I ran evil-themed D&D campaign once, but only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released Menzoberranzan City of Intrigue and promoted the book with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. Fourth edition’s Encounters program hosted drop-in games at local game stores. This season made the players evil drow and fostered backstabbing and intrigue. As an Encounters dungeon master, I questioned the wisdom of the theme, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. Still, I dutifully ran the campaign as intended.
My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.
Lloth and Drow at Gen Con
In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.
I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If players’ actions defied their alignments, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.
And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.
Even so, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.
Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?
As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, the Greyhawk campaign run by D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”
Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it,” Gary wrote. “They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?
The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”
In a Dragon magazine issue 118 article outlining changes coming in second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, designer David “Zeb” Cook writes, “The assassin is a goner—virtually guaranteed. It is highly unlikely that any amount of appeal will save his neck. He is disruptive to party harmony and, more importantly, presents the wrong image about AD&D games.”
The thief also inspired in-party conflicts. Steve explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”
“He’s a thief! He steals from everyone and ruins friendships,” Zeb wrote. But thieves reflected better on AD&D than assassins and offered a more popular archetype, so Zeb defended the class. “This is more a problem of how the player is using the thief, not the class itself.”
Nonetheless, the class name inspired thieving. Second edition started a rebranding by making thieves a type of rogue. The Player’s Handbook explains, “The character classes are divided into four groups according to general occupation: Warrior, Wizard, Priest and Rogue.” By third edition, “rogue” permanently replaced “thief” as a class name.
The best tales climax when the heroes must choose between what they’ve learned is right and an easy route to what they thought they wanted. In fiction, such moral dilemmas reveal character. When a woman who only ever wanted to be queen realizes that someone else is better suited to the throne, will she still take the crown?
Everyone who enjoys games such as Dungeons & Dragons likes making choices and seeing the outcomes. Many of those players also enjoy exploring and revealing their characters. So in roleplaying, moral problems may rank as the most interesting and most revealing. In the Dungeon magazine article, “Temptations and Dilemmas,” printed in issue 148, Wolfgang Baur writes about the joy of posing dilemmas. “They make the player really engage with their characters and the game world. Sweet sweet perfection: all you have to do is let the PCs wrangle about it for a while.”
Creating moral choices in D&D proves harder than creating similar dilemmas in stories. In fiction, moral choices often force characters to pick between what’s right and what’s easy. But D&D characters rarely make decisions alone. They face choices as a party, and these groups inevitably mix rogues and paladins.
More than popular classes, rogues and paladins represent two ways players often imagine their characters’ moral outlooks. These make popular character perspectives because they bring escapes from either the restrictions or the unfairness of modern life.
In our world, we often feel bound by rules and obligations. Playing a rogue who’s free from ethical burdens and who boasts the power to ignore rules feels exhilarating.
In our world, we see misdeeds rewarded, good people suffer, and too often we feel helpless to act. Playing a paladin with the strength to punish wrongdoers, help the deserving, and right wrongs feels rejuvenating.
Choices between right and easy inevitably split a party’s rogues and paladins.
“Assassins, poisoners, sneak thieves, death priests, drug smugglers, necromancers, diabolists, and warlocks make it tough for more heroic, lawful, or good characters to look away or condone their smuggling, sneaking, theft, magical abuses, and so on,” Wolfgang writes. “There’s a dilemma for the party every time a character crosses the line and does something that another, more moral character might find unforgivable.”
In D&D, rogues and paladins must find ways to work together or the game falls apart. “If you wind up with that one paladin singled out and forced to choose to compromise his character just to keep playing, you have a problem.” See A Roleplaying Game Player’s Obligation.
So in D&D, moral dilemmas must avoid posing an unsavory, but easy solution as an option. Instead these problems must force players to weigh which of two, imperfect choices brings the most benefit—or the least corruption. In “5 Tips on How to Design Diabolical Dilemmas,” Johnn Four imagines starting the party with a simple job to capture a war criminal, and then adds moral complications. What if the players discover that the elderly criminal now repents by running an orphanage? If the players decide to take him to justice, what if they learn that the alleged crimes may have saved a village? Do the players still bring the man to execution? None of these choices make the adventure easier for players, but they all land the players in thorny dilemmas that reveal characters.
Johnn suggests developing moral dilemmas by starting with a simple choice and asking questions that help you imagine complications.
Who gets hurt?
Who escapes justice?
Who undeservedly benefits?
While moral dilemmas benefit the game, you can press too hard to create them. Players enjoy difficult choices in balance with uncomplicated situations where their power lets the good guys win. Often players use their ingenuity to solve a moral dilemma without any tough choices. Players savor those victories.
Even when DMs work to foster moral dilemmas, most D&D games only occasionally feature such situations. But one sort of quandary appears frequently, and it’s awful.
Blame co-creator Gary Gygax and his adventure The Keep on the Borderlands (1979). D&D’s first Basic Set included this adventure, so through the 80s, the keep easily ranked as the game’s most played scenario. In a reprint, D&D creative director Mike Mearls writes, “In its 32 pages, Keep on the Borderlands provides the clearest, most concise definition of D&D that you can find.” The keep showed countless dungeon masters how to create a D&D adventure, and mostly it set a good example.
What awful moral dilemma appears 8 times in this classic?
When Gary wrote the keep, he aimed to create an infestation of D&D’s various evil humanoids: kobolds, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls, and lizard men. Gary favored applying some natural order to his imaginary world, which included various young monsters incapable of fighting.
After slaughtering the orcs’ parents, do you put their infants to the sword? As a player who favored the paladin type, I wanted to right wrongs, not debate whether to murder young. The rogue-types in the party would open the 1977 Monster Manual and point to the word “evil” beside a pig-faced monster, but I had no taste for the baby-orc dilemma. I want to smite evildoers, not kill helpless foes. I’m far from alone in that sentiment. Worse, young non-combatants appear in 8 of the keep’s locations, and then in the countless adventures that follow the keep’s example.
I recommend contriving situations that leave helpless foes out of reach. Instead of populating the Caves of Chaos with generations of humanoids, why not imagine war parties locked in a standoff?
Even though the baby-orc problem rates as something to avoid, other dilemmas can enrich the game. M.T. Black’s adventure The Lich Queen’s Begotten ends with an interesting variant on the question of whether to kill an innocent destined for evil. Both times I ran this adventure, a party of mixed paladin and rogue types chose to protect the innocent—not necessarily the easier choice. Both groups wanted a follow up adventure where they worked to thwart the innocent creature’s evil destiny.
Ilbranteloth suggested turning potentially dead characters into an invitation to let players imagine a different twist. “On potentially deadly hits against the PCs, they decide if they are killed, or something more dramatic (and often worse) happens.” Perhaps the character loses a leg and a bit of speed. Or perhaps the player trades death for some dramatic complication. Players focused on story understand that character arcs benefit from setbacks and might be eager to revive a dead character in exchange for a complication that makes a richer story.
“I’m not generally a fan of the summoning spells. They can be too strong (they can be like a fireball of damage every round, round after round, for the casting of one spell), they tie up the terrain impeding movement (especially by locking down melee fighters, preventing a dynamic combat), and they make combat a slog (in almost any combat, the monsters lack the damage to kill more than a couple of the summoned monsters).
“That last bit is what kills it for me. At the meta level, the monsters should ignore the summoned creatures, because killing them is basically impossible unless they’re a horde of low CR creatures and the monsters have area attacks. So, the easy move is to target the summoner and break their concentration, but that takes away from what the player who did the summoning wants. I haven’t found a happy medium.”
Summoning spells typically offer a choice between lots of weaker monsters and fewer, stronger monsters. When the designers set choices that made summoning crowds far more efficient, they made the spells more likely to turn fights into slogs.
When I play foes with an 8 or higher intelligence who see ongoing spell effects, I start making spellcasters preferred targets. After all, characters with an 8 Intelligence practice even more savvy tactics. When players think their DM unreasonably targets them with attacks, players can get salty, but when concentrating spellcasters become targets, their players know it’s coming.
Alphastream wrote, “Some readers may not appreciate how, back then, books hung around for a long time. We had decades with the same books on the shelves. Not as old stock in a corner, but as an active part of what gamers would buy and use. As an example, check out this Shannon Appelcline article where he shares White Wolf Magazine’s list of top-selling RPGs for 1992. At number 9 is the 1981 Fiend Folio!
“Books like Deities & Demigods were a presence for decades, which helped keep this bit of controversy prominent across many years.”
The long sales life of books from this era also led to a 2nd edition that remained broadly compatible with AD&D. The designers wanted to make big improvements, but TSR management wanted books like that old Fiend Folio to continue generating sales.
Zenopus Archives wrote, “There’s a whole earlier chapter to this story. The Mythos write-up in Deities & Demigods is derivative of the original write-up ‘The Lovecraftian Mythos in Dungeons & Dragons’ by J. Eric Holmes and Rob Kuntz that was published in Dragon magazine 12 in 1978. The bulk of this article was written by Holmes, and the Deities & Demigods write-up has the same entries, except for one. To me, Deities & Demigods clearly used the original article as a starting point. Read more at Dr. Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos.”
Eric Bohm wrote, “Taking the treasure out of the game seriously undermines an important component of the D&D formula. The heroic component remains mostly intact. If your character is motivated to help people for the sake of helping them, with only an abstract unquantifiable reward, everything works. Other kinds of characters are less well supported, while truly mercenary character concepts become basically unplayable.
“What about the lovable scamp who is in it for the gold? Or the many redemptive arcs of those get roped in for the base rewards and are swept up in higher motivations? How can a malefactor tempt a hero away from the path of virtue?
“The only character who grabbed any money from the hoard in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist when I ran it was an NPC. The players weren’t tempted; therefore they did not feel like it was worth roleplaying their characters being at all tempted. It just wasn’t interesting for them to play into it. Let me state that again. Players with characters standing in a vault full of gold felt that it was pointless for them to even pick up a single bag of gold. Where is the fun in that?”
Obviously, players can still create characters motivated by greed, but without the incentive of gold, taking risks for treasure seems like a sucker’s bet.
At the start of season 8, I wondered with James Introcaso why the Adventurers League would introduce rules that blocked characters from keeping gold in the season that featured Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The adventure hooks characters with a chance to win a fortune in gold. James speculated that perhaps the potential windfall triggered the need for the rules change.
Alphastream agreed but saw areas where fourth edition succeeded in making D&D easier to run. For instance, fourth edition’s in-store play program D&D Encounters drew tons of players. “DMs loved being able to run an hour of play with 1-2 pages of very simple (and yet engaging) adventure text. Spells turned into far simpler powers meant DMs could jump in with less experience. True story: Despite playing and DMing D&D for 17 years, when 3E came out, I waited 9 months before DMing my first organized play game because I felt I didn’t know 3E spells well enough to run a game. We’ve taken a step backwards here, in that many DMs again feel they can’t DM (especially at high levels) because of the complexity of spells.
“So, I think there is a balance to be struck between these design goals of keeping the game engaging and keeping it easy to learn and simple.”
“I would also say that while 3E really built up the game and added a lot, 4E in many ways was working to fix problems—the length of an adventuring day, the need for someone to ‘have’ to play the cleric, how many magic items a character had, and even how much experience a DM needed to feel confident. It really took the laundry list of issues, including ‘bad DMs’ and tried to fix them. The legacy of those fixes is excellent. We can see many of those improvements carried on into 5E.”
Wil cifer argued that the original implications of half orcs fit history. “Rape was a commonplace occurrence during war in medieval times. Why would a barbaric race even in a fantasy setting be kinder and gentler? Rewriting the tone of a historical time the game is based on is stupid.”
But D&D is a game that gleefully tosses aside historical accuracy and realism in favor of fun. The game features magic and dragons. To unravel any D&D world, just pull any of countless threads and check it for historical accuracy or check how it stands in the face of magic.
Other readers argued that making half orcs the product of sexual violence turns orcs into stronger villains. Andrew wrote, “I have been playing D&D since 1981, and I have no problem with half-orcs being the result of an orc raping a human female. Orcs are monsters, created by an evil deity, Gruumsh. Taking the monster out of the monster has very little appeal to me. Can and should there be points of moral ambiguity in a D&D game? Without doubt. There should be. But monsters do monstrous things, including rape.”
To players like Andrew, crushing evil and righting wrongs feels more satisfying when the campaign shows evil and the suffering it creates. Purely evil creatures make uncomplicated foes that justify killing.
David Streever wrote, “D&D is a fantasy game that is sold to everyone from small children to adults; you can feature as much rape as you like in your version, but I’m glad it’s not in the core books, and I’ll stay away from your table.”
In your D&D game, if all the players welcome a darker tone, you can explore any origin you like for half orcs. But for a broader audience, the game benefits when it avoids saddling every half orc with a vile background.
“‘Don’t have NPCs talk to each other’ is good advice, but it’s occasionally necessary to deliver an NPC to NPC one liner. Keep it short and sweet.”
The History of Traps In Dungeons & Dragons prompted Ty to point out the difference between good, real traps and quality traps in D&D. “From a game play standpoint, traps are just a terrible idea all around. Conceptually, in order for a trap to be a ‘good’ trap, it needs to be massively unfair. It needs to kill outright or seriously maim. One minute you’re alive, and then boom, you’re dead. No saving throws, no noticing something off at the last minute, no jumping out of the way.”
Ken W replied, “You need to take the edge off your realism. A trap shouldn’t be ‘instantly lethal’ in game terms any more than a strike with a sword or great axe. In real terms, if you get hit by a swinging claymore, you are likely suffering a severe wound. But the abstraction of D&D combat and hit points means that each hit represents a depletion of stamina, not a mortal wound. Only when you reach 0 hit points does it really represent that fountaining arterial spray we would otherwise expect.
“Traps operate in the same space as combat weapons in this regard. The only difference between a trap and an enemy combatant that gets a turn while the PC is surprised is…well—nothing. Except the trap essentially ‘dies’ after its turn is over.”
Good traps in the real world make lousy traps in D&D. The best traps in D&D are in places where everyone expects a trap or that show obvious signs of their presence.
Alphastream wrote, “A trap can be a lot of fun when found, if it requires engagement to disarm. As a DM or author, I try to think through the point of the trap—not just for whatever creatures put it there—but for the game experience. The trap can be hard to find and that’s fun, or it can be easy to find and be fun as well. Think of ‘only the penitent man shall pass’ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That’s fun because you know it is there and need to figure out a way past it. Similarly, traps can be found and that can be the beginning of the engagement.”
Beoric wrote, “Perfectly good traps can be suspected because the nature of the trap is not entirely concealable. Raiders of the Lost Ark-style traps can be suspected because the tiles on the floor have no grout because they are pressure plates, or there are holes in the wall from which darts shoot.
“The trap may also be old, and detectable by signs of wear, like a layer of powdered stone on the floor or vertical gouges on the wall for a falling block trap, or soot on the walls or floor with a fire trap, or spent missiles on the floor with a dart or arrow trap.
“Also consider that some traps can be very well concealed if they are not being looked for, but still be detectable if actively searched for. A standard old-school pit trap was pretty much undetectable visually and could only be detected by tapping it.”
“None of those are actually bad traps. They just have limitations because of their nature.”
Alphastream expanded on how traps worked in play across editions.
“In fifth edition, it’s still not entirely clear nor standard whether Investigation or Perception is most commonly used for finding a trap. I have my thoughts, which I think are right, but I see it run many different ways. In general, I think that if a trap is one that could be seen with the naked eye, then Perception would work. For example, a pressure plate that has slightly discolored stone, or which is slightly sunken. Otherwise, and in my game this is most of the time, the trap is not obvious and needs Investigation to be found. A well-crafted pressure plate is like any other stone. The only way to find it is to tap at it or otherwise determine what it is, which uses Investigation.”
“Fourth edition’s concept of ‘trap as monster’ failed due to the underlying math, which assumed a check per round and 4 checks to disable the trap, which was supposed to equate how monsters were envisioned as taking 4 rounds to defeat. The problem is that this cold math doesn’t understand how that 4 round concept wasn’t very accurate—players focused fire on important targets and might take them down in 1 round, while ignoring others.”
Players tended to focus fire on traps and break them more quickly than a rogue could disable them. Or players ignored traps in favor of the monsters, and then stepped around the traps.
“I like to think 4E’s trap concept is still really cool, but it takes clever authoring to communicate to the players how to engage with it. It is awesome if the cleric immediately realizes that this trap is empowered by a rival deity and they can shut it down and greatly help the party by doing so. That feels really heroic. It’s awesome if the rogue can tell the party that interacting with the trap for two rounds will move the rays of lightning to the area where the enemy archers are standing. These are great cinematic concepts if you set them up right.
“I tried my own hand at it with Dungeon of Doom. Nate and I designed a large variety of 5E traps in that adventure, and they provide a diversity of experiences. (You can get the adventure free and also see people play through them, all at https://dwarvenforge.com/descent/.) Thank you for putting up with the shameless plug, but it’s hopefully useful for people given this article.”
“It is a quirky history, given that a primary reason ability scores were created in the first place was as a means to make ability checks—to put it in contemporary parlance. The D&D ability scores and saving throws arise as a distillation of the concept of personality traits and character skills created by Dave Arneson for Blackmoor. In pre-D&D Blackmoor, players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, or Looks, or Throwing, to see if they were successful at the attempt. When D&D came along, Arneson & co. continued to use ability checks in their games. You can see an example of a Dexterity check in Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign (1977) where a character must save versus Dexterity to remove their armor in time to avoid drowning in Blackmoor Bay. And of course ability checks are also very prominent in Arneson and Richard Sniders’ Adventures in Fantasy game (1978). In writing D&D, Gary Gygax failed to mention this purpose of the ability scores as he apparently preferred to create an arbitrary percent chance and have the players roll percentiles instead. So, you did have some early players who figured it out on their own or who learned it in some way from Arneson, most D&D players didn’t grok the intention behind the scores and thus you got that rather odd system proposed by Ives in Dragon #1. You can see some original Blackmoor characters here.”
I’ve already recanted my dislike for game worlds that unnecessarily make adventuring a common profession.
Alphastream argues that monsters that bounce from table to table at multi-table events can work, but he sees room for innovation. “I’ve written these, though they aren’t my favorite device for the reasons you mentioned. I think they work best when they are in small pods. The blue dragon in Confrontation at Candlekeep works well because it makes sense (you have 4-6 towers and parties at each tower, the dragon flying in between), it is announced dramatically (so everyone gets the concept from the start), it is central to the action (no one is forgetting about the dragon), and it lets players interact with it once it leaves their table (they can jump on it or fire at it, at the risk of failing at their table). With the second Open I tried to create a different experience, one that still made sense and which provided a combination of combat, skill, and risk-reward. I would tweak it further if given the chance. All of that is to say that I think these can be done well. I think DM David is exactly the kind of person who could come up with a cool version and submit it to an Epic author.”
I’ve grown to accept that adventures with carnival games work well as an introduction to the game. Alphastream touts another benefit. “I think carnival games can offer a lot of activity in a short time and offer something to every player. Very few things can do that.”
As for the way that using miniatures for the wrong monster sometimes confuses me, Creeper Jr wrote, “I don’t need minis to match exactly, but I find it incredibly helpful if there is some sort of rhyme and reason to it. My portable mini kit includes: 4 goblins, 4 guards, 4 archers, 2 mages, 2 knights/fighters, 2 rogues, 2 large green slaad, 2 giant spiders. Each mini has a color-coded base accent. This doesn’t take up too much room, is relatively cheap to put together, and allows us to quickly identify enemies with sort-of-thematic minis.”
Alphastream supports budding mini collectors eager to put minis on the table. “Sometimes a DM wants to buy a box of minis or two and try to use that purchase for their efforts. I get that. I still think it beats Starburst, but maybe that’s because I don’t super love Starburst. If the monsters are Belgian truffles, or Ferrero Rocher, sign me up! Here again, we can imagine we are witnessing the beautiful creation of a nascent miniature collector. They will go from this table to assemble an army of awesome minis on a bed of Dwarven Forge. It’s like seeing the future unfold before us!”
Josh rose to defend the dragon-slayer pose on page 7 of the second-edition Player’s Handbook. “I’m one of the ones who love the picture. The adventurers seem like real people, each different and interesting in his own way. The mage isn’t old. Nobody’s half dressed. The dragon’s of a size that would pose a threat to normal people and level 1’s. It’s a good level 1 accomplishment. And as for the pose, I assume there are a lot of unlisted utility spells, including one that takes the image in a caster’s mind and transfers it to paper. It’s a level 2 spell. Colored prints are level 4.”
Dave Barton summarized one aspect. “In essence, two foes who can’t see each other have an equal chance of hitting as if they could see each other. Think about that for a minute.”
This rule especially defies common sense because it grants ranged attackers just as good a chance of hitting when they can’t see their target. Sometimes D&D trades plausibility for simplicity.
Aside from the ability to hide anywhere, invisible creatures don’t get advantage to hide or any other increase to their chance of success.
Pewels asks “How would you handle light sources on a PC going invisible?”
Saphhire Crook answered, “The issue of invisible light sources crosses into that dangerous territory of ‘invisible eyeballs’, which is where invisible people cannot see because their eyes cannot receive light since it passes through them.”
Starting 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.
In 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.
“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.
Lately, I’ve played in some high-level Dungeons & Dragons games with enough invisibility to make me study how the feature works in the game. Despite all my years playing D&D—or perhaps because of them, invisibility in fifth edition often defies my expectations. I can’t be alone, so I wrote a quick guide to invisibility. At the end, I pose a brain teaser where invisibility and Mind Blank meets True Seeing.
D&D presumes that creatures can perceive the location of invisible creatures
The Player’s Handbook explains that when a creature becomes invisible, “The creature’s location can be detected by any noise it makes or any tracks it leaves.” This seems obvious, but the game design presumes more. In a Sage Advice segment, D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford suggests assuming that creatures can usually locate invisible creatures based on sound and other clues. Signs like footprints on damp stone, the squeak of floorboards, the stir of tapestries, the twang of a bow, or the snicker-snack of a sword could all expose an invisible creature. The specific clues seldom matter, but unless invisible creatures attempt to sneak, something reveals their general location.
When we dream of becoming invisible, we tend to imagine roaming undetected, but the game’s assumption better matches reality. Even with your eyes closed, you can usually track someone moving nearby.
To avoid revealing your presence while invisible, you need to be sneaky. Outside of combat, that means Dexterity (Stealth) checks. Inside combat, that means taking the Hide action.
The need for stealth to go undetected benefits game play in two ways:
Invisibility helps characters, but they still need talent and skill to evade detection. Otherwise, invisibility would just make a better replacement for stealth.
Invisible foes become a bit easier to locate, making battles against them less frustrating.
Ultimately, the dungeon master decides when or whether to adopt the premise that creatures generally know the location of invisible foes.
A DM can rule that noises or distractions allow invisible characters to go undetected without stealth. Jeremy Crawford gives the example of an invisible wizard who doesn’t bother to hide from orcs. “The DM might decide that because the barbarian is screaming in their face and the rogue lit the gunpowder barrels nearby on fire and they just exploded, the orcs are not even paying attention and they don’t know where she is.”
To escape detection, creatures must hide
If creatures notice the location of invisible creatures, how does invisibility help? Normally, to hide, you need to be out of plain sight. Invisibility enables hiding anywhere.
Hiding prevents people from hearing you or otherwise discerning your location. “If you’re dashing around, swinging your sword in combat, or yelling to your friends, you’re not hiding,” Jeremy says. “People can’t see you, but they can certainly hear you.”
When you take the Hide action, you make a Dexterity (Stealth) check in an attempt to hide. If your check exceeds the passive perception scores of those who might notice you, you become hidden from them. If something imposes disadvantage on a passive perception score, the score is at a -5 penalty.
Someone whose passive perception fails to notice a hidden creature can spend an action to actively perceive them. Then, the action allows a Wisdom (Perception) check to beat the Dexterity (Stealth) check and locate the hidden creature.
Once you have made your check, you can move without making another check or spending another action to hide. That stealth roll from your Hide action continues to apply. The design aims to avoid slowing the game with rerolls.
Obviously, talking and other activities can ruin hiding. Attacks reveal your location. “If you are hidden—both unseen and unheard—when you make an attack, you give away your location when the attack hits or misses.” This rule’s wording makes clear that even though the attack exposes you after it hits or misses, you get the advantage of attacking while hidden. The Invisibility spell uses less careful wording, but its effect still lasts until you hit or miss. Jeremy says that the spell “doesn’t predict what you’re about to do.”
Invisibility benefits attacking and defending
You can attack a hidden and invisible foe by trying to guess its location. “If the target isn’t in the location you targeted, you automatically miss, but the DM typically just says that the attack missed, not whether you guessed the target’s location correctly.”
Even though creatures typically discern the location of invisible creatures nearby, invisibility grants powerful advantages. “Attack rolls against the creature have disadvantage, and the creature’s attack rolls have advantage.”
Because advantage and disadvantage cancel, if two invisible creatures swing at each other, they attack as normal with neither advantage nor disadvantage. Invisible creatures rarely trade blows, but blinded creatures in, say, Darkness or a Fog Cloud often do, and the offsetting advantage and disadvantage leads to normal attack rolls.
Invisibility blocks many spells from targeting you
Invisibility’s strongest advantage stems out of all the spells from Acid Splash to True Polymorph that only target someone the caster can see. An invisible creature gains protection from all these spells. Plus an invisible spellcaster can’t be countered. Counterspell is cast as a reaction, “which you take when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell.”
This makes Greater Invisibility the strongest defense spell for casters.
Occasionally, going unseen hinders allies. For example, Spirit Guardians says, “When you cast this spell, you can designate any number of creatures you can see to be unaffected by it.” When clerics cast Spirit Guardians, they can’t exclude the party’s invisible members from the guardians’ harmful effects. Likewise, the evoker’s Sculpt Spell ability requires the caster to see allies to exclude them from a spell’s area, so the invisible rogue gets more chances to show off Evasion.
Invisibility versus True Seeing and Mind Blank
True Seeing is a divination spell that grants Truesight and its ability to see invisible. Mind Blank makes its target immune to divination spells. Can someone affected by True Seeing see an invisible creature affected by Mind Blank? You might argue that the divination spell only affects the person gaining Truesight, and that their new perception isn’t blinded by a creature’s immunity to divination. Or does Mind Blank somehow cloud anyone attempting a divination spell? Do you have your answer?
Jeremy Crawford says True Seeing fails to reveal an invisible creature affected by Mind Blank. But in your game, you are the dungeon master. Your answer remains correct.
Unrelated: I’m running Dungeon of the Mad Mage on Wednesdays from 7-9pm at Dean’s Dugout in Naperville, IL. Many of my regulars have moved. I invite you to drop in and join my open table, even for 1 session, because we would love to have you. Bring any tier 2, Adventurers League character for a level 8-9 party.
For my post 6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate, I aimed to air some trivial, possibly-wrong gripes in an amusing and thought-provoking post. Usually I avoid bitching in favor of a positive slant, but my earlier list of 9 Things met a good reception, so I figured a follow up would work. This time, I fumbled. While the old post targeted things in the game and landed a much funnier tone, my new post sometimes aimed at the way people play. Many people felt criticized for their style of Dungeons & Dragons. When I fostered that impression, I missed the mark, and I apologize. Play D&D in the style you love. Use Starburst, or salt shakers, or pure imagination. I love playing D&D—even at tables that feature everything I fail to appreciate. This hobby is too great for quibbles.
I asked readers to help me appreciate the things I griped about, and I meant it. The conversation led me to change my opinions on two things.
My post targeted D&D worlds that unnecessarily cast adventuring as a common profession. I wrote, “If your D&D campaign just includes a few players, why cast them as a common rabble of wandering treasure hunters? I would rather picture the player characters as heroes of legend.” But I overlooked great campaign models where the promise of fame and fortune lures characters to a megadungeon, a frontier, or a point of light that needs help against the darkness. These models start the characters as aspiring treasure hunters and let them rise above the crowd to gain wealth and renown. “I generally don’t like ‘the chosen one’ trope,” writes Andrew Bishkinskyi. “The idea that everyone made themselves is more appealing. I think the game’s tiers also reflect this—by time you’re tier 3 or 4, you are that great, known hero. But it’s a journey.” This rise to glory forms the heart of D&D and I’m humbled because I needed readers to remind me. Plus the adventurer-as-profession trope makes hooking players into adventure easier, especially in a campaign like the Adventurers League. “It’s useful when NPCs have a baseline understanding of adventuring/mercenary work,” writes Brandes Stoddard. “Basically it’s saving me the first 5 minutes of each interaction.”
As for carnival games, several readers explained that the mini games offer a good way to introduce players to the game. Instead of dropping fragile new characters into a dungeon and risking an early death, mini games introduce players to their attributes and to D&D’s core mechanics. The barbarian in the caber toss makes a Strength (Athletics) check. The elf in the archery contest makes attack rolls. And the dwarf in the drinking contest saves versus poison. Players learn the game in a fun and familiar setting. David Gibson writes, “No one wants to die because they didn’t know how to play.” The carnival scenario works particularly well with new players who invest in their characters’ stories and personalities.
Unrelated: I’m running Dungeon of the Mad Mage on Wednesdays from 7-9pm at Dean’s Dugout in Naperville, IL. Many of my regulars have moved. I invite you to drop in and join my open table, even for 1 session, because we would love to have you. Bring any tier 2, Adventurers League character for a level 8-9 party.
I’m used to having fringe tastes: I love Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy, and science fiction. These days, none of these passions rate as weird, but only because of a recent flip in popular tastes. As a teen, all these interests struck people as childish escapism. Worse, I failed to appreciate sports. Now books with dragons top the bestsellers, comic book movies get nominated for best picture, and I feel grateful for the change, but if I need a reminder of my weird tastes, I can just look at all the progressive rock in my music library. Giants may not be strange any more, but Gentle Giant still is.
Even in Dungeons & Dragons, I fail to appreciate things that normal fans like. In this post, I confess to six lapses in taste. As with my last post on this topic, this is a cry for help. Help me understand the appeal of these 6 aspects of our hobby.
1. Game worlds that unnecessarily make adventuring a common profession.
D&D’s original dungeon below the ruins of Blackmoor Castle drew so much traffic that a fairground filled with “hundreds of fabulous deals” catered to incoming adventurers. Turnstiles blocked entry into the dungeon (1 gp admission). Dave Arneson’s exhaustion with all the players insisting on dungeon crawls rather than Napoleonic naval battles drove him silly. In the Forgotten Realms, entry into Undermountain also costs 1 gp, but The Yawning Portal sells drinks rather than I-survived-the-dungeon t-shirts. As campaigns grow, adventurers start seeming common, so dungeons charged admission in the grand campaigns run by Dave and Ed Greenwood. Nowadays, so many adventurers crowd the Realms that they need a league.
The League’s version of the Realms really does teem with adventurers, but in home games I don’t understand the urge to elevate adventurer to a common profession.
If your D&D campaign just includes a few players, why cast them as a common rabble of wandering treasure hunters? I would rather picture the player characters as heroes of legend. Between all the time we spend waiting our turn and finding our place in the crowd, we play D&D to feel exceptional. Most campaign worlds only include 3-7 players—ample room for each to stand out as extraordinary. So why work to make adventuring seem common?
2. Characters with names from the modern world. I’ve played D&D with Chuck Norris, Bob Ross, Walter “Heisenberg” White, Maynard G. Krebs, and many others. No, my time as a D&D blogger hasn’t landed me in games with famous and often fictional people. At my tables, players have used these names, and often these personas, for their characters. Whenever I see a cooperative storyteller who touts the advantages of letting players help build the campaign world, I think of folks who disrespect our shared, imaginary worlds with ridiculous characters.
Still, I get the appeal. Some folks play D&D to hang with friends or to battle monsters, but pretending to be an elf feels awkward. Instead of an angel and a devil on their shoulders, these players have a class clown mocking Butrael’s elven name and a gym teacher saying, “Grow up!” So playing Burt Reynolds from Celene feels like taking a safe seat with the wise guys at the back of class. Players who adopt a modern persona for an elf in Greyhawk get to join the fun while declaring themselves too cool for the silly play acting.
The popularity of modern names and personas leaves me conflicted. Many players feel an affection for, say, Keith Richards and relish playing him as a swashbuckling pirate. I hate squelching the fun, particularly if it means dragging someone out of their comfort zone. That said, when I ruled to block real-world names from my game-store table, players thanked me.
Instead of writing a modern name atop your character sheet, just mash it into something like Bureyn. Dave and Gary’s players did it all the time.
3. Bungee monsters in multi-table adventures. Multi-table epic adventures join a ballroom full of adventuring parties together to battle for a common goal. Often these adventures assign one DM to take a monster from table to table, interrupting play to trade rounds of attacks. Like jumpers at the end of a bungee, these monsters plunge suddenly into a scene, and then snap away. Adventure authors hope these monsters unite the tables in a battle against a shared foe. Some players seem to like the surprise breaks from a session’s rhythms. High-damage characters particularly seem to enjoy vying for the highest output.
For me, the attacks just make an unwelcome interruption. These monsters’ sudden appearances typically defy explanation, so they destroy any sense of immersion. Also, the damage dealt to the bungee monster never matters; they always have just enough hit points to visit every table.
4. Adventures with carnival games. One shtick appears so frequently in organized play adventures that it must be popular. The characters visit a party, festival, or carnival where they compete against non-player characters in in a series of mini games: The dwarf enters the drinking contest, the bard tells tall tales, and the barbarian does the caber toss. For adventure writers, the device offers a simple way to let players flaunt their skills, presumably boosted by ample roleplaying. I know many people enjoy the setup, because I’ve heard players rank carnival-game adventures as favorites.
Nonetheless, I rate “carnival games” with “jumped by bandits” as easy ways to puff an adventure to fill a longer session. (At least the carnival games add variety.)
When I play D&D, I like to make game-altering decisions while (imaginary) lives hang in the balance. Competing for an (imaginary) blue ribbon feels like a disappointment. Much of the fun of roleplaying games comes from making choices and witnessing the consequences, but carnival games lack interesting options. Players only need to match the game to the characters with the best bonuses. Deciding not to enter the gnome wizard in the arm-wrestling competition hardly rates as deep strategy. Also, although adventure authors surely contrive to make the carnival shape the next encounter, I’ve never managed to pretend the mini games affect the adventure—aside from offering a route to end it and go to lunch.
5. Using miniatures for the wrong monster. I’ve become a miniature snob, and I live with it every day. During my last convention, almost every dungeon master brought miniatures. Wonderful, right? Miniatures add visual appeal to the game. Dungeon masters who cart an assortment on a flight, and then daily through the convention center show a commitment that I value.
But no DMs carried minis that matched the monsters in the adventure. Every battle started like theater during a flu epidemic. “Tonight, the role of Lareth the Beautiful will be played by a grick. The roles of the goblins go to a barmaid, a shadow demon, and a hell hound.” I could never remember what figure represented what, so the miniatures proved a distraction. I spent two turns stabbing someone’s flaming sphere. By the end of the con, I wished for numbered bottlecaps that I could keep straight and I fretted that a miniatures fan like myself could fall so far.
6. The dragon-slayer pose on page 7 of the second-edition Player’s Handbook. Many D&D fans rate this picture as a favorite, so why do I hate joy?
Most folks see the characters’ pride in slaying a baby dragon as humorous. I cringe in vicarious embarrassment at the pose. I like my dragons fierce, so the pitiful, dead one feels as sad as a pretty bird broken by an office window. And cameras don’t exist in the D&D world, so just what are these “heroes” posing for? Nobody paints that fast. See When D&D Art Put Concerned Parents Ahead of Players.
I’m running Dungeon of the Mad Mage on Wednesdays from 7-9pm at Dean’s Dugout in Naperville, IL. Many of my regulars have moved. I invite you to drop in and join my open table, even for 1 session, because we would love to have you. Bring any tier 2, Adventurers League character for a level 8-9 party. See if I’m really as cranky as this post suggests. (Hint: Not even close.)
In original Dungeons & Dragons, the three brown books only include one rule for traps. “Traps are usually sprung by a roll of a 1 or a 2 when any character passes over or by them.” That’s it. Except for the Find Traps spell, the rules never explain how characters can find traps. In D&D’s original play style, if you wanted to find pit traps, you just told your dungeon master how you pushed down on the floor ahead with your 10’ pole. Or you sent your hireling ahead first. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.
Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures
In Book III, Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gary Gygax lists a dozen tricks and traps such as slanting passages, sinking rooms, and one-way doors. All foiled a retreat from the dungeon. They threatened to make characters lose their way out, or worse, deliver them to a deeper level and more more dangerous foes. None of these traps need rules to play, just player ingenuity.
Undoubtedly, Gary had thought of other traps such as spring blades, poison needles, and warning bells, but his list conspicuously omits any traps that seem to require game-world finesse to overcome.
In the May 1974 issue of a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter, Gary Gygax presented the thief class. In his introduction, Gary tells how the class was suggested by a gamer named Gary Schweitzer (probably Santa Monica gamer Gary Switzer). “He mentioned that his group was developing a new class of character—thieves. Gary gave me a few details of how they were considering this character type, and from from these I have constructed tentative rules for the class.” In 1975, Supplement I: Greyhawk made the class official.
The thief class featured the ability to “remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)” At level 1, the thief boasts a 10% chance! So when your new thief says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” the party should dive for cover. Original thieves enjoy no special ability to detect traps. Keep your hirelings in front.
The thief’s limit to disabling “small trap devices” seems to exist as an attempt to confine thieves to working on traps that require a character’s game-world knowledge and dexterity. For example, a chest rigged to release deadly gas requires a thief’s game-world aptitude, and a die roll. Big traps like pits and rolling boulders, which can be beaten through player ingenuity, remain outside of the thief’s skills. Players can tell the DM the steps their characters take to bridge a pit or to chock the rolling-boulder trap.
In the summer of 1975, Gary brought the Tomb of Horrors to the Origins convention for a D&D tournament. One of the tournament’s players wrote a first-hand account of the event for issue 4 of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Even though the party includes two members of the new thief class, the Tomb offers virtually no place for them to disarm traps, and the Tomb [SPOILERS!] is loaded with traps. To determine when players get caught by traps, Gary fills the adventure with an ad-hoc system of saving throws, rolls of 1-2 on a d6, and verbal countdowns. (Player tip: If the DM begins to count down, run!) The Tomb’s legendary status comes from the mix of ingenuity, divination, and attrition required to bypass its memorable deathtraps, rather than the number of disarm checks needed. (DM Tip: if you run the Tomb and allow thieves to detect or disarm much, you’re doing it wrong. The Tomb of Tiresome Checks is a different adventure.) See Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain.
In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, thieves finally gained the ability to locate traps. A low-level rogue’s odds remained dismal, quickly upstaged when the priest gains Find Traps at level 3. This thief ability implied that no one else could find traps—after all, other classes lacked a Find Traps percentage. Third edition set this limitation in the rules by allowing rogues (and only rogues) to find traps “well hidden” behind a 20 or higher Search difficulty.
The rogue or thief’s limit to finding and disarming small traps remained in second edition. “These include poisoned needles, spring blades, deadly gasses, and warning bells,” but do not include “large, mechanical traps.”
In third edition, traps gained a systematic treatment, complete with triggers, effects, and difficulty classes. The Trapfinding ability enabled rogues the chance to locate and disable anything that the DM categorizes as a trap, small or large, magical or mundane. This gave rogues more chances to shine, but heightened the tension between the traps a thief can find and disable and the traps that test player ingenuity. We have all encountered players who insist that a disable trap roll will enable their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge. So does staying at home, but neither tactic leads to much fun.
When the fourth edition designers rethought D&D, they saw traps as posing two core problems:
Traps can frustrate players
Traps can slow play to tedium
Problem: Traps that challenge player ingenuity can lead to player frustration.
This problem arises when when dungeon masters limit the players to a preconceived menu of potential solutions. This approach riddles the Tomb of Horrors, which includes many predicaments that require curiously-specific recipes of spells or actions to escape.
In Traps!, fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “In the early days, DMs all too often felt compelled to demonstrate their cleverness and punish players for making ‘wrong’ choices—even a choice as simple and random as which passage to explore.” For example, Tomb of Horrors. See Player skill without player frustration.
Problem: Traps can slow play to tedium.
Regarding the problem of slow play, Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “The ‘right’ way to play the game was to slowly and laboriously search each 10-foot square of dungeon before you set foot on it, or to use magic that made traps completely pointless. Neither option was much fun.”
Radney-MacFarland never mentions that old-school traps require wandering monsters or some other time pressure to avoid grinding the game to a halt. Of course, if time pressure denied characters the chance to look for the trap that killed them, the hazard seems arbitrary and unfair. See Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.
Fourth edition gives traps a new design
Radney-MacFarland admits designers thought about “disappearing” traps from the game, but decided to try fixing them first.
The fourth-edition design sought to fix the problem of frustrated players by eliminating traps that only challenge player ingenuity. “We wanted to expand the ways in which you could counter a trap. Much like figuring out that sometimes you wanted other skills to allow a character to recognize a trap’s threat, we made an effort to design traps that could be countered with an interesting skill uses.” Skill checks became the core mechanic for resolving traps. The game invited dungeon masters to allow as many different skills as plausible so everyone could share the fun of making skill checks.
Many players prefer traps that require ingenuity to overcome, because such challenges make the players’ decisions matter in the game world. But not all players favor this play style. The fourth edition design aimed to please players who insisted that a disable trap roll enabled their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge. Still, the designers recognized that turning traps into a cause for skill checks failed to offer enough fun, so they redesign went farther.
“Most traps work best when they ‘replace’ a monster in a combat encounter, or serve as a hazard equally threatening to both sides.” In fourth edition, traps become a sort of stationary monster that the characters can disable or attack. Like monsters, traps make attacks, grant experience, and have solo and elite varieties. In this new concept, traps add spice to combat encounters, allow rogues to strut their skills, and target monsters as well as players—a new tactical element.
Radney-MacFarland writes, “Don’t fret, rogue fans. That class and other characters trained in Thievery are still the party’s best hope to shut down traps quickly and well.” But fourth-edition rogues soon learned to approach traps like everyone else, by attacking. Fourth-edition rogues inflict so much damage that a series of thievery checks always took longer than just attacking a battlefield trap.
Justifying battlefield traps
In the game world, the battlefield trap always seemed hard to justify. I pity dungeon builders stupid enough to bother enchanting, say, an automatic-crossbow trap rather than an iron defender or other construct. Unlike constructs, traps (a) cannot move, (b) can be disabled, and (c) will attack your guards as well as intruders. The dungeon builder’s henchmen, hired to fight alongside their master’s indiscriminate death machines, should look for a job at a better class of dungeon.
The fourth-edition approach to traps never proved as satisfying as hoped. As the edition evolved, we saw a gradual return to classic traps, even with all their problems.
Although complex traps revisit the good ideas from fourth edition’s battlefield traps, most fifth-edition traps recall the ones from before fourth edition. The rules offer advice for avoiding the problems with traps. “Traps are most effective when their presence comes as a surprise, not when they appear so often that the characters spend all their effort watching out for the next one.”
Just like thieves in D&D’s original game, fifth-edition rogues lack any special ability to find traps. Now, to find a trap, any character can attempt a Wisdom (Perception) check. The rules specifically allow players to find traps by looking in the right places. “You should allow a character to discover a trap without making an ability check if an action would clearly reveal the trap’s presence. For example, if a character lifts a rug that conceals a pressure plate, the character has found the trigger and no check is required.”
Depending on the trap, the best way to disarm may be a Dexterity or Strength check, but player ingenuity often works. “As with many situations, you shouldn’t allow die rolling to override clever play and good planning.” If disarming a device requires a check, the rogue’s proficiency with thieves tools can help.
When roleplaying game players have affection for the friends and allies in a campaign’s supporting cast, the game improves. Players who feel an attachment to non-player characters will strive to help and protect them. That draws players into the game world, raises an adventure’s emotional stakes, and encourages player characters to act like responsible members of their community.
How can a game master make players care about imaginary people? To help answer that question, I asked for advice. Hundreds of game masters weighed in. Many suggestions linked to research that shows how people can increase their real-world charisma. The same qualities that make imaginary people likeable can work for real people like you. Will these techniques really supercharge your sex appeal?
Yes. Trust me. I write about Dungeons & Dragons on the Internet.
How can you create likeable NPCs (and also apply the techniques to become more likeable)?
Make characters distinctive
In a roleplaying game, before characters can become likeable, they must become distinct and memorable. If characters blend into a game’s supporting cast, no one will care for them. So key characters need traits simple enough to flaunt in a roleplaying scene and quirky enough to stay memorable.
For GMs comfortable acting in character, traits might include mannerisms, speaking voices, or a phrase someone uses and reuses. Some characters might have distinct passions. Wallace adores cheese. Others might have quirky habits. Perhaps the informant at the bar cracks raw eggs in his beer.
Traits that defy expectations often prove most memorable. In D&D, the beholder Xanathar would be just another Lovecraftian horror if not for a beloved pet goldfish.
In a roleplaying game, subtle traits disappear. Broad strokes work best.
In the real world, quirks make you interesting. When you share your passions, your enthusiasm shows. All these traits make you more likeable.
Make characters flawed
Flaws often make the most likeable traits. For instance, romantic comedies always seem to make their female leads a klutz. Such movies start by casting a gorgeous actress, and if her character is good at her job, no one will empathize with Ms. Perfect. How could she be unlucky in love? So filmmakers make these characters clumsy. Meanwhile, Hugh Grant, a similarly gorgeous co-star often played characters with a certain shy hesitancy that made him relatable. Even Indiana Jones may be handsome, smart, and brave, but he panics around snakes.
Flaws make fictional characters relatable. After all, we all feel acutely aware of our own flaws.
Movie leads serve as the imaginary stand-ins for viewers, so we rarely mind if they seem better than us. In roleplaying games, our own player characters become our stand-ins, so we accept perfection. But in NPCs, we favor flawed characters.
In life, competent people who fall to everyday blunders and embarrassments become likeable thanks to something called the Pratfall Effect. We relate to flawed people too. None of this means you should purposely embarrass yourself, but when you goof, own it and take it in good humor. People will like you for it.
Make characters relatable
People like folks similar to themselves. In life, if you share an attitude, background, or interest with someone, you have the start of a friendship.
In a game, you can create NPCs who reflect bits of the players’ personalities and interests. For instance, some players inevitably love books, so NPCs who share that affection almost always make friends at the game table.
In life, you can make a good impression by finding a shared anchor that connects you to another person. You become relatable.
Relatability explains why a fondness for pets like Sylgar the goldfish makes such a likeable trait. At any game table, players who love animals will identify with such affection.
A desire for connection also explains why powerful non-player characters become disliked. These characters don’t just steal the spotlight—any hint of arrogance or request for deference shows the NPC putting themselves above the players. In the real world, a lack of humility also makes people less relatable and likeable.
While players dislike NPCs powerful enough to overshadow the party, players favor NPCs who can help. Often useful NPCs act as a source of secrets, clues, or as a guide. Perhaps a helpful NPC pilots a boat or casts a spell outside the party’s repertoire. Don’t make friendly NPCs good at any talents the players want for their characters. Those characters become rivals.
Make characters authentic and vulnerable
People love dogs and children partly because they always reveal their true emotions. In roleplaying games, the same goes for NPCs too stupid for guile.
“Because most NPCs only exist to oppose, trick, or act as disposable exposition devices,” writes Tom Lommel, “the players inherently distrust or dismiss them.” Authentic characters break that pattern, so they work particularly well in roleplaying games.
In life, likable people are authentic, says Karen Friedman, author of Shut Up and Say Something. “They are comfortable being who they are, and they don’t try to be someone different,” she says. “They are approachable and sincere even if what they have to say isn’t popular.”
Often people avoid showing their authentic selves because that makes them feel vulnerable. What if people don’t like me? Will I be judged? But people admire folks brave enough to be vulnerable.
Make characters struggle
Sometimes vulnerability comes from characters thrust into a bad situation. R. Morgan Slade and Tom Lommel both named examples: Players might witness NPCs caught in an unfair deal or by a false accusation. NPCs might struggle with a sick child, a debt, or their own vices.
We admire characters for trying more than for succeeding. Give an NPC a goal to struggle for, but out of reach.
In a 70s TV show, the tough-guy detective Kojak sucks lollipops to cut his smoking habit. This trait works on several levels: The visible habit defies his hardened image, making the quirk memorable. Sucking candy like a child makes Kojak vulnerable. His battle against smoking shows a struggle.
Make characters ask for help
When players help NPCs, a quirk of psychology called the Benjamin Franklin Effect makes the NPCs more likeable. When we do something for someone, we justify the good deed by supposing we liked the person from the start. Our rationalization makes the affection real.
In life, you can trigger the effect by asking someone for a small favor.
In a game, players do favors and even save lives. If players save an NPC’s life, they can become particularly attached. When people invest in someone, they feel connected. The investment becomes a sunk cost, and people unconsciously work to believe the reward was worth the price.
Make characters show warmth
People reveal warmth by showing concern for another person’s comfort and well-being. We appreciate warmth in others because it demonstrates a generosity that may help us, even if we just need understanding and a cool drink.
In a game, GMs can have NPCs show warmth just by offering an imaginary chair. Brian Clark suggests building an emotional bond by having NPCs sharing wine, serving a meal, or defending the party against criticism.
Everyone loves getting a compliment—if it’s authentic. People of give compliments show warmth and generosity. In life, avoid complements on outward appearance. Instead seek chances to give genuine compliments praising things people choose, or especially traits people worked for.
Compliments come from admiration, which makes a likable trait in the game world. Many GMs cite examples of players favoring NPCs who admire the player characters.
“Tell them that a little girl with a bucket helmet and a stick sword runs to the strongest character and asks if she can join the party because they are her heroes,” writes Niko Pigni. “They will love that NPC.”
In most campaigns, player characters grow into heroes. Sometimes, NPCs should treat them as celebrities.
Respect reveals a sort of admiration. Brandes Stoddard writes, “Players like and respect people who offer them respect and social legitimacy.”
Make characters entertaining
When romantic comedies feature ordinary-looking leads, they cast comedians. We like characters who entertain, especially when they make us laugh. In life, the most likable folks make jokes at their own expense or that tease folks about traits outside of their core identity.
In roleplaying games, stupid or otherwise exaggerated characters can be funny and entertaining enough to be loveable. Recently, I played in a game where a foolish goblin who fancied himself king fit this role.
I take my player characters seriously, but I often give them humorous quirks. My monk recites his master’s nonsensical aphorisms and pretends they hold great wisdom. “The stone that weeps in silence weeps best.” My sorcerer points out ordinary things like a bed, and says, “Oh, this inn has straw beds! That’s much better than where I come from. We only got a bed to hide under on our birthday.”
Make characters optimistic
Part of my affection for my sorcerer stems from his optimism. We like people who show optimism because it lifts us. Optimism brings confidence and suggests competence—all traits that foster charisma.
NPCs don’t need all these qualities to become likeable. Adding too many traits will dilute them all and waste creative energy. A few likeable qualities make a loveable character.
Author Eric Scott de Bie writes, “One of the NPCs in my current D&D game has been dubbed ‘the cutest dwarf ever.’ Not because she’s a romantic interest or anything, though the low-Charisma, half-orc bard might have plans, but because she’s cute, optimistic, and helpful. And she has a dire weasel animal companion.” This NPC checks optimistic and useful, plus she brings a pet.
Minsc from the Baldur’s Gate computer games appears on lists of gaming’s most beloved characters. As a companion, he’s useful, but he gained notice for an authentic lack of guile, optimistic enthusiasm, entertaining dialog, and for being the proud owner of Boo, a “Miniature Giant Space Hamster.”
Meepo the kobold from The Sunless Citadel surely ranks as one of D&D’s most loved NPCs. Meepo serves as his tribe’s Keeper of Dragons, but he struggles to find his missing dragon. He is distraught, making him seem authentic and vulnerable. He needs help, but also becomes useful as a guide and intermediary. In the hands of many dungeon masters, Meepo’s broken Common, exaggerated woe, and low intelligence add an entertaining comic element. No wonder Meepo became irresistible.
As for Meepo’s sex appeal, perhaps some of these traits work better in fiction. Instead, just tell folks that you’re a dungeon master. It’s a thing now.
The murderhobo stereotype sums the worst behaviors of Dungeons & Dragons player characters. Such characters roam the land, killing everything that stands in the way of treasure. They rob merchants, murder town guards trying to make an arrest, and attack women encountered in a group of three. Players of murderhobos would rather kill some imaginary characters than risk getting surprised by hags. The stereotype comes from countless campaigns where the players cared nothing about the non-player characters in a world, only about the imaginary loot their characters could gain.
When the players become fond of the game world and especially its non-player characters, D&D becomes more fun. Players who feel an attachment to characters will strive to help and protect them. That draws players into the game world, raises an adventure’s emotional stakes, and encourages players to act like responsible members of the community. Instead of robbing and killing the citizens of Orlane, the players will protect them from the looming threat of the reptile cult.
How can a dungeon master make players care about other, imaginary people? To help answer that question, I’ve gathered advice from more than 100 DMs.
First a caution: When players grow fond of characters, don’t fridge them. Fridging refers to a trope in stories where the author kills a buddy, love interest, or sidekick to provoke the main character to act. Making callous D&D players care for imaginary characters is hard. A well-liked supporting cast enriches a campaign. Don’t trade your success for sorrow, anger, and a quick hook. Such lazy manipulation just teaches players not to become attached to NPCs.
The most common advice for making players care is to trot out lots of NPCs and see who players fancy. This contains one key lesson: Watch how players react to the characters they meet. If one sparks interest, then look for ways to expand the character’s role. Fonzie and Urkel started as minor characters, but the love of TV viewers made each the star of his show. So if the players love the salty attitude of the barmaid in her walk-on role, make her the campaign’s Harper agent.
But parading characters past the players reduces the chance any will attract interest or affection. Instead, they blur together. Players need time with characters for any to gain an impression. When NPCs join a party as guide or travelling companion, they gain the best chance to build a relationship with players. See The Surprising Benefits of Giving an Adventuring Party a Guide. Most key NPCs fit better in a recurring role.
Aim for a small cast of distinctive characters who appear enough to build relationships with the players. Rather than creating a new character to deliver each session’s hook, or to reveal a new secret, look to revisit familiar characters. As for the rest of the world’s characters, not everyone needs a distinct voice, a story, or even a name. If you save such details for the interesting and important folks, you focus the players’ attention on the characters who deserve attention.
Portray NPCs a little like you would play your own character. Start with a trait that interests you or that sparks your imagination. Decide what the NPC wants, even if it’s just lunch. All NPCs rate themselves as the star of their story. While this tactic helps DMs bring NPCs to life, don’t let the mindset tempt you to treat an NPC as your proxy in the game. Players deserve the spotlight. If a DM seems like a bigger fan of an NPC than the PCs, the players will grow to dislike the NPC, and possibly the DM.
Players never like a campaign’s supporting cast to outshine their characters. If you want an NPC to become a friend rather than a rival or foe, never make them excel at something the players aspire to do well.
Look for ways to link NPCs to the player characters’ backgrounds. If a character was a sailor, perhaps their informant in the Dock Ward once crewed the same ship. Such bonds make player characters feel tied to the game world. Plus the connection might gain the NPC some extra affection from the one player tied to the NPC.
If your players enjoy creating things in the game world, you can let them invent some of the campaign’s NPCs. This technique brings advantages:
The players’ own interests can guide these creations.
Players can more easily connect NPCs to their PCs’ backgrounds.
The players’ creations automatically gain some parental affection.
To encourage players to create NPCs, DM David Nett has a house rule: In a situation where a PC might know someone able to help the party, their player can declare, “I know a guy.” The player invents the NPC, sketching the guy’s background and relationship to the PC. (This rule assumes the gender-neutral usage of “guy.”) Now the party can reach out to the new character. To determine the NPC’s reaction, the player who created the guy makes a Charisma check. David writes, “I’ve found this simple and very loose mechanic invites players to create critical NPCs and continue developing (revealing) backstory as they play.”