adapt it.

The 4th adventure, Curse of Strahd, ranks as the most successful “sandboxy” design. The Tarokka card reading brings one advantage by hinting at the means to Strahd’s defeat and providing clues that might guide the adventure. The card reading assigns destinations, but as Sean McGovern explains, “it’s up to the DM to figure out how to get the group to these places, and new DMs are going to have a hard time with that. The hooks that take you from one area to another are buried deep in each chapter.” To complicate the challenge, DMs must deal with hooks likely to lead inexperienced characters to their deaths.

The 5th adventure, Storm King’s Thunder, starts with sandbox exploration and finishes as a linear adventure. In between, the adventure leads through 1 of 5 possible strongholds. On the plus side, the choice of giant strongholds gives the adventure unusual variation. As a minus, the strongholds stand as a highlight, but most groups will only explore one. (Still, a party at my local game store chose to battle through them all.)

Of the fifth-edition hardcover adventures, Storm King’s Thunder suffered the second-lowest rating among reviewers on enworld. Reviewers praised the strongholds while criticizing the sandbox chapters.

To start, the adventure shows the menace of the giants, but leaves characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters run errands until they reach the adventure’s true beginning. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either need to rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expects it. Mike Shea advised DMs to “Be ready to fill in a lot of blanks with your own stories, quests, motivations, and dungeons; particularly early on.”

Weak hooks and blank spots can leave DMs to struggle. “I’ve been running Storm King’s Thunder and the first three chapters of the adventure presented nothing but trouble for me,” Snazzy wrote in comments on this site. “I basically did what the book recommended, trusting that it would make sense and my players would want to do what the book suggests. And it turns out that it doesn’t really work. Which is disheartening! I’m a pretty new DM and so when the campaign book I spent all this money on has issues which require significant patching in the very beginning, it shakes some confidence in the product. The whole point of me buying a campaign was so I could game with less prep time required.”

Many experienced DMs share this dissatisfaction. Sean “Power Score” McGovern writes guides that help DMs running the adventures. “My guides to these adventures are by far the most popular articles on my site. To me, that says that DMs need help with these books. That should not be the case! The point of a published adventure is to make it so that the DM does not have to do a lot of work!

“I still think they should be organizing these adventures like Pathfinder adventure paths—linear. If you want a sandbox, It’s not hard at all to make a sandbox out of a [linear adventure]. But it is very time-consuming to turn a sandbox into a path.

“Every single 5e adventure requires a ridiculous amount of homework and I think that is a shame.”

McGovern wrote those words in the wake of Curse of Strahd. But Storm King’s Thunder presents a flow chart to help DMs, and the latest book, Tomb of Annihilation, scored higher with reviewers than any of its predecessors. Is the fifth-edition D&D team helping DMs more? Perhaps. The hardcover line shows consistent improvement and Tomb of Annihilation rates as the entry that best serves DMs. Some of that success comes because Tomb draws from proven styles of play. The first half offers a hex crawl patterned after  Isle of Dread (1981). The second half lays an adventure path through chapters inspired by classic adventures from Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) to Tomb of Horrors (1978). The authors Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter deserve some credit too. Will Doyle once said,  “Adventures are playbooks not novels.”

Still, I’ve heard nothing from the D&D team that suggests they share Will’s insight. Too often, the designers seem to think DMs who read a 256-page adventure can match its author’s comfort and mastery. Sometimes, the designers have hidden linear designs like a stain of dishonor. But an adventure path offers players plenty of choice and freedom within its chapters. And besides, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as designers think.

As works of imagination, the fifth-edition hardcovers contain the some of the best D&D adventures ever. They teem with vivid characters, fantastic locations, and unforgettable scenes that few DMs could match—especially throughout a campaign. But too often they work better as books to read and admire than as blueprints for DMs to run games at the table.

5 Situations That Tempt Every Dungeon Master to Railroad Their Players

If you believe countless Dungeon & Dragons adventure reviews, nothing ruins an scenario as quickly as a linear design. In a linear adventure every group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. At best, critics accuse linear adventures of eliminating the players’ choices between scenes. At worst, critics say linear adventures require dungeon masters to abuse their power to shunt players along a railroad. Instead of steering the adventure, players follow a fixed story.

In my last post, I explained that players don’t hate linear adventures as much as reviewers and dungeon masters think. We tend to judge harshly because we see the lack of options. In a successful adventure, players never see the walls.

Many gamers conflate linear adventures with railroading, but that mistake tars decent adventures. Players seldom mind linear adventures, but few players tolerate railroading. DMs who railroad deserve player complaints.

“Railroading is not linear prep,” Phil Vecchione from Gnome Stew explains. “Railroading is the game master’s reaction to a player’s action, in an effort to drive the game in a specific direction. That reaction is to typically negate, reverse, or shut down a player’s action, in order to get the game moving in the GM’s desired direction.”

A successful linear adventure invites certain choices and makes assumptions about outcomes, but it never forces a result. Some of the success of an adventure depends on the designer’s ability to predict choices and outcomes. (See Actions Players Always Take and Choices Players Never Make.) When the predictions fail, adventures tempt DMs to railroad.

In some game situations, when the players veer from the plan, the temptation to railroad becomes nearly irresistible. These situations appear in nearly every DM’s career. Instead of succumbing to temptation, what should we do?

1. When an action leads in a direction you never anticipated, improvise.

Every DM eventually faces a player decision that nullifies all the planning that prepared for a game. “If you can’t improvise, you’ll eventually hit a wall you can’t climb over, or find yourself trapped in a corner and unable to talk your way out,” D&D senior producer Chris Perkins writes.

“Improvisation demands equal measures of intuition and confidence. DMs who lack sufficient intuition or confidence tend to have trouble improvising at the game table. The good news is that DMs, being creative souls, rarely fall short in the intuition department. They know a good story from a bad one, a well-developed character from a cardboard cutout, and so forth. However, confidence is a far more rare commodity, and DMs who lack the confidence to trust their intuition often have trouble improvising behind the DM screen. I know because I’ve been there.”

Entire books aim to help game masters improvise, but often the trick comes down to making a leap into the unknown–or unprepared. If you find yourself stuck, call for a break, spend a few minutes finding inspiration, and then go with the idea that seems most fun.

2. When an action may deliver an easy win that cuts an adventure short, reward the ingenuity and then add complications.

Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea likes to note that we DMs match our one brain against the players’ six brains—a serious mismatch. Sometimes players invent a plan that threatens to skip the middle of an adventure and deliver an easy victory.

As one possible response, DMs can grant players an easy win. Players relish a chance to thwart the villain (and the DM) with an ingenious plan. Perhaps the characters built around deception or infiltration get to shine.

But an easy win can’t cut a 4-hour convention adventure to a half-hour assassination. If you want to spare more of your preparation, reward ingenuity with some success, and then add reasonable complications that make the plan unravel. Perhaps the players reach the throne room, but discover that the lich-king has left to sow terror and whatnot. Now the players must decide how long they dare to wait in the heart of an enemy stronghold.

Many ingenious plans start with the players impersonating the villains’ cohorts and seeking a free pass to the boss’s war room. In those scenes, I seek ways to help the heroes while also stirring trouble. Often some of the party must pass as prisoners or foreign allies. What if guards demand to take prisoners to the dungeons and allies to the rest of their delegation? Sometimes I add tests of loyalty. “We’ll take you to the Prince of Murder, but first help us execute your prisoners.” Even when a deception succeeds, such tests suggest that smart foes hold some natural suspicion.

3. When players try to start fights during an interaction scenes, pause the action.

Sooner or later, every dungeon master sees players stop a role-playing scene to start a fight. As the party talks with a scheming queen, a player blurts out, “I hit her with my axe!” Picking a fight during such an interaction typically causes problems because the adventure expects the queen to bridge the way to the rest of the adventure. The attack burns the bridge and leaves players running from her heir and her army.

These scenes tempt me to add a hidden pit trap between the charging barbarian and the queen. Actually, that makes some sense. If I were boss of some D&D land, my throne room would feature a trap door.

If the archer or warlock launches a ranged attack, every DM feels tempted to turn the queen’s guards into invincible minor minions who crush the party. Then the queen threatens to hang the characters unless they continue the scheduled adventure. Steal from the classics.

A better, non-railroad response includes 3 steps: (1) pause the attack, (2) learn the root cause of the attack, and (3) reroute the adventure.

Instead of letting the instigator roll damage, pause the action.

If only one player wants the fight, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains how he lets the party intervene in-game. “I’ll freeze time. ‘Everyone can see that your character is about to kill this person. Everybody has a chance to stop this. What do you all want to do?’” Teos makes it clear that the single player stands alone against everybody else in the party. See What To Do When A Player Interrupts A Role-Playing Scene To Start A Battle.

If the whole party seems eager for battle, look for the root cause of the attack.

Perhaps the players see the queen as a bad ally, so when the adventure leads to an alliance of convenience, the players rebel. Murder in Baldur’s Gate assumed characters would support one of three patrons who vied for power. The patrons start unsavory and, as they gain power, become worse. My players wanted no part of it. I needed to find a more agreeable patron.

Often, the players see the queen as a villain they will fight eventually. Why not solve the problem now? As DM, tell the players how their characters’ lifetime of experience in the game world reveals flaws in the players’ plan. “The reputation of the queens’ knights leads you to believe that they can easily defeat you.” If the players attack anyway, finish the fight, and then find another patron.

4. When plot features recurring villains, but the party blocks their escape, plan for escape, but prepare for a new villain.

Every DM loves a recurring villains. But to establish one, you need to introduce the villains and then somehow invalidate the players’ decision to murder them.

Typically, DMs underestimate the players, and so potential recurring villains die during their first scene. Our odds stand at 6 brains to 1. As a slim advantage, we have time to plan. Don’t make a potential recurring villain the most threatening target in an encounter. Don’t leave the villain exposed between their turns. Plant a potential barrier along the escape route. (I’m not above an escape via spinning bookcase.) Start the escape while minions remain to block pursuit and while the villain still has enough hit points to survive the players’ biggest attacks. Accept the (probably) inevitable premature death. Prepare to call another foe from the bench.

In the interest of story, Monte Cook’s acclaimed adventure Dead Gods requires villains to escape the players. “It’s crucial to the story that some of the cross-trading khaasta escape with the thief of charms and some of the stolen beauty. If necessary, the DM can increase the number of khaasta in the encounter or rule that some of the creatures have already escaped through the portal by the time the PCs arrive in the alley (and make it clear to the heroes that this has happened). The latter option foils the use of a gate ward or surelock spell to stop the khaasta.” Unfortunately, once the DM sees the need for such measures, it’s probably too late.

5. When the story includes the players’ capture, but the players win instead, wait for another chance.

The most egregious crime of railroading comes when a DM wants players taken captive. In adventure fiction, heroes get captured regularly. So DMs dream up similar stories, and then try to force a capture despite the players’ determination to never get taken alive.

Notoriously, A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords starts with the players’ capture. This adventure originated as a tournament adventure where players adopted pre-generated characters already imprisoned. When the authors adapted the adventure for home campaigns, they anticipated complaints. “It is likely that [the players] will be angry at the DM for putting them in such an ‘unfair’ situation.”

The Adventurers League adventure Shackles of Blood depended on players getting captured. Some players went along for the ride, but others resented it. I tweaked the adventure so players who thwarted capture could choose to become captives as a heroic gambit. No one resisted that.

To engineer a capture, DMs needs to hide an encounter’s threat to the players, block the characters’ attempts to flee, beat any signs of an unexpected rally, and so on. During all this, if the players see signs of their DM bending the odds to thwart their escape, they will feel railroaded. You can’t plan for a capture.

None of this means your players’ characters will never be captives.

Use capture as an alternative to a total party kill. Save your escape-from-the-dungeon scenario for a time when players ignore warning signs, make bad choices, suffer setbacks, and ignore any chance to run. Those times happen—trust me. Then, instead of rolling new characters, have the old characters wake in chains. The players will feel grateful for a second chance.

How much description should a dungeon key include?

The conventional Dungeons & Dragons adventure includes a dungeon key describing numbered locations on a map. When D&D co-creator Gary Gygax created his first dungeon under Castle Greyhawk, he usually wrote a 1-line note for each room. These notes served as more than just Gary’s reminders to himself. He and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz shared the notes. For more, see “When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.”

Early published D&D adventures such as Palace of the Vampire Queen adopted the same terse style.

Tegel Manor and minimal descriptions

Tegel ManorWhen Judges Guild founders Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen published Tegel Manor (1977), its rooms featured minimal descriptions:

B8 25’x16’x20’H Picture on south wall depicts living battle scene. Arrow flies out of picture every 4 r. Arrows stuck everywhere.

B9 25’x24’x20’H Dire wolves head E Wall has Ring of Mammal Control in nose. Stuffed Elf, Giant Ant, boar, etc.

In 1978, my friend Gordon tried running Tegel Manor, but the campaign fizzled after his first session. Young Gordon lacked the experience to turn a list of creatures, clutter, and spooky effects into something fun. His manor played as a dreary slog.

In Dragon magazine issue 27, Bob Bledsaw wrote, “Originally we had some bad feedback which indicated that judges felt that the actual description of dungeons was their ‘domain’ and all they desired was a very skeletal framework with the more time-consuming level details worked out. We learned quickly and now design to allow the judge to delete (or modify) that which doesn’t suit the tenor of his play.

Gary Gygax sets the standard

Gary started publishing adventures with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). He included generous descriptions for every location, even the rooms with little to interest players.

CHIEF’S CHAMBER: This room is hung with rugs and skins and there are hides on the floor. There is a bed, 2 chairs, a small table with a tun of cheap wine on it, an old shield and some of the chief’s weapons (in the corner), a chest with his clothing, and other clothing hanging on pegs. A thick chain (for his cave bear) is set into one wall. Nothing of value is in the place.

Gary’s longer descriptions set the pattern for virtually every adventure to follow.

Longer descriptions

When Gamescience updated Tegel in 1989, they expanded the descriptions. The bedroom with the battle scene gets the following description:

B8 BEDROOM (25’x16’x20’H): Opening into the side hallway that leads from the Master Gallery to the Whistling Hall, this room would appear to have been trapped, and to have claimed a victim already. The door stands ajar and a corpse sprawls partway out into the hall, with an arrow protruding from its skull. Two more arrows are lodged in the wall beyond. Any who examine the room further will find a fascinating sight: The wall opposite the door is entirely covered by a vast depiction of a fearsome battle scene—and the picture is alive! Not only does it continue to move, but every fourth turn another arrow flies out of the picture in a random direction. The other walls of the room bristle with arrows stuck in the woodwork, the bedding, other pictures (one of which—a portrait—is bleeding!).

Longer descriptions free DMs from a need to invent details at the table. Even if you have a knack for description, the ideas that spring to mind first will steer toward the obvious—likely the most familiar and blandest ideas.

The update turns the curiosity of the arrow-shooting picture into a possible trap for players to investigate. The bleeding portrait adds another spooky detail. The fuller description makes the room more fun than the version Gordon ran.

On the other hand, the description of the taxidermist’s bedroom adds some color, but little play value.

B9 BEDROOM (2S’x24’x20’H): Entering this room off the Master Gallery, one is immediately overcome by the strong animal musk that clings to the chamber. A stuffed elk stands in one corner, while heads of boar, dire wolf, great cats and other fierce beasts fill the walls, along with hunting bows and spears, all heavily layered in dust. How one could sleep in such a room without keeping a bonfire going is questionable, especially since the eyes of all heads seem to glimmer and follow you around the room.

This description takes a good, middle sentence and pads it like a school paper stretched to an assigned length. The custom of longer description encourages authors to write something even when they have little to add. The format makes authors feel obligated to describe the shelves and pegs in an empty closet. I have quotes from published adventures. Don’t force me to include them.

Matching description to a location’s purpose

A location’s purpose in the game should also figure into the length of its descriptions. If the player characters meet the sheriff about a wanted poster, no one needs an item-by-item inventory of her kitchen. Even the kitchen in the giant chief’s steading only merits a sentence. In the unlikely event that players care about pots and pans, Gordon can improvise.

The Curse of Strahd adventure lavishes detail on every location. The homes of notable NPCs get pages of room descriptions. To be fair, players might explore some of these rooms and author Chris Perkins fills them with creepy, moody details. But unless your players treat social calls like dungeon crawls, they will never enter the Burgomaster’s scullery, much less care about his spooky spatula. As I read the adventure, many locations interested me until I considered how players might experience them. Often then, I  realized that nothing would bring players to the location. I wonder if any DMs led players to explore village houses like dungeons because the places’ descriptions seemed to invite that mode of play?

An avalanche of description does more than squander page count. It buries many great details might actually enter play. For example, in my Curse of Strahd game, every time I needed to find information about the players’ ally Victor Wachter, I needed to find him buried in the page-long description of his workroom in the 5-page description of his father’s mansion. (I have an idea: Trade 2 pages of mansion for 2 pages of index.)

Boxed, read-aloud text

Even though I seldom read-aloud text verbatim, boxed text consolidates and identifies features that require description. I like box text, but not every location needs it. Curse of Strahd includes it for every location. The descriptions are evocative, but DMs who dutifully present the box text for all the empty rooms in a place like the Argynvostholt dungeon will bore players.

Clearly, writing box text for the endless, gloomy rooms in Curse of Strahd caused Chris Perkins to collapse weeping into his keyboard. His follow-up, Storm King’s Thunder, omits almost all read-aloud text. Find a happy middle, Chris.

For more on boxed text, see “Picturing the dungeon – boxed text.”

The influence of one-page dungeons

A few modern adventures skip long room descriptions. Michael Curtis, author of the well-reviewed Stonehell megadungeon follows a style pioneered for one-page dungeons. Curtis explains that the format provides “the minimum amount of information needed to run the dungeon, allowing the referee to customize the adventure to his own (and his players’) tastes.”

stonehell level 1AStonehell dungeon presents each level on 2-page spread, with most rooms getting a just a couple of lines. Features that deserve special attention get descriptions in sidebars. (You can download a free, 6-page sample of Stonehell.)

Even a novice DM could run Stonehell cold, but I wonder if the sparse details offer enough to bring the adventure to life.

The ideal dungeon description

My ideal dungeon description would adopt the best of both worlds. I want a map overlayed with notes and matched with an abbreviated key on the same page. At the table, the short key offers an easy reference. The latrines, empty bedrooms, and such can get the one line they deserve. More interesting locations can break out into a second, expanded key.

The length of descriptions should match the way players will engage a location. If sofas, throne-like chairs, and urns appear in the kindly widow’s salon, skip the box text. If they appear in the Tomb of Horrors, keep typing.

Descriptions should focus on telling details and plot-critical information—details I can use in play. Don’t bury the evocative bits in lavish descriptions of sleeping pallets and rubbish. If your kitchen description seems like the first thing a typical DM would imagine at the table, you may as well rely on the typical imagination.

How much description do you want in a dungeon key?