Tag Archives: Teos Abadia

Monsters of the Multiverse Should Have Given Foes a Boost, But it Didn’t. Next Chance: 2024

As part of setting the math at the foundation of a Dungeons & Dragons edition, the game’s designers target the number of rounds a typical fight should last. Fifth edition aims for 3-4 rounds. Monsters deal enough damage to feel threatening to level-appropriate characters over those 3 or so rounds. In a deadly fight, that damage might match the characters’ hit points.

PCs Avg HPs/PC Party HPs CR of 4-5 monsters, barely deadly challenge Avg MM/Volp’s Dmg, monster of that CR Avg Dmg/rnd, 4 monsters Rounds to defeat all PCs
Five Level 2 PCs 17 85 5 x CR 1 10 50 1.7
Five Level 4 PCs 31 155 2 x CR 1
2 x CR 2
10
15
50 3.1
Five Level 8 PCs 59 295 5 x CR 4 25 125 2.36
Five Level 12 PCs 87 435 5 x CR 6 35 175 2.485714
Five Level 16 PCs 115 575 4 x CR 6
3 x CR 5
30
35
230 2.5
Five Level 20 PCs 143 715 4 x CR 9 45 280 2.553571

According to a table calculated by freelance designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia, fifth edition lands that 3-round target . At most levels, a deadly group of monsters needs about 2.5 rounds to slay typical characters. That number assumes every monster attack hits, and that the characters never bother to heal while failing to kill a single foe. Short of terrible luck, most groups will survive 5 rounds or more, finish their foes in 3-4 rounds, and win a potentially deadly encounter.

Fifth edition’s linear math seems sound, but as characters level, they keep adding on extra abilities that resist, block, and heal. Character power doesn’t grow linearly, it surges. As levels climb, that linear increase in monster damage becomes increasingly ineffectual.

From player feedback, the D&D team learned that monsters often fail to bring as big a threat as their challenge rating suggests.

Combat encounters can be fun for many reasons: Sometimes players relish a chance to flaunt their characters’ power by destroying overmatched foes. Sometimes players think of an ingenious tactic that leads to an easy victory—everyone loves when a plan comes together. But for most players, such romps would become tiresome if the game never offered hard battles. Difficult fights challenge players to fight smart, work as a team, and stretch their characters’ abilities. Tension builds until the group almost always wins. Fifth edition’s design makes hard fights feel more dangerous than they are. That’s one of the edition’s best features. But fifth edition lacks monsters able to consistently deliver fights that feel hard at higher levels.

When a battle falls short of expectations, we all feel disappointed. Teos writes, “The worst games I encounter are those where the story of the game, and the expectations of players and DM, don’t match the challenge level. It’s supposed to be the cinematic clash with the great demon, but it’s lame. It’s an ambush by a terrifying beast…that can’t deal any real damage.”

Sure, DMs can swap tougher monsters, but as levels rise, the options dwindle. And the game’s weak monsters force changes to every published adventure not aimed at low-level characters.

DMs can always add more monsters, but that approach suffers drawbacks too. More monsters means more mental load and more time running foes for the DM. all that adds more idle time for the players. More monsters also take more damage to defeat, potentially turning a slugfest into a grind. Fewer monsters mean faster paced, more exciting fights, as long as the monsters can threaten.

To help DMs run foes at the threat set by their challenge rating, Monsters of the Multiverse changes some monsters. These changes mainly appear in monsters that cast spells. Rather than burying the best combat options in a spell list, the new stat blocks spotlight the most potent powers with full descriptions. This helps DMs run a creature effectively during its typical 3-4 rounds of survival.

Still, better tactics can only do so much. If every monster book included a copy of The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, the poor creatures would still prove overmatched.

The problem circles back to how the monsters’ linear rise in damage fails to match the characters’ escalating ability to heal, block, and avoid damage. Somewhere in tier 2 the monsters start falling behind and the gap widens as levels increase.

So I hoped that Monsters of the Multiverse might update monsters to close the gap by increasing damage. The book does not.

To be clear, extra damage doesn’t aim to kill characters. At low levels, the designers assume players have little invested in their characters and will accept a few casualties. But for experienced characters, fifth edition boasts a design that makes deaths rare. By level 5, revivify makes total-party kills more common than individual deaths. By level 9, raise dead and more powerful spells can make death a dramatic choice. Players only fear disintegration. Extra damage does make players feel jeopardy though, even in a game that makes death a mere setback.

So what are the D&D designers afraid of? Why no changes?

Are the designers aiming for a game where monsters just serve to help PCs show off? I call this the Washington Generals style of game, and it offers a perfectly fine style for folks who enjoy it. The Washington Generals were the deliberately ineffective opponents who enabled the Harlem Globetrotters to showcase their basketball skills.

Are the designers afraid of making the game too dangerous for newer players who happen to play mid- to high- level games? Ironically, the game causes far more deaths at 1st and 2nd level. Just look at the 1.7 rounds 2nd-level characters survive a near-deadly encounter. Every fifth-edition character I’ve lost died at 2nd level.

Are the designers wary of side effects? For example, in games I’ve played where monsters automatically deal double damage, concentration spells become much weaker. I love wall of fire and spirit guardians and want them to last.

Do the designers want to avoid trashing their challenge rating spreadsheet and the game’s assumptions so close to an edition update coming in 2024? Surely the designers take some pride in their game and feel reluctant to change the math behind its monsters. The designers know DMs can adjust their games to account for what might seem like matters of taste. Besides, most campaigns hardly reach the levels where monsters fall seriously behind.

Obviously, DMs have the tools to adjust, just like we adapt all our games to the taste of our players. I just wish the D&D team had seized the chance to offer us better monstrous tools.

DMs: Don’t Make a Pet NPC, But Sometimes You Can Play a Guide

When I started gaming, people tended to play Dungeons & Dragons with larger parties than now. When game sessions fell short of 8 or more players, dungeon masters often added their own character to fill the group. While common, the practice seemed like a necessary evil at best. The spotlight belongs on the player characters. The players’ choices steer the adventure; their characters’ actions create the story.

Now, DMs never add their player characters to the party, but sometimes they get the same kicks by adding a pet NPC. These game-world avatars let game masters indulge in wish fulfillment. They turn other NPCs into admirers and turn PCs into sidekicks. (Aaron at RPG Musings tells how to spot a pet NPC.)

Over my career as a DM, I’ve read countless how-to-DM guides. They all warn against letting non-player characters overshadow the PCs. I read this advice and probably shared a typical reaction: No duh. I never felt tempted to create a pet NPC, but I never even created an NPC who traveled with the players.

I have run some adventures that added NPCs to the party. To my surprise, the additions worked. They enhanced the game.

Out of the Abyss begins with the new PCs held captive. They meet several other prisoners, and everyone joins in an escape. The PCs and NPCs find themselves deep in the Underdark, traveling together for as long as their paths overlap.

As the adventure progressed, NPCs left the group, leaving a pair traveling companions: Jim Jar, the gambling deep gnome, and Sprout, the young Myconid. I started to see them enrich the game. The ongoing characters became more vivid than the usual walk-on NPCs. The players enjoyed interacting with them. Players never care about the NPCs they meet in passing, but they became emotionally attached to a silent mushroom tot.

Plus, the traveling NPCs served as guides. Most D&D players feel at home in a fantasy setting, but the Underdark should seem alien. The party’s Underdark natives helped me reveal the strange environment. They could give background information and show the way.

Walk-on NPCs could have met the party and dispensed information, but having a guide creates a certain economy. The players don’t need to keep meeting characters they never see again. Instead, the guides save time while they build bonds. (See Use the Small World Principle to Build a Better Game.)

The adventure Cloud Giant’s Bargain also adds an NPC who guides the players. This adventure takes place in a typical (for D&D), flying castle, so its guide doesn’t help introduce the background. But this adventure aims to introduce D&D to new players, so instructor Tulahk guides novices through the adventure. Designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Instructor Tulahk is something I added because it was likely that new DMs would be running the adventure, and it was a higher level adventure with some impressive foes.” Tulahk the NPC gave DMs a voice to remind players to do the sneaking, investigating, and diplomacy that will lead to success. Plus, Tulahk is crabby, talking skull, so when I ran the adventure, I had fun channeling J. Jonah Jameson while calling the PCs empty-headed boneheads and numskulls.

Despite the advantages of giving a party an NPC guide, only add them when they serve a role. And then keep the guide out of the spotlight.

To prevent a NPC from stealing the spotlight, follow two principles:

A guide can’t make decisions for the party. Either create a guide with little interest in the party’s goal, or make the guide too young, too foolish, or too weird to direct the party. Ed Greenwood prevented his NPC wizard Elminster from overshadowing players by making him eccentric. “I never wanted Elminster to be anything more than the ‘old storyteller’ figure,” Greenwood said. “He was the mind-wandering, irritatingly whimsical old man who could OCCASIONALLY be of help to PCs.”

The players must prove more capable than their guide. Tolkien understood the risks of letting a powerful figure upstage his main characters. He kept contriving to have Gandalf leave for important business elsewhere. If a guide brings more power than the PCs, the players will wonder why they showed up. On the other hand, if you mix in NPCs who the players can upstage, and who admire the PC’s exploits, the PCs shine even brighter.

This post lightly updates a version that appeared in January, 2017. In the comments, Alphastream talks more about writing Cloud Giant’s Bargain.

Related: How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like
How to Create Loveable Non-Player Characters While You Supercharge Your Sex Appeal

How Playing on Streams and at Conventions Sharpens D&D’s Designers

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 Dungeons & Dragons setting books rarely seemed to play the game much anymore.

Prolific adventure author Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Especially in the third-edition era, some Wizards staff seemed not to play their own game and seldom saw it played. In the Living Greyhawk community (a 3E organized play campaign) there was the sense that a large portion of new rules needed errata solely because the designers weren’t familiar enough with the game to see (obvious) exploits and problems.”

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.”

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 third and fourth 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 the designers’ own home games or their games within their company.”

The designers of fifth edition play more with the D&D community, and the edition benefits. “We know that D&D is a big tent,” explains lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford. “Not only do people of many sorts play in the D&D, but also people of many tastes play D&D. We know some people really love heavy improvisational role-playing and other D&D players, for them, that’s all about the tactical nuances of D&D combat, and everything in between.”

Over the past few years, I‘ve seen D&D designers at conventions run games for random tables of Adventurers League players lucky enough to draw the celebrity DM. Speaking in the podcast, Teos 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.”

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.”

The D&D designers play with non-designers even more on liveplay streams. “One of my favorite parts of the rise of RPG celebrities running liveplay games is that they have to then play their games with other people,“ Teos writes. “I really think it is fantastic that so many at WotC have run and played in the games.” Of course, streamed play intends to entertain an audience, making these performances different from most D&D sessions—the ones at basements, kitchen tables, or game stores‘ back rooms.

People who think about D&D’s future wonder how livestreams will influence designers to change the rules, and whether streaming should shape the rules. Jeremey Crawford says, “We’re concerned about supporting traditional tabletop play well, but also the types of D&D experiences people have in streams.”

Streaming certainly affects the interests of new players discovering D&D. Traditionally, new D&D players tended to focus on the joy of bashing monsters and developing more powerful characters. Those same new players found acting in character off putting. Before steaming, virtually nobody new to D&D spoke in character. The prospect of adopting a funny voice seemed odd and potentially embarrassing. Now, new players typically want to play the sort of personalities and scenes they see in streams. (In my experience, new players act in character, but they still hesitate to use a funny voices. Perhaps the vocal talents of actors seem unreachable.)

Based on experience running games at conventions, the people guiding D&D’s Adventurers League organized play campaign work harder than ever to accommodate different play styles. The recent League seasons have encouraged authors to welcome the three D&D pillars of exploration, roleplaying interaction, and combat when designing adventures, and to especially consider non-combat answers to encounters. The league’s Ravenloft: Mist Hunters campaign aims to “focus on story, atmosphere, and immersive interaction.”

If you want to write games and adventures for strangers to play, then you benefit from playing with strangers. 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. Authors with experience as dungeon masters for strangers become better at anticipating what random players might do, and do better at writing scenarios that account for players who veer off the path.

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.

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

This post revists a topic from 2016.

Use a White Paint Pen to Label Miniatures

I suspect most folks organize their miniatures by category. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains this approach, along with recommendations for storage options. I organize by set, and then use a resource like MinisCollector to find the figures I need. But unlike the older Wizards of the Coast miniatures, the newer WizKids miniatures lack any label that reveals their set. To help organize these figures, I write the set’s initials on the bases using a white, fine-tipped Sharpie paint pen.

Bonus tips: Use a white paint pen to label your wall-wart power blocks so you know what device they power. Also, if you become a famous artist and need to sign your glossy prints, the paint pen works beautifully.

Making High-Level D&D Click: Advice from Alan Patrick, the DM Who Has Run More Tier 4 Than Anyone

Five years ago, the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League administrators faced a dilemma. The campaign’s loyal players had characters that neared 17th level and tier 4 play, but the league lacked adventures for these characters. The campaign administrators wondered if they should add top-level adventures despite the smaller audience for these heights. D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast had not led with any top-level content. Some D&D enthusiasts even wondered if games at such levels would prove fun or manageable. (Spoiler: Yes.) If the league created scenarios for epic levels, then the campaign’s authors needed to experiment and learn for themselves how to make the adventures play well.

League administrator Alan Patrick learned as much as anyone. He has run more than 350 sessions at levels 17 through 20, most at conventions with tables of strangers bringing unfamiliar characters. He won experience by running for every available character type through a spectrum of play styles.

The product of Alan’s experience appears in a trilogy of high-level adventures each perfected by the author through more than a hundred runs. The trio includes DDAL00-01 Window to the Past, DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before, and DDAL00-10 Trust and Understanding.

For Alan, top-level D&D play works best when its style circles back to some of the same elements that make tier 1 rewarding for players.

Circle back to the characters’ emotional roots

New characters feel close to their roots: things like their homes, schools, families, and heritage. Often their adventures connect back to these elements. In the middle levels of 5-16, as characters leave a place like the Village of Hommlet, they visit exotic locations while rising to superhuman power. At the end of a legendary career, tier 4 characters and their adventures may deliver wonders, but the scope can rob their adventures of any emotional connection.

To remedy this distance, reconnect the characters to their humble origins, to the friends they met and locations they visited, to their heritage and home. Tier 4 adventures mark the end of a character’s career, and players feel the nearing conclusion. Reconnecting with characters’ origin adds emotional resonance to their journeys. If the character’s home is an actual place, they can return as legends and see reminders of their start. They can mirror the path of the hobbits returning to scour the Shire or the Beatles giving one last concert on the roof of Abby Road.

During a long weekend of D&D, my group played the same characters with stops from new to level 20. DM Shane Morrison ran Alan’s adventure DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before to finish the series at level 20. In one scene, we witnessed the ruin to come if we failed our mission. Shane described the doom awaiting many of the locations and friends from our characters’ careers. This moment brilliantly rooted our battle to save the world to the story of our characters. Win or lose, I knew I fought my character’s final battle, and I felt like I was fighting for something that counted.

Even while high-level adventurers look back to their start, they will see reminders of their achievement. Their legendary reputations may lead non-player characters to react like star-struck fans. Except for the occasional secretive rogue, tier 4 characters would rank as the rock stars and celebrities of their world. Getting a meeting with the king might not pose a challenge, because he can’t wait to finally get a selfie. Sample PC dialog: “Ask the royal artist to paint faster. We have a multiverse to save.”

A return to the characters’ roots hardly means that legendary heroes should fight rats in the cellar. Tier 4 merits heavy use of our imagination’s unlimited special effects budget. The Dungeon Master’s Guide offers a vision for cosmic settings and foes. “Characters traverse otherworldly realms and explore demiplanes and other extraplanar locales, where they fight savage balor demons, titans, archdevils, lich archmages, and even avatars of the gods themselves.” High-level characters have the power to do all that and still visit home for snacks.

Tier 4 characters play like superheroes, flying, running on walls, teleporting, and so on. If you drop such a party in a room where two sides trade damage, nobody gets to flaunt their amazing powers. Imagine battles atop boulders buoyed on rising lava in an erupting volcano. With lesser characters, such a battlefield might risk incinerating heroes, but the tier 4 heroes can cope with every peril you imagine, and then leave you wondering how to make them sweat despite their fire resistance.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains that adventures at this tier have far-reaching consequences “possibly determining the fate of millions in the Material Plane and even places beyond.” Such grand stakes offer a cinematic flair, but not every adventure must aim to save the multiverse. “The breaking of home is a much more emotional experience, which keeps players dialed in to the game,” Alan explains.

Smaller stakes still work well when they feel personal, and they avoid an exhausting need to raise the stakes every week. Thor and Superman may rank among the mightiest heroes of their fictional universes, but half of Thor’s adventures amount to family drama and Superman saves Jimmy Olson as often as the world. Superman stays rooted in his found family at the Daily Planet.

Return to the early game’s swings of fortune and embrace them

At early levels, D&D games start with a certain swingyness where the characters’ fates rest on happenstance and on the dice. Characters die because of a single critical hit or because they happened to stand in the line of a lightning bolt. Players have less invested in characters at low levels, so the game’s designers rate character death as more tolerable. During the middle levels, the game’s uncertainty fades. Characters grow stout enough to survive a few bad rolls and monsters rarely have abilities potent enough to force a hero to save or die.

At top levels, some of those early twists of fortune return. Words kill without a save, and botched saves turn heroes to dust. But all these levels, bad turns count as mere setbacks. I recently ran a tier 4 adventure where two heroes were disintegrated. Neither lost more than a turn during the fight. Dealing with such setbacks brings much of the fun. High-level characters have answers for every situation and players relish chances to use those powerful capabilities.

But most top-level monsters fail to deliver the same excitement.

When Alan first began running adventures for high-level characters, the obvious problem stemmed from challenging players with such super-powered characters. He explains that most D&D fans want adventures that challenge both players and their characters, but at top levels, the game’s advice and its monsters fall short.

In fifth edition D&D, characters gain hit points at a faster rate than damage dealt by comparable monsters. The foes matched against 1st-level characters make for dangerous encounters, but at level 8 or so, the game’s advice for building encounters leads to overmatched monsters. By the highest levels, the monsters can feel hopeless. (For a breakdown, see Why So Many DMs Have Trouble Challenging Players by Teos “Alphastream” Abadia.)

Sure, DMs can add more foes, but that slows fights and players wind up spending too much idle time watching the DM run monsters. Alan aims to see more player dice rolls than monster rolls.

DMs can add tougher foes, but for heroes in their teen levels, the official monster books leave few options. At top levels, even the toughest monster of all, the challenge 30 Tarrasque, makes a disappointing solo foe. The adventure Invasion from the Planet of Tarrasques resorts to multiple Tarrasques with added powers like a ranged attack, fly, or a breath weapon. After all, a level-appropriate party will often fly from claw/claw/bite, so even Godzilla needs nuclear breath.

To create more compelling foes for top-level characters, Alan raises the monsters‘ damage output until it matches the proportions of the damage low-level foes inflict on low-level characters. This recaptures some of the swings that makes low-level D&D exciting. In DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before, the Aspect of Kyuss claws for 66 points of damage compared to the Tarrasque’s sad little tap of 28 points of claw damage.

Although such numbers may seem harsh, tier 4 characters have a far stronger ability to bounce back. That quality creates additional drama at the table. Alan’s ideal for a climactic tier 4 battle resembles a bout in a Rocky movie where the heroes’ adversaries push the characters to their limits. As players face likely defeat, they call on every resource to turn the tables and win the day. When I played DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before with a level 20 party, the showdown with Kyuss matched that ideal. I felt certain the monster would kill us all, but somehow, we slowly battled back to win. Compare that to most tier 4 battles where monsters deal insignificant damage, which players dutifully track out of respect for the game. When my party battled Kyuss, we cheered every time our foe missed.

High-level D&D characters bring enough hit points to make added damage a nearly essential ingredient to any credible foe. But the high damage numbers penalize support characters who rely on concentration to help the party. Nobody who suffers 66 points of damage makes a DC 33 save to keep concentration—even though a proportional amount of damage would result in a makeable DC 10 save at low levels. I once floated a “modest proposal” for improving D&D that would avoid damage hacks, which penalize support characters. The suggestion revisited a rule that dates to the original little brown books. Back then high-level characters who earned a level only gained a hit point or two. However, even if Matt Mercer and the ghosts of Dave and Gary all approved such a house rule, players would never go for it. So instead, we’re left with the damage thing.

Next: More on challenging high-level characters. Plus dealing with the cognitive demands of running high-level games. To avoiding missing the next post, follow me on Twitter at @dmdavidblog and sign up to receive posts via email.

Related: All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them

To Find the Fun in Traps, Did D&D Miss the Search Check?

Traps add fun to Dungeons & Dragons when players can (a) make choices that help uncover them or (b) interact with them. Interaction includes crawling to evade scything blades or stuffing the mouth of the green dragon statue to block a jet of poison gas. Fun interaction favors discovery over die rolls and certainly doesn’t include just subtracting damage from hit points.

The standard routine for traps in fifth edition skips all the entertainment. The game’s example goes like this: A character’s passive perception reveals a trap, then a player rolls a Intelligence (Investigation) check to discover how the trap works, and then someone tries a Dexterity (Thieves’ Tools) check to disable the thing. This rote mostly dodges any potential fun. Passive perception just skips any engagement, and a trap’s discovery leads to zero choices. The only activity comes from die rolls. The only decisions come during character building. I daresay the procedure’s designer dislikes traps, but dutifully includes them based on D&D tradition.

Because the fun of traps comes from finding and interacting, dungeon masters can watch players evade them all and rate the session a success. Still, characters may overlook a few gotchas. Unnoticed traps that spring on characters serve three purposes:

  • To make careless and reckless choices lead to consequences.
  • To set a mood of peril.
  • To warn of more dangerous traps ahead.

For setting the mood and as a signal of more traps, the devices players do find work just as well. Even spent traps and their victims’ remains serve the purpose.

When players spot traps and use ingenuity to evade them, they gain the pleasure of figuring things out and feel clever. But even traps where the interaction goes wrong can prove fun. On the Mastering Dungeons podcast, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia says, “I recall an adventure that had a series of traps that were engaging enough that my party activated all of them after spotting all of them, and we were all laughing and having a great time. At one point a player found this pressure plate, and somehow, she concluded that this was the safe spot, so she jumped on it.” Later in the gauntlet, the group found a pit that dropped to a strange growth that hit the bottom, so someone dropped a torch to see. The growth was brown mold, which grows with fire.

The advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for running traps favors using passive Wisdom (Perception) scores to decide when characters notice traps. This advice aims to speed play by skipping time wasted looking for non-existent traps. But passive perception also loses the surprise and fun of rolling the dice. (See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.) Also, passive checks eliminate decisions that lead to uncovering traps, except for choices during character creation. Sure, no one wants a game slowed by fruitless checks for traps, but traps work best where players expect them—preferably past the spiked and burned corpses of previous explorers in dungeons with words like “horrors,” “death,” and “Tucker’s” in the name.

Passive perception can fill a role in a dungeon master’s trap game. Perception enables characters to notice things that simply require keen senses, such as a trip wire strung across a corridor. Passive perception can feel like a rule where the DM just chooses whether someone finds a trap. After all, the DMs who set DCs often know their group’s perception scores. But when only the characters at the front get close enough to spot traps, the choice of marching order factors into success. Sometimes the choice to light a torch also leads to success by eliminating the -5 penalty darkvision suffers in total darkness.

If someone observant leads and that character inevitably spots a trip wire, then the incident still sets a mood and signals more traps to come. Plus, players who chose the Observant feat feel rewarded for their choice.

Even the highest passive perception score falls short of trap radar. Totally concealed traps such as a pressure plate buried under dust require a search to uncover. For searching, choose Intelligence (Investigation) checks. Someone skilled at Investigation spots ordinary but significant details such as the residue around the gaping mouth of the dragon statue or the scratch left by the swing of scything blades. When players must ask for searches, they make the choice that a uncovers a trap. Plus, the roll for success adds the uncertainty that passive checks lack, and that roll adds surprise for the DM.

Traditionally, the D&D rules granted thieves and rogues a special knack for finding traps. Arcane tricksters aside, fifth edition’s rogue class fails to reward the Intelligence scores needed for skilled investigation or the Wisdom scores needed for keen perception. Not even the so-called Mastermind archetype requires brains. Even a rogue who chooses to pair Perception or Investigation with expertise will probably fall short. This makes either clerics or wizards best at finding traps, depending on how the DM runs the process of looking. (Hint: Wizards.) The rules for tool proficiency in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything help rogues meet expectations. Characters proficient in thieves’ tools gain advantage when they use Investigation or Perception to find traps. This amounts to a +5 to passive perception. Perhaps the thief can lead the marching order.

If I were to redesign a rogue class, I would consider more abilities that reward a high Intelligence. This would yield thieves more apt at spotting traps and spies more capable of investigation. Character optimizers call classes that require high scores in more than one attribute multi-ability dependent or MAD. Such requirements weaken classes a bit. Fortunately, MAD paladins bring power to spare. Sorry, MAD rangers. A hypothetical MAD rogue would get a small boost to compensate. My dream rogue would also become a capable backstabber, unlike the current version where daggers only rate as a strategy for players seeking the roleplaying challenge of playing an inferior character.

Stop Favoring Perception for Searches in D&D

When Dungeons & Dragons characters search, what check should players make? Based on my experience playing with a hundred or so fifth-edition dungeon masters, most answer Wisdom (Perception). Nonetheless, many DMs ask for Intelligence (Investigation) checks instead.

So what character should search a door for traps? Based on the Dungeon Master’s Guide, pick the wise cleric. Based on the skill descriptions, pick the clever wizard. Based on tradition, pick the thief and—if you play fifth edition—run for cover because they can’t spot anything. Besides initiative checks, search checks rate as the second most common in the game, so you would think everyone would agree. We don’t.

All this uncertainty means that as a DM making a call for your table, you decide. I’m here to help.

Some players like to call for their own checks. A character enters a room and the player announces something like, “I use perception and roll a 17. What do I find?” Rolling a check that the DM didn’t request counts as a small lapse of table decorum. Only the DM decides whether a situation merits a check, whether the character can succeed, what check suits the circumstances, and which characters deserve the roll. If a player just announces such a check, say “First, tell me what you’re examining. Do you touch it?” That question grabs attention.

To complement Perception, D&D’s fifth-edition playtest included a Search skill. So during exploration, PCs “make a Wisdom (Perception) check to detect hidden creatures and an Intelligence (Search) check to detect hidden objects (such as traps and secret doors)”. This makes the difference between Perception and Search seem like noticing creatures versus spotting objects—surely not the intended distinction, and perhaps one source of confusion that led the designers to drop Search in favor of Investigation. At least everyone could agree to use Search for searching.

The game rules for Investigation explain, “When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check.” The bit about looking around for clues makes Investigation seem like a more useful superset of Search. Aside from treasure, clues rank as the most common thing for a search to uncover. Even traps only prove fun when players find clues to their presence. Falling down a pit: no fun. Investigating a puddle and finding an edge where the liquid meets a seam in the floor: fun.

For searches, opt for Intelligence (Investigation) checks. Investigators notice clues and uncover things outside of plain sight. Investigators know where to look, so they check under a drawer to find the envelope tucked in the joint. Most characters ignore the scuffs on a stone floor, but an investigator notices them because the marks show where the statue slides to reveal a trap door. Someone skilled at Investigation spots the ordinary but significant details that the keen-sensed barbarian overlooks because such details seem insignificant. Sometimes players know where to look too, so if a player asks to peer under drawers, they spot that letter.

In contrast, perception enables characters to notice things that simply require keen senses, for example the sounds of an invisible creature, the master rogue Waldo in a crowd, or the cat obscured by shadows. “Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses.” Perception can reveal the obscure, but it can’t expose something hidden from all the senses.

Many D&D fans, including me, tend to think of Investigation and searching as active in contrast to passive Perception. While this pattern frequently holds, don’t rely on it to distinguish the skills.

Such thinking leads players to make two checks to look around, one for percieving and one for investigating. Better to avoid such repetition. See How to Avoid Boring Rerolls of D&D’s Ability Checks. Players who make one check to find nothing in an empty room feel disappointed. Why invite a second, time-wasting check?

Freelance designer Teos “Alphasteam” Abadia explains how a distinction between active and inactive skills leads players to game the system. “Spycraft did that, with one skill for actively looking and another for possible noticing. It led to absurd behavior. You would enter an enemy camp, but state you were not looking around. That way, your better Notice skill would kick in.”

Sometimes the difference between Investigation and Perception blurs. Typically, when characters pause to examine and interact as they look, call for an Investigation check. This tends to reinforce the distinction of an investigator noticing the details in the mundane, plus it balances the value of the overvalued Wisdom (Perception) check with the undervalued Intelligence ability and Investigation skill.

D&D is a team game and when different character architypes skills and abilities contribute to a group’s success. By using the Intelligence ability and the Investigation skill, players who excel at those less pervasive knacks gain a chance to shine.

This approach amplifies the importance of not completely blocking a group’s progress with an Intelligence (Investigation) check. Fifth edition minimizes the value of the Intelligence ability so much that unless a party includes a Wizard, then no character may have a score higher than 10. In an essential investigation, give any required information, and then reward the sleuths with additional insights.

As for all those 8 and 10 Intelligence characters played by smart D&D players, they show the changing fashions of tabletop roleplaying. In the hobby’s early days of random ability scores, players who valued character immersion often felt obligated to play a low intelligence character as a knucklehead, complete with dangerously foolish decisions. Now, I rarely see such a commitment.

Getting Players Moving, Especially When No One Wants to Drive

If you game master enough roleplaying games, you will eventually land a session that keeps stalling because no one wants to drive—no one wants to speak for the group. For instance, if the party has to pick a restaurant, then everyone spends 10 minutes saying “I don’t care. What do you want?” We’ve all been there, just probably not while in a dungeon. Most often, such tentative groups form when strangers meet for a game, often at conventions. But any group can lag, and the techniques for nudging a party ahead can prove useful beyond a convention hall.

To be clear, not every lull in a game needs an intervention. If the group enjoys slowing to roleplay, let it flow. If a group starts planning for the challenge ahead, then sit back and relish it. These situations show a group immersed in the game world. Score a win for the dungeon master.

Sometimes folks in a group of strangers feel presumptuous speaking for the whole group. When everyone keeps hesitating to call shots for the group, many DMs smooth the way by asking for individual decisions. “Making a choice for your character seems less daunting than making one for the group. Low stakes choices can break the ice,” writes Louis Bamberger. “Recently I ran a group that was pretty quiet. Their characters were at a town carnival, so I asked them what game they would play and what food or drink they would order. After each person explained their choices, a snowball of enthusiasm grew with each person’s answer.” By the end of the session, a group of players new to roleplaying games felt eager for another go.

Die rolls, even inconsequential ones, make another good ice breaker. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia gives an example. “In a marketplace, have an arcane character make a bogus check to point out a vendor’s wares could be spell components, just to get them to talk. Data tends to help us make decisions, so skill checks, even granting minor information, tend to help move us to action.”

When I serve as DM for tentative group, I tend to make two adjustments.

First, I pose more choose-your-adventure-style choices.

This helps narrow a limitless range of options to a menu of sensible actions. At worst the table can vote. Often I nominate one player as caller-for-the-moment to make a decision. DM Tom Christy sometimes selects the most charismatic character—the natural leader. You can also nominate a leader based on circumstantial qualifications. Underground, let the dwarf choose the way. At a masquerade, the bard would lead.

Second, I may increase the amount of information I give before I ask the players what they want to do. This decreases the number of minor, often inconsequential, choices slowing the group.

With a typical group, when the players meet a character with clues to share, or when the players enter a new location, I withhold some easy discoveries. This gives players more to learn as they talk and investigate. This rewards action and leads to a more interactive game. So if the room has a mosaic, I’ll assume someone will take a closer look. If a wizard’s apprentice reveals that the archmage sought reagents, I’ll assume the party will ask for details. For most groups, this technique leads to a better game.

But if a tentative group needs to know that the archmage intends to make a golem, then the apprentice may become chatty. And I’ll just tell a hesitant group that the mosaic shows a priestess burying a scepter under a mountain with three peaks.

I don’t welcome such adjustments. They can feel like I’m dragging a particularly halting group to the finish, but no one wants a game that lags.

Phil Vecchione notes that groups become indecisive when they lack enough information to make a choice. He suggests bridging that information gap. Start by recapping what the players already know. Players feel confused more often than they ever admit—and more than we DMs care to admit. Share any useful information that the characters may know based on their in-game expertise. The characters live in the game world; the players just visit.

As an ultimate remedy, Phil suggests upping the urgency by adding new developments in the game world. So if the party continues to dither at the door, have something open it from the other side.

You Can Play These Supreme D&D Characters, But Should You?

When I drafted my list of supreme character builds for Dungeons & Dragons, I originally included a section that asked, “You can play this, but should you?” The answer became this post, but why even ask?

In a comment, designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia identified the supreme builds as enjoyable concepts, but “generally horrible at the table.” Although any character can fit the right game, some optimized builds reduce the fun at most tables. Teos writes, “For me, the biggest social contract item for players is to contain whatever optimization they cook up to reasonable and fun levels.”

D&D’s design aims to create a game where all a party’s characters get to contribute to the group’s success. When a single member of the group starts battles by one-shotting the monster with a huge burst of damage, or one character learns every skill to meet all challenges, then that character idles or overshadows the rest and makes the other players wonder why they showed up.

Most skilled

DM’s guild designer Andrew Bishkinskyi singles out one optimization to skip. “The most skilled character is made to do everything, and exists by design to exclude others from play, which I don’t want.”

Early editions of D&D embraced this kind of specialization. Thieves started as the only class with any capabilities resembling skills, but rated as nearly useless in a fight. Nowadays, D&D’s class designs aim give every class ways to contribute through all the game’s three pillars of exploration, combat, and roleplaying interaction.

Most damaging

Combat makes a big part of most D&D games, so characters optimized for extreme damage tend to prove troublesome. I’ve run public tables where newer players dealing single-digit damage would follow turns where optimized characters routinely dealt 50-some points. I saw the new folks trade discouraged looks as they realized their contributions hardly mattered. DM Thomas Christy has hosted as many online D&D games for strangers as anyone. He says, “I have actually had players complain in game and out about how it seemed like they did not need to be there.” In a Todd Talks episode, Jen Kretchmer tells about asking a player to rebuild a combat-optimized character. “The character was a nightmare of doing way more damage off the top, and no one else could get a hit in.” See Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D.

D&D’s strongest high-damage builds make ranged attacks from a distance. Such builds can leave the rest of the party to bear the monsters’ attacks. Teos Abadia writes, “Even if we don’t have character deaths or a TPK, a ranged character can create a frustrating situation for the other characters, who find themselves relentlessly beaten up, constantly targeted by saving throws, and harried by environmental and terrain damage. Over the course of a campaign, this can be tough for the party. Players may not even realize the cause. They simply find play frustrating and feel picked on. If the ranged player keeps saying, ‘hey, I didn’t even take any damage—again!’ the rest of the party might start to realize why.”

If you, like everyone, enjoy dealing maximum damage, I recommend a character powered by the Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master feats. See How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter. If you favor a ranged attacker, the strongest builds combine Sharpshooter, Crossbow Expert, and an Extra Attack feature. In a typical game, pick two.

Biggest damage novas

A few D&D players welcome characters capable of starting a fight with a huge burst of damage for an unexpected reason: These gamers find D&D’s combat pillar tiresome. By bringing a fight to an immediate end, a nova just brings the session back to their fun. Perhaps these games need a better approach to combat, or even a switch to a different game.

In groups more interested in roleplaying and exploration, players might not mind letting an optimized character showboat during the battles. Or perhaps others in the group feel content in roles other than damage dealing. Perhaps the bard and wizard both enjoy their versatility, the druid likes turning into a bat and scouting, and nobody minds letting you finish encounters at the top of round 1.

But most gamers enjoy a mix of the D&D’s three pillars. For these players, characters designed to start fights with maximum damage prove problematic because when they work, no one else participates. “The issue is that even if those characters don’t completely trivialize an encounter, they can reduce the fun of other players by taking a disproportionate amount of the spotlight,” writes @UncannyPally.

You can’t blame the players aiming for these builds. The occasional nova can create memorable moments.

“It’s only fun the first few times a character charges in and essentially one-shots the boss before you get to do anything,” writes @pocketfell. “And of course, upping the hp of the monsters just means that when the mega-damage PC doesn’t get lucky, it’s a slog through four times the usual number of hp.”

I suspect that D&D class features that power damage spikes steer the game in the wrong direction. However, I respect D&D’s designers and they seem to welcome such features. For example, paladins can smite multiple times per turn. In more recent designs, rangers with the Gloom Stalker archetype begin fights with an extra attack plus extra damage. The grave domain cleric’s Path to the Grave feature sets up one shots by making creatures vulnerable to the next attack.

Surely, the designers defending such features would cite 2 points:

  • Players relish the occasional nova. They can feel like an exploit that breaks the game, delivering a quick win.
  • Some spells shut down an encounter as well as massive weapon damage. Fair’s fair.

I argue that encounter-breaking spells rate as problematic too, but D&D traditionally limits such spells to a few spellcasting classes, often at higher levels and only once per day.

Highest AC

I accept that as a DM controlling the monsters, I will almost always lose. A defeat for my team evil counts as a win for the table, so I welcome the loss. But I must confess something:  For my fun, I like the monsters to get some licks in. Is that so wrong? Under suggestion and zone of truth, I suspect other DMs would echo the same admission. Some gamers even float the courageous suggestion that DMs deserve fun like the players.

A character with an untouchable AC doesn’t rob the spotlight from other players, but for DMs, such characters become tiresome. If you back up a maximum AC with, say, a class able to cast shield and block those rare hits, then your DM might not show disappointment when you miss game night.

To be fair, players who sell out for maximum defense wind up with few other strengths. These players enjoy their chance to shine at the end of every fight when they crow about not taking damage—again! I’ve learned to accept their source of bliss and welcome their characters. They may soak attacks, turning claw, claw, bite into useless flailing, but I can always add more attacks to go around.

Toughest

In theory, tough characters should trigger the same annoyance as untouchable characters, but the barbarians and Circle of the Moon druids actually suffer hits, so their durability feels different.

In tactically-minded parties, tough characters and characters with high AC fill a role by preventing monsters from reaching more fragile characters. If your group favors that play style, your DM surely dials up the opposition past very strong and also pairs smart foes with clever strategies. Optimized characters of all sorts often fit that style of play.

Fastest

Nobody minds a fast character. I love playing monks who speed around the battlefield stunning everything in their path. However, those stun attacks certainly bring less acclaim. See How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat.

Most healing

If you play the healer and miss game night, everyone feels disappointed. ’Nuff said.

Related:
If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”
10 Ways to Build a Character That Will Earn the Love of Your Party

D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter

If you want your D&D game to tell a story, why bother with the dice? Why bother with a random element capable of foiling our plans?

The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook calls Dungeons & Dragons a game about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. If D&D players only wanted to collaborate on stories, we could join a writers’ room and pitch dialog, beats, and character arcs just like in Hollywood, but without the paychecks.

Instead, we add dice.

The oldest known d20 comes from Egypt dates from somewhere between 304 and 30 B.C.. The die may have rolled in a game, but oracles may have cast it in divination rituals. Blogger James Maliszewski writes, “There’s something powerfully primal about tossing dice and waiting to see the numbers they reveal.” Like an oracle’s die, our dice lead our characters into an unknowable future. The dice make us surrender some control, because they add the risk that the story won’t go as we plan. Events beyond our control make the game unpredictable and exciting. We embrace that.

Surprise

After countless stories, we all start to see patterns repeated. We still enjoy them for many reasons, but even the best can seem like a familiar dance performed well. So when a tale breaks the pattern, the unexpected becomes riveting.

Stories from D&D games can follow patterns of their own. Two combat encounters plus a roleplaying interaction take us to the big bad, and then to dividing treasure. We dungeon masters have an extra incentive to follow the expected track that we prepared, so the dice help us let go. They nudge us off course and remind us to welcome uncertainty. Writing about dice and random encounter tables, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains, “Such tables help to remind the DM that chance can and should be a powerful element. It can be a subtle reminder that the printed page isn’t one single script and that different outcomes (whether on tables or not) are good.”

D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford likes how rolling in the open forces him to honor the outcome of a roll even when his own inertia might sway him to override it. “As often as possible, I like to stick with whatever the dice tell me, partly because as a DM I love to be surprised. I love that sense whenever I sit down at any table where I’m DMing I don’t actually know what’s going to happen because I don’t know what the dice are going to say. The dice can turn something I thought was going to be a cakewalk into a life or death struggle.”

Creativity

The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Forget dice for a moment and think of the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity.

Poet William S. Burroughs coined a cut-up method of writing where he scrambled words on scraps of paper and then assembled the jumble into new poems. If poetry seems too high-minded to connect with a game rooted in pulp fantasy, then consider this: Rock musicians like Curt Cobain, Thom York, and David Bowie used the technique. Burroughs asserted, “Cuts ups are for everyone.”

David Bowie explains his use of the process, “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”

Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black uses a program to make random lists of titles, plots, and other idea seeds. He explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.”

Creation doesn’t stop during writing and preparation. It extends into the game session when the dice inject that random element.

Fairness

Random chance separates the players’ success or failure from the dungeon master’s fiat. In a role-playing game, no one wants the DM to control the characters’ fate. When player characters succeed, the players want credit for the victory; when PCs fail, the DM wants the dice to take the blame.

Random rolls reduce the DM’s power to control the game. In a sense, these rolls unite DM and players in a shared enterprise. Everyone watches the roll of the dice together and shares the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

D&D historian Jon Peterson writes, “Die rolls impart to players a sense of fairness, they also give the referee a way to decide events impartially when they can’t trust themselves. Back when referees were adjudicating between competing parties (and in early D&D, they still were, sometimes). Referees needed a way not to show favor, even unconsciously, to one competing party over another. Dice play an important part in hedging against the risk of unintended bias.”

In modern D&D we tend to associate dice with the attacks, checks, and saves at the core of the game, but the games’ founders used dice to impartially settle questions about the game world. Many DMs still roll to direct a monster’s attack, but otherwise the technique seems faded. Now we seldom roll to learn a shopkeeper’s disposition, or the guards’ morale, or for the weather. To settle these and other questions in the game, we seldom think to just ask the dice.

D&D adventure designer Will Doyle knows the technique’s power. “I use ‘lucky rolls’ literally all the time. For example, player is sneaking down a corridor, I call for them to make a lucky roll to see what happens. On a 10 or above, it’s probably clear. Roll lower than that, and guards come whistling along.”

Preference

Ultimately, how much your rely on luck depends on your taste for a game that can feels as surprising and as messy as life. James Maliszewski associates a big dose of random chance with old-school gaming and writes, “Much like life, old-school gaming is often ‘just a bunch of stuff that happens’ and sometimes that stuff can be frustrating, boring, or even painful. The only ‘meaning’ that stuff has is what the players and their referee bring to it.”

How much of the future do you and your players want to force, and how much do you want to keep unexpected?

“What do dice represent?” D&D video creator Matt Colville asks. “They represent the future and the fact that the future is ultimately unknowable,” “You know we may know the odds of the different horses in a race and who’s likely to win and there may be a horse that is very heavily favored to win, but that doesn’t mean that they’re guaranteed to win. No. Because the future is uncertain. That’s what the dice represent.”