Tag Archives: Gary Gygax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Nobody understood the system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would Gygax insist on such cumbersome declarations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Gygax’s Dungeon Building Spells (and the Ones He Should Have Made)

Since 1975, every single player of a wizard or magic user has read the Magic Mouth spell, and then chosen to skip it. Prove me wrong.* Who wants to use a 2nd-level spell to put a message on a wall when a piece of chalk works as well? While Magic Mouth never gets used by players, Glyph of Warding only ever gets misused. Recently, I saw a player use glyphs to manufacture explosive arrows. He overlooked the sentence that says that a glyph breaks if it moves more than 10 feet. That limitation exists now because players of earlier editions dreamed up the same stunt. Without the exploit, no player prepares glyph. Judging from the spell lists in the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, non-player characters shun these spells too.

Why does the Player’s Handbook include spells that players virtually never use? Part of the appeal of these spells comes from nostalgia. Both date from the 70s. Mainly though, the spells appeal to the game’s dungeon architects and dungeon masters. For example, magic mouths and glyphs of warding appear in at least three of the Dungeons & Dragons hardcover adventures.

Compared to chalk, Magic Mouth offers more portentous way to deliver a message. Glyph of Warding adds a common magical trap. The spells weave useful magical effects into both the lore and the rules of the game. They give DMs ready-made tricks for their dungeons. Players enjoy recognizing these familiar bits of spellcraft mixed with the fantastic.

The game’s original Players Handbook includes even more spells aimed at dungeon architects instead of players.

At level 5, Distance Distortion made a corridor appear either twice as long or half as long as its actual length. D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax loved to confound dungeon mappers. I imagine a party of lost players at Gary’s table, growing sore, and insisting that Gary described something wrong. Gary laughs slyly, opens the Player’s Handbook, and points to page 80.

At level 6, Permanent Illusion appealed to a few players, but dungeon masters gained a way to trick or terrify characters and to disguise pits. The spell evolved into fifth edition’s Programmed Illusion.

At level 8, Glassteel made glass or crystal as strong as steel. A few players dreamed of transparent weapons and armor, but I suspect Gary Gygax mostly sought a way to add durable windows to his tricky dungeon rooms. Between the scientific flavor of a name torn from sci-fi and they way walls of force did the same job better, dungeon builders never embraced glassteel.

To last, a few of these dungeon builder spells needed the help of the 8th-level Permanency spell. In fifth edition, Magic Mouth lasts until dispelled, but originally that same duration required an 8th-level spell and a lost point of Constitution. If I were a mad mage building a dungeon, I would opt for painted signs instead.

Permanency helped dungeon architects extend spells like Wall of Fire, Gust of Wind, Wall of Force, and many others. Edition 3.5 featured the best realization of Permanency.

As I look back on the spells for dungeon makers, I see a missed opportunity. D&D could benefit from more spells that filled gaps in the toolkit of Keraptis, Halaster, Galap-Dreidel, and all the game’s other dungeon builders.

The architect of the Tomb of Horrors, Acererak, creates dungeons to trap the souls of heroes, but he faces a problem: Before adventurers die, they keep wrecking stuff. In Return to the Tomb of Horrors and Tomb of Annihilation, Acererak recruits unliving maintenance crews to repair damage for the next party of doomed adventurers arrives. Now imagine an infomercial featuring an exasperated archlich saying, “There has to be a better way!”


Spirit of Remaking

6th-level transmutation
Casting Time: 1 hour
Range: Touch
Components: V,S,M (a jewelled hammer worth 500 gp, which the spell consumes)
Duration: Until Dispelled
Save: None

You touch an object or section of construction of large size or smaller. If the target suffers damage, the spell repairs the damage. If the target includes mechanisms, the spell returns these mechanisms to their original state. So for example, traps can be reset.

This spell repairs at the pace of a skilled laborer. The spell will not function while its target is observed.


In Tomb of Annihilation, Acererak uses adamantine parts held together with Soverign Glue to prevent adventurers from breaking his magical puzzles and traps rather than engaging with them. Can you imagine the building expense? Every dungeon builder needs some way to keep adventurers from simply cutting the Gordian Knot.


Ward of Sequestration

6th-level abjuration
Casting Time: 1 hour
Range: Touch
Components: V,S,M (a powder composed of diamond, emerald, ruby, and sapphire dust worth at least 500 gp, which the spell consumes)
Duration: Until Dispelled

You cause a Large-sized or smaller object to be warded so that if it’s damaged or manipulated in certain ways, then it vanishes to an extra-dimensional space, safe from harm. You set the ways that manipulating the object will cause it to disappear. Also, you can set how long the object will remain in the extra-dimensional space. For example, it could remain sequestered just a minute or 1,000 years. If the object is built into a larger construction such as a wall or door, then when the target disappears, it’s replaced with stone, metal, or similar materials that blend with the surrounding construction. If the replacement materials are removed from the construction, then they disintegrate.


In the early days of D&D, many DMs suffered a common embarrassment: Players would dare to enter some dungeon sealed for millenia, and find it stocked with living creatures who somehow survived the ages in their monster hotel rooms. Some smart-assed player would start asking quetions, and soon the whole group starts mocking the absurdity of the DM’s creation.

To avoid ridicule, DMs learned to fill their vaults with undead, constructs, and elementals, but that leaves so many fine monsters unavailable.


Temporal Prison

8th-level transmutation
Casting Time: 1 action
Range/Area: 60 ft (20 ft)
Components: V,S,M (an hourglass)
Duration: Until Dispelled or Triggered
Save: None

You attempt to imprison creatures in spaces where time slows to a near standstill. Creatures within 20 feet of a point you choose within range are affected in ascending order of their current hit points. The spell affects up to 175 total hit points. Subtract each creature’s hit points from the total before moving on to the creature with the next lowest hit points. A creature’s hit points must be equal to or less than the remaining total for that creature to be affected.

Inside a temporal prison, a blink of an eye can take hours. This slowing of time means that imprisoned creatures do not grow older and their body functions virtually cease. These prisons take a crystaline shape that envelops each creature. To the touch, the prisons feel solid and glassy. Bright light that passes through the prisons appears dim and dim light cannot penetrate. The prisons provide total cover to the creatures inside. Moving the prisons by any means other than teleportation breaks the spell

You can decide on triggers that cause the spell to end. The condition can be anything you choose, but it must occur or be visible within 120 feet of the target. The most common trigger is approaching within a certain distance. You can further refine the trigger so the spell ends only under certain circumstances or according to physical characteristics (such as height or weight), creature kind (for example, the ward could be set to affect aberrations or drow), or alignment. You can also set conditions for creatures that don’t end the spell, such as those who say a certain password.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, add an additional 75 hit points to the total number of hit points affected.


*My friend John P. Jones plays a character who casts Magic Mouth on his arrows so they deliver a mix of messages and terrified screams when they hit. John plays a bard and you know how they are. My outrageous generalizations about wizard players stands. John’s trick works because Magic Mouth now lasts until dispelled. John can prepare arrows in advance and still adventure with all his spell slots.

Related: 5 Reasons Someone Might Build a Dungeon Filled With Clues, Tests, and Riddles

The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players

The Obvious Innovation in Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons That No Designer Saw Before

Stirrups. Zero. Shipping containers. Luggage with wheels. All these innovations seem obvious in hindsight. But they went undiscovered for millennia, until someone’s bright idea changed the world—or at least put airport porters out of work. Even those hotel shower rods that curve made someone rich.

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons includes one obvious-in-hindsight innovation that the game’s past designers failed to spot. Alas, it won’t make anyone rich.

Sverrir by ArboUp until fourth edition, D&D fighters gained extra attacks, but fourth edition avoided them. The designers shunned extra attacks partly to speed play by reducing the number of attack and damage rolls. Sure, spells attacked lots of targets, but at least spells only required one damage roll.

Also fourth edition, like all earlier editions of D&D, aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. In theory, this made the difference in power between, a 4th- and 5th-level character about the same as the difference between levels 5 and 6. Characters at similar levels could adventure together without someone routinely dealing twice as much damage. But a second attack on every turn brings a fighter a big jump in power.

The designers of past editions worked to smooth these jumps in power by granting fighters something less than a full extra attack. AD&D gave fighters extra half attacks, and a need to remember half attacks. Third edition traded half attacks and the memory issue for weaker attacks and fiddly attack penalties. These solutions complicated the game with awkward memory demands and calculations.

So playtest versions of fifth edition did not grant fighters and other martial characters an Extra Attack feature. Rather than gaining more attacks, these classes earned features that enabled attacks to deal more damage. But this approach put fighters at a disadvantage against weaker foes easily dropped by a single blow.

When a fighter confronts a goblin horde and only makes one attack per turn, no amount of extra damage matters because one strike can only fell one goblin per turn. To help martial types against weak foes, the playtest included cleaving-attack powers that swept through groups. But such features failed to remedy another trouble: To-hit bonuses in fifth-edition increase at a slower rate and never grow as big as in earlier editions. The designers call this bounded accuracy, because they do not come from marketing. Bounded accuracy means that fighters hit weaker foes less easily than in past editions.

Fighter types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. But in the playtest, even the mightiest spent turns muffing their one attack against some mook. With an extra attack, misses matter less because there’s more where that came from.

During the playtest, I wrote, “If D&D Next’s designers can find a good way to allow fighters to gain multiple attacks against weaker opponents, then a key piece of the Next design puzzle falls into place.”

Late in fifth edition’s creation, the designers compared the benefits each class gained as they leveled and noticed that wizards leap in power at 5th and at 11th levels. These jumps come from quirks of a spell list that date to the beginning of the game. At 5th level, wizards gain potent attack spells like Fireball, plus unbalancing buffs like Haste. At 11th level, wizards gain 6th-level spells, which bring save-or-die effects like Disintegrate. At the 9th spell level, Gary Gygax felt comfortable stashing world-altering spells like Wish and Time Stop, because his players never reached 17th level and never gained easy access to them.

Earlier editions of D&D aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. Those editions’ designers ignored the leaps in power certain spells brought; the fifth-edition designers embraced the leaps.

This brought the obvious-in-hindsight innovation: Rather than offering fighters half attacks or fiddly attack penalties, fifth edition matches the leaps in power brought by additional attacks to the leaps brought by 3rd, 6th, and 9th-level spells. Fighters gain extra attacks as wizards gain these spells. At the same levels, other classes gain potent powers and spells of their own. For instance, the bard’s Hypnotic Pattern spell got a fifth-edition redesign that moves it to 3rd level and dramatically increases the spell’s power. 

Third and fourth editions arbitrarily aligned the game’s tiers with 10th and 20th levels, because of round numbers. The fifth-edition tiers match to the levels where characters gain the best new powers and spells. These leaps in ability mean 4th- and 5th-level characters cannot adventure together without displaying big power differences, but characters in the same tier can join a party and contribute.

It all seems obvious now. Designer Mike Mearls says that a lot of innovations in game design work that way.

The D&D Adventures That Stumble by Missing the Hook

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

Appealing to rogues, paladins, and players

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing the hook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delve format encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arduin Grimoire: The “Coolest RPG Book Ever,” also the Book Gygax Mocked As Costing Readers 1 Int and 2 Wis

When creators dream up imaginary worlds, they can go in two directions. They can build their world from a curated set of ideas, and then fit these pieces together into a logical and consistent manner. In a fantasy gaming, these creators worry about how magic affects society and culture, and then wind up with worlds like Glorantha or Tekumel.

The Arduin TrilogyDave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. If Tekumal is a museum, with treasures for contemplation, then Arduin is a dragon’s horde, with everything shiny heaped to the walls.

Dave Hargrave pictured in his adventure collection, “Vaults of the Weaver”

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in a little, brown book named after his world, The Arduin Grimoire. In 1977, his unofficial supplement to Dungeons & Dragons debuted at California’s DunDraCon II convention. The book’s success led to the sequels Welcome to Skull Tower (1978) and The Runes of Doom (1978).

In a look back on the trilogy, Ryk Spoor called Arduin “one of the most absolutely concentrated essences of the fun of roleplaying games ever made.” Jonathan Tweet, the lead designer of third-edition D&D, called Arduin the “the coolest RPG book ever.”

Sometime in 1979, I found the series on the shelves of The Hobby Chest in Skokie, Illinois. The pages teemed with fresh ideas. The author suggested strange pairings of science and fantasy. He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. It all seemed a little subversive. I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read. At first I thumbed through the books at random, discovering gems, then I turned to page one and read. (Due to the books’ random organization, both reading orders felt the same.) As Hargrave wandered through Arduin lore and free-associated roleplaying game wisdom, I learned three lessons.

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

Fantasy gives freedom to imagination.

As D&D’s audience exploded, in the days before Appendix N, most new players’ experience with fantasy started with Tolkien and ended with a few imitators. The sort of science-fantasy found in say, Jack Vance, seemed wrong. To us, Hargrave preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” Hargrave wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

Evidence of his creative abandon appears everywhere, from the “Multiversal Trading Company” to descriptions of the world’s 21 hells. For instance, the 17th plane of hell features blasted futuristic cities and space ports under a blue-black, moonless sky. Most vegetation is petrified. This hell’s most common inhabitant is The Black Wind, a fog of shifting shadows, lit by crackling, blue lighting bolts. The wind envelops and attacks psychically, taking over the body, and “forever making it alien.”

Hargrave welcomes a variety of character types. “Do not be a small player in a small world, embrace the whole Alternity and give different types a chance. I think you will find that the world your game is in will become a lot more fun if you do.” (Twenty years later, Dave Hargrave’s portmanteau “Alternity,” from alternate eternities, would become the name of a Wizards of the Coast RPG.)

‘Alliance’ from Arduin volume 3 and an advertisement in Dragon issue 30

Gary Gygax favored D&D parties where humans outnumbered the elves, dwarves, and other non-humans. Such groups matched the mostly human characters in the fantasy tales that inspired D&D.

Today’s D&D groups resemble the Star Wars cantina scene, where exotic species outnumber the odd human. Hargave encouraged similar, strange mixes. An advertisement for Arduin shows an adventuring party consisting of 4 unlikely companions:

  • a phraint, emotionless humanoid insects
  • a deodanth, undead elves from eons in the future, now lost in their past
  • a saurig, dinosaur-men from the distant past bred as killing machines
  • a masked, human samurai somehow somehow fighting alongside these gonzo creatures

Even now, this assembly seems stranger than the typical Adventurers League mix of, say, a tiefling, a tortle, someone with fire for hair, and a goblin named Percy.

The rules belong to players.

Jonathan Tweet noted the weakness of the Hargrave’s rules. “The Arduin system is usually unbalanced and often unbelievably complicated.” Still, some mechanics would fit a modern game. For example, he offers rules for touch attacks and a hit point system that resembles fourth edition’s. But the specific rules hardly mattered. Hargrave encourages players to own the rules and their games, to tinker, to playtest. On presenting his magic system, Hargrave advises readers to “take whatever I have that you like, use the old established fantasy gaming systems…and put together whatever you like in a magic system. Who knows, it may end up with such a good system that people will want to publish your fantasy world.” (Vol. I, p.30)

Detail makes game worlds come to life.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of the Wilderness Survival map and some encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later. According to Ryk Spoor, “One of the strongest and most powerfully attractive parts of the Arduin series was that, within and around the game mechanics, the statistics for demons and items and spells, Dave Hargrave wove tales and hints of his campaign world, giving us a look at the life of a world that didn’t exist, but…perhaps… could, elsewhere.”

Arduin Now and Then

To gamers today, Arduin’s three lessons may seem obvious. New games seek freshness by colliding genres, so cowboys meet the undead, magic meets cyberpunk, and so on. Endless setting books lend detail to world building. When the fifth-edition designers explain their hesitancy to tweak the published rules, they say the rules belong to the players now. Arduin’s phraints seem to have become Dark Sun’s Thri-Kreen.

True, but in 1978, Arduin’s lessons demolished barriers that would never stand again.

Gary Gygax versus The Arduin Grimoire

In the 70s, Gary Gygax resented products that rode his and D&D’s coattails. The man had 6 children to feed! Arduin aped the little, brown books and tore down D&D’s rules, so the grimoires earned particular ire. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gary added the Vacuous Grimoire (p.155) as a dig at The Arduin Grimoire. Read it and lose 1 intelligence and 2 wisdom. In the pages of The Dragon, Gary attacked spell points, critical hits, and other rules that Hargrave offered as improvements.

TSR issued a cease and desist letter to Hargrave, who responded by blanking references to D&D. My printing splices in mentions of “other popular systems” and “old established fantasy gaming systems” where D&D was mentioned. Hargrave took to calling Arduin a completely different game, although it skipped essential rules that readers must find elsewhere (in D&D). Rules sections are labeled as changes or revisions to an unnamed game (still D&D).

Over the years, Hargrave created the missing rules needed to make a stand-alone game. But no one cared about his rules. Dave Hargrave never realized that his rules hardly mattered.

His feverish invention mattered. Arduin’s lessons mattered—and they changed role-playing.

Emperors Choice Games offers Arduin products for sale. The original trilogy now appears in a single volume.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demi-Human Level Limits, D&D Adventurers League, Open Rolls, and More From the Comment Section

Time for another visit to the comment section, starting with a request.

DM Bill writes, “Could you do an article about humans versus non-humans, and the importance of the First Edition level cap, please!

Until third edition, Dungeons & Dragons limited non-human characters to maximum levels in most classes. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax favored the sort of human-dominated fantasy that appeared in the fiction that inspired him. To Gary, demi-human level limits explained why humans dominated D&D worlds despite the extraordinary talents and longevity of elves and dwarves. Gary wrote, “If demi-humans, already given some advantages, were as able as humans, the world would be dominated by them, and there goes the whole of having a relatively familiar world setting in regards to what cultures and societies one will find in control. So a demi-human is unlimited in thief level only, as that this a class not destined to control the fate of major groups or states.

I doubt the rare humans who become capable enough to overshadow non-humans really explain human prevalence in a D&D world, but the level limits encouraged playing human characters and tended to fill adventuring parties with humans. Of course, some groups simply ignored the rule.

Gary wrote, “Why are humans more able to rise to higher levels than demi-humans? Because the gods say so, and don’t like pointy eared types with curly-toed shoes, squat miners with big beards, hairy-footed midgets, etc.” Gary intended the comment as harmless fun at the expense of make-believe creatures, and in 2005 most readers read it that way. But now the comment reads in a way Gary surely didn’t consider. In our history, people have justified inflicting countless horrors on other humans by claiming that God disapproved of some group. Talking about even fictional half-humans like this raises uncomfortable echoes.

Nowadays, many players feel drawn to the exotic character races. In an apt post, John Arendt compares the typical Adventurers League party to the Munsters, a collection of exotic, monstrous types with perhaps one human for contrast. “When an AL player sits down with a shadar-kai shadow sorcerer, there’s no point in even asking them what they’re doing in a large human city; the players haven’t considered it. The culture is about players assembling races and classes because the mechanical bits sound cool.” I see many players drawn to exotic characters for their story, flavor, and for the chance to play someone who seems extraordinary even in a D&D world. That urge never succeeds as well as players hope. Even in the Forgotten Realms, a party that includes a deep gnome, a tortle, a triton, a shadar-kai, and a guy with flaming hair would alarm ordinary folks, but to keep the adventure on track everyone treats such groups as unremarkable.

D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character

In D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character I touted the power of find familiar.

Seven writes, “When used correctly find familiar is way overpowered. My owl scouts ahead so we don’t get ambushed. My owl flies down the tunnel triggering the glyph. My owl scouts the dungeon as I watch. Oh, it dies. Ok, I ritually cast. Let’s burn an hour.

I disallowed the Help action in combat for familiars and my players try not to abuse the power granted by the find familiar, but I miss the old days when you suffered a consequence when your familiar died.

Ilbranteloth writes, “Why can’t a spirit have a personality? Gwenhwyver was a magic item, but had a personality and sting connection to Drizzt. Having a personality is up the player. It has nothing to do with being a flesh and blood creature that only exists in our imagination.

If find familiar feels too strong for a 1st-level spell, I suggest limiting it by adding two elements:

  • Treat the familiar as an non-player character with an attitude and a some desire to avoid getting hurt. As controlled by the dungeon master, familiars follow orders, but not necessarily cheerfully or recklessly.

  • Doors. Scouting familiars lack the hands needed to open most doors.

The post also suggested find steed and find greater steed to players interested in gaining a mount.

Larissa writes, “Find greater steed is a 4th-level spell, so paladins won’t get it until level 13. For the greater steed, play a bard and take the spell at level 10, because for a paladin it’s a long wait.

Steal This Rule: Flashbacks and Heists in Dungeons & Dragons

The post Steal This Rule: Flashbacks and Heists in Dungeons & Dragons explained how to adapt rules for flashbacks to Dungeons & Dragons.

Morten Greis writes, “It is kind of weird to see flashbacks-mechanics coming back as if it was a wholly new thing. In 2010, I wrote this: Using Flashbacks in Your Roleplaying Game. It is a great mechanic, though, and it is good to see people using it more.

For gamers interested in flashbacks, Morten’s post gives more suggestions for using the mechanic to enhance your game.

Captain Person writes, “There’s a product on DMs Guild called Here’s To Crime: A Guide to Capers and Heists that adapts the Blades in the Dark heists to fifth-edition D&D.

Michael Lush writes, “‘The Arcadian Job’ episode of the Netflix series 3Below: Tales of Arcadia had an interesting flash-forward spin on this.

The protagonists need to break into a high security military base, but the action focuses on the planning session where they narrate what they are doing and their plans appear on screen.

We infiltrate under cover of night and cut through the wall with…BZZZZZZT!!! No, can’t do that! Look the wall is electrified…

We infiltrate under cover of night and short circuit the wall (failed Security roll. An alarm rings, guards show up, and we die in a hail of blaster fire! No, can’t do that…

OK. Infiltrate under cover of night, insulate the wall with rubber matting (rolls a success), and climb over the…ZAP!! Oh sentry turrets.

Hmm. The wall is a bust. How about the gate?

Once they bypass all the security, the flash-forward planning switches back to normal real-time play.

In a tabletop game, such planning steps would resemble a video game where when you run into trouble, you restore to the last save. The story that develops includes no failures because the framing story shows how the players planned around all the pitfalls.

The 3Below episode finds a new take on the usual storytelling approach to planning. Typically, if the characters make a plan on screen, we know the plan will fail. The narrative lets us enjoy the surprise and tension of seeing the plan unravel. But if we never see the planning, then the plan succeeds. Narratives never show heroes making successful plans because revisiting a familiar plan as it unfolds would prove less interesting.

lunaabadia writes, “One of the mechanics I really like in Gumshoe games such as Night’s Black Agents is the Preparedness skill. It represents this concept that your character has a knack for planning. As with other skills in the game, you spend one or more points to add to a roll for what you are trying to accomplish. You might say, ‘but of course I brought night goggles,’ and you make the roll. As you noted above, the whole point is to zip past the boring hours players can spend wondering what gear to bring. Preparedness answers the question of whether you brought it and frees players’ brains to focus on the action.

I would guess Preparedness could be done with Inspiration, and in a heist session it could make a lot of sense to give each player Inspiration at the start of the mission, representing their planning. Do you spend it on a roll? Or do you hold it in case you need to do a flashback?

7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing

The post 7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing continues to attract readers and comments.

Geoff writes, “Disciple of Life doesn’t apply to goodberries. It says ‘whenever you use a spell of 1st level or higher to restore hit points to a creature, the creature regains additional hit points.’ Goodberry is a spell that summons magical berries, not a spell that restores hit points to a creature.

Your interpretation adds up, but officially the interaction works. See this Sage Advice post.

Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?

In Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?, I had a bit of fun at the expense of one of the earliest fantasy roleplaying games.

Shane Devries tells how his group started playing Chivalry & Sorcery by ignoring most of the rules, and then slowly added complexity. “Over a period of a couple of years we were playing the entire system as written and NEVER looked back. Over time D&D and Palladium dropped away and by 1985 all we played was Chivalry & Sorcery, which we still play to this day. All my players prefer C&S BECAUSE of its complexity and revel in the system and what it has to offer. The older players in my group with decades of experience will not go back to D&D or any other system for this fact.

Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start)

The post Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start) prompted some readers to share their bad experiences dropping in for Adventurers League games.

Alphastream responds, “The experience really varies, but bad areas are uncommon. I’ve traveled for work across the US and tried many different stores. I would say under 15% are truly bad, primarily due to bad store management. And, even when I’ve found a bad one, I’ve offered to DM an additional table, recruited players via MeetUp (or a similar site), and had a great time. I’ve had far better results finding AL tables and meeting cool players/DMs there than I have with trying to find decent home groups. Good stores are also very welcoming to new players. Stores overall are changing a lot these days, mastering skills to draw in customers through many different programs and creating healthy and safe spaces focused on fun.

My local game store draws players interested in sampling D&D, and while many become regulars, many don’t return. The conversion rate rises when prospective players arrive at a table starting a new campaign or hardcover. When players get slotted into an ongoing game, they seem to find the experience more daunting. An ideal welcome would feature short seasons of low-level games that fed into a higher-level experience. Wizards of the Coast should support a program like that. I can even suggest a name for it.

How New Changes Created the 4 Most Annoying Spells in Dungeons & Dragons

In How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, I wrote, “By the end of the encounter, player characters go from one beguiled victim to the next, raining attacks on the defenseless pinatas. As a DM, I may be biased, but I think the least fun scenes in the game come when PCs beat helpless foes to death.”

Acemindbreaker writes, “Why play that out? If it’s clear that their opponents stand no chance, montage it instead of rolling the dice. ‘So, your opponents are all helpless as long as your wizard keeps up hypnotic pattern. Are you intending to kill them all?’

‘Yeah.’

‘All right, easy enough to do. Once they’re all dead, what next?’

Zachiel cites maze as an annoying spell that can wreck most player characters. Wizards aside, PCs never boast enough intelligence to make a DC20 check on less than a 20. Lucky for players, few will ever face the 8th-level spell. However, the spell appears on Acererak’s list in Tomb of Annihilation, so I got to send someone to the labyrinth, and that delighted me. My joy probably makes me a mean DM, but we DMs so rarely get to thwart players with such potent magic.

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less suggested ways DMs can delegate some of their tasks to players.

Daniel writes, “My players enjoyed reciting expository dialog (usually in the form of flashback conversations involving NPCs). Maybe this is because some of them had more of an acting background than a gaming one. It does mean that I had to compose and print the dialog in advance but it then saved me having to do too much talking (and switching personas) during a session.

In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

The post In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling? raised a question that drew plenty of interest.

RobOQ writes, “As a player I tend to get annoyed at rolling for every imaginable thing. I prefer, both as a player and a DM, to go by the rule of ‘if there isn’t an interesting outcome to both success and failure on the roll, leave the dice where they are and just describe the more interesting outcome.’ I see very little point in rolling dice where a failure means the situation doesn’t change at all.

Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes

In Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes, I betrayed a low passive insight by suggesting that a liar might avoid eye contact.

Dr Sepsis writes, “Someone who is lying is more likely to make eye contact as they check to see if they’re being detected.

HDA writes, “Instead of rolling dice to get information, make your players think, observe, ask questions, learn from the world around them. As the DM playing a non-player character, maybe raise your eyebrow a bit. You know, emote. What is even the point of having intrigue and deception in your game if the players can just roll to see through it?

8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell

In response to 8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell, Kristen Mork pointed me to Sage Advice that said each magic missile should provoke a separate concentration check.

This answer defies the answer the design team gave when they introduced the game, but fine. In practice, the newer ruling makes magic missile an efficient way to break concentration and to finish fallen characters. (See Can a DM Have Monsters Kill Fallen Characters Without Bringing Hurt Feelings?)

After penning my 8 facts, I watched a Q&A panel by TSR editor Tim Kask that expanded on one. Gary Gygax’s debates with Tim helped shape Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “The only thing that I won was that magic missile always hits for damage,” Tim said. “It took me two-and-a-half weeks of arguing. I kept telling him that that’s the only thing the little guy gets and if it’s hit or miss, then he’s dead.”

Dan writes, “I would actually argue that the magic missile and shield spells were inspired by a bit earlier in that scene from The Raven, whereby Karloff produces magical knives and an ax and sends them toward Price, who blocks them with magic barriers.

The small exploding balls at the beginning of your embedded video are much more likely to have been what inspired Melf’s Minute Meteors.

Steve Blunden writes, “Seeing both these clips, and of course the wizard duels in Harry Potter inspired me to see if the rather colourless counterspell could be dramatically improved. When a character tries to cast counterspell, the player should be encouraged to describe what this might look like. E.g. if counterspell is used against fireball, the player can describe the counterspell as a jet of water leaping out of their hand to douse the fire.

In Making Counterspell Awesome, Mike “Sly Fourish” Shea recommended this approach.

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

The post How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story prompted alphastream to share some history.

Second edition and earlier simply had fragile PCs. You could die easily, end of story.

Third edition had monsters that were absolutely brutal at all tiers, plus some really exploitable loopholes (such as non-associated class levels) that created sky-high challenges. This all meant that if the DM knew how to craft monsters,characters could easily die, even when they had full hit points. Unfortunately, it was incredibly taxing to modify monsters.

Fourth edition gave PCs too much of a safety net between hp and healing surges, though the edition also had some amazing challenges (especially after the developers went back and corrected the monster design math).

Fifth edition on paper looks more fragile than 4E, but it has not been in play. Characters are very resilient and have a lot of hit points compared to monster damage. Monsters are often given special abilities and to balance that they do less damage, but the abilities don’t actually threaten PCs with death. This problem is even worse at high tiers of play, where monster damage is absolutely shameful. Most monsters have no chance. If they hit 100% of the time they still could not drop all the PCs to 0 hit points. And when that isn’t the case, there is no way for the PCs to be defeated in most fights. To me, the 5E solution is pretty simple: add damage.

Abelhawk writes, “I have a couple of house rules that make death a bit more dangerous and limiting:

1. When a character is brought to 0 hit points, they gain a level of exhaustion. Levels of exhaustion gained in this way go away after a short rest, or if the character is brought to half their hit point maximum.

2. When a character dies and is brought back to life, they receive one permanent death saving throw failure. A character with three permanent death saving throw failures cannot be brought back to life by any means.

Imposing exhaustion on characters raised from 0 hp rates as a fairly popular house rule. As for the second house rule, I like the idea of limiting characters to some maximum number of resurrections.

Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

In the post, Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story, I wrote, “If D&D players wanted a game where fighting rated as a last resort, they would play Call of Cthulhu or the Dallas Television RPG, where you can’t shoot JR.”

Jacob Blalock responds, “Most people who want to play have to take what they can get in terms of finding a group to play with, and that means they mostly play the most recent edition of the most widely recognized RPG, 5th-edition D&D.

Jacob makes a fair point. Some roleplaying gamers play D&D because the game’s popularity makes finding a group easier, rather than because the game perfectly suits their tastes.

Cymond writes, “I was recently considering the idea of a house rule: Let a dying character remain conscious but unable to act or speak loudly. You can still have those dramatic deathbed moments where they confess their eternal love, beg to be avenged, plead with the unscrupulous rogue to please save the world, etc. Or maybe say that they don’t die immediately after 3 failed saves, but are beyond saving with anything less that the same things that would resurrect them, and save the deathbed moment until after combat.

Tardigrade writes, “I strongly feel that if a character death is a problem for your narrative, then you’re playing the game wrong. If you are narrating a story, go write a book. If you are trying to create an experience that challenges players, then play D&D, design the game so that their choices matter and don’t fudge the dice.

BlobinatorQ responds, “Ultimately it comes down to the group. If the group wants D&D to be nothing but challenges, and wants the stakes to be high with character death always on the table, then so be it. If the group wants to build and be invested in a narrative, and don’t want people left out of the experience due to some unlucky dice rolls, then things should be crafted to suit that. There is no one right way to play D&D, it can be a very different game for different groups.

When I explained the problems that death creates for a story, I focused on the story a particular player imagines for their character. The story of a D&D campaign can stand some character deaths, but that doesn’t cushion the blow a dead character brings to their player.

Ilbranteloth notes that the 1st-edition rules for characters at 0 hit points were forgiving, giving players at least 7 rounds to help a fallen character.

What differs significantly are the consequences of your near-death experience. And this is where I think 5e has made it much less of a thing. In AD&D, if you were reduced to 0 hp, then once you were restored to at least 1 hp with mundane OR MAGICAL means, you were in a coma for 10-60 minutes. Then you had to rest for a full week, minimum. A Heal spell was required to avoid this period of rest.

There was a significant consequence already built into the game for dying and we avoided it because it generally put the adventure on hold while the party headed back to town to rest and recover.

In most cases, it also meant nobody was out of the game. The entire party went to town to rest and resupply, and of course you didn’t have to play that out. So it was a short, we-failed moment.

If this one rule was still in effect, then the risk of death is back, without having to kill any PCs. And it also has the effect of reducing the risk of actual character death because players try to make sure they aren’t reduced to 0 hp.

I have now learned that when I played AD&D, everyone I played with got the rules for 0 hit points wrong.

The post Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk explained why I typically use a DM screen.

Alphastream writes, “When I run organized play games and don’t use a screen, I get maybe one person every four or so tables that can’t help but look at my notes. And when that happens, they tend to look often… enough that it distracts me! So, I tend to use a screen. Plus, I like collecting/buying screens and then I get to show them off.

I find screens can be effective for drawing attention from others. In a public space where that’s valuable, such as to get other people walking by to be interested and sit down, it can be an asset.

The least valuable aspect of a screen, for me, is what’s printed on my side. Outside of a few things, such as conditions, dispel magic, and counterspell, I never look anything up. What I’ve been doing lately is draping two pieces of paper taped together over one part of my screen. Facing the players is a map of the general area of the world. Facing me is a list of the character names and info I want for help with roleplay: race, background, class/subclass, etc. I add a list of important campaign NPCs and similar notes. That’s stuff I reference all the time.

I have one young player who finds the basilisk so irresistible that I often see his eyes rise like Kilroy over the top of my screen.

The post’s sidebar explained why I roll in the open and raised some debate.

I wrote, “If I had rolled behind the screen and simply announced a pair of crits, the event would have fallen as flat as a card trick on radio.”

Navy DM responds, “If players have that low level of trust in their DM, then that is a whole different issue.

Sam replies, “Sounds more like the excitement and watching the dice roll than not trusting what the DM rolled to me.

Marty replies, “Exactly. The tension comes from seeing the rolls and reacting. Rolling in the open has completely changed my game for the better.

Most DMs who roll behind the screen acknowledge that they occasionally override rolls to shape play, aiming for a better experience. Rather than players trusting their DM to stick to a die roll, I assume the players trust the DM to not abuse their privilege in some way. What would count as a betrayal of trust?

To be clear, I make some rolls in secret to conceal information from the players. I often roll hidden perception and especially insight checks to avoid revealing secrets.

Beyond the advantages I described in the post, rolling in the open forces me to honor any surprises the dice send my way. If a secret roll upends my plans, I might feel tempted to ignore the roll and take the comfortable path I expected. For me, rolling in the open feels a bit more exciting, like dungeon mastering without a net.

Other DMs feel like sometimes overriding rolls lets them craft a more dramatic game. I respect that perspective, but it’s not for me.

Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

A few years ago, I heard someone suggest what I then considered the worst bit of roleplaying game advice ever: Let players choose whether to allow their characters to die. Except, hear me out, maybe something like that could work. Keep reading.

Character death has always torn Dungeons & Dragons between game and story. The threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an unsatisfying end that can disrupt a campaign. See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.

Making character deaths optional declares story most important, and games focused on storytelling can thrive with such a rule. The Fate roleplaying game rules explain, “Most of the time, sudden character death is a pretty boring outcome where compared to putting the character through hell.” Plus a journey through hell can emerge from the other side.

To remove death from a roleplaying game, make success and failure about stakes less final than shredding a dead character’s sheet.

D&D makes a tough candidate for this approach. Mainly, D&D tends to feature fighting evil with an emphasis on fighting. Combat is a life or death situation, especially when most players’ refuse to retreat or surrender. If D&D players wanted a game where fighting rated as a last resort, they would play Call of Cthulhu or the Dallas Television RPG, where you can’t shoot JR.

D&D has never been good with setbacks short of death. Co-creator Gary Gygax invented some, including level draining and equipment loss aided by things like rust monsters, but players hated all of them. Somehow a lost level or a ruined magic item seemed more punitive that a dead character.

Making death optional risks leaving D&D lifeless. In the Investigation Check podcast, Josh remembers a campaign where the players learned that no characters could die. “It started to feel stale when we didn’t feel like our characters were in any real danger. I didn’t feel motivated to level up or even get equipment, because I felt we were always going to make it out fine.” D&D needs a consequence of failure that is less disruptive and painful than character death, but that holds enough sting to keep a sense of danger.

To cope with character death, try bridging the gap between game and story by bargaining.

A good story requires two ingredients: (1) characters with a goal and (2) obstacles that test and reveal the characters. To serve the story of a D&D game, players and the dungeon master take opposing interests. Players handle the characters while DMs pose the obstacles. In a healthy game, none of this makes the DM and players into opponents competing to win. As a player focused on story, understand that the best stories include some setbacks and perhaps even defeat. As a DM, become a fan of the characters. In Your Best Game Ever, Monte Cook recommends game masters take this approach: “Have a playful attitude of, ‘I’m making this really challenging for you.’ This isn’t adversarial, just a way to—on a metagame level—inject a bit of tension into the game. When the PCs are victorious, the players will feel even greater satisfaction from believing that you were pushing them to their limits.”

When the dice rule that a character dies, and the player feels unready to end the character’s story, consider making a deal between the player and DM that improves the tale by substituting death for a different setback. The more the setback complicates the character’s imaginary life, the more the story wins.

My inner old-school gamer, who started playing before Tomb of Horrors reached stores, fears that sparing rightfully-dead characters coddles players and ruins D&D. Fortunately, trading deaths for lesser penalties has support from a man with perfect old-school credentials. In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax wrote, “Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. You do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well.”

As the simplest consequence for letting a character live, accept a roll on the permanent injuries table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.272). Or perhaps that last death save never failed, but the next 3 times the character faces undead, he suffers from the frightened condition until he ends a turn with a successful Wisdom save.

Perhaps the character loses an item needed to reach the party’s ultimate goal. The dragon’s breath somehow missed the character and destroyed the party’s astral skiff. The death blow sundered the sword specifically forged to kill the Dragon King. This setback should still allow a final victory, but the path to success becomes more complicated. Maybe now the players must free the imprisoned smith with the skill to reforge the dragonslayer. Complications turn into adventure hooks.

The deal need not explain why the character lived, although a hunt for some explanation can fuel creativity. The deal swaps death—a bad outcome for the character and (probably) a bad outcome for the story—with an outcome that by provides a more interesting reversal of fortune. This means any unplanned plot twist can buy a life so long as it also complicates the character’s life. For example, normally DMs should avoid having non-player characters betray the party. Such treachery encourages players to see everyone as a foe. But if the twist comes from a unplanned complication that buys a character’s life, it works. Let’s make a deal.

Space battles pose a problem for roleplaying games. A photon torpedo or plasma bolt can destroy a space ship, vaporizing all on board. In scripted science fiction tales, the crew’s plot armor protects them, but in a roleplaying game, a space battle threatens to wreck a campaign with an instant total-party kill. The game Stars Without Number solves the problem with an ingenious solution: When a space ship takes critical damage, players can opt to substitute a crisis aboard the ship. The game swaps death for complications that enrich the adventure. In Stars Without Number, players roll on a table to determine the exact crisis. This takes the GM out of the process and makes the swap feel entirely impartial.

A player can opt to let a character die. Sometimes players have a new character in mind and feel ready to move on. Sometimes a noble sacrifice defending the bridge or holding the door seems like exactly the right end for a character’s arc.

Even if a player feels ready to accept a character’s fate, the deal might be to die forever, but not just yet. Perhaps instead of bleeding out, the character rises to her feet to defend the bridge or to strike the killing blow. And then, when her moment has passed, her mighty heart finally gives out. That’s a death for heroes.

By allowing players to escape death, DMs can run more tense, dangerous games while making the tale of the characters’ adventures more heroic and more compelling.