Tag Archives: Tomb of Annihilation

Secret D&D Games, Sharpshooters, Baby Orcs, and More From the DM David’s Comment Section

Time for another visit to the comment section. At the end, one reader tells a true story of how the Satanic panic drove a group’s Dungeons & Dragons games into secret, and what happened when concerned citizens learned of the underground game.

Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing

In Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing, I contrasted the moral dilemmas that reveal D&D characters against the baby-orc dilemma that dungeon masters should avoid.

Dan wrote, “The thing with the baby monsters from Keep on the Borderlands is that Gary Gygax never intended for the to be a moral dilemma. He assumed that all party members would be agreed on cleaning the place out, paladins included. When asked about it on the Internet in later years, he was somewhat incredulous that it even came up, stating that a properly-played paladin should view justice from a medieval perspective and would take the stance that ‘nits beget lice.’

Unlike Gary Gygax, today’s players often see humanoids as reflections of humanity. So tarring entire races of humanoids as irredeemably corrupt and worthy of extermination draws troubling parallels to the real treatment of real human groups.

Rasmusnord01 wrote, “I think of three things that can help avoid making the ‘baby-orc issue’ into a problem. (1) Have a leader of the group. In the hands of the right player, a designated leader can help resolve situations and keep the discussion from taking too long. (2) Avoid allowing mercy to come back to bite the players. (3) Make ‘evil’ humanoids more nuanced.

Teos “alphastream” Abadia wrote, “A friend of mine who used to write for Living Greyhawk said to me once that a great adventure teaches you something about your character. Over the years, that advice has stood the test of time for me. Great adventures help me better see my character’s personality and where they stand, and touch me emotionally or at a visceral level in some way.

Since that time, I’ve tried to write adventures where decisions (often but not always moral dilemmas) help you understand your character better. Maybe you swap bodies with someone else, so you see yourself from the outside and separate your personality from your frame. Who are you? Maybe you bring a spirit into yourself. What part of that personality do you accept or reject, and what is it displacing? Maybe you face a tough choice. Do you bring a child into battle if that child is an artifact? Do you sacrifice a few to save many? Maybe you have to choose between a sure thing that isn’t so sweet, and worse odds for a chance at something better?

Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse

In Three Reasons the Ecology of Monsters Can Make Creatures Worse, I suggested that framing monsters as natural creatures sometimes stifled the imagination. Lots of readers agreed but reminded me that developing monsters as creatures in nature can also fire the imagination.

It’s utterly absurd to suggest that natural creatures can’t inspire stories, because they have,” wrote greatwyrmgold. “And only slightly less silly to suggest that magical creatures can be more evocative than natural ones.

This article presents a false dichotomy between the fantastic and the naturalistic, between the magical and the dull. Creatures can be magical and dull when they pull from the same library of stock monster attributes as every half-arsed fantasy story in the past 60 years, but they can be fantastic and naturalistic with a bit of effort by the author.

Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

An avalanche of comments to Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves noted that Assassins shouldn’t be killing for free and certainly not targeting their allies.

For instance, Carl Torvik wrote, “Assassins may the ONLY evil character you should allow in your campaign. They kill only when hired to kill. They have no reason to attack their party. They come with ready-made attachments to the NPCs and the world (guilds, contacts, associates of former targets, etc.) And they have a reason to want a gang of people around to protect them and occasionally even help them on a difficult hit.

Alphastream told how, in the 80s, friction between thieves and other evil characters broke up his game.

In my very first campaigns we had two players where one would play a thief. Before long, he would start stealing from us. The other would then back him up and threaten. It was a source of friction in our Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, but when we played Barrier Peaks, it escalated. Three of us tried to stop it and three wanted the freedom to do whatever they pleased. We separated, adventuring separately. That killed the game.

I can now look back on those events and understand what this was truly about. D&D was for me, as with many players, an escape from the social challenges of my normal life. When evil characters began to push their agenda, our D&D game ceased to become a collaborative escape from the everyday and became again a social challenge to which we had to respond. Bullying was again in my life, as were systems (here, the DM) that failed to make life better.

The worst problem with evil PCs or thieves stealing from fellow party members isn’t the lost items or even a death. It’s the impact it has on us as individuals, and how it upsets the very reason we came together to play and tell stories. We can introduce aspects that allow for party conflict, but when doing so we should look to find ways to mitigate that at the player level, or the game will suffer.

Quiiliitiila wrote, “Players who choose to create characters and then play them disruptively are to blame, not the classes. Any player who hides behind the class as a defense for their toxic actions is wrong and probably not suited to play in depth characters in the first place.

In the end, D&D and AD&D may have started as a simple hack and slash board game, but it evolved into a truly unique role-playing game where you get to experience adventure as a wizard or a cleric or even a blackguard! How you choose to play those characters is up to you, it has never been dictated by the rulebooks or class descriptions.

Alphastream agreed, but wrote, “As a designer I can choose to write mechanics that either bring people together for collaborative play or cause them to fight each other and disrupt party unity. I know which one I would rather see RPG companies design.

David’s article is examining how important names and other design elements are for play. They are extremely important. Often more important than we may realize. Any individual player or DM may or may not react to the design, but on the whole we are creating incentives for certain types of play. Assassins might be terrible at one table and not a problem at another, but what is more important is how they play overall. Overall, they caused problems.

When I design professionally, I’m often doing so for organized play, where I get to see how the design impacts hundreds to thousands of players. I can often see the impacts at a large convention and gain a really fascinating view into how the design works. Incentives that seem unimportant can end up being very important at that macro level. It’s good to go back and examine whether the design is encouraging heroic play, camaraderie, positive escapism, and other elements that routinely are cited by players as reasons to play D&D. Any individual group can always choose otherwise, but the overall design of D&D should point its incentives in that direction, because that’s what D&D is about.

Alert reader Dan realized that much of this post revisited a five-year-old topic. “Wouldn’t it have made more sense to link back to your previous post on the topic instead of copying the first half nearly verbatim, picture included?

Perhaps, but only about 1% of readers will follow a link to an earlier post. Reviving older posts sometimes helps me offer something every week. Many more folks read this blog now than did five years ago. Since few new readers browse my older posts, an old topic can still find interest.

I want to thank Dan and other dedicated readers who show enough interest in my posts to notice 5-year-old material. Your enthusiasm keeps me writing.

Sarah and Kaitlin Howard pictured with Lolth

Sarah M Howard wrote in to identify herself in the post’s photograph. “The drow priestesses in the picture are Sarah and Kaitlin Howard.” Thanks Sarah. Your costumes and the life-sized Lolth combine for an unforgettable photo.

Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D

The post Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points, Funny Dice, and Descending AC to D&D brought up THAC0, which led Erïch Jacoby-Hawkins to offer a bit of history.
Although THAC0 officially became a part of AD&D with the 2nd edition rule books, it was already being incorporated in some of the pre-2nd Edition modules in the mid to late 1980s, for example, modules I9 Day of Al’Akbar and I11 Needle from 1986 & 1987, respectively. I think THAC0 may have appeared in Dragon and Dungeon magazines around that time. The mechanic worked equally well in 1st as 2nd edition, as the AC system didn’t change, and the principle of the to-hit tables remained the same.

Perhaps I should have included Day of Al’Akbar in The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition. Can anyone identify the first appearance of the term THAC0?

Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History

The post Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History told how the outsized attention and influence of D&D’s earliest adventures elevated their reputation.

Bryce Lynch parsed a word choice in Dungeon magazine’s list of 30 greatest adventures. “I note that the use of the word ‘greatest’ avoids the implication that they are actually good.” Bryce pens a series of entertainingly cranky reviews where he holds adventures to impossibly high standards. His consistently looks for three qualities: “Usability at the table. Interactivity. Evocative.

The lack of accolades given to more recent adventures led to my list of the 10 greatest adventures since 1985.

The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985

The author of number 10, The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996), offered more on his classic adventure. Bruce Cordell wrote, “Thanks for the review! Much appreciated. If you’re interested, I wrote about designing the Gates of Firestorm Peak a few months ago, and the associated creation of The Far Realm (which certainly got its name in Gates, but which I further highlighted in later adventures to strengthen its importance).” See http://brucecordell.blogspot.com/2019/03/origin-of-far-realm-in-d.html.

Teos “alphastream” Abadia praised number 6, Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) and recommended a follow up. “I love this adventure, especially in how it showcased how varied 4E adventures could be. I would also mention the prequel, Siege of Gardmore Abbey by Steve Townshend. Here, Steve takes us back in time to when the abbey first fell. It has a strong innovative take on a prequel with a variety of fun encounters built for a convention one-shot. It also has some super-fun pregens, some of which have great conflicts that are revealed during play. It’s amazing design. Siege can be found in Dungeon 210.

Teos also commented on number 5, Dead Gods (1997). “It’s also worth comparing it to other adventures of it’s time. It’s incredible how often adventures that should be amazing/fantastic (such as nearly every Planescape adventure) manage to be mundane. ‘Sure, you are in Sigil, now here is a guard duty assignment.’ More adventures need to really deliver on high fantasy.

I liked Vecna Lives for toying with some of those concepts (the opening scene is insane, the advice on running horror is incredible), but it stops short of attaining what it could. Same with Ruins of Castle Greyhawk. In 5E, Dungeon of the Mad Mage has some very strong parts, especially given the source material.

I admire that even the first-level adventures for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG include big, fantastic elements. Those adventures avoid caravan duty and rats in the cellar.

Responding to my list of The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985, Andrew wrote, “A key to the (good) 5e adventures is the Internet communities and third-party add-ons. By the book Tomb of Annihilation is good but falls apart here and there, but thanks to Facebook groups, Reddit and the great companion PDFs sold you can customize it with great ideas and fix weak bits really easily. Doing that back in the 1e days was quite daunting. Even a great module like Barrier Peaks was nearly impossible for me to run as a kid without any help.

Wraithmagus challenged my list’s methodology. “I am bewildered why you would create a list like this based on POPULARITY of all things, which is by far the least useful metric. If such a list is going to be useful, surely, they should be overlooked adventures, so that readers can have their attentions drawn to buried gems. Saying ‘Let me tell you about crap you already know about just so everyone can argue about how overrated it is is as unhelpful as it comes.

Although I did weigh each adventure’s reputation in my ratings, I consider that different from rating popularity. In the end, I cast my own judgement. My ratings won’t match anyone else’s, but a list like this needs to track the opinions of D&D fans closely enough to seem authoritative. As for finding buried gems, many readers had never heard of classics like Dead Gods and Night’s Dark Terror.

In Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985, I considered future lists of great adventures for high levels, from Dungeon magazine, and branded for a campaign setting.

Alphastream suggested some candidates. “The greatest high-level adventures from any era: I have to go with Throne of Bloodstone. While the design in many places is not exceptional, for a 1988 adventure it does a great job of showcasing how a truly awesome high-level plane-spanning adventure can work. It was very enjoyable as the end of my college campaign and took us to level 32-36 in AD&D play!

The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting: For Dark Sun, Freedom does one of the best jobs at capturing a setting and introduces player well to the momentous events in the boxed set with the fall of Kalak. The same is true of the adventure included in the boxed set, which captures outdoor survival very well. Play those two and you get what Dark Sun is. Compare this to Dragonlance (or later Dark Sun adventures), where you feel like you get a bad version of the novels while the real stars are off doing the cool work.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes

The post Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes led Thomas Christy to write, “Great article! Check out these amazing maps by Jon Pintar! If I get to run this in the future, they will be great!

Alphastream recalled playing Q1 in high school. “The dungeon was very so-so. It did feel like a boring zoo or even a boring dungeon until the final level. It was then fantastic. The final battle was brutal. The party had a character with psionics… and Lolth does too. The old psionic combat rules had never been used until then. We looked them up, and basically everything happens in the first segment (part of a round). Party walks into Lolth’s room, psionic character drops dead as Lolth handily wins, and regular combat ensues! That was exciting!

Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, But That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition

A few readers responded to Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D by describing the historical superiority of archers.

Todd Ellner wrote, “Think about it in the real world. The horse nomads of Central Asia from the Scythians to the Mongols pretty much swept all before them and replaced the style of warfare wherever they went. The life of the samurai wasn’t ‘The Way of the Sword.’ It was ‘The way of the Horse and Bow.’ Missile weapons are that much of a game-changer.

Although I like the historical perspective, D&D isn’t history, but a game where characters do fantastic deeds for the fun of players. A focus on fun leads designers like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax to favor unrealistic, but fun things like hit points over realistic, not-fun things like sepsis and sucking chest wounds. Fifth edition pairs the intrinsic advantages of ranged attacks with the game’s two most overpowered feats to encourage situations where the sharpshooter player has fun and everyone else wonders why they showed up.

Some commenters raised the canard that archers tend to be “squishy,” lightly armored and vulnerable to attack. In this edition, fully-armored fighters also make the most efficient sharpshooters.

Some compared the damage dealing of sharpshooters to spellcasters. Certainly, spellcasters can shine for their ability to clear hordes of foes and for their utility. But most spellcasters really are squishy, and their spell slots force players to watch their resources.

Some cited certain melee fighting styles that can approach the damage output of sharpshooters. But melee types foster interesting fights because they stand in harm’s way and must move to attack. Meanwhile, monsters can surround their boss with enough protection for the mastermind to act before the barbarian can cut a path. Sharpshooters just turn potentially interesting encounters into point, shoot, and now it’s over.

Readers who see the trouble with sharpshooters offered advice to managing the archetype.

LordJasper wrote, “Start enforcing ammunition tracking. A lot of DMs let players get away with ‘forgetting’ to track their arrows and crossbow bolts. Make archers keep track of every bolt they fire.” The limit comes when archers capable of emptying a quiver in just a few rounds need to carry every missile.

Unfortunately, a 1 gp quiver of 20 arrows only weighs a pound, so players will argue they can easily carry 20 quivers totaling 400 arrows. Dungeon masters who rule otherwise will UNFAIRLY DESTROY an entire character concept—or so players will say.

This is where game mechanics poorly reflects reality,” Jason Oldham wrote. “Drawing on personal experience, an average quiver MIGHT hold 20 arrows. They are bulky and need to be packaged with at least some consideration for the delicate bits. Bolts are slightly more accommodating but only slightly. I personally enforce some rather strict house rules as far as how much a player can pack around and how readily accessible equipment may be. But that’s just me, I like to make my players suffer just a little bit.

Some readers suggested spells that hinder archers.

Oniguma wrote, “I’ve found one little, often overlooked spell that does wonders to diminish the potential of ranged attackers: Slow.

Sapphire Crook elaborated. “Slow is a rare spell that doesn’t require sight. You just pick six targets in a pretty large cube, and they have to pick a god and pray. Fireball can kill, but Slow can save lives.

Eric Bohm suggested Wind Wall. “‘Arrows, bolts, and other ordinary projectiles launched at targets behind the wall automatically miss.’ I don’t like using it because it is such a hard shut down, but it is useful for letting the rest of the party contribute.

The prospect of using Wind Wall against a party dominated by archers excites me. Still, many commenters blamed any trouble with sharpshooters on DMs who fail to prepare custom encounters to thwart the archetype. I prefer to avoid D&D games where the players bring scissors, and then the DM always prepares rocks. That approach creates an adversarial dynamic and robs the game of variety. DMs who run Adventurers League can add total cover, monsters, and hit points as I suggested in the post, but we can’t remake adventures to vex archers.

Number Monsters to Stop Wasting Time Finding Them on the Battle Map

In response to my advice that DMs number monsters to stop wasting time finding them on the battle map, Scott suggested using a 3D printer to make numbered bases that cup miniature figures.

The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

My post on The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character) ranked the popularity of D&D’s feats.

The relatively low popularity of Resilience surprised some commenters. For spellcasters who try to stay clear of attack, Resilience (Constitution) beats the most popular feat, War Caster. By the way, according to the letter of D&D rules, if you take Resilience for one stat, you can’t take it again for a second, different ability.

The popularity rankings of feats invited comparisons to each feat’s actual power. Thinkdm wrote, “Here’s some poll results I ran to break them down into tiers. You see the ‘broken’ feats aren’t even the most popular. Likely because they are suited to specific play styles. But, it’s still interesting.

Little-known D&D classics: Fez

In reply to Little-known D&D classics: Fez, Matt wrote, “I’ve never been to Gen Con, and in fact only came to AD&D when I was in middle school in the early 1990s. I found the Fez adventures about ten years ago when I was combing Amazon for out-of-print, non-Wizards of the Coast, and pre-d20 game materials.

They immediately changed my world.

I would spend the next decade reading, absorbing, and preparing to run Fez with my own group of gamers whose frame of reference for D&D only begins around the year 2000 or so. I’m happy to report that we finished the first Fez adventure back in May, and I’m preparing to go into Fez II, which is really the best in the series, in defiance of the law of sequels.

When I ran Fez I, I modified the game to accommodate some of their expectations: The players saw their characters’ stats, but they began as amnesiacs. Still, even with that change, the Fez formula engaged them immediately.

Fez has become one of our most memorable adventures. I highly recommend that anyone out there with a gaming group pick up these gaming classics and run them.

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods prompted a funny exchange.

Joel Orsatti: “Any idea why the Finnish mythos was dropped?

Brent Butler: “They may have simply run out of K’s.

More likely, TSR dropped the mythos to fit the abbreviated book within a smaller number of signatures—groups of pages printed together.

The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America

In The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America, I explained why Gen Con in the 80s came to ban live-action games, and the change in attitude since. Spoiler: Today, some folks accept that playing D&D can prove beneficial.

Alphastream (again. Thanks, Teos!) wrote, “I wish I had a screen shot of an old post on the Wizards of the Coast forums by Mike Mearls during the 4E era. 4E era, mind you! That’s long after this event. In it, he briefly mentioned that when WotC was looking at the design for 4E organized play, there was a push to eliminate LARP and town-fair style play. It was due to the effect it has on the perception of the game.

I mention this not because I think WotC was necessarily wrong. (Okay, they were, but they were trying to gain acceptance for the game.) I mention it because LARPing was still seen as problematic as recently as 4E. And, because it is ironic that what has helped RPGs become mainstream during the 5E period is acting, both on livestreams and in media (Stranger Things, etc.). It is now very welcome to have people in costume, and WotC staff get in costume for livestreams and big events such as the Descent marketing event. It’s a remarkable change that has come only very recently.

Timothy Park shared his positive tale of clear-headed parents, pastors, and teachers seeing the game’s value and encouraging play.

There were a great many people using their intelligence and common sense and noticing and saying good things about D&D. They and their reasonable perspective won out. If it hadn’t, well, would you have this blog?

That story, the positive side, needs more press than the sensational bits.

As for the sensational bits, I finish this post by relaying the account from chacochicken.

My hometown was a regular hotbed of D&D and Satanic panic. In fact, the dangers of D&D was still a contentious point there until not that long ago.

I come from a small town in rural West Virginia. Evangelicalism had completely overtaken the town in the 50’s and 60’s. My grandparents moved there in 1952 and were not church going types. Strike one. My mom was an unwed mother. Strike two. My uncle got the Holmes basic set while he was in the navy and introduced my friends and I to the game. Strike two and half. It was an open secret that my navy vet uncle was gay. Strike Five.

To set the scene, it was summer 1986 and my friends and I (fortunately most kids don’t care much about the above nonsense) played a ton of D&D, but we had to keep it a complete secret from basically everyone. Our town was small enough that everyone mostly knew everyone’s business. A ring of people were in charge. The bank manager was the pastor. The pastor’s brother was the county sheriff and the high school baseball coach. Nepotism all the way down. Well these folks decided that they were going to control the behavior of the whole town more or less.

So we played that summer. A few other kids knew but none of our parents at that point. We were known to have played before, see above uncle, so everyone was wary of us. My friend Dustin, yes his name was Dustin, his parents ransacked his room and found his character sheets, dice, and some D&D ads torn our from his comic books. I’m not exaggerating, they burned all of his toys, all of them, on the front yard as he basically had a nervous breakdown. He was not allowed to speak to us again and they couldn’t risk us meeting at school so the next year he was home-schooled.

We were torn as to whether to play anymore or not because we were afraid of the possibility of punishment. Our defiance won out and we kept playing in the loft of an old barn next to my uncle’s house. He vouched for us playing regular old board games, fishing, and running around in the woods.

Then terror struck. A dog went missing somewhere close. Then a second. Then an older man “disappeared.” People went crazy. “It was Satanists!” The Panic hit full bore. The school confiscated anything to do with heavy metal music. Prayers before baseball games asking for protection against the devil worshippers that invaded our town. D&D was the primary suspect.

To be fair, as kids, we were scared too. We just knew D&D didn’t have anything to do with it. My uncle reassured us that most of the town were a bunch of crazy backwards hillbillies. He wasn’t wrong. He made a critical mistake however. I’ll never forget what happened on August 2nd 1986, a Saturday. My uncle threw a big BBQ for some of his navy buddies. We were invited to so we got some food and headed over to our barn for D&D by lantern light. My drunk uncle let slip to a friend’s wife that we were playing the devil’s game and she called her father, the aforementioned county sheriff.

We were right in the middle of the game when the sheriff and four deputies arrested us at gun point. They pointed guns at 5 kids playing a game. They were sure we were a Satanic cult cell. They put three of us in one car and two in the other. The entire drive they kept asking us about Satanism and if we killed the dogs. They didn’t take us to our parents or the police station, they took us to the church so the sheriff’s brother could rebuke us while we were in handcuffs. It was completely insane. There were 5 of us and we were all terrified except for my friend Nathan, who thought this was hilarious. His laughing and mocking the pastor helped a ton actually. We got our wits back and demanded to see our parents and told them they had just kidnapped us and we were going to call the FBI.

The sheriff took us home after that with a stern warning and a veiled threat asking me and my friends if my uncle had ever touched any of us. The next day my mom filed a formal complaint and my friend Matt’s father challenged the sheriff to a fist fight. He did not accept. The old man that “disappeared” wasn’t dead. He was on vacation in Maine or some such that summer. One or both dogs were found. We took a break from D&D for a while, but picked it back up when the Forgotten Realms grey box came out the next year. The pastor finally died in 2012 and the newer younger pastor now let’s kids play D&D other TTRPGs and board games in the church annex on Thursday nights.

So that’s the story of how D&D destroyed the brains of the people of my town for two decades because of the the media furor.

Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985

In 2004, Dungeon magazine published a list of the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I saw few reasons to quibble with the choices, but the list favored early adventures. More than a third of the magazine’s picks came from 1985 and earlier—from just 7 years of the then 30-year history of D&D.

Extraordinary adventures come from throughout the history of D&D, but overall adventure authors have learned from the past and improved the quality of published adventures.

Why did early adventures dominate the list? Part of their stature comes from their influence. Those early modules implied a setting that serves as a foundation for every D&D adventure and campaign. But much of the high ratings come from the years of attention these adventures gained. During D&D’s early years, TSR published few adventures, and then kept those few modules on sale for a decade or more. Just about everyone who played D&D played those early classics. See Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?.

The years after 1985 produced more great adventures than those in the 2004 list, and the last 15 years yielded even more classics. I decided to look past the early classics and find the best adventures published during the decades when modules fought for attention among a flood of releases.

I found great adventures from D&D history, but I limited my list to 10. Ranking adventures led me to ponder what makes an adventure great.

Recipes and ingredients

Modules serve as both the ingredients for fun adventures and recipes for dungeon masters to mix and serve at the gaming table.

Great adventures tend to combine evocative ingredients with recipes that DMs can follow to foster fun and exciting tales. The ingredients include the memorable characters and fantastic locations, the fearsome monsters and magical treasures that make the adventure. The recipe includes the hooks, clues, events, goals, and obstacles that enable a DM to draw players through the adventure.

To DMs accustomed to re-purposing and remixing the ingredients of adventures, recipes hardly matter, but most DMs running published adventures want help for running the scenario at the table, even if we sometimes change the recipe.

The fifth-edition adventures boast consistently outstanding ingredients. They pick the best from decades of D&D lore and then add new inspiration. For example, Tomb of Annihilation builds on the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and the deathtrap dungeon in Tomb of Horrors. Curse of Strahd builds on Ravenloft, the adventure that might be D&D’s best ever. Based on ingredients alone, all the hardcovers rank with D&D’s greatest adventures. But the recipes tend to falter. In Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?, I described these shortcomings.

As a recipe, Curse of Strahd doesn’t succeed completely. The DM needs to nudge players toward level-appropriate areas, but the Tarokka card reading hints at the means to Strahd’s defeat and provides clues that guide the adventure.

Rating Tomb of Annihilation presents more challenges. I found the ingredients irresistible, but the adventure challenges DMs. The death curse creates urgency when the players may want to try dinosaur racing in Port Nyanzaru. As written, the hex crawl will exhaust players with random encounters. The Tomb of Nine Gods features expert design, but six levels of unrelenting deathtraps may weary players. Still, I loved the Tomb’s mix of inspiration and the dungeon so much that I originally slotted the adventure at a higher rating, but its flaws led me to drop the adventure to 8th just before posting. Reader reaction to the Tomb’s rating left me comfortable with my new ranking.

Meanwhile, many readers voiced support for Storm King’s Thunder, a chimera that’s part gazetteer, part assortment of lairs, and part plotted adventure. The reputation of Storm King’s Thunder has grown, but not enough to merit a spot on the list.

How much do players value a variety of settings and activity?

Six adventures from Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list fell short of ranking on my list.

If my list included 20 entries, most of these adventures would rank, but none reached my top 10. With only 10 slots, and newer adventures to fit, many had to go just because they weren’t quite as good.

Reviews and play accounts of faulted some of these adventures for their intense focus on one mode of play: the dungeon crawl.

Reviewers praised Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for delivering a great dungeon, and then warned that the amount of crawling could prove exhausting.

When I ran Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury back-to-back, the Citadel stood out for its interaction with a memorable cast and for its story line. The Forge felt like more of a grind.

I compared Ruins of Undermountain to Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. The new hardcover easily rates as the best mega-dungeon I’ve played or run. It delivers a better version of Undermountain than Ruins of Undermountain. Each level brings a strong theme that adds variety. The factions and sympathetic residents open the dungeon to interaction. And yet, I grew to crave changes of setting and my players thirsted for a larger plot than the classic bid for treasure. Neither adventure made the list.

I love dungeon crawling like Groucho loves a good cigar, but too much of a good thing sometimes tires me. I suspect many—perhaps most—current D&D players share my take. Critics of Tomb of Annihilation often call the six, uninterrupted levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods wearying. Even longtime D&D and Pathfinder designer James Jacobs seems to share my trepidation. In an interview promoting Red Hand of Doom, he contrasts his adventure with City of the Spider Queen and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Working on Dungeon (and in particular, the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths) taught me a lot about designing huge adventures. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned there: don’t succumb to the lure of the enormous dungeon. They may be fun to design, but dungeons with 100 rooms are a bear to adventure through.”

None of this disqualifies pure dungeons from my list. Many still managed to place, but I favored adventures that play to all three pillars and tour a variety of environments.

Attention and recency bias

Lost Mine of Phandelver may rank as the most disputed entry on my list. Fans cite how well the adventure introduces various tropes and styles of play to new players and DMs. Critics cite a lack of anything new or wondrous. Both fans and critics make fair claims.

Lost Mine’s reputation benefits from two advantages that make the adventure complicated to rate. As the starter set adventure for a new edition, Lost Mine gained the attention of every D&D fan. And because Lost Mine introduced the most recent edition, it may benefit from recency bias, our tendency to overestimate newer things in our memory.

When I placed Lost Mine at number 3, I rated the adventure based on how well it suits its purpose of introducing new players to D&D. As a launch into D&D, the scenario may succeed better than any prior intro. Because many old fans of D&D love the adventure too, it vaults near the top of the list.

What happened between 1986 and 1996?

My list includes Night’s Dark Terror from 1986 and then no other releases until The Gates of Firestorm Peak in 1996. Were the years between 1986 and 1996 really starved of quality adventures?

I considered several adventures from these years for my list. During that period, TSR split development between D&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and between numerous campaign settings. Perhaps a flood of releases aimed for shrinking segments of a divided D&D market meant that no adventures gained enough attention to grow in reputation. But perhaps a focus on campaign settings instead of adventures led TSR to produce solid but unexceptional modules. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Entire lines, such as Dragonlance or Spelljammer, are often solid but not exceptional, even for their time. (I do personally like Spelljammer’s Under the Dark Fist).”

Short, high-level, and setting-specific adventures published near the end of an edition

Because my ratings drew on recommendations, reputation, and reviews, the list may overlook great adventures that failed to gain attention for reasons unrelated to quality.

Short adventures seem to lack the weight needed to make an impression. Most of the adventures on my list span 100 or more pages. Releases that include extras like poster maps, counters, and cards also seem to make a bigger impact.

No high-level adventures made my list. Most D&D play focuses on lower levels, especially in past editions when play above level 9 or so exposed flaws in the game. This means low-level adventures tend to win the most sales and attention. What high-level adventures escaped attention?

In my list, Dead Gods is the only setting-specific adventure branded for a particular setting or campaign. The proliferation of campaign settings in the late 80s and 90s takes some blame for diluting the sales of D&D products below profitability. For instance, DMs running games set in Mystara ignored adventures set in Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and so on.

Adventures shipped near the end of an edition tend to languish on shelves, unnoticed by fans looking ahead to the new edition. When Milwaukee hosted Gen Con, I made annual visits to one of the city’s used bookstores. For years, I spotted the same stack of remaindered copies of The Apocalypse Stone, the final second-edition adventure.

My list of greatest adventures proved fun to create and unveil, so I feel inspired to create other lists that find overlooked classics.

  • The greatest short adventures published after 1985
  • The greatest high-level adventures from any era
  • The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting
  • The greatest Dungeon magazine adventures

Don’t look for these lists anytime soon. I mulled my after-1985 list for years, off and on.

Help me out. What are your favorite short adventures? What are your favorite high-level adventures? What are your favorite adventures branded with a campaign setting?

Related: The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Published After 1985

Next: Honorable mentions: The adventures that merited consideration for the top 10

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

5 Tricks for Creating Brilliant Dungeon Maps From Will Doyle

If you played the Dungeons & Dragons adventures Tomb of Annihilation or Storm King’s Thunder, you adventured through dungeon maps created by Will Doyle.

In an episode of the Official D&D Podcast, D&D’s principle story designer, Chris Perkins, explained why he called on Will. “I realized I would not be able to justice to the maps unless I brought in someone to help. There’s this wonderful collaborator, a freelancer named Will Doyle. He had done some work for me back when I was editing Dungeon magazine and I was always impressed with the style of his maps and the amount of effort and devotion that he put into them. I’m very, very meticulous when it comes to map creation, and he has those same qualities.”

In Tomb of Annihilation, Will mapped and designed the adventure’s centerpiece, the Tomb of the Nine Gods. He made Acererak proud.

Will’s maps attracted notice when his adventure Tears of the Crocodile God appeared in Dungeon issue 209. Chris Perkins called the adventure one of the best to appear in the magazine. You don’t have to take his opinion alone, because I agree. Chris has only worked professionally on D&D for decades; I have a blog.

When I gained a chance to talk with Will, I asked him for a secret to making a great dungeon map. He gave me five:

1. Cross the map with a river, rift, or similar connecting feature.

Will recommends splitting your dungeon map with some kind of central feature that characters can travel. Tomb of the Nine Gods includes three connecting elements:

  • An underground river links sites on the first and fifth levels.
  • A grand staircase and vertical shaft connect the dungeon’s first five levels.
  • An underground lake spans the fifth level.

During players first hour exploring the tomb, they could easily find all these features.

These features connect many rooms and passages, giving players choices. Instead of forcing players along a linear path, the dungeon teases explorers with perils and routes to discover. In a study of designer Jennell Jaquays’ dungeon maps, Justin Alexander explains how a well-connected dungeon gives groups agency and flexibility. “They can retreat, circle around, rush ahead, go back over old ground, poke around, sneak through, interrogate the locals for secret routes. The environment never forces a pre-designed path.”

Of course, a corridor could also serve as a connecting feature, but such features feel dull. Rivers and the like add variety to dungeon travel. “You row down the river, rope across the rift, fly down the magic wind tunnel, which makes it fun and memorable,” Will explains. “In play, it’s also easier to say, ‘let’s go back to the river and try another route, rather than ‘let’s go back to that long corridor and try another route.’”

2. Show the final room first.

Will suggests revealing the player’s final destination early in the adventure. Perhaps this location shows the locks to open or a task to complete. Such designs set the characters toward their goal and gives the adventure focus.

While more video games use this technique, a few table-top adventures follow the pattern. In Tomb of Annihilation, both the Lost City of Omu and the Tomb of Nine Gods make finding the players’ goal easy, but both send characters searching for keys.

In Storm King’s Thunder, the forge of the fire giants has massive, adamantine doors that lead from the mountainside directly to the hall of Duke Zalto, the players’ target. But to reach the Duke, the characters probably need to climb 1500 feet and battle down through the mountain’s interior.

If the final room is a metaphor for a visible goal, many more adventures start to follow Will’s advice. For example, in Curse of Strahd, Castle Ravenloft looms visible through the adventure, but the players learn they must gather certain artifacts to stand against Strahd. Teos Abadia drew inspiration for his adventure DDEX2-13 The Howling Void from Will’s Tears of the Crocodile God. The characters enter an elemental node where Earth motes float like aerial islands. Players can see the node the must reach to stop a ritual, but they will visit others to weaken their foes before a final confrontation.

3. Give players goals that compel them to explore.

Linear dungeon adventures come from designers who only plant one goal in the dungeon, usually its villain and its hoard. Players have nothing to find but the end, so authors feel tempted to put all their ideas along the path to the end.

Instead, Will designs his dungeons with elements that draw characters to explore.

For example, the dungeon in Tears of the Crocodile God draws players with several goals. First, the characters aim to save four human sacrifices wandering the dungeon. Second, the dungeon’s four areas include clues that enable the characters to confront the crocodile god. As a bonus, this premise leads the characters to hurry to rescue the sacrifices before the dungeon’s monsters and traps claim them.

In another example, Tomb of Annihilation sends players chasing five wandering skeleton keys.

4. Make the dungeon a puzzle.

In the D&D Adventurers League scenario DDAL07-14 Fathomless Pits of Ill Intent by Eric Menge, the dungeon becomes a puzzle. Early in, players find a puzzle that unlocks a portal to the main villain. Players must explore the dungeon to find the keys to the puzzle. This design combines two of Will’s other suggestions: It shows the final room first and and draws players to explore. Plus, the adventure turns the dungeon into a puzzle. Tears of the Crocodile God mixes a similar brew with its scattered clues.

Most dungeons will follow this suggestion less rigidly. Perhaps the dungeon merely works as something to unravel, location by location. As an inspiration, Will cites the levels of the Doom video game. To progress, players must find a series of keys. Each key brings the heroes deeper into hell.

5. Give each level a distinctive theme.

The Doomvault from Dead in Thay

In larger dungeons, flavor the levels or areas with themes that add variety and make regions seem distinct. This practice dates back to D&D’s second dungeon, which sprawled under Castle Greyhawk. Gary Gygax included levels themed around types of monsters.

Large, contemporary dungeons such as the Doomvault in Tales From the Yawning Portal or Undermountain in Dungeon of the Mad Mage feature stronger themes. For instance, Doomvault includes areas bubbling with slime and oozes, overrun by underground gardens, and corrupted by the far realm.

Dungeon Masters, Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead

Every dungeon master sometimes throws characters into a combat encounter, and then sees players do something unexpected. We never expect a peaceful dialog. Later, the characters reach a mountain outpost stocked with perfectly crafted encounters and the players show ingenuity by, say, triggering an avalanche that buries the place. Sometimes, every DM wants to say, “Come on, you all took intelligence as a dump stat. Just fight the monsters!”

Sometime in most dungeon masters’ careers, we plot a grand adventure for characters, complete with dramatic beats, treachery, revelations, and a climax. Then the players impulsively murder the traitor in session 1. In session 3, instead of escaping as planned, the evil mastermind dies too. The threat of such reversals tempt any dungeon master to railroad.

All these setbacks come from preparing encounters and plots that expect players to behave as expected. Often players do something surprising that leaves the plans in ruin.

Such planning misfires stem from taking the wrong mindset to prepare for a Dungeons & Dragons game.

For a better approach, follow two principles:

  • Prepare situations instead of encounters.
  • Prepare clues and villains instead of plots.

Situations form the bones of an adventure.

Game-world situations are the arrangements of locations and non-player characters that stand between the characters and what they want. The most elemental form of a situation includes (a) an obstacle, like a bridge blocked by a troll hungry for the party’s delicious gnome, and (b) a goal, like the other side. Often the difference between a small situation and an encounter is a mindset. An encounter starts as a situation with an assumed plot—perhaps as simple as (1) the characters fight and (2) they win. A situation stops assuming a plot and fills in other details like what the monsters want. (Hint: Not to wait in a room until heroes come to murder them.) A small situation might resemble a combat encounter complete with monsters to (probably) fight, but the situation mindset opens DMs for other courses of action. Maybe the characters talk, or sneak, or dislike the gnome.

Unlike combat, exploration, or interaction scenes, situations bring enough flexibility to play in different ways.

Larger situations often resemble dungeons. From a situation mindset, players could solve the Tomb of Horrors by excavating it from the top down—or by skipping it. Rather than grave robbing, real heroes should battle evil overlords. They have treasure too. (Perhaps by looting the tomb, the heroes can defeat the overlord by getting enough gold to cause runaway inflation. I want an adventure where evil is thwarted because it can’t make payroll.)

Tomb of Annihilation includes more modern takes on the dungeon as situation. Within the campaign, The Fain of the Night Serpent features factions, intrigue, and a McGuffin to recover. The Tomb of Nine Gods resembles the Tomb of Horrors, but with the time limit and an objective bigger than runaway inflation.

Situations can go beyond locations. For instance, a masquerade could be a situation where players need to uncover a spy. The characters might find their target through deception, magic, or by picking a suspect’s pockets to gain stolen plans.

The Prince of Murder’s network of covert assassins could form another situation. Instead of predicting which encounters the characters will face as they unravel the network, the DM invents a organization that reacts to the players’ actions.

As with combat encounters, a boring situation can lead it to dull scenes. Good situations include features that lead to interesting play. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea has advice for creating situations. “Develop situations with lots of options, lots of hooks, and lots of interesting things the characters can interact with.”

So a situation that might feature combat may include a location primed for a dynamic battle. A situation that might include role playing may include memorable NPCs, but should at least include NPCs that want something.

I think of developing situations as piling kindling. Add enough incendiary ingredients so that if a spark flares, the scenes catch fire.

These details rarely require more work. Most dungeon masters will feel comfortable improvising some of the pieces. Plus, the situation mindset often frees DMs from worrying about contingencies. DMs who build situations spend less time preparing responses for every potential action because consequences stem naturally from the situation.

Mike touts the virtues of situations. “D&D is a lot more fun when we can watch scenes unfold in new and interesting ways well beyond what we originally intended. In order for that to happen, however, we need to build environments with all of the right elements to give characters, and their players, the chance to take things in lots of different directions.”

For situations, Tom “Dungeon Bastard” Lommel plans one extra element: He prepares a menu of potential outcomes. He lists wins that represent total success, complications that bring success at a cost, and setbacks that represent failure. “One thing I always get bogged down in is analysis paralysis,” Tom says. “This is a road map for me to respond to what the party is doing. I have a list of plausible options at my command and I don’t have to think about it in the moment.”

I like Tom’s strategy because, in the heat of a game session, I struggle to improvise reactions to sweeping victories and epic fails. Such grand outcomes often threaten to upend the game. An easy win can’t cut a 4-hour convention adventure to a half-hour assassination. Instead, I want to reward ingenuity with some success, and then add reasonable complications that keep one move from ending the game. A total-party kill shouldn’t abort a long-running campaign arc short of a satisfying conclusion. Instead, I want the characters captured, or to lose the magic key, or to suffer the gloating of the rival who saves them. (Forget bludgeoning, adventurers hate blows to their pride most because they wound the player too.) At the least, I always plan ways to turn total-party kills into setbacks that spare the campaign.

Tom uses a storyteller’s sense of drama to help decide among outcomes. His choice results from the usual factors of the player’s choices and the luck of the die, but also from what suits the narrative. Will an up-beat or a down-beat better add drama? Is the table spoiling for a fight or for a lull? Does the session’s pace leave time for complications?

Instead of preparing encounters, prepare situations. The mindset opens you to plan less for what the players might do, while making you ready for anything.

Next: Dungeon masters: Instead of plots, prepare secrets, clues, and leads.

The Fun Thing D&D Players Love that No One Mentions and that the Game Almost Lost

Game mastering advice tends to lavish attention on what players enjoy. Things like playing a role, enjoying a sense of power, plotting strategies, and so on.

Another pleasure of role-playing games ranks just as high, even though the folks who offer game mastering advice rarely mention it.

Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world. Humans love finding order in a jumble. The impulse drives scientists, detectives, and conspiracy theorists.

In Dungeons & Dragons, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions—call them traps and toys.

The joy of figuring things out led to a type of adventure that didn’t exist during the first years of role playing. Investigation adventures now rank as one of the most popular styles. Much of the fun of an investigation or mystery comes from connecting the dots between clues. The challenges come along the way.

For example, players investigating missing magical reagents might start with the guild alchemist. He stole the reagents to help a secret lover out of a jam. Under pressure, the alchemist explains that his lover hasn’t been seen since getting the reagents, but that the couple used to meet at an particular inn. This leads to the innkeeper, who saw someone with the lover’s description meeting with someone wearing a flower that only grows at the royal arboretum. One clue leads to the next. Investigations ask player to make connections and figure things out.

Before investigations, player still found pleasure in figuring things out. Tomb of Horrors is packed with things to figure out. Taunting clues, secret doors, false endings, and so on. This abundance leads to some of the Tomb’s lasting appeal. But the tomb also set a terrible example.

In the Tomb, players figure things out to advance or to survive. Too often, D&D adventures have forced players to figure out puzzles to continue. For example, countless adventures include a magic portal that requires just the right activation to open. If players fail to figure out the key, they reach a dead end. Or in the case of the Tomb, they’re dead, the end. About everything in the Tomb works that way.

This sort of design gave puzzles—D&D’s original thing to figure out—a bad rap. No one likes to feel stuck or frustrated or stupid.

To avoid such bad feelings, fourth edition’s designers emphasized character skill over player skill. They aimed for a D&D game where no player felt forced to figure anything out. Accidentally, they nearly lost a source of fun.

Nonetheless, adventures that force players to solve a puzzle risk a bad D&D session. But players still love to figure things out, and the best adventures give them lots of chances to indulge—if the players like.

When you create adventures, rather than forcing players to puzzle out something that blocks their way, add more toys to figure out. For instance, imagine a magic fountain that the players can ignore. Scattered coins lie under its clear water. A bag of coins hangs from a hook. Tossing in a coin causes the waters to cloud and show a room somewhere. At the far end stands a statue of a king. The vision fades. Dropping a second coin reveals the same room from a different angle. This time a statue of a queen faces the viewer. Players can move on, but interacting with the puzzle reveals something interesting to figure out.

Fun adventures come sprinkled with things to figure out.

The best traps challenge players to figure something out. Puzzle traps hint at their presence. The fun comes from either deciphering clues to locate the trap or from working out a method to evade the trap, or both. Players rarely disable a puzzle trap with a quick check, rather they figure out the game-world steps required to avoid the threat.

I used to think that the fun of figuring things out came from the thrill of beating a difficult puzzle. The harder the challenge, the greater the thrill of victory. I was wrong. Part of the fun of figuring things out comes from feeling smart and successful. When players stall on a confounding problem, they just feel thwarted. The best puzzles serve just enough challenge so players suppose that they succeeded where others might fail.

Examining the coins reveals the faces of kings and queens. When the players toss in the queen’s coin, they see the king’s statue, and vice versa. Any party could figure out the fountain’s operation, especially if tossing another coin reveals a familiar place. Casting a coin temporarily reveals a view from a royal statue depicting the figure on the coin. Still, figuring out the fountain will bring fun.

Once players figure things out, they appreciate rewards that validate their success. Sometimes insight leads to treasure or an easier encounter. At first, the alchemist pretends to know nothing of the missing reagents, but if the players find a hidden love letter and make the connection, he cracks. That fountain could reveal some secrets in the adventure ahead.

In investigations, figuring advances the plot, but the same joy can come from spotting and making connections that don’t affect an outcome. Movie Easter eggs bring this pleasure.

The chance to figure things out provides a painless way to deliver backstory to the players—if they care. Start with the story and add ways to reveal it to the players. Avoid using journal entries. Think of subtler clues that reveal history in bite-size chunks. In Tomb of Annihilation, the Garden of Nangalore reveals its story in clues scattered throughout the site. Success here even leads to a reward: At the end, players who figure out the story can fare better when they meet the queen.

The next time you dream up an adventure, add things for your group’s actors and tacticians, but also add something to figure out.

Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons, adventurers selected a difficulty level by deciding how deep they dared to go. As the game matured, DMs started to design or select adventures for a party’s level. Players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level.

Of course the game always allowed a style of play that offered no such guarantees.

Gary Gygax liked monster populations that fit a habitat for a logical reason. In early D&D, the wilderness monster tables did nothing to match monsters to character levels. Skeletons appear as often as vampires. This approach made outdoor adventures particularly risky. The original rules cite the high-level task of scouting for castle sites as the best reason for wilderness expeditions.

Realistically, creatures and adventure locations in the wild would not come sorted by difficulty. At best, characters might learn about a site’s hazards by reputation.

Tomb of Annihilation follows such a natural order. “By design, the adventure locations are not tailored to characters of a specific level. If the adventuring party is relatively weak, it’s up to the players to choose whether to flee instead of fight, negotiate instead of attack, or surrender instead of die.”

This is old-school player agency at its best. Players make the choices and then bear the repercussions of those choices.

The fifth-edition hardcover adventures often let characters roam. The random encounter tables serve deadly and weak threats. Each location aims to challenge a particular level of character, but the adventures rarely steer characters to a suitable challenge. For instance, a table in Curse of Strahd lists locations and their difficulty levels. But if a party happens to find sites that match their level, then their DM nudged them along.

And DMs running Curse of Strahd and its kin probably did some nudging.

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.

Even an adventure like Tomb of Annihilation has a story to tell and heroes to protect. “It’s up to you as the DM to be flexible and keep the story moving forward as best you can. If an encounter is going badly for the adventurers, you can have the monsters suddenly withdraw, demand the party’s surrender, or deal nonlethal damage.

“In short, there is always a way to turn the party’s misfortune into a fighting chance of survival.”

Turning a total party kill into a complication can save a campaign while adding spice. If characters make a narrow escape, they earn a tale to tell. When they level up and return for a rematch, they relish their new power. A capture takes the story interesting places. When you try to take characters captive, players notice you steering the game to force an outcome. But if players ignore the warning signs, press a fight even after they should retreat, and still get captured, they know they had it coming. Still, sparing characters with a “lucky” intervention works best as a rare twist.

When threats don’t always match the party’s power, D&D can become more exciting. But we value balanced encounters for a reason. They mix a fun challenge and a strong chance of success.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire locations that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level location, they can only fight to escape. 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 “Sly Flourish” 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.

When characters lack challenges to face, time should pass in summary. So if high-level characters gearing up to storm the gates of hell meet some bandits on the streets of Hillsfar, skip the dice. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

Despite a preference for challenging locations, an open world can still feature sites in a mix of threats, from the Caves of Chaos to the Tomb of Horrors. Deadly locations promise future adventure and make players look ahead with eager anticipation. But rumors and clues must help players measure the dangers ahead. If a bunch of new adventurers start poking around a skull-topped hill, they’re in for a nasty surprise. Princes of the Apocalypse skipped such signals and shocked a lot of players. They could easily descend from a challenging dungeon level to an overwhelming one.

Leading characters to the right mix of challenges presents a tough problem for designers of hardcover adventures. But most DMs just dream up their own content for their next game, and they probably do encounters right already. If that’s you, then you make most encounters fit the characters at your table, at least broadly. And even if you aim for just the right challenge, you create some uneven matches. Fourth edition made devising balanced encounters easy, but 5E delivers less consistent results. Even when encounters come tailored for a particular character level, some will become romps, and a few might prove unexpectedly hard.

Most fifth edition DMs tend use guesswork to create encounters—the building guidelines hardly improve on it. And that guesswork serves up a pretty good mix of difficulties.

When I design encounters, I mix some guesswork with quick, encounter-building guidelines. Sometimes, I create intentionally deadly foes because they can enrich the game. They force players to use diplomacy, or guile, or stealth. In fourth edition, when I planted a deadly foe, I chose something obviously overwhelming to overcome the expectation that every foe must be beatable. Such metagaming still leads players to underestimate threats, but I will relay what their characters know from living in the game world. “You believe this fight may kill you.”

I avoid intentionally designing easy encounters, because aiming for balance still yields plenty of easy fights.

D&D head Mike Mearls aims for flavor. “I copy down a few stat blocks and make notes on what makes an area interesting. I don’t use the encounter building rules. Fights are as tough as is appropriate to the location and situation.” I’ll bet Mike’s encounters still broadly suit the characters, if only because new adventurers probably spend more time in Hillsfar than storming the gates of hell.

How to Start a Sandbox Campaign

Dungeons & Dragons players don’t love sandbox adventures as much as they think, but such adventures can still offer fun. After I took aim at sandbox adventures, some dungeon masters running thriving open-world campaigns offered counterpoints. Michael S has run such a campaign for 9 years, outlasting the West Marches campaign that inspired him by 7 years.

Sandboxes can work. This post and my next will reveal the secrets. Once you read all these requirements, you may decide a fully-realized sandbox demands more time and energy than you can spare. Michael’s “crazy” world uses a database just to track NPCs and a “big” wiki for bookkeeping. (Of course, rather than filling your sandbox in advance, you can cheat. More on that next time.)

The hardcover adventures published for 5th edition have all tried to include some of the freedom of sandbox adventures. None of the hardcovers check all the requirements on this list. If the hardcovers proved frustrating to run, the missing requirements explain why. If they played fine for you, then you, as a good DM, improvised and reworked to fill in the gaps. You may have enjoyed the extra effort or, like me, you may have done it reluctantly. I have a D&D blog to write.

The sandbox archetype casts characters as explorers on the verge of a unmapped frontier, perhaps the shore of The Isle of Dread or descending from the Yawning Portal into the Undermountain megadungeon. When Out of the Abyss stranded the party in the Underdark, the hardcover followed the exploration model. The authors of the other hardcover adventures touted sandbox-like design, which ranged from player-led tours of the Sword Coast to simply including dungeons that could be visited in different orders.

My advice starts with this exploration model in mind, but these requirements apply to campaigns that stray from the prototype.

Set long-term aims

In the sandbox archetype, players start with a incomplete hex map like the ones in The Isle of Dread or Tomb of Annihilation and explore to fill the blanks. Such games can become unsatisfying grinds. The Angry GM explains, “The only rewarding part of the exploration is when you actually find anything. And the vast majority of the hexes have nothing to find. There is nothing interesting about yet another forest of hexes. And random encounters—dinosaurs waiting to jump out of the forest and kill you—are interesting, but they are the painful, dangerous kind of interesting. That’s not a reward.

The 5E hardcovers all avoid this pitfall by setting a campaign objective from the start. In Tomb of Annihilation, players seek the source of a world-spanning curse. In Out of the Abyss, players explore to find an escape from the Underdark. The other adventures reveal some overarching menace in the opening scene.

Most players want to aim for an ultimate campaign goal. Throughout the game, they want clear options that take them closer to achieving their long-term aim. In Curse of Strahd, the players start far from defeating Strahd, but they can explore Barovia and gather the magic items they will need.

Not every campaign leads to some ultimate villain. Instead, for instance, a party could aim to find a lost heir and put her on the throne.

D&D adventures either set an ultimate goal for characters or assume they quest for treasure. (An adventure that omits any goal becomes a campaign setting.) Players seldom mind adopting a goal so long as they get to do D&D things like collecting treasure and smiting evil. When I ran Murder in Balder’s Gate though, my players rebelled. The adventure assumed characters would support one of three patrons who vied for power. The patrons start unsavory and, as they gain power, become worse. My players wanted no part of it. My Murder In Baldur’s Gate became something entirely different from the book.

If you introduce a long-term aim before character generation, your players can craft characters tied to a chosen aim. For example, Princes of the Apocalypse suggested players tie their character to an adventure-specific hook.

In a homebrew campaign, you start with the players’ characters and invent a long-term aim just for them. Perhaps a someone wants to play a member of a hiding royal family. Who can say how close she is to the lost heir?

Give enough information to start

Imagine a party shipwrecked on the coast of a lost continent. If they know nothing, they can only trudge inland and explore aimlessly. Perhaps a wandering monster will interrupt the drudgery.

Robert Conley’s Bat in the Attic blog focuses on sandbox play. He writes, “Picking one of the six surrounding blank hexes is not a choice with meaning. So work on the initial situation so that it is interesting and give the players enough information to make some valid decision of what to do.

If that shipwrecked party has an explorer’s letter, a ciphered treasure map, rumors a lost city on a plateau, and so on, then the group knows enough to plot a course. Once you tie the lore into the characters’ goals, the clues will inspire action. Remember though, if you give one player a clue, they might not share it. Spread any secrets that you need players to share.

You can also launch a sandbox with a conventional adventure that starts with a patron in a bar. No one said your campaign requires a consistent model.

Out of the Abyss launched the characters’ explorations by pairing them with Underdark natives to serve as guides. See The surprising benefits of giving an adventuring party a guide.

Next: Running a sandbox campaign