Tag Archives: Pathfinder

D&D’s Inconspicuous Phrases That You Notice Once You Master the Rules

Despite using common language, the Dungeons & Dragons rules feature such precise wording that a close reading answers most questions and foils many schemes to break the game. You can tell that the designers dreamed up plenty of min-maxing exploits, and then engineered text that prevented any shenanigans.

Sometimes the implications of the game’s precise phrasing take experience to spot.

For example, the description for alchemist’s fire says, “Make a ranged attack against a creature or object, treating the alchemist’s fire as an improvised weapon.” That text includes plenty to unpack. Alchemist’s fire is treated as an improvised weapon, so unless you’re a tavern brawler, you don’t add your proficiency bonus to attack. Because the throw counts as a ranged attack, you add your Dexterity bonus to your attack roll. Most players miss the next implication: Ranged attacks add your Dexterity bonus to the damage roll. The specific rule for alchemist’s fire changes the general rule for when a ranged attack inflicts damage. “On a hit, the target takes 1d4 fire damage at the start of each of its turns.” As with any other damage bonus, the one for Dexterity only adds to the attack once.

(For another example of how a close reading of the rules differs from the common interpretation, check out the strict method for rolling damage from a magic missile.)

As I learned the D&D rules, I noticed phrases that once seemed innocuous, but that now reveal importance.

For example, consider the phrase “that you can see” in spell descriptions. Many spells require the caster to see the target of an effect. Invisibility rates as the game’s most potent defensive spell because so much magic requires sight for targeting. Sometimes the phrase “that you can see” turns against the players. Spirit Guardians lets casters spare any number of creatures they can see from the spell’s effect. Any invisible or otherwise out-of-sight allies must suffer the guardians’ effects.

Many monsters can cast spells “requiring no material components.” This enables a flameskull to cast Fireball despite lacking pockets full of bat guano and sulfur. (Flameskulls also cast without somatic components—an essential accommodation for their lack of hands.)

Monsters able to cast spells “requiring no components” gain a significant advantage: These creatures can cast spells without being interrupted by a Counterspell. “To be perceptible, the casting of a spell must involve a verbal, somatic, or material component.” With no components, no one notices the casting until it finishes.

The monsters able to cast without components mainly fall into two categories:

• psionic creatures like githyanki and mind flayers
• constructs

Many character features allow extra attacks “when you use the Attack action,” which creates a limitation that often goes unnoticed. For example, a monk’s extra unarmed strike requires an Attack action, so a monk cannot just take the Dash or Dodge action and then use a Bonus action to get some licks in. This same phrase prevents two-weapon rangers from casting a spell, and then making an attack with their off-hand weapon.

Most extra attacks delivered “when you use the Attack action” cost a Bonus action, but the barbarian’s Form of the Beast feature lets you make extra claw attacks as part of your Attack action. This enables such barbarians to rage and to still make that extra attack.

The D&D rules overload the terms “attack,” “melee,” and “ranged,” giving them different meanings in different contexts. That can fuel confusion. The Attack action usually includes an attack (unless you choose to grapple). But sometimes you can make an attack with a Bonus action, often “when you use the Attack action.” Spellcasters can take the Cast a Spell action, and then make a spell attack with something like a Fire Bolt. Spells like Booming Blade and Green-Flame Blade have you to make a melee attack (and not a spell attack) with a weapon as part of the Cast a Spell action.

No wonder the 2nd edition of Pathfinder attempts to cut the fog by calling a single attack a strike.

“Melee” and “ranged” can describe types of weapons and types of attacks. Usually the weapons and attacks stay in their lanes, but when you hurl a melee weapon it crosses into oncoming traffic.

A melee weapon, such as a dagger or handaxe, remains a melee weapon even when you make a ranged attack by throwing it. Normally a ranged attack adds your Dexterity bonus to damage, but the thrown property can change that general rule. The thrown property says, “If the weapon is a melee weapon, you use the same ability modifier for that attack roll and damage roll that you would use for a melee attack with the weapon. If you throw a dagger, you can use either your Strength or your Dexterity, since the dagger has the finesse property.”

When used to make a ranged attack, melee weapons that lack the thrown property count as improvised weapons. They add your Dexterity bonus to the attack and damage rolls, and deal 1d4 damage.

If I were king of D&D, my edition would adopt “strike” for a single attack, and I would consider phrases like “close attack” and “distance attack” in place of the overworked “ranged” and “melee.”

Sometimes a close reading of the D&D rules leads to interpretations that might differ from what the designers first intended. Perhaps lead designer Jeremy Crawford got questions about sneak attack, reviewed the rules, and then thought, I didn’t mean that, but it still works.

Your rogue can use the sneak attack feature “once per turn,” but it’s not limited to your turn. During a round, rogues can sneak attack on their turn and again on someone else’s turn, typically when a foe provokes an opportunity attack.

For spells like Wall of Fire and Blade Barrier, the distinction between turns and rounds also becomes important. These spells deal damage the first time you enter their effect on a turn—anyone’s turn. This means that if a monster gets forced through a Wall of Fire on consecutive turns, they accumulate more damage in a round than if they had just stayed in the fire. I suppose you get used to the heat.

10 Things in Pathfinder Second Edition I Like (and 1 I Don’t)

In 2008, Paizo sent designer Jason Buhlman to the Winter Fantasy convention to sample the upcoming fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons and report on the game. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens recalls the outcome. “From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 System Reference Document: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.” See The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers.

While fourth edition featured a bold new design aimed at saving D&D, Pathfinder became an alternative that refined D&D’s 3.5 edition. For a time, sales of Pathfinder rivaled D&D. But after nearly 10 years, Pathfinder needed an update. So in August 2019, Paizo released a second edition. In a post, lead designer Jason Buhlman named the update’s number one goal: “Create a new edition of Pathfinder that’s much simpler to learn and play—a core system that’s easy to grasp but expandable—while remaining true to the spirit of what makes Pathfinder great: customization, flexibility of story, and rules that reward those who take the time to master them.” Even new, Pathfinder 2 offers more character options than fifth edition.

On reading the new rules and playing a short introduction, I can share 10 things I like in the new game, and 1 thing I don’t’.

1. “Ancestry” instead of “race.” In the The Hobbit, Tolkien calls hobbits a race, and started the custom of referring to elves, dwarves, and other fantastic kin to humans as races. But the term “race” has a common meaning different from the game meaning, which leads to confusion. Referring to even imaginary “races” as intrinsically talented, virtuous, or corrupt feels unsavory at best. “Species” makes a more accurate term, but its scientific flavor makes it jarring in fantasy. Pathfinder replaces “race” with the more agreeable term of “ancestry.” Unless Wizards of the Coast resists an innovation “not invented here,” expect to see “ancestry” in some future sixth edition.

2. Fewer action types. The Pathfinder team saw new players stumble over the original game’s zoo of swift, immediate, move, and standard actions. In a bid to simplify, this second edition consolidates the action types into a system that gives characters 3 actions and 1 reaction per turn. This means even new characters can attempt 3 attacks per turn, although the second strike suffers a -5 penalty and the third a -10 penalty. In practice, only more proficient attackers will land extra attacks. Most spells require 2 actions to cast. When I played a Pathfinder 2 demo, its simpler actions proved very playable, even elegant.

In a related refinement, Pathfinder adds clarity by calling a single attack a strike. This avoids the confusion that the D&D rules sometimes cause by using the same word for an attack and for an attack action that can include multiple attacks.

3. Animal companions level up. To many D&D players, animal companions offer a special appeal, but the game’s support for pets remains shaky. Pathfinder devotes an entire section to animal companions and familiars, showing pets the attention they deserve. Rather than keeping animal companions close to their natural abilities, pets improve in lockstep as characters level, making them capable of staying alive and relevant.

4. A manageable encumbrance system. D&D measures encumbrance by pound. While this system seems to add complicated bookkeeping, it proves simple in play because everyone ignores it. Pathfinder measures encumbrance by Bulk, a value representing an item’s size, weight, and general awkwardness. You can carry Bulk equal to 5 plus your strength bonus. Bulk streamlines encumbrance enough to make tracking playable. (Plus, the system charms the grognard in me by recalling a similar rule in Runequest (1978) that tracked encumbrance by “Things.”)

5. User-friendly books. Paizo devoted extra attention to making the core rulebook into an easy reference. For instance, the book includes bleed tabs, and I love them. These bleed tabs don’t show how to play a metal song on guitar; they make finding chapters easy. Unlike typical tabs that jut from the page, bleed tabs show as printed labels on the page that go to the edge and appear as bands of color. The book combines an index and glossary into a section that defines game terms, and also leads readers to pages containing more information. Every game rulebook should include these features.

6. Degrees of success. Roleplaying games often include core mechanics that determine degrees of success or failure, but D&D only offers one extra degree: a 5% chance of a critical on attack rolls. The Pathfinder 2 system delivers a critical success on a 20 and a critical failure on a 1. Also, a check that exceeds the DC by 10 or more brings a critical success and a check 10 or more less than the DC brings critical failure. Pathfinder avoids the punishing effects that make some fumble systems too swingy. For instance, a critical failure on a strike just counts as a miss. Sorry, no fumble tables that lead characters to put their eye out. Where natural, fumbles and criticals affect spell saves. For example, a successful save against Gust of Wind lets you stand your ground, and a critical save leaves you unaffected.

7. The Incapacitation trait of spells. Save-or-die spells have proved troublesome in high-level D&D play. Campaigns that build to an epic clash with a fearsome dragon instead end with the beast helpless in a force cage and stabbed to death in a dreary series of damage rolls. Pathfinder gives spells like Force Cage and Banishment the Incapacitation trait. Creatures twice or more the level of the spell typically need to fumble their save to fall under its effect. To me, this beats D&D’s solution to the same problem, legendary resistance.

8. Character customization without decision paralysis. Fourth edition D&D focused on offering players vast numbers of character options. Players uninterested in the solitary hobby of character tinkering soon found the options overwhelming. For my characters, I turned to the Internet to find character optimizers who sifted through countless options and helped me choose. Pathfinder aims to give players room for character customization without forcing a bewildering number of choices. The system works by presenting character options as feats. At each level, players make selections from small menus of feats. Even first level characters of the same class can play differently, and they grow more distinct as they advance.

9. Skill DCs replace passive checks. Pathfinder dispenses with passive perception and passive insight in favor of Skill DCs, “When someone or something tests your skill, they attempt a check against your skill DC, which is equal to 10 plus your skill modifiers.” Often skill DCs work just like passive abilities, like when a stealthy character attempts to beat someone’s perception score. In the most common use of skill DCs, a sneaking creature would roll against a character’s perception skill DC.

Without passive perception, a game master must roll secret perception checks to learn if exploring characters spot traps. Passive perception aims to eliminate such die rolls, but I consider rolls to find hidden traps useful. Without a roll, DMs just compare set DCs verses passive scores. DMs who know their players’ scores decide in advance what traps get found, with no luck of the roll to make the game surprising. Skill DCs also replace opposed ability checks—a second core mechanic with skewed odds that clutters the D&D rules.

10. Limited opportunity attacks. To encourage more movement in combat, Pathfinder 2 limits the characters and creatures capable of making opportunity attacks. At first level, only fighters start with the capability. Opportunity attacks mainly existed to help front-line characters protect the unarmored magic users in the back, but D&D and Pathfinder make once-fragile character types more robust now. Opportunity attacks make sense as a fighter specialty, especially if that encourages more dynamic battles.

That makes 10 things I like. What do I dislike?

Pathfinder 2 features a proficiency system that leads to the sort of double-digit bonuses that D&D players last saw in fourth edition.

In trained skills, every Pathfinder 2 character gets a bonus equal to at least 2 plus their level. This steady advance makes characters feel more capable as they level and rewards players with a sense of accomplishment as their characters improve. “The best part about proficiencies is the way they push the boundaries for non-magical characters, particularly those with a legendary rank,” writes designer Mark Seifter. “Masters and especially legends break all those rules. Want your fighter to leap 20 feet straight up and smash a chimera down to the ground? You can do that (eventually)!”

As in fourth edition, Pathfinder game masters can justify the sky-high DCs needed to challenge high-level characters by describing obstacles of legendary proportions. At first level, the rogue must climb a rough dungeon wall; by 20th level, she must climb a glass-smooth wall covered in wet slime—in an earthquake. At first level, you must negotiate with the mayor; by twentieth level, he’s king. And you killed his dog.

At least as often as fourth-edition dungeon masters flavored higher DCs as bigger challenges, they just paired routine challenges with higher numbers. That tendency leads to the downside of such steep increases in proficiency. In practice, characters usually just advance to face higher and higher numbers for the same challenges. In fourth edition, a steady rise in attack bonuses and armor classes meant that monsters only made suitable challenges for a narrow band of levels. This may also apply to Pathfinder 2.

I favor fifth edition’s bounded accuracy over the steep increases in proficiency bonuses featured in Pathfinder 2. For more, see Two Problems that Provoked Bounded Accuracy.

Aside from these 11 things, how does Pathfinder differ from its sibling Dungeons & Dragons?

Gamers often describe Pathfinder as more crunchy—more rules heavy—than fifth edition. After all, the core rulebook spans 638 pages! But that book includes content that D&D splits between the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and those books include almost exactly the same number of pages. In some ways, Pathfinder proves simpler. For instance, its system actions and reactions simplifies D&D’s action types. Still, Pathfinder devotes more crunch to describing outcomes and conditions. For example, in D&D, characters make a Strength (Athletics) check to climb, but the DM gets no help determining the outcome of a failure. Pathfinder describes outcomes: A climb failure stops movement; a critical failure leads to a fall. D&D describes 14 conditions; Pathfinder describes 42.

Without playing more Pathfinder 2, I feel unready to label this post as a review. Nonetheless, I like most of what I see and I’m eager to play the game more.

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

“Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons is all about taking that things that work in D&D, keeping them in the game, and fixing everything else,” designer Mike Mearls wrote after the edition’s announcement in 2007.

“That’s the goal, and I think we’re heading there.”

Later, he put the goal in a different light. “No one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them.’ That was never the intent. With fourth edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say ‘hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.’”

By 2010, when Mearls defended the goals of fourth edition D&D, nearly all the team behind the game had left Wizards of the Coast. The virtual table top was 2 years late and on life support. Pathfinder, a game descended from the D&D edition that fourth edition tried to replace, now drew players alienated by fourth edition. Rumors circulated that Pathfinder sales exceeded D&D sales.

The Story of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

On the fourth-edition team, Mearls ranked as a secondary contributor. Now, with the most of the team sacked, Mearls rose to head D&D’s design. He remained to take the heat for “ruining D&D” and to salvage fourth edition until something new could replace it.

What had gone so wrong?

The business plan for fourth edition centered on enticing players to subscribe to D&D Insider, where they could play online using a virtual tabletop. At the edition’s announcement, the team emphasized online play so much that some wondered if D&D would remain playable without a computer.

But weeks after the game’s release, real-life tragedy shattered plans for a virtual table top. Joseph Batten, the senior manager leading development murdered his estranged wife and then killed himself. Apparently, Batten’s work on the project proved unusable. A beta version of the tabletop took 2 more years to reach users, and that version looked nothing like the demos shown in 2008. While the demos promised 3D rendering and an extension of other DDI tools, the beta version retreated to 2D tokens and still lacked integration. Nothing set the beta apart from other VTTs already available. In 2012, after the announcement of D&D Next, Wizards pulled the plug. “We were unable to generate enough support for the tool to launch a full version to the public.”

Of course, D&D Insider had moved ahead without the tabletop. Subscribers still gained access to rules, a character builder, and magazine-style articles. But the lack of a tabletop forced Wizards to charge less and to scrap plans for selling digital assets like virtual miniatures and dungeon tiles. Without the virtual tabletop, the D&D team could never gain the $50 million in revenue needed to lift D&D to a core brand.

Despite trouble with the online initiative, a hit game might have carried the edition. But while many current players loved the new edition, as many others rejected it.

From the designers’ perspective, the rejection stemmed from two causes: The game dared to change too much at once, and the designers ran out of time.

D&D’s second edition tried to be broadly compatible with the original game. Third edition succeeded by adopting decades of role-playing game design experience while preserving “sacred cows” that made D&D familiar. Players had embraced the leap. The fourth-edition designers felt confident that existing players were ready for another step. “I expect that the improvements in game play will convince even reluctant players to switch over to fourth edition,” designer Chris Perkins wrote.

For the new edition, the design team “took time to imagine D&D games that took a different slant than any of us would have imagined,” team lead Rob Heinsoo explained. They turned sacred cows into barbecue and delivered a game very different from any other edition.

To designers the gap between third to fourth edition seemed smaller than the gulf most gamers saw. “I think of D&D as a conversation, in terms of game design, between the designers and the audience,” explained Mike Mearls. “To designers—and players who followed every release—the transition to fourth made sense.” Some fans followed the conversation by playing 3.5, Player’s Handbook 2, Complete Arcane, and then playing with the at-will magic in Complete Mage and the martial powers in Book of Nine Swords. To them, the step to fourth seemed small. (See The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition.)

But few players kept up. “If you got a 3.5 Player’s Handbook and that’s the only D&D book you have and the only one you read, and then you got the fourth edition Player’s Handbook there was a gap,” Mearls said.

Steve Winter, a designer since D&D’s 2nd edition, wrote, “Fourth Edition was a glorious experiment that succeeded technically. Unfortunately, its breaks from the past were too severe for many fans, who didn’t pick up the new banner.”

The designers came to regret changing so much so fast. Fourth edition’s lead, Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Knowing what I know now, I might have worked for smaller changes in the world, since shifting both the world and the mechanics at the same time proved difficult for some of the D&D faithful to swallow.”

More players might have accepted the change if the developers had gained time to perfect the edition. “We just ran out of runway.” Mearls explained “That’s kind of the story of fourth edition in a lot of ways. We ran out of runway as we were tying to get the plane up in the air.”

The rush to deliver hurt the system. For example, player surveys reveal that the simplest character classes rate as the most popular, but fourth edition lacked simple classes. And all the classes played the same. “The things I would have wanted to change about fourth edition mostly center on the knowledge that the class design project wasn’t entirely finished upon release,” Heinsoo said. “I’d never wanted to use the exact same power structure for the wizard as every other class, for example, but we ran out of time, and had to use smaller variations to express class differences than I had originally expected.”

Also, the lack of development left more than the usual number of bugs in the new system. The numbers behind complex skill challenges made success nearly impossible. The math behind difficulty classes needed revision too. Higher-level monsters lacked the punch to challenge characters.

The power system designed as the game’s irresistible hook led to unintended consequences. As characters rose in level, their growing number of choices overwhelmed players, slowing decisions. Characters gained more ways to interrupt combat turns, so each player’s decision paralysis extended into other player’s turns. Characters gained powers that targeted every foe on the battle map leading to more attack rolls than ever. Instead of delivering dynamic combat, battles showed to a crawl.

In 2010, the D&D team’s bid to salvage fourth edition reached players in a line of Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products. The designers had solved the bugs. Classes played differently. Some were simple, others granted ample options. Monsters challenged characters. The math worked. The newest classes sped combat by limiting choices, reactions, and battlefield-spanning powers. Essentials recaptured familiar spells, monsters, and even the look of past editions. But the rescue came too late. By 2010, the D&D team knew Essentials could only buy the time needed to develop a new edition.

Imagine an alternate history. What if the design team had been given time to deliver a game as polished as Essentials? Would the game have succeeded? Surely such a launch would have kept more players loyal, but would it lure the flood of MMO players the designers sought? Computer games offer frantic action and vivid graphics that D&D can never duplicate. By trying to match the appeal of a video game, the edition stumbled.

“We really lost what made D&D unique, what made Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing game distinct from other types of games that you could play,” Mearls said.

The new fifth edition of D&D ranks as the most successful yet. Rather than attempting to match the strengths of online games, fifth edition offers limited, elegant rules so players can focus what makes D&D special: playing through a story created when a 5 or 6 people join together as characters in a world open to anything.

Video games can never duplicate the same experience because they lack the same personal interaction and a dungeon master ready for the unexpected.

The fourth edition designers aimed to make the dungeon master’s role easy—something a computer could handle. So the rules discouraged the sort of ingenious or outrageous actions that break the game and create unforgettable moments.

Fifth-edition lead designer Jeremy Crawford even credits making the grid optional with some of the newest game’s success. “It’s a really simple thing, but in 5th, that decision to not require miniatures was huge. Us doing that suddenly basically unlocked everyone from the dining room table and, in many ways, made it possible for the boom in streaming that we’re seeing now.” Fourth edition did more than require a grid; it dwelled on one.

Fourth edition never emphasized D&D’s unique strengths. As Mike Mearls put it, “I think what was happening was [fourth edition] was really focusing on really hardcore mechanics, the intricacies of how the rules interact. It really became about the rules and about mastering the rules, rather than about the story, or role-playing, or the interaction between the DM and the players.”

By the end of fourth edition’s run, the designers had perfected a game about building characters and showing them off in dynamic fights. Perhaps they lost some of what makes D&D uniquely compelling.

Related: How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
product page
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
product page
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.

 

How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever

Third-edition Dungeons & Dragons reached stores in 2000. Its popularity fueled a number of “living” campaigns similar to today’s Adventurers League and Pathfinder Society. One such campaign, Living Arcanis hosted an event called The Battle of Semar at the Winter Fantasy convention. This event billed itself as a Battle Interactive. Before then, living campaigns held plain interactives. Paizo Publisher Erik Mona recalls, “Prior to Living Arcanis, most (if not all) interactives involved players wandering around a room with several ‘activity booths,’ occasional mini-adventures, and other non-adventure opportunities. The idea (though not wholly the practice) was that once you stepped into an interactive, you ‘were’ your character, and in-character chatter was highly encouraged.” The Battle of Semar gathered many tables of players to fight together toward the common goal of freeing the fortress city of Semar. The session might not have been the first such epic event, but it popularized the form. Suddenly every living campaign sponsored battle interactives. The format lives on in the D&D Epics and the Pathfinder Society Specials.

These multi-table, epic events have brought some of my favorite Dungeons & Dragons game sessions. At big conventions, they gather hundreds of players into a ballroom, where they cooperate to reach a common objective.

Just 3 years ago, I stumbled into serving as a dungeon master in my first such event: ADCP4-2 Lost City of Suldolphor by Dan Anderson. I had a blast. Since then, I’ve run tables at five epic events, and played in two more. Still, that first one stands as my favorite.

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

ADCP5-2 Best Defense Battle Interactive

This year, after running a table for DDEP2 Mulmaster Undone, the first of Gen Con’s two Epics, I tweeted, “Have the D&D Epics lost the plot? Recently they are fun but not special.” The event gave no sense of adventuring parties joining in a grand endeavor, and no interaction between tables.

The convention venue created many of the problems: Organizers could not use a public address system. They could not project results on a large screen. The schedule created severe time constraints. By the end, when the organizer would have announced results, the convention center cut the lights and power. But even aside from these handicaps, this Epic lacked the ambition of my first Battle Interactive.

The experience made me think of my past events, the many elements that I loved, and some elements that fell flat. I wondered how to build the best multi-table epic ever.

For more than 10 years, volunteers and professionals in the gaming community have written and organized these events. Some draw on experience that dwarfs mine. So who am I to explain how to create the most epic event ever? Nobody. Nonetheless, I will tell you what made my favorite events so good, how future events might even be better, and I’ll try to give you your money’s worth. If no one sounds off to tell me where I’m wrong, I’ll be disappointed.

Gather the room with a role-playing performance

The Lost City of Suldolphor did not begin with a dungeon master reading box text. Instead, Dan Anderson and M. Sean Molly stood at the front of the banquet hall, and performed as WeavePasha and Ala’Ammar, the adventurers’ patrons. This bit of theater did a far better job of setting the scene than any lone DM could have. Plus it brought the room together in a common mission. From the start, we were no longer separate tables isolated in our separate teams. We stood as a league of heroes standing together in a great fight.

No battle interactive or epic should ever begin with individual DM’s introducing their tables to the adventure. Setting the scene calls for a bit of theater. Don’t tell me our hobby lacks enough story tellers and role players to put on a show.

Establish a goal for everyone, and then show their progress

Epic events unite players at many game tables to reach a common goal. Each table’s success contributes to the final outcome. While players at the tables race to win battles, the event’s organizers create a game within the game to track progress toward winning—or losing—the war.

These events work best when the organizers use a projector to display progress: battles won and lost, territories captured, and MacGuffins claimed. The players may not know the rules of the game within the game, but they must see how its outcome turns on their actions.

Without an ongoing show of progress, epic events play less like games and more like tests: Everyone works alone, stops, and then gets the results. The lack cripples the event.

Embrace the fight for glory

Especially at Gen Con’s Epic events, the marshals who match players with DMs face an extra challenge: Many of their DMs are new to running for strangers, so they want easier, low-level tables. Meanwhile, high-level tables fill most of the room. For epic events, players typically bring their highest-level characters. Everyone wants to show off their strongest character; everyone wants their best shot at glory.

With a big stage and a shared goal, epic events fuel gamers’ competitive fire. They want to bring attention to their table and to their characters. This makes players rush to complete as many challenges as possible, to contribute as much as possible to the community’s success, to bring glory to their table and their PCs. The urgency creates an electric atmosphere that no single-table session can match.

The best epic events embrace the hunger for glory. They offer more challenges than the players can handle and the hardest challenges the players dare to accept. Players inclined to fight for the spotlight should have a chance to take it. Just as knights once competed to take the vanguard in the battle, tables could compete to take the most dangerous—and glorious—tasks. For a taste of glory, some players will even sacrifice beloved characters to suicide missions.

Focus on combat encounters and clear challenges.

A year after my first battle interactive, I served as a DM in my second. For me, this session didn’t feel like as much of a smash has that first event.

This adventure featured an assortment of challenges contributed by various authors. Some of the challenges came as battles, others offered skill challenges or even role playing diversions. Something for everyone, except the battlefield reports on the projection screen kindled my players’ taste for glory. When the adventure led to role playing, they grew frustrated by the pace. The organizers wanted a certain number of parties to tackle each encounter, so I could not always steer the players to challenges that would suit them. I worry that I failed to leave all the players happy with the session.

Fifth-edition D&D accommodates all play styles, but not every event must fit all play styles. D&D epics work best with short, clear missions. The Living Forgotten Realms Battle-interactive adventures included this disclaimer: “This adventure is combat-intensive. Players who do not enjoy combat encounters are less likely to enjoy this adventure.” A good epic event might allow players to choose role-playing challenges, but it cannot require them. When the event results begin to appear on the screen, few players have patience for tangents. An epic event that forces every play style fails to play to the epic format’s strengths.

Offer players a choice of challenges

This year at Gen Con, I ran a table at the low-level track of DDEP3 Blood Above Blood Below. The scenario put PCs in a gladiatorial contest that evoked the spectacles of imperial Rome. Scattered across a massive, flooded arena stood a number of platforms patterned after the cities on the Moonsea. For example, the Mulmaster platform punished characters who used arcane magic. Characters boarded boats and raced to capture flags from the platforms.

This buffet of challenges proved brilliant. From a distance, the PCs could see enough of each platform’s encounter to create meaningful choices. Players selected targets that suited their interests and their characters’ strengths.

The abundance of islands led players to move as fast as they dared to tackle as many challenges as possible. Critically, no table could collect all the flags.

In the same event, another track included a single, big challenge. I loved the track’s adventure, but some tables finished early and their players started begging for chances to help at other tables.

Epic events should always have more challenges and more encounters than any single table can complete in the time allotted.

The choice doesn’t have to come from a buffet. Players could also choose from a menu, with scouting reports that suggest the style a difficulty of the challenges.

Let players find a difficulty level

An epic event at a major convention welcomes a range of players and characters. Some tables feature folks still learning the game. Others include tacticians and min-maxers seeking to dominate encounters, the harder the better. Events like the Lost City of Suldolphor accommodated disparate skill levels by giving players a chance to choose a level of difficulty ranging up to glory—there’s that word again. The tactical gamers could flaunt their skills by selecting the most difficult level. Plus, they could hardly complain if some of their heroes fell in battle.

A clever event could even allow players to select a difficulty with the in the game setting. In the early days of D&D, players chose a difficulty level by choosing how deep into the dungeon they dared to explore. Epic events could parcel out missions of various difficulty and let tables choose which ones they wished to tackle.

Harder challenges might contribute more toward victory, although the contributions must be scaled by tier so even beginning PCs can weigh in the outcome.

Set party objectives that contribute to the overall goal

Some multi-table events have a shtick where a boss monster visits each table like the bride and groom at a wedding reception. Each table gets an exchange of attacks, schedule permitting.

Confrontation at Candlekeep put PCs in towers and flew a colossal dragon to each. I saw a PC jump on the dragon and ride table to table. The player was giddy. In an unforgettable moment of glory, he seized the spotlight at every table. The event led the designer to add the tactic to the encounter description.

However, these multi-table tours suffer drawbacks. When the boss leaves, no one at the table wants to go back to fighting mooks. That battle feels now meaningless, and probably is. Then when the boss finally falls, most players just hear cheers from another table. Most do not share the victory, or even feel they contributed much. The climactic win feels like a letdown. At a big con in a noisy room, I have sat at tables that never even heard their battle’s conclusion.

In the strongest multi-table finales, each table works to accomplish a separate objective that contributes to the overall goal. Perhaps each table must destroy some fragment of an artifact, or close a planar rift while monsters spill out, or slay a creature that carries a fragment of the master’s soul. Fantasy opens limitless options and plenty of monsters for everyone.

Foster interactivity

Without interaction between tables, epic events feel much like any other D&D game, so designers keep looking for ways to encourage interaction. I’ve seen promising techniques, but none have cracked the problem.

Many events let players call for help from other tables. But in play, players virtually never seek help. Folks play D&D to act as powerful heroes. No one wants to beg help from strangers. They would rather die fighting.

Another approach lets events at one table spill to other tables, as when a hero at one table jumps on a dragon and rides it to the next. Most commonly, the head DM announces an event when, say, a table completes an objective, and then DMs at the tables act on it.

A multi-table battle needs these sorts of events to feel interactive, but they create challenges with communication, interruptions, and for me at least, information retrieval.

I’ve seem two types of communication: table flags and announcements. Table flags let players at one table call for help. In other words, they go unused. Announcements broadcast events and conditions to the room. They work fine, especially in quieter venues, but they don’t suit messages to just a few tables.

Event announcements create interruptions. In practice, I cannot stop a player mid-turn to resolve some new event, so I have to wait and find the right moment. Sometimes, when I like the pace and energy at the table, I am slow to add a new ingredient. In practice, interaction is worth a few interruptions.

When interruptions come, I must find the rules for the new event in the adventure. Modules tend to describe an adventures progression in the order of events, but interruptions come out of order. The description could be—and has been—anywhere in a hundred-plus pages. I hate stopping the action for even a minute while I go hunting.

I would enjoy seeing interaction created by passing items like keys, scrolls, clues, and PCs on dragons from one table to another. For instance one table’s success could unlock challenges that another could tackle. This sort of interaction could be driven by handouts that explain the new event to the players and provide a page number for the DM. This sort of messaging might come with an order of communication, so the DM at table 5 knows to pass the key to table 4, and that if the creature escapes, it goes to table 6.

Create decisions for the room.

Some Battle Interactives offered another trick for uniting the room. They created decisions to be shared by the players in the room. For instance Lost City of Suldolphor had players decide whether enslaved elementals should be freed or whether they should remain bound to improve the odds in an upcoming battle. ADCP5-1 Home’s Last Light asked players to decide whether to destroy a city so its invaders would gain nothing from capturing it. Both ethical questions gave players a chance to step into their characters head and contribute to the decision in a bit of role-playing.

Is it found? How to handle a search

Speed through the obvious by summarizing simple search efforts

Game masters often speed past the uninteresting parts of the game—the parts with few decisions or obvious decisions—with a simple summary of activity. Most game masters will use a summary to skip past a search of a place containing nothing of interest, but the technique also works during the players’ first examination of a cluttered laboratory or dusty crypt.

When you conduct the routine parts of a search, summarize the obvious actions the party might take to perform a quick, initial search. This summary from the game master brings two advantages:

  • You, as the game master, and the characters in the game world have a clearer picture of the location than the players.
  • You can summarize the results of the most simple, obvious search efforts without slowing play with back-and-forth discussion as the players describe their actions.

In your summary, mention the obvious items in the location and any simple steps required to search around and inside them. You might also mention things the characters don’t do, either because the actions could be risky or time consuming. For example, “As you look, you leave the books on the shelves and the furniture in place.”

Parable of the Hidden Treasure by Rembrandt

Hidden Treasure

Avoid giving the results of this summary, in case the players wish to change some the actions that you outline. For example, “No, none of us go near the dark altar.”

This description will give the players a more vivid picture of the contents of the room, and will suggest things that deserve further checking.

Once you finish a summary of an initial search, the players can agree to proceed, you can share the outcome, and then the players can describe anything they want to do to take a closer look.

This method only works if you limit your description of the party’s search to obvious efforts. Do not make the players feel usurped by the game master. If the players enter the Garden of a Thousand Stings, where any misstep brings painful death, have them spell out every action. If the players enter Acererak’s throne room, and they prefer to describe every nuance of their search, they can—they should.

Search procedure

When the players ask to search a location, and they have limited time to search, use the following method:

  1. Ask if the characters will touch, move or open things as they search. If traps seem plausible, ask how the characters divide the responsibilities of opening and moving. If the room appears on a battlemap, you can ask the players to place their figures in the region they intend to search. During this step, you establish which characters could possibly trigger any traps or hazards that may exist.
  2. Summarize the obvious actions the party might take to perform a quick, initial search. This description will give the players a more vivid picture of the contents of the room, and will suggest things that deserve further checking.
  3. If the players have no objections, then tell the result of their initial search. The characters might find the keys on the bodies, coins in the sofa, and the monsters under the bed. They will find anything in plain view. If they open and move objects, they will also find anything not carefully hidden.If you feel uncertain whether something hidden would be noticed in this first, quick search, call for a search check from the entire group, but only consider the result from the character searching the area with the hidden object. Many things in the location may still need a closer look or more actions to find.
  4. If the players think some features deserve more thorough investigation, let them describe closer checks. For example, “I want to check that empty chest for hidden catches or compartments.”“I wonder what’s behind the bookcase. Is it built into the wall?”
“In most cases, you need to tell the DM where you are looking in order for him or her to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Intelligence (Search) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success.” – Dungeons &Dragons Next playtest

In step 4, the characters’ specific search actions may call for search checks, or they may yield discoveries without a roll. As the characters’ search actions grow more specific, they may make some or all search rolls irrelevant. If the ceiling contains a hidden trap door and someone starts rapping the ceiling with a 10′ pole, just tell about the hollow-sounding spot that reveals the door.

Searching and tedium

This search procedure typically applies when the characters face some time constraints, when they must decide whether to keep searching, or whether to press on before, say, a patrol comes or the dark ritual begins.

When characters can search without time pressure or risk, but you, as the game master, make the players either roll or narrate their search process, you can introduce frustration. The players know if they waste enough real-world time rolling checks or describing how their characters probe, sift, and break down every object, they will eventually find everything that can be found. The search’s success hinges on the players’ patience for drudgery.

In the classic dungeon expedition, the threat of wandering monsters discouraged this sort of grind. In original Dungeons & Dragons, searching a 10 foot section of wall for a secret door required a 10-minute turn. Each turn, the referee checked for wandering monsters, and the players faced a 1 in 6 chance of attack. Players focused their searches on the most promising features, and then moved ahead. See “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play” for more.

Third edition acknowledged the tension between tedious play and exhaustive searches by introducing the option to take 20. Taking 20 allows players to find everything the characters could possibly find, without testing anyone’s patience.

Searching without game-world time limits

Fourth edition and D&D Next both dropped the rule for taking 20, while old-school games include no rules for checks at all. However, the players don’t need to say, “We take 20,” for you to cut past tedium.

Anytime players can search without time pressure, they will find everything that can be found.

If players search without time constraints, and they’re determined to finding whatever can be found, let them find it. Skip the rolls and skip the rote recitals of how and where they look. Just tell the players everything they’re capable of finding.

Although this guideline lets you provide a search’s outcome in seconds, the guideline applies when the players wish to invest what could be hours of game-world time in an exhaustive search. If the players show no particular interest in a thorough investigation, then just summarize the outcome of a simple search and let them follow up as they choose.

In unusual cases, the characters may not be capable of finding everything. For example, a perfectly concealed door may require a search DC higher than 20 plus the search skill of the party’s best searcher.

Time and search

Most versions of Dungeons & Dragons tend to leave the time demanded by a search to the discretion of the dungeon master. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons offers the best guidelines: “mapping, and casually examining a 20’×20’ area” requires a 10-minute turn, and then thoroughly searching the 20’×20’ area after the initial examination requires another 10 minutes. Actual time varies depending on the amount of stuff in the area. Characters must spend much more time to finish an exhaustive search that finds everything that can be found, and rules out any possibility of missing something.

Newer versions of the game calculate search times with an interest in making searching feasible during combat. Third edition lets you search a 5’×5’ area as a full-round action. Pathfinder lets you search it as a move action. I can’t even find my keys in a 5×5 inch basket that fast. These times only seem applicable to a relatively empty battlefield square, and not a wizard’s junk drawer.

“Time spent searching for anything (secret passages, hidden treasure, etc.), loading treasure, listening, ESPing, hiding, will be adjudged by the referee as to what portion of a turn will be used by the activity.” –Dungeons & Dragons Underworld and Wilderness Adventures p.8

In play, when time matters, keep a rough accounting of the time characters invest in a search, and share the totals with the players. You may need to keep them appraised of the risks of spending more time.

How to run listen.

This one is easy. Everyone forms a line and takes turns putting an ear to the door, and then rolling. Meanwhile, the dungeon master rolls to see who is listening when something awful comes through the door. For instance, Beholders can drift soundlessly and open doors with telekinesis.

How to run an ambush

Group checks and the ambush

In “How D&D Next almost made knowledge count” and in “Is it noticed? How to run alertness,” I discussed the inevitable success that comes when a group rolls to gain one success. The reverse of this phenomenon appears when a group makes a check and just one failure can drag down the effort. The designers of d20 role-playing games mostly ignore these issues.

Credit the fourth edition Dungeon & Dragons designers for introducing a group-check rule for some tasks. From a game-play perspective, I like 4E’s group-check rule because it makes some group tasks possible. From a realism perspective, I fail to understand how three stealthy party members cover the racket from the clanking dwarf and paladin. In this post, I ignore the 4E rule, which I’ve never seen applied to perception anyway.

No situation highlights the problems of group checks more than the ambush. Using the simplest interpretation of the rules, everyone in a group setting an ambush must roll to hide, giving all a chance to doom the effort with a single bad roll. When the targets of the ambush arrive, every target gets a chance to spot that worst hider.

Based on real life, you might suppose that ambushes typically work. The group setting the ambush has the advantage of planning, preparation, and surprise. They just sit out of sight until their targets arrive. Unless someone sneezes or the targets have x-ray vision, the ambush works.

Based on the game, the word “ambush” describes a imaginary event that can never happen.

In “Is it noticed?” I suggested a fix. I advised assuming that the targets of an ambush take-10 to spot it. In effect, you set the DC for the ambushers’ hide check based on the targets’ lowest take-10 to spot. While this enables one creature to set an ambush, it still fails when a group prepares an ambush and everyone must roll to hide. My method only gives a group a chance of setting an ambush if the GM either (a) requires just a single hide check from the worst hider or (b) relies on 4E’s group check rules for the attempt to hide.

In a comment, Sr. Rojo suggested a method for handling ambushes that I like better.

How to run an ambush

To run an ambush, follow these two steps:

  1. Allow the group setting the ambush to take-20 in their effort to hide.This reflects their time advantage, which lets them pick a good site and then arrange themselves for maximum concealment. When you set an ambush, you have time to work out the best hiding place you can muster.
  2. When the targets reach the ambush site, ask them to roll to spot. The DC to spot the enemy equals 20 plus the ambushers’ worst hide bonus.Unless the ambushers stink at hiding, the DC to spot the ambush may be unattainable for some targets, and will present a challenge to the rest. Unlike most group spot checks, this check presents a reasonable chance of failure. Rather than assuming the targets of the ambush take 10 on their spot check, you can let them roll, and still give the ambushers a fair chance.

As with any spot check, you can limit the check to those characters keeping watch and in position to notice. If the party wants to an ambush a company, only the few soldiers on watch get a spot check, not all 100 enemies.

Take 20 and the rules

“When you have plenty of time, you are faced with no threats or distractions, and the skill being attempted carries no penalties for failure, you can take 20.” – Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, p.86

Some rules lawyers might argue that the hide attempt does not qualify for a take-20, because it carries a penalty for failure. I disagree. Unlike climbing or disabling a trap, the act of perfecting a hiding spot carries no penalty for failure. Your best hiding place may not be good enough, but that comes later.

Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition and fifth edition both lack a take-20 rule, so this method requires some latitude with the rules as written. In practice, if the players set an ambush and you tell them they automatically roll a 20 on their hide check, no one will gripe.

If the players walk into an ambush, you, as the game master, set the DC they must reach to spot the ambush. Even in a game without a take 20 rule, a DC equal to the ambushers’ worst hide bonus plus 20 makes a good target.

Next: Is it found? How to handle a search

Is it noticed? How to run alertness

Introducing the spot check

In this post, I cite “spot checks” to refer to third edition’s Spot checks, Next’s Wisdom (Perception) checks, and tests of awareness made with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception skill.

The Spot skill and its descendents rate a character’s ability to notice something while doing other things like traveling, fighting, or resting. Before Spot entered the game, unless you searched, you noticed the things the game master decided you noticed. A thief might hide from you, but their success depended on their roll to hide, not on your ability to spot.

Spot the spider

Can you see me?

When the game master simply decides what the characters perceive, the game plays fine. After all, the game master adds things to an adventure to enrich the adventure. If you let the dice say that the PCs fail to catch a scent of brimstone, or fail to spot the cloud of bats erupting from the cliffside, then the game suffers.

Nonetheless, when Spot skill entered the game, game masters and designers dutifully worked spot checks into every situation. Whenever the party opened a door or topped a hill, everyone made a new round of spot checks. At some game tables, every bit of information had to be earned with a spot check.

I will explain why you should skip many spot rolls, reserving the spot check for a small number of specific circumstances.

Passive perception and taking 10

Fourth edition attempted to rein in spot rolls by introducing passive perception. In principle, a dungeon master could skip perception rolls and use the characters’ passive perception to determine just what they notice as they explore.

“Passive perception checks help you set the scene. They tell you right away how much of the details of a room or encounter area the characters notice.” – Fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide p.26

Passive perception extends the mechanic of taking-10. Instead of players stating that they take 10, the game master assumes it.

Passive perception avoids putting the players on alert by asking for a roll when they see nothing. And it avoids interrupting the narrative for all those rolls.

What’s not to like?

The problem with passive perception

Passive perception forces the dungeon master to do the extra work of tracking all the passive perception scores and of setting perception DCs. Typically, this extra effort only yields a process that amounts to the DM deciding in advance what the PCs will notice. Seem familiar?

Most DMs running for regular groups know the approximate perception bonuses of the PCs. If you bother to create something interesting or something that advances the adventure, would you hide it behind a DC that prevents the group from ever seeing it? Never. Not even authors of published adventures will hide things that enrich the adventure beyond the perception of a typical party.

Secrets add fun to the game, but only when uncovered. If the players overlook the secret door, it’s just another wall. – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

But suppose a virtuous DM devises an adventure that gives keen-eyed parties a significantly different experience than unwary parties. The players still never know that their keen-senses paid off. The work of managing perception stays in the DM’s head, its effects unnoticed by the players, extra work, arguably for nothing.

If you would set the DC required to spot something within the reach of the PCs’ passive perception or take-10 value, then skip the DC. They spot it. The players will not ask you to show your work.

As a diceless method of resolving spot checks, passive perception falls short, but it still works as a way to set a difficulty class. More on that later.

The play value of rolling to spot

None of this means that you must always decide in advance what the players see. Random rolls can add an element to the game.

  • Unpredictability makes role-playing games interesting, mainly for the game master. The printed adventure cannot surprise the GM. Only the players actions and the random luck of the die add surprises to the game.
  • Randomness helps the game master keep some distance from the characters’ fates. The players should see the course of the game determined by their choices and by the luck of the die, not by the GM’s whims and mood.

Ask for spot checks (a) when success is uncertain, and (b) success hinges on keen senses in the game world.

Group perception checks almost always succeed

The outcome of group perception checks is rarely uncertain enough to merit a check.

Anytime every player can attempt a spot check, someone will succeed. Suppose a party of five adventurers, all with +0 to their check, passes something that requires a spot DC of 15, what D&D Next considers a moderate DC. If one person rolls, the chance of success is 30%. If everyone rolls, each has a 30% chance of success, which means the odds of someone succeeding grows to 83%. This supposes that no one is particularly good at spotting—everyone has a +0. One alert character pushes the chance of success closer to 90%.

When the odds of everyone missing something amounts to a rare fumble, does stopping the action to roll make sense? With some groups, absolutely. In particular, younger players love to roll, so group rolls create excitement despite the minimal chance of failure. Let them roll.

“Listen or Spot checks can get repetitive and dull if players have to make them over and over, especially when it usually only takes one success out of the whole group to succeed, making their success typically a foregone conclusion. Think twice before asking for such checks. They’re interesting when the PCs are trying to find a hiding or invisible foe, but get dull fast when they’re walking through the woods and you ask for them for every hour of travel.” – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

For most groups, you can consider any ordinary group perception check an automatic success. Skip the pointless activity, tell them what they see, and move on.

When you devise adventures, never mistake a group perception task difficulty for a challenge. On the rare occasions a group fails to spot something, they fumbled. This certainty is not a bad thing. In most cases you want the players to spot the “hidden” things in your adventure, either because these interesting things enrich the adventure, or because they advance the plot.

Hard checks change the equation. These checks impose DCs so high that only one or two members of the party can even hope to succeed. That’s the water elemental stirring the reeds under the bridge, or the key glimmering below the school of silvery fish. In these cases, allow a roll. You must be comfortable with the likelihood that no one will spot the ambush or the key.

If your players have become accustomed to calling for group perception checks, you can tell them not to waste their time, or you can let them have their fun, knowing that their success is virtually certain.

Individual perception checks may merit a roll

Of course, many spot checks can only be attempted by a character or two. This gives you a chance to add an element of uncertainty, and gives your players a potential reward for investing in perception.

Sometimes a spot task may be limited to the characters…

  • leading the party in marching order.
  • with darkvision or another requisite ability
  • spending an action the heat of battle to look
  • with applicable talents such as the ability to spot traps or arcane phenomena
  • taking the role of lookout

The D&D Next exploration system turns some of these limitations into specific rules: “When a character chooses to keep watch as an exploration task, the character makes a Wisdom (Perception) check to detect hidden creatures and an Intelligence (Search) check to detect hidden objects (such as traps and secret doors) as the group travels during the current exploration turn.”

D&D Next writes this as a rule, but it applies to other games too. In many situations, only a few members of the party can make perception checks. Their skills pay here. Keeping watch is a task akin to mapping or tracking.

“Don’t be afraid, in some cases, to only allow one or two characters to make the check. It’s with in your prerogative to rule that most of the party is preoccupied in other activities while one character is more or less ‘keeping watch.’ This isn’t covered in the rules, but in a case-by-case basis, you can decide that only a character who’s trying to listen or keep an eye out has a chance of making a check.” – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

Group perception checks guarantee success, so individual checks like these represent a chance for players who invested in perception skills to reap benefits.

Even if only one or two characters can possibly notice something, you might ask all the players to make the roll, and then only consider the checks from those able to notice. This avoids giving clues about, say, the location of the breeze coming from the unseen exit.

Favor search over spot

Before you ask for a spot check, consider whether a search makes more sense. In most cases, this comes down to the circumstances, see “Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation.” Sometimes, you may be tempted to give someone a chance to spot something hidden, but hypothetically visible to spot. Favor making the players search. Searching plays better than spotting for a couple of reasons:

  • Searching engages the characters in action, forcing them closer for a look.
  • Searching invites the players to make decisions about when, where, and how to search, and how much time to risk.

If someone steps into a room, aces a die roll, and sees the key at the bottom of the fountain and the odd scratches on the floor behind the chest, you have replaced the interaction and decision making demanded by a search with an abstract roll.

Hiding and sneaking

When one creature attempts to hide from others, do not ask for spot or listen checks. Instead, use passive perception or take-10 scores to set the DC to sneak or hide. Pit the active creature’s stealth check versus the highest applicable take-10 score. In the case when a group could roll to spot, this method makes hiding possible, because group perception checks virtually always succeed.

In combat, if someone chooses to look for a hiding creature, they can spend an action and roll versus the hiding creature’s check. In Pathfinder and 3E, active looking takes a move action. In 4E, active looking takes a standard action.

The same system works for ambushes. If someone hides to ambush, they roll to hide. Later, when the ambush springs, compare the hide check against the highest passive perception or take-10 score of the targets.

While this procedure may not follow your game’s written rules, it makes sense because the targets of the ambush are busy traveling and, by default, taking 10 on perception.

Five questions to ask before calling for a Spot check

The game master almost always asks players to make spot checks, except when players take an action in combat to look for something.

As a game master, before you ask for a check, consider these five questions:

  1. Is something sneaking or hiding? Skip the spot check. Instead, use the party’s best take-10 (passive perception) scores to set the DC for the hide or sneak attempt.
  2. Can the thing to spot be noticed from the character’s vantage? If not, wait for the players to search.
  3. Does noticing something fall within the take-10 value of the most perceptive PC? Do not roll. Something is noticed.
  4. Does everyone in the party have a chance to notice something? Do not roll. Something is noticed.
  5. Are only one or two characters in position to notice something? Ask for a perception check.

Next: How to run an ambush

Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation

Both fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder apply a single Perception skill to all observation tasks. This cuts any confusion about which skill applies. Both D&D Next and third edition split the single skill into two or three.

3E D&D check 4E & Pathfinder check D&D Next check
Search Perception Intelligence (Search)
Spot Perception Wisdom (Perception)
Listen Perception Wisdom (Perception)

Magnification specs

For more on the advantages of multiple observation skills, see “A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons.”

In this guide, I sometimes refer to the perception tasks as Search, Spot, and Listen. In your game, apply the skill or check that fits the task.

Choosing which type of check fits a situation

D&D Next offers two types of observation checks, Intelligence (Search) and Wisdom (Perception), raising questions about which applies to a situation.

Spot and alertness checks

Wisdom (Perception) could have almost been called Alertness as these checks cover general awareness. When choosing whether to make these checks, consider the following observations:

  • Characters usually make Wisdom (Perception) or Spot checks to notice something while they’re busy doing something else: traveling, fighting, and so on.
  • Characters usually make Wisdom (Perception) or Spot checks because the game master calls for the check. The characters are busy, but the game master wants to determine if they notice something unusual. Characters make Wisdom (Perception) rolls when they look but don’t touch.
  • Wisdom (Perception) and Spot match with Tarzan’s alertness.
  • Wisdom (Perception) checks show keen senses too, but this typically only applies in one situation: Characters listening at a door make Wisdom (Perception) checks.

Search checks

Intelligence (Search) checks apply when characters spend time to examine and investigate.

Characters make Intelligence (Search) checks when players call for the check by asking to search.

Intelligence (Search) matches with Sherlock Holmes’ use of intellect of observe.

If you spend a moment to scan the surrounding trees, or press your ear to a door to hear what might lurk beyond, you’re relying on Wisdom (Perception) rather than Intelligence (Search). As a rule, if you’re not positive that Intelligence is the right choice, then Wisdom is the ability to use.” – D&D Next playtest rules

Listen checks

Third edition included a Listen skill as a nod D&D’s long tradition of characters putting their ears to doors. Aside for listening at doors, Listen skill frequently overlaps with Spot. When characters might both see and hear something like the monsters sneaking close to ambush, just roll to spot. Allowing characters to use both Listen and Spot to notice one thing makes stealth too difficult and adds excessive die rolling. Reserve Listen for cases where nothing can possibly be seen.

Next: Secrecy, metagaming, and perception checks