Tag Archives: Gary Gygax

7 Discarded D&D Rules That Could Still Improve the Game

Past editions of Dungeons & Dragons include many, many rules that fifth edition drops. No one misses racial level caps, any of the old grappling rules, or the unplayable AD&D initiative system. But old editions also included rules that improved the game, often in subtle ways. Some might have improved the fifth edition. Still, the D&D designers dropped each rule for a reason, but did they make the right choices?

1. Add the bloodied condition

Fourth edition included a bloodied condition triggered when creatures lost half their hit points. The designers likely dropped bloodied because it seemed to offer too little benefit to merit the weight of another condition. Besides, DMs hardly need a rule to describe the status. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “You can describe a monster taken to half its hit points as bloodied, giving the players a sense of progress in a fight against a tough opponent, and helping them judge when to use their most powerful spells and abilities.”

But the bloodied condition added more than a sense of progress. The bloodied condition can trigger extra abilities that show a creature’s rage or desperation, adding a useful way to bring a second stage to boss battles. Just as a showdown settles into a familiar pattern, a bloodied monster could gain new powers, transforming to add new excitement. The bloodied trigger proved so irresistible that the D&D designers designed something similar when they gave some high-level monsters the mythic trait. “If you wish to increase a battle’s stakes, though, using a monster’s mythic trait results in some mid-battle twist that changes the way the monster behaves, restores its resources, or provides it with new actions to use.” The bloodied condition could enhance monsters of all levels.

2. Limit hit point increases after 10th level

By the time fifth edition D&D characters near level 10, few monsters inflict enough damage to seem threatening. Obviously, DMs can still create challenging encounters by adding more and more dangerous monsters, but that solution can prolong battles, turning exciting fights into grinds.

The obvious fix to high-level creatures and their feeble damage is to make monsters’ attacks deal more damage. This adds challenge, but it makes concentration spells much weaker.

What if the solution doesn’t come from the monsters? What if characters at double-digit levels just have too many hit points? If high-level characters had fewer hit points, high-level monsters with their puny attacks would suddenly become a bit more threatening. Lower-level monsters could pose more of a threat to high-level heroes without becoming too dangerous to low-level characters. High-level PCs would still rip through weak foes, but the survivors could deal enough damage to seem dangerous rather than laughable.

Lower hit points at high levels would suit the reality that characters typically enter every fight at maximum health. In more battles, foes would seem like credible opponents.

Up to D&D’s third edition, when D&D characters reached level 9 or so, they started gaining hit points at a much slower rate. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, fighters rising above 9th level gained 3 hit points per level with no bonus for constitution. Other classes gained even fewer points. Continuing to let characters gain a full hit die plus a constitution bonus at every level defies D&D’s origins.

In a fifth edition version of this rule, after level 10, barbarians that gain d12 hp per level would only gain 3 hp, d10 classes like fighter would gain 2 hp, d8 classes like cleric would gain 1 hp, and wizards would gain 0 hp. High-level wizards get plenty of goodies to make the difference.

Suppose Gary Gygax had hit points right all along. Would D&D play better if characters stopped gaining so many after level 9? For more, see Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points?.

3. Award skills for high Intelligence

In modern D&D, Intelligence vies with Strength as the most common stat where players dump their characters’ lowest ability score. See Should PC Intelligence Matter? Of the classes in the Player’s Handbook , only wizard requires Intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. Unlike in earlier editions, high Intelligence no longer brings more skills or even languages, contributing to the attribute’s low value.

The D&D designers found good reasons to stop awarding smart characters more skills. Fifth edition awards skills based on background instead. This emphasizes the importance of a character’s history by pairing it with mechanical benefits. By ignoring Intelligence, the designers let every character gain enough skills to get ample mechanical benefits based on their history. Besides, if Intelligence led to even more skills, wizards would check almost every box and those brainiacs show off enough.

If the game awarded fewer skills based on background, class, and race, and awarded more skills based on Intelligence, then Intelligence would switch from an easy place to dump a score of 8 to a worthwhile choice.

4. Require some recovery period after dropping to 0 hp

In first edition, characters reduced to 0 hit points needed a week of rest. “The character cannot attack, defend, cast spells, use magic devices, carry burdens, run, study, research, or do anything else.”

All that rest seems too limiting for a heroic game, but fifth edition not only lacks any consequences for reaching death’s door, the game offers a sort of reward. Players intent on wringing every advantage from the rules will only heal characters when they drop to 0 hp, because damage below 0 heals for free. Imagine being injured but denied healing until you lie dying on the dungeon floor because the magic somehow works better that way. As an adventurer, I would find a less psycho group of comrades in arms.

The remedy ranks as one of fifth edition’s most popular house rules: Characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion.

By making characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion, the dying condition becomes something to be realistically feared rather than an inconvenience where players can exploit their metagame understanding of fifth edition’s lack of negative hit points.

Players gain an incentive to heal their allies before anyone drops to 0, losing the incentive to let party members drop and revive in a macabre dance.

5. Require magic ammunition to overcome resistance

When you blog about D&D long enough you gain a limited ability to see the future. So when I post, I can predict many of the comments. For example, if I gripe about an overpowered character feature, some readers will advise countering by giving foes the same capability. As if players would return for a campaign where every monster took the Sharpshooter feat.

If I gripe that the fifth edition rules make archers too effective, readers will remind me that historically, bows do beat swords. Weapons that let you poke holes from a distance always rule. For example, polearms also beat swords. Still, thanks to millennia of promotion by a ruling class of men on horses with swords, we romanticize swords and most D&D players favor them over polearms.

Like punching monks and loincloth-wearing barbarians, D&D gives swords and other melee weapons a boost to make fun but fanciful characters attractive options.

Still, the boost falls short. The rules make ranged weapons far better than swords, axes, and such. This imbalance weakens the game. Players choosing swords and spears for their characters must accept weaker characters. Also ranged combat usually proves less fun. Movement and terrain disappears. Instead, characters stand at the door and shoot, tallying damage until the battle ends. I could list more consequences, but I already did.

Fifth edition skips a few rules that made ranged attacks a bit less attractive in past editions.

  • Arrows shot into melee used to suffer a chance of hitting allies.
  • Ranged attacks used to lack a damage bonus based on Dexterity to match the damage bonus melee attacks gained from Strength.
  • To overcome resistance to magic weapons, attackers used to need magic ammunition rather than a magic bow.

The first rule deserves to stay on the scrap heap. Hitting allies hardly feels heroic and the risk creates bad feelings between archers and melee attackers. No one wants to shut down their ranger once the barbarian reaches melee.

As for the second rule, D&D’s math rests on damage bonuses based on Strength or Dexterity. Removing the Dexterity plus for ranged weapon damage would crack the game’s foundation.

The third rule boasts potential. In D&D, ranged martial attacks gain their biggest edge because no one bothers tracking arrows or crossbow bolts. Even if a DM required the chore, a 1 gp quiver of 20 arrows only weighs a pound, so players will argue they can easily carry 20 quivers totaling 400 arrows. Some gamers recommend using toothpicks to track arrows. That’s a lot of toothpicks. But what if only magic ammunition overcame resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks?

Such a rule makes sense; after all, the silver arrow hurts the werewolf, not the silver bow. Even if DMs give out more magic ammo, magic arrows merit counting. At low levels the lack of magic arrows would hardly matter, but as levels rose and more foes brought resistance, a demand for magic arrows would create interesting and realistic resource management choices.

6. Use healing surges or hit dice as a limit to healing

In early D&D editions, limited healing challenged players to carefully manage their hit points and healing spells. Except for days of bed rest, the game offered no easy substitutes for healing spells. Players faced thorny decisions over how to best use their healing resources. Should the party delve deeper into the dungeon toward greater rewards despite the risk of running low on hit points and healing?

Third edition erased that resource management strategy. Even 2nd-level characters could afford enough wands of cure light wounds to completely heal between fights without using a single spell. In modern D&D, inexpensive healing potions create the same effect.

The fourth edition designers aimed to return some of the old resource management strategy to the game. The edition added healing surges to limit the healing characters could use between encounters. Characters had a set number of healing surges. During a short rest, players could spend surges to restore lost hit points, so healing surges worked much like fifth edition’s hit dice. But healing surges also capped the magical healing available to characters. In battle, spells and healing magic like potions let characters trade surges for hit points without stopping to rest. Fourth edition’s treatment of hit points and healing ranks as one of the edition’s best innovations.

Without a limit like healing surges, fifth edition campaigns can’t recapture the slow loss of healing resources and the strategy that limit created.

For a house rule that turns hit dice into a resource more like healing surges, see D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose.

7. Add the dazed condition

The stunned condition brings a harsh penalty. Stunned shuts down a player for a turn or more. A stunned monster can’t take actions, turning a potentially fun battle against a legendary evil into a quick beatdown of a helpless opponent. I’ll roll my damage in advance and go make a snack. The most common source of the stunned condition comes from the monk’s Stunning Strike ability, a power that can turn every boss into a piñata and that tempts DMs to “cheat.” Well-designed monks stun frequently enough to diminish the fun. Other players wind up beating helpless foes while the DM just counts damage and runs monsters with cartoon stars circling their heads.

A redesigned monk that remains fun to play calls for a condition that counts as half stunned, something like fourth edition’s dazed condition. Attacks against dazed creatures gained advantage. On a dazed creature’s turn, they could choose between moving, taking an action, or taking a bonus action. A more fun Stunning Strike ability could daze first and then stun if the dazed creature took a second strike. Such an adjustment would bring Stunning Strike down to the power of the monk’s other abilities that cost ki points. This lesser stunning strike would weaken the monk class, but a bigger allotment of ki points could make up for the change.

Of course, returning the dazed creatures could improve more than the monk. The dazed condition would add flexibility, allowing new character and monster abilities that just won’t work with a condition as punishing as stunned.

From Hommlet to Phandalin, Villages Written as a List of Locations Seem Ready To Run. They Lie

Villages written with nothing more than a list of locations imply that DMs need nothing more to bring adventure. They lie and I’ve fallen for it. I should know better by now.

Many starting Dungeons & Dragons pair a village with a dungeon or wilderness. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax began the custom in 1979 with T1 The Village of Hommlet and the pattern endures because most players want more than dungeon crawls in an empty world. Starting characters need a place to stay, hear rumors, gather supplies, and so on.

My mistake comes when I read keyed locations for a village and think I’m ready to run. I imagine that my players will enter town and shop, mingle, gather rumors, and, say, suspect the cult activity that leads to adventure. After all, some DMs boast of players who will enter a strange town and happily spend an evening chatting with folks for just the fun of roleplaying. Such players are a treasure.

Maybe my in-game descriptions of bystanders never prove inviting enough. In my games, the party enters the tavern, dismisses the lovingly crafted cast of characters as mere color, and then waits expectantly for me to start the adventure. (See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.)

To avoid repeating my mistake, I know I can’t just study the locations and stop. I have work to do. That work includes checking a few boxes:

  • Consider the players’ goals at the location and how these goals could lead to interaction.
  • For any non-player characters the party should meet, contrive events that lead to the meeting.
  • For any clues, rumors, or hooks the party should uncover, imagine interactions that lead to the disclosure.

Not every DM needs so much preparation. Many DMs improvise interactions that engage players. Mike “Sly Florish” Shea favors making a list of secrets and clues, but improvising reveals. Nonetheless, almost every DM needs to spark engagement. If you don’t, thank your all-star players.

Most villages need more than keyed locations to engage players. Here are some methods that work.

Start players with a goal

Village of Hommlet starts with this introduction for players. “You are poorly mounted, badly equipped, and have no large sums of cash. In fact, all you have is what you wear and what you ride, plus the few coins that are hidden in purses and pockets. What you do possess in quantity, though, is daring and desire to become wealthy and famous.” Gary Gygax immediately frames a goal: Shop for equipment and find ways to earn enough for better gear. To succeed, players must meet the people of Hommlet. Along the way, players learn of the Temple of Elemental Evil. You may have heard of it.

N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God (1982) pairs the village or Orlane with adventure. This one starts players with rumors that hint of evil and a mystery. For example, “People in Orlane are being altered (true), and the ‘changeling’ can be recognized by fang marks in their throats. (false).” To uncover the truth, the players must seek interaction with the people of Orlane. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures For Good.

Nowadays, most players create characters with individual goals, often in collaboration with the group. When players bring goals, think of ways they can lead to interaction with your supporting cast.

Add notices

Posted wanted notices make an instant adventure, but other notices can invite players to interact. How about a sale notice for a map, a magic trinket, or even something billed as a Slaad control gem? Want to buy a windmill cheap? (Must not fear ghosts.) Anything that lures players to seek folks out and ask questions works. If the players spot a “lost pet” poster showing a child’s sketch of an imp or an owlbear, the players will probably investigate. I love notice boards because they become menus of rumors and quests where players can select whatever strikes their fancy. If the players find the notices at the end of a session, you can prepare for the post they choose to investigate.

Bring non-player characters to the players

New arrivals make people curious. Townsfolk see visitors as a source of information or as an opportunity. I like having folks ask adventurers for news, usually with questions that reveal rumors. “Did you see the dragon blamed for the attacks on the High Road?” or “Did you travel past that strange storm near the standing stones?”

If the group brings a reputation, folks treat them as celebrities, buying drinks and asking for stories. People might suggest new adventures or inform on threats the party should investigate. Is the old timer really conducting diabolical experiments in his broken tower or just perfecting a recipe for the next baking contest?

A more subtle invitation can also prove potent. D&D freelancer Scott Fitzgerald Gray suggests, “In a tavern or restaurant, have one of the characters notice an NPC staring at them, as an invitation for the characters to make contact (often a stronger beat than having an NPC approach the characters). Why they’re staring depends on what hook you want to use them to reveal.”

Have someone offer to guide

People interested in learning about visitors and gaining a relationship might offer a village tour. They may even make introductions like a host circulating new guests to a party. This works especially well for guides with big personalities.

DM Rebecca introduced players to Bryn Shander by having them meet sheriff’s deputy Augrek Brighthelm, a character patterned after spitfire southern belle who volunteered to guide the group through the town. “It immediately gave the players a recognizable character they could interface with.”

Some guides might ask for coins for the service. Perhaps the party offers a few silver or perhaps they spurn the guide and he grumbles, “I wouldn’t leave your horses unattended if I were you.” How the players react reveals character.

(See Don’t Make a Pet NPC, But Sometimes You Can Play a Guide.)

Create events that foster interaction

In the Acquisitions Incorporated hardcover adventure, a visit to the town of Luskan triggers events that offer a choice of actions. “Just ahead of you, a wagon has broken down in front of a tavern. The elderly human driver calls out for help, but passersby ignore her. As she calls out once more, the tavern door behind her opens and two guards toss a young male human in bright clothing out into the street. He tumbles into the old woman, sending both of them sprawling to the ground. The door closes, then opens once more as a mandolin comes flying out of the tavern.”

I love the flying mandolin. Everything about that scene invites interaction.

Some favorite events include a fire that the villagers need to organize to quench, a panicked horse dragging someone, an argument overheard, and a child seeking a lost pet. Rescue the cat and gain a guide. Almost anything works. The thatcher might be caught on a roof after his ladder slipped down. Two women might ask the bard to judge a singing contest; neither carries a tune.

Alexander Davis offers scenes that reveal character. “Someone’s been caught stealing. The local laws against thieving are serious, and the criminal looks pathetic. Does the party intervene to save them, fetch the militia themselves, or try to talk everyone into some sort of deal?

“The local cleric approaches the party, asking for alms for the poor. He looks untrustworthy, but there are also people visibly within the nearby temple who are receiving help. Does the party donate, help directly, or even investigate the suspicious cleric?”

Some events can come from events like festivals or fairs. These can offer contests for characters to join or reveal backstory about local history.

Add visual aids

A map handout encourages players to explore. They remember the locations that raised interest even after the hunt for the cat. Sometimes, I also show pictures of important NPCs. The pictures help players notice and remember key cast members.

Artist Brandon Darrah gives extra effort. “I use over-world tokens for my maps where I draw all my PCs and NPCs. I usually draw unique/weird/cool/cute NPCs to draw in my players and that usually does it.” I’m impressed.

Related: What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing

If Dungeons Offer Riches, Why Don’t the Authorities Loot Them?

During the 70s, the debates that raged in the pages of fantasy game fanzines mostly matched the gaming topics argued on Facebook and Reddit today. For example, forty-some years ago, gamers debated if dungeon masters should break the rules for the sake of story.

But we have forgotten some arguments that raged in places like Alarums & Excursions. Today’s post revisits an interesting debate that now seems as contentious as angels on pinheads.

First, some background. The original Dungeons & Dragons rules recommend 20 players as an ideal number for a campaign, although the text says one referee can handle as many as 50 players. Of course, 50 D&D players probably never crowded a basement at once. Smaller parties formed from the available players and mounted treasure hunts into the huge dungeons that dominated play. At the peak of the  Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns run by D&D co-designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, such sessions ran several times a week.

Instead of talking about a dungeon master’s campaign or game world, most gamers talked about a DM’s dungeon, because that’s what they played. (See When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) Active players took characters from one DM’s dungeon to another. As long as DMs played in similar styles, that worked. (Early fanzines included much talk about coping with PCs coming from incorrectly run dungeons, but no one agreed on, say, the correct ratio of casualties to treasure.)

Popular dungeons saw lots of traffic from twenty or more players, each with a collection of characters at different levels, some recuperating from injury. Gamers started to notice that these dungeons resembled tourist attractions that drew crowds hoping a few risks would lead to a quick score, much like Las Vegas.

Dave Arneson and his group saw how much his dungeon resembled a tourist trap and they exaggerated it. The elves who managed the site of Blackmoor dungeon created a faire at the entrance boasting “hundreds of fabulous deals (some worth what you pay for!)” The elves constructed turnstiles at the dungeon entrance and charged 1 gp admission.  “You can also sign the Adventurers Book, which gets you a genuine ‘I Visited Blackmoor Dungeon’ button when you come out the main entrance. No winners yet.”

In the First Fantasy Campaign (1977), Arneson described the entrance to his dungeon.

After the second destruction of Blackmoor Castle, the EIves were made responsible for the care and protection of the area and it’s defense. Our
Elf player took a number of steps to do this:

  1. They have set up a barricade at the foot of the hill leading to the Castle that forces each entrant to pass a test of Purity (generally anti-Vampire), including a drink of Holy Water for each (provided at bargain rate by the Church of the Facts of Life run by Bishop Carr).
  2. Making it through that, the would-be adventures enter the Castle where the Elves have set up a great fair that fills the courtyard. There are  hundreds of fabulous deals (some worth what you pay for!) and some shady types (cutpurses and the like). This lets the Judge wheel and deal with the players to empty their purses and make them wonder what is going on.
  3. There are now turnstiles into the Dungeon (1 GP admission as well as taking an Elven Tour (since canceled when the two Dwarves let Fang out of his box) (see attached short tout sample). You can also sign the Adventurers Book, which gets you a genuine “I Visited Blackmoor Dungeon” Button when you come out the main entrance. No winners yet.
  4. Each of the regular exit/entrances from the Dungeon are heavily guarded by Elves armed with Holy Water Hoses, and other anti-Evil charms plus an Elven Prince and two Elven Lords! So, if you can reach a door and are still good, the pursuit will break off and the Elves let you in.

Other DMs treated dungeons as tourist attractions, although with less silliness.  In the Forgotten Realms, a famous tavern called the Yawning Portal monetizes the main entrance into the Undermountain dungeon. The innkeeper “Durnan charges adventurers 1 gp each to descend into the well, whether they opt to use the rope or not. The return trip also costs a piece of gold, sent up in a bucket in advance.”

The debate came when game masters wondered how authorities would react to the heavily trafficked dungeons that made homes to monsters and sources of treasure.

Arduin Grimoire Volume IX End War

Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus, the creators of Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), favored adventures outside dungeons. They imagined a society that eliminated dungeons. “A large concentration of ‘evil’ will attract the Church and might bring down a ‘Crusade’ against it. A large concentration of loot will attract the King, a personage always in need of money. Nor is it possible to keep such a dungeon complex secret for long. Myths and legends about such a place and what is to be found in it soon become common knowledge.”

Meanwhile, Dave Hargrave loved dungeons. Page 1 of The Arduin Grimoire Volume IX includes the topic, “Dungeons and why the authorities don’t shut them down,” which counters the opinion voiced in C&S.

Nowadays, few campaigns run in the style that made Blackmoor seem like Six Flags, so few wonder why the Lords of Waterdeep never send their troops into Undermountain for coin. But if anyone asks, some of Dave Hargrave’s points seem plausible.

Dungeons and Why the Authorities Don’t Shut Them Down by Dave Hargrave

I am sure the question of why local authorities don’t just run troops into the “dungeons” of the land has come up now and again. I mean, what could be a more intelligent and logical method to deal with the creature-ridden madness and loose magik of these places? Here are a few reasons to wet your appetite on why they don’t just do that.

  1. With such a large contingent of troops away from their stations, it would be easy to attack the kingdom directly since there would be fewer defenders to face.
  2. It would be too easy for a “bad guy” associated with such a place to trap the soldiers in the dungeon, perhaps sealing them away forever. This directly relates to point one above.
  3. With the high casualties of this kind of action, soon there would be few willing to join the constantly thinning ranks of the army, no matter what the price. Most men are not fools when it comes to dying for no good cause. Again, this directly relates to point # 1.
  4. The troops mucking about in one of these places could open some old gate or cause some awesome and terrible bane to come forth upon the land, thus turning the people against the fool who caused such a calamity.
  5. The “dungeons” act as a constant “honey pot” that ensnares the more adventurous (read that as trouble makers) and any loot they manage to bring out, is, of course, taxable. A hell of a lot cheaper way to make money.
  6. With such a spot to attract undesirable things, it is easier to be aware of just what nasty beings are about. You don’t have to go hacking about the dark and dreary countryside; you know where all the uglies are hiding.

There are still other reasons, but I hope I have made my point. It just isn’t worth all the risk for a king to send his troops into such a mess.

The Movies and Stories than Inspired Dave Arneson to Invent the Dungeon Crawl

Around 1971 Dave Arneson and his circle of Minneapolis gamers invented games where players controlled individual characters who grew with experience and who could try anything because dice and a referee determined the outcomes. The group tried this style of play in various settings, but Dave invented one that proved irresistible: the dungeon.

Dave’s Blackmoor game—the campaign that spawned Dungeons & Dragons—began with a gaming group playing fictional versions of themselves in a fantasy world. The characters became champions in a series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. Without dungeons, the Blackmoor game might have stayed miniature wargaming rather than becoming D&D and a game nearly as well known as Monopoly. But by creating the dungeon crawl, Dave invented a new activity that transformed the campaign and ultimately made a lasting addition to popular culture.

The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit. In a recollection of that first dungeon adventure, player Greg Svenson writes, “By the end of the weekend I had fallen in love with the game.” Dave Megarry of the Blackmoor game wanted to capture the dungeon experience during Arneson’s down time, so he created the Dungeon! board game.

The dungeon crawl contributed as much to the initial popularity of D&D as roleplaying. In the dungeon, D&D brought a fun and evocative activity for a group of players. See (How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games.

The strangest thing about focusing a game on parties of adventures who explore monster-infested dungeons for treasure is that this activity never happens in the fantasies that inspired the game. At best, you can find elements: traps and treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, and so on.

The Kibri Castle Branzoll like the one owned by Dave Arneson

The Blackmoor campaign first adapted the Chainmail rules, co-written by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. But Chainmail never mentions dungeons. At most, the rules suggest using graph paper to map efforts to tunnel under fortifications.

Dave’s Blackmoor games featured a toy castle, which served as the focus for the above-ground battles. Castles can have dungeons, although in 1971 the dungeon of popular fiction was an underground jail rather than a sprawling compound stocked with monsters and treasure.

Nonetheless, in 1972’s second issue of the campaign newsletter, the “Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger”, Arneson reported on dungeons below the castle where “heroes went looking for adventure and treasure.” In Playing at the World, Jon Peterson writes, “By this point, Arneson had mapped, on a pad of graph paper, a dungeon six levels deep beneath the castle, with each level containing progressively more formidable adversaries.”

How did Dave Arneson invent the dungeon crawl? By the time people started asking about it, he no longer remembered all the details. Enough clues remain to reveal the specific stories and movies that probably inspired his creation, likely during a June weekend in 1971.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings offer obvious inspiration. J.R.R Tolkien imagines parties of heroes who keep finding themselves in sprawling, underground compounds.

The Hobbit takes readers into the goblin king’s warrens under the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo gets lost in the tunnels and encounters Gollum. Later, Bilbo and his party reach the abandoned dwarven city under the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug sleeps in the “great bottommost cellar or dungeon-hall of the ancient dwarves right at the Mountain’s root.” Even though the tunnels under Lonely Mountain do not fit the definition of a dungeon as an underground jail, Tolkien takes a bit of poetic license and refers to the halls as a dungeon. The Lord of the Rings revisits the dungeon again with Moria, the vast underground compound where the fellowship encounters both orcs and the demonic Balrog.

Dave cites a different inspiration for dungeons. In a 1978 interview that appeared in Wargaming issue 4, he explains. “A local TV station had on several old monster movies, which I watched while eating popcorn and reading old Conan novels. It was then that Blackmoor Dungeon was first conceived.”

Different Worlds issue 3 June/July 1979

His next account of inventing the dungeon crawl comes from his “My Life in Role Playing” article for Different Worlds issue 3, from June/July 1979. “How did it all start in Blackmoor? I can’t really say. I had spent the previous day watching about five monster movies on Creature Feature weekend (ch. 5), reading a Conan book (I cannot recall which one but I always thought they were much the same) and stuffing myself with popcorn, doodling on a piece of graph paper. I was also quite tired of my [Napoleonic] Campaign with all its rigid rules, etc., and was perhaps rebelling against it too (in fact I’m sure I was!!).”

Dave forgot the Conan book and never names the movies that sparked his imagination, but clues lead to some likely answers.

To start, the Horror Incorporated Project compiles a list of all the creature features broadcast on KSTP-TV in Saint Paul – Minneapolis throughout the 1970s.

Blackmoor started with Dave’s toy castle. “I had this neat German plastic kit and I just imagined what sort of fantasy setting it would make,” he recalled in a 2009 interview in Kobold Quarterly issue 9. Meanwhile, on Saturday May 29, 1971, The Black Room (1935) aired on the local station. The movie features a baron’s castle that, like Castle Blackmoor, sits atop a rocky hill and includes a bricked, secret room. But most revealing, the names of the movie and of Dave’s creation just swap two letters. “All this happened a few weeks before the first adventurers caught sight of [the castle].”

So Dave had a castle backdrop for fantasy miniature battles, but perhaps no dungeons yet.

Two weeks later, House of Dracula (1945) aired. This one movie might seem like five because it features all of Universal’s most famous monsters, Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s creation. In a remarkable piece of detective work, Daniel H. Boggs lists several similarities between the House of Dracula castle and Blackmoor. Both stand on rocky pinnacles overlooking a graveyard, a village, and the sea. Both include laboratories and torture chambers. Tunnels underneath both lead to seaside caves.

Castles with underground tunnels, monsters, and torture chambers offer much inspiration, but the Conan book surely provided even more.

While Robert E. Howard never has Conan willingly enter a dungeon, the barbarian often finds himself trapped in dungeons, forced to overcome monsters to earn freedom.

Weird Tales 1935 -The Hour of the Dragon

In “Hour of the Dragon,” Conan is imprisoned in the dungeon under the palace of King Tarascus in the Nemedian empire. A sympathetic slave girl gives Conan a rough map of the tunnels, and then warns, “Beyond these dungeons lie the pits which are the doors to Hell.” To escape, Conan defeats a monster that was one of “the goblins of Hyborian legendry, and were in reality ogres of the natural world.”

In “Rogues in the House,” Conan is lost in the pits below the house of the Red Priest, where he evades the traps that slay companions who lack Conan’s “steel-spring quickness.” Although the covered city of “Red Nails” lies above ground, its interior shares the ambiance of a dungeon.

Still, one story presents a dungeon that best resembles those in D&D. In the “Scarlet Citadel,” Conan escapes from “tunnels and dungeons” where an evil sorcerer “performed horrible experiments with beings human, bestial, and, it was whispered, demoniac, tampering blasphemously with the naked basic elements of life itself.” With a torch and sword, Conan explores a maze of tunnels while overcoming monsters.

In 1971, Dave Arneson started with a toy castle, a location inspired by creature features,  and the notion that something might lurk underneath. “[The model] was too small for the scale I wanted,” Dave said. “But it was a neat kit and I didn’t want to abandon it, so the only way to go was down [into the dungeons].”

He added a treasure hunt from Tolkien, traps from Robert E. Howard, lurking monsters from both authors—and perhaps from some creature features—to invent a new activity for the characters in his Blackmoor campaign. When Gary Gygax played one of Dave’s Blackmoor games, the experience so fired Gary’s imagination that he went on to flesh out the game that would become Dungeons & Dragons. In the process, Gary’s imagination and broad knowledge of sword and sorcery would add countless details inseparable from the game. Ultimately, the dungeon crawl proved so compelling that it took root in popular culture.

The Strange Mystery of the D&D Monster Called a Thoul

A theory of mine led me to check the dungeon encounter tables in the original Dungeons & Dragons rules booklets. There, I spotted a monster that made me immediately stop chasing my theory and start investigating a new mystery.

What’s a thoul?

The dungeon encounter tables in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures include a listing for Thouls, a D&D monster that I’ve never seen mentioned in my decades of playing the game. What’s a thoul? Why do thouls lack a description or statistics?

Theory 1: The “Thouls” entry should read “Ghouls”, but was mistyped. But an entry for “Ghouls” appears immediately after “Thouls,” wrecking this theory. None of the dungeon monster tables include duplicate entries.

Theory 2: Thouls come from the Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. D&D author Gary Gygax loved Burroughs’ Mars series and stocked volume 3’s desert wilderness tables with Barsoom creatures like tharks, thoats, and sith. Like the thouls, all these creatures lack game descriptions. However, a quick search reveals that thouls never appear in Barsoom or anywhere but D&D.

Theory 3: Gary Gygax invented thouls, but forgot to include a description. If the lack of statistics came from an oversight, no one rushed to correct it. All the D&D supplements omit thouls, as does the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual in 1977. The first mention of a thoul appears in 1978 in the Monster & Treasure Assortment – Set 3. The entry reveals almost nothing. “#AT: 2/1; AL: 8; AC: 6; ST/F 3; SA: Paralysis by touch.” The monster finally gains a description in the 1981 edition of the D&D Basic Set from Tom Moldvay.

None of these descriptions come from Gary’s lost notes. Other D&D designers spotted the creature’s name in the original book, and then created the monster.

The 1981 description explains why thouls failed to gain much traction in D&D lore. They look and play like hobgoblins with a gotcha, which hardly seems memorable.

The mystery has one more clue: Thouls first appear in the fifth printing of the original D&D box. The table in earlier printings includes “Toads” in the same spot, right before the entry for ghouls. This makes thouls seem like a typo.

Thoul from Mystara Monsterous Compendium Appendix

In 1975, typesetters entered a document’s text at a keyboard to get printed strips of text. Then layout artists would paste the columns onto boards representing the document’s full pages. Printers duplicated those camera-ready, paste-up boards.

So a typesetter in 1975 started entering the table row for “Toads” when their gaze skipped one row down to the line for “Ghouls.” They mistyped “Thouls” and made D&D history. Who can blame the typesetter? Half the manuscript surely seemed like nonsense words. Who has ever heard of a sith?

But why would such a mistake appear in the fifth printing rather than the first? Because TSR corrected rough-looking text in the first four printings by redoing the type for the fifth. Before desktop publishing, that meant a typesetter needed to retype the text. That person accidentally contributed a monster to D&D.

Meanwhile, I failed to find support for my theory.

The original Charm Person reads, “If this spell is successful, it will cause the charmed entity to come completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such time as the ‘charm’ is dispelled.” That seems strong. By my theory, original Charm Person rated as less powerful than it seems because the game focused on places that lacked any persons to charm stronger than 1 hit die bandits or brigands. But the encounter tables include plenty of higher-level targets, listed by level titles like superhero, sorcerer, and evil high priest. A lucky first-level magic user could charm someone quite powerful.

The One Best Way to Make Perception Checks Doesn’t Exist. Here’s Your Toolkit

When players make Wisdom (Perception), Spot, Search, Insight, and other rolls to gain information, the number on the die reveals things: A low roll with no discovery suggests the character missed something; a high roll without a discovery confirms nothing to find. Unlike the players, their characters never see the die roll, so they lack the same insight.

In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, dungeon masters avoided revealing such metagame clues by rolling secretly. To see if someone spotted a secret door, Gary Gygax rolled a 6-sided die behind a screen. Elves locate hidden passages on a roll of 1-4.

But when a die roll affects the characters’ fate, players like throwing their own dice. We all feel like if we want a certain roll strongly enough, we might sway the outcome. Sure, those of us who play D&D rather than Las Vegas recognize that sense of control for a lie, but we feel it all the same. Plus, dungeon masters see player rolls bring other benefits: Die rolls grab the players’ attention and keeps them physically engaged. (See How to Wring Maximum Drama from a Roll of the Dice.)

Fifth edition D&D skips the roll with the innovation of passive checks. Just compare the DC against a passive score. In theory, passive checks speed play, avoiding all those secret die rolls to spot hidden doors. The DM simply decides in advance what hidden doors the party will find, and then sets the DCs accordingly. Phrased like that, the procedure seems like no fun at all. Die rolls add surprise, uncertainty, and even a sense of fairness to our games. (See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.)

Aside from secret rolls (less fun) and passive checks (no fun), gamers account for the metagame insights that come from seeing the die roll in different ways:

  • The players roll, and then roleplay as if they didn’t see the die.
  • The players roll, but the DM sometimes asks for red-herring checks.

Over the years, I’ve gone through periods where I’ve favored each of those approaches. When I asked folks on twitter for their favorite techniques, I even learned a new one thanks to Alyssa Visscher.

  • The players roll, but the DM doesn’t tell what the roll is for.

For this technique, the DM has to know the characters’ perception bonuses. Just ask for a d20 roll, add the bonus, and go with the outcome. This lets players roll and grabs attention. For advantage or disadvantage, ask for two rolls.

I used to hope for a perfect method that brought player engagement without revealing metagame clues, but I’ve given up that search. Now I see a toolkit of methods, each with advantages.

How should you choose the right fit for a situation?

One situation always leads to a best approach. If a roll for initiative or damage would immediately follow a perception check, just let the player roll. Even players with imperceptive PCs immediately learn what t hey missed, so DMs gain nothing from a passive check or from metagame-thwarting tricks. (See How to Run an Ambush So Sneaky Monsters Bring More Than Claw/Claw/Bite.)

Other situations offer nearly as much clarity. If the players have to find something like a clue or a secret door for the adventure to continue, just let them find it without a roll. Or play the odds and let everyone roll. Someone will nearly always succeed. I’ve used both tricks to guarantee success, but I’m never proud of it. Checks that require success hint at fragile adventures that require a dash of railroading. (See In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.)

Also, specific actions can eliminate any need for die rolls. The characters leading the party might need to make a perception check to notice a hidden pit, but if they probe the floor with their 10-foot pole, the discovery becomes automatic.

Choosing from the other methods calls for more judgment.

DM rolls secretly. Aside from depriving players of the fun of rolling, secret rolls suffer from a second disadvantage: In today’s roleplaying games, characters bring extra abilities likely to affect their chance of making a particular check. DMs can never expect to learn them all.

Still, for high-stakes insight checks that steer the course of an adventure, I ask players for their insight modifier and roll in secret. (See Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes.)

Instead of rolling, use passive checks.  Despite my distaste for how passive checks rob players of rolls in favor of a mechanic uncomfortably close to DM fiat, I sometimes account for passive scores during low-stakes descriptions. Characters with high perceptions may notice clues or interesting details that deserve extra attention. When using this technique, mention that the character’s keen perception led to the discovery. Players deserve to know that their character choices paid off.

Players roll and roleplay as if they didn’t see the die. This method works best for low-stakes situations where the players have little fear of overlooking something dangerous or valuable. In perilous situations, the technique forces players into an uncomfortable conflict between risking their characters and playing their role. Also, by eliminating some natural uncertainty, instead of truly feeling unease and a sense of mystery, players just pretend to feel.

Players roll but the DM sometimes asks for red-herring checks. Every DM intuits one bluff: If characters search a door for traps, then someone rolls even if the door has no traps. But characters can notice hidden doors even when no player asked to look, which means asking players to roll checks. To add extra uncertainty, ask for checks at times when nothing important can be found. This camouflages the important checks and heightens the tension that comes from knowing peril might hide nearby.

For extra misdirection, respond to every knowledge check with some information, even something familiar. So if the players fail a check to spot the spy following them through the market, tell them about the smell from the fishmonger, the buskers playing at the fountain, or the urchin looking for pockets to pick.

When players gain such information, they feel unsure of whether they missed their check or successfully learned something unremarkable.

Players roll, but a table rule adds uncertainty. Years ago, I proposed letting players make their own information checks, but occasionally overriding their due based on a secret roll. Whenever a player makes a check for information, secretly roll a d6 and a d20. If the d6 comes up 1, substitute your d20 result for the player’s.

In life, people tend to get a sense of how well they accomplish a task. Likewise, using this method, players gain a sense of whether their character succeeded, but as in life, that intuition may sometimes prove false.

Players must know about this uncertainty in advance, or they will suspect their DM of overriding rolls to hurt the characters. So this technique requires a rule of the table that everyone accepts.

What‘s your favorite method?

Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons

Jon Peterson’s earlier books aimed for readers with an unusual appetite for role-playing game history. Playing at the World sprawls past 425,000 words, rooting the design of Dungeons & Dragons in chess variants and Prussian wargames. The Elusive Shift tells how fans mainly writing in amateur zines shaped the often esoteric theory behind roleplaying games. Thanks to my taste for such arcana, I jumped to get a copy of Peterson’s most recent book, Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, but I didn’t expect this book to keep me up at night reading and telling myself I would only stay up for a few more pages. This book can captivate anyone interested in the business of roleplaying games or in the people who created D&D.

Game Wizards focuses on battles that go from the game table to the boardroom and courtroom. The book reveals the pride and ambitions of the men who created D&D, and of their feuds over credits, awards, and money. This tale even includes backstabbing, though thankfully not the sort with knives.

Jon Peterson pulls the story from letters and other documents written by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and other players as the events occurred. “Many of the direct quotations in this piece are thus taken from their correspondence.” Much of this book’s magic stems from the breadth of sources Peterson uncovers, from the contract establishing the original game’s royalty agreement to an audio tape Arneson recorded of a Gygax television appearance. “When Gary enumerates the character classes available in the game, at the point when he mentions that there is a thief class, you can hear Arneson mutter, ‘That’s you.’” Arneson and Gygax were then battling over credit and royalties for their creation.

The story starts in 1969, when Arneson attended the second GenCon, which Gygax hosted in his hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The two gamers first partnered to create a set of rules for naval miniatures titled Don’t Give Up the Ship.

By the early 70s, Arneson and his group of Minneapolis gamers invented a style of campaign that broadly resembled D&D. When Gygax played Arneson’s Blackmoor game, its innovations inspired Gygax to turn the seed into a publication. “I’ll whip out a booklet for your approval, so groups can play their own games,” he wrote Arneson. Later Arneson described the role of Gary and his circle of gamers in creating D&D.  “At the time, they had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules. They sent theirs to us and we fooled around with them for a while.” When Gygax had reasons to exaggerate his role, he claimed, “D&D, I wrote every word of that. Even my co-author admits that.” Arneson admitted no such thing. Still, Gygax’s tireless work as a writer, publisher, and well of ideas proved essential too.

Gary Gygax started Tactical Studies Rules to publish D&D and other games. In September 1973 Gygax wrote to Arneson, “We’re getting ready to roll.” When the costs of printing the first D&D sets ballooned, Brian Blume invested $2,000 dollars to become a partner in the company. In 1975 the company was incorporated as TSR Hobbies with Gygax and the Blume family holding nearly equal shares.

The revolutionary D&D game spread from Lake Geneva by word of mouth, from tabletop to tabletop, and especially from the gamers attending conventions like GenCon. In 1974, one GenCon visitor reported, “This year’s convention was centered mainly around the new set of Gygax and Arneson rules Dungeons & Dragons.” It was “the hit of the convention with gamemasters having games going in all parts of the Hall.”

By 1976, sales had grown enough for TSR to hire Arneson as Director of Research—and to work shipping. “Everyone who worked in the building had a nominal job, but had to pitch in wherever the need arose. In a personal letter dated February 2, Arneson explained his situation at the beginning of his employment at TSR: ‘My work here in Lake Geneva is going quite well and keeps me very busy from 8:30 to 6:00 every day of the week. In addition to my job as Director of Research I am also in charge of the Shipping Department.’”

But by summer Arneson felt growing dissatisfaction. None of his work related to D&D. Instead he had spent four months doing shipping and editing other designers’ rules.” He felt “no prospect of any of my work being published by TSR.”  Arneson would accuse Gygax of taking the company’s choicest design assignments. When work started on a D&D set for beginners, drafts of the future basic rules listed the authors as Gary Gygax and Eric Holmes with no mention of Arneson. Also, Gygax excluded Arneson from work on the design that would become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Still, naval miniatures ranked as Arneson’s first love. Before hiring on, he had promised two sets of naval rules to TSR in exchange for company stock, but his drafts languished unfinished. “Gygax repeatedly asked for urgent revisions to them both, and Arneson repeatedly avowed his faith in their imminent publication to his friends, even as late as October 1976, but they simply never materialized. As of the summer of 1975, TSR had announced both as forthcoming titles in the third Strategic Review.” Clearly TSR planned to publish the games, but Arneson’s projects stagnated, frustrating Gygax. By September, Arneson routinely left TSR offices at lunch to work afternoons at his apartment. Despite the time away from shipping, he produced virtually nothing for TSR. Before long, he and the company started squabbling over unexcused time away.

In November, Arneson resigned from TSR. He and Gygax drew battle lines over their creation. Arneson argued that D&D stemmed from his essential ideas. He planned a company and roleplaying game to rival TSR and D&D.

Copyright law sided with Gygax, the author who penned the game’s rules. He planned a new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which he presented as a completely different game, free of any royalty obligations to Arneson. Their war for hearts and minds extended to convention appearances and magazine interviews. The creators fought in shareholder meetings and in courtrooms. Reaching a settlement would take years.

While Arneson battled for credit and royalties on one front, Gygax fought with TSR on multiple fronts.

In 1979, a 16-year-old college student named Dallas Egbert disappeared from his dorm at Michigan State University. His parents hired a publicity-seeking private detective named William Dear to find the boy. The investigator blamed D&D for Ebert’s disappearance and his lurid speculation stormed to the national news. By the time Egbert turned up safe, few were paying attention. (See The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America.)

Even as Gygax and TSR staff fought to clear up negative myths about the game, the publicity drove a sales boom. “At the beginning of 1981, no ceiling for sales of Dungeons & Dragons was in sight: the game was like a magic item that relentlessly generated gold.”

The gold rush inspired a spending spree: The Blume’s added much of their extended family to the payroll. In 1982, TSR funded an effort to raise a shipwreck from Lake Geneva and announced sponsorship of the U.S. Bobsled Team. “It would be a year of lavish gestures like this, of a company spinning virtually out of control. Events piled on events so rapidly that its management structures simply had no way to manage them. It ensured the foundering of the company Gygax and Blume had created in 1975.”

By 1983 the bubble burst, leaving D&D sales stagnant. Weary of battling the Blumes over business decisions, Gygax left Wisconsin to live in a Los Angeles mansion that cost TSR $10,000 a month, $25,000 adjusted for inflation. To be fair, the D&D movie Gygax hoped to produce could renew TSR’s growth, but to the gaming industry, the move looked like a retreat to an opulent lifestyle in Hollywood.

Game Wizards wraps in 1985, with TSR on the brink of bankruptcy, but Gygax back from Hollywood and poised to take sole control of the company from the Blume family. By then a new player, Lorraine Williams, had entered the game. As granddaughter of the original publisher of Buck Rogers, Williams brought wealth plus experience licensing intellectual property. Gygax interested her in making the investment TSR needed to avoid bankruptcy.

Before Gygax could take full control over TSR, Williams made other plans. “‘Gygax and I were not talking very much during the time because we had very fundamental differences,’ she would remark. Furthermore, informing Gygax that she intended to purchase the Blume family shares would be, as she put it, ‘an invitation for him to get in and just try to screw it up, and to once again try to thwart the ability of the Blumes to sell their stock and to get out and to go about their lives.’” Williams purchased a controlling interest in TSR and forced its founder out.

In Game Wizards Peterson reveals the conflict with a turn-by-turn account played over years. It makes a story as riveting as any yarn played out at the D&D game table.

Related: The time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games

F’Chelrak’s Tomb: The Earliest D&D Adventure Worth Playing

The second Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Blackmoor, arrived in April 1975. It featured Temple of the Frog, the first adventure in print. A year later, three more pioneering adventures reached gamers.

The May 1976 issue of the UK magazine Games and Puzzles included an introduction to D&D by Games Workshop co-founder Steve Jackson. “D&D is an attempt to recreate fantasy adventure using greatly modified tabletop wargaming rules.” The article devotes a half page mapping and keying “The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins.” In June 1976, California gamers Pete and Judy Kerestan published D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen.

To explore D&D’s origins, some modern players have tried playing these dungeons. Don’t. Temple of the Frog runs as an infiltration mission. Players looking for classic D&D will only find a total party kill.  “The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins” and Palace of the Vampire Queen describe their rooms by pairing rare words of description with lists of monsters and treasures. Both demonstrate why D&D co-creator Gary Gygax thought adventures wouldn’t sell. Any dungeon master could easily create a similar monster zoos using the Dungeon Geomorphs and Monster and Treasure Assortments that Gary’s own TSR Hobbies would soon sell.

But one other adventure reached print in June of 1976.

The Dungeoneer

Dungeoneer01_3rdWhile still in college, Jennell Jaquays, writing as Paul, started The Dungeoneer fanzine. For the first issue, Jaquays wrote F’Chelrak’s Tomb. The pioneering adventure and its successors proved memorable. Looking back at The Dungeoneer, Jaquays said, “It’s the adventures that stand out, and not simply because no one else was doing mini-adventures in 1976. When I read comments about the magazine or talk to fans (old and new), no one talks about the monsters, or the art, or the magic items and rules variants. It’s always the adventures.

If you want to enjoy an adventure in the spirit of ’76, explore F’Chelrak’s Tomb. The tomb fits the early game’s style: It capriciously slays characters and drops magic like candy from a parade, but it also packs enough ideas to fill a game session with wild fun.

Jaquays published 6 issues of Dungeoneer, sold the fanzine, and then started work at Judges Guild. There she penned early, classic adventures like Dark Tower and the Caverns of Thracia.

F’Chelrak’s Tomb ranks as the first published adventure that remains playable in something like its original form. The cheapest legit versions of the adventure available now are in used copies of The Dungeoneer Compendium. Sadly, Judges Guild no longer sells the PDF version of that collection.

About the tomb

As soon as dungeon masters turned from megadungeons to smaller sites, they started devising tombs. F’Chelrak’s Tomb boasts plenty of save-or-die moments, but it lacks the menace of its contemporary from Origins 1975, Tomb of Horrors.

Instead, F’Chelrak’s Tomb offers the chaotic whimsy of a Deck of Many Things. One room features a gallery of objects shrouded by sheets. When revealed, each object has some crazy effect. A sculpture of the Medusa might change the revealer to stone. A statue of a gorgeous woman could either change the revealer’s gender or it could come to life and become a lover or slave. A great stone face might polymorph the revealer into a monster, grant a point of constitution, or split a character into good and evil versions. A statue of Death disintegrates the revealer. “No resurrection is possible!” One sheet covers an artifact: a shield that doubles as a mirror of life trapping. When the owner traps too many lives, the mirror makes room by freeing Morac, a 9th-level chaotic evil lord. I suppose he wants his shield back. (I didn’t know chaotic evil was an alignment in 1976).

If left on the floor, the sheets can animate and attack because, obviously.

The adventure rests on more than the gallery. A new monster merges the Human Torch with kobolds. Some vertical architecture calls for cross-section diagrams. Traps, tricks and interesting curios litter the place.

Like the Tomb of Horrors, F’Chelrak’s Tomb comes from a time when players aimed to beat dungeons and they kept score in gold. In this spirit, the dungeon can win by stumping players with the puzzle in the first room, by hiding essential paths behind secret doors, or by tricking players into leaving after they loot a false crypt. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of an adventure seems unthinkable.)

The early presentation

The entire adventure spans just four pages, including a page of maps. Maps (titled “Charts”) number 1 and 3 use a familiar overhead perspective. Maps 2 and 4 show vertical cross-sections on the same graph paper, making them look like overhead maps too. Cross-section 2 puts the high-point at the top, but 4 puts its high-point on the right. The key for map 3 lists numbered locations, interrupts those numbers with a list of numbered objects, then revisits the same locations with a lettered list of traps and secret locations. This dungeon starts as a puzzle for the DM, but it can be deciphered.

Explaining the tomb to modern standards would take at least 12 pages of text. Jaquays does it in 3 by leaving all the details to the imagination of the DM. What will F’Chelrak or Morac do if they get loose? What are the stats for an attacking sheet? (Hint: Use the rug of smothering.) If an unlucky character get polymorphed in to a monster, what one? DMs must find the most fair or interesting answer to many questions.

Running F’Chelrak’s Tomb today

Using original D&D rules, I estimate this adventure would challenge a party of level 4-6.

You could also run this adventure using fifth-edition rules.

If you wanted to run this adventure as a one-shot with the feel of the early game, let the players take a party of 12, 2nd-level characters. In 1976, adventuring parties tended to be large. Many PCs will die, but that only captures the spirit. Although many of the monsters in the tomb pose a grave threat to such low-level PCs, the PCs enjoy overwhelming numbers. Nonetheless, To reduce the chance of total party kill, put only 2 manticores in room 4. Somewhere in the adventure, give survivors a rest to heal and level up. If F’Chelrak finds them, they may need to run. That qualifies as smart play.

If you want better combat encounters and a lower body count, start each player with a 5th-level character. Make the following changes:

  • Replace the 10 gremlins with magmin. The gremlins penalize melee attacks by melting weapons, but 5E characters would sweep them away with spells and ranged attacks.
  • When the players take Morac’s shield, release 6 specters rather than just 1.
  • In the flooded tomb, put 3 ghouls rather than inventing a water gargoyle. Keep them hidden in the dark water so that only water-breathing PCs can easily confront them.
  • Make F’Chelrak a level-9 magic user based on the mage stats. If he possesses one of the PCs, he will study the rest of the party before attempting to reclaim his treasure from the party.

Related: Mark Grisham created a free, 2 room tomb for original D&D that uses F’Chelrak for inspiration.

The Twisting Tale of Skills in D&D

Modern Dungeons & Dragons includes both skills and character classes, but in the early days of the roleplaying hobby, gamers often saw skills and classes as incompatible. Some gamers touted skills as the innovation that freed roleplaying games from character classes. Three years after D&D reached hobby shops, new games like Traveller and RuneQuest eliminated classes in favor of skill systems. Advertisements for RuneQuest in The Dragon trumpeted, “No Artificial Character Classes!!” Such games eliminated the unrealistic class restrictions that prevented, say, a fighter from learning to climb walls or from mastering a spell. “Mages can wear armor and use blades.” The ad credits RuneQuest to designer “Steve Perrin and friends.” Remember that name, because Perrin returns to this tale later.

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax favored classes because they resonated with the fantasy archetypes everyone knew. He warned, “If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character.” He had a point. Skill-based games gave every character the ability to improve the same common adventuring skills, leading to a certain sameness among adventurers.

Classes let characters make distinct contributions to a group’s success. In a 1984 interview in DRACHE magazine, Gygax said, “The D&D game is based on the theory that there is so much to know and to do that nobody can do everything on his own. The team aspect is important. Each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

As long as Gygax controlled D&D’s development, he kept skills out of the game. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but their narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes.

Still, TSR designer Dave “Zeb” Cook saw a need for character development beyond class. “One of the things dreadfully lacking from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills.” When Cook wrote Oriental Adventures (1985), he brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies—skills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”

Checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks filled the place of ability checks. The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, although class features still covered most of the actions characters attempted during an adventure, so thieves still rolled on their private tables to climb walls and move silently.

In a convention appearance, Dave “Zeb” Cook and fellow designer Steve Winter talked about how these first-edition books led to a second edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”

Even after Gygax left TSR in 1985, designers like Cook and Winter lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary. Nonetheless, these additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

But TSR sold two D&D games, an advanced version that got more scrutiny from management, and a basic version that offered more freedom to designers. By 1988, RuneQuest designer and freelancer Steve Perrin was gaining assignments writing D&D supplements. His GAZ5 The Elves of Alfheim (1988) for the D&D campaign setting of the Known World introduced skills by name to the game. “Due to their background, elves have a variety of skills that are neither shown in the rule books, nor related directly to combat, thieving, or magic. These are optional additions to your D&D campaign.” RuneQuest’s designer put more cracks in the wall between skills and D&D’s classes.

A year later, GAZ11 The Republic of Darokin (1989) by Scott Haring expanded this skill system beyond elves.

“Each skill is based on one of the character’s Abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma). When a circumstance arises in which the DM feels the use of a character’s skill is needed, he asks the player to roll a d20 against his current score with the Ability. If the result of the d20 roll is less than or equal to the Ability, the skill use succeeds. A roll of 20 always fails, no matter how high the chance for success.”

The gazetteer listed skills from advocacy and animal training to woodworking, but the options still kept away from the class specialties of combat, thieving, and magic.

In 1991, the Dungeon & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia gathered all the rules from the basic line into a single hardcover that included the skill system. Meanwhile, AD&D would spend another decade forcing players to say “non-weapon proficiency” in place of “skill.”

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained permission to correct old drawbacks. “We knew we wanted to make a more robust set of skills,” designer Monte Cook said in an interview. “You had thieves‘ skills, which were different and they worked completely differently, because they were percentage based. So we wanted to marry all of that together.” Like RuneQuest and virtually every other contemporary roleplaying game, the new edition would adopt a single, core mechanic to resolve actions. Players made checks by rolling a d20, adding modifiers, and comparing the result against a difficulty class number. Skills now offered bonuses to these checks.

The older D&D skill system and AD&D proficiency checks had created in impression that the third-edition designers worked to avoid. In both systems, skills seemed like a requirement to attempt many tasks, so characters needed gemcutting skill to even attempt a radiant cut. That adds up. On the other hand, surely anyone could attempt bargaining and gambling, yet D&D’s original skill checks only applied to characters with a skill.

D&D’s new d20 core mechanic meant that skills expanded to include actions characters actually did in the game. For instance, rogues got skills rather than a private table listing their chance of hiding and picking pockets. “D&D was still a class based game, but the idea that you were not a thief, so you can’t climb and you can never climb, didn’t really hold a lot of water.” The system allowed any character to attempt to hide and climb. Unskilled characters just suffered worse odds of success. Good luck with the gemcutting.

By fourth edition the games designers worked hard to reach Gary Gygax’s ideal of teamwork—but only during combat. On the battlefield, each character class served a distinct role like striker and defender. For tasks outside combat, the designers contrived a skill challenge system aimed at ensuring that every character gained an equal chance to contribute.

During fifth edition’s design, the D&D designers planned to sideline skills in favor of simple ability checks. “We’re making skills completely optional,” lead designer Mike Mearls wrote. “They are a rules module that combines the 3E and 4E systems that DMs can integrate into their game if they so desire.”

But playtesters liked the depth that skills gave characters. Also finessing the game’s math so it played equally well with or without skill bonuses doubtless proved troublesome. So skills stayed part of the D&D core. The designers still chose to rename skill checks as ability checks. This further avoids from the implication that characters need a skill to attempt certain tasks. Without formal skill challenges, fifth edition allows characters with particular skills to shine more as individuals who bring special talents to contribute to the team.

And in the end, no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

The Dungeon Mapper: From Half of D&D to a Forgotten Role

In 1977, when I found the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, I noticed that the dwarf description included a lot of fluff: stocky bodies, long beards, and an ability to detect slanting passages, shifting walls and new construction. I figured the slanting-and-shifting thing would never affect the game unless some dwarf skipped adventuring for a safer job as a building inspector. “Your rolling-boulder ramp isn’t up to code. Someone might not trip.”

Years later, I realized the dwarven fluff actually helped players draw the accurate maps needed to keep characters alive. Sloping floors and shifting walls made more than a nuisance. In the mega-dungeons of the era, greater threats prowled on lower levels, so tricks that lured characters too deep threatened their lives. Lost explorers deep in a sprawling multi-level dungeon could run out of resources before they got out. Originally, the spell find the path found an escape path.

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

In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. The original rules present mapping as half of the game. In the example of play, the referee—the title of dungeon master had not been coined yet—spends half the dialog reciting dimensions. The rules’ example of “Tricks and Traps” only lists slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to vex mappers. The text’s author, Gary Gygax, suggests freshening explored parts of the dungeon by adding monsters, but also through map “alterations with eraser and pencil, blocking passages, making new ones, dividing rooms, and filling in others.”

Despite the emphasis, many gamers found mapping less compelling. By 1976, the first D&D module Palace of the Vampire Queen included players’ maps to spare explorers the chore of transcribing dimensions. By fourth edition, labyrinths had changed from mapping challenges into skill challenges. Such mazes were no more fun, but they saved graph paper.

Today, only players who play D&D in an older style draw their own maps as they explore a dungeon.

Did anyone ever think translating distances to graph paper added fun? Or was mapping another way to thwart players who tried to steal the quasi-adversarial referee’s treasure. (In that original example of play, the Caller finds hidden loot, and the Referee responds by “cursing the thoroughness of the Caller.” Rules question: Must the Referee curse aloud or can he just twirl his mustache?

Blackmoor scholar Daniel H. Boggs describes mapping’s appeal. “If the DM is running the game with a proper amount of mystery, then mapping is one of the joys of dungeon exploring. In my experience, there is usually at least one person in the group who is good at it, and it is lots of fun to see your friends pouring over maps trying to figure out where to go or where some secret might be.”

In 1974, D&D seemed so fresh and intoxicating that even duties like mapping found love—just less love than the game’s best parts. Then, exploring a hidden version of the game board seemed revolutionary. Even the wargames that relied on umpires to hide enemies from opposing players let everyone see the terrain—and only a tiny community of enthusiasts played such games. In 1975, when Tunnels & Trolls creator Ken St. Andre attempted to explain dungeoneering to potential players, he could only reach for a slight match. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon. He tells the players what they see and observe around them.”

As fans of competitive games, D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax relished tests of player skill more than many D&D players do now. To the explorers of the mega-dungeons under Blackmoor and Greyhawk, map making became proof of dungeoneering mastery. In the game’s infancy, different groups of players mounted expeditions as often as Dave and Gary could spare them time. Separate groups might compile maps and keep them from rivals.

While recommending slanting passages and sinking rooms, Gary seemed to relish any chance to frustrate mappers. Describing a one-way teleporter, he crows that “the poor dupes” will never notice the relocation. “This is sure-fire fits for map makers.”

Dave favored fewer tricks. Daniel Boggs writes, “Arneson would actually help map for the players by drawing sketches of what players could see in difficult to describe rooms.” In early 1973, Dave Megarry, a player in the Blackmoor campaign and designer of the Dungeon! board game, mapped much of Blackmoor dungeon during play. Megarry’s maps proved more accurate than the versions published in The First Fantasy Campaign (1980), a snapshot of Arneson’s Blackmoor game.

Still, Dave Arneson expected players to show mapping skill and deal with setbacks. In a 2009 post on the ODD74 forum, he wrote, “A referee ‘happy moment’ was when the mapper was killed and the map lost. ‘OK guys now where are you going?’ What followed was 15 minutes of hilarious, to me, fun. A non-player character gave them a general direction. Another was when the mapper died and the players couldn’t figure out how to read the map. Again an NPC saved them.”

“In terms of tricks, Arneson primarily relied on complexity,” Boggs writes. Despite ranking as the first dungeon ever, Blackmoor includes rare vertical twists. “The combination of connecting shafts, pits, elevators, and literally hundreds of stairs across levels is just astounding. There is also the fact that the dungeon is segmented, so portions of certain levels could only be accessed by stairs on other levels or via secret doors. Secret doors abound in Blackmoor dungeon and most of Arneson’s dungeons.”

Nowadays, the task of transcribing explored rooms and halls to graph paper lacks its original novelty, but turning unexplored space into a map brings as much satisfaction as ever. Sometimes as my players explore, I draw the map for them on a grid. For some sessions, I bring a dungeon map hidden by scraps of paper fastened with removable tape. Players can become so eager to reveal rooms that they vie for the privilege of peeling away the concealment. While running Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I loaded the maps on a tablet and concealed them under an erasable layer. All these techniques eliminated the chore of mapping for the pure fun of discovery.