Tag Archives: Frank Mentzer

How Much Would Gary Gygax’s Second-Edition D&D Have Differed From the Version That Reached Gamers?

In 1985, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax shared his plans for a new, second edition in Dragon magazine. Even as his column reached print, Gary was forced out of TSR, ending his work on D&D.

This left D&D fans to speculate how Gary’s second edition would have differed from version that actually reached stores in 1989.

For the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, designer David “Zeb” Cook wrote an introduction that sets his goals for the revision. “To make it easier to find things, to make the rules easier to understand, to fix the things that did not work, to add the best new ideas from the expansions and other sources, and, most important of all, to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed.”

To preserve the D&D games knew, TSR management mandated that Zeb and the other second-edition designers keep AD&D largely compatible with its first edition. That requirement blocked innovations like ascending armor class.

Like Zeb, Gary planned to keep the D&D players knew. Gary later explained, “The soul and spirit of the revised game would have remained the same. The change might have been likened to that from D&D to AD&D.” Gary planned some subclasses and other additions, but nothing that changed the game as played.

As for making things easy to understand and to find, Gary lacked the skills to meet those goals.

Gary had already tried and failed give AD&D a sensible organization. He and  started the first edition by tacking clippings from the original rules to bulletin boards in a logical order. Despite their intentions, the Dungeon Master’s Guide reads like an open window let a breeze clear the boards. Apparently, a janitor reposted the scraps. Gary’s strength came not from organization, but from ability to heap fantastic ideas like a dragon’s hoard.

As for Gary’s writing, fans lovingly call his ornate prose and difficult lexicon High Gygaxian. I learned enough of his vocabulary to boost my SAT score. His style brings some charm, but hardly clarity. Once around 1980, as an exercise, I took a pencil to a page in my Dungeon Master’s Guide, striking unnecessary words. I thinned a quarter of the text. This insane exercise began my slide into blogging about D&D.

Could Gary have realized that a second edition needed skills that he lacked? Perhaps not, but I suspect that if Gary had remained a TSR, a time shortage would have pressed him to seek assistance. Half of the class ideas he floated in 1982 had languished for years. Sure, Gary had made time to compile his old magazine articles into Unearthed Arcana, but only when TSR’s survival required immediate cash. D&D historian Shannon Appelcline explained that Gary “wasn’t up to producing book-length RPG work of his own, due to the time required in running the ailing company. Thus, Unearthed Arcana was actually the product of diverse hands, including collaborator Frank Mentzer, design consultant Jeff Grubb, and editor Kim Mohan.”

If Gary had delegated writing of second edition, who would have drawn the assignment? Not Zeb Cook. Gary favored the notes his friend Francois Marcela-Froideval wrote for Oriental Adventures over the book Zeb Cook actually wrote, so Zeb was out. Likely, if Gary had remained at TSR, his trusted lieutenant Frank Mentzer would have written the new books under Gary’s supervision. In his work on Basic D&D, Frank demonstrated the ability to write clearly and to organize rules.

In his introduction, Zeb avoids mentioning another goal: To sooth the worries of concerned parents who fear that the game will lead their children to the devil or to lose touch with reality. Among other changes, this led the designers to rename demons and devils to baatezu and tanar’ri. Gary would have made similar changes. In what Gary called a bow “to pressure from those who don’t buy our products anyway,” Gary let TSR retitle Deities and Demigods to Legends and Lore. He didn’t “particularly approve”, but he still bowed.

Under Gary, second-edition might not have been hugely different from the version gamers saw. Still, it would have been more idiosyncratic. Gary’s update would have introduced eccentricities like the mountebank, the class that inspires every gamer to say, “What’s a mountebank?” (A boastful charlatan.)

After second edition, D&D benefited from the skill of new designers. The game’s subsequent design teams brought innovations that Gary probably would have spurned. Leaving TSR forced Gary to design role playing games that defied comparison to D&D. (TSR sued him anyway.) But if Gary continued on D&D, I doubt Gary would have murdered his darlings and adopted inventions from other games. D&D’s new designers did both, and the modern game benefited. Plus, new teams brought skills for rigorous and mathematical design that Gary could not match. Gary’s strength came from ability to heap fantastic ideas like a dragon’s hoard. The order and elegance D&D needed came from other sources.

Related: From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance

Next: The game-design trends that turned D&D into a game Gary Gygax disliked

Preparing to run an adventure as a dungeon master at a convention

In 1984 at Gen Con, I first served as an official dungeon master for a table full of strangers. I ran the adventure that would become I11 Needle. As I explained in “Running I11 Needle at Gen Con in 1984,” the session fell short of my standards. Frank Mentzer, please forgive me.

Needle Gen Con 17

Judges’ copy of Needle from Gen Con 17

In the years since, I’ve run many more convention games. I’ve improved. Sometimes I even meet my standards.

This year at Gen Con, I ran 8 D&D Adventurers League sessions. This post explains how I prepare these sessions.

I start by reading the adventure twice.

My first, quick read provides a high-level view. When I finish, I want to know the important characters, the expected course of events, and the clues that lead the player characters through these events.

Most adventures feature an overview intended to serve the purpose of my first read, but these summaries never seem to help me. When I take my first look at an adventure, I’m keenly interested in what leads the PCs through the narrative. But a typical summary just lists events: “After finding the casket of wrath, the characters go to confront Lady Frost.” I need to know what motivates the characters to go from one event to the next. Those leads become the most important clues I must communicate to the players.

The first read enables me to reread knowing which details merit careful attention. I can sift clues from set dressing, key characters from extras.

During the second read, I pay careful attention to the decisions the characters will face. When I run the adventure, I can miss a bit of color, but I must communicate the details that weigh on decisions. I tend to think a lot about the actions players might take during a session. Although I enjoy when players surprise me, I still imagine their likely choices and consider how to handle each one.

A 4-hour convention slot leaves little time for decisions that swing the course of an adventure. I want to present any real options to make them as interesting as possible. See “How running an adventure eight times can be fun and educational.”

Even the best adventure authors sometimes make bad assumptions about what the players will do. See “Actions players always take and choices players never make.” For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen assumes players will join a caravan with some cultists transporting looted treasure and then travel for weeks—instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold. Like every D&D player ever. I wondered have the authors even played this game? (Answer: Yes. More than me, but perhaps not with so many strangers at recent conventions.)

Whenever I spot such an oversight, I plan on how to account for it. Will I reinforce the need to infiltrate the caravan? Will I present the cultists as too tough to confront? Will I let the players slay the cultists and then contrive a way to get the PCs to the next chapter. Sometimes I let players discover the risks of each option so players reach a dilemma. See “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.” Sometimes, I just make players understand the facts that make a bad strategy bad.

On my second read, I may mark up the pages. I cannot bear to mark up a hardcover adventure, but Adventurers League pages call for the red and blue pens.

Red and blue notes on page

Red and blue notes on page

In blue, I break the wall of text with sub-headings that flag key information. In play, I rarely scan my headings, but when I do, they can cut minutes of text skimming. Plus, the process of writing headings turns me into an active reader. I notice things that I might otherwise overlook. I remember more at the table, so I look down less.

In red, I write names and other bits of text I must find at a glance. Names always go in red, as do quotes that I might read as I glance down.

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

On any dungeon maps, I note everything I need to know. My captions include monsters, locks, objects of interest, difficulty classes and so on. Ideally, I can run all the rooms from the map.

When I first started running organized-play adventures, I would work from a packet of pages. This led to disaster. As I referenced maps, monsters, and descriptions of encounter areas, I plucked them from the pile. Half way through the session, I faced a shuffled heap. While I spent minutes hunting for that one sheet, I stammered apologies.

color reference sheets and player handouts

Color reference sheets and player handouts

Now, all my adventures go into a loose-leaf binder with tabs separating each module. Double-sided printing makes the best use of space.

I print second copies of the maps and monsters on single-sided sheets of colored paper. I can pull my green, monster stats at a glance and I never lose them in a stack.

Player handouts, including magic-item descriptions and story awards, also go on colored paper and in the binder. If I plan to run an run an adventure more than once, I use card stock.

Printed urban battle map fits the encounter

A pre-printed, urban battle map fits this encounter

For any of the adventure’s encounter areas, I look for pre-printed maps in my collection that suit the location. Many encounters rely on few specific details, so any map that captures a location’s flavor will serve.

When none of my existing maps fit, I might print or sketch a map in advance. If an adventure always lands PCs in a location, I’ll wind up drawing the map anyway. Drawing in advance saves time at the table. Plus, if I’m running an adventure more than once, more players can enjoy any effort I invest in maps.

Szith Morcane Unbound - Dengor’s palace

Szith Morcane Unbound – Dengor’s palace on Dungeon Paper

Maps go into sheet-protector pockets and then into the binder near the encounter description. (For more on printing maps, see “How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software.”)

Map in sheet protector paired with encounter

A map in a sheet protector paired with an encounter

After years chasing miniatures, I can match most monsters with suitable figures. If I lack figures, I may use the excuse to add to my collection, or even fabricate a figure.

Miniatures for an adventure

Miniatures for the CORE 2-2 adventure

No one leaves a D&D table annoyed because they needed to use imagination. So if you lack miniatures, you can bring tokens or even candy to represent monsters.

Finally, creating monster initiative tents in advance pays off at the table. When combat starts, ready-made monster tents avoid delay. Plus, pre-rolling gives me time to note key monster stats on the tents. This keeps things like Armor Class front-and-center rather than somewhere in a pile of green sheets. For my initiative tents and more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

How do you prepare for a published adventure?

1981: Adventures at My First Gen Con

In 1981, Dungeons & Dragons was surging in popularity, but you could not tell from my school. When my buddy Mike and I asked our friend Steve whether he wanted to join our next session, he declined. As if warning us of an unzipped fly or of some other mortifying social lapse, he confided, “Some people think that D&D isn’t cool.” Without the athletic prowess of the sportos and too mild for the freaks, Mike and I kept gaming.

The May 1981 issue of Dragon magazine previewed the upcoming Gen Con convention. “The 14th annual Gen Con gathering, to be held on Aug. 13-16, is larger in size and scope than any of its predecessors,” the magazine boasted. “E. Gary Gygax, creator of the AD&D game system, will make other appearances, such as being the central figure or one of the participants in one or more seminars concerning the D&D and AD&D games.”

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

I lived an hour south of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the site of Gen Con. For four days in August, this building near Lake Geneva would became holy ground. I vowed to reach nerdvana.

In my high-school circle, no parents objected to loosing their teens on a convention an hour from home. Modern parents might fear child-snatching psychos; 80s parents might fear devil worship fostered by D&D. Our parents must have realized that fear of Satanists would keep the psychos away. One can’t be too careful.

I couldn’t drive, so I had to find a way to reach the convention. Mike’s dad volunteered to drive, but Mike had made a terrible first impression on my parents, who wanted me to find a better class of friends. Mike was a year younger and struck them as flighty. They forbade me from going alone with Mike.

Joel, a former member of our gaming group, also planned to go. Joel was old enough to drive, but also old enough not to want to spend a day with kids 1 and 2 years younger. If you thought playing D&D was uncool, imagine nearly being a senior and hanging out with children. No way. (Picture a geeky alternative to a John Hughes movie. The time fits well enough and the place matches. Hughes graduated from my high school. Legend says that the sweet Mrs. Hughes staffing the school store in 1981 was his mom.)

So Gen Con hung in the balance. A shaft of golden light pierced the clouds just north of home, possibly illuminating Saint Gary Gygax himself. So I fibbed and told my parents that Joel would drive, even as I agreed to ride with Mike.

Thursday and Friday, the plan worked. Mike and I gamed nonstop. Meanwhile, Joel spent the con shoplifting from the dealers in the exhibition hall. Mike felt as appalled as I did, demonstrating my parents’ poor judge of character in friends for their son.

The convention revealed aspects of the hobby I had never seen. Niche games. Sprawling miniature landscapes. Girls who liked D&D. It all seemed impossibly wonderful.

At Parkside, a wide, glass corridor stretched a quarter mile, linking the five buildings of the campus. Open-gaming tables lined the hall’s longer spans. Every scheduled role-playing session got its own classroom, so no one needed to shout over the clamor. Players circled their chairs around the largest desk. The lack of tables posed no problem, because in those days, everyone played in the theater of the mind.

All the event tickets hung from a big pegboard behind a counter. If you had keen eyes, you could browse the available tickets for a game you fancied.

We played Fez II and had a blast. In “Little-known D&D classics: Fez,” I told how the game transformed how I played D&D.

Titan game advertisement

Learn to play Titan from McAllister & Trampier – an advertisement from the program book

One of the designers of Titan recruited us to learn and play his game. I liked it enough to buy, but I lacked the ten bucks. So the demo led to a purchase thirty years later on ebay. Eventually, I learned that Dave Trampier, my favorite game artist, had co-designed Titan, but I suspect that co-designer Jason McAllister showed us the game.

We entered the AD&D Open tournament and played an adventure written by Frank Mentzer that would become I12 Egg of the Phoenix (1987).

ICE advertisement

Introducing Arms Law and now Spell Law

We ran a combat using Arms Law, the new system that boasted more realism than D&D. I remember how our duelists exhausted each other until the fight reached an impasse. I still took years to learn that realism doesn’t equal fun.

At Gen Con, you could find any game you wished to play, any players you needed to fill a table. D&D was cool. I had reached gaming bliss.

As for my ride the to con, my scheme imploded on Saturday night. Mike’s dad called my dad who repeated my lie: No one needed to drive north to pick up the boys, because Mike and I were riding home with Joel. Oblivious, Mike and I waited outside for his dad.

By midnight, all the gamers had left. A campus official warned us to leave the premises. We assured him that our ride would come soon.

(Young people: Once upon a time, we lacked cell phones. All plans needed to be arranged in advance. Folks grew accustomed to waiting. If Mike’s dad had left home as we thought, no one could have contacted him.)

So we waited in the dark and empty parking lot. Miles of dairy farms and cornfields surrounded us. No one lived near but cows and probably psychos.

After midnight, we tried to find a pay phone, but now all doors were locked. The nearest shabby, murder-hotel was miles away. Worse, we had been told to leave, so now we were trespassers.

By 1am, a maintenance man found us and achieved surprise. Some details may have grown in my memory, but our hands shot into the air as if he were a trigger-happy cop looking to beat up a couple of punks before slamming them in jail.

Instead, he mocked our skittishness and let Mike inside long enough to call. At 2am, Mike’s dad finally pulled into the lot. Forget Saint Gary, I now realize that the true saint was Larry, Mike’s dad.

In 1981, Gen Con reached an attendance of 5000. Dragon magazine speculated, “It’s logical to assume that at some point in its history, the Gen Con Game Convention and Trade Show will not get any larger.” So far, the convention defies logic: In 2015, Gen Con drew 61,423 gamers.

I still have the program to my first Gen Con. You can see it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D&D expands beyond fighting men

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

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

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

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

D&D Companion Rules

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

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

Lesson 2: Losing must seem possible.

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

D&D War Machine rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle Interactives and Epics

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

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

Lesson 5: Show players their progress toward success.

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


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

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


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

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