Tag Archives: Dave Arneson

5 Reasons Most D&D Players Stopped Exploring Megadungeons

Dungeons & Dragons creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built their campaigns around huge dungeons that grew and changed. Megadungeons span enough rooms and levels to become the focus of an entire campaign without ever being fully explored. These megadungeons enabled Dave and Gary to run campaigns for dozens of players. On any day, they could host games for whoever happened to show up for a session. (See When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons.)

Even though the megadungeons under Greyhawk and Blackmoor became the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons, such dungeons rarely see play anymore. Why not?

1. Players never saw any examples. Originally, Gary thought that players would never pay for published dungeons. After all, players could easily make up their own. Despite this belief, TSR distributed the first published dungeon, Palace of the Vampire Queen. Strong sales proved Gary wrong, and so he set to publish his own dungeons. (See 9 facts about D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen.)

But Gary’s megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle seemed impossible to capture in writing. As adventurers explored and plundered, the dungeon changed constantly. New monsters wandered in to take empty rooms. Whenever the players’ attention turned, the layouts of old levels subtly changed. Entire new levels appeared. Most of the content lay in one-line descriptions, or worse, locked in the heads of Gary Gygax and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz. Decades later, Gary wrote, “If we handed over the binders containing the maps and the notes, I don’t think even the ablest of DMs would feel empowered to direct adventures using the materials.”

So rather than attempting to capture Greyhawk Castle, Gary opted to publish adventures that he had created for D&D tournaments at conventions. For instance, the official D&D tournament at Origins ’78 ran the G1-3 adventures. The choice to publish such adventures changed the development of the game. D&D players everywhere saw Gary’s published adventures as a model. Instead of patterning their games after a megadungeon like the one Gary played at home, players imitated adventures created for a few hours of competition.

In 1990, TSR finally published WGR1 Greyhawk Ruins, its first megadungeon in print. “There are more than two dozen levels of horror and treasures. Run into brutal foes and gain uncountable wealth-nearly 1,000 separate room descriptions in all!” Gary had left TSR five years earlier, so fans hoping to explore his actual creation felt disappointed. James M. Ward and other veterans of the Grayhawk campaign still at TSR gave insights, but the dungeon even lacked the Great Stone Face Enigma of Grayhawk that Gary himself drew for the first D&D supplement.

The Ruins of Undermountain followed 7 months later. Undermountain appeared in a box with maps and with booklets that sketched out encounter areas. This outline mirrored the terse descriptions and evolving notes that Gary Gygax used for Greyhawk Castle, but the sketch failed to satisfy DMs accustomed to publications ready for play.

Perhaps locking a megadungeon in a book kills it. Printed pages cannot capture the dynamic essence of those original levels.

2. The ecology and rational of megadungeons seemed ridiculous. From they start, players struggled with the logic of megadungeons. Where did all those monsters get their food or leave their waste? Where did the creatures and treasure come from? Every dungeon master invented an insane wizard as an architect for their game’s underground sprawl until the notion became trite.

In the little, brown books, Gary suggested dungeons with layouts that always changed and grew to “maintain freshness,” but that made the megadungeon even more implausible.

Then Gary published adventures that featured a logic sometimes called Gygaxian naturalism. Monsters had lives of their own that involved feasting, scheming, sleeping, and everything but waiting for heroes to come kill them. Rather than wandering monsters living in defiance of reason, we saw giants and drow in their steadings and vaults. For many players, the giant- and drow-series adventures set an example that killed the megadungeon.

Soon, any DM peddling a megadungeon had some explaining to do. For instance, The Ruins of Undermountain kept to the insane wizard trope, then added magic that continuously gated in fresh monsters from across the Realms, and deep entrances that allowed creatures from the Underdark to well up.

3. Play styles expanded. Sometime in the middle of the 70s, for the first time ever, a party of adventurers visiting the inn met a hooded stranger with a job that needed doing. D&D expanded beyond a series of dungeon expeditions aimed at claiming treasure. Players began to favor games that mixed action with story. Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage rates as my favorite megadungeon in print, but when I ran it, the group longed for a story and for motivations beyond a hunger for treasure.

4. Megadungons can feel monotonous. Even the biggest megadungeon only shows a tiny corner of the giant canvas that D&D worlds can offer. In a campaign limited to a single dungeon, kicking in endless doors to fight and loot can start fresh and thrilling but often becomes a tiresome slog. Even those of us who like dungeon crawls want to see some daylight and a plot.

5. Computers do megadungeons better. In 1979, computer games like Akalabeth and Temple of Apshai took gamers into megadungeons and started an electronic-gaming genre. Dungeon crawls limit players’ options, so they offer an easy premise for a computer game. (See How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games.) With a computer DM, players can explore anytime. Digital dungeons offer faster play and better graphics. For players who just want to visit a sprawling underworld to kill monsters and take their stuff, electronic games probably offer a better experience.

Can a megadungeon work today?

A clever design can avoid the problems that pushed megadungeons out of play.

A story-centered game can take PCs into a megadungeon to accomplish more than looting. For instance, when Monte Cook created his superdungeon The Banewarrens, he paired it with overarching plot. Players don’t raid the Banewarrens just to loot. Instead, the story leads to objectives that require missions into the place.

Many megadungeons avoid monotony by introducing levels or zones centered on unique themes such as crypts, flooded sections, or fungus gardens. Even the levels under Castle Greyhawk followed themes that grew more exotic at deeper levels.

A megadungeon design can add intrigue and roleplaying by borrowing a page from The Keep on the Borderlands and adding factions of monsters. Players can join a side or play one against another. Factions under attack will bring reinforcements, creating more interesting battles, and giving players a reason for caution. The stories “Red Nails” by Robert E. Howard and “The Lords of Quarmall” by Fritz Leiber helped inspire the concept of dungeon exploring. Both yarns centered on feuds and intrigue.

A megadungeon (and a live DM) can create player agency and tests of ingenuity that no computer can match.

Although good design can yield a megadungeon that proves fun to play, ordinary dungeons can bring the same advantages. Today’s gamers tend to create megadungeons to foster nostalgia or to enable episodic play.

When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons

In the early 70s, as Gary Gygax co-created Dungeons & Dragons, he played the game seven times a week. He wrote, “As I worked at home, I did not schedule play sessions, but when a gamer or two dropped in on a day, I made haste to finish immediate work and put on my DM’s hat. Evening games with the regulars were generally scheduled a few hours or a day or two ahead.” Weekend games included 10 to 20 players.

How did Gary referee his ongoing Greyhawk campaign for a cast of characters that changed completely from session to session? (Nowadays, dungeon masters like me stretch to keep one or two absent PCs from upsetting our game’s plot.) How did Gary create material for so many games? (I always scramble to prepare one game a week.) In 1974, as Gary focused on publishing D&D, he began sharing campaign duties with a second referee, Rob Kuntz. (I would never dare attempt collaborating on a campaign with a second dungeon master.)

The secret to all these feats lay in the design of the 12+ level megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Castle Greyhawk

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle photographed in 2007 by Matt Bogen

Like Gary, D&D co-designer Dave Arneson ran a campaign for a large and fluctuating pool of players. Dave managed with his own megadungeon below Blackmoor Castle.

Every game session mounted a new expedition into the dungeon, so the particular cast of characters never mattered. These megadungeons enabled a style of episodic play that made those original campaigns manageable. Al from Beyond the Black Gate described the advantage well. “The scale and scope of the Megadungeon makes it friendlier to episodic play than for the more common ‘clear the dungeon’ style of play. The Megadungeon is the perfect place for short, engaging adventures in a compelling environment (even if those sessions just happen to combine into one long campaign).”

Gary never needed to adjust a session’s difficulty to party size or experience, because players could chose a difficulty by choosing how deep to delve. The game awarded more gold and experience to players who dared the lower levels. See “Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it.”

Today, we tout the value of sandbox play, where players can take the game in any direction they want without feeling corralled by some story in the DM’s head. DMs tend to expect sandbox play to require improvisation and in-game adjustments. For instance, the designers worked to make much of the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure play as a sandbox. When I talked to dungeon masters about running it, we always focused on the challenges of preventing the PCs from straying into certain death.

The megadungeon let Dave and Gary to act as referees rather than dungeon masters—that term would not see print until the game’s second supplement Blackmoor in 1975. They could run a game entirely from notes, wandering monster tables, and the whims of the dice. If megadungeon referees choose, their campaigns never needed improvisation or in-game meddling. This gives players more control over their characters’ fate—more player agency—than in typical modern games.

Gary kept preparation manageable. He wrote, “I usually made one-line notes for my dungeon encounters, from around 20 to 25 of same for a typical level done on four-lines-to-the inch graph paper—a few more on five-, six-, or seldom used 8-line graph paper. The other spaces were empty save for perhaps a few traps or transporter areas and the like.” He and Rob Kuntz kept notes. “When the encounter was eliminated I simply drew a line through it, and the place was empty for the foreseeable future. I’d give Rob the details of any session he was not at and vice versa, so we winged all of [the campaign management]. Sometimes a map change and encounter key note of something special in nature was made, but not often.”

On page 4 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Gary made a megadungeon a requirement for play. “A good dungeon will have no less than a dozen levels down, with offshoot levels in addition, and new levels under construction so that players will never grow tired of it. There is no real limit to the number of levels, nor is there any restriction on their size (other than the size of graph paper available). ‘Greyhawk Castle,’ for example, has over a dozen levels in succession downwards, more than that number branching from these, and not less than two new levels under construction at any given time. These levels contain such things as a museum from another age, an underground lake, a series of caverns filled with giant fungi, a bowling alley for 20’ high Giants, an arena of evil, crypts, and so on.”

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

Although folks don’t play megadungeons much now, the places remain uniquely suited to episodic play with multiple parties exploring the same space. Scott Fitzgerald Gray ingeniously used those strengths when he wrote the adventure Dead in Thay for a D&D Encounters season. The Encounters program lets players drop in a game store for a night of D&D. Different players may come for any night of play, shuffling each table’s adventuring party.

At first, the program managed these fluctuations by requiring every table to play the same episode in the adventure. The format limited players’ choices to battle tactics.

In Dead in Thay, each table launches their own, unique foray into a megadungeon called the Doomvault. By creating the sort of dungeon that made the Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns work, the season rediscovered some of the format’s advantages: episodic play for whoever attends, the freedom of a sandbox where players can change the environment, and manageable cooperation between dungeon masters.

When Shannon Appelcline looked back on the adventure, he wrote, “For the most part, Dead in Thay is a classic, old-school dungeon crawl of the sort you could find back in the ‘70s. However, it presents a more mature, more active dungeon, where the rulers of the realm can react to the players’ actions…and where the players themselves could change an environment.”

Meet the Woman Who by 1976 Was the Most Important Gamer in Roleplaying After Gary

In 1976, after Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax, the most important person in roleplaying games was a Los Angeles woman named Lee Gold. She still contributes to the hobby and still runs a campaign using her Lands of Adventure (1983) game.

Lee who? And what happened to Gary’s co-designer Dave Arneson? Although Dave and his circle of Minneapolis gamers deserves the most credit for inventing roleplaying games, Dave’s passion centered on sailing ships in the age of Napoleon. He never matched Gary’s fervor or written output. In 1976, Dave would work briefly for TSR, but little came of it. See Basic and Advanced—Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR.

Meanwhile, D&D’s popularity exploded. Nothing else like the revolutionary game existed and it proved irresistible to most wargamers and fantasy fans. See 4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed.

In 1975, Hilda and Owen Hannifen told their friend Lee Gold of a wonderful new game called Dungeons & Dragons. “Hilda had made up a dungeon and she ran it for us. So you see our first experience was with a female game master. It was a lot of fun.” Lee’s friends gave her a photocopy of the rules, but not before they watched her post a check to TSR for an official copy. “I started making up a dungeon—and told our local friends that they could start coming over and participating in D&D games that I’d be game mastering.”

Alarums & Excursions issue 2

Even before Internet message boards and blogs, science fiction and fantasy fans liked sounding off. So they published fanzines, or just zines. To publish, fans typed their thoughts, printed copies on a mimeograph or an employer’s photocopier, and then mailed to friends. “A zine may include essays, comments on previous issues, poems or songs, a writeup of a gameplaying session, artwork, and just about anything imaginable,” writes Lee. For efficiency, zine publishers started collaborating in amateur press associations, or APAs. These associations bundled collections of zines under a single cover to save on postage and to create publications matching the substance of a magazine.

Excitement in the new D&D game fueled so much discussion that it started to overwhelm the pages of the APA-L from the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. To meet surging interest, and to the let APA-L refocus on literature, Lee Gold started a new APA devoted to roleplaying games. She named it Alarums & Excursions after a phrase Shakespeare used to denote a confused uproar in stage directions. Plus, a name starting with ‘A’ would appear at the top of any list of APAs. Pronounce “Alarums” as alarms. The first issue debuted in June 1975 as the first periodical devoted entirely roleplaying games.

For a standard APA, an official collator collects fanzines and then mails the collections to the authors. “I didn’t want anything that minor,” Lee explains. “I also wanted subscribers, and the subscribers would support the contributors. It was something that had never been tried before. Therefore, I wanted to have something where there would be lots of subscribers and then contributors wouldn’t have to pay anything for postage. This was a whole new thing that had never been done before. It was my entirely new and brilliant, I hoped, idea.” This model allowed Alarums to reach a wider audience than a traditional APA. Hobby shops stocked issues of A&E alongside magazines. As A&E gained contributors, the page counts burgeoned from 30 to 150, when the limits of binding and shipping forced Lee to hold contributions for future issues.

The shabby state of D&D’s original rules inspired much discussion, and Lee’s Alarums & Excursions served as the hub of this network. “All the role players I know, when we looked a Gary Gygax’s game with its “% liar” and all its typos said, ‘this stuff needs tinkering.’ Ken St. Andre looked at it an wrote Tunnels & Trolls, and the people in Michigan wrote their thing, and the people at CalTech wrote their thing, and Steve Perrin wrote his thing. Everybody tinkered with D&D because it needed tinkering to be playable. The nice part about D&D was that it obviously needed player help. Well, obviously to all the players I knew.” (The people in Michigan likely refers to Kevin Siembieda and his Palladium Books the Metro Detroit Gamers, who published the original tournament versions of the TSR modules S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and O1 The Gem and the Staff, and regularly ran conventions like Wintercon and Michicon. The thing from CalTech is the Warlock rules which came to influence D&D through J. Eric Holmes. For more on Warlock and Steve Perrin, see How D&D Got an Initiative System Rooted in California House Rules.)

The zines that Lee published in A&E became profoundly influential on the evolution of role playing games. Lee says, “I remember zines from Dave Hargrave giving tidbits of the Arduin Grimoire, Steve Perrin’s Perrin Conventions (which were the start of the system that later grew into Runequest), Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus’s discussion of Chivalry & Sorcery, John T. Sapienza, Jr.’s discussion of various game systems, and other professional and semi-professional writers. I remember Mark Swanson’s ‘character traits,’ a way of individuating characters with minor bonuses and minuses. I remember a number of people (including myself) getting tapped to write games professionally because RPG publishers read their A&E zines.“ Other contributors included D&D Expert Set author Steve Marsh, third-edition D&D lead designer Jonathan Tweet, Vampire: The Masquerade designer Mark Rein-Hagen, fourth-edition D&D lead designer Rob Heinsoo, Paranoia and Star Wars roleplaying game designer Greg Costikyan, and more. Plus, a fellow named Gary Gygax contributed to issues 2, 8, and 15.

Alarums & Excursions issue 1

Soon though, Gary came to hate APAs like A&E. Partly, he seemed to see APAs as ringleaders for thieves, and not just the sort who—in Gary’s estimation—stole a ride on his coattales. Remember that Lee Gold started with a photocopy of the D&D rules. Early on, copies of D&D, especially outside of TSR’s reach in the Midwest, proved scarce. The $10 price of the original box struck many gamers as outrageous. In the first issues of Alarums & Excursions, some contributors argued that TSR’s profiteering justified Xerox copies of the D&D rules. Gary wrote a rebuttal and Lee told readers that Gary deserved to gain from his work and investment. Surely though, he remained incensed.

Eventually, all the discussion of D&D’s flaws and all the redesigns of the game wore on Gary’s pride in his creation. In issue 16 of The Dragon, he wrote, “APAs are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere. Therefore, they pay money to tout their sophomoric ideas, criticize those who are able to write and design, and generally make themselves obnoxious.” For a rebuttal of Gary’s criticism, refer back to A&E’s list of contributors.

Meanwhile, Lee published A&E and began writing games. Much of her work showed an interest in history and particularly Japan, where she lived 4 months during A&E’s first year. Land of the Rising Sun (1980) extended the Chivalry & Sorcery system to Japan. Her game Lands of Adventure (1983) aimed for roleplaying in historical settings. Her other credits include GURPS Japan (1988) and Vikings (1989) for Rolemaster.

Men dominated the gaming community of the 70s, but Lee felt insulated from that culture because she came from science fiction fandom. “The SF fan experience was largely male when I entered in 1967, but it wasn’t male-dominated. SF fandom of the late 1960s had only a few women, but they were highly charismatic women—including women like Bjo Trimble—and they were not dominated by men. I entered the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society as an editor and the leader of a sub-group that produced a fanzine, The Third Foundation.

“This pattern of female equality also held true for the D&D play and roleplaying that took place in SF fandom—and that’s where I did my roleplaying. Not at hobby stores but at the LASFS and at science fiction conventions, usually with old friends or with people I’d met through A&E. A&E started through people who already knew one another through APA-L or through science fiction fannish connections.”

Meanwhile, the men in gaming tended to suppose that only men contributed to the hobby. Lee remembers visiting the Origins convention and spotting shirts for sale that identified the wearer as a “wargaming widow.” Why else would a woman attend a gaming convention?

After Lee finished writing Land of the Rising Sun for Fantasy Games Unlimited, she met publisher Scott Bizar at a local convention to sign the contract. She recalls discussing the game’s credits.

“Do you want to say this game is written by yourself and your husband Barry?” Bizar asked.

“No,” I said. “Barry didn’t write any bit of it. He did the indexing, and I gave him full credit for that. I wrote all of the game. Just say the game is by Lee Gold.”

“Most female writers say they wrote a game with their husbands,” said Bizar.

“I don’t care what other people do,” I said. “Just say the game is by Lee Gold.” And so Land of the Rising Sun came out as written by Lee Gold.

Her one personal encounter with Gary Gygax revealed a similar bias. Early on, Lee sent copies of A&E to TSR. After a couple of months, she received a phone call, which she recounts.

“This is Gary Gygax,” said the voice, “and I’d like to speak to Lee Gold.”

“I’m Lee Gold,” I said. “I gather you got the copies of A&E I sent you.”

“You’re a woman!” he said.

“That’s right,” I said, and I told him how much we all loved playing D&D and how grateful we were to him for writing it.

“You’re a woman,” he said. “I wrote some bad things about women wargamers once.”

“You don’t need to feel embarrassed,” I said. “I haven’t read them.”

“You’re a woman,” he said.

We didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so I told him goodbye and hung up.

Despite her design credits, Alarums & Excursions rates as Lee Gold’s most stunning achievement. Since 1975, she has sent the APA monthly with only two lapses: one during her stay in Japan and a second scheduled for health reasons. Today though, many subscribers take their copies through email.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Nobody understood the system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would Gygax insist on such cumbersome declarations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The D&D Adventures That Stumble by Missing the Hook

Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal.

Appealing to rogues, paladins, and players

A good adventure hook appeals to both the party’s rogues and paladins. More than popular classes, rogues and paladins represent two ways players often imagine their characters’ outlooks. Steve Winter, a Dungeons & Dragons designer since second edition, writes, “Hooks aren’t about characters; they’re about players.”

Rogues and paladins make popular character perspectives because they bring escapes from either the restrictions or the unfairness of modern life.

In our world, we often feel bound by rules and obligations. Playing a rogue who’s free from ethical burdens and who boasts the power to ignore rules feels exhilarating. Much of the vicarious joy of playing a rogue comes from gaining wealth. Certainly most players of rogue types would say their character is in it for the money.

In our world, we see misdeeds rewarded, good people suffer, and too often we feel helpless to act. Playing a paladin with the strength to punish wrongdoers, help the deserving, and right wrongs feels rejuvenating. Paladins seek chances to act heroic.

Hooks that only appeal to one type can leave other characters just following along because their players came to play D&D. For example, Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage presents a megadungeon similar to those that D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax imagined for their first campaigns. But when I ran it, the paladin types kept wondering why they bothered with Undermountain. A mere search for fortune failed to motivate them; they wanted to become heroes. As the delve continued, I sought ways to add heroic missions.

Vicarious wealth and glory make a solid appeal to players, but curiosity can grab players emotions even more. Most D&D games tease a little curiosity with questions like, “What waits under Skull Mountain.” Especially compelling hooks make players ask, “How can this be so?” Television shows like Lost build mysteries that hook viewers who crave explanations.

Missing the hook

Some adventures risk only hooking one character type. Hoard of the Dragon Queen starts with the characters nearing a town under attack by a dragon and an army—foes that add up to near certain death to a 1st-level character. The adventure depends on new characters charging into the town, so it demands heroes willing to ignore impossible odds to do good. If everyone makes a paladin type, the start works. Of course, the rogues and the sensible characters probably tag along because their players came to play D&D, but their players feel the dissonance of making their characters do things they really wouldn’t. A broader hook might add rumors of a wagon load of treasure in the town. Movies like Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and Three Kings (1999) work from a premise like this.

Alternately, the characters could start the campaign knowing they must play do-gooders. Hoard includes an appendix listing character backgrounds that bring them into the adventure. D&D blogger Merric Blackman writes, “Ultimately the Tyranny of Dragons storyline is a heroic one. The characters get into it because they’re heroes.”

Even adventures that start with an appeal to every character can run short of interest for one type, usually the rogues.

An adventure like Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus can switch goals. At the start, the characters just aim to thwart some evil cultists. The opening hook brings both a payment that appeals to the rogues and a chance to smite evil for the paladins, so it works for both character types. Later though, the adventure asks players to send their characters to hell. The paladins might volunteer, but any sensible rogue would say, “I’m out.”

Nonetheless, the rogue players want to play D&D, so their characters dutifully tag along. Perhaps the expert role players invent a new goal that fits their character. Maybe they go for the sake of their friendship with the team. Maybe, like Han Solo, they go because they discover an unfamiliar desire to do the right thing. Perhaps the player does a bit of improvised world building by imagining a legend of treasure in Avernus. Most likely, the rogues just ignore the dissonance of having to do something their characters wouldn’t.

As the goals of an adventure change, the hooks still need to appeal to the entire party.

None of these missed hooks make the adventures I cited bad. I rate Dungeon of the Mad Mage as the best megadungeon to ever appear in print. Merric ranks Tyranny of Dragons as fifth edition’s best hardcover adventure. DMs grow accustomed to tinkering with hooks—many would consider such adjustments mandatory. After all, every adventure deserves a strong start.

Next: The D&D adventures that falter by letting the hooks stop in the first scene.

For Better D&D Fights, Use This 1 Simple Trick That the Designers Won’t Tell You

Late in the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the design team started presenting each encounter in a 1- or 2-page diagram. By putting everything needed to run an encounter on a page, this “delve format” benefited dungeon masters. The format especially suited fourth edition’s focus on tactical combat encounters played on battle maps. It encouraged designers to craft locations that fueled interesting battles.

Delve format encounter

While many DMs favored the easy-to-run encounters, the delve format took some heat too. Critics argued that lavishing so much space and attention on encounters encouraged adventure designs that forced players to battle through all those set pieces. The approach led to linear adventures, and it discouraged letting players use diplomacy, stealth, or ingenuity to skip combat. All that sunk cost in maps, stats, and setup tempted DMs to make fights inevitable.

So in fifth edition, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme. Today’s adventures avoid framing situations as encounters. Instead DMs get a monster name in bold without any extra detail that might invite combat. Sample fifth-edition design: “This 20-by-20 room has 3 manticores. Fight them or whatever. Doesn’t matter.” I’m paraphrasing.

But combat remains part of D&D, and such lightweight non-encounters can lead to too many dull battles. Too often, characters and their foes crowd a doorway trading damage until monsters drop. If the designers aimed to make roleplaying interaction and exploration seem more appealing, then mission accomplished!

Even though the delve format seemed to foster more interesting combat encounters by lavishing more space on them, the key ingredient was rarely the extra text; the key was the map.

The delve format shined a spotlight on encounter maps and inspired designers to dream bigger than a 20-by-20 room. Better maps led to better battles.

Fifth edition abandoned the delve format, but it still features maps. Often, the secret to better D&D fights lies in imagining a better location. Not every potential battlefield merits the attention, but many do. I compare drawing the map for a likely battle to piling kindling. If a spark appears, I want fire.

Designing better maps doesn’t necessarily mean every fight needs to play on a grid of 5-foot squares. But even if your players favor narrative combat, more knotty locations probably mean sketching a rough map of the battlefield and of relative positions. (DMs, your players may not love theater of the mind as much as you do, so check.)

The 1 simple trick is more of a mindset: When you you map a battleground, start by seeking ways to favor the home team, usually the monster. 

Smart monsters will seek lairs that benefit them, but even beasts will instinctively seek the best place to ambush prey. From a game perspective, the most engaging fights will come from battlegrounds that let monsters exploit their abilities. Flyers want airspace to rise from reach and perhaps walls, columns, or stalactites to swoop behind. Giants need space to move. Intangible creatures want tight, knotted corridors with walls to phase through.

Mapping locations that favor the home team makes sense, but DMs seldom do it. Too often we fall into patterns set by the oldest dungeons. Originally, DMs like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax drew maps, and then populated them by rolling from tables. We came to mock those monster hotels, but just about every DM has started with a map and sprinkled it with picks from the monster manual. Modern dungeons still tend to settle for that pattern. I’ve seen official adventures with beholders in small rooms under low ceilings and even an archmage guarding a hallway. Here’s a super genius who spent a lifetime making space and time his playthings, and somehow he winds up alone in a hall where he can only hope for a high enough initiative to loose a cone of cold before getting beaten to death. (His stats say Int 20, but if he fails to use his turn to teleport far away, I suspect daddy got him into wizard school.)

This old pattern of drawing a rectangle and posting a few monsters heavily favors the players. The party brings durable heroes who can block attacks, plus spellcasters and sharpshooters who can heap damage on monsters while safely behind the defenders.

Maps that draw characters into interesting locations make sense for the monsters, and bring more fun. For help designing maps that fuel dramatic battles, see D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes.

Sometimes a battlefield that favors the characters can prove even more fun than one that favors the monsters. To work, such locations must invite some bigger advantage than a defensive line at the door. While most fights at a door prove tiresome, if the players cross to such a choke point and then draw their foes there, the battle rewards clever play and brings fun. Often the most exciting battles pit characters against more powerful foes, and then add features that players can use to even the score. Classic adventures like Night’s Dark Terror and Isle of the Abbey turn this premise into sieges, where players have time to prepare a defense against hordes of foes. Whatever the specifics, players feel clever while they savor the thrill of defying the odds.

Good maps don’t help if everyone winds up crowding the door. To avoid bottlenecks, flip the usual script: Give the party time to enter a room and scatter before having the monsters intrude. Beyond that, break from the old pattern of thinking of each room as a separate encounter area. Instead, think of encounter areas as clusters of rooms, hallways, and whatever else lies in earshot. As scattered monsters sense intruders, they come from different directions. If the set of rooms includes a route that leads behind the characters, monsters can circle back and give those wizards and archers a taste. For good battles against the leader types who make the players’ first targets, let the leaders move into view on their turns.

When you map a location for a likely battle, think of the monsters, and then favor the home team.

XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas. Now the Designers Don’t See the Point

When Dave Arneson ran a session of his Blackmoor dungeon for his Dungeons & Dragons co-creator, Gary Gygax’s biggest impression came from two innovations: (1) the dungeon expedition and (2) how characters improved with experience. In Playing at the World, author Jon Peterson describes reactions to the revolutionary game and shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players. I shared their fervor. In my junior high cafeteria, when I overheard some kids talking about a strange game where you could kill an orc, gain experience points, and get better at fighting, that single notion hooked me.

Early in Dave’s Blackmoor campaign, characters earned one experience point for each hit point of the monsters they killed. Players rarely saw the details. Blackmoor player Greg Svenson recalls, “We didn’t track our experience points as is done now. Dave simply told us when we had transitioned from one level to another.” Dave liked to shield players from his game’s numbers, partly for mystery, partly so he could change rules whenever he thought of something better.

His method for awarding experience certainly evolved. In a 1978 interview, Dave Arneson recalled awarding experience for characters who used skills associated with their class. “Each player increases in ability in a given area by engaging in an activity in that area. For a fighter this meant by killing opponents (normal types of monster), their ability to strike an opponent and avoid the latter’s blows was increased.”

While realistic, awarding experience points (XP) for different activities could have split groups to work their separate professions. If characters gained, say, spellcasting ability through endless hours of practice and study, players would face choosing between the fun of exploring dungeons and the drudgery of practice. “While it is more ‘realistic’ for clerics to study holy writings, pray, chant, practice self-discipline, etc. to gain experience, it would not make a playable game,” Gary wrote in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. “Magic users should be deciphering old scrolls, searching tomes, experimenting alchemically, and so forth, while thieves should spend their off-hours honing their skills, casing various buildings, watching potential victims, and carefully planning their next job. All very realistic, but conducive to boredom.”

In the pursuit of realism, Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) took study so seriously that the authors argue that magic users shouldn’t leave their labs at all. “What real ‘experience’ is to be had in a dark, damp dungeon?”

Gary saw dungeon expeditions as the second compelling innovation in Dave’s game. To succeed, the budding D&D game needed a way to lure every character into the dungeon, and then to reward their risk taking. Players loved seeing their characters gain power, so Gary motivated them to explore dungeons by stocking the underworld with treasure and by awarding characters experience for winning gold. The rogue might want wealth, and the paladin might want to smite monsters and to give to the church, but they could both win experience in the dungeon. Plus, the hunt for treasure resonated with players. Gary wrote, “If you, the real you, were an adventurer, what would motivate you more that the lure of riches?”

In addition to rewarding players for seeking fun, the XP-for-gold system offered another benefit: It created a simple way to award experience points for succeeding at non-combat challenges. As a new PC in the original game, potentially with 1 hit point, you had little chance of leveling through combat. Players joke that D&D is about killing things and taking their stuff, but in the original game, you were better off using your wits to take stuff. So long as your cunning led to gold, you got experience.

In the original game, characters earned much more experience for gold than for monster slaying. This rewarded players for engaging in exactly the dungeon exploration that made the game so much fun.

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

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

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

Doubling both experience requirements and rewards offered a second benefit: Low-level characters could join a higher-level party and catch up quickly. This gave newer characters a boost and so made dead characters easier to replace. Also, the quicker advancement made monsters that drained characters of levels a bit less punishing.

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a foam sword cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system.

The XP-for-gold system struck players everywhere as unrealistic. In the original Arduin Grimoire (1977), Dave Hargrave wrote that in his game, “[Experience] points are given for many reasons, but NOT for gold or other treasure. After all, it is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience.” In 1989, with the second edition, D&D would follow suit. The game would never award XP for gold again.

Without XP for gold, only killing monsters earned specific experience awards. Players liked to say the D&D only awarded XP for killing things, but that has never been true. While second edition stopped granting experience for gold, “a character can earn experience points for successfully completing an adventure or achieving a goal the DM has set.” But neither dungeon masters nor published adventures tended to follow the advice. Everyone, professionals included, tended to ignore improvised awards for experience in favor of the set numbers printed for each monster.

In the countless video games that adopted experience points, the mechanic proved its psychological draw. With every battlefield victory, gamers saw their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards kept gamers hooked. Electronic games brought advantages to an XP system. The computer freed players from working the math, and CPUs patiently served an endless stream of foes to characters who needed to grind their way to the next level. Still, grinding hardly sounds fun.

When second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, D&D superficially became more of a game of killing than ever. Except D&D matured anyway. Adventures started spinning stories deeper than that one time we killed a minotaur for gold. Originally, every character chased treasure; now, characters pursue adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure. And that worked so long as when players joined a game, they joined an unspoken pact to find reason for their character to accompany the other characters in following the plot.

In the newer, story-driven play style, some players stopped seeing the point of counting experience. Those players included current D&D head, Mike Mearls. “Tracking experience points and using them to award levels makes a lot of sense in open-ended games, where the players can go where they wish, tackle the specific challenges that appeal to them, and create their own goals as a campaign progresses. In this type of game, when the players decide to assault the lair of a blue dragon, their primary goal is most often the treasure and XP they’ll gain for defeating it,” Mike wrote.

“In a more story-driven campaign, however, that lair assault could have a more complex purpose. Defeating the dragon removes a threat to the realm and creates a key event in the campaign’s story arc. In this type of campaign, treasure and XP take second place in the characters’ goals, behind the dragon’s importance in the narrative. The reward lies in making the kingdom safe and completing the mission, not necessarily in collecting loot. Leveling up might feel like the best way to mark that campaign milestone, even if the XP earned by slaying the dragon doesn’t quite cover it.”

In addition to faulting XP for failing to serve narrative campaigns, D&D’s designers disliked the bookkeeping behind XP. Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo, the designers behind D&D’s 3rd and 4th editions wrote, “We think that XP systems are better left to computer games.

Even today, players still mischaracterize D&D as a game that only awards experience for slaying, mainly because every monster lists an XP number, while diplomatic and other challenges lack them.

Meanwhile, the game’s designers abandoned experience points in favor of milestones—leveling after story-driven accomplishments. Mearls wrote, “In the past, we’ve always defaulted to using experience point rewards for everything. However, for narrative-driven adventures like adventure paths, that approach can prove troublesome. Designers have to jam in the ‘correct’ number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace. Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot. Otherwise, if characters don’t level up at the expected rate, subsequent chapters in an adventure path become too difficult or too easy.”

When Mike complains about jamming in combat encounters, he reinforces the canard that the D&D rules only allow XP for killing monsters. Even a long-time designer never considers other XP awards. To be fair, story awards that help characters meet the level requirements of an adventure yield the same result as a DM announcing that everyone gains a level. Milestones lose the math, but they also lose the hook of small XP rewards for successes, seeing progress, and then earning levels.

The fifth-edition hardcover adventures lack enough monster-slaying XP to keep characters on pace with the adventure’s target levels. The designers could have added XP awards for other accomplishments, but they show little interest in supporting XP. This disinterest posed a problem for those of us who ran the hardcover adventures for the Adventurers League through the first 7 seasons. The league used experience then, and if the characters had only earned XP for slaying, they would never reach the levels targeted by the adventure. I may have violated the letter of League rules by awarding extra XP for overcoming non-combat challenges. I may be good, but I’m not completely lawful. Don’t tell the administrators.

Now, the League follows the D&D designers by dropping XP in favor of granting players the option to advance after an adventure, chapter, or other milestone.

Next: XP versus milestone advancement—at least we can all agree that awarding XP just for combat is terrible.

How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story

Character death has always torn Dungeons & Dragons between game and story. The threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an unsatisfying end that can disrupt a campaign.

Without characters facing the potential of dying, the game lacks tension and stakes. Decisions lose consequences because however characters act, they emerge unharmed—stronger thanks to experience. At his crankiest, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax railed against players who wanted campaigns that never threatened characters. “How I detest namby-pamby whiners that expect to play a real RPG without threat of character death or loss of a level, stat points, or even choice magic items! Without such possibilities, what it the purpose of play, a race to see which character can have the greatest level, highest stats, and largest horde of treasure? That is just too flaccid for words.” (See The Game-Design Trends That Turned D&D Into a Game Gary Gygax Disliked.)

The D&D Open moments before my character (lower left) died to a Marilith

My favorite D&D sessions came in the D&D Open, tournaments where long odds made casualties almost inevitable. (See Why the Awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship Should Return.) The peril adds a weight and urgency to play that made ordinary game sessions pale. In D&D campaigns, the threat of death makes the characters feel like heroes because they brave real risks that can end their imaginary lives.

But while the threat of character death adds excitement and vitality to D&D, actual character deaths usually sour the game.

In those tournament games, dying meant dropping from the session. One player’s fun ended. In campaign games, death proves much worse. We players invest time in our characters. Creating one takes a half hour or more of effort to build, and then to invent a history, personality, and so on. Playing a character to higher levels demands hundreds of hours. A dead character seems to waste that investment. (Funny how we simply stop playing characters without feeling the same loss.) We become emotionally attached to our characters. We imagine story arcs for them where they grow and change and reach a meaningful conclusion to their journey. Death stifles those plans. Losing a character hurts.

Character deaths can also hurt campaigns. Today’s roleplayers foster connections between characters in a party. Dungeon masters strive to link a campaign world and its conflicts to characters. A death cuts all those connections and stalls story threads without resolution. The group faces the problem of introducing a new character into play and possibly reviving broken plot threads.

Through the years, D&D’s designers coped with the problem of death by making characters harder to kill. Originally, in the Blackmoor campaign that led to D&D, a single hit killed a character. “It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters,” D&D co-creator Dave Arneson said. He introduced hit points. (See The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit.)  In the 1974 D&D game, a character reduced to 0 hit points dropped dead, beyond healing. By the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1979) characters fell unconscious at 0 hp, and only died at -10 hp.

Even in original D&D, spells like raise dead often made death into a brief setback rather than a permanent loss. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary wrote, “Death due to combat is no great matter in most cases, for the character can often be brought back by means of a clerical spell.”

Resurrection magic spares characters from dropping out of play, but to hold some stakes, death must keep enough sting to make it feared. The original raise dead forced characters into two weeks of rest. In busy campaigns like Gary’s, that sidelined a character and forced players to bring one from the bench. (See Dungeons & Dragons and the Dream of the Grand Campaign.) Still, a two week break rates as a trivial setback, especially when few campaigns keep a calendar. AD&D added a risk of failed resurrections and a limit to the number of resurrections. Third edition features the best version of raise dead: Revived characters lost a level. This consequence adds enough fear of death to lend tension to the game, while limiting the chance of removing a character from the game.

AD&D’s reincarnation spell rates as the worst example of resurrection magic. Players would have characters kill themselves until they reincarnated as an ogre mage. Clearly, those campaigns featured very little role playing.

Fifth edition suffers from D&D’s most namby-pamby version of raise dead. After a long weekend, resurrected characters shake all the effects of death. Further, most characters can afford resurrections without a loan. (See Dungeons & Dragons Stopped Giving XP for Gold, but the Insane Economy Remains.) This lack of risk can drain the game of excitement. No wonder the designers of the Tomb of Annihilation adventure felt a need to make death more threatening. The circumstances of the adventure temporarily blocked raising the dead and imposed a risk of permanent death. Gary would be proud.

While raise dead can benefit the game, resurrection magic must give D&D novelists fits. How do you place characters in peril when rules-savvy readers know how easy resurrection should be? I’m told most D&D writers just ignore such easy miracles in their tales. Who can blame them for looking away and whistling past the empty graveyard?

Fifth edition’s forgiving rules for character death make characters above 4th level just about impossible to kill. Because fallen characters usually survive if anyone stands to revive them, total party kills have become more common than individual deaths.

In modern D&D, only new characters typically die. The designers embrace this quirk. To them, a new character represents a small enough time and emotional investment to feel disposable. Still, new players typically play new characters, so the design risks distressing potential converts by dealing abrupt deaths. (See Sly Flourish on Building 1st Level Combat Encounters. Hint: Have a kindly priest cast aid on your players’ 1st-level party.)

While the risk of character death has shrunk, the threat of death has always remained part of D&D. Despite ranting against players who failed to risk characters’ lives, Gary saw the tension between needing death in the game and the pain of actually losing characters. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, he writes, “It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well,” and then he suggests ways to avoid killing a character. But in the same paragraph, he warns DMs to never tamper with the system shock roll that a character must make to be successfully raised from the dead. “There MUST be some final death or immortality will take over and the game will become boring because the player characters will have 9+ lives each.”

Next: Death, stakes, and bargaining. How letting characters opt out of death might improve a D&D game and its story.

How Dungeons & Dragons Got Its Ability Scores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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