Tag Archives: Wizards of the Coast

TSR vs. the Internet Part 2—From They Sue Regularly to Open Gaming

In 1994 TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, struck two blows aimed at containing fan-created D&D content on the Internet. (See TSR Declares War on the Internet’s D&D Fans.)

First, administrators running servers offering D&D content received email from TSR representative Rob Repp. “On behalf of TSR, Inc. I ask that you examine your public net sites at this time and remove any material which infringes on TSR copyrights.” Because universities hosted most of these sites, the notices led to a quick wave of shutdowns.

Second, TSR insisted that fans who wished to distribute their D&D creations exclusively use a server run by their licensee MPGNet. Fans hated that loss of control, but the real blow came from a disclaimer that TSR demanded fans add to their content.

This item incorporates or is based on or derived from copyrighted material
of TSR, Inc. and may contain trademarks of TSR. The item is made available
by MPGNet under license from TSR, but is not authorized or endorsed by
TSR. The item is for personal use only and may not be published or
distributed except through MPGNet or TSR.

The last line seemed to imply that TSR gained the right to publish or distribute independent creations, and that proved most alarming. “This statement looks more like a release of distribution rights than a disclaimer,” wrote Jim Vassilakos.

Sean K. Reynolds would soon become TSR’s online coordinator. In an interview, he explains the roots of TSR’s online policy. “They came up with the idea that if you express something in D&D format, it belongs to TSR because TSR owns D&D.“

Jim Vassilakos took the full force of TSR’s legal assault. He edited The Guildsman, a roleplaying fanzine with D&D-related content, and then he distributed it online from a server named greyhawk at Stanford University.

Before legal notices forced the Stanford server to shut down, TSR’s affiliate MPGNet had copied the Guildsman archive, transferred it to their servers, and added the disclaimer, all without permission. This led Vassilakos to write MPGNet head Rob Miracle.

“You (MPGN and TSR) have basically taken a vast quantity of material from Greyhawk, including the six Guildsman magazines which total over 400 printed pages, and proclaimed yourselves as the sole distributor of this material. I think that, given this situation, you should be able to see clearly enough why people are upset at this unexpected turn of events. In any case, my contributors are telling me that they’d prefer that their material not be kept at MPGN under this sort of condition.”

Rob Miracle wrote a conciliatory response. “First, let me say that we took over Greyhawk so that it wouldn’t die. We had lost other great sites and didn’t want to lose probably the best site. I will do whatever you wish, because they are your files. Just let me know.”

Of course this dispute just samples the furor raging in the Internet’s community of D&D fans. Fueled by distrust of TSR, people considered ways the company could benefit from seizing control of so much online content.

Many creators feared that TSR would bundle their creations in a CD-ROM or start charging for online access. Did the disclaimer enable the company to reap profits without paying anyone for their work? The more conspiracy-minded worried that TSR would simply gather content and pull the plug, eliminating a source of competition. Certainly some folks sought free and illegal online copies of D&D products. The crackdown made such sources harder to hide.

TSR claimed good intentions. “I can tell you that the intent we had when we started working with MPGNet was not to derive revenue from that site,” Rob Repp wrote. “I find it unlikely in the extreme that a company with as sharp a legal team as ours is going to simply grab someone’s stuff and publish it without permission. I don’t think that’s lawful, and I’m certain the legal people would mention it during some meeting or other.”

Rob Miracle explained, “MPGNet has nothing to gain from offering this service other than the satisfaction that there is a net home for gaming material.”

Meanwhile, many wondered if TSR really needed to take such steps to defend their intellectual property. Some fans did extensive legal research. TSR cited drow as a monster of their own creation. Gary took the name from folklore, but few of the specifics. (See The Stories Behind D&D’s Iconic Monsters.) So did TSR own the drow? Perhaps not, but they surely owned mind flayers, beholders, carrion crawlers and other monsters Wizards of the Coast now reserves as D&D’s product identity. TSR couldn’t copyright game mechanics, but could they copyright terms like armor class and hit dice? TSR felt their steps were required.

Many gamers saw TSR’s defense of their copyrights and trademarks as overreaching. If fans saw it, then TSRs lawyers saw it too, and fans supposed that revealed a bad-faith strategy working toward a hidden agenda. Benjamin Lake wrote, “Imagine how much cash TSR would have if every copy of Ultima (for example) was taxed for using the concept of levels and experience points.”

Perhaps Rob Miracle began regretting his company’s affiliation. “There is no conspiracy. MPGNet has no hidden agendas and as far as we know, TSR does not have a hidden agenda.”

During the furor, one fan asked, “Does TSR regard it as illegal to play AD&D with a dozen or so people over the Net, as opposed to playing it with a dozen or so people in my living room?”

“We certainly do not,” Repp explained before adding a catch. “Saving up all the moves, however, and republishing them as a separate work would probably be an infringement.” Such a recounting of a D&D game resembles an actual play podcast or even a streaming game. This interpretation would forbid the content powering much of D&D’s current surge in popularity.

Rob Repp got tired of bearing the Internet backlash, and tired of fans pointing out how TSR fought copyright infringement now, but had used balrogs and hobbits without permission 20 years earlier when the company operated from Gary’s basement. Sean K. Reynolds explained Repp’s plight. “To put it bluntly, he pissed off a lot of people with his attitude and posts. Not all of it was his fault. TSR’s online policy was draconian and unproductive. Rob was just tasked with enforcing it, but not being a gamer he couldn’t relate to the fans’ side of the story.”

In May 1995, Repp posted to the AD&D mailing list announcing a job opening for an online coordinator at TSR. The job’s responsibilities included managing TSR’s web presence and AOL site. Reynolds saw the listing. “I felt I could do a better job of it than he was; he was making people mad when he didn’t have to.”

Reynolds got the job. Two days later, Repp quit. Reynolds landed in charge of the online policy that he had argued against. “My first act was to go to the lawyer and say, ‘What can we do about this? We have this policy. I think it’s kind of unreasonable—actually very unreasonable.’ We stopped doing the cease-and-desist letters threatening people posting their own monsters or whatever, and started focusing on people doing actual copyright infringement. Without actually changing the TSR policy, we just kind of mitigated our enforcement of the policy.”

Reynolds served as online coordinator for 2 years. “A lot of people badmouthed me for a long time because of that policy, but while I was TSR’s online coordinator not one website was shut down for D&D material that wasn’t an actual copyright violation (such as posting scans of books or artwork). Nobody was ever bothered by me because of fan material on their site.” In 1997, Wizards of the Coast bought TSR. “They had a much more benign and open idea of how to handle this sort of thing.“

The new owners of D&D would completely rethink the status of fan creations. D&D team head Ryan Dancey led this change of direction. He credits open source software for inspiring the change. In open source, programmers contribute free code that enhances the utility of software like Linux, the operating system that now powers the Internet. Through open source, the Internet community proved the value of their freely-distributed creations.

Dancey saw fan contributions as an enhancement to the D&D community that strengthened the game’s place in the market. Support from fans and other companies for D&D leads more people to play D&D. Dancey writes, “This is a feedback cycle—the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is.” Besides, the numbers showed that the D&D business made money selling core books. Why not let fans and other companies bear some weight of supporting the game with low-profit adventures, settings, and other add-ons?

Dancey’s thinking led to the introduction of the Open Gaming License and the d20 License. Using these licenses gamers and gaming companies could create and distribute products compatible with the D&D rules, and not just on the internet, but in stores.

At a glance, this new spirit of sharing seems like a complete reversal, but TSR’s disclaimer that allowed sharing on MPGnet hints at the modern licenses. Like the OGL license, the old disclaimer set a legal basis for sharing content. Unlike the disclaimer though, the OGL is irrevocable. If you place content under that license, it is perpetually under it. This leaves little room for a hidden agenda. In an echo of MPGNet, gamers can offer creations that use D&D’s brand, unique monsters, and worlds on a specific site, the Dungeon Masters Guild. This time though, gamers can sell their products. And presumably the DMs guild has an Internet link even faster than 1.5Mbps.

Related:
The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice
The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America

5 Ways Magic the Gathering Changed the Rules of D&D

Magic the Gathering designer Richard Garfield rates Dungeons & Dragons as the most innovative game of all time. Nonetheless, in any ranking of influential games, Magic’s revolutionary design surely vies for a top spot. You might suppose that a card game like Magic would differ too much from a roleplaying game to have any influence on D&D’s rules, but Magic’s design shaped the D&D editions to follow. Today, innovations from Magic extend to the roots of fifth-edition D&D.

5. Templated text changed how rules get written—and the 3rd-edition design team.

When Magic’s designers faced the problem of bringing order to countless cards, they used templated text: they described similar game rules with consistent wording imposed by fill-in-the-blank templates. Today, the patterns of templated text appear throughout modern D&D’s rules.
But the move to templated text also lifted a D&D-outsider to lead the game’s third-edition team. Ben Riggs tells this story in a convention seminar.

Early in the development of third-edition D&D, Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR. Skaff Elias had served as a designer on several early Magic sets and ranked as Senior Vice President of Research and Development. Skaff felt that the upcoming D&D edition could fix “sloppiness in the rules” by using templated text. Skaff and Wizard’s CEO Peter Adkison told the D&D design team to switch the spell descriptions to templated text, but the team kept resisting his directives.

Eventually, the D&D team readied the release of a playtest document that still lacked templated text. They claimed rewriting all the spell descriptions according to formula would prove impossible because hundreds of spells would need templating in 48 hours to meet their delivery deadline. Nonetheless, Adkison and Skaff took the challenge themselves, working through the night to rewrite the spells and meet the deadline. Even after that heroic effort, the rules document that reached playtesters lacked the templated descriptions from the CEO and the Design VP. The design team had simply ignored their bosses’ hard work.

The failure infuriated Adkison. He lifted Jonathan Tweet to the head of the third-edition team. Designer Monte Cook remembers Adkison’s new directive: “If Jonathan says something it’s as though I said it.” Unlike the TSR veterans on the rest of the team, Tweet had started his career by designing the indie roleplaying game Ars Magica and the experimental Over the Edge. As a member of the D&D team, he convinced the team to adopt some of the more daring changes in the new edition.

4. Keywords now get careful use throughout the rules.

Much like Magic, D&D uses keywords to describe many elements in the game. Often the keywords bring few rules of their own, but other things in the game interact with the keywords. So Magic has no rules specifically for “white” or “green,” but cards with “protection from white” work in a special way.

In D&D, conditions like “charmed,” creature types like “beast,” and descriptors like “melee” work as keywords. Such keywords power templated descriptions like, “While charmed by this spell, the creature is…” and, “The next time you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack…” In early editions of D&D some words got treatment that resembled keywords. But before Magic proved the technique’s power, keywords in D&D hardly saw the pervasive, rigorous treatment they do now.

3. Specific beats general came from Magic, but started in a hugely-influential board game nearly as old as D&D.

In Magic, the text on any card can change the rules of the game, so a card like Platinum Angel can say, “You can’t lose the game and your opponents can’t win the game.” Among traditional games where all the rules fit on the underside of a box lid or in a slim pamphlet, this made Magic revolutionary. The original Magic rules explain, “If a card contradicts the rules, the card takes precedence.” In other words, specific beats general. Similarly, page 3 of the Player’s Handbook explains how when a game element breaks the general rules in some way, it creates an exception to how the rest of the game works.

Earlier editions of D&D included game elements that broke general rules, but the unwritten principle left new players to struggle with the apparent inconsistencies. Judging by how frequently D&D lead Jeremy Crawford restates the principle, players still struggle with it.

The principle of specific beats general dates to the revolutionary 1977 game that inspired Magic the Gathering and countless others. Bored with the familiar patterns of their Risk games, the designers of Cosmic Encounter wanted a game where every play felt different from the last. In Cosmic Encounter, each player controls a different alien species able to break the general rules of the game in some specific way. With more than 150 rule-breaking alien species in the game and its expansions, Cosmic Encounter offers endless, disruptive combinations.

2. With more reliance on rulings, D&D does less to separate flavor from rules.

Magic the Gathering cards typically fill any space left after their rules text with italicized flavor text. So, Platinum Angel might say, “She is the apex of the artificer’s craft, the spirit of the divine called out of base metal.” Other Platinum Angels share the same rules, but different flavor text.

Traditionally, D&D mingled rules and flavor text, but fourth edition fully adopted such separation. The power descriptions even duplicate the practice of putting flavor in italics. This practice fit fourth edition, which defined combat powers as tightly as cards. The designers aspired to create a game where flavor never bent the rules, so a DM never needed to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time.

In fifth edition, the separation mainly appears in the monster books, where rules appear in formal boxes while flavor comes between the rectangles.

1. Reactions came from Magic’s instants and interrupts by way of D&D miniatures.

In Magic the Gathering, players can act at any time, stopping another player with cards originally called interrupts. The constant activity helps make the game so compelling, but it forced the designers to develop rules to make sense of the actions and reactions.

In early editions of D&D, players might interrupt another turn for an improvised action, but such acts needed a DM’s ruling. By third edition these actions counted as free and still mainly relied on a DM. Counterspells used the system’s only means of interrupting—the readied action.

When Wizards planned a line of D&D miniatures in 2003, the company aimed to expand sales beyond roleplayers to gamers who favored competitive wargaming. The Miniatures Handbook turned third edition’s combat rules into “a head-to-head skirmish system for fighting fast, tactical battles.” The book’s authors included D&D designers Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo along with Magic designers Skaff Elias and Mike Donais. The new miniatures would come boxed in randomized assortments complete with cards describing rules for each figure, so in ways, the package resembled Magic. The competitive skirmish game could no longer rely on a DM’s rulings to resolve interruptions, but the team wanted some of the richer play suggested by a game like Magic.

The design collaboration worked. Elias and Donais brought experience from a competitive game with strict rules for timing interrupts and reactions. “While designing Miniatures Handbook, we realized that free actions hid a potential smorgasbord of cool new mechanics,” wrote designer Bruce R. Cordell. “We subdivided the free actions into immediate actions (a free action you can take when it isn’t your turn), and swift actions (a free action you can take when it’s your turn).”

Swift and immediate actions entered the D&D roleplaying game through Cordell’s Expanded Psionics Handbook (2004). “The concept that swift and immediate actions could serve as one more resource available to a player opened up new vistas of possibility, expanding options in the game.”

In fifth edition, swift and immediate actions evolve into bonus actions and reactions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 Adventures in the Running for 10 Greatest Adventures Since 1985

For my list of the 10 greatest adventures since 1985, nominations, reviews, and reputation led me to consider many more excellent adventures than fit a list of 10. Today’s post reveals the adventures that fell short of my 10 greatest, but merited consideration.


Treasure Hunt (1987) is a first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Aaron Allston.

Raw characters with no class levels wash up on the lost island of the pirate Sea King. They advance to first level and beyond.

“As a first adventure for initiates, this can’t be beaten. For old hands who may be tiring of AD&D, it will be a welcome change.” – Carl Sargent in White Dwarf issue 93.


King’s Festival and Queen’s Harvest (1989) are basic Dungeons & Dragons adventures by Carl Sargent.

A pair of adventures that introduces new players to D&D with a variety of linked missions.

“Absolutely the best introductory adventures in print for D&D-game-style fantasy role-playing games (FRPGs). Presented simply and clearly enough for young folks, these adventures are also challenging and entertaining enough for experienced gamers.” – Ken Rolston in Dragon 171.


Ruins of Undermountain (1991) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Ed Greenwood.

The first three levels of the mega-dungeon under the city of Waterdeep presents its content with different levels of detail: Some rooms have complete descriptions, while others have terse notes. Most sections remain empty, a canvas for the dungeon master’s creation.

Rated 17th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

Ruins of Undermountain was as much stuff from Ed Greenwood’s original gaming sessions as he could fit into a box. I give Ruins of Undermountain an A+. It will make you a better DM regardless of your skill level. This is a glimpse behind Ed Greenwood’s screen, giving the reader a chance to study his methods, which are very sound.” – Advanced Gaming and Theory


Vecna Lives! (1991) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by David “Zeb” Cook set in Greyhawk for characters of level 12-15.

After the Circle of Eight, Greyhawk’s legendary adventurers, die trying to stop Vecna’s return, their successors hunt the villain in a chase the across the world of Greyhawk.

Vecna Lives! is one of my favorite adventures from second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and I’m ecstatic that it’s been made available on dmsguild.com. Even if you never play the adventure, you should go out of your way to read/download/borrow it just to see what an incredible example of storytelling and adventure writing it is.” – Die Hard Game Fan


Night of the Walking Dead (1992) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft adventure by Bill Slavicsek for characters of level 1-3.

Characters investigate a series of murders an disappearances in a village plagued by walking dead.

“The actual adventure is one of the better blends of plotted adventures and old-school adventuring found in the ’90s. Though, there’s a deep, underlying story, it’s not a railroad. Instead, players must investigate and interact with NPCs to figure out what’s happening. Some events act as set encounters, but there’s also a big dungeon (cemetery) to crawl through at adventure’s end. The result maintains player agency while still telling a real story.” – The Fraternity of Shadows


Merchant House of Amketch (1993) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dark Sun adventure by Richard Baker for characters level 4-7.

In an event-driven adventure, characters work to end a trade in beetles with a bite that neutralizes psionic power. The quest pits the party against the most powerful merchant house in Tyr.

“This adventure has everything for me: intrigue and adventure coupled with the potential to save the world from a great threat that has just been exposed. So it’s 5 out of 5 stars.” – Warpstone Flux


City of Skulls (1993) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Carl Sargent for characters of level 9-12.

Players infiltrate the demi-god Iuz’s nightmare capital to free a military commander needed to defend the Shield Lands.

Rated 26th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“Periods of stealth and quiet punctuated by short bursts of terrifying combat.” – Retro Gaming Magazine


Night Below: An Underdark Campaign (1995) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Carl Sargent that takes characters from 1st level to as high as 14th level.

Billed as the “ultimate dungeon adventure,” this campaign goes from a ruins crawl, to a mine crawl, to a long journey through the Underdark.

“Night Below won’t be to some peoples’ taste, but the vast majority will absolutely adore it. Quite simply, it’s one hell of an adventure.” – Cliff Ramshaw in Arcane magazine.


Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998)  by Bruce Cordell.

Years after adventurers gutted the original Tomb of Horrors, a dark community has built a city of necromantic evil on the tomb’s site. Even the inhabitants of this fell city have no idea of the true evil that waits beneath them.

Rated 10th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“The new material is really excellent. Return is a whole mini-campaign, not some rehash of previous work … It offers more by far than the old Tomb of Horrors, and it is more deadly too.” – Gary Gygax


Dawn of the Overmind (1998) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for characters of level 8-10.

To stop a resurgent mind flayer empire, character visit a world of ancient ruins in search of an artifact of Illithid manufacture. This adventure brings a taste of Spelljammer and sword and planet adventure to conventional D&D.

“This is the third part of the Mind Flayer Trilogy, which was pretty much awesome from start to finish. One of the best D&D adventures of all time.” – Power Score


Die Vecna Die! (2000) is a second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Adventure for characters of level 10-13 by Bruce R. Cordell & Steve Miller.

Die Vecna Die! takes the heroes from the Greyhawk campaign to the demiplane of Ravenloft and then to the Planescape city of Sigil in a quest to claim the Hand and Eye of Vecna—the key to stopping the evil demigod Iuz.

Die Vecna Die! pulls out all the stops, and the result is a massive but tightly constructed adventure with a truly apocalyptic feel. I’m surprised I’m recommending Die Vecna Die! as strongly as I am, but it’s just that good. It’s a great high-level adventure for any campaign.” – Fearful Impressions


Forge of Fury (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 3-5 by Richard Baker.

In a dungeon that captures the flavor of some of D&D’s original, classic adventures, characters battle though five levels of a dwarven stronghold overrun by evil.

Rated 12th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“I’ve always been impressed with the adventure; for my money it’s one of Wizards of the Coast’s best 3rd Edition era modules. As a basic, flavoursome dungeon crawl I think Forge of Fury is particularly well executed.” – Creighton Broadhurst


Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (2001) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons by Monte Cook designed to take 4th-level characters as high as level 14.

Power rises again in the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Characters battle the power of darkness in Hommlet and beyond, forging their way through hundreds of encounters before reaching the fiery finale.”

Rated 8th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“Go out and buy the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. You will not regret it, and it will become a valuable part of your D&D library. It is one of the best adventure modules ever written.” – Talon on ENWorld


City of the Spider Queen (2002) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt designed to take 10th-level characters up to level 18.

“Daggerdale is reeling from a sudden series of murderous drow raids. As a grave threat to the entire surface world develops in the war-torn dark elf city of Maerimydra, intrepid heroes must discover its source and destroy it, if they can.”

Rated 24th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

City of the Spider Queen is an excellent addition to anyone’s Forgotten Realms campaign or with modifications, any Dungeons and Dragons third-edition game.” – Mania.com


Reavers of the Harkenwold (2010) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for characters of level 2-4 by Richard Baker.

In an adventure patterned after Red Hand of Doom, the characters join the resistance and take missions to thwart the army of evil that invaded the Duchy of Harkenwold.

“Definitely one of the best 4E adventures. – Will Doyle.

“I would love to see a 5E update of Reavers of Harkenwold.” – Chris Perkins


The Slaying Stone (2010) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for 1st-level characters by Logan Bonner.

Years after goblins overran and occupied a town once settled by humans, the characters enter seeking a lost Slaying Stone, the last of the magic stones created to protect the settlement.

“This is an adventure you won’t want to miss: Not only is it fun and non-linear, but it shows a DM how to better design her own adventures, and that’s something worth reading for any DM, no matter how experienced.” – Kevin Kulp


Dreams of the Red Wizards: Dead in Thay (2014) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for characters level 6-8 by Scott Fitzgerald Gray.

Teams of adventurers cooperate to explore a massive dungeon in search of the keys to a phylactery vault held by the evil Red Wizards of Thay.

“A ton of fun. Things get more and more hectic as the alert level of the Doomvault rises. It’s got good pacing, a narrative to it, and some fairly challenging encounters.” – Bell of Lost Souls


Cloud Giant’s Bargain (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for level 6 characters by Teos Abadia.

Led by a talking skull, Acquisitions Incorporated interns enter a cloud castle floating over Neverwinter to determine what threats it holds. This superb adventure combines combat, exploration, and interaction with interesting choices into a single session of play. Plus it adds a touch of humor and an unforgettable guide.

Vault of the Dracolich (2013): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 7

Vault of the Dracolich is a D&D Next adventure By Mike Shea, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and Teos Abadia for level 4 characters.

The Living Greyhawk organized-play campaign pioneered a popular new way to play Dungeons & Dragons at conventions. In Battle Interactives, multiple tables could join together in the same adventure. The effect of actions, successes, and failures at tables could ripple to others in the interactive.

To fuel excitement for D&D’s upcoming fifth edition, the D&D team planned a gameday for stores. Vault of the Dracolich co-designer Teos Abadia explains, “Wizards of the Coast wanted to see whether a gameday could be transformed from the typical adventure format into a very exciting event: a hybrid between a battle interactive and Lair Assault.” The event proved a huge success.

“The project’s approach was a new one for Wizards,” Abadia writes. “We designers were all freelancers acting as a team, instead of writing and submitting our work separately to WotC for them to put together. Mike was the author, I was the developer, and Scott the editor (and first draft cartographer). As a result, we all collaborated heavily and all took turns scheming, writing, developing, and editing.”

During the adventure, bands of heroes infiltrate a temple of the Cult of the Dragon to recover an ancient elven staff from the dracolich, Detchroyaster. Merric Blackman describes the setup. “Vault has a number of different groups investigating different parts of the dungeon at the same time. So, from one to seven tables can play at the same time, with a DM at each table, and one further person would act as the event’s coordinator, making sure everything worked smoothly and triggering the big events that affected several tables at once.”

“The lair of the Dracolich is large enough that it accompanies four sections, ranging from a Lizardmen commune to a temple of the dead god Bhaal,” writes Alex Lucard. “Each of the four locations offers a very different experience, so if you decide to run all four parts as a mini campaign or a single party, things won’t feel repetitive.”

The adventure encourages interaction between tables. Shannon Appelcline writes, “The coordinator moves about, threatening adventurers when the dracolich tracks them down; tables briefly come together and then separate, exchanging resources and coordinating plans. Even compared with similar adventures created for organized play, Dracolich stands out for the amount interaction possible between parties. Its game-store-sized scale lets everyone share the same dungeon.

“Groups that rely solely on one strategy, whether sneakiness or smacking monsters, will probably have some difficulty. The adventure is exceptionally well-designed, and various creative approaches are required for PCs to move through the complex safely. Enemies may be defeated, fooled, or co-opted with role-playing; regardless, it will take canny and aware players to succeed.”

In an RPG.net review, Vestige describes play. “There’s a breakneck rush through the dungeon to reach the staff, and then a massive climactic battle with even more to do than there are players. That’s a solid formula for a memorable day of D&D.”

In his account of running the adventure during a game day, Merric Blackman calls the experience “fantastic” and the scenario “something quite special.”

In a post, co-author Mike Shea offers advice for converting the adventure to fifth edition.

Next: Number 6.

Start at 10

In 1981 a Troll Named Grimtooth Set a Path for Today’s D&D Books

Grimtooth’s TrapsStarting in 1981, Flying Buffalo Games published a series of Grimtooth’s Traps books. They featured diagrams of traps that showed heroes on the verge of being folded, spindled, and mutilated. For instance, one sample shows a covered pit trap where the swinging cover severs a rope that drops a stone slab into the pit.

Dungeon Master: “As you advance down the tunnel, a trap door opens at your feet, dropping your rogue, Jasper the 8th, into a pit.”

Player: “Ha! Ring of feather fall!”

DM: “Ha! A two-ton stone slab drops on you, pushing you down the pit and crushing you to jelly! Do you have another character?”

Player: “Sigh. Say hello to Jasper the 9th.”

All the traps were ingenious, but very few could work in play.

Swing across chasmIn another example, a rope seems to offer an easy way to swing across a chasm, but at the end of the swing, the rope unspools several feet, flinging the victim into the wall, which is rigged to fire a volley of crossbow bolts into the victim’s body, before he drops into the underground river below, which I assume is full of sharks.

What paranoid adventurer would dare use a rope suspiciously ready for swinging across a chasm? And all adventurers in the world of Grimtooth will grow paranoid in a hurry. In practice, this trap gets bypassed without a second thought.

In most cases, even players who survive the traps will never notice the inventive mechanisms that make them function and that make them interesting. The traps could work in a sort of Toon/Dungeons & Dragons collision, where Wile-E-Coyote-like characters blunder into outrageous traps, only to reappear, without explanation, for the next scene.

Despite the traps’ minimal play value, Grimtooth’s Traps became a hit, leading to Traps Too, Traps Four, and Traps Ate. What made collections of useless traps top sellers?

“The traps were sometimes deadly and sometimes silly. They were often Rube Goldberg-esque, and not the sort of thing you could really use in an adventure,” Shannon Appelcline writes in Designers & Dragons. “However they were beautifully diagrammed and often very funny. The book was a joy to read.”

Much of the humor came from the books’ credited author, a troll named Grimtooth who relished inflicting inventive deaths on hapless dungeon delvers. “I feel that you’ll find this the most entertaining collection of traps you’ve ever laid eyes on. Besides, if you don’t like my book, I’ll rip your lungs out.” (Apparently, Grimtooth enjoyed Warren Zevon.) By flaunting the worst impulses of killer DMs, Grimtooth satirized a type familiar to roleplaying gamers in 1981.

Grimtooth first appeared on the cover of the fifth edition of Tunnels & Trolls. Then, in Sorcerer’s Apprentice magazine, editor Liz Danforth drew the troll as an icon for her “Trolltalk” column. Grimtooth gained his name in a reader contest.

While plotting humiliating ways to kill adventurers, Grimtooth offered some good advice. “A few of you numbskulls out there still haven’t caught on what it means to be a Game Master. A GM doesn’t slavishly follow anything—books, manuals, or edict from On High.” So when readers missed the joke and griped that the traps proved too deadly, Grimtooth invited tinkering. “Some of you have twisted ideas about how to administrate a dungeon, newfangled ideas about delvers escaping with their lives and stuff like that. Don’t ask me to to make my traps less deadly…change them yourselves.”

By the fourth volume, Grimtooth’s Traps Ate, the editors had abandoned any pretense that these traps might see play. Now the traps include dungeon basketball courts with mechanical arms that slam dunked characters, and deadly Christmas-themed rooms that killed adventurers pictured in Santa suits. (Why is volume 4 Traps Ate? The numbers 3, 5, 6, and 7 lack homonyms, so they were skipped.)

Grimtooth set the pattern for new Dungeons & Dragons books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A D&D player can buy a Player’s Handbook and never need another book. Only DMs weary of the foes in the Monster Manual need another collection of monsters. But Wizards of the Coast aims to sell every D&D book to every D&D fan, so they lure buyers to books like Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes by making the text entertaining. Part of the fun comes from humorous notes left by Xanathar and Mordenkainen, characters who owe much to Grimtooth.

As for the troll, his wicked engineering remains amusing. In Grimtooth’s Traps, The Addams Family meets Rube Goldberg.

The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers

Publicly, members of Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons team never discuss sales numbers. Privately, they dispute the notion that the Pathfinder role-playing game ever outsold fourth-edition D&D. But at Gen Con, late in the short life of fourth edition, evidence of D&D’s collapse seemed glaring. Pathfinder players filled the massive Sagamore Ballroom that had once hosted D&D play. Meanwhile, D&D players became exiles in a much smaller space. To be fair, Paizo made a bigger financial commitment to the con, but Pathfinder players filled more tables. And Paizo boasted a long line of customers  waiting to pass the velvet ropes into the Pathfinder sales area.

If big-shot Hasbro executives had seen this difference, they would have rehired the entire fourth-edition team just to sack them again.

At Gen Con 2010, fourth edition seemed like a catastrophe, but the game’s designers deserved less blame then they got. They had simply created a D&D edition that tried to match the appeal of online role-playing games. During development, the edition seemed like a savior the D&D needed. Their plan had suffered some tragic, and unimaginable setbacks—and D&D designers boast pretty good imaginations.

Most of the blame for the collapse lay with the executives who needed to wring as much revenue as possible from the D&D brand. They had made the one decision that crushed the edition’s chance for modest success. Of course, these planners never imagined that their decision would lead to an upheaval. That came from unintended consequences.

And the decision proved lucky for gamers, because we benefited from the blunder.

Fourth edition’s chance of success died before the edition even reached stores. It died when Wizards of the Coast chose to prevent Paizo Publishing from staying in the business of supporting D&D.

Paizo started in 2002, when Wizards of the Coast decided to focus on its core competencies by selling its periodical business along with 5-year licenses to publish Dungeon and Dragon magazines.

The new publisher endured a rocky start. When the harsh economics of magazine publishing led to the end of their Undefeated and Amazing Stories magazines, the cancellations forced layoffs. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens took the setback hard. “The people at Paizo are my friends. With just a few keystrokes on a spreadsheet, I was potentially destroying lives, or at least changing their trajectories forever. The stress took over while driving home and I had to pull over to the side of the road and started bawling. I knew in my heart that I needed to make some drastic changes to give the company a chance to survive.” (For much more on the history of Paizo, including the quotes from their staff in this post, see the series of blog posts called Auntie Lisa’s Story Hour.)

Paizo continued to build publishing expertise. In Dungeon, The Shackled City launched a series of multi-part scenarios that Paizo called adventure paths. The paths plotted an entire campaign, from 1st to 20th level, from a series of linked adventures. “The reaction to The Shackled City was nothing short of fantastic,” Stevens recalled. “Little did we realize that the Adventure Path would eventually become our flagship brand, and our salvation in our most difficult time.

In 2005, the company started seeing profits and won the silver ENnie award for best publisher. Stevens saw validation that Paizo had finally found the right course.

By 2006, the license to publish Dragon and Dungeon neared its end, but Stevens and publisher Erik Mona felt sure a renewal would come. “With subscriptions on the rise, and powerful wind in our sails from the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths, there seemed little reason for concern.

But Wizards made other plans for the magazines. Their fourth-edition business strategy depended on luring monthly subscribers to D&D Insider. Electronic versions of Dragon and Dungeon would add value to that program.

On May 30, 2006, Stevens learned that she would lose the license. “After the call, I brought Erik in to my office and told him the news, tears streaming down my face.

I don’t think any of us ever really thought that this was much more than a remote possibility. Dragon and Dungeon were finally firing on all cylinders and were enjoying critical acclaim that hadn’t been seen in years. So this news struck us to the core. In one meeting, the last large chunk of the company that we started not quite four years before was going away. We were numb. How the heck were we going to cope with this? Frankly, it seemed impossible at the time.

I have to give Wizards of the Coast a lot of praise for how they handled the end of the license. Contractually, they only needed to deliver notice of non-renewal by the end of December 2006; without the extra seven months’ notice they chose to give us, I’m not sure that Paizo could have survived. Wizards also granted our request to extend the license through August 2007 so that we could finish up the Savage Tide adventure path. This gave us quite a bit of time to figure out how we were going to cope with the end of the magazines. It would have been very easy for WotC to have handled this in a way which would have effectively left Paizo for dead—all they would have had to do was follow the letter of the contract. Instead, they treated us like the valued partner we had been, giving us the ability to both plan and execute a strategy for survival. For that, I will always be thankful.

Paizo forged a survival plan based on replacing the magazines with monthly adventure path installments. If successful, the plan would save the jobs of all the company’s employees. “To transition the company into its new form in 2007,” Mona explained, “We needed all hands on deck.

Paizo’s new Pathfinder Adventure Path brought success. Sales were brisk, and the number of Dungeon and Dragon subscribers who switched to Pathfinder subscriptions surpassed targets.

But at Gen Con in August 2007, Wizards of the Coast announced that fourth edition D&D would arrive in 2008. Paizo’s plan depended on lines of products compatible with third-edition D&D. Suddenly these lines seemed doomed to obsolescence and obscurity.

After talks with our colleagues at Wizards of the Coast, we were cautiously optimistic,” Stevens recalled. “There was talk of getting together when we were back in Seattle and running through a playtest of the current rules. We were also promised that there would be a third-party license, similar to the OGL, really soon.

Meanwhile, Paizo employee and D&D freelancer Jason Bulmahn saw his assignments from Wizards disappear as the company turned to in-house development of fourth edition. Suddenly, he had free time. For fun, he wrote a set of revisions to the D&D 3.5-edition rules. “My first document had the title ‘3.75 Rules Set’ in the margin.

In the months after the fourth-edition announcement, Paizo anxiously waited for a chance to playtest the new edition, but the preview never came. Worse, the third-party license failed to reach publishers.

Inside Wizards, the D&D team wanted to launch fourth edition with something like the Open Game License, but they lacked the clout to get another generous license approved. In an interview, D&D designer Andy Collins summarized the situation by saying, “Legal opinions change; legal staffs change.

By the start of 2008, Paizo ran out of time to wait. “The lack of a firm commitment or any kind of schedule from Wizards was stretching our patience—and our deadlines,” Stevens wrote. She called a company summit to discuss options.

Bulmahn recalled the meeting. “We struggled most of that day to come up with a viable plan. I kept thinking back to my rules document, even though it was little more than a mishmash of rules ideas and notes. Late in the afternoon, I brought it up to the folks in attendance.” By the end of the meeting Bulmahn ranked as lead designer of Mon Mothma, the new code name for a potential Pathfinder role-playing game.

Wizards’ decision to end the magazine licenses had turned Paizo upside down and now made the company willing to explore a daring plan based on a mishmash of ideas and notes. “We were beginning to think that forging our own path forward might be a valid choice,” Stevens explained.

Nevertheless, we dutifully sent Jason Bulmahn to Wizards’ D&D Experience in Fort Wayne, Indiana that February. Jason’s mission was to learn as much as he could about 4th Edition, play it as much as he could, and report back with his findings. From that, we would ultimately make a decision that could make or break us. The tension was agonizing. I could barely sleep at night as my mind wrestled with the options. If we made the wrong decision, it could very well mean the end of Paizo.

From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 SRD: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

The cheap hobby of table-top role playing makes selling RPG games a tough business, but selling print RPG magazines in the Internet age is even tougher. Still, Paizo had learned to thrive. By fourth edition’s announcement, Paizo stood as an experienced publisher with an expert team of D&D designers, including many former Wizards employees.

When Wizards chose not to renew the Paizo’s license to publish Dragon and Dungeon, they led Paizo to compete with fourth edition. Paizo combined a lower cost structure and the nimble size of a small company with the resources to win against a giant like Wizards of the Coast.

As a result, gamers benefited from a choice of games. When asked about the split between Pathfinder and fourth edition, D&D designer Andy Collins said, “I think they’re both great games, and if they were more similar the hobby would be worse for it. I think it’s better to have games that are more distinct from one another that gives people clear choices. ‘Well this is the style of game I want to play, or this other one is the style of game I want to play.’ Nothing wrong with that.

If you loved fourth edition, you can still play games based on a shelf full of titles released for the game. Wizards even continues to offer D&D Insider to ongoing subscribers. If you favor fifth edition, many of the lessons of fourth helped make the new game so good. And if you love Pathfinder, the game continues to thrive. Is it okay to love them all?

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

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

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

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

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

The Story of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

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

What had gone so wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

In 2005, Dungeons & Dragons faced a possible future similar to the fate of another popular role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade. In this future, D&D only exists as a license for online games and t-shirts and another potential movie. The tabletop game remains as an archive of PDFs for sale to die-hards. See The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice.

To guarantee tabletop D&D never met this end, the game needed to qualify as a core game brand at Wizards of the Coast, now owned by Hasbro. D&D needed to match its best-ever year of sales in 2000, but this time the game needed sustained sales at that level.

Without a new edition, the game could never approach such numbers. A new edition could be easy, but it had to bring a profitable, sustainable strategy that would meet stockholder’s expectations for return on investment. So far, no tabletop publisher had found such a strategy.

None of this means that fourth edition’s inspiration came entirely from a reach for sales. D&D team leader Bill Slavicsek wrote, “As we move deeper into the third edition, it’s flaws and fun-ending complexities become more pronounced, more obvious to players and Dungeon Masters alike.” The design team saw ways to “greatly reduce and perhaps even eliminate completely the parts of the game that get in the way of the fun.”

Meanwhile, a new threat was taking players from D&D. World of Warcraft debuted in 2004 and experienced surging popularity. By May 2005, WoW had 3.5 million players. By 2008, the community hit more than 11 million players. D&D players started talking about the players that tabletop lost to WoW.

At gaming conventions, the same aging guys who started playing in the 80s showed up to play D&D. Presumably, the younger players and women who might love D&D stayed home to play Warcraft. Wizards of the Coast aimed advertisements at bringing WoW players to the tabletop, but mere ads could never win the flood of new fans D&D needed.

WoW didn’t look like a fad or another way to play. It seemed like the vanguard leading to the future of gaming. “Gaming was definitely changing,” D&D designer Mike Mearls explained. “And I think that for 4th Edition, what we were trying to do was to start predicting for D&D where we thought the game was heading.”

Surely, new players coming to D&D would have an online or video game background. To compete, D&D needed a big advance—a new edition that didn’t just improve the game but an edition capable of winning Warcraft players by matching some of what drew players to online games. “As far as I know, 4th edition was the first set of rules to look to videogames for inspiration,” Mearls said. “I wasn’t involved in the initial design meetings for the game, but I believe that MMOs played a role in how the game was shaped. I think there was a feeling that D&D needed to move into the MMO space as quickly as possible.”

So the new edition focused on the elements that made the D&D fun and especially appealing to fans of online fantasy games. Mearls recalled that the team felt that “building a player character was the real thing that drove people to play the games. You wanted to choose your feats, your prestige classes and whatnot.”

Once players built their characters, the fun came from showing off those characters on the battlefield. Lead designer Rob Heinsoo wanted to give the game an irresistible hook that tied the game together and compelled gamers to play. “The solution James Wyatt, Andy Collins, and I were excited about was to give every PC an ongoing series of choices of interesting powers. Most every time you gain a level you select a new power or a feat. Every combat round you have an interesting choice of which power or powers to use.”

But none of this excitement would benefit players who struggled to find DMs or potential DMs who saw the role as a chore.

The new edition worked to be easier to run. Casual DMs could simply buy an adventure, read the boxed text, and then run a sequence of skill challenges and combat encounters. In a skill challenge, the DM just had to decide if a skill helped the players—but only when the challenge’s description neglected to list a skill in advance. Combat encounters ran easier too. Monsters offered a few, clear options for combat. Just move and roll attacks.

To succeed, the new edition needed to do more than win new players. The game needed a profitable, sustainable strategy.

For Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft boasted an advantage that the D&D team surely envied. Players paid a monthly fee, which guaranteed steady revenue.

“Along the way, we also came up with the idea of Dungeons & Dragons Insider,” Bill Slavicsek wrote. “This exciting suite of digital tools for players and Dungeon Masters was just too powerful a concept to try to shoehorn the existing d20 Game System around it. Instead we knew we had to rebuild the game to take full advantage of this amazing new initiative.”

The game didn’t just need to be easy to DM. It needed to be easy to run online. Ideally, it would help DMs enough to make running a bad game nearly impossible. Players could drop into the virtual tabletop at any hour, join any available DM, and feel confident that a stranger could deliver a fun experience. A thriving virtual table would let players join a game 24/7, just like Warcraft. And all those player would pay monthly, just like Warcraft.

The designers aimed for online-friendly rules. Fourth edition defines powers as tightly as Magic the Gathering cards, so a computer never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. Unlike earlier editions, spell effects no longer required a DM’s judgement to rule on a Wish or to decide whether a wizard could polymorph a fly into a blue whale that would drop on a foe.

If the rules proved easy for computers to emulate, the virtual table could lift more and more of the rules burden from the DM and the players. Meanwhile, a new generation of D&D-inspired video games and MMOs could open new revenue sources.

The team planned ways for players at kitchen tables to contribute to the bottom line too. The emphasis on character building would inspire players to by a stream of books with new options. DMs would buy adventures. Everyone needed miniatures. The 4E rules list “D&D Miniatures” among things needed for play—not as a “Useful addition” like a character sheet. The rules never mention tokens or other alternatives to minis.

The D&D team thought they finally had the recipe for sustained success that D&D needed. The new game featured rules optimized to bring the most fun out of the character creation and combat choices that drew players to D&D. The new strategy could gain the income that would vault D&D to a core brand for years to come.

At the 2007 Gen Con game convention, the D&D team announced the new edition. Mike Mearls saw an uneasy reaction from the D&D faithful. “The big announcement on Thursday night was, well, tense. We didn’t spark a riot, but it seemed the audience was a bit nervous.”

As someone in the audience, I saw a confused reception. The D&D team emphasized D&D Insider and the virtual tabletop so much that people wondered if D&D would remain a game playable without a computer. But the designers loved D&D and their new edition, so we felt ready to embrace it too.

Next: Why Fourth Edition Never Saved Dungeons & Dragons

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Despite the alarmists warning that things like ascending armor classes, women, or fourth edition would ruin Dungeons & Dragons, the game has only faced one serious threat. Ascending ACs are just easier, woman have been improving the game at least since Lee Gold, and fourth edition once seemed like exactly the savior D&D needed. The real threat to D&D came from the way the game combined cheap entertainment with a valuable brand.

For a sample of D&D’s potential demise, witness the fate of another successful role-playing game: Vampire: The Masquerade. In the 90s, the popularity of Vampire seemed ready to eclipse D&D.

On its introduction by White Wolf Publishing in 1991, Vampire surged in popularity, attracting a new generation of players and more women. The game spawned a franchise of World of Darkness games.

But once the player community peaked, White Wolf saw its income slow until books barely broke even.

The low cost of role playing makes selling RPGs a tough business. Players can only spend so much time at the game table, and a few purchases will fill all those hours. Even if a game master buys an adventure to run, five other people get hours of fun from the purchase. And those hours come from a slim packet of pages. A hardcover adventure will sustain a campaign for a year. A few bucks spent on dice and maybe on a core book can sustain a player for years. Role-playing gaming rates as the cheapest entertainment around. See How the End of Lonely Fun Leads to Today’s Trickle of D&D Books.

By 1998, White Wolf was canceling games in the World of Darkness franchise. The company rode the d20 boom with D&D-related supplements, but that boon went bust too.

In 2006, CCP Games, the Icelandic company behind EVE Online, acquired White Wolf just to gain rights for a potential online game. White Wolf’s tabletop publishing schedule slowed a few PDF and print-on-demand products. When CCP’s plans for an MMO fizzled, White Wolf sold to another computer game company, Paradox Interactive. Now, the White Wolf web site calls the outfit a licensing company. In an interview, Martin Elricsson, the company’s Brand Architect explained the publisher’s status. “The economic center of the company will be computer games. As things are now, tabletop publishing hardly breaks even.”

Vampire: The Masquerade now rates as an entry in an IP portfolio, a brand to license or to apply to an online game. Paradox Interactive stands as the accidental owner of a tabletop RPG. If they bother to publish it, the action will hardly affect the corporate bottom line and stockholders will call tabletop a distraction.

At two points in D&D’s history, D&D could easily have met a similar fate.

The first threat came in 1997, when TSR neared bankruptcy. TSR sold itself to Wizards of the Coast, a company run by Peter Adkison, a D&D fan with big dreams for the game. A few years earlier, Adkison had asked designer Richard Garfield for a portable game suitable for passing time in a convention line. Garfield’s game, Magic the Gathering, captured lightning in the bottle, landing Wizards enough cash to buy TSR. Without this happenstance, TSRs assets could have been picked over and sold piecemeal to companies looking for intellectual property for computer games and movie licenses.

In 1999, Hasbro bought WotC for Magic the Gathering and the Pokémon card game. The waning profits from D&D’s second edition certainly didn’t help the acquisition. Like many folks in 1999, Hasbro executives probably wondered if people had to dress up to play D&D. Would remnants of the satanic panic stain Hasbro?

When Hasbro acquired WotC, they brought a big corporate cost structure and return on investment expectations set by Magic and Pokémon. If D&D failed to meet those expectations, imagine a D&D product line like the one today—but without any tabletop products—just an assortment of licensed video games, a D&D-themed Monopoly game, some t-shirts, and a movie a few years out. Maybe they would license the tabletop game to third party, where, like other high-profile licenses, a barely break-even business could struggle under oppressive license fees and stifling brand oversight. For a Hasbro executive cutting such a tabletop license, the deal offers little upside. A modest success barely registers; a runaway success embarrasses the exec who let a valuable asset leave the company.

In 2000, D&D proved a temporary asset to Hasbro. The new, third edition sparked a boom in sales, mainly by inspiring the same players who found the game in the 80s.

By 2005, D&D settled into a familiar pattern for a mature edition. After a big debut, players embrace character options, creatures, and adventures. Game companies have employees to pay, and only a steady income keeps the lights on, so they publish to meet demand. Before long, even the most passionate customers own more supplements than they can play. Players stop adding to the unused volumes already on their shelves. Meanwhile, the wealth of volumes on game store shelves overwhelms and scares away newcomers. Potential new customers wonder if they need to fill a bookshelf to play. Is the Player’s Handbook 2 required or is it an updated version of the original book?

The D&D team started enduring annual, Christmas-season layoffs as management expected slowing sales in each coming fiscal year.

Hasbro’s experience in the toy business made them familiar with such booms and busts. Except for a few core toy lines, they would roll out a toy like G.I. Joe, ride a surge in sales, and then sideline the toy for 15 or so years until a new generation of children seemed ready for it. Perhaps Hasbro execs wondered if a similar strategy suited D&D. Instead of losing money between generational releases, why not just retire the tabletop product during those 15-year lulls?

Peter Adkison had left Wizards, so no guardian angel would save the game this time.

For D&D to qualify as a core game brand, the game needed to match its best-ever year of sales in 2000, but this time the game needed sustained sales at that level.

Without a new edition, the game could never approach such numbers. A new edition could be easy, but it had to bring a profitable, sustainable strategy that would meet stockholder’s expectations for profit. So far, no tabletop publisher had found such a strategy.

As sales withered, the D&D team searched a way to save the tabletop game they loved. By 2008, they thought they found a way.

Next: Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed