Tag Archives: Chris Perkins

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?

Dungeons & Dragons at the 2016 Origins Game Fair

For many gamers, the Origins Game Fair feels just the right size. Unlike Winter Fantasy, the convention offers diversions beyond non-stop Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. Unlike Gen Con, you don’t face a city and a convention center crowded to the limit. In 2015, Gen Con brought 61,423 unique visitors to Indianapolis. Origins 2016 brought 15,479 unique visitors to the similarly-sized city of Columbus. At Origins, you can reserve a hotel room without winning a lottery and you can pay for it without winning a lottery.

I photographed this multi-table megadungeon at Origins 2015

Multi-table megadungeon photographed at Origins 2015

Origins features reasonably priced options in a connected food court. Gamers can also walk to downtown restaurants or cross the street to the North Market. This pavilion features vendors selling Mexican, Indian, Polish, barbecue, Italian, sushi, and many other types of food.

Origins started in 1975 as a convention sponsored by wargaming-giant Avalon Hill in its home town of Baltimore. In tribute to Avalon Hill and its town’s role in the birth of hobby gaming, the convention took the name Origins.

In Origins’ early years, it became the convention where the board- and miniature-gaming enthusiasts could find refuge from the the role-playing gamers who infested their hobby and who took over Gen Con. In 1988, when Origins and Gen Con combined into a single event for a year, those old wargamers grumbled.

Compared to Gen Con, Origins still tilts more toward board and miniature games. It shows fewer signs of fan culture like anime screenings, celebrity guests, and costumes.

In a recap, Andrew Smith writes, “If you’ve been at Gen Con when the Hall opens, you may be envisioning crowds of thousands of people waiting by the doors. Origins is quite different. We got in line a few minutes before opening and were probably behind 20-30 people in a single file line. It’s a completely different atmosphere.” Unlike Gen Con, board game demos spill out into a patchwork of territories outside the exhibit hall. This offers more hours to sample games, more space, and more affordable space for the manufacturers. “Demo lines are shorter and publishers just seem less busy and able to really sit and discuss their games.

This year, Wizards of the Coast made a strategic move to avoid Gen Con and feature Origins. Members of D&D team, including Mike Mearls, Chris Perkins, Chris Lindsay, and Trevor Kidd visited the con, while none will reach Gen Con.

As with Winter Fantasy and Gen Con, the folks at Baldman Games operated D&D organized play. The con launched a new program where conventions can commission Adventurers League adventures for their events. The organizers gain exclusive access to their content for six months before releasing it to the world at the Dungeon Masters Guild. Adventures in this new program will center on the Forgotten Realms Moonsea region.

The new Baldman Games adventures included a trilogy of adventures set in Melvaunt and four adventures set in Hillsfar, which were were reserved for D&D Experience players. On the Down with D&D podcast, the Bald Man, Dave Christ, talked about commissioning top authors to launch his exclusives. “With this being the first one, I wanted to set the bar really high. I wanted to kind of knock it out of the park.

CORE1-2 A Cog in the Wheel

CORE1-2 A Cog in the Wheel

The D&D experience pairs tables of six players with the same, top-rated DM for all four adventures. My table’s judge, Krishna Simonse, did an outstanding job accommodating our taste for combat challenges harder than the adventure’s strong level and our love of grids.

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

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

In addition to the exclusive content, the convention premiered the final, season 4 Curse of Strahd adventures and the kickoff for the season 5 Storm King’s Thunder story.

For me, the con’s best moments came with the return of the D&D Open. I explained what made this classic so great in, “Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return.”

The new Open’s all-star team of authors, Teos Abadia, Shawn Merwin, and Sean Molley captured all the challenge that made the old event such a blast.

In eight hours, the new Open aimed to combine the fun and community of a battle interactive, with a measure of the competition of the old tournaments.

Me in black at the D&D Open—despite our game face, we're having fun

My D&D Open team, with me in black, listening intently to the DM’s description of our next challenge.

Most of the event pitted players against an old-school funhouse adventure set in the megadungeon of Undermountain. Here the challenges proved as fun as any tournament I’ve played. I loved how so many locations wrapped combat encounters with puzzles to be solved. In a maze, PCs raced to gather clues while fleeing minotaurs and mind flayers. In castle ruins, PCs needed to find a way to turn catapults against a Death Tyrant. Best of all, the authors made the new Open hard—none of the namby-pamby, say-yes, everybody-is-a-star D&D in fashion now. Characters died. Our table saw one character Plane Shifted to certain doom and a second slain by a death ray. Save or die! Gary would be pleased.

For a climax, the tables joined forces against a diabolic machine constructed by Halaster, the mad architect of Undermountain.  Sean Molley showed astonishing ability to speak loudly enough to be heard from the far side of the ballroom while still taunting us in the Doofenshmirtz-like voice of Halaster.

I still wish for a more rigorous tournament with pregenerated characters, multiple rounds, and elite dungeon masters striving for consistent rulings and style. The D&D team sees that style of tournament as history. For most players, the new Open probably offers more fun. For an old grump like me, the Open still ranked as my best game of the year.

Wizards is already hatching plans for next year’s Open. Based on the event’s success, I suspect they will offer this year’s adventure to other conventions, but that remains undecided.

In all, Origins 2016 ran twice as many Adventurers League tables as in 2015.

The Origins Game Fair returns to Columbus on June 14-18th of 2017. See you there.

Next: Spells that fish for spoilers

Hitting the to-hit sweet spot

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

Through the evolution of Dungeons & Dragons, the game uses two mechanics to determine an attack’s damage output: to-hit rolls and damage rolls.

In D&D, hitting is fun, while missing feels like a bummer, particularly if you waited a while for your turn. Why not remove misses from the game?  Once characters gain enough hit points to survive a few attacks, D&D could drop to-hit rolls and─with a few adjustments─still work.

Skipping damage rolls

Back in the third-edition era, Jonathan Tweet advised dungeon masters to speed high-level fights by substituting average damage for rolled damage. In fourth edition, first-level characters have enough hit points to make this approach possible at any level. In a The Dungeon Master Experience post, Chris Perkins explains how he uses nearly average damage plus 1d6, added for a bit of flavor.

The Chivalry & Sorcery game (1977) skipped damage rolls, assuming “that the damage inflicted by a particular weapon in the hands of given character will be more or less constant.”

The notion of dropping to-hit rolls may seem strange but here’s the crux: Against high hit points, to-hit rolls just turn into another damage-reduction mechanic. In fourth edition, everyone but minions has fairly high hit points and everyone hits about 60% of the time. The damage dealt in combat would work out about the same if we just assumed everyone always hits and multiplied everyone’s hit points by 1.67.

Of course, your to-hit percentage varies from a set percentage, because armor can make hitting more difficult. How can a system without to hit rolls account for armor class? In my post, “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points,” I explained how hit points in D&D function as an ingenious damage-reduction mechanic. Virtually every tabletop role-playing game that aimed for realism made armor reduce damage. In our hypothetical rules variant, why not use D&D’s damage-reduction mechanic to represent protective armor? Suppose different types of armor multiplied your hit points. Suppose high dexterity increased hit points, giving more ability to “turn deadly strikes into glancing blows,” just like the game says.

Does abandoning to-hit rolls seem crazy? It has been done.

Tunnels & TrollsTunnels and Trolls (1975) stands as the one early system that defied RPG hobby’s early mania for realism. Ken St Andre, T&T’s designer, aimed for greater simplicity. T&T drops the to-hit roll entirely. Combatants simply weigh damage rolls against each other. Like Tunnels & Trolls, most RPG-inspired video games seem to drop anything equivalent to a to-hit roll. The damage simply rises as you click away at your enemy.

Drawbacks of always hitting

While undeniably simpler, and probably about as realistic as D&D, the you-always-hit approach suffers three problems:

  • Especially with ranged attacks, rolling to hit fits real-world experience much closer than assuming a hit and skipping straight to damage. Technically speaking, skipping the to-hit roll feels bogus.
  • The two possible outcomes of a to-hit roll offer more drama than the mostly-average damage roll.
  • The to-hit roll provides intermittent, positive reinforcement to the process of making an attack.

You know all about positive reinforcement. It makes you stay up late chasing one more level when you should be in bed. Reinforcement that randomly rewards a behavior is more powerful than reinforcement that occurs every time. In a casino, the best bet comes from the change machines, which pay 1-for-1 every single time. Intermittent, positive reinforcement drives people to the slot machines. As the Id DM might say, “The variable ratio schedule produces both the highest rate of responding and the greatest resistance to extinction.” In short, hitting on some attacks is more fun than hitting on every attack.

Although D&D uses a d20 roll to hit, the game plays best when the odds of hitting stand closer to a coin flip. At the extremes, the math gets strange. For combatants who almost always hit, bonuses and penalties become insignificant. For combatants looking for a lucky roll, small bonuses can double or triple their chance to hit. Also, the game plays better when your chance of hitting sits around 60%. When your nears 95%, the roll becomes a formality. When your chance dwindles toward 5%, then the to-hit the roll feels like a waste of time, especially because beating the long odds probably still earns minimal damage.

When the chance of hitting stays between, say, 30% and 70%, the game reaps play benefits:

  • The to-hit roll provides intermittent, positive reinforcement to the process of making an attack.
  • Many attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight.

So D&D designers face the challenge of arranging to-hit bonuses and armor classes so to-hit rolls require a result between a 6 and 14, a precious small sweet spot for all the levels, magic, and armor classes encompassed by the game. In practice, designers like to push your chance to hit toward the top of the 30-70% range, because while missing remains part of the game, it’s no fun.

The Palladium Role-Playing Game (1983) recognized the play value of the to-hit roll, but it avoided D&D’s problem of finessing to-hit bonuses and armor classes to reach a sweet spot. The game simply declares that “any [d20] roll above four (5 to 20) hits doing damage to the opponent.” Armor in the game takes damage, effectively serving as an additional pool of hit points.

In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss the very different steps the D&D Next and 4E designers took to find the to-hit sweet spot.

Next: Riding the power curve