Tag Archives: Monte Cook

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

How to Use the Players’ Metagaming to Mess With Their Heads (and Improve Your Game)

In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Dungeon & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax suggested speeding overcautious players by rolling “huge handfuls of dice” to raise fears of nearby monsters. Of course, the characters in the game world never hear the die rolls or Gary saying, “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far.” He relied on the player’s metagaming to speed the dungeon crawl. When metagaming, players use knowledge of the game in the real world to make decisions based on things their characters don’t know.

Gary intended to use the power of metagaming for good.

Whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. Players routinely ignore statues drawn on the map, but if I add a miniature, their characters inevitably sidle around thing, expecting it to animate and attack. The presence of miniatures sends the metagame signal that the figures represent things to fight.

Although this never fails to amuse me, it brings another benefit. Placing miniatures for harmless things defies a metagame assumption. Maybe next time, the players won’t tie up all the statues in the dungeon just in case.

Animated Statue?

These sorts of metagame stunts carry a price. They call attention to the game and may interfere with the players’ immersion in the imaginary world. When DMs use meaningless die rolls to hurry the players or foster paranoia, they can nudge players out of the game world.

Instead, consider fostering paranoia based on things inside the game world. Describe the sound of a door slamming in the last room, a smell of wet fur, a sudden chill, cries echoing through stone halls, and so on.

Still, my trick with the statures seems  innocuous to me. After all, the players are already focusing on the map and minis when I place the figures.

Despite the price of instigating metagame thinking, I occasionally ask players to make meaningless checks. This discourages the assumption that every roll signals something. I prefer requesting such checks when players already seem focused on the game table rather than immersed in the game world. For instance, if a rogue scouts ahead and checks for traps, I might also ask for a superfluous stealth check.

In my games, I like to toy with players metagame expectations for two reasons:

  • It discourages metagaming. If you sometimes do things that defy the metagame, players will rely less on it.
  • It creates uncertainty and fosters surprises. In the game, we can create surprises by doing things that break the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
People bring meta-fiction expectations to stories as well as games. The movie Psycho provides my favorite example of violating these expectations to shock and surprise. The movie contains two big surprises. I will spoil one here. Psycho begins with the movie’s star embezzling $40,000 cash and taking to the road. We’ve all seen countless movies, so we all know what will happen. Obviously, the movie will follow the story of the stolen cash to the end. And we know the movie’s star will survive until the finale. The star always does. Instead, Psycho shatters our expectations by having the movie’s star suddenly murdered less then half way through. The turn shocked and electrified audiences. Hitchcock even added a personal plea to the end of the film asking viewers not to reveal the twists.

I recommend playing with these metagame assumptions.

Metagame assumption Countermeasure
The battle map signals a fight. Every DM has set a battle map on the table and seen players immediately ready weapons and announce their battle stances. I discourage such shenanigans by saying something like, “This map shows a forest clearing exactly like several others you passed on your journey, except—unknown to your characters—this clearing happens to be on a battle map.” Use a battle map for a non-combat scene like a council meeting or a visit to the tavern. From Twitter, @Styro_Vgc writes, “Watching the PCs carefully maneuver to flank the mailman delivering the summons is worth the effort of drawing a few building outlines.” I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway.
Miniatures represent combatants. If a non-player or creature has a miniature, you should expect to fight them. In addition to statues, I collect miniature figures for unarmed civilians, from royalty to beggars. During combats, they often serve as bystanders to be protected. Bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat.
The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. Vary your adventures from the expected arc to a climactic battle. For instance, in Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the players almost immediately face one of their biggest, most dangerous fights. Monte designed the battle to shock players who expected the usual, leisurely start.
Unique miniatures or tokens represent important NPCs. Players tend to focus attention on the unique figures in a battle. From Twitter, Kyle Maxwell writes, “I use and it’s fun to name the NPC tokens so my players immediately assume they are some highly significant character. (Bonus, the interaction with them sometimes turns this into a self-fulfilling prophecy!)” A variation of this trick works with unique or important looking miniatures mixed in with, say, a group of bandits.

While these tricks keep players on their toes by toying with metagame assumptions, I can think of one assumption DMs should uphold. A tricky DM can alarm players by lavishing description on a harmless, ordinary object such as a door. Don’t. None of this suggests you should avoid vivid descriptions—they make the imaginary come alive. Still, no player wants to spend a half hour investigating an ordinary door because their DM’s extra attention made it seem important. Your descriptions help guide players to the fun and interesting features in the world. Without that lead, you risk slowing the game as players poke, prod, and investigate every bit of decor.

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.

Megadungeons in print and on the web

Perhaps few people play megadungeons, but my look at the era when megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons and why few people play them anymore revealed great interest in vast underworlds. So in this post, I present the megadungeons in print or on the web.

To qualify for my mega-list, a dungeon must meet three qualifications. It must be…

  • in print or on the web in a form close to playable.
  • suitable for the focus of an entire campaign from low to high level.
  • too big to clear of traps and monsters, even as the focus of a campaign.

Most of these products attempt to recapture or update the play style of the original campaigns that launched D&D, so many use rules that emulate either original D&D or AD&D. If you prefer advantage, concentration, and armor classes that go up, you can play these dungeons with fifth edition. Just use the monster stats in your new manual and make up any difficulty classes as you go.

Barrowmaze product page
Barrowmaze System: Labyrinth Lord and original D&D
Tagline: Barrowmaze is a classic, old-school megadungeon.
Typical reviews: “This is a multi-year campaign in a book. It is an obvious labor of love. If this product doesn’t deserve five stars—easily deserve it—then no product deserves it.” – Greg W.

Barrowmaze is nearly a textbook example of how to make a compelling, well-presented dungeon module. – Grognardia

Rational: Underground tombs infested by chaotic cult
Snap reaction: With an emphasis on undead and dungeon factions, will Barrowmaze prove too much of a good thing?
Castle of the Mad Archmage product page
Castle of the Mad Archmage System: Adventures Dark and Deep, other games with the same initials, or Pathfinder
Tagline: Constructed to match reminiscences of Castle Greyhawk.
Typical reviews:Castle of the Mad Archmage is a lot of fun…The problem is that so much of feels either random, unexplainable, or silly.” – Dungeon Fantastic

“Serious old-school aficionados should put the Castle at the top of their shopping lists – Roles and Rules

Rational: The Mad Archmage, an insane demigod, wants it so.
Snap reaction: A tribute to Gary’s game that is best enjoyed through heavy nostalgia.
Dragon’s Delve
product now unavailable
Dragon's Delve System: d20
Tagline: Created by Monte Cook (co-designer of 3rd-Edition D&D) and written by Super Genius Games for dungeonaday.com
Typical reviews:Dragon’s Delve hits most of the right old school notes. There is in fact a great deal to like about it and I’m not ashamed to admit I may even steal an idea or three from it.” – Grognardia
Rational: Ambient magic? Insane wizards? The mysteries of Dragon’s Delve remain locked from my gaze.
Snap reaction: A mountain of interesting content locked behind the dungeonaday paywall. Update: The only trace of dungeonaday now on the web is an adventure drawn from its content, The Tomb-World of Alak-Ammur.
Castle Triskelion
product page
triskelion System: First edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Tagline: Come and get a free dungeon room every day.
Typical reviews: None. You could be the first to review this product.
Rational: A feuding family who practiced abominable sorceries.
Snap reaction: A labor of love offered for free.
Castle Whiterock
product page
Castle Whiterock System: d20
Tagline: The greatest dungeon story ever told.
Typical reviews:Castle Whiterock is an epic endeavor that is the best adventuring product released by any company this year.” – Nathan C.

“The adventure features great encounters, adventure to be had, wonderful villains, great twists in the tale, and many hidden secrets waiting to be uncovered. On the down side, there are some tedious bits.” – Peter I.

Rational: Traps, magic, and monsters accumulated over the castle’s 1200-year history.
Snap reaction: No mere list of rooms, this product builds a campaign with numerous quests around a megadungeon.
Darkness Beneath
product page
The Darkness Beneath System: Original D&D and similar rules
Tagline: A multi-author megadungeon released in installments in Fight On! magazine.
Typical reviews: “The community megadungeon ‘The Darkness Beneath’ has turned out some very good levels, with a single exception.” – Ten Foot Pole
Rational: Undetermined.
Snap reaction: A strong but uneven anthology that ranges from inspired to silly, just like the old-school dungeons it emulates. The cutaway map calls me to adventure.
Dwimmermount
product page
Dwimmermount System: Labyrinth Lord, original D&D, or Pathfinder
Tagline: With Dwimmermount, the Golden Age has returned.
Typical reviews: “The very size of Dwimmermount may also be its enemy, a few forays into the place won’t discover much, and the levels get consistently weirder, but start very classically D&D.” – Dungeon of Signs

“Pages upon pages of minutiae.” – Binkystick

Rational: A dungeon set atop a node of primal chaos
Snap reaction: An attempt to recreate a golden-age play style that resists capture in print.
The Emerald Spire
product page
Emerald Spire System: Pathfinder
Tagline: An all-star superdungeon.
Typical reviews: “The superdungeon might feel like a long series of Pathfinder Society dungeons.” – 5-Minute Workday

“Two levels of the Spire really stand out for me and made me want to slice them out of the megadungeon and run them back to back as a one-shot or mini-campaign.” – Tor.com

Rational: An insane creature of immense power living at the bottom level.
Snap reaction: This collection of levels created by all-star contributors probably plays better if you divide the levels into separate dungeons.
Eyes of the Stone Thief
product page
Eyes of the Stone Thief System: 13th Age
Tagline: The Stone Thief rises. Enter it, find its secrets and defeat it–or die trying.
Typical reviews: “A very, very clever idea executed very well.” – The Other Steve

“The book as a whole also gives you the tools and tips to customize [the campaign] for your players.” – Addison Recorder

Rational: The dungeon is alive.
Snap reaction:  A promising example of the living-dungeon concept, backed with advice on running and customizing parts or as a campaign.
Grande Temple of Jing
product page
Grand Temple of Jing System: Pathfinder
Tagline: The dungeoncrawl that rules them all!
Typical reviews: None. This product hasn’t been released yet.
Rational: A temple to a trickster god
Snap reaction: With a catch-all concept and many contributors, expect a trap- and puzzle-filled dungeon loaded with ideas.
Greyhawk Ruins
product page
Greyhawk Ruins System: Second edition AD&D
Tagline: Enter the infamous ruins of Castle Greyhawk, the most formidable and expansive dungeon on Oerth.
Typical reviews:Greyhawk Ruins may not be a particularly inspired example of a megadungeon, but it is a megadungeon and I give it points for that alone.” – Grognardia

“A classic, illogical ‘gilded hole’ dungeon.” – Lawrence Schick, Heroic Worlds

Rational: The wizard Zagag’s mad experiments
Snap reaction: The product every player dreamed of in the 70s, released in 1990 when our expectations had changed.
Rappan Athuk
product page
Rappan Athuk System: Swords & Wizardry, original D&D, or Pathfinder
Tagline: Nothing more and nothing less than a good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl.
Typical reviews: “A TON of interesting encounters and levels. It’s also maddeningly confusing in places” – Ten Foot Pole

“I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by a couple of levels, but at the same time, I’ve really, really liked several ideas herein.” – Thilo G.

Rational: A complex created by refugee priests of Orcus
Snap reaction: Suited to old-school DMs who somehow recruit the rare players who enjoy dungeon-only campaigns, high body counts, and unwinnable final encounters.
The Ruins of Undermountain
The Ruins of Undermountain System: Second edition AD&D
Tagline: The deepest dungeon of them all.
Typical reviews: “The dungeon itself is barely detailed, with only the major level features written up.” – Dungeon Fantastic
Rational: Another insane wizard
Snap reaction: An outline for a DM determined to create a megadungeon in the Forgotten Realms and willing to dream up the details.

Stonehell
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Stonehell System: Labyrinth Lord and original D&D
Tagline: Enough monsters, traps, weirdness, and treasure to keep you gaming for a long, long time.
“Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is probably the best megadungeon published to date in any form” – Grognardia

Stonehell takes a curious middle ground between detailed set pieces, and leaving some room descriptions sparse to allow for DM improvisation.” – Dreams in the Lich House

“This is certainly one of the best works to come out of the OSR. It’s a megadungeon and it’s close to perfect.” – Ten Foot Pole

Rational: A prison where the pain and suffering attracted a powerful, chaotic entity.
Snap reaction: Highly touted by old-school fans. Adopts a concise presentation inspired by 1-page dungeon design.
World’s Largest Dungeon
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World's Largest Dungeon System: d20
Tagline: Over 16,000 Encounters – A mammoth dungeon unlike any other! Every monster in the SRD – And a few you’ve never seen before!
Typical reviews: “Nothing remarkable or all that memorable about it” – Jeremy Reaban

“They don’t expect you to actually run the World’s Largest Dungeon as one big dungeon. Considering that’s the only reason that anyone would actually buy the product, I find that pretty stupid.” – oriongates

Rational: A giant prison for evil.
Snap reaction: Not so much an adventure as a publishing stunt.

 

Why Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons

In my last post I wrote about how Dungeons & Dragons creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built their campaigns around huge dungeons that grew and changed. 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.

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

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.

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.

The Ruins of UndermountainIn 1991, TSR finally published The Ruins of Undermountain, its first megadungeon in print. 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 box kills it. Printed pages cannot capture the dynamic essence of those original levels.

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.

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. Kicking in endless doors to fight and loot turned from fresh and thrilling to a tiresome slog. Today, avid D&D players can claim that they don’t like dungeons or can say that their best games lack any combat. Even those of us who like dungeon crawls want to see some daylight and a plot.

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 crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.” 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 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 world of fantasy offers plenty of possible justifications for the strange things in the underworld. More on that in my next post.

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 being the same advantages. Today’s gamers tend to create megadungeons to foster nostalgia or to enable episodic play.

Next: The dungeon comes alive in the mythic underworld