Tag Archives: Steve Winter

The D&D Adventures That Stumble by Missing the Hook

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

Appealing to rogues, paladins, and players

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing the hook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tomb of Annihilation (2017): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 9

Tomb of Annihilation (2017) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter for levels 1-11.

Chris Perkins approach to adventure design seems to start with a collision of classic influences. Out of the Abyss mixes the Underdark with Alice In Wonderland. Storm King’s Thunder crosses Gary Gygax’s classic giant modules with King Lear. And 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 list of 30 greatest adventures, and the mix plays better than any of them.

The story lands characters in tropical jungle land of Chult, a place with dinosaurs, volcanoes, pirates, and, well, frost giants. The players work to stop a world-spanning curse that blocks resurrection magic and wastes away anyone who returned from the dead.

“By far and away the ‘best bit’ of Tomb of Annihilation is the inclusion of some of the most fantastic and exotic locations seen in fifth edition so far,” writes Simon Yule for Geek Dad. “Most of these are stumbled upon as the party explores the thick jungles of Chult. They include the giant mud shrine at Dungrunglung, home of the frog-like grungs; the epic 300-foot-tall spire of Firefinger, patrolled by ferocious Pterafolk; the floating cave the Heart of Ubtao, complete with lich and zombie gorilla monsters; and the carnivorous garden of Nangalore.”

J.R. Zambrano from Bell of Lost Souls writes, “There’s a sense of adventure that pervades each of the book’s 5 Chapters. Everywhere you turn, there’s a cool location or a unique NPC or some sequence of events that makes you excited to get out there and play.”

Part of that flavor stems from the best, most evocative art of any D&D book. Pictures depicting the Port Nyanzaru street scene, the flametongue-wielding, snake-tailed villain Ras Nsi, and especially the overgrown first level of the tomb all make unforgettable calls to adventure.

The players’ quest leads to lost city, and then a multi-level deathtrap created by Acererak, the architect of the Tomb of Horrors. “Careful thinking, genuine puzzle-solving skills, and thorough trial-and-error exploration is something players will need to get through it all,” Jonbolds explains for Critical-Hits. “The dungeon beneath the city is a living environment with awesome links between areas requiring strategy and tactics from the players to overcome.”

Shawn Ellsworth reviewed the adventure for Tribality. “This is my favorite adventure to come out for this edition of D&D. Many of my favorite adventures have my players exploring deadly wilderness, searching ancient ruins full of puzzles and traps, and battling some mysterious lost people. If you are a fan of Indiana Jones, Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt, and Tomb Raider, this adventure brings a real pulp adventure feel to Dungeons & Dragons.”

“From beginning to end, this is a masterclass in adventure building,” writes J.R. Zambrano. “Tomb of Annihilation takes players into the forgotten lands of Chult and really brings it to life. If I had to pick the one thing this book does best: it captures the character of the setting.”

Next: Number 8.

Start at 10

Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

I ran evil-themed D&D campaign once, but only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released Menzoberranzan City of Intrigue and promoted the book with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. Fourth edition’s Encounters program hosted drop-in games at local game stores. This season made the players evil drow and fostered backstabbing and intrigue. As an Encounters dungeon master, I questioned the wisdom of the theme, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. Still, I dutifully ran the campaign as intended.

My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.

I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If players’ actions defied their alignments, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.

And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.

Even so, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.

Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?

As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, the Greyhawk campaign run by D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”

Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it,” Gary wrote. “They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?

The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”

In a Dragon magazine issue 118 article outlining changes coming in second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, designer David “Zeb” Cook writes, “The assassin is a goner—virtually guaranteed. It is highly unlikely that any amount of appeal will save his neck. He is disruptive to party harmony and, more importantly, presents the wrong image about AD&D games.”

The thief also inspired in-party conflicts. Steve explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”

“He’s a thief! He steals from everyone and ruins friendships,” Zeb wrote. But thieves reflected better on AD&D than assassins and offered a more popular archetype, so Zeb defended the class. “This is more a problem of how the player is using the thief, not the class itself.”

Nonetheless, the class name inspired thieving. Second edition started a rebranding by making thieves a type of rogue. The Player’s Handbook explains, “The character classes are divided into four groups according to general occupation: Warrior, Wizard, Priest and Rogue.” By third edition, “rogue” permanently replaced “thief” as a class name.

Related: The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

Related: A role-playing game player’s obligation

Edit

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.

The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition

Dungeons & Dragons players have seen five editions plus a few versions that fall outside the count. We tend to see the release of a new Player’s Handbook as a clean break from the last, but each new edition received a preview in a book or two that appeared for the prior edition.

In a convention appearance, TSR designers Dave “Zeb” Cook and Steve Winter talked about how the first-edition books that reached print in 1985 led to 2nd edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”

From Oriental Adventures and the Dungoneer’s Survival Guide to 2nd edition

Oriental Adventures brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer.

“One of the things dreadfully lacking from AD&D was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills,” Cook wrote. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”

Ability checks reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide previewed rules innovations that appeared in 2nd edition. The non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success. For more, see Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D.

From Gamma World and Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics to 3rd edition

In a D&D podcast episode examining the 2nd edition, Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in 3rd edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with 2nd edition.”

TSR’s management required that AD&D stay broadly compatible with the original version, but other games allowed more innovation. Gamma World took D&D’s play style into a post-apocalyptic Earth. Crumbling buildings replaced dungeons, mutant powers replaced spells, mutated creatures replaced monsters, and so on. The 1992 edition of Gamma World took the current D&D rules and made changes from the 2nd-edition designers’ wish list:

  • Ascending armor class
  • Skills called skills
  • Attribute checks
  • Attribute modifiers similar to those that would appear in 3rd edition
  • Health and Mental Defense saves that resemble 3rd edition’s Fortitude and Will saves

This 4th edition of Gamma World set half of the blueprint for 3rd edition D&D. The other half came from Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics (1995).

Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics introduced the gridded battle map to D&D. In the Foreword, Skip Williams promises that, “You will find plenty of ways to make combat more than a dice-rolling contest or an exercise in subtracting hit points from your character’s total.” Combat & Tactics reads like an early draft of the 3rd edition combat rules, complete with rules for opportunity attacks, reach, cover, and critical hits. Combat & Tactics probably scared more players away from battle maps than it converted. The supplement moved deep into wargame territory, with over 250 pages of rules for facing, fatigue, and things like direct and indirect bombardment. However, the 3rd-edition designers chose the best of the innovations.

From Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords to 4th edition

In 2005, work on 4th-edition D&D started as a project codenamed Orcus. In Wizards Presents Races and Classes, lead designer Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Our instructions were to push the mechanics down interesting avenues, not to stick too close to the safe home base of D&D v.3.5.” The project team developed eight classes built around powers and giving every character some interesting action to choose each round.

Early in 2006, designers Rich Baker, Mike Donais, and Mike Mearls “translated current version of the Orcus I mechanics into a last-minute revision of Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords. It was a natural fit, since Rich Baker had already been treating the Book of Nine Swords as a ‘powers for fighters’ project.”

Tome of Battle: Book of the Nine Swords presented new martial classes for 3rd-edition D&D. The additions blended the unreal, cinematic stunts of Far-East action games and movies with a typical D&D game. Warriors gained maneuvers that worked like encounter powers in 4th edition.

Now, used copies of the Book of Nine Swords command high prices, a scarcity which might stem from meager sales in 2006. Nonetheless, the book offered a prototype for 4th edition.

From the D&D Essentials red box to 5th edition

Many fans of D&D felt the 4th edition no longer resembled the game they loved. A few years after the edition’s release, sales of the 3rd-edition D&D spinoff Pathfinder surpassed D&D. In an interview, Mike Mearls said, “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 4th 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.’”

Aside from a barely-noticed sample in the Book of Nine Swords, 4th edition came from a secret project. Rather than ask D&D fans what they wanted in D&D, the design team made assumptions and built a game based on them.

When Mike Mearls took control of the D&D team, he worked to reverse course. “We want D&D to be the best roleplaying game it can be. We’re always open to change, to reacting to what people say. The past is in the past, there’s nothing we can say or do. If you are a disgruntled D&D fan, there’s nothing I can say to you that undoes whatever happened 2 years ago or a year ago that made you disgruntled—but what I can do, what’s within my power is going forward, I can make products, I can design game material, I can listen to what you’re saying, and I can do what I can do with design to make you happy again.”

Just two years after 4th edition’s release, Wizards of the Coast couldn’t ask players to adopt another new edition. Instead, the D&D team tried to win back some unhappy players with the D&D Essentials line. A new, red-box starter set built on nostalgia for the game’s most-popular introduction. Essentials aimed to recapture “that core of what makes D&D D&D, what made people fall in love with it the first time, whether it was the Red Box in 83, the original three booklets back in 74 or 75 or even 3rd edition in 2004. Whenever that happened, to get back to what drew you into D&D in the first place and give that back to you.”

When Mearls gained time to create a 5th edition, he stuck with the same strategy of listening to the game’s fans. In another interview, he explained that he launched the open playtest “to get a sense of what people actually wanted out of D&D. The only real mandate was to make sure that we captured the essence of D&D. It was important that anyone who had played D&D in the past could play the new edition and have a clear sense that this was D&D.

“We were also committed to analyzing and using the playtest feedback to guide our decisions. Those might seem like fairly simple mandates, but it can be difficult for game designers to take a step back from their work and treat it with a cold, ruthless editorial eye.”

Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition hardly resembles 4th edition, but Essentials showed the way to the current game’s success.

If you want to write games for everyone, game with everyone

In the 80s into the 90s, I would see convention panels or magazine interviews where game professionals said that their game writing left them no time for game playing. Those writers might admit to an occasional session of Call of Cthulhu—that was the role-playing game the pros played once they felt too mature for bashing monsters in dungeons. But writers of the era’s countless setting books rarely seemed to play their own games much anymore.

fameFor many of the game products of the time, play experience mattered less. People bought game books to read. RPG writers could succeed by satisfying game readers more than players. See “How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books.”

After D&D’s headquarters moved West from Lake Geneva, more designers played, but with a small cadre of friends and co-workers.

Speaking in an episode of the Misdirected Mark podcast, veteran RPG freelancer Shawn Merwin said, “One of the criticisms I’ve had in the past of [D&D] staff, especially through 3rd and 4th edition, was that they would sit in Renton, Washington and create this game, but they never really got out and saw how the game was played by the different kinds of fans, or the fans that may play a little bit differently than their own home games or their games within their company.”

At the 2016 Dungeons & Dragons Open, D&D designers served as celebrity dungeon masters. The star power added excitement for players, but it also should benefit the designers. Speaking in the podcast, prolific adventure author Teos “Alphastream” Abadia said, “This is a really important thing for Wizards to do. To meet with players and see how players play [the designer’s] game in this kind of environment.”

If you want to write games and adventures for strangers to play, then you benefit from playing with strangers.

In a convention game, you will join players who may play differently. “You’re just randomly dipping into the pond to see who ends up at your table and to see how they play the game that you create. And I think that’s very important,” Teos said. “For me as a fan, I want to see Wizards involved with fans in this kind of way as much as possible.”

How does a private game among RPG professionals and their friends differ from the convention games I frequent? I can think of two likely differences: The players in the designers’ private groups act more predictably and they favor more role playing.

Play style and predictability

Every regular group settles into a play style. Do they play recklessly or cautiously? Heroically or ruthlessly? How do they settle conflict between PCs that pull in opposite directions? Regular groups seek activities they all enjoy. A group’s style makes them predictable. When we play long enough in one style, we tend to forget other ways.

DMs who operate in public eventually see groups that defy even the most common customs of D&D. New players love to split the party.

Organized play adventures tend to come from veteran convention dungeon masters who branched into writing. I think these authors do better at anticipating what random players might do, and do better at accounting for players who veer off the path.

The foibles of full-time designers

In general, full-time professionals do worse at predicting how players will act, and they seem less interested in helping DMs account for unexpected actions.

The pros play their own material. They enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than anyone can gain from the text. This mastery makes improvising changes and additions easy. If their players go off book, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot printed in the adventure’s next 5 chapters. So pros underestimate the difficulty other DMs face when ad-libbing changes to a published adventure.

Organized play authors understand the challenges of running an adventure from a text. Their adventures sometimes even include troubleshooting sidebars that help DMs account for actions that threaten to break an adventure.

What do the pros do better? In general, their adventures feature more polish and a greater mastery of the game’s rules, history, and lore. When the designers add new monsters and magic, the additions work without upsetting game balance.

The joy of role playing

Remember the first time you sat down and played? How you had such a blast rolling dice and killing monsters? Remember the time you stayed up all night doing it? Every day, new players discover D&D and find just as much fun in monster slaying. On the other hand, many new players find speaking in funny voices odd and potentially embarrassing.

Meanwhile the pros have faced every monster countless times. Routine combat scenes lack their former excitement. Between those past battles, the pros learned to love playing make-believe in the guise of a fairie-tale creature. They relish a chance to role play. They play with folks who share this passion.

In my post on preparing to run adventures, I grumbled about how the authors of Hoard of the Dragon Queen assume that PCs will spend weeks traveling with cultists and wagons loaded with treasure instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold like every D&D player ever.

But obviously not like every D&D player. The authors’ groups saw a chance to travel with the cultists, uncover their secrets, and savor a session full of role playing and intrigue. Authors Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur read their groups’ tastes and catered to them. I rarely get to play with groups with the same patience for intrigue, so a strategy that seemed inevitable to Steve and Wolfgang struck me as far-fetched.

Every group is different. You can’t play with everyone, but if you want to write for everyone, you benefit from reaching out to game with random strangers.

5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1978-2000

Tomb of Horrors (1978)

In the early days, I enjoyed plenty of time to create my own adventures, so I had little interest in playing the published ones. But I still drew inspiration from them. Nothing inspired like Tomb of Horrors.

tomb-of-horrors-1e-coverBefore the tomb, dungeons tended to lack personality. Dungeon masters followed the examples in the rule books, serving players bland tunnels, square rooms, and monsters waiting to be killed.

The tomb overflowed with the personality of its fictional creator and its real-world author. Gary Gygax admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The tomb brought a menace unmatched by other dungeons. Its legend still draws players, despite its reputation for dead characters and tedious play.

The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations. The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.”

For more, see “Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain.”

Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980)

You can fault some details in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but not its big ideas. This adventure took the scope of Dungeons & Dragons and blew it wide open.

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits CoverStart with the Demonweb, a web of pathways floating through impenetrable fog. The material of the path moves slightly. “Close examination will reveal faces, twisted and tortured, pressed against some invisible barrier, silently mouthing screams and howls.” These are the lost souls of the Abyss. Along the path, unsupported doors open into extradimensional spaces. At first, these doors lead to Lolth’s creatures. On the last level of the web, the doors open on alternate material planes that she targets for attack or other schemes. In unlocking these planes, the adventure made the world of Greyhawk and its kin seem like specks floating an a sea of creation.

Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk, but I loved it. A diet of Michael Moorcock books and Arduin had already shattered my reservations about mixing such elements. The spider-ship seemed like a fitting creation for a goddess whose power spanned a multiverse. The ship’s inscrutable purpose and destination suited her chaos.

Lolth’s spider-ship, the  Demonweb, and its portals suggested a D&D game with a scope that felt breathtaking.

For more, see How Queen of the Demonweb Pits opened Dungeons & Dragons to the multiverse

Escape from Astigars Lair (1980)

In 1980, Judges Guild published Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a slim module that sold for just $2. The adventure so charmed me that after I ran it, I created a similar challenge of my own to unleash on players.

Escape From Astigar's LairThe action starts when the wizard Egad dons a cursed helm and becomes possessed by the evil spirit of the mighty Astigar. Players take the roles of the druid Danier and the ranger Therain, who begin shackled to a wall in Astigar’s dungeon complex. The escape encourages shrewd problem solving. How can you cross a chamber swarming with flying lizards as voracious as piranha? How can you force Egad to remove the cursed helm? The obstacles in the lair inspired challenges that I would add to my own game.

I loved how Escape from Astigar’s Lair showed that combining oddball powers with ingenuity could prove more fun than blasting away.

For more, see “Little-known D&D classics: Escape from Astigar’s Lair.”

Fez (1980-1985)

In 1981, my buddies and I, at our first Gen Con, stumbled into the Fez tournament and had a blast, more fun than we had in that year’s AD&D Open. For several years, even as our interests wandered from AD&D to other role-playing games, Fez remained the Gen Con event we most eagerly anticipated.FezI The Wizard’s Vale was originally printed as Fez I Valley of Trees

In this blog, I’ve shown how a reliance of skill checks tends to encourage players to focus on their character stats and to lose interest in the game world. When a skill check solves any problem in the game world, the details of the problem become unimportant.

When I played Fez, little seemed to demand a roll. Behind the dungeon master’s screen, Fez was a D&D game complete with AC and HP. From my perspective, Fez factored rules out of the game, making immersion the game world all important. Normally, I would not want to play battles without character stats, but in Fez, the objective seemed to be to avoid fights.

Fez featured a play style different from the typical D&D game, and it blew my impressionable mind.

For more, see “Little-known D&D classics: Fez.”

Dungeons & Dragons third edition (2000)

Game historian Shannon Appelcline calls D&D’s original design chaotic modeling, with inconsistent game systems handling different parts of the game world. So strength has a range of 3-17, and then 18/01 to 18/00, while other attributes range from 3-18. Thieves roll under a percentage to gain success, attackers try to roll high on a d20, and (in some versions) ability checks require a d20 roll under an ability score. “The fact that the game couldn’t even keep its core range straight (was it yards or feet?) says a lot.”

3E edition launch shirtIn Thirty Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, Steve Winter wrote, “By 1987, the science and/or art of roleplaying game design had progressed significantly since AD&D’s first appearance. Games such as Runequest, The Fantasy Trip, Chivalry & Sorcery, Paranoia, Pendragon, Warhammer Fantasy, Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, and many others showed that there were innumerable ways to build a quality, innovative RPG.”

Second edition designers Steve Winter and David “Zeb” Cook did their best to sort out D&D’s “ugly little systems that didn’t integrate with each other,” but the system’s core remained mired in the RPG stone age. In a D&D podcast episode examining the second edition, Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in third edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.” So D&D held to chaotic modeling.

In 1997, Wizards of the Coast took over TSR and new head Peter Adkison set the direction for a new edition of D&D. In Thirty Years of Adventure, he wrote, “After twenty-five years D&D was due for a major overhaul, but that the changes to the game should make the games rules more consistent, more elegant, and support more possibilities for different styles of play.” Adkison gave lead-designer Jonathan Tweet and the rest of his team the freedom to bring 25 years of innovation into D&D. The centerpiece of the revamp came in the form of the d20 core mechanic that became the name of the game’s foundation.

Future_of_D+DIn addition to the chaotic rules, D&D’s characters suffered from limitations Gary had created either for game balance or just to make humans the dominant race. “My biggest beef with the older rules were the consistent limitations on what characters could become,” Adkison wrote. “Why couldn’t dwarves be clerics. Why could wizards of some classes only advance to some pre-determined level limit? Why couldn’t intelligent monster races like orcs and ogres pick up character classes? In my mind these restrictions had no place in a rules set but should be restrictions established (if at all) at the campaign-setting level.”

I shared Peter Adkison’s beefs. When Wizards of the Coast made their big announcement leading to the third edition, they produced a shirt giving a taste of the barriers that the new edition shattered. For me, this shirt showed how third edition would embrace 30 years of role-playing game design ideas, and how it swept away senseless limitations. After years often away from D&D, playing other games, third edition welcomed me back.

Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins

I have only run an evil-themed D&D campaign once, and only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released the Drow Treachery cards and the Menzoberranzan campaign book and promoted the products with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. I’ve served as a dungeon master for every season of Encounters and never considered skipping Council of Spiders, but I questioned the wisdom of promoting an evil, backstabbing campaign, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.

I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If the player’s actions defied her alignment, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.

And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.

Still, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.

Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?

As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”

Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?

The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from  classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second-edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”

In third edition, “thieves” became “rogues” to discourage similar mischief. Steve Winter explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”

Of course, you don’t have to play a thief or assassin to “just play your character,” and to instigate fights among the party. In the Legacy of the Crystal Shard Encounters season, one player embraced the corruption of the black ice and seemed tempted to disrupt the party. This time, I felt willing to forbid any action that would make the players war amongst themselves. But first, I set in-game events that challenged the character to choose between the black ice and his other loyalties, and to the player’s credit, he chose to cast aside the corruption.

Games of Paranoia aside, I no longer see “I’m just playing my character” as an excuse for disruptive play.

[February 15, 2014: Updated to indicate that “thief” became “rogue” in third edition.]

Next: A role-playing game player’s obligation