Tag Archives: D&D Encounters

Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

I ran evil-themed D&D campaign once, but only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released Menzoberranzan City of Intrigue and promoted the book with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. Fourth edition’s Encounters program hosted drop-in games at local game stores. This season made the players evil drow and fostered backstabbing and intrigue. As an Encounters dungeon master, I questioned the wisdom of the theme, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. Still, I dutifully ran the campaign as intended.

My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.

I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If players’ actions defied their alignments, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.

And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.

Even so, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.

Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?

As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, the Greyhawk campaign run by D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”

Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it,” Gary wrote. “They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?

The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”

In a Dragon magazine issue 118 article outlining changes coming in second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, designer David “Zeb” Cook writes, “The assassin is a goner—virtually guaranteed. It is highly unlikely that any amount of appeal will save his neck. He is disruptive to party harmony and, more importantly, presents the wrong image about AD&D games.”

The thief also inspired in-party conflicts. Steve explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”

“He’s a thief! He steals from everyone and ruins friendships,” Zeb wrote. But thieves reflected better on AD&D than assassins and offered a more popular archetype, so Zeb defended the class. “This is more a problem of how the player is using the thief, not the class itself.”

Nonetheless, the class name inspired thieving. Second edition started a rebranding by making thieves a type of rogue. The Player’s Handbook explains, “The character classes are divided into four groups according to general occupation: Warrior, Wizard, Priest and Rogue.” By third edition, “rogue” permanently replaced “thief” as a class name.

Related: The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

Related: A role-playing game player’s obligation

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My Two Most Controversial Posts Prompt a Trip Into the Comment Section

The last two months included the two most discussed posts in the 7-year history of DM David, which calls for another trip into the comment section.

In Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters? I considered the pros and cons of asking players to share a role that usually falls to the dungeon master.

Ilbranteloth suggested turning potentially dead characters into an invitation to let players imagine a different twist. “On potentially deadly hits against the PCs, they decide if they are killed, or something more dramatic (and often worse) happens.” Perhaps the character loses a leg and a bit of speed. Or perhaps the player trades death for some dramatic complication. Players focused on story understand that character arcs benefit from setbacks and might be eager to revive a dead character in exchange for a complication that makes a richer story.

After I created a Dungeons & Dragons Summoning Spell Reference, Teos “alphasream” Abadia shared some concerns raised by summoning.

I’m not generally a fan of the summoning spells. They can be too strong (they can be like a fireball of damage every round, round after round, for the casting of one spell), they tie up the terrain impeding movement (especially by locking down melee fighters, preventing a dynamic combat), and they make combat a slog (in almost any combat, the monsters lack the damage to kill more than a couple of the summoned monsters).

That last bit is what kills it for me. At the meta level, the monsters should ignore the summoned creatures, because killing them is basically impossible unless they’re a horde of low CR creatures and the monsters have area attacks. So, the easy move is to target the summoner and break their concentration, but that takes away from what the player who did the summoning wants. I haven’t found a happy medium.

Summoning spells typically offer a choice between lots of weaker monsters and fewer, stronger monsters. When the designers set choices that made summoning crowds far more efficient, they made the spells more likely to turn fights into slogs.

When I play foes with an 8 or higher intelligence who see ongoing spell effects, I start making spellcasters preferred targets. After all, characters with an 8 Intelligence practice even more savvy tactics. When players think their DM unreasonably targets them with attacks, players can get salty, but when concentrating spellcasters become targets, their players know it’s coming.

Two readers added to The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods.

Alphastream wrote, “Some readers may not appreciate how, back then, books hung around for a long time. We had decades with the same books on the shelves. Not as old stock in a corner, but as an active part of what gamers would buy and use. As an example, check out this Shannon Appelcline article where he shares White Wolf Magazine’s list of top-selling RPGs for 1992. At number 9 is the 1981 Fiend Folio!

Books like Deities & Demigods were a presence for decades, which helped keep this bit of controversy prominent across many years.

The long sales life of books from this era also led to a 2nd edition that remained broadly compatible with AD&D. The designers wanted to make big improvements, but TSR management wanted books like that old Fiend Folio to continue generating sales.

Zenopus Archives wrote, “There’s a whole earlier chapter to this story. The Mythos write-up in Deities & Demigods is derivative of the original write-up ‘The Lovecraftian Mythos in Dungeons & Dragons’ by J. Eric Holmes and Rob Kuntz that was published in Dragon magazine 12 in 1978. The bulk of this article was written by Holmes, and the Deities & Demigods write-up has the same entries, except for one. To me, Deities & Demigods clearly used the original article as a starting point. Read more at Dr. Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos.

In Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League, I wrote about how D&D traditionally motivates both characters and players to seek gold. This tempts players to take the risks that help make D&D fun.

Eric Bohm wrote, “Taking the treasure out of the game seriously undermines an important component of the D&D formula. The heroic component remains mostly intact. If your character is motivated to help people for the sake of helping them, with only an abstract unquantifiable reward, everything works. Other kinds of characters are less well supported, while truly mercenary character concepts become basically unplayable.

What about the lovable scamp who is in it for the gold? Or the many redemptive arcs of those get roped in for the base rewards and are swept up in higher motivations? How can a malefactor tempt a hero away from the path of virtue?

The only character who grabbed any money from the hoard in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist when I ran it was an NPC. The players weren’t tempted; therefore they did not feel like it was worth roleplaying their characters being at all tempted. It just wasn’t interesting for them to play into it. Let me state that again. Players with characters standing in a vault full of gold felt that it was pointless for them to even pick up a single bag of gold. Where is the fun in that?

Obviously, players can still create characters motivated by greed, but without the incentive of gold, taking risks for treasure seems like a sucker’s bet.

At the start of season 8, I wondered with James Introcaso why the Adventurers League would introduce rules that blocked characters from keeping gold in the season that featured Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The adventure hooks characters with a chance to win a fortune in gold. James speculated that perhaps the potential windfall triggered the need for the rules change.

In How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal, I talked about how relying on a DM’s judgement rather than on extensive rules may have helped fifth edition’s popularity.

Alphastream agreed but saw areas where fourth edition succeeded in making D&D easier to run. For instance, fourth edition’s in-store play program D&D Encounters drew tons of players. “DMs loved being able to run an hour of play with 1-2 pages of very simple (and yet engaging) adventure text. Spells turned into far simpler powers meant DMs could jump in with less experience. True story: Despite playing and DMing D&D for 17 years, when 3E came out, I waited 9 months before DMing my first organized play game because I felt I didn’t know 3E spells well enough to run a game. We’ve taken a step backwards here, in that many DMs again feel they can’t DM (especially at high levels) because of the complexity of spells.

So, I think there is a balance to be struck between these design goals of keeping the game engaging and keeping it easy to learn and simple.

I would also say that while 3E really built up the game and added a lot, 4E in many ways was working to fix problems—the length of an adventuring day, the need for someone to ‘have’ to play the cleric, how many magic items a character had, and even how much experience a DM needed to feel confident. It really took the laundry list of issues, including ‘bad DMs’ and tried to fix them. The legacy of those fixes is excellent. We can see many of those improvements carried on into 5E.

In How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs, I wrote about how D&D struggled to erase the implication that half orcs came from rape. The entry became this blog’s most read and discussed post until another post topped it.

Wil cifer argued that the original implications of half orcs fit history. “Rape was a commonplace occurrence during war in medieval times. Why would a barbaric race even in a fantasy setting be kinder and gentler? Rewriting the tone of a historical time the game is based on is stupid.

But D&D is a game that gleefully tosses aside historical accuracy and realism in favor of fun. The game features magic and dragons. To unravel any D&D world, just pull any of countless threads and check it for historical accuracy or check how it stands in the face of magic.

Other readers argued that making half orcs the product of sexual violence turns orcs into stronger villains. Andrew wrote, “I have been playing D&D since 1981, and I have no problem with half-orcs being the result of an orc raping a human female. Orcs are monsters, created by an evil deity, Gruumsh. Taking the monster out of the monster has very little appeal to me. Can and should there be points of moral ambiguity in a D&D game? Without doubt. There should be. But monsters do monstrous things, including rape.

To players like Andrew, crushing evil and righting wrongs feels more satisfying when the campaign shows evil and the suffering it creates. Purely evil creatures make uncomplicated foes that justify killing.

David Streever wrote, “D&D is a fantasy game that is sold to everyone from small children to adults; you can feature as much rape as you like in your version, but I’m glad it’s not in the core books, and I’ll stay away from your table.

In your D&D game, if all the players welcome a darker tone, you can explore any origin you like for half orcs. But for a broader audience, the game benefits when it avoids saddling every half orc with a vile background.

In response to Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself, simontnm gave a suggestion. “If I have multiple NPCs talking I tend to use minis, and put my finger on the mini of the NPC actually talking.

“‘Don’t have NPCs talk to each other’ is good advice, but it’s occasionally necessary to deliver an NPC to NPC one liner. Keep it short and sweet.

The History of Traps In Dungeons & Dragons prompted Ty to point out the difference between good, real traps and quality traps in D&D. “From a game play standpoint, traps are just a terrible idea all around. Conceptually, in order for a trap to be a ‘good’ trap, it needs to be massively unfair. It needs to kill outright or seriously maim. One minute you’re alive, and then boom, you’re dead. No saving throws, no noticing something off at the last minute, no jumping out of the way.

Ken W replied, “You need to take the edge off your realism. A trap shouldn’t be ‘instantly lethal’ in game terms any more than a strike with a sword or great axe. In real terms, if you get hit by a swinging claymore, you are likely suffering a severe wound. But the abstraction of D&D combat and hit points means that each hit represents a depletion of stamina, not a mortal wound. Only when you reach 0 hit points does it really represent that fountaining arterial spray we would otherwise expect.

Traps operate in the same space as combat weapons in this regard. The only difference between a trap and an enemy combatant that gets a turn while the PC is surprised is…well—nothing. Except the trap essentially ‘dies’ after its turn is over.”

Good traps in the real world make lousy traps in D&D. The best traps in D&D are in places where everyone expects a trap or that show obvious signs of their presence.

Alphastream wrote, “A trap can be a lot of fun when found, if it requires engagement to disarm. As a DM or author, I try to think through the point of the trap—not just for whatever creatures put it there—but for the game experience. The trap can be hard to find and that’s fun, or it can be easy to find and be fun as well. Think of ‘only the penitent man shall pass’ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That’s fun because you know it is there and need to figure out a way past it. Similarly, traps can be found and that can be the beginning of the engagement.

Beoric wrote, “Perfectly good traps can be suspected because the nature of the trap is not entirely concealable. Raiders of the Lost Ark-style traps can be suspected because the tiles on the floor have no grout because they are pressure plates, or there are holes in the wall from which darts shoot.

The trap may also be old, and detectable by signs of wear, like a layer of powdered stone on the floor or vertical gouges on the wall for a falling block trap, or soot on the walls or floor with a fire trap, or spent missiles on the floor with a dart or arrow trap.

Also consider that some traps can be very well concealed if they are not being looked for, but still be detectable if actively searched for. A standard old-school pit trap was pretty much undetectable visually and could only be detected by tapping it.

None of those are actually bad traps. They just have limitations because of their nature.

There is a great discussion of this at the Hack and Slash Trick and Trap Index.”

Alphastream expanded on how traps worked in play across editions.

In fifth edition, it’s still not entirely clear nor standard whether Investigation or Perception is most commonly used for finding a trap. I have my thoughts, which I think are right, but I see it run many different ways. In general, I think that if a trap is one that could be seen with the naked eye, then Perception would work. For example, a pressure plate that has slightly discolored stone, or which is slightly sunken. Otherwise, and in my game this is most of the time, the trap is not obvious and needs Investigation to be found. A well-crafted pressure plate is like any other stone. The only way to find it is to tap at it or otherwise determine what it is, which uses Investigation.

Fourth edition’s concept of ‘trap as monster’ failed due to the underlying math, which assumed a check per round and 4 checks to disable the trap, which was supposed to equate how monsters were envisioned as taking 4 rounds to defeat. The problem is that this cold math doesn’t understand how that 4 round concept wasn’t very accurate—players focused fire on important targets and might take them down in 1 round, while ignoring others.

Players tended to focus fire on traps and break them more quickly than a rogue could disable them. Or players ignored traps in favor of the monsters, and then stepped around the traps.

I like to think 4E’s trap concept is still really cool, but it takes clever authoring to communicate to the players how to engage with it. It is awesome if the cleric immediately realizes that this trap is empowered by a rival deity and they can shut it down and greatly help the party by doing so. That feels really heroic. It’s awesome if the rogue can tell the party that interacting with the trap for two rounds will move the rays of lightning to the area where the enemy archers are standing. These are great cinematic concepts if you set them up right.

I tried my own hand at it with Dungeon of Doom. Nate and I designed a large variety of 5E traps in that adventure, and they provide a diversity of experiences. (You can get the adventure free and also see people play through them, all at https://dwarvenforge.com/descent/.) Thank you for putting up with the shameless plug, but it’s hopefully useful for people given this article.

For Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D, Daniel Boggs contributed fascinating D&D history that I didn’t know.

It is a quirky history, given that a primary reason ability scores were created in the first place was as a means to make ability checks—to put it in contemporary parlance. The D&D ability scores and saving throws arise as a distillation of the concept of personality traits and character skills created by Dave Arneson for Blackmoor. In pre-D&D Blackmoor, players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, or Looks, or Throwing, to see if they were successful at the attempt. When D&D came along, Arneson & co. continued to use ability checks in their games. You can see an example of a Dexterity check in Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign (1977) where a character must save versus Dexterity to remove their armor in time to avoid drowning in Blackmoor Bay. And of course ability checks are also very prominent in Arneson and Richard Sniders’ Adventures in Fantasy game (1978). In writing D&D, Gary Gygax failed to mention this purpose of the ability scores as he apparently preferred to create an arbitrary percent chance and have the players roll percentiles instead. So, you did have some early players who figured it out on their own or who learned it in some way from Arneson, most D&D players didn’t grok the intention behind the scores and thus you got that rather odd system proposed by Ives in Dragon #1. You can see some original Blackmoor characters here.

My post 6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate sparked such a furor that I posted a follow up. Many commenters took the challenge of changing my mind.

I’ve already recanted my dislike for game worlds that unnecessarily make adventuring a common profession.

Alphastream argues that monsters that bounce from table to table at multi-table events can work, but he sees room for innovation. “I’ve written these, though they aren’t my favorite device for the reasons you mentioned. I think they work best when they are in small pods. The blue dragon in Confrontation at Candlekeep works well because it makes sense (you have 4-6 towers and parties at each tower, the dragon flying in between), it is announced dramatically (so everyone gets the concept from the start), it is central to the action (no one is forgetting about the dragon), and it lets players interact with it once it leaves their table (they can jump on it or fire at it, at the risk of failing at their table). With the second Open I tried to create a different experience, one that still made sense and which provided a combination of combat, skill, and risk-reward. I would tweak it further if given the chance. All of that is to say that I think these can be done well. I think DM David is exactly the kind of person who could come up with a cool version and submit it to an Epic author.

I’ve grown to accept that adventures with carnival games work well as an introduction to the game. Alphastream touts another benefit. “I think carnival games can offer a lot of activity in a short time and offer something to every player. Very few things can do that.”

As for the way that using miniatures for the wrong monster sometimes confuses me, Creeper Jr wrote, “I don’t need minis to match exactly, but I find it incredibly helpful if there is some sort of rhyme and reason to it. My portable mini kit includes: 4 goblins, 4 guards, 4 archers, 2 mages, 2 knights/fighters, 2 rogues, 2 large green slaad, 2 giant spiders. Each mini has a color-coded base accent. This doesn’t take up too much room, is relatively cheap to put together, and allows us to quickly identify enemies with sort-of-thematic minis.

Alphastream supports budding mini collectors eager to put minis on the table. “Sometimes a DM wants to buy a box of minis or two and try to use that purchase for their efforts. I get that. I still think it beats Starburst, but maybe that’s because I don’t super love Starburst. If the monsters are Belgian truffles, or Ferrero Rocher, sign me up! Here again, we can imagine we are witnessing the beautiful creation of a nascent miniature collector. They will go from this table to assemble an army of awesome minis on a bed of Dwarven Forge. It’s like seeing the future unfold before us!

Josh rose to defend the dragon-slayer pose on page 7 of the second-edition Player’s Handbook. “I’m one of the ones who love the picture. The adventurers seem like real people, each different and interesting in his own way. The mage isn’t old. Nobody’s half dressed. The dragon’s of a size that would pose a threat to normal people and level 1’s. It’s a good level 1 accomplishment. And as for the pose, I assume there are a lot of unlisted utility spells, including one that takes the image in a caster’s mind and transfers it to paper. It’s a level 2 spell. Colored prints are level 4.

Commenters replying to How Well Do You Understand Invisibility in Dungeons & Dragons? considered a couple of odd corners of the rules for invisibility.

Dave Barton summarized one aspect. “In essence, two foes who can’t see each other have an equal chance of hitting as if they could see each other. Think about that for a minute.

This rule especially defies common sense because it grants ranged attackers just as good a chance of hitting when they can’t see their target. Sometimes D&D trades plausibility for simplicity.

Aside from the ability to hide anywhere, invisible creatures don’t get advantage to hide or any other increase to their chance of success.

Pewels asks “How would you handle light sources on a PC going invisible?

Saphhire Crook answered, “The issue of invisible light sources crosses into that dangerous territory of ‘invisible eyeballs’, which is where invisible people cannot see because their eyes cannot receive light since it passes through them.

In 3.5, light sources continue to exist, but their origin becomes invisible, implying that the target simply reflects no visible light (or all light hitting or reflecting off them is magically duplicated and filtered).”

Every so often, someone leaves a comment that delights me. My post on Dave Hargrave, Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games, inspired such a comment from Old School, New.

As a former associate of Hargrave, I’ve been around awhile and have seen innumerable articles written on the worlds of Arduin and its foothills. Many are bad, many are way too ‘fannish,’ and a lot of them are simply misinformed and/or myopically aligned with other gaming systems, to the point of zero objectivity.

This article, however, rates as the finest piece on the subject of Arduin/DH, ever. Nothing else comes close. Incredibly well written, fair, meticulous, and factual.

And you actually dug-up a pic from Different Worlds. Haha! Among other things.

Yes, Arduin wasn’t perfect. Not hardly. But it was grand, visionary, insane, stupid, ham-handed, and utterly magnificent. Kinda like its creator, right?

Anyway, massive cheers for a spectacular blog entry. I should think it’s the all-time definitive description of Arduin and its master—warts and all.

Seriously, Mr. Hartlage, you’ve created something beautiful here.

Thanks! I feed proud to garner such kind words.

When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons

In the early 70s, as Gary Gygax developed 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

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.”

Next: One surprising reason Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons

Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Choose your battles

Over the last few months, I have introduced fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons to lot of folks who have only ever played fourth edition. In the new game, these players tend to make assumptions likely to get their characters killed. For players whose D&D experience starts with 4E, and those who picked up some dangerous habits, I have some advice that will help your character survive.

Choose your battles

Most public-play adventures open with a scene where a patron asks the characters to undertake some mission. The players may talk money, but whatever the terms, they always take the job. The scene is a formality. The characters took the job as soon as their players sat to play D&D. Sometimes I think fourth edition turned the combat encounters into the same sort of obligation. If an adventure budgets 1½ hours for a combat encounter, you may as well roll initiative, because you already chose to play. Certainly my D&D Encounters players tended to that outlook. More than once, I heard someone say, “Why are we talking to these guys? You know we will just have to fight them.” In public play, combat encounters so dominated game time that adding or skipping one upended a session’s pacing.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Dragon HatcheryFourth edition’s published adventures funneled characters from one encounter to the next, each presented with a little map that showed monster starting positions and a start area for the players. Sometimes my players broke this careful staging by sneaking, or talking, or simply walking around a wilderness encounter. In every case, the adventure’s designer completely overlooked the possibility that someone might choose to skip a fight. The game encouraged dungeon masters to craft encounters too precious to skip.

Fifth edition adventures encourage players to avoid some fights.

Fifth edition jettisons all this. A 5E encounter description consists of a monster name in bold. Adding or skipping a 20-minute fight won’t undermine the session.

You’re free. Avoid a fight by sneaking, or talking, or simply walking around it. Avoiding fights qualifies as smart play. Don’t worry about skipping past the adventure; plenty of monsters remain to fight, and your characters will reach them fresher.

As for the PC start areas, fifth edition drops those too. If you choose to enter a fight, try to start at an advantage. Set fire to the tents. Turn the tables. Hit and run. Surprise the DM. (I know you could do all that in 4E, but most of us just took a place in the start area.)

Despite this freedom, the new game offers new challenges.

Fourth edition proscribed strict recipes for building an encounter. Every combat encounter delivered just enough enemies for an lively fight, but never so many that a character might die. The next room never housed more monsters ready to storm in and tip the odds in favor of a total party kill where everyone dies. (Those of us who started playing before 4E, when such a thing could happen, sometimes abbreviate to TPK.)

Fifth edition encourages you to be wary.

None of this remains true in fifth edition. My Encounters group has started Horde of the Dragon Queen, I find myself starting every session with a warning that the adventure offers fights that the characters cannot win. I do this to discourage the players from, say, making a frontal assault on the raider camp based on faulty assumptions learned in 4E. All the 5E adventures I’ve seen include situations that invite reckless players to a TPK. Do not storm the feast hall of a hill giant steading.

Fifth edition monsters no longer have starting positions keyed on a map. The adventures return to presenting dungeons as dynamic places with creatures that move about. When monsters hear a clash of swords, they can join a battle. You may face enemies prepared to raise an alarm, or to retreat to join allies. Do not let the orcs sound their warhorn. Do not tease the drakes until their enraged roars summon a swarm of kobolds, then retreat into a cavern full of stirges. I do not want a repeat of last Wednesday night.

If you find yourself over your head, you can run away. The withdraw action and the limit on opportunity attacks makes fleeing much less risky than in fourth edition.

Next: More fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players

User hostile: How to make a good game book painful to use

Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Sword Coast has the seeds of a solid adventure. While characters visit the town of Daggerfall, they investigate mysteries like a theft and a suicide. Leads take them to a variety of dungeon sites in the region, mostly overrun with evil humanoids. At the conclusion, they can learn the secrets that tie the threads together. Recently, I finished running the adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. See “Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D next to fourth edition” for more.

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast

As an adventure, Scourge of the Sword Coast may be solid, but the product plumbs a low for usability in play.

When I reach a such a damning conclusion, I begin to question my adequacy as a dungeon master. Perhaps, an adequate DM can spend a couple of hours perusing the 75 pages, understand all the nuances, and recount details 10 weeks later when players uncover answers.

But I am not alone in my conclusions.

Ace convention DM Ed Kabara writes, “As a GM I felt things were too cluttered with important information being mixed with bits of encounters. I felt like the story needed a diagram to really help me to organize my thoughts regarding the plot.”

On the The Tome Show podcast, the round-table reviewers ask for more attention to formatting and organization, cite the need for a more help running the adventure, and suggest adding a timeline.

For a taste of what makes Scourge so difficult to run, imagine your players finish a key encounter, and you face this line on page 63, “If the characters save Shalendra, they can learn the story of Baazka and the specific location of Bloodgate Keep.”

First, you cannot actually reveal the specific location of Bloodgate Keep, because that lies in the next adventure. If you look for something more specific than “in the Forlorn Hills,” then you will waste time.

Page 15 from Scourge of the Sword Coast. Can you find anything?

Page 15 from Scourge of the Sword Coast. Quick! Find Baazka’s story.

Second, suppose you cannot remember all the details of Baazka’s story, so you page back through the text looking. Page 23 includes a “Baazka” subhead, but not his story, so you keep paging back. Meanwhile, you have lost your players attention. On page 15, you face this page with a “Shalendra Floshin” heading atop a column of undifferentiated text. Perhaps that hides the information she tells the players. Should your start skimming, or try the adventure background on page 3? Quick, find Baazka’s story before you lose everyone to their smartphones or to chatter.

I wish my example came from a single bump, but every time I reference this text, I find myself hunting. Every time, I wind up thinking that I remember seeing more about that, but I have no idea where.

Some of the challenge stems from the authors’ ambition. Scourge combines a sandbox with a plot, as multiple villains scheme even as the characters adventure. Like any sandbox, the text organizes around locations and characters, but all the details of the story lay threaded through these descriptions. This is why reviewers keep pleading for diagrams and timelines and advice on running the adventure.

I wish Scourge of the Sword Coast stood out as an anomaly, but it just represents another low as Wizards of the Coast grows increasingly indifferent to the usability of their products. The adventures that preceded it were just as bad. Dead in Thay mostly consists of keyed dungeon locations, but piecing together the information for my players’ handout seemed like a detective’s job.

How does Wizards of the Coast take perfectly good game content and make a book that creates hassles at the table? I suspect they focus on cramming as much content as possible into a book’s page budget, without allocating pages to indexes or other usability improvements, without scheduling the necessary drudgery of adding cross references, play aids, and index entries. I think the authors and editor approach game books as they might a novel, something to be read from start to finish. I think the typesetters and designers approach game books as a magazine that must lure potential buyers at a newsstand. Neither group of artists seems to have accepted a bitter truth. You produce technical documentation. Your stories will only come alive if you create documents that enable players to bring them to life at the table.

Next: Five ways to create more usable game books

Dead in Thay Player’s Handout

I’m interrupting my series of advice on observation and perception to present a player’s handout that anyone running the Dead in Thay Encounters season will need last week.

Dead in Thay features teams of adventures raiding the sprawling Doomvault dungeon compound. The adventure stands as a great idea for an Encounters season, because multiple parties can simultaneously raid as they seek and destroy Szass Tam’s Phylactery Vault. Each week, groups can reform and stage forays into the complex. This premise delivers the fun of multi-group play, while avoiding the usual Encounters issues caused by a changing cast of players.

As much as I like the concept, Dead in Thay presents players with a daunting amount of background information that they must understand. During my first session, as I tried to explain how the Doomvault operates, and as my players struggled to digest a fraction of it, I realized that the adventure screams for a player’s handout.

So I created one.

You can read the content of the handout at the end of this post. You can download a PDF version of the handout here.

Next: We return to our regularly scheduled posts on observation and perception at the game table.


Dead in Thay Player’s Handout

The Doomvault

You begin in an unmapped Gatehouse with teleportation circles that provide access to the Doomvault.

The Doomvault hides a Phylactery Vault containing the souls of the liches who serve the Thayan leader, Szass Tam. Groups assaulting the Bloodgate slew the lich Tarul Var, one of these undead servants. Tarul Var may have reformed in the Doomvault, near his phylactery. He poses a deadly threat. In the Doomvault, you must gain access to the Phylactery Vault and destroy it. As you explore, seize opportunities to destroy the Red Wizards’ monstrous creations.

Dread warriors patrol the Doomvault. After one round, even from a distance, Tarul Var can take control of any dread warrior not accompanied by other Red Wizards. Not only does this alert the lich to your presence, but he can also cast spells through the dread warrior.

Your ally, the paladin Isteval, has lent each party a circlet of limited telepathy, which enables you to communicate with the other parties inside the Doomvault.

The Doomvault consists of 9 sectors, each subdivided into 4 zones. To begin, each party may choose to enter a zone through the black gates mapped in areas 1, 23, 33, 38, 49, 61, and 77.

Glyph Keys

Glyph keys are crystal pendants on bronze chains, which open magical gates in the Doomvault. Glyph keys can be attuned to the zones in the Doomvault complex.

Syranna gives each party one glyph key attuned to the zone they choose to enter first.

Somewhere in each zone is a Contact Stone marked by a circle of magic glyphs. Someone at a contact zone holding a glyph key can speak to Syranna in the Gatehouse.

You can attune a glyph key to a zone in one of two ways:

  • Copy an attunement from one key to another. A different creature must hold each key, and then one of the holders must spend an action to make a successful Intelligence (Arcana) check.
  • Bring a glyph key to a Contact Stone, where Syranna can attune the key to the zone where the stone is located.

A glyph key can be attuned to more than one zone.

White and Black Gates

The Doomvault includes two types of magical gates.

White gates create walls of force that bar passage. To open a white gate, you must carry a glyph key attuned to one of the zones bordering the gate.

Black gates enable teleportation to other black gates in the Doomvault. Black gates follow these rules:

  • To enter a black gate, you must hold a key attuned to the zone where the gate is located.
  • To teleport using a black gate, you enter the gate and think of your destination.
  • Anyone who enters a black gate may teleport to the Gatehouse.
  • Anyone who enters a black gate may teleport to the Seclusion Crypt, a demiplane only accessible by your characters, which offers you a place to rest and recover.
  • To teleport from the black gate to a black gate in another zone, you must have a glyph key attuned to the destination zone.

You can teleport from the gatehouse to black gates in the complex using a glyph key attuned to the destination zone.

With either type of gate, someone holding a properly attuned key can stand in the gate and hold it open so others can pass. With black gates, the person holding the key decides on the destination.

The Seclusion Crypt

The Seclusion Crypt appears as an empty chamber, isolated in time and space. While time passes in this demiplane, no time passes in the world. This magic causes you to age one month for each hour spent in the crypt. Each time after the first time a character visits the crypt, the character’s hit point maximum drops by 5 until the character can complete a long rest outside the crypt.

Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D next to fourth edition

The regular players at my regular Dungeons & Dragons Encounters games include a mix of fourth-edition loyalists and folks indifferent to edition. Although I would happily run D&D next, I have bowed to the group and still run Encounters in 4E. That means converting the current Encounters season, Scourge of the Sword Coast, to 4E. The conversion creates a few challenges beyond just finding fourth edition stats for the monsters.

Pacing

Combats in D&D next take far less time than in fourth edition.

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast lasts 12 encounters sessions. The season starts with two sessions introducing players to their home base of Daggerford and another session for the finale, leaving 9 weeks for the bulk of the adventure. Typical parties will visit four adventure sites, each with 20 or more numbered locations. The adventure budgets two sessions per site. In each site, most parties must win several battles to meet their objectives.

In D&D next, a party can role-play, explore, and finish a few fights in a 2-hour session. In 4E, not a chance. At most, players can drop a sentry, and finish one battle.

My fourth-edition time budget means that I have to cut locations, enemies, and material like a sailor jettisons weight as my ship takes water. I must condense each location to a couple of key encounters, and two fights. (If a session fails to include at least one battle, some of my players will leave disappointed.)

The surplus of material brings one benefit: Because Scourge of the Sword Coast includes far more material than I can play through, I can give the players plenty of choices, confident that their path leads to something in the text.

Encounter scale

In D&D next, every combat encounter taxes the party’s resources, while in fourth edition, only big encounters challenge a party.

Unlike characters in D&D next, 4E characters typically regain all their hit points and most of their spells and powers after a fight. Some attrition comes as they slowly lose healing surges, but 4E characters rarely run out of healing surges. Characters’ encounter powers make them more powerful during the first rounds of a fight. Characters can focus encounter powers on outnumbered enemies, leaving few survivors to return attacks. After the encounter, characters regain all that firepower without meaningful losses. They might even gain action points and grow stronger. No 4E player will waste a daily on a small encounter, so even that small element of attrition never factors in. In 4E, small fights just add flavor without challenge.

Between battles, fourth-edition characters regain most of their resources. This design aims to encourage players to adventure on instead of resting after a five-minute work day. While 4E removed some built-in reasons for players to quit early, the best reasons for pressing on still come from the adventure’s narrative, or at least from wandering monsters.

Smaller combat encounters dominate Scourge of the Sword Coast. In the adventure sites, D&D next players must pick and choose their battles, perhaps avoiding some. The sites have organized defenders, which means if the characters retreat, they face pursuit and give the monsters a chance to reinforce. In D&D next, this adventure design works.

For fourth edition, I’ve focused each site on a couple of big fights. The organized defenders make this change reasonable. Once a fight begins, the monsters can rally guards from other locations. One battle featured the party pursueing monsters through a network of cellars, struggling to prevent the fleeing goblinoids from joining more waves of reinforcements.

Adapting difficulty

Fourth-edition D&D makes preparing monsters and encounters easy.

This conversion process highlight one of my favorite aspects of fourth edition. The game makes adjusting monster and encounter difficulty simple. The Adventure Tools’ Monster Builder allows me to search a list of all the monsters published for the game. I can find suitable replacements for creatures in the adventure. The original monster level hardly matters, because the tool lets me add or subtract levels. The tool automatically adjust hit points, defenses, damage and so on. I favor fourth edition’s approach of building encounters with a mix of monsters in different roles. So even if Scourge of the Sword Coast only lists vanilla goblins at a location, I pick a variety of goblins for my encounter.

As much as I like the scalability of 4e monsters, the demands of organized play have forced authors to rely on scaling more than I like. Later Living Forgotten Realms adventures typically scale the same monsters across an entire tier. I once ran an adventure that pitted my table’s first-level party against a group of trolls, including minions. Somehow, seeing new characters one-shotting hulking trolls offended my D&D sensibilities.

On the high end, I ran a battle interactive that scaled kobolds to eighteenth level for my high-paragon table. Flavor aside, the mathematical adjustments utterly failed to make these kobolds into anything more than an opportunity for players to demonstrate their powers. Even the most elite kobolds in the entire world cannot hope to challenge 18th-level heroes.

I’m not criticizing the volunteer authors of these adventures. The job of creating adventures that scale across 10 or 20 levels poses enough challenges without requiring different types of monsters at different levels.

Fourth edition also makes balanced encounters easy. Include one monster per character. Optionally, add as many minions as you have figures—minions never swing the tide of battle. When running the organized defenses of Scourge, I often start with a few defenders and then add extras as the battle develops. Even against waves of attacks, 4E characters prove resilient enough to escape defeat.

Actions players always take and choices players never make, part 2

This post continues a list I started in part 1.

Players will not mix and mingle.

Adventure authors come from a secret coterie of role players who enter a tavern or a royal ball and then spend the evening mixing and mingling with the non-player characters with no particular goal or objective in mind and certainly without ever rolling a die. I know this, because I frequently run into adventures that expect the characters to uncover clues and background as they aimlessly mingle.

I feel sure these dungeon masters do more than simply describe certain NPCs in enough detail for metagaming players to realize that they are supposed to meet. Whenever players do something because the metagame makes them think they are supposed to, the game suffers.

In Scourge of the Sword Coast, during the first session, players enter a inn that includes three non-player characters with information leading to adventure. The adventure suggests no way for the dungeon master to engage the players with these non-player characters, presumably because the writer just assumed the players mingle with the occupants of the bar. 

In practice, as a DM, if I want the players to learn what these NPCs know, I must find ways for the NPCs to engage the characters. For example, Vosson Raker might learn of characters’ journey and ask if they saw signs of gnoll raids. Edic Tilveram might ask if they came from Julkoun. Ledoris eyes the characters, wondering if they meet the description of the adventurers who shorted Filarion Filvendorson. No, this isn’t a big job—less of a job than inventing those names, but its not too small a task for the adventure’s author. I paid for the adventure and I want it ready for play.

For more on this subject, see “What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing” and “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.”

Hint: In a place where news travels by word of mouth, the locals will ask visitors for news.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

Players will assume that they can defeat every monster.

Before the days of plotted adventures and balanced encounters, this bias did not exist, but decades of storytelling and careful balance has taught players to expect only encounters they can beat.

Sometimes I write adventures that include monsters more powerful than the player characters. Either the monsters act as obstacles to be avoided, NPCs to be met, dangers to add time pressure, or distractions that can be lured to fight other threats. In short, some monsters can serve interesting roles other than trading attacks for 4 rounds. But setting up these non-combat parts always poses a problem because characters assume they can beat every monster, and should probably fight.

Overcoming the players’ assumption that they will never be outclassed requires careful effort. I make descriptions that weigh heavily on the characters’ knowledge that a particular threat is overwhelming. The characters live in the game world and should have some sense of what menaces they could defeat—certainly more sense than their players do. Sometimes I drop a colossal miniature on the table to emphasize the point. And still, when I want to avoid the risk of a total party kill, I must plan a way for foolish characters to escape the deaths they richly deserve. Too frequently, the party includes a reckless instigator or someone convinced that it has to be an illusion. “That thing can’t be as bad as it looks! Charge!”

Hint: Players justifiably hate being railroaded into an encounter they cannot win. They hate being taken captive. And they hate hate hate when their captors take their stuff. But if you present them with an easily avoided menace, tell them that their characters know in their heart that this battle will overwhelm them, and if they still rush in, then you can take them captive. Just give them a chance to win back their stuff quickly. Not because they deserve it, but because otherwise it will take them too long to update their tear-dampened character sheets.

Players never settle for a partial victory.

Few players join a Dungeons & Dragons game expecting to make compromises or to settle for less than total victory. Who can blame them? One of the joys of D&D is the chance to play the hero: To escape the compromises and lesser evils of the real world and solve every problem with an cunning plan and a quick sword. Still the fun of a game comes from the choices. Some of the best moments of recent battle interactive events comes when the collected room debates a shared, ethical dilemma. Should we free the enslaved elementals, or become their slavers to advance our cause? Should we surrender our city to the advancing forces of darkness, or should we destroy it, denying it to the enemy? While your game table may not decide on the future of the Realms, these sorts of questions enable players to explore their characters and make the game come to life.

In CORE5-3 Lost Refuge, the characters find themselves trapped with some villagers in the heart of a camp teeming with cyclops. They face the choice of whether to make an easy escape, leaving the captives to their fate, or assuming the greater risks of taking the captives along. The adventure assumes players will wrestle with the choice, but I ran this adventure five times and no party gave the safer option a moment of consideration.

As long as a chance of total victory exists, players will always seize the chance. Only when the choices become mutually exclusive will players begin weigh their options.

Actions players always take and choices players never make, part 1

At conventions and in organized play, I’ve served as dungeon master for a lot of adventures from other authors. Every adventure author makes certain guesses about what the players will do. Typically the authors guess pretty well, but sometimes they make guesses that are utterly wrong. Sometimes authors waste pages accounting for actions that no player will ever take, or fail to account for obvious choices, forcing the dungeon master to scramble to bridge gaps. Of course, many dungeon masters create their own adventures, so the author who guesses wrong is also the DM who wastes time prepping, or who winds up scrambling.

Even though no author or DM wants to run a railroad, even though seeing players make surprising choices ranks as one of the best parts of being a DM, we can all benefit by anticipating our players actions a bit better. Over time, I have learned some things players will always do, or never do, in a particular situation.

dungeon adventure

My list includes examples drawn from Living Forgotten Realms adventures. I selected these examples because I ran each of the adventures at least five times. Through several plays, missed assumptions about how players would act stood out. The adventures still worked. I can attest that I enjoyed running all these adventures and that my players seemed to like them too. I also pick on Scourge of the Sword Coast, simply because I just finished reading the adventure in preparation for Dungeons & Dragons Encounters.

Players never report back to authorities.

In CORE5-8 The Dantalien Maneuver, players take the job of scouting to discover if Thay forces have crossed the Umbar River to invade Aglarond. Once the characters learn the answer, they are to report back on their findings. The adventure puts that instruction in bold. When players report back, they get their next mission. I suspect report back appears in bold because as soon as playtest groups spotted the Thay forces, most started freelancing. Once players get a whiff of a problem to solve—those Thay forces invading—the DM will be hard-pressed to swing them back on course. When I ran this adventure, I had the patron repeat the crucial importance of reporting back without delay, yet all of my groups struggled mightily against the urge to act, and many went freelancing.

Players will follow every lead to the end.

ELTU3-6 True Blue also sends characters on a mission with instructions to report back on its completion. The players seek some notes and materials for Lord Krieger of the Iriaebor Council and Andrielle, a priestess of Chauntea. After gaining the materials, players learn that Andrielle might be doing something unsavory in her tower. With their mission accomplished, they face the choice of either bringing the notes and materials to Krieger or going straight to Andrielle’s tower. The adventure wastes several pages exploring what happens if the characters report back to Krieger first. I say wastes because no players ever report to Krieger first. Never.

As soon as players gain a lead—word of suspicious events at the tower—players follow the lead to the end.

The latest encounters season, Scourge of the Sword Coast, flirts with a similar problem. As the players complete various missions for the people of Daggerford, they discover clues pointing to trouble in a particular location. While the adventure assumes that players will wait to the climax before investigating the location, I suspect that most groups will investigate the moment they identify the location.

Next: Part 2.

Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins

I have only run an evil-themed D&D campaign once, and only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released the Drow Treachery cards and the Menzoberranzan campaign book and promoted the products with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. I’ve served as a dungeon master for every season of Encounters and never considered skipping Council of Spiders, but I questioned the wisdom of promoting an evil, backstabbing campaign, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.

I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If the player’s actions defied her alignment, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.

And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.

Still, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.

Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?

As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”

Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?

The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from  classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second-edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”

In third edition, “thieves” became “rogues” to discourage similar mischief. Steve Winter explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”

Of course, you don’t have to play a thief or assassin to “just play your character,” and to instigate fights among the party. In the Legacy of the Crystal Shard Encounters season, one player embraced the corruption of the black ice and seemed tempted to disrupt the party. This time, I felt willing to forbid any action that would make the players war amongst themselves. But first, I set in-game events that challenged the character to choose between the black ice and his other loyalties, and to the player’s credit, he chose to cast aside the corruption.

Games of Paranoia aside, I no longer see “I’m just playing my character” as an excuse for disruptive play.

[February 15, 2014: Updated to indicate that “thief” became “rogue” in third edition.]

Next: A role-playing game player’s obligation