Tag Archives: Monte Cook

5 Reasons Most D&D Players Stopped Exploring Megadungeons

Dungeons & Dragons creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built their campaigns around huge dungeons that grew and changed. Megadungeons span enough rooms and levels to become the focus of an entire campaign without ever being fully explored. These megadungeons enabled Dave and Gary to run campaigns for dozens of players. On any day, they could host games for whoever happened to show up for a session. (See When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons.)

Even though the megadungeons under Greyhawk and Blackmoor became the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons, such dungeons rarely see play anymore. Why not?

1. Players never saw any examples. Originally, Gary thought that players would never pay for published dungeons. After all, players could easily make up their own. Despite this belief, TSR distributed the first published dungeon, Palace of the Vampire Queen. Strong sales proved Gary wrong, and so he set to publish his own dungeons. (See 9 facts about D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen.)

But Gary’s megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle seemed impossible to capture in writing. As adventurers explored and plundered, the dungeon changed constantly. New monsters wandered in to take empty rooms. Whenever the players’ attention turned, the layouts of old levels subtly changed. Entire new levels appeared. Most of the content lay in one-line descriptions, or worse, locked in the heads of Gary Gygax and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz. Decades later, Gary wrote, “If we handed over the binders containing the maps and the notes, I don’t think even the ablest of DMs would feel empowered to direct adventures using the materials.”

So rather than attempting to capture Greyhawk Castle, Gary opted to publish adventures that he had created for D&D tournaments at conventions. For instance, the official D&D tournament at Origins ’78 ran the G1-3 adventures. The choice to publish such adventures changed the development of the game. D&D players everywhere saw Gary’s published adventures as a model. Instead of patterning their games after a megadungeon like the one Gary played at home, players imitated adventures created for a few hours of competition.

In 1990, TSR finally published WGR1 Greyhawk Ruins, its first megadungeon in print. “There are more than two dozen levels of horror and treasures. Run into brutal foes and gain uncountable wealth-nearly 1,000 separate room descriptions in all!” Gary had left TSR five years earlier, so fans hoping to explore his actual creation felt disappointed. James M. Ward and other veterans of the Grayhawk campaign still at TSR gave insights, but the dungeon even lacked the Great Stone Face Enigma of Grayhawk that Gary himself drew for the first D&D supplement.

The Ruins of Undermountain followed 7 months later. Undermountain appeared in a box with maps and with booklets that sketched out encounter areas. This outline mirrored the terse descriptions and evolving notes that Gary Gygax used for Greyhawk Castle, but the sketch failed to satisfy DMs accustomed to publications ready for play.

Perhaps locking a megadungeon in a book kills it. Printed pages cannot capture the dynamic essence of those original levels.

2. The ecology and rational of megadungeons seemed ridiculous. From they start, players struggled with the logic of megadungeons. Where did all those monsters get their food or leave their waste? Where did the creatures and treasure come from? Every dungeon master invented an insane wizard as an architect for their game’s underground sprawl until the notion became trite.

In the little, brown books, Gary suggested dungeons with layouts that always changed and grew to “maintain freshness,” but that made the megadungeon even more implausible.

Then Gary published adventures that featured a logic sometimes called Gygaxian naturalism. Monsters had lives of their own that involved feasting, scheming, sleeping, and everything but waiting for heroes to come kill them. Rather than wandering monsters living in defiance of reason, we saw giants and drow in their steadings and vaults. For many players, the giant- and drow-series adventures set an example that killed the megadungeon.

Soon, any DM peddling a megadungeon had some explaining to do. For instance, The Ruins of Undermountain kept to the insane wizard trope, then added magic that continuously gated in fresh monsters from across the Realms, and deep entrances that allowed creatures from the Underdark to well up.

3. Play styles expanded. Sometime in the middle of the 70s, for the first time ever, a party of adventurers visiting the inn met a hooded stranger with a job that needed doing. D&D expanded beyond a series of dungeon expeditions aimed at claiming treasure. Players began to favor games that mixed action with story. Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage rates as my favorite megadungeon in print, but when I ran it, the group longed for a story and for motivations beyond a hunger for treasure.

4. Megadungons can feel monotonous. Even the biggest megadungeon only shows a tiny corner of the giant canvas that D&D worlds can offer. In a campaign limited to a single dungeon, kicking in endless doors to fight and loot can start fresh and thrilling but often becomes a tiresome slog. Even those of us who like dungeon crawls want to see some daylight and a plot.

5. Computers do megadungeons better. In 1979, computer games like Akalabeth and Temple of Apshai took gamers into megadungeons and started an electronic-gaming genre. Dungeon crawls limit players’ options, so they offer an easy premise for a computer game. (See How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games.) With a computer DM, players can explore anytime. Digital dungeons offer faster play and better graphics. For players who just want to visit a sprawling underworld to kill monsters and take their stuff, electronic games probably offer a better experience.

Can a megadungeon work today?

A clever design can avoid the problems that pushed megadungeons out of play.

A story-centered game can take PCs into a megadungeon to accomplish more than looting. For instance, when Monte Cook created his superdungeon The Banewarrens, he paired it with overarching plot. Players don’t raid the Banewarrens just to loot. Instead, the story leads to objectives that require missions into the place.

Many megadungeons avoid monotony by introducing levels or zones centered on unique themes such as crypts, flooded sections, or fungus gardens. Even the levels under Castle Greyhawk followed themes that grew more exotic at deeper levels.

A megadungeon design can add intrigue and roleplaying by borrowing a page from The Keep on the Borderlands and adding factions of monsters. Players can join a side or play one against another. Factions under attack will bring reinforcements, creating more interesting battles, and giving players a reason for caution. The stories “Red Nails” by Robert E. Howard and “The Lords of Quarmall” by Fritz Leiber helped inspire the concept of dungeon exploring. Both yarns centered on feuds and intrigue.

A megadungeon (and a live DM) can create player agency and tests of ingenuity that no computer can match.

Although good design can yield a megadungeon that proves fun to play, ordinary dungeons can bring the same advantages. Today’s gamers tend to create megadungeons to foster nostalgia or to enable episodic play.

The Best DM Tricks for Helping a Party Make Choices

Sometimes in a Dungeons & Dragons game, a party faces a thorny decision and the action pauses while they weigh options and make plans. As a dungeon master, I sit back and listen, feeling like I won D&D. Such situations show players taking the game world and its threats seriously. It shows a game offering meaningful choices.

Other times, players must choose between, say, the left or right passage, and they stall. Those times, DMs can speed the game by helping the group make quick decisions.

Instead of asking the whole party, “What do you want to do?” I’ll ask one particular player for direction—usually the one who’s had the least to do. This can help bring a quick choice for the group. Scott Fitzgerald Gray writes, “I often try to put it in the form of saying to the quiet player, ‘Okay, while everyone else has been focusing on X and you’ve been keeping an eye out for trouble, you hear something. What do you do?’”

Of course, you can choose a party spokesperson in another way. “I occasionally ask who has the highest skill modifier appropriate to the moment at hand,” Will Doyle writes. For example, the character with the highest Investigation skill might choose how to tail the quarry.

Scott and Will commented when I asked DMs for tricks for expediting group decisions. This post reveals some other favorite techniques.

One of my favorite techniques comes from from Monte Cook’s book of advice, Your Best Game Ever. “Sometimes one player will attempt to speak for the group, saying something like ‘We turn on our flashlights and go inside the warehouse.’ If that happens, just go with it. If the other players don’t object, it makes things a little easier and moves them along a little faster. You don’t have to get confirmation from all the other players. It’s their duty to pay attention and interject with ‘Wait, I don’t want to go into the warehouse,’ or ‘I’ll stay outside while everyone else goes in’ if that’s how they feel.”

Early editions of D&D suggested the party appoint a caller, one player who spoke for the group. Perhaps we have reinvented the caller as a momentary role of expediency.

Characters in a roleplaying game have freedom to attempt any action. Sometimes that latitude leaves players struggling to sift through options in search of a few promising choices. Too often, players may feel confused by their predicament in the game world. Either way, summarizing the situation and listing the most obvious choices cuts through the fog and brings focus. “I’ll often give the players two reasonable choices and then add they can also do something else if they prefer,” writes Tom Pleasant. “Putting those two things straight up front, even if they don’t choose them, re-establishes the scene and clarifies their thoughts.”

I used to worry that suggesting a menu of likely actions might seem like an attempt to limit the player’s freedom, but they always welcome the clarity.

“Whenever you think your players aren’t sure where to go or feel forced to go down a particular path, offer them three choices,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea writes. “Each of these three options should be viable directions with clear meaning and motivations. There shouldn’t be a clear ‘right way’ to go and it shouldn’t simply be a random choice. As a GM, you shouldn’t prefer one path over another—players can tell. When you provide these choices, you should be happy to go with whichever one they choose.”

At the end of a session, I always like to ask for the party’s plans for the next game. This helps me plan, keeps the players looking ahead, and shows the players that their decisions guide the course of the game.

Many DMs like to jolt players from indecision by adding urgency to their predicament. Jon Lemich suggests that a DM say something like, “You hear a door hinge creak and new voices talking. You’re still hidden. Barbarian, what do you do?”

For the right tables, real-world time pressure can help force decisions. Nathan Hughes has told players that “something” will happen in 1 minute, and then set a timer. Roman Ryder purchased a set of 1, 3, 5, and 10 minute hour glasses. “I break them out sometimes for timed scenarios to turn up the pressure. I also recently used them for a map that had moving parts that were on a timer.”

I’ve had groups seeking a faster pace suggest an hourglass, but the wrong group could easily see such pressure as adversarial.

What techniques do you favor for expediting party decisions?

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

How Dungeons & Dragons Gained Feats

At a Dungeons & Dragons game, I overheard a player explain that feat was short for feature.

That’s not right, but I kept quiet for 2 reasons:

  • I don’t want to be the guy who butts into conversations to say, “Well, actually…”

  • I like the feature explanation much better.

Using “feat,” a word for a stunt, as a game term for a character feature or talent bothers my wish for precise terminology. Back in the third-edition days, this word choice annoyed me to such an embarrassing degree that I griped about the misnomer on the Wizards of the Coast D&D boards. That post probably only exists on a backup tape labeled “GLEEMAX” in magic marker.

How did we end up with feats?

Designer Monte Cook explains that feats came from the development of the third edition’s skill system. Two ingredients from D&D’s history contributed to skills.

The designers aimed to combine the two threads. “What we saw was that there were certain skills that we wanted to put into the game, but they were unlike the others because there wasn’t a check involved,” designer Monte Cook explained in an interview. Some of those proficiencies granted an ability to use things like shields, but others unlocked stunts that a character learned to do.

The design team called those stunts “heroic feats. As the game element developed, the team dropped the heroic bit. “Feats opened up a way for us to give cool character powers and abilities that weren’t skills and that weren’t tied to your class.”

5 Ways Magic the Gathering Changed the Rules of D&D

Magic the Gathering designer Richard Garfield rates Dungeons & Dragons as the most innovative game of all time. Nonetheless, in any ranking of influential games, Magic’s revolutionary design surely vies for a top spot. You might suppose that a card game like Magic would differ too much from a roleplaying game to have any influence on D&D’s rules, but Magic’s design shaped the D&D editions to follow. Today, innovations from Magic extend to the roots of fifth-edition D&D.

5. Templated text changed how rules get written—and the 3rd-edition design team.

When Magic’s designers faced the problem of bringing order to countless cards, they used templated text: they described similar game rules with consistent wording imposed by fill-in-the-blank templates. Today, the patterns of templated text appear throughout modern D&D’s rules.
But the move to templated text also lifted a D&D-outsider to lead the game’s third-edition team. Ben Riggs tells this story in a convention seminar.

Early in the development of third-edition D&D, Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR. Skaff Elias had served as a designer on several early Magic sets and ranked as Senior Vice President of Research and Development. Skaff felt that the upcoming D&D edition could fix “sloppiness in the rules” by using templated text. Skaff and Wizard’s CEO Peter Adkison told the D&D design team to switch the spell descriptions to templated text, but the team kept resisting his directives.

Eventually, the D&D team readied the release of a playtest document that still lacked templated text. They claimed rewriting all the spell descriptions according to formula would prove impossible because hundreds of spells would need templating in 48 hours to meet their delivery deadline. Nonetheless, Adkison and Skaff took the challenge themselves, working through the night to rewrite the spells and meet the deadline. Even after that heroic effort, the rules document that reached playtesters lacked the templated descriptions from the CEO and the Design VP. The design team had simply ignored their bosses’ hard work.

The failure infuriated Adkison. He lifted Jonathan Tweet to the head of the third-edition team. Designer Monte Cook remembers Adkison’s new directive: “If Jonathan says something it’s as though I said it.” Unlike the TSR veterans on the rest of the team, Tweet had started his career by designing the indie roleplaying game Ars Magica and the experimental Over the Edge. As a member of the D&D team, he convinced the team to adopt some of the more daring changes in the new edition.

4. Keywords now get careful use throughout the rules.

Much like Magic, D&D uses keywords to describe many elements in the game. Often the keywords bring few rules of their own, but other things in the game interact with the keywords. So Magic has no rules specifically for “white” or “green,” but cards with “protection from white” work in a special way.

In D&D, conditions like “charmed,” creature types like “beast,” and descriptors like “melee” work as keywords. Such keywords power templated descriptions like, “While charmed by this spell, the creature is…” and, “The next time you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack…” In early editions of D&D some words got treatment that resembled keywords. But before Magic proved the technique’s power, keywords in D&D hardly saw the pervasive, rigorous treatment they do now.

3. Specific beats general came from Magic, but started in a hugely-influential board game nearly as old as D&D.

In Magic, the text on any card can change the rules of the game, so a card like Platinum Angel can say, “You can’t lose the game and your opponents can’t win the game.” Among traditional games where all the rules fit on the underside of a box lid or in a slim pamphlet, this made Magic revolutionary. The original Magic rules explain, “If a card contradicts the rules, the card takes precedence.” In other words, specific beats general. Similarly, page 3 of the Player’s Handbook explains how when a game element breaks the general rules in some way, it creates an exception to how the rest of the game works.

Earlier editions of D&D included game elements that broke general rules, but the unwritten principle left new players to struggle with the apparent inconsistencies. Judging by how frequently D&D lead Jeremy Crawford restates the principle, players still struggle with it.

The principle of specific beats general dates to the revolutionary 1977 game that inspired Magic the Gathering and countless others. Bored with the familiar patterns of their Risk games, the designers of Cosmic Encounter wanted a game where every play felt different from the last. In Cosmic Encounter, each player controls a different alien species able to break the general rules of the game in some specific way. With more than 150 rule-breaking alien species in the game and its expansions, Cosmic Encounter offers endless, disruptive combinations.

2. With more reliance on rulings, D&D does less to separate flavor from rules.

Magic the Gathering cards typically fill any space left after their rules text with italicized flavor text. So, Platinum Angel might say, “She is the apex of the artificer’s craft, the spirit of the divine called out of base metal.” Other Platinum Angels share the same rules, but different flavor text.

Traditionally, D&D mingled rules and flavor text, but fourth edition fully adopted such separation. The power descriptions even duplicate the practice of putting flavor in italics. This practice fit fourth edition, which defined combat powers as tightly as cards. The designers aspired to create a game where flavor never bent the rules, so a DM never needed to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time.

In fifth edition, the separation mainly appears in the monster books, where rules appear in formal boxes while flavor comes between the rectangles.

1. Reactions came from Magic’s instants and interrupts by way of D&D miniatures.

In Magic the Gathering, players can act at any time, stopping another player with cards originally called interrupts. The constant activity helps make the game so compelling, but it forced the designers to develop rules to make sense of the actions and reactions.

In early editions of D&D, players might interrupt another turn for an improvised action, but such acts needed a DM’s ruling. By third edition these actions counted as free and still mainly relied on a DM. Counterspells used the system’s only means of interrupting—the readied action.

When Wizards planned a line of D&D miniatures in 2003, the company aimed to expand sales beyond roleplayers to gamers who favored competitive wargaming. The Miniatures Handbook turned third edition’s combat rules into “a head-to-head skirmish system for fighting fast, tactical battles.” The book’s authors included D&D designers Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo along with Magic designers Skaff Elias and Mike Donais. The new miniatures would come boxed in randomized assortments complete with cards describing rules for each figure, so in ways, the package resembled Magic. The competitive skirmish game could no longer rely on a DM’s rulings to resolve interruptions, but the team wanted some of the richer play suggested by a game like Magic.

The design collaboration worked. Elias and Donais brought experience from a competitive game with strict rules for timing interrupts and reactions. “While designing Miniatures Handbook, we realized that free actions hid a potential smorgasbord of cool new mechanics,” wrote designer Bruce R. Cordell. “We subdivided the free actions into immediate actions (a free action you can take when it isn’t your turn), and swift actions (a free action you can take when it’s your turn).”

Swift and immediate actions entered the D&D roleplaying game through Cordell’s Expanded Psionics Handbook (2004). “The concept that swift and immediate actions could serve as one more resource available to a player opened up new vistas of possibility, expanding options in the game.”

In fifth edition, swift and immediate actions evolve into bonus actions and reactions.

10 Favorite Nuggets From Monte Cook’s Your Best Game Ever

Roleplaying games have benefited from decades of advice for players and game masters. Every year, several new books offering help to roleplaying gamers reach print. Meanwhile, bloggers like me and countless others post advice and hope someone finds it useful.

With all this coaching, who needs more? For my part, I look for topics that haven’t gained much discussion and gather the best suggestions.

Monte Cook brings credentials earned through a long career in roleplaying games. In 1988, Cook started working for Iron Crown Enterprises on their Rolemaster and Champions games. By 1992, he started working for TSR where he penned Dead Gods, one of the greatest D&D adventures since 1985. He served as a lead designer on D&D’s third edition. For his Monte Cook Games, he designed roleplaying games such as Numenera, Invisible Sun, and The Strange. Among living RPG designers, Monte surely rates as the most famous and acclaimed.

This year, Monte published Your Best Game Ever, “A tool book, not a rulebook—for everyone who plays or runs roleplaying games.” When this book of advice reached Kickstarter, it rated as a must for me.

The finished book brought a couple of surprises. First, the campaign touted a long list of contributes from roleplaying game pioneers like Jennell Jaquays to famous voices like Matthew Mercer. I expected a compilation of advice from the contributors. Instead Monte stands as the book’s primary author, with the contributors seasoning the book with short sidebars. This makes a happy surprise because Monte brings a singular voice of 30-some years experience, which gives the book a clear, consistent feel. Second, outside of starter sets, few books of roleplaying advice aim to help beginners. Your Best Game Ever starts as a primer for new players, and then builds to help veteran gamers. This old enthusiast kept noting favorite quotes and even pages.

I chose ten passages from a 240 page book to give a taste of the content inside. But as I read and scribbled notes, I kept thinking that Your Best Game Ever rates as a book I want to come back to again and again. Highly recommended.

1. Lean Into Failure (Occasionally) (p.58)

You play games to win, and you win an RPG by succeeding at your goals (defeat the villain, get the gold, get more powerful, and the like). But if you’re a player focused on story, you need to look at things a little differently sometimes, because to win an RPG from this perspective is to tell a great story. And sometimes the best stories arise out of failure or defeat.

2. Anticipating Where the PCs Will Go (p.99)

A good GM knows where the PCs will go and what they’ll do before they do. However, the GM doesn’t force them to go anywhere or do anything. How on earth do you accomplish that?

Players have their PCs go where things sound most appealing, interesting, or fulfilling of their goals (wealth, power, information, the recovery of the kidnapped duke, or whatever). And you are the one who controls the places and things that fit that description.

Sometimes, you can subtly encourage the PCs to go in a certain direction or do a certain thing (because you’ve got stuff prepared for that choice). You do this by observing and learning what the players are likely to do. Once you figure things like that out, you can guide the players and they won’t even know you’re doing it.

3. Leading Questions (p.128)

GMs should be very aware of when they ask leading questions. Now, my point here isn’t to encourage you to avoid them—just to be aware of them. Sometimes, leading questions are valuable tools. But most players will read into a leading question, so don’t use them unless you want a player to read into them. This leading question is probably the most powerful in the arsenal: Are you sure you want to do that?

4. Speaking for the Group (p.129)

Sometimes one player will attempt to speak for the group, saying something like “We turn on our flashlights and go inside the warehouse.” If that happens, just go with it. If the other players don’t object, it makes things a little easier and moves them along a little faster. You don’t have to get confirmation from all the other players. It’s their duty to pay attention and interject with “Wait, I don’t want to go into the warehouse,” or “I’ll stay outside while everyone else goes in” if that’s how they feel.

5. Answering Questions (p.129)

Sometimes a player will ask a question that they shouldn’t have the answer to. Questions like “Are the police in this town corrupt?” or “Where do criminals fence their stolen goods around here?” Rather than saying, “You don’t know,” try instead asking the player “How will you go about finding the answer to that question?” Doing that turns their question into a forward-moving action. It becomes something to do, and doing things is more interesting than asking the GM questions.

6. Pacing Within a Session—Important Moments (p.132)

Sometimes, though, it’s worth taking a bit of time with an important moment. An audience with the queen, the appearance of an elder god, or flying a spaceship into a black hole are all scenes where it might be okay to take your time. In fact, the change of pacing will highlight the importance of the moment and can, all by itself, convey the gravity you want. But here’s the thing about slower pacing—you have to fill up the gaps with something. In other words, it’s okay to slow things down, but if you do, you need more evocative description, more intriguing NPCs, or more exciting action.

7. Pacing Within a Session—Unimportant Moments (p.132)

A GM who is adept at pacing will take this a step further, to the point of perhaps surprising the players, at least at first. If there are a couple of rather low-powered guards at the entrance to a high-tech complex and the players announce their intention to take them out quickly, the GM might just say, “Okay, you knock out the guards. What do you do with their unconscious bodies?” No die rolls, no game mechanics.

That will catch the players off guard at first, but it’s going to tell them about the difficulty of the challenge and the importance of the encounter. In an instance like this, the GM knows that PC victory is a foregone conclusion, and rather than taking ten minutes to resolve the rather meaningless encounter, they simply get to the heart of the matter, which is what the PCs do immediately after the fight—do they try to hide their infiltration or charge right in? Because the GM knows that decision will affect the rest of the session far more than how much damage they can inflict on a low-powered foe. Plus, it saves session time for the challenging encounters to come.

8. Enduring Player Agency (p.136) If you put a PC in a situation where their abilities don’t work, you’re taking away their agency. Rather than negate their abilities, require them. If a character can phase through walls, don’t set up the villain’s fortress so that the walls prevent phasing. Instead, make it so that phasing is literally the only way the PCs can get in. By requiring that ability, you’ve rewarded the player for selecting it.

9. Even a Simple Game Is Fun (p.142)

The events that occur because of ideas generated by the players rather than the GM, and events that come about because of the inherent randomness of the game, are far more likely to make or break a session than the ideas the GM provides.

My point here isn’t to contend that the GM doesn’t matter. As someone who loves running RPGs more than almost any other activity, I’d never say that. What I’m saying is don’t put too much pressure on yourself as you’re getting ready to run a session, particularly if you’re a new GM. I’ve made this point many times, but I’ll make it again: RPGs are about group storytelling. It’s not all on you. It’s on the group as a whole.

10. Character Death (p.230)

Sometimes in RPGs we gloss over the effects of death in the story, but that’s not entirely believable and means missing out on great narrative opportunities. If a character dies, talk about how that impacts the survivors. Have a funeral in the story. Track down their next of kin. Build a memorial. Do something to recognize that the characters in the group are very likely close friends and would react as people who have lost someone significant in their lives.

19 Adventures in the Running for 10 Greatest Adventures Since 1985

For my list of the 10 greatest adventures since 1985, nominations, reviews, and reputation led me to consider many more excellent adventures than fit a list of 10. Today’s post reveals the adventures that fell short of my 10 greatest, but merited consideration.


Treasure Hunt (1987) is a first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Aaron Allston.

Raw characters with no class levels wash up on the lost island of the pirate Sea King. They advance to first level and beyond.

“As a first adventure for initiates, this can’t be beaten. For old hands who may be tiring of AD&D, it will be a welcome change.” – Carl Sargent in White Dwarf issue 93.


King’s Festival and Queen’s Harvest (1989) are basic Dungeons & Dragons adventures by Carl Sargent.

A pair of adventures that introduces new players to D&D with a variety of linked missions.

“Absolutely the best introductory adventures in print for D&D-game-style fantasy role-playing games (FRPGs). Presented simply and clearly enough for young folks, these adventures are also challenging and entertaining enough for experienced gamers.” – Ken Rolston in Dragon 171.


Ruins of Undermountain (1991) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Ed Greenwood.

The first three levels of the mega-dungeon under the city of Waterdeep presents its content with different levels of detail: Some rooms have complete descriptions, while others have terse notes. Most sections remain empty, a canvas for the dungeon master’s creation.

Rated 17th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

Ruins of Undermountain was as much stuff from Ed Greenwood’s original gaming sessions as he could fit into a box. I give Ruins of Undermountain an A+. It will make you a better DM regardless of your skill level. This is a glimpse behind Ed Greenwood’s screen, giving the reader a chance to study his methods, which are very sound.” – Advanced Gaming and Theory


Vecna Lives! (1991) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by David “Zeb” Cook set in Greyhawk for characters of level 12-15.

After the Circle of Eight, Greyhawk’s legendary adventurers, die trying to stop Vecna’s return, their successors hunt the villain in a chase the across the world of Greyhawk.

Vecna Lives! is one of my favorite adventures from second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and I’m ecstatic that it’s been made available on dmsguild.com. Even if you never play the adventure, you should go out of your way to read/download/borrow it just to see what an incredible example of storytelling and adventure writing it is.” – Die Hard Game Fan


Night of the Walking Dead (1992) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft adventure by Bill Slavicsek for characters of level 1-3.

Characters investigate a series of murders an disappearances in a village plagued by walking dead.

“The actual adventure is one of the better blends of plotted adventures and old-school adventuring found in the ’90s. Though, there’s a deep, underlying story, it’s not a railroad. Instead, players must investigate and interact with NPCs to figure out what’s happening. Some events act as set encounters, but there’s also a big dungeon (cemetery) to crawl through at adventure’s end. The result maintains player agency while still telling a real story.” – The Fraternity of Shadows


Merchant House of Amketch (1993) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dark Sun adventure by Richard Baker for characters level 4-7.

In an event-driven adventure, characters work to end a trade in beetles with a bite that neutralizes psionic power. The quest pits the party against the most powerful merchant house in Tyr.

“This adventure has everything for me: intrigue and adventure coupled with the potential to save the world from a great threat that has just been exposed. So it’s 5 out of 5 stars.” – Warpstone Flux


City of Skulls (1993) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Carl Sargent for characters of level 9-12.

Players infiltrate the demi-god Iuz’s nightmare capital to free a military commander needed to defend the Shield Lands.

Rated 26th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“Periods of stealth and quiet punctuated by short bursts of terrifying combat.” – Retro Gaming Magazine


Night Below: An Underdark Campaign (1995) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Carl Sargent that takes characters from 1st level to as high as 14th level.

Billed as the “ultimate dungeon adventure,” this campaign goes from a ruins crawl, to a mine crawl, to a long journey through the Underdark.

“Night Below won’t be to some peoples’ taste, but the vast majority will absolutely adore it. Quite simply, it’s one hell of an adventure.” – Cliff Ramshaw in Arcane magazine.


Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998)  by Bruce Cordell.

Years after adventurers gutted the original Tomb of Horrors, a dark community has built a city of necromantic evil on the tomb’s site. Even the inhabitants of this fell city have no idea of the true evil that waits beneath them.

Rated 10th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“The new material is really excellent. Return is a whole mini-campaign, not some rehash of previous work … It offers more by far than the old Tomb of Horrors, and it is more deadly too.” – Gary Gygax


Dawn of the Overmind (1998) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for characters of level 8-10.

To stop a resurgent mind flayer empire, character visit a world of ancient ruins in search of an artifact of Illithid manufacture. This adventure brings a taste of Spelljammer and sword and planet adventure to conventional D&D.

“This is the third part of the Mind Flayer Trilogy, which was pretty much awesome from start to finish. One of the best D&D adventures of all time.” – Power Score


Die Vecna Die! (2000) is a second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Adventure for characters of level 10-13 by Bruce R. Cordell & Steve Miller.

Die Vecna Die! takes the heroes from the Greyhawk campaign to the demiplane of Ravenloft and then to the Planescape city of Sigil in a quest to claim the Hand and Eye of Vecna—the key to stopping the evil demigod Iuz.

Die Vecna Die! pulls out all the stops, and the result is a massive but tightly constructed adventure with a truly apocalyptic feel. I’m surprised I’m recommending Die Vecna Die! as strongly as I am, but it’s just that good. It’s a great high-level adventure for any campaign.” – Fearful Impressions


Forge of Fury (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 3-5 by Richard Baker.

In a dungeon that captures the flavor of some of D&D’s original, classic adventures, characters battle though five levels of a dwarven stronghold overrun by evil.

Rated 12th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“I’ve always been impressed with the adventure; for my money it’s one of Wizards of the Coast’s best 3rd Edition era modules. As a basic, flavoursome dungeon crawl I think Forge of Fury is particularly well executed.” – Creighton Broadhurst


Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (2001) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons by Monte Cook designed to take 4th-level characters as high as level 14.

Power rises again in the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Characters battle the power of darkness in Hommlet and beyond, forging their way through hundreds of encounters before reaching the fiery finale.”

Rated 8th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“Go out and buy the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. You will not regret it, and it will become a valuable part of your D&D library. It is one of the best adventure modules ever written.” – Talon on ENWorld


City of the Spider Queen (2002) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt designed to take 10th-level characters up to level 18.

“Daggerdale is reeling from a sudden series of murderous drow raids. As a grave threat to the entire surface world develops in the war-torn dark elf city of Maerimydra, intrepid heroes must discover its source and destroy it, if they can.”

Rated 24th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

City of the Spider Queen is an excellent addition to anyone’s Forgotten Realms campaign or with modifications, any Dungeons and Dragons third-edition game.” – Mania.com


Reavers of the Harkenwold (2010) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for characters of level 2-4 by Richard Baker.

In an adventure patterned after Red Hand of Doom, the characters join the resistance and take missions to thwart the army of evil that invaded the Duchy of Harkenwold.

“Definitely one of the best 4E adventures. – Will Doyle.

“I would love to see a 5E update of Reavers of Harkenwold.” – Chris Perkins


The Slaying Stone (2010) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for 1st-level characters by Logan Bonner.

Years after goblins overran and occupied a town once settled by humans, the characters enter seeking a lost Slaying Stone, the last of the magic stones created to protect the settlement.

“This is an adventure you won’t want to miss: Not only is it fun and non-linear, but it shows a DM how to better design her own adventures, and that’s something worth reading for any DM, no matter how experienced.” – Kevin Kulp


Dreams of the Red Wizards: Dead in Thay (2014) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for characters level 6-8 by Scott Fitzgerald Gray.

Teams of adventurers cooperate to explore a massive dungeon in search of the keys to a phylactery vault held by the evil Red Wizards of Thay.

“A ton of fun. Things get more and more hectic as the alert level of the Doomvault rises. It’s got good pacing, a narrative to it, and some fairly challenging encounters.” – Bell of Lost Souls


Cloud Giant’s Bargain (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for level 6 characters by Teos Abadia.

Led by a talking skull, Acquisitions Incorporated interns enter a cloud castle floating over Neverwinter to determine what threats it holds. This superb adventure combines combat, exploration, and interaction with interesting choices into a single session of play. Plus it adds a touch of humor and an unforgettable guide.

The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985

This list of the 10 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures since 1985, draws from ratings, reviews, and appraisals from D&D fans, and then uses my completely unscientific aggregation of opinions to rank the 10 entries. The list only includes adventures printed as stand-alone titles under the D&D or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons brands. For more on why I chose to rank adventures published after 1985, see Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

10. The Gates of Firestorm Peak
The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 5-8. The adventure that introduced the Far Realm to D&D starts as a well-crafted dungeon crawl, and then builds into an unsettling confrontation with Lovecraftian monstrosities. See the full review.

9. Tomb of Annihilation
Tomb of Annihilation (2017) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Chris Perkins. Will Doyle, and Steve Winter for levels 1-11. Tomb of Annihilation mixes the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, with the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, with a deathtrap dungeon inspired by Tomb of Horrors. Every one of those influences appears on the Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list of 30 greatest adventures, and the mix plays better than any of them. See the full review.

8. Sunless Citadel
The Sunless Citadel (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 1-3. As the introductory adventure to third edition, Sunless Citadel delivers the monsters, treasures, and even the dragon that new players expect from D&D, but the adventure serves much more than D&D comfort food. Start with a deeply evocative location: a castle dropped into a rift by some cataclysm. Add a lost dragon wyrmling, a tainted tree at the heart of the ruin, a fresh humanoid monster, and one of D&D’s most unforgettable characters, Meepo. See the full review.

7. Vault of the Dracolich
Vault of the Dracolich is a D&D Next adventure By Mike Shea, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and Teos Abadia for level 4 characters. Vault of the Dracolich rates for its outstanding execution of a multi-table adventure. By design, a team of dungeon masters runs several tables of players who explore different parts of a dungeon at the same time. As the adventure runs, groups can interact, briefly gathering, exchanging resources and coordinating plans. The event ends with all the groups fighting a climactic battle. See the full review.

6. Madness at Gardmore Abbey
Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt with Creighton Broadhurst and Steve Townshend for levels 6-8. Madness at Gardmore Abbey combines the best qualities of fourth edition’s encounter design with a sandbox of adventure locations, villains, and a single powerful thread that binds them all together. That thread comes from the scattered cards of a Deck of Many Things, perhaps the most irresistible artifact in D&D. See the full review.

5. Dead Gods
Dead Gods (1997) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Monte Cook for levels 6-9.
Dead Gods boasts more than the best title of any D&D adventure, it features the most audacious storytelling. For example, in one chapter, players create temporary characters to play out past events. The adventure spans the planes, ending in a climax that brings the party to the astral plane where they battle atop the 4-mile-long corpse of the demon lord to stop the creature’s resurrection. See the full review.

4. Curse of Strahd
Curse of Strahd (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 1-10 by Chris Perkins with Adam Lee, Richard Whitters, and Jeremy Crawford. Curse of Strahd captures everything great about I6 Ravenloft and expands it into a full campaign. While Ravenloft mainly stayed in a castle, Curse of Strahd gives players the freedom to roam the cursed land of Barovia. Although Curse of Strahd features a strong design, the vampire Strahd and the fearful gloom of his domain make the adventure’s best parts. See the full review.

3. Lost Mine of Phandelver
Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) is fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins for levels 1-5.
The adventure that introduced fifth edition serves D&D’s expected and favorite ingredients. To longtime fans, the elements may be familiar, but superb execution makes the adventure a winner. After the first encounter, players experience samples of dungeon crawls, quests, and mini-adventures. The adventure provides enough clues to keep even new players from feeling lost. See the full review.

2. Red Hand of Doom
Red Hand of Doom (2006) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and James Jacobs for levels 6-12.
Red Hand of Doom starts with the fantasy trope of an army of evil sweeping the land, and then casts the characters as heroes working to slow the march. Their missions span the landscape and vary from diplomatic meetings to dungeon delves. Along the way, the adventure accounts for the players choices, successes, and failures. See the full review.

1. Night’s Dark Terror
Night’s Dark Terror (1986) is Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher for levels 2-4. The adventure starts strong with a widely-imitated episode where the characters defend a freehold against a goblin attack. The events of the siege make the night of terror. After the first episode, the adventure’s scope expands. Players explore more than a wilderness, with eighteen locations, including a number of mini-dungeons, a ruined city, a riverside village, a frontier town, and a lost valley, while active villains oppose the characters. See the full review.

Dead Gods (1997): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 5

Dead Gods (1997) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Monte Cook for levels 6-9.

Dead Gods boasts more than the best title of any D&D adventure, it features the most audacious storytelling. To start, the book includes two scenarios. “Although the two adventures stand on their own, they can also be linked together. ‘Out of the Darkness’ and ‘Into the Light’ feature different characters, locations and storylines, but they both revolve around the same themes: the death and resurrection of gods.” The book includes a flowchart showing where to best cut between adventures. “By weaving the two plots together, the dungeon master gives the players a periodic change of pace and tone that allows each adventure to echo the primary theme of Dead Gods.” Also, the text includes interludes that reveal events behind the scenes to “help the DM better understand what’s going on as the story progresses.”

On top of the ambitious woven narrative, Dead Gods includes a chapter where the characters use magic to peer into the distant past, and then create temporary characters to play out those past events.

The narrative stunts might suggest a novelist forcing a story into the wrong medium, but Dead Gods plays as well as it reads.

“All too often, D&D adventures miss out on the sort of teeth-gritting, edge of your seat action that defines the world,” says EN World reviewer Alan Kohler. “This Planescape adventure by Monte Cook brings that spirit of adventure in a race against time to prevent the resurrection of a demon lord.”

That race spans the planes, starting in Sigil and visiting such fantastic locations as a walking wizard’s tower, the plane-spanning tree Yggdrasil, a fortress floating in the negative material plane, a traveling circus on Pandemonium, and the Vault of the Drow. The climax brings the party to the astral plane where they battle atop the 4-mile-long corpse of the demon lord to stop the creature’s resurrection. Does any other adventure imagine such a grand scope?

Within a tight plot, the adventure works to allow choices and account for the players actions. “Monte Cook did a wonderful job with this, and not only lays the material before the DM’s eyes, but explains his thinking in virtually every part and gives the DM ways to change things without ruining continuity,” Lucias Meyer explains in an an RPG.net review. “This was the most fun my group ever had and is still a campaign we talk about. A must for any Planescape fan.”

Dead Gods was amazing and it solidified for me a love for Planescape that has never faded,” Mitchell Wallerstedt says of his play experience. “It was probably over 15 years ago that we played through it and I’m still waiting for more.”

Dead Gods ranked 14 on Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list of 30 greatest adventures.

Next: Number 4

Start at 10

How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal

How much should the outcomes of characters’ actions be decided by the dungeon master instead of the rules?

Before roleplaying games, the rules of a game specified every action players could take, and then decided the outcome of each possibility. The invention of the dungeon master freed players from the tyranny of the rules. Most editions of Dungeons & Dragons expected the DM to make frequent decisions about the characters’ fates—especially in the many situations the rules didn’t cover. “Prior to 3rd edition,” designer Monte Cook wrote, “‘the DM decides’ wasn’t just a fallback position; it often was the rule.”

The DM’s power to augment the rules enabled the hobby we love, but this power enabled capricious DMs to zap characters when players failed to laugh at their puns, to curry favor by lading treasure on their girlfriend’s characters, and to win D&D by killing the rest of the party.

So the designers entered what D&D’s Creative Director Mike Mearls calls “the business of trying to ‘fix’ obnoxious people.”

“D&D’s 3.5 and 4th editions were very much driven by an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance,” Mearls explained in a Twitter thread. “The designers aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.”

So D&D’s fourth-edition designers devised rules that shrank the DM’s role as much as possible. Potentially, a DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. As much as possible, fourth edition shifts the game to the combat stage with its well-defined rules. In stark contrast to earlier editions, spells lacked effects outside of combat. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic: the Gathering cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. For action outside of combat, fourth edition presents the skill challenge, where the DM only must decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance.

In Mearls’ opinion, this basic design premise suffers from a fatal flaw. “It misses out on a ton of the elements that make RPGs distinct and doesn’t speak to why people enjoy D&D in the first place.”

Fifth edition’s design returns dungeon masters to their traditional role in the game. During the design, Rodney Thompson described the goal. “We want a system that makes it easy to be the DM, and at the same time trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

“With fifth edition,” Mearls explained, “We assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”

The design team referred to the goal as “DM empowerment.” The phrase may be misleading, because the goal of DM empowerment is not to tickle a DM’s power fantasies. DM empowerment lets DMs fill gaps in the rules—and sometimes override the rules with their own judgement. DM empowerment lets your wizard use spells outside of combat, among other things.

Monte Cook touted the advantages of the approach. “Empowering DMs from the start facilitates simulation. No set of rules can cover every situation, and the DM can address fine details in a way no rulebook can. When it comes to how much of your turn is spent opening a door, perhaps it depends on the door. A large, heavy metal door might be your action to open, while opening a simple wooden door might not be an action at all. Another door might fall in between. Do you want the rules to try to cover every aspect of this relatively insignificant situation?”

DM empowerment reduces the volume of rules a game needs. Original D&D’s rules fit into a few pages because the game relied on the DM to resolve all the areas the rules failed to cover. Rodney Thompson explained that fifth edition also “trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

“Fewer rules coupled with DM empowerment also facilitate story-focused play, because nothing slows down an exciting narrative like consulting a book or two . . . or ten,” Monte wrote. “Giving the DM the ability to adjudicate what you can and can’t do on your turn then players to be more freeform with their actions. They don’t need to worry about action types and can just state what they want to do. A player’s crazy plan might not fit into the tightly defined rules for what you can do in a round, but a good DM can quickly determine on the fly if it sounds reasonable and keep the story and action moving.”

None of this means that D&D’s rules lack a purpose. D&D remains a game about making choices and seeing the consequences (often while in dungeons with dragons). The rules serve as the physics of the game world. As much as convenient, rules should enable players to see the likely consequences of an action, make wise or reckless choices, and then let the dice settle the outcome. Rules help span the gulf between a character’s real experience in the game world and what players learn from a DM’s description. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.) Elegant games cover most of the actions players may take with compact rules that deliver verisimilitude. (See From the Brown Books to Next, D&D Tries for Elegance.)

In a roleplaying game, characters face perils, and sometimes harsh consequences. Without such possibilities, the game lacks tension and everyone grows bored. The rules help the DM avoid becoming the players’ adversary—the person to blame when something goes wrong. Monte wrote, “If the rule is printed in a book, it’s easier to assume that it’s balanced and consistent, and players are less likely to question it.” When I run a game and the players succeed, I want them to credit themselves; when something goes bad, I want them to blame the die rolls set by the rules.

The best roleplaying games strike a balance between rules and empowered game masters. D&D owes some of its recent success to elegant rules, some to DM empowerment, and some to modern dungeon masters better suited to their empowered role.

Early in the life of D&D, DMs struggled more with their role keeping the group interested, excited, and happy. Everyone came to D&D from a life seeing and playing only competitive games, so DMs tended to fall into a familiar style of playing to win. And let’s face it, the example set by co-creator Gary Gygax reinforced some of the DM-to-win archetype. After all, when his group made smart plays by listening at doors and searching rubbish for treasure, Gary struck back by creating ear seekers and rot grubs.

Until recently, if you didn’t go to conventions, you could be a dungeon master for decades and almost certainly only see a couple of other DMs in action. Today, every potential DM can stream examples of other DMs acting as fans of the characters. Plus, DMs grow up exposed to electronic roleplaying games. Today’s DMs rarely need to be tied by rules to enable a fun game.

The biggest competitor to D&D is not another tabletop game, it’s World of Warcraft and countless other computer and video games that duplicate most of the D&D experience, 24/7, with better graphics. D&D enjoys two competitive advantages: face-to-face social interaction, and the DM’s ability to account for actions outside of the game’s rules. When D&D’s designers worked to eliminate the DM’s judgement from the game, they threw out a key advantage. Without a DM, why bother to log off?

Related: Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed