Tag Archives: Mike Shea

Vault of the Dracolich (2013): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 7

Vault of the Dracolich is a D&D Next adventure By Mike Shea, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and Teos Abadia for level 4 characters.

The Living Greyhawk organized-play campaign pioneered a popular new way to play Dungeons & Dragons at conventions. In Battle Interactives, multiple tables could join together in the same adventure. The effect of actions, successes, and failures at tables could ripple to others in the interactive.

To fuel excitement for D&D’s upcoming fifth edition, the D&D team planned a gameday for stores. Vault of the Dracolich co-designer Teos Abadia explains, “Wizards of the Coast wanted to see whether a gameday could be transformed from the typical adventure format into a very exciting event: a hybrid between a battle interactive and Lair Assault.” The event proved a huge success.

“The project’s approach was a new one for Wizards,” Abadia writes. “We designers were all freelancers acting as a team, instead of writing and submitting our work separately to WotC for them to put together. Mike was the author, I was the developer, and Scott the editor (and first draft cartographer). As a result, we all collaborated heavily and all took turns scheming, writing, developing, and editing.”

During the adventure, bands of heroes infiltrate a temple of the Cult of the Dragon to recover an ancient elven staff from the dracolich, Detchroyaster. Merric Blackman describes the setup. “Vault has a number of different groups investigating different parts of the dungeon at the same time. So, from one to seven tables can play at the same time, with a DM at each table, and one further person would act as the event’s coordinator, making sure everything worked smoothly and triggering the big events that affected several tables at once.”

“The lair of the Dracolich is large enough that it accompanies four sections, ranging from a Lizardmen commune to a temple of the dead god Bhaal,” writes Alex Lucard. “Each of the four locations offers a very different experience, so if you decide to run all four parts as a mini campaign or a single party, things won’t feel repetitive.”

The adventure encourages interaction between tables. Shannon Appelcline writes, “The coordinator moves about, threatening adventurers when the dracolich tracks them down; tables briefly come together and then separate, exchanging resources and coordinating plans. Even compared with similar adventures created for organized play, Dracolich stands out for the amount interaction possible between parties. Its game-store-sized scale lets everyone share the same dungeon.

“Groups that rely solely on one strategy, whether sneakiness or smacking monsters, will probably have some difficulty. The adventure is exceptionally well-designed, and various creative approaches are required for PCs to move through the complex safely. Enemies may be defeated, fooled, or co-opted with role-playing; regardless, it will take canny and aware players to succeed.”

In an RPG.net review, Vestige describes play. “There’s a breakneck rush through the dungeon to reach the staff, and then a massive climactic battle with even more to do than there are players. That’s a solid formula for a memorable day of D&D.”

In his account of running the adventure during a game day, Merric Blackman calls the experience “fantastic” and the scenario “something quite special.”

In a post, co-author Mike Shea offers advice for converting the adventure to fifth edition.

Next: Number 6.

Start at 10

8 Thoughts About D&D From Winter Fantasy

At the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the entire Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall. Despite the event’s compact size, it delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as the biggest table-top gaming cons. Imagine the D&D track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, concentrated in a convention of its own. Plus, the con offers plenty of inexpensive hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

This year’s convention inspired 8 thoughts about D&D.

1. Winter Fantasy 2019 marks my first convention under the Season 8 Adventurers League rules, which meant lots of jokes about the system’s abstractions. Based on descriptions at my tables, treasure chests now contain vouchers allowing the purchase of magic items, coins disappear into trusts payable upon leveling, and hardened mercenaries now tackle deadly missions for the promise of gratitude. (These adventurers took Intelligence as a dump stat and think “gratitude” is a gemstone.) For a summary of the season 8 league rules, see My Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Quick Reference Sheet.

Despite all the jokes, players seemed fine with the practice of unlocking magic items. Other aspects deserve changes. I plan a deeper look in a future post.

2. The convention’s organizer, Baldman Games, creates Adventurers League scenarios set in the Moonshae islands. With Shawn Merwin and Eric Menge shepherding the writing, these adventures boast an otherworldly flavor of Celtic myth and faerie. In Moonshae, the good fey are dangerous, the bad fey are creepy and dangerous, and the story ends when the witch eats the children. Those brats had it coming.

Everyone but the dog

3. My first game gathered James Introcaso, Mike Shea, Teos Abadia, and other D&D enthusiasts to play MOON4-1 Precious Cargo by Cindy Moore. Through our adventures, we befriended goblins, a svirfneblin, and a dog, adding all to our party. Credit our dungeon master, Garrett Crowe, for silly goblin voices and a knack for playing along. Just when Garrett seemed like a pushover, the svirfneblin betrayed us. Good move.

Whenever I run a D&D game for kids, their party seems to gather an entourage of pets, companions, and friends. The kids love it. So what does it say when a party of “mature,” “sophisticated” D&D players gathers a similar zoo? Don’t answer that question. And if my editor puts quotes around any words, ignore them.

4. Speaking of strategic mastery, our party started befriending monsters because Cindy penned a challenging adventure that made combat seem risky. I love difficult adventures because they can either bring tense battles that push characters to their limits or—in our case—alliances with one-armed goblins who fancy themselves emperor. Because Cindy’s adventures once carried a reputation for being cupcakes, this scenario’s difficulty surprised me. Later in the con, I asked her if this reputation led to a change in style. “Yes, I said eff you all.” Well played, Cindy.

5. As for challenges, a highlight of my games came when a kraken tentacle hurled my unconscious character to another game table. The incident came during the D&D multi-table special adventure MOON ES-1 A Drop in the Ocean. The DMs invented a process where tentacle attacks could fling characters from table to table. Falling characters landed in the quipper-infested waters controlled by another DM. Players loved it.

Many multi-table adventures feature a way for characters to jump between tables, but they typically move in response to a call for help. Players never ask for help, so nobody moves. The tentacle rule sparked concerns that too many people might temporarily land at a single table, leading to a party size that exceeded league regulations.

Luckily, someone read the part of league guidelines that grants DMs authority to make rulings that make things fun. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us just to see a game where kraken tentacles can’t hurl unconscious characters from table to table.

6. Another highlight came when I played Invasion from the Planet of Tarrasques run by the adventure’s author, James Introcaso. This stands as my first game with top-level characters. Despite our superhero-like power, James pressed us to our limits and we had a blast. This adventure serves “over-the-top, gonzo action” without becoming silly. I’ve already committed to running it for friends.

7. The play of the convention came during the adventure MOON6-2 Troubled Visions, run by Eric Menge. The adventure pits the party against a fey prince named Uznezzir, who revels in everything repulsive and unclean. Our party found the prince’s captive and unrequited love, an Eladrin woman named Aodh. Uznezzir offered her freedom as the stake in a challenge. He suggested a riddle contest. D&D players know how that goes: The players try to solve a riddle and the adventure moves on a well-trod path.

Instead, a party member played by Jason Pearson challenged Uznezzir to a compliment contest. Is that even a thing? Whoever lavished Aodh with the best compliment would win her freedom or her eternal imprisonment. She swore on her honor to judge fairly. While the party struggled to craft praise, Eric as Uznezzir found quick inspiration.

At last the party finished and we read our work. “Aodh, Your hair shines like the sun yadda yadda yadda.” Surely Uznezzir’s honeyed words would best our platitudes.

Then the fey prince spoke. “Aodh, You are as beautiful as a heap of rotting fresh turned green under a yellow sky of dripping acid that reeks to the highest heaven and brings all the flies.”

We won the contest. In the tradition of fables, Jason had realized the fey prince’s weakness and used it to outsmart him, while Eric had been quick enough to see the twist in the story and play it out. This may rank as the best moment of collaborative storytelling I’ve seen in a D&D game.

8. The authors of D&D’s creature statistics missed an opportunity when they failed to give owls an 18 Wisdom.

Dungeon Masters, Instead of Plots, Prepare Secrets, Clues, and Leads

Planning a Dungeons & Dragons game around encounters and plots leads to trouble. In my last post, I explained how preparing encounters proves less flexible than preparing situations.

Situations can take dungeon masters far. Every D&D adventure published before 1982 presented a situation ripe for adventure. These early adventures might include broad goals, like destroy the evil behind raiding giants, but these modules mapped out situations and then set characters loose. Nothing broke this mold until N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God in 1982. Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or adjacent hexes. N1 paired an investigation with a scenario where events happened even if the characters did nothing. Since then, both features have appeared in countless adventures. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures for Good.)


Such features make adventures resemble plotted stories, so dungeon masters preparing for events and investigations often imagine plots for their scenarios. Then they contrive ways to make players follow the plot. When the players’ choices upset the plan, the DM feels tempted to invalidate the diversion. Sometimes, to avoid railroading, DMs work to build player-proof plots by including contingency plans for every choice and outcome. The preparation effort can swamp a DM.

As an alternative to plotting adventures, DMs can turn to situations. Adventures designed around situations allow both investigations and events, but other techniques make preparing and running such scenarios easier.

Instead of preparing plots, prepare leads.

Leads go by other names. Some writers call them clues, secrets, or hooks. When they discuss clues and secrets, their terms cover scraps of information that may lead or may serve another purpose. I favor “leads” because the word matches my main purpose, but I’ll use the other terms too.

Suppose the characters investigate a string of bloody murders in a village, they might discover the following leads:

  • All the murders center on well, recently dug to replace one that went dry.
  • A farmer found blood on the clothes of family members, but believed their innocent explanations and hid the evidence.
  • Children have spotted parents wandering the woods at night and returning at dawn.
  • A forester who cared for the woods now spends days in a drunken stupor.

Clues like these leave many angles that invite investigation. Each could lead to more clues.

Leads serve as one way DMs direct players through a plot, so in a sense, planning leads instead of plots just represents a change of mindset. But leads encourage choices. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

If situations form the obstacles in an adventure, then leads become the scraps of information that direct players through situations and from one situation to the next.

Most adventures begin with a lead that everybody calls a hook. The best adventures supply characters more hooks as they go.

Leads give players a sense of direction. They lure players through an arc that, looking back, will resemble a plot. Leads can guide characters to the locations that match their power. As clues, they help reveal a situation in an order that keeps players asking questions and craving answers.

Blogger and game designer Justin Alexander has a rule for giving clues:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

“Why three? Because the PCs will probably miss the first; ignore the second; and misinterpret the third before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along.”

By Justin’s three-clue rule, every step in the scenario needs three clues that lead to another step. The surplus clues make the scenario robust. In game, players never wind up so clueless that they lack direction. In life, they’re on their own.

The clues can lead in different directions. Such diversity gives options, breaks linear adventures, and sometimes creates tough choices for players. Justin builds on his three-clue rule to create a node-based system of scenario design.

Typically, I plan clues, planting them along the course of the adventure ahead of players. But Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea takes a looser approach. He calls his clues secrets. He prepares for each game by listing 10 secrets that the session could reveal. Some of his secrets reveal the game world, but others serve as leads for players. “Secrets and clues are the anchors of our games. They’re a simple way to build out an adventure, create meaning and story for the players, and connect people, places, and things. Secrets and clues are the connective tissue of an adventure—and, more often than not, a whole campaign”

Mike’s lazy technique skips planning where the clues lead or how players will find clues. “You know the characters will learn something interesting—but you don’t know how they will learn it. You get to figure that out as it happens at the table.” He prepares a list of evocative secrets, and then as he runs a game, he improvises ways to reveal the secrets. Mike’s secrets don’t even become real until the players discover them. After a session, he discards some unrevealed secrets, but revisits others for the next session. For example, in my game based on the murders, if I choose to reveal the secret of the well, then the well becomes important; otherwise, it’s nothing.

“Abstracting secrets and clues works particularly well with mysteries. You’ll have no idea how the characters might go about investigating a mystery. But as they do, you can drop in the right clues at the right time to help them solve it.” For more on secrets, consult The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures designed campaigns around situations that offered all the advantages of the situation mindset. The designs gave players maximum freedom and DMs the flexibility to cope. But these adventures tended to lack ready-made leads that helped players find direction and helped DMs anticipate and prepare for the players’ next destination. (For more, see Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?)

Alone, situations can overwhelm DMs with information to remember. Campaign-sized situations make preparing for sessions hard on DMs because the scope of what players might do becomes vast. DMs who run published adventures suffer the worst of this problem. Chances for improvisation are more limited. And I can’t be the only DM who finds remembering lore from a fat adventure book harder than the product of my own imagination. Few DMs can master hundreds of pages of content that spans a region like the Underdark well enough to prepare for aimless wandering.

In my games, leads provided the secret ingredient that the campaign-sized situations lacked. They gave players clear options and narrowed their likely choices enough for me to focus my preparation.

Next: Instead of preparing events, prepare villains.

Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?

Adventure paths reveal their linear design in the name: They follow a path. In a linear adventure every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to content that reaches play.

Adventure paths are episodic campaigns that look linear from a distance. Such adventures offer choices in each episode or chapter, but at the end of each chapter, the path leads to the next chapter. This device enables an entire campaign to fit into a book.

Adventure paths serve dungeon masters by making a campaign with a story arc that leads from start to finish easy to run from a book.

In 2003, the Shackled City adventure path in Dungeon magazine led the format to prominence. Shackled City and its successors proved so popular that Paizo made adventure paths the foundation of their publishing strategy, and the inspiration for the name of their Pathfinder role-playing game.

In the classic adventure path, each episode ends with clues or hooks that lead to the next episode. This arrangement dates to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). The steading’s treasure room contains a map of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magic chain capable of transporting 6 to the site.

When the designers of the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons paired a line of hardcover adventures to the game, they aimed to grant players more freedom than a classic adventure path allows. Each book finds ways to break from the adventure-path model.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures avoided hooks connecting the adventure into a narrative. Perhaps the designers felt the lack of threads benefited the adventures by adding some of the freedom of a sandbox. Explaining his design for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Steve Winter said, “There are specific tasks characters should undertake and a sequence in which they happen, but we don’t hand the DM a script.”

Many reviewers judged this design strategy harshly. Bryce Lynch wrote that the designers of Hoard of the Dragon Queen “clearly have an idea of how the adventure should proceed, but are terrified of being accused of railroading.”

The adventures that followed Hoard of the Dragon Queen avoided a specific sequence of tasks. Most chapters described locations and the designers invited players to roam.

While these adventures experimented with sandboxes, they still expected a good dungeon master to prepare or improvise leads for players who need a nudge.

The 2nd adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse, poses as a sandbox with strongholds to raid and ruins to explore. But the “character advancement” sections on page 41 and 75 reveal a problem with granting so much freedom. Each note lists the character level best suited to the dungeons and sites on the pages to follow. For example, one site is “appropriate” for 6th-level characters; another “works best” for 9th level characters. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford explained, “For a lot of our published adventures, we’ll have broad difficulty targets for different parts of the adventure. For example, we might decide that one chapter of one of our adventures is really designed to be not too much trouble for characters of 6th level. Characters of any level can go into that chapter, but really what we’re doing is we want to ensure when an optimal group is there, it’s not too much trouble.

In Princes of the Apocalypse, players can stumble into areas too dangerous or too easy for their characters. “If characters aren’t careful, they can definitely ‘dig too deep,’ going down into dungeons for which they are woefully underpowered,” Mike “Sly Florish” Shea wrote. “Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a fourth-level dungeon to an eighth-level dungeon with just a few steps.”

Jeremy Crawford and the D&D team see such design as a feature. “Our starting assumption in 5th edition is that the game is pretty open ended and sandboxy, and we often like—particularly in our published adventures—dangling out the possibility that you might wander into a fight that you can’t win. We don’t view the game as a series of combat encounters that you are expected to face in a predictable way and then march off with a set amount of experience points and treasure. We view the game as a set of potential combat encounters, some of which you might not turn into combat encounters at all.”

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire dungeons that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level dungeon, they can only fight to escape. No player enjoys fleeing a dungeon, and then starting a quest for weaker foes—especially if the dungeon seemed like the best route to reaching their aims.

If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout. Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored—and I’m not alone. Mike Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge. See Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

Like its predecessor, the 3rd adventure, Out of the Abyss, featured loosely-tied locations, each designed to suit characters of a particular level.

In a guide to Out of the Abyss, Sean “Powerscore” McGovern wrote, “This adventure thinks it is a sandbox, but really it is a railroad in serious denial.” To Tim “Neuronphaser” Bannock, the lack of story threads made Abyss resemble “a sourcebook disguised as an adventure.”

The adventure leaves connecting the locations to the DM. “Be ready to build quest threads and hooks between each of the big areas so the players have one to three clear paths to take as they explore the Underdark,” Mike Shea explained.

Such requirements make designers seem blind to plight of DMs running a 256-page adventure. The designers wrote the book. When they play their own material, they enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than any DM can gain from the text. This mastery makes adjustment and improvisation easy for them. If they need a hook, they know just the walk-on character on page 167 who can offer it. If their players go off book in chapter 2, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot assumed in chapter 7.

The designers seem to assume that DMs resist a written playbook as an unwelcome limitation, but most DMs appreciate the help. If a hook or clue doesn’t suit their game, DMs know to ignore or adapt it.

The 4th adventure, Curse of Strahd, ranks as the most successful “sandboxy” design. The Tarokka card reading brings one advantage by hinting at the means to Strahd’s defeat and providing clues that might guide the adventure. The card reading assigns destinations, but as Sean McGovern explains, “it’s up to the DM to figure out how to get the group to these places, and new DMs are going to have a hard time with that. The hooks that take you from one area to another are buried deep in each chapter.” To complicate the challenge, DMs must deal with hooks likely to lead inexperienced characters to their deaths.

The 5th adventure, Storm King’s Thunder, starts with sandbox exploration and finishes as a linear adventure. In between, the adventure leads through 1 of 5 possible strongholds. On the plus side, the choice of giant strongholds gives the adventure unusual variation. As a minus, the strongholds stand as a highlight, but most groups will only explore one. (Still, a party at my local game store chose to battle through them all.)

Of the fifth-edition hardcover adventures, Storm King’s Thunder suffered the second-lowest rating among reviewers on enworld. Reviewers praised the strongholds while criticizing the sandbox chapters.

To start, the adventure shows the menace of the giants, but leaves characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters run errands until they reach the adventure’s true beginning. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either need to rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expects it. Mike Shea advised DMs to “Be ready to fill in a lot of blanks with your own stories, quests, motivations, and dungeons; particularly early on.”

Weak hooks and blank spots can leave DMs to struggle. “I’ve been running Storm King’s Thunder and the first three chapters of the adventure presented nothing but trouble for me,” Snazzy wrote in comments on this site. “I basically did what the book recommended, trusting that it would make sense and my players would want to do what the book suggests. And it turns out that it doesn’t really work. Which is disheartening! I’m a pretty new DM and so when the campaign book I spent all this money on has issues which require significant patching in the very beginning, it shakes some confidence in the product. The whole point of me buying a campaign was so I could game with less prep time required.”

Many experienced DMs share this dissatisfaction. Sean “Power Score” McGovern writes guides that help DMs running the adventures. “My guides to these adventures are by far the most popular articles on my site. To me, that says that DMs need help with these books. That should not be the case! The point of a published adventure is to make it so that the DM does not have to do a lot of work!

“I still think they should be organizing these adventures like Pathfinder adventure paths—linear. If you want a sandbox, It’s not hard at all to make a sandbox out of a [linear adventure]. But it is very time-consuming to turn a sandbox into a path.

“Every single 5e adventure requires a ridiculous amount of homework and I think that is a shame.”

McGovern wrote those words in the wake of Curse of Strahd. But Storm King’s Thunder presents a flow chart to help DMs, and the latest book, Tomb of Annihilation, scored higher with reviewers than any of its predecessors. Is the fifth-edition D&D team helping DMs more? Perhaps. The hardcover line shows consistent improvement and Tomb of Annihilation rates as the entry that best serves DMs. Some of that success comes because Tomb draws from proven styles of play. The first half offers a hex crawl patterned after  Isle of Dread (1981). The second half lays an adventure path through chapters inspired by classic adventures from Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) to Tomb of Horrors (1978). The authors Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter deserve some credit too. Will Doyle once said,  “Adventures are playbooks not novels.”

Still, I’ve heard nothing from the D&D team that suggests they share Will’s insight. Too often, the designers seem to think DMs who read a 256-page adventure can match its author’s comfort and mastery. Sometimes, the designers have hidden linear designs like a stain of dishonor. But an adventure path offers players plenty of choice and freedom within its chapters. And besides, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as designers think.

As works of imagination, the fifth-edition hardcovers contain the some of the best D&D adventures ever. They teem with vivid characters, fantastic locations, and unforgettable scenes that few DMs could match—especially throughout a campaign. But too often they work better as books to read and admire than as blueprints for DMs to run games at the table.

5 Situations That Tempt Every Dungeon Master to Railroad Their Players

If you believe countless Dungeon & Dragons adventure reviews, nothing ruins an scenario as quickly as a linear design. In a linear adventure every group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. At best, critics accuse linear adventures of eliminating the players’ choices between scenes. At worst, critics say linear adventures require dungeon masters to abuse their power to shunt players along a railroad. Instead of steering the adventure, players follow a fixed story.

In my last post, I explained that players don’t hate linear adventures as much as reviewers and dungeon masters think. We tend to judge harshly because we see the lack of options. In a successful adventure, players never see the walls.

Many gamers conflate linear adventures with railroading, but that mistake tars decent adventures. Players seldom mind linear adventures, but few players tolerate railroading. DMs who railroad deserve player complaints.

“Railroading is not linear prep,” Phil Vecchione from Gnome Stew explains. “Railroading is the game master’s reaction to a player’s action, in an effort to drive the game in a specific direction. That reaction is to typically negate, reverse, or shut down a player’s action, in order to get the game moving in the GM’s desired direction.”

A successful linear adventure invites certain choices and makes assumptions about outcomes, but it never forces a result. Some of the success of an adventure depends on the designer’s ability to predict choices and outcomes. (See Actions Players Always Take and Choices Players Never Make.) When the predictions fail, adventures tempt DMs to railroad.

In some game situations, when the players veer from the plan, the temptation to railroad becomes nearly irresistible. These situations appear in nearly every DM’s career. Instead of succumbing to temptation, what should we do?

1. When an action leads in a direction you never anticipated, improvise.

Every DM eventually faces a player decision that nullifies all the planning that prepared for a game. “If you can’t improvise, you’ll eventually hit a wall you can’t climb over, or find yourself trapped in a corner and unable to talk your way out,” D&D senior producer Chris Perkins writes.

“Improvisation demands equal measures of intuition and confidence. DMs who lack sufficient intuition or confidence tend to have trouble improvising at the game table. The good news is that DMs, being creative souls, rarely fall short in the intuition department. They know a good story from a bad one, a well-developed character from a cardboard cutout, and so forth. However, confidence is a far more rare commodity, and DMs who lack the confidence to trust their intuition often have trouble improvising behind the DM screen. I know because I’ve been there.”

Entire books aim to help game masters improvise, but often the trick comes down to making a leap into the unknown–or unprepared. If you find yourself stuck, call for a break, spend a few minutes finding inspiration, and then go with the idea that seems most fun.

2. When an action may deliver an easy win that cuts an adventure short, reward the ingenuity and then add complications.

Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea likes to note that we DMs match our one brain against the players’ six brains—a serious mismatch. Sometimes players invent a plan that threatens to skip the middle of an adventure and deliver an easy victory.

As one possible response, DMs can grant players an easy win. Players relish a chance to thwart the villain (and the DM) with an ingenious plan. Perhaps the characters built around deception or infiltration get to shine.

But an easy win can’t cut a 4-hour convention adventure to a half-hour assassination. If you want to spare more of your preparation, reward ingenuity with some success, and then add reasonable complications that make the plan unravel. Perhaps the players reach the throne room, but discover that the lich-king has left to sow terror and whatnot. Now the players must decide how long they dare to wait in the heart of an enemy stronghold.

Many ingenious plans start with the players impersonating the villains’ cohorts and seeking a free pass to the boss’s war room. In those scenes, I seek ways to help the heroes while also stirring trouble. Often some of the party must pass as prisoners or foreign allies. What if guards demand to take prisoners to the dungeons and allies to the rest of their delegation? Sometimes I add tests of loyalty. “We’ll take you to the Prince of Murder, but first help us execute your prisoners.” Even when a deception succeeds, such tests suggest that smart foes hold some natural suspicion.

3. When players try to start fights during an interaction scenes, pause the action.

Sooner or later, every dungeon master sees players stop a role-playing scene to start a fight. As the party talks with a scheming queen, a player blurts out, “I hit her with my axe!” Picking a fight during such an interaction typically causes problems because the adventure expects the queen to bridge the way to the rest of the adventure. The attack burns the bridge and leaves players running from her heir and her army.

These scenes tempt me to add a hidden pit trap between the charging barbarian and the queen. Actually, that makes some sense. If I were boss of some D&D land, my throne room would feature a trap door.

If the archer or warlock launches a ranged attack, every DM feels tempted to turn the queen’s guards into invincible minor minions who crush the party. Then the queen threatens to hang the characters unless they continue the scheduled adventure. Steal from the classics.

A better, non-railroad response includes 3 steps: (1) pause the attack, (2) learn the root cause of the attack, and (3) reroute the adventure.

Instead of letting the instigator roll damage, pause the action.

If only one player wants the fight, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains how he lets the party intervene in-game. “I’ll freeze time. ‘Everyone can see that your character is about to kill this person. Everybody has a chance to stop this. What do you all want to do?’” Teos makes it clear that the single player stands alone against everybody else in the party. See What To Do When A Player Interrupts A Role-Playing Scene To Start A Battle.

If the whole party seems eager for battle, look for the root cause of the attack.

Perhaps the players see the queen as a bad ally, so when the adventure leads to an alliance of convenience, the players rebel. Murder in Baldur’s Gate assumed characters would support one of three patrons who vied for power. The patrons start unsavory and, as they gain power, become worse. My players wanted no part of it. I needed to find a more agreeable patron.

Often, the players see the queen as a villain they will fight eventually. Why not solve the problem now? As DM, tell the players how their characters’ lifetime of experience in the game world reveals flaws in the players’ plan. “The reputation of the queens’ knights leads you to believe that they can easily defeat you.” If the players attack anyway, finish the fight, and then find another patron.

4. When plot features recurring villains, but the party blocks their escape, plan for escape, but prepare for a new villain.

Every DM loves a recurring villains. But to establish one, you need to introduce the villains and then somehow invalidate the players’ decision to murder them.

Typically, DMs underestimate the players, and so potential recurring villains die during their first scene. Our odds stand at 6 brains to 1. As a slim advantage, we have time to plan. Don’t make a potential recurring villain the most threatening target in an encounter. Don’t leave the villain exposed between their turns. Plant a potential barrier along the escape route. (I’m not above an escape via spinning bookcase.) Start the escape while minions remain to block pursuit and while the villain still has enough hit points to survive the players’ biggest attacks. Accept the (probably) inevitable premature death. Prepare to call another foe from the bench.

In the interest of story, Monte Cook’s acclaimed adventure Dead Gods requires villains to escape the players. “It’s crucial to the story that some of the cross-trading khaasta escape with the thief of charms and some of the stolen beauty. If necessary, the DM can increase the number of khaasta in the encounter or rule that some of the creatures have already escaped through the portal by the time the PCs arrive in the alley (and make it clear to the heroes that this has happened). The latter option foils the use of a gate ward or surelock spell to stop the khaasta.” Unfortunately, once the DM sees the need for such measures, it’s probably too late.

5. When the story includes the players’ capture, but the players win instead, wait for another chance.

The most egregious crime of railroading comes when a DM wants players taken captive. In adventure fiction, heroes get captured regularly. So DMs dream up similar stories, and then try to force a capture despite the players’ determination to never get taken alive.

Notoriously, A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords starts with the players’ capture. This adventure originated as a tournament adventure where players adopted pre-generated characters already imprisoned. When the authors adapted the adventure for home campaigns, they anticipated complaints. “It is likely that [the players] will be angry at the DM for putting them in such an ‘unfair’ situation.”

The Adventurers League adventure Shackles of Blood depended on players getting captured. Some players went along for the ride, but others resented it. I tweaked the adventure so players who thwarted capture could choose to become captives as a heroic gambit. No one resisted that.

To engineer a capture, DMs needs to hide an encounter’s threat to the players, block the characters’ attempts to flee, beat any signs of an unexpected rally, and so on. During all this, if the players see signs of their DM bending the odds to thwart their escape, they will feel railroaded. You can’t plan for a capture.

None of this means your players’ characters will never be captives.

Use capture as an alternative to a total party kill. Save your escape-from-the-dungeon scenario for a time when players ignore warning signs, make bad choices, suffer setbacks, and ignore any chance to run. Those times happen—trust me. Then, instead of rolling new characters, have the old characters wake in chains. The players will feel grateful for a second chance.

Do Dungeons & Dragons Players Hate Linear Adventures? Not When DMs Avoid Two Pitfalls

A linear adventure is written, or at least planned, so every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. In Dungeons & Dragons, linear dungeons set the pattern, with walls and doors that channel players along a single route. Without walls, a linear adventure only ever shows players one course of actions to a successful end.

At best, critics accuse linear adventures of robbing players of choices between scenes. At worst, critics say linear adventures require dungeon masters to abuse their power to shunt players along a railroad. Instead of steering the adventure, players follow a fixed story.

Despite the criticism, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as DMs think. We tend to judge harshly because we see the lack of options. But in a successful adventure, players never see the walls.

When the walls become plain, players may complain about a lack of freedom. Linear dungeons, with their obvious walls, always risk criticism. Adventures without walls can also flaunt a lack of options. Imagine an adventure where players follow a patron’s plan or a commander’s orders from scene to scene. Unless catastrophe upsets the plan—or assassins reach the commander—the adventure would feel scripted and less satisfying.

Linear adventures work best when success in each scene brings the clues that lead to the next scene. Then, for all the players know, a different choice in the scene or unseen clue could have spun events in a different direction. To players, each success leads to the clues needed to set a new objective. Players favor one choice over an overwhelming number of choices, and certainly over feeling stuck without a direction.

Make no mistake, players still like to face a few, clear choices. Linear adventures grow better when they include decision points that pose options. (Of course, such adventures no longer qualify as linear.)

For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to developing content that reaches play. No DM with an ingenious dungeon room wants players to miss it.

The limits of a convention time slot makes linear adventures particularly common in programs like the D&D Adventurers League. Linear adventures can consistently fit in a convention time slot. Players in organized play tend to forgive the limits imposed by a 4-hour session, but some do complain when adventures reveal a lack of choices.

But organized-play adventures with more options draw complaints too.

Adventurers League administrator Claire Hoffman explains that when adventures offer more choices, some DMs gripe about prepping content that may not reach play.

Most DMs understand the value of extra prep, but some players fuss too. Those who enjoy the accomplishment of clearing a dungeon or of completing every quest feel frustrated when an adventure teases them with more options than they can explore. The Howling Void by Teos Abadia sets a brilliant example of a 4-hour adventure with a wealth of options. In an elemental node, Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players must choose which to visit. Teos explains that some players left the adventure disappointed because they could not explore every location. The adventure proved so fun that players wanted it all. Still, adventures shouldn’t cater to completists. Better to leave players wanting more.

Linear adventures may fall short of an ideal, but if they avoid flaunting their limits, players seldom mind. One exception bothers players. When the only choice suggests a style of game that players dislike, they will resist.

During these rebellions, the players telegraph what the want to do in the game. In a podcast, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea explained, “If the king is speaking, and the barbarian charges him, maybe you ought to start the players in the dungeon.” Clearly players crave a fight. “I’ve seen it the other way too, where in my DM-head I’m thinking, now they’re going to fight 12 orcs, and the players are doing everything they can to negotiate with the orcs. ‘Just fight the orcs!’ But the players are telegraphing their desire to have an interaction.”

If your players dislike intrigue, and the next clue in a linear adventure suggests they infiltrate a masquerade, that’s when they rebel.

You can avoid such problems by setting up situations tailored to the style your players favor. If you know your players, such tailoring probably becomes natural. If not, then an ideal episode lets players choose styles. Let players enter the castle by infiltrating the masquerade, sneaking over the walls, or battling through a secret entrance into the dungeons below.

Players don’t hate linear adventures; players hate being driven into a style of game they dislike. Players who read gaming blogs may resist by accusing your adventure of railroading, but the rest will start a fight at the masquerade.

Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons, adventurers selected a difficulty level by deciding how deep they dared to go. As the game matured, DMs started to design or select adventures for a party’s level. Players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level.

Of course the game always allowed a style of play that offered no such guarantees.

Gary Gygax liked monster populations that fit a habitat for a logical reason. In early D&D, the wilderness monster tables did nothing to match monsters to character levels. Skeletons appear as often as vampires. This approach made outdoor adventures particularly risky. The original rules cite the high-level task of scouting for castle sites as the best reason for wilderness expeditions.

Realistically, creatures and adventure locations in the wild would not come sorted by difficulty. At best, characters might learn about a site’s hazards by reputation.

Tomb of Annihilation follows such a natural order. “By design, the adventure locations are not tailored to characters of a specific level. If the adventuring party is relatively weak, it’s up to the players to choose whether to flee instead of fight, negotiate instead of attack, or surrender instead of die.”

This is old-school player agency at its best. Players make the choices and then bear the repercussions of those choices.

The fifth-edition hardcover adventures often let characters roam. The random encounter tables serve deadly and weak threats. Each location aims to challenge a particular level of character, but the adventures rarely steer characters to a suitable challenge. For instance, a table in Curse of Strahd lists locations and their difficulty levels. But if a party happens to find sites that match their level, then their DM nudged them along.

And DMs running Curse of Strahd and its kin probably did some nudging.

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Even an adventure like Tomb of Annihilation has a story to tell and heroes to protect. “It’s up to you as the DM to be flexible and keep the story moving forward as best you can. If an encounter is going badly for the adventurers, you can have the monsters suddenly withdraw, demand the party’s surrender, or deal nonlethal damage.

“In short, there is always a way to turn the party’s misfortune into a fighting chance of survival.”

Turning a total party kill into a complication can save a campaign while adding spice. If characters make a narrow escape, they earn a tale to tell. When they level up and return for a rematch, they relish their new power. A capture takes the story interesting places. When you try to take characters captive, players notice you steering the game to force an outcome. But if players ignore the warning signs, press a fight even after they should retreat, and still get captured, they know they had it coming. Still, sparing characters with a “lucky” intervention works best as a rare twist.

When threats don’t always match the party’s power, D&D can become more exciting. But we value balanced encounters for a reason. They mix a fun challenge and a strong chance of success.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire locations that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level location, they can only fight to escape. If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout.

Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored, and I’m not alone. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge.

When characters lack challenges to face, time should pass in summary. So if high-level characters gearing up to storm the gates of hell meet some bandits on the streets of Hillsfar, skip the dice. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

Despite a preference for challenging locations, an open world can still feature sites in a mix of threats, from the Caves of Chaos to the Tomb of Horrors. Deadly locations promise future adventure and make players look ahead with eager anticipation. But rumors and clues must help players measure the dangers ahead. If a bunch of new adventurers start poking around a skull-topped hill, they’re in for a nasty surprise. Princes of the Apocalypse skipped such signals and shocked a lot of players. They could easily descend from a challenging dungeon level to an overwhelming one.

Leading characters to the right mix of challenges presents a tough problem for designers of hardcover adventures. But most DMs just dream up their own content for their next game, and they probably do encounters right already. If that’s you, then you make most encounters fit the characters at your table, at least broadly. And even if you aim for just the right challenge, you create some uneven matches. Fourth edition made devising balanced encounters easy, but 5E delivers less consistent results. Even when encounters come tailored for a particular character level, some will become romps, and a few might prove unexpectedly hard.

Most fifth edition DMs tend use guesswork to create encounters—the building guidelines hardly improve on it. And that guesswork serves up a pretty good mix of difficulties.

When I design encounters, I mix some guesswork with quick, encounter-building guidelines. Sometimes, I create intentionally deadly foes because they can enrich the game. They force players to use diplomacy, or guile, or stealth. In fourth edition, when I planted a deadly foe, I chose something obviously overwhelming to overcome the expectation that every foe must be beatable. Such metagaming still leads players to underestimate threats, but I will relay what their characters know from living in the game world. “You believe this fight may kill you.”

I avoid intentionally designing easy encounters, because aiming for balance still yields plenty of easy fights.

D&D head Mike Mearls aims for flavor. “I copy down a few stat blocks and make notes on what makes an area interesting. I don’t use the encounter building rules. Fights are as tough as is appropriate to the location and situation.” I’ll bet Mike’s encounters still broadly suit the characters, if only because new adventurers probably spend more time in Hillsfar than storming the gates of hell.

Filling a map with Dungeons & Dragons adventure

When the first Dungeons & Dragons players wanted a break from the dungeon, their characters could explore the wilderness “in search of some legendary treasure.” In original D&D, a quarter of finds on the magical treasure tables consisted of treasure maps. Surely some led to those legendary treasures available in the wild.

For wilderness adventures, Gary Gygax recommended adopting the hex map from the Outdoor Survival board game and replacing the catch basins with castles. “The terrain beyond the immediate surroundings of the dungeon area should be unknown to all but the referee.” Players started with a blank map, and charted the terrain as they moved. Mainly, they met wandering monsters, but castles worked as penalty squares. Lords and Patriarchs demanded tolls and tithes. Magic users would cast Geas to compel trespassers to bring treasure.

Back then, even aimless wandering and senseless fights felt bold and fresh. Now, computer games can deliver random monsters with better graphics. At the table, exploration-based D&D sessions need maps stocked with potential adventure.

Seed opportunities

In How to Start a Sandbox Campaign, I explained how a dungeon master must arm new characters with enough knowledge for players to chose a direction that suits their goals. In his influential West Marches campaign, Ben Robbins never started players empty handed. “Every time I introduced a batch of new players, I gave them a very basic treasure map that vaguely pointed to somewhere in the West Marches and then let them go look for it.

As exploration continues, characters must keep finding things that suggest their next destination.

“A good sandbox has scenario hooks hanging all over the place,” Justin Alexander explains. “The successful sandbox will not only be festooned with scenario hooks, it will also feature some form of default action that can be used to deliver more hooks if the players find themselves bereft of interesting options.” Players should know that something like buying a round of drinks at the inn will lead to rumors, and that patrons always seek adventurers for hire.

In the original game, all those treasure maps worked as hooks for every character. In a modern campaign, characters can adopt many goals, so the hooks either help players toward the campaign’s ultimate goal or to appeal to characters’ individual interests.

Here, the sandbox portion of Storm King’s Thunder fell flat. Once the adventure showed the menace of the giants, it left characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters could only run errands until they reached the adventure’s true start. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either needed to completely rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expected it.

Open worlds offer freedom, but if players only ever face one hook at a time, they never feel that liberty. During each session, characters need to uncover more than one possibility for their next foray.

Connect the dots

In an open world, the connections between locations, non-player characters, and factions become as important as their place on the map. Characters rarely just wander. Rumors and other bits of information draw them from place to place. When players need information to guide them toward their characters’ aims, the secrets they learn can prove as rewarding as gold.

To start exploring, players need some information to make their choices interesting. By the time they learn the fate of the last doomed expedition and find that lost city on the plateau, they need new clues to investigate and new mysteries to unravel.

When you devise an open world, spend more time inventing connections than drawing terrain. The connections could range from alliances and rivalries, to rumors and clues that link locations on a map to others. Chris Kutalik makes such connections a big focus of his Hill Cantons campaign. “Each site’s mystery or theme has to have a connection with either another site’s or a larger setting one.

Reveal secrets

Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea offers advice for sowing information that helps players “build out the story as they choose courses of actions.” He calls these tidbits secrets.

A secret is a piece of information previously unknown to the PCs that, when revealed, gives them a tweet-sized bit of useful and interesting information. Secrets aren’t an entire story. They’re not complete pictures. They’re a single point of data in a large pool of undiscovered information.” Before a game session, Mike creates a pool of 10 secrets. During the game, characters uncover some of the secrets. He improvises the details of when and how characters uncover the secrets.

Secrets enhance an exploration game’s strength: the joy of freedom and discovery.

Secrets reward players with something more interesting than learning that the next hex contains forest.

Unlike full hooks, secrets give players more latitude to follow the threads that spark interest. “We don’t use secrets to steer the direction of the PCs. We use secrets to give them interesting information that helps them come up with their own directions.

Include many chances for interaction

In D&D’s original rules for wilderness adventure, most encounters ended in fight or flight. Today, wilderness adventures still tend to emphasize D&D’s combat and exploration pillars, even though 60% of D&D players enjoy interaction the most.

In Game of Thrones, the lands beyond the wall give George R.R. Martin plenty of chances for exciting battles and exploration. But when members of the Night’s Watch range beyond the wall, Martin devotes as much attention to visits to Craster’s Keep. The keep offers chances for interaction and to explore character.

Your sandbox needs non-player characters that run the gamut from friend to foe. Friends rarely challenge characters and foes tend to die, so NPCs in the middle foster the most interesting interaction. For example, Craster offers an indispensable ally who happens to be morally offensive. Plus his daughter-wives present a dangerous temptation to the men in black.

Perfect opportunities for interaction come from NPCs or groups either too dangerous or too useful to murder, who pursue goals that don’t always align with the players’ aims.

Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes as Much as They Think

Many role-playing gamers set sandbox adventures as an ideal. We all agree that railroads make bad adventures, so do sandboxes offer all the virtues that railroads lack?

In role-playing adventures, sandboxes and railroads fall on ends of a spectrum. Railroads offer players no options. Sandboxes allow complete freedom, including freedom to choose a goal. If a character favors a bartending in Barovia over vampire hunting, they still get a place in the campaign.

Boxes of sand let kids choose their own goals. They can make sand castles, bake sand cakes, anything. And when they grow up, they can stage miniature battles.

Some games deliver all the freedom of a box of sand. Minecraft lets you play a survival game, but it owes its success to all the other things you can do: Some players build forts or replicas of the seven wonders. Some create a circuits from redstone. Players make their own goal.

D&D used to force a goal on characters

Original Dungeons & Dragons never started as pure sandbox, because the rules included a goal: Take treasure from dungeons and the wilderness. By rule, characters who won treasure gained experience and power. They won D&D. See The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.

When the original D&D characters reached high, name level, the game turned into a sandbox where players chose a new goal for their characters. Stronghold building offered fighting men an obvious goal, but some other classes lacked anything as clear. What do you want for your bard or druid? Should a wizard build a tower or start a school? Apparently, many high-level wizards go mad and build dungeons. Where else could the living-chess puzzles and reverse-gravity rooms come from? Endless possibilities await!

Instead of embracing the freedom of a high-level sandbox, players returned to dungeons.

Sandboxes can overwhelm players with choices

In Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon and How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success, I described the attraction of dungeons. Among other advantages, dungeons limit the characters’ options. This doesn’t just help dungeon masters prepare, it helps players.

Common wisdom suggests there is no such thing as too many choices, but psychologists conclude that people flooded with options become paralyzed by them.

When dungeon masters offer a true sandbox and come willing to improvise any course their players choose, they confound players. Once the players stop wondering what they’re supposed to do, they struggle to choose from boundless possibilities. Whatever they finally decide, they leave the table with a nagging feeling that they chose wrong.

The value of limited options

In D&D, dungeons, patrons, and hooks all limit the options that players’ face. Such tropes give players direction. A little direction improves the game.

Make no mistake. Players still want options. Every game session should leave players wondering what might have happened if they followed a different course. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea recommends that giving players three plus infinite choices. DMs should offer three known options that take characters closer to their goal, while being open to anything players want to try.

Many sources of DM advice suggest seeding a sandbox setting with hooks—opportunities for players to land in stories of their choosing. Exactly. Those hooks help players narrow all the options of an open world to a sweet spot of three plus infinite choices. They nudge the game a bit closer to the railroad end of the dial. Some railroad-phobics might even argue that such hooks show a DM working too hard to push players through a story. Their ideal game only works with perfectly spherical, frictionless players. The real players at your table want hooks.

The sandbox dungeon

D&D’s mega-dungeons limited players’ choices, but many fans still tout multi-level dungeons as sandboxes. Sure, characters need to adopt the goal of seeking treasure, but they never need to dutifully follow a story arc planned by a DM. Plus, players could chose a difficulty level by deciding how deep they dared to delve. A few D&D players still favor that style of play.

Embracing story and fewer options

Despite the freedom of a dungeon sandbox, most D&D players craved story and deeper motivations. The D&D game changed to provide. When Tracy and Laura Hickman penned a series of classic modules including Ravenloft and the Desert of Desolation trilogy, they led the change. Their introduction to a self-published version of Pharoah gives D&D adventures four, new requirements:

  1. A player objective more worthwhile than pillaging and killing.
  2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself.
  3. Dungeons with some sort of architectural sense.
  4. An attainable and honorable end within one or two sessions of playing time.

When characters explore Castle Ravenloft, they quest for more than loot. They aim to free the land from the menace of Lord Strahd. Adopting the goal of a story takes a measure of freedom from players. Now the their options narrow to the choices that lead to the magic items that will help defeat Strahd. Few players mind. They see clear options that take them closer to achieving their characters’ aims. As the adventure progresses, the players’ paths narrow to a railroad that leads to a final confrontation.

Of course, at any time, the characters could leave the railroad and open a tavern in Barovia, but that never happens. Partly because D&D players like doing D&D things such as smiting evil and winning treasure. Partly because players follow D&D’s social contract by honoring the DM’s preparation. Mostly because players enjoy stories in D&D and they willingly abandon the freedom of a sandbox to foster them.

Too often, D&D fans tout sandboxes as the pinnacle of adventure design. Dungeon masters and adventure authors aim for the freedom of a sandbox, but just leave players feeling adrift. Players enjoy D&D most when they see a few, clear options that take them closer to achieving their characters’ aims.

Challenging Your Players’ Skill Without Risking Frustration

The Zork II computer game from 1981 includes a locked door that you can open by solving a clever puzzle. The door has the old-fashioned sort of lock that lets you look through the keyhole and see the other side. Except here, the key is in the other side of the lock. You slide a mat under the door, and then poke the key out onto the mat. When you pull the mat back, you have the key.Zork II Box Art

Back when Dungeons & Dragons consisted of the original brown box, before skills, before rogues, before thieves, all the obstacles in the game invited that style of play. You overcame obstacles by immersing yourself in the game world, making decisions, and problem solving. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

This style of play suffers from the same problem as the puzzle in Zork. When Zork II came out, I had only ever seen that sort of old-fashioned lock in my grandma’s house. And if you’ve never examined that kind of lock, the door puzzle simply leaves you stuck and frustrated.

In the old computer adventure games, when you became stuck and frustrated, you had to send money for a hint sheet, and then wait for it to arrive in the mail.

Fourth edition attempted to eliminate such frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. During this era, Dungeon magazine’s submission guidelines warned authors to create challenges for the characters, not the players. When every obstacle has a DC and multiple skills, then no one gets frustrated. If you find a locked door, you can pick the lock with Thievery, or break the door with Athletics.

No one gets frustrated, but no one feels engaged either. When the game only challenges character skill, the players never need to make meaningful decisions or engage the game world. They just look at their character sheet for the best applicable skill. This improves on playing guess-the-solution-I-thought-of with an inflexible DM, but the picking a skill and rolling is less fun than D&D can be.

The fourth-edition designers must have know this, but they emphasized selecting skills and rolling outcomes for a two reasons:

  • To add weight to the choices players make when they build characters. See The Pros and Cons of D&D’s Ability Checks.
  • To prevent inflexible DMs from hurting the game. Fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland wrote, “In the early days, DMs all too often felt compelled to demonstrate their cleverness and punish players for making ‘wrong’ choices—even a choice as simple and random as which passage to explore.”

Such inflexible, punitive DMs neared extinction decades ago. When Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea asked players to cite the traits of a good DM, flexible ranked first.

Dungeon masters can challenge players without risking player frustration, because DMs can allow creative solutions.

Have you ever noticed how the Tomb of Horrors makes the demi-lich only vulnerable to a short list of curiously-specific attacks?

The demi-lich Acererak’s skull can be harmed only as follows:

      • a forget spell will force the skull to sink down without taking a soul
      • a shatter spell thrown at it inflicts 10 h.p. of damage
      • a power word, kill pronounced from the an astral or ethereal magic-user will destroy it.
      • only a fighter with a vorpal blade, a ranger with a sword of sharpness +5, or a vorpal weapon, or a paladin with the like or even a +4 weapon can inflict damage on the skull
      • an exorcise spell will cause it to sink as a forget does
      • a dispel evil spell inflicts 5 h.p. of damage
      • a holy word pronounced against it will inflict 20 h.p. of damage
      • a thief slinging one of the large gems in the crypt will inflict 1 h.p. of damage per 10,00 g.p. of value, i.e. 1, 5,, or 10 h.p. of damage, but the gem is thereby shattered

A power word, kill does nothing, unless you happen to be ethereal or astral! How would anyone think of that? Also, the demi-lich is vulnerable to the destruction of very expensive gems. That messes with the players in the best(?) old-school tradition. Only someone immersed in that tradition would even consider the gem attack.

Once, I thought that this list exposed Gary Gygax as an inflexible DM working to punish players. After all, he devised the tomb to challenge—and frustrate—those “fans who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game.”

Now, I see the list differently. I suspect Gary created Acererak with no vulnerabilities in mind, but as he ran the adventure, players invented attacks. If Gary judged them reasonable, he allowed them to work. When Gary wrote the adventure for publication, he listed the attacks he had allowed so far.

Gary Gygax had the wisdom to allow a creative solution. In the Foreword to Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Gary wrote, “In one tournament use of the setting, a team managed to triumph by using the crown and scepter found earlier as the ultimate tool against the demilich. As Acererak’s skull levitated, one PC set said crown firmly upon the bony pate; another tapped the regal adornment with the ‘wrong’ end of the scepter. Poof! Scratch one demilich, and give the tournament’s first place to the innovative team of players who thought of this novel solution. Russ Stambaugh, the DM for the group, was stunned. ‘Could that work?’ he asked. I shrugged, admitted I certainly hadn’t thought of it and that it was a stroke of genius that deserved a reward.

When I DM, I love to be surprised. One of the great joys of being a DM is crafting some trap or obstacle, leaving a couple ways to overcome it, and then watching as the players crack the problem with a third way. I’ve run campaigns for groups who proved so good at coming up with unexpected solutions, that I stopped worrying about planning any solutions. I just sat back and watched the players come of with something.

I have three bits of advice for refereeing game-world obstacles that demand player skill to overcome.

  • Watch the players for signs of frustration. Be prepared to let he characters uncover a new clue, or to just have something on the other side of that locked door come and open it.
  • It’s good to say yes, but avoid being too quick to accept implausible solutions. If a couple of players are deeply engaged in a predicament, and you allow any dumb idea to work, they just get annoyed. The last thing you want is a player arguing that something you allowed should fail.
  • Watch out for clever, repeatable ideas that break the game. I remember a player who regaled me with a story that he remembered fondly. His party defeated a dragon by enclosing it in a wall of force shaped like a giant fishbowl, complete with an opening on top too small for escape. Next, they created water above the opening, filling the fishbowl and drowning the dragon. I suspect that no version of Wall of Force ever actually allowed such shenanigans, but as a one-time trick, the stunt created a moment the players’ loved. I wonder what the DM decided to do when the players kept trying to repeat it. If you can use this trick on a dragon, the dungeon becomes your aquarium.