Archive for the ‘game design’ Category

Running a Dragon Chess Tournament

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

Last year, I ran a Dragon Chess Tournament in my D&D 5e game, and it was a lot of fun. The event was a huge tournament that attracted people and powerful monsters from across the land to compete for fabulous treasures. I created an abstract system to simulate several days of play in the tournament, culminating in an epic final match. The rules I used are below:

Dragon Chess Tournament

Premise: A Dragon Chess Tournament is being hosted in the Crystal City, an ancient Metropolis of crystal spires whose best days are behind it. Hundreds of challengers have journeyed across the lands to compete for the grand prize, a mysterious and valuable treasure.

What is Dragon Chess?

Structure of Tournament:

  • 500 GP Entry Fee
  • 8 Rounds of Swiss Pairings
  • 1 Point for a Win
  • ½ Point for a Draw
  • Only players with greater than 6 points at the end of 8 rounds proceed to the Top 8 Finals.
  • Top 8 is single elimination (with the top players paired against the bottom players)

Prize Payout:

  • 5+ Points: Roll on Individual Challenge 11-16 (pg 136)
  • 5th-8th Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 0-4
  • 3rd and 4th Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 5-10
  • 2nd Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 11-16
  • 1st Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 17+



5e Dungeon Masters Guide: The Paradoxical Economy of D&D

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

10313383_10152396043486071_5167317756165026174_nThe D&D Dungeon Masters Guide is out now, and it’s a very cool resource filled with lots of new rules for treasure, magic items, world building, new downtime activities, and optional rules! Also, my name is in the play-tester credits, so that’s pretty fun :).

Anyway, instead of doing something ridiculous, like review an entire book, I’d like to focus on one specific element I found interesting, the rules for running a business during your downtime!

The idea of running a business and making extra money during downtime is pretty appealing. It’s a great way to engage with the campaign world, a fun “simulationist” way to make money, and it opens up some cool adventure hooks for the DM. For example, maybe some mysterious cloaked figures show up at your Inn, clearly wounded and seeking shelter for the night, OR maybe a group of bumbling first level adventures meet up for the first time, planning a raid on a dragon lair that will surely result in their deaths!

However, running a business is a tricky mechanic to get right. You probably don’t want it to be TOO profitable, or else your PCs will be scratching their heads, wondering why they ever go on adventures. Conversely, if it doesn’t really make you any money, why even bother? Sure, running an Inn sounds cool, but if it’s not profitable, maybe you’re better off spending your character’s time elsewhere.

The folks at Wizards of the Coast gave running a business a decent shot that may work for casual play, but unfortunately it suffers from a few serious flaws when you dig into it:

  • Running a big business is less profitable than running a small business: If you look at the table for running a business, you’ll see that lower results penalize you by forcing you to pay some percentage of your upkeep every day you spent running a business. Your upkeep can range from 5SP a day for a farm to 10GP a day for a trading post. That makes sense. If your business does poorly, you still have to pay your workers and keep your property in shape. What is pretty counter-intuitive, however, is that if you roll higher on the table, you roll a set amount of dice to determine your profit. This profit is in the same range no matter the size of your business. So a small farm makes the same profit as a large inn, but since the large inn has an upkeep that is 20 times larger, you’ll end up making a lot less money overall since it will hurt a lot more when you roll poorly and need to pay that upkeep. (more…)

plundering Dragonlance: odd dialogue

Friday, October 4th, 2013
This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series dragonlance

“No, Tas.” [Tanis] grabbed hold of the kender and dragged him back down the ladder. “The fighters go first- Sturm and Caramon. Then the rest.”

Reading Dragons of Autumn Twilight, I’m finding a lot of inspiring ideas, and also a lot of “what not to do”s. In the latter column is this passage, which has characters use the class name “fighters”. This shows an odd knowledge of game mechanics from within the fiction. Sure, “fighter” is kind of a generic term, and maybe it’s not being used game mechanically. But we all know that it is.

The other odd thing is that it’s being used wrong. If you take a look at the character sheets printed in the Dragons of Despair module, you’ll find that Sturm, Caramon, Tanis and Flint are all fighters.

I can see Tanis forgetting to put himself on the list: you always forget to count yourself. But what possible reason is there to exclude Flint? More unconscious dwarf racism, is what it is.

“Powerfully built, he was dressed in the black robes of a cleric of the Queen of Darkness. A black and gold cape fluttered around him. His face was hidden by a hideous horned mask fashioned in black and gold to resemble the” [etc etc]

This overwritten passage is actually from dialogue. An elf is telling a story about a cleric he saw.

This is not a natural way to tell a story. For humans, anyway. From this passage, I infer that the characteristic of Dragonlance elves is that they overuse adjectives in conversation. If I ever play in a Dragonlance game, I’ll try to work that in.

For the record, Dragonlance elves are also liars:

[To Tika:] “We will provide what we can,” Gilthanas said, “though I doubt if we have a full set of armor small enough.”

Gilthanas took the helm and shield from the elf. “I have yet to thank you for saving my life in the Inn,” he said to Tika. “Accept these. They are my mother’s ceremonial armor, dating back to the time of the Kinslayer wars. These would have gone to my sister…”

In Passage 1, Gilthanas (an elf) is claiming that he doesn’t have any armor small enough for Tika (a female human).

In passage 2, Gilthanas apparently HAS some armor that would fit Tika.

Putting aside his convenient selective memory, how is Tika too small for any elf armor? There are clearly female warriors among the elves. Female humans are smaller than female elves? Or is Tika a midget? She can’t be, because we all know that in the world of Dragonlance, short people are comic relief (Flint, Tasslehoff, gully dwarves).

There’s only one possibility. We already know that Dragonlance elves love adjectives. Now we also know that male elves alternately lie and tell the truth, and that female elves are big and burly. Now we’re getting closer to a setting that I’d play!

unnamed Gygax and Grubb campaign setting

Monday, May 20th, 2013

This week, two exciting, unpublished TSR settings collided in my head to form a third setting.

setting 1: Jeff Grubb project

On the latest WOTC D&D podcast, Steve Winter talked about the great campaign-world books that came out of Second Edition D&D. He said that, for every kick-ass setting like Planescape or Al’Quadim, they had a bunch of ideas just as good – they just didn’t have time to print them all. Prompted, he described one of the settings that he’d never forgotten:

There’s one that always comes to mind: it was proposed by Jeff Grubb, and I forget what the name of it was, but the idea was, it was a world where there were all these mountain ranges, and all of civilization – the good part of civilization – has been driven up to the tops of these mountains, and then there’s a tremendously thick cloud layer, so wherever the sun shines is where good exists. Everything beneath the cloud layer has been overrun by evil. There are cloud ships that sail out from these mountain-top cities across the clouds, and the adventurers rappel down to the world where they go raiding the ruined cities that used to be down there, looking for gold, metal, and all the kinds of things that they don’t have in these mountaintop cities.

As Steve Winter says, that idea isn’t quite as fresh as it was in the late 80s (he’s seen elements in anime, and it reminds me of Final Fantasy) but I think it’s still an evocative and inspiring world. I’m ready to play it! But, since all we have is a podcast sound bite and not a campaign book, I’m left with a lot of questions: exactly what kind of evil lurks in the cloudy lowlands? What does the wilderness look like?

setting 2: “The Original D&D Setting”

Here’s the other great setting I read this week: The Original D&D Setting, a series of blog posts by Wayne Rossi. This teases out the weirdness that you get if you take the original OD&D books and play its assumptions to the hilt. Griffin-riding Arthurian knights wait inside sinister castles, swamps crawl with dinosaurs, there are Martian creatures in the desert, and undead shamble through cities.

Wayne Rossi provides a “campaign map” of this strange wild land: James Mishler’s version of the Outdoor Survival map that Gygax used for his wilderness adventures. When I took a close look at it, I noticed that three areas had little snow-capped peaks – presumably impassable. That’s when the Steve Winter idea crash-landed into the setting. What if those white-capped peaks aren’t covered with snow, but shining with sunlight? What if they’re the only safe places in the setting, and the PCs descend from the mountains to explore the misty lands of Wilderness Survival?

A couple of nice things happen when we combine these settings:

getting lost

Getting lost is a big deal in Wilderness Survival, and in the OD&D exploration rules. If you roll badly, you can end up wandering north when you think you’re going south. I’ve always wondered how getting lost by 180 degrees can happen on a sunny day, when you always know which ways East and West are. But suddenly, in this setting, it’s possible! Beneath the cloud cover, you can’t see the sun or the stars, and navigation is much harder than it is in a traditional outdoor adventure.


Even if you’ve played a campaign on the classic Wilderness Survival map before, this setting inverts it. Usually, peaks are impassable and towns are your home base. Now, peaks are safe in a way that no valley village is. Cities will be places of horror: mockeries of safety.

In OD&D, in a city encounter, 50% of the time you roll on the “men” subtable and 50% of the time you roll on the “undead” subtable. Even in straight OD&D, there are way more undead in cities than we’re used to from later adventure settings. It really makes sense in this below-the-clouds horror setting, where, as Steve Winter says, the ruined cities are the primary dungeons. Since it’s always cloudy, you’re never safe from sun-fearing undead like vampires. Maybe the cities are filled with vampire lords who keep humans (the “men” encounters) as their cattle; maybe anyone who dies down here becomes undead, so cities are amoung the most dangerous places in the world; maybe the cities are straight-up dungeons ruled by necromancers and evil high priests (who together form 1/6 of the encounters on the “men” subtable).

Wayne points out that the arrangement of the cities is odd: there are five in a cross in the middle of the map, and the central one is in the forest. If we’re saying that ruined cities are the main dungeons of the settings, the central one, overgrown by eerie forest, is probably the scariest and most dangerous dungeon.


Most OD&D castle encounters, with wizards and clerics who enslave you and high-level fighters who challenge you, fit squarely into Steve Winter’s description of the wilderness as “overrun by evil.” While cities are the megadungeons of the settings, castles might be the bite-sized minidungeons that the players can try to clear in a single adventure.

Wayne Rossi makes the point that, according to the number of castles on the Wilderness Survival map and the castle-inhabitant charts, you’d expect three of the castles to be controlled by good clerics. I have my eye on the three castles in the mountain pass near the largest mountain peak area.

Wayne suggests that these good clerics are all part of one holy order dedicated to recapturing the land from evil. This makes sense to me. We can say that, while the surface of the world is nearly overrun with evil, there is one little area where a holy order has a foothold. This is the likely starting point of the PCs’ adventures: these castles control the only safe way to ascend to the mountain peaks. From the southernmost castle, it’s only 4 hexes to the closest city. That will undoubtedly be the first dungeon that the PCs tackle.


OK, there’s something I haven’t figured out. According to OD&D, rivers are just swarming with buccaneers and pirates. Who are they preying on? Each other?

Steve Winter said that cloud ships travel from mountain peak to mountain peak. Maybe the buccaneers and pirates are based on the river, but their ships can ascend to the clouds to attack cloud shipping. Maybe the pirates even have flying submarines.

That said, if pirates can fly, why do they spend so much time on the river? Maybe someone can solve this for me.

Another thing: there are a lot of flying monsters in the original OD&D encounter tables – dragons, griffins, chimerae. Can they threaten the mountain settlements and cloud ships, or are they confined to the lowlands?

This week I’ll try to delve more into the implications of this setting.

why you want Domains at War

Friday, May 17th, 2013

There’s about a day left in Autarch’s Adventurer Conqueror King: Domains at War kickstarter. I was lucky enough to get a Domains at War war-game playtest with Tavis Allison. It’s very impressive for the same reason Adventurer Conqueror King is impressive: it marries simple D&D mechanics with rock-solid behind-the-scenes mathematical rigor. That may not sound like much, but that combination is a rock on which many RPG-design ships have foundered. I still can’t believe that ACKS has pulled it off, and I keep peeking behind the curtain, only to find that the system is even more solid than I expect.

Let me tell you two stories: the first is why you should have ACKS on your bookshelf, and the second is why you should back Domains at War right now.

Ask Adventurer Conqueror King: How many knights per square mile?

Right now I’m reading Charles Oman’s A History of the Art of War, a giant volume that, according to Jon Peterson, was a primary text for Gary Gygax’s Chainmail. I’m reading a chapter chock full of the meaty medieval economic information I love:

We have seen that “knight-service” and “castle-ward” were ideas not altogether unfamiliar before the Conquest, and that the obligation of every five hides of land to send a mailed warrior to the host was generally acknowledged […] A landholder, knowing his servitium according to the assessment of the vetus feoffamentum of the Conqueror, had to provide the due amount of knights. This he could do, in two ways: he might distribute the bulk of his estate in lots roughly averaging five hides to sub-tenants, who would discharge the knight-service for him, or he might keep about him a household of domestic knights, like the housecarles of old, and maintain them without giving them land. Some landholders preferred the former plan, but some adhered, at least for a time, to the latter. But generally an intermediate arrangement prevailed: the tenant-in-chief gave out most of his soil to knights whom he enfeoffed on five-hide patches, but kept the balance in dominio as his private demesne, contributing to the king for the ground so retained the personal service of himself, his sons, and his immediate domestic retainers.

OK, this seems pretty clear: each knight needs five hides of land to support him. Problem is, what’s a hide? Apparently, it’s an extremely variable amount: the land needed to support one farming family. Its area is most often given in old texts as 120 acres.

Given this information, I extrapolated two useful pieces of information: how many families can be supported by a square mile of farmland, and how many knights defend it? (Stuff like this can be very useful for D&D worldbuilding, whether you need to know, for instance, the size of a country’s army or, conversely, the size of the country needed to support the army you want to use.) According to my initial calculations, a square mile of farmland, 640 acres, contained about 5 hides: about 5 farming families and one knight.

I thought I’d compare this to ACKS. I discovered that each hex of civilized land contains, according to ACKS, about 4x as many peasant families as I expected. I had a feeling that Autarch hadn’t missed a trick here. I emailed Tavis and Alex to see if they could unravel this riddle for me. Alex responded:

It’s quite confusing because a hide is not a fixed area of land. It’s 60-120 acres, but the acres in question are “old acres”. ACKS uses “modern acres”. A hide is about 30 modern acres. See […] Now, 1 6-mile hex is about 32 square miles, which is 20,480 acres, which translates into 682 peasant families. At sufficient densities I assume a surplus that includes non-farming craftsmen, so we end up with the cap of 750 families per 6-mile hex in ACKS.

In any event, 5 hides supports 5 families in ACKS. Each peasant family generates on average 12gp per month in revenue for their lord. 5 x 12 gp = 60gp. The monthly cost for a knight is 60gp (see Mercenary Wages, Heavy Cavalry). So each 5 hides can support 1 knight, as per The Art of War in the Middle Ages.

Mystery solved! My estimate for peasants per mile was off by a factor of 4 because the area of an acre had increased 4x! Furthermore, I was delighted to see that five families exactly supported one knight, as Oman suggested.

That’s one of the big selling points of ACKS for me. I like to do historical research and tweak my game accordingly, but if I want to double-check my answers, having ACKS on my shelf makes things easier. And if I consistently fall back on its prices, domain rules, end economic model, I’ll end up with something more plausible than what I could cobble together on my own.

Domains at War: Richard and Saladin

A few nights ago I went over to Tavis’s house for a playtest of the Domains at War system. I hadn’t read the rules, but I was deep in Oman’s descriptions of the major battles of the Crusades, and I’ve read a lot about medieval tactics. I figured that my ignorance of the Domains at War rules was actually a boon for the playtest. If I could command an army using only the tactics described in historical battles, and get plausible results, without knowing rules, that would be a win for the system.

On the train ride over, I’d been reading about the battle of Arsouf between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. I think Tavis had some other playtest planned, but after I enthusiastically recounted the battle, he said, “That sounds fun: let’s play that.” Oman gives a rather detailed troop breakdown of both sides, including the generals in charge of various divisions of the Crusaders. D@W includes rules for subcommanders, each with their own initiative and attributes, so the wings of my army were led by their historical commanders: King Richard at the center, King Guy of Jerusalem in the rear, and the Duke of Burgundy in the van. I put the Bishop of Bauvais, a cleric, at the head of the small band of heavily-armed Templars at the fore. Although D@W includes rules for battlefield heroics by PCs, King Richard and Saladin never met for a decisive D&D-encounter showdown.

The Battle of Arsouf is exceptional because the Crusaders, for once, held their ground and stuck to their game plan instead of charging disastrously into traps set by Saladin’s more mobile cavalry. I set myself the same challenge: could I maintain discipline and resist the temptation to charge Tavis’s skirmishers?


After a few turns of being peppered by arrows, I deviated from King Richard’s strategy. I saw an opportunity to send my cavalry into the flank of Saladin’s wheeling cavalry. It was worth it to see how beautifully my rolling cavalry charge checked Tavis’s advance and sent a few of his units fleeing for the woods.

After a few turns of opposed cavalry charges and countercharges, I was rolling up Tavis’s left wing while my own left wing was close to routing. We’d each taken a lot of casualties. Tavis needed to kill only one more of my units to force a potentially game-ending morale check; I needed two. And in real life, it was well after midnight. We played one more turn. On my left wing, Saladin concentrated his forces on one of King Guy’s cavalry units, trying to force it to flee, but it held. Meanwhile, on my right wing, I chased down and defeated one of Saladin’s light cavalry units, and sent a thundering charge into a second, but, bad luck for me, it made its morale check. Night fell on the battlefield, ending the battle inconclusively after a tense final turn. I got home around 3 AM on a work night – the sign of a good game.

As the game went on, I found myself trusting the rules more and more. If I had just role-played the part of King Richard, I think the game system would have given me the victory. In fact, I role-played the part of an undisciplined, impetuous Crusader cavalier, and, as they so frequently did, I nearly turned victory into defeat. Maybe Tavis will give me a rematch sometime. This time I’ll stick to the plan.

Warriors of Synnibarr by Gary Gygax

Thursday, April 11th, 2013
This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

Raven McCracken’s Synnibarr RPG takes a lot of criticism for – well, for a lot of valid reasons; but one of its poorer mechanics is this:

If “Fate” (the GM) doesn’t know how likely the players are to succeed at something, he should roll a d100. The result is the players’ chances of succeeding. A second roll is then made. If the second roll is LESS than the first roll, the players succeed.

It – almost – seems plausible until you think about it, right? But rolling a random difficulty threshold, and then rolling the same die against that threshold, is really always a 50% shot. You might as well play an RPG where you flip a coin every time anyone tries to do anything.

As this review of Synnibarr says:

“Fate [the GM] then makes a percentile die roll to determine whether the empty ship will be safe or not. The first roll is a 33. This indicates there is only a 33% chance of the boat remaining safe. Fate then rolls again. The resulting roll of 40 indicates that their ship won’t be there upon return. How and when the ship is lost is up to Fate.”

This is the stupidest thing that I’ve ever seen done within a role-playing game. Besides removing a potentially useful element from the adventure, it removes control from the GM and puts it into a pair of dice rolls; and they’re both entirely random. You could roll a 95% chance of being safe or a 5% chance of being safe, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s nobody at the switch; just a series of random encounters determined by blind idiot luck. It’s like Azathoth designed a role-playing game.

Agreed? Bad mechanic? Now check out these rules:

Missile Fire Procedure:
The firing player rolls two [d6] dice in sequence: The first is the number he must match or beat in order to score a hit, and it is modified by his status, weapon, the range, and so on. If the modified number is not matched or exceeded by the score of the second die the missile failed to hit its target.

This is from Warriors of Mars by Gygax and Blume, 1974. (I’ve also seen the same rule in a fairly recent edition of Pendragon.)

To be fair, one of the Warriors of Mars die rolls is modified by various factors. That doesn’t really change the issue, though. Rolling up a random target number on a d6 is no different than setting the target number to 3.5.

Warriors of Mars is from the very dawn of roleplaying, and Gygax would go on to create much better subsystems than this (and a few worse ones). Still, if you’re a rules hacker at all, it might be comforting to see that every RPG developer starts at level 1.

how’s this for d&d timekeeping: it’s always now!

Monday, January 28th, 2013

I’m a logistics-light DM, so I never tracked time. Before the endless 5e playtest, back when I occasionally ran actual campaigns, I’d sometimes have the game weather match the real weather, and that was about it. I think that’s how a lot of DMs play, and I actually think it’s not a bad system.

I have some ideas for pushing this non-system a little farther. Some of the ideas are sillier than others. I’m not sure if I’d always want to play this way, but it’s worth an experiment – next time I run a campaign.

What year and month is it in D&D? It’s always now. For instance, in real life, it’s January ’13. If I started a D&D adventure right now, it’d be set in January ’13. Maybe not 2013, but the thirteenth year in some century.

What century is it? That’s determined by the edition you’re playing. If you’re playing Fourth Edition, it’s January 413 – the thirteenth year of the Fourth Age. If you play First Edition, it’s the year 113. In OD&D, it’s plain old Year 13. This calendar system will work for the next eighty-seven real years, by which time we’ll all be dead.

Tweaks: If you play 3.5, maybe it’s the year 363: 350 + 13. Pathfinder game: 375 + 13. If you’re playing 13th Age, it’s the year 1313. Auspicious!

How time passes: Generally, the fantasy-world date keeps up with the real date. If two weeks pass between game sessions, two weeks pass in the game world. Exceptions: a single day’s adventure might take multiple sessions, or the players might take a five-day boat trip during a session. In this case, fantasy and real time get out of sync. However, between sessions, the fantasy date advances to the current date.

the four-hour work week
Reading 2e books, I discovered that the “adventure” and the game session used to be virtually synonymous. Nowadays, we think of session-based mechanics as strictly indie-game territory. Interestingly, in the “it’s always now” system, you can tie renewable resources to the session. If you play in a weekly D&D game, you can have hit points and spells fully recharge every in-game week. Thus, you can’t rest and recharge multiple times in a single game session. The five-minute workday is gone.

Sometimes, beat-up characters do need rest. I’d say that the players can always rest overnight during the course of a game session, recovering most of their hit points and a few spells. Complete rest, though, requires a week of off-time – for the players AND characters.

Another obstacle to the “it’s always now” method is that you can’t easily hand-wave two weeks of travel. You’ll want to adjust your hex-crawl parameters so that a week of wilderness travel frequently takes at least a session.

A bonus of using today’s date: My DMing practice is that, when the PCs enter a village and ask what’s going on, there’s equal chances of 1) business as usual, 2) supernatural crisis, or 3) a festival. Using the real date helps you schedule real-holiday-appropriate festivals (and supernatural crises, for Halloween). Festivals offer lots of opportunities for silly competitions and quests. I’ve had PCs win ice-sculpture contests at the Ice Festival, compete in pumpkin-throwing and pie-eating contests at the Pumpkin Fair, and look for lost May Queens at the spring holiday.

Another bonus: you can use the real world as your weather generator. If your players come in tracking snow on your floor, you can throw a blizzard into the adventure. Note: This doesn’t work for people who live in California. Those characters, like their players, live in a typical D&D campaign: an unrealistically clement fairyland.

At what level do these game elements become irrelevant?

Monday, January 14th, 2013

The following chart shows the character level when certain game elements (encumbrance, overland travel, light sources, keys, death, food, nonmagic equipment, camping) can be ignored by most D&D parties. I’ve charted 1e AD&D, 3.5, and 4e, because I don’t have 2e, and because 2e is usually pretty similar to 1e.

(Click to enlarge)

Note on encumbrance: I don’t know when 1e parties typically get Bags of Holding, but it’s probably before level 9. 3e parties, on the other hand, may not all buy Handy Haversacks at level 3, although they can afford to.

Note on overland travel: Would you trust the unreliable 1e Teleport for your overland travel, or wait for Teleport Without Error? How about the more forgiving 3e Teleport? I decided that 3e Teleport’s mild risks were more acceptable than those of 1e Teleport, which always carried at least 1% chance of instant death.

Note on light sources: Torches and Light spells are always available at level 1: the level given is the level at which no one in the party need hold a torch or lantern.

Note on keys: 1e Knock can open locks at level 3; the level given for each edition, though, is the level at which the party can deal with an arbitrarily large number of locks in one day.

Finally: Yes, I know that the real level that everything becomes irrelevant is “when the DM says it does.” If your DM doesn’t track encumbrance, it’s never relevant. If your DM wants your 20th level characters to be too poor to buy plate armor, that can happen. This chart is intended to mark the level at which the game designers think a subsystem is no longer the focus of the game.

Let me know if I missed any reliable ways to ignore a subsystem earlier than the level I specified: and help me fill in 2e information.

what constitutes an “adventure?”

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Earlier editions frequently make references to the “adventure” as if it were a discrete unit of some sort. I’ve never known exactly what it is. Is it, like, one game module? One game session? One game day?

Here’s an interesting passage from the 2e DMG, in which “adventure” seems to be used as a synonym for “game session”:

Most passing time occurs within a single adventure: Spells rarely carry over from adventure to adventure (unless the session is stopped with the characters lost in winding caverns or the like); rounds of combat, while taking several game minutes, don’t affect or spill over into subsequent adventures; days of travel often have no effect other than healing and the consumption of supplies.

If the DM wants, this is the only sort of timekeeping required. Time passed in previous adventures has little or no effect on the current session–each session or adventure is distinct and separate. For example, in one adventure, the characters spend a few hours in the dungeon, get injured, have some success, and return wounded. The night’s game session ends with them returning to their home base. Next game session, the DM announces, “A week or so has passed since you last went out. Everybody is healed and rested. People with spells can pick new ones.” The DM has chosen not to worry about the passage of time in this instance. An entire campaign can be played this way. Here’s another example: In one adventure, a group of characters travels for three weeks and has several encounters, ending camped outside some ruins. The next session starts after the characters have camped for five days, so they can heal their wounds. Several hours pass as they explore the ruins, but no one is particularly hurt when they return to camp, and the game session ends.

The next session starts the morning after their previous adventure, everyone having gotten a good rest. The characters set out again. They spend a week on the road and arrive at a village. Here, the mage insists everyone wait while he researches a vital spell. Again, the game session ends. The next session begins two months later, after the mage has learned his spell and continues from there.

It’s difficult to read “adventure” as anything other than a synonym for “session” in here. If it did, a “session stopped with the characters lost in winding caverns” would not, as it does, constitute two adventures. Also, constructions like “In one adventure… Next game session…” suggest that there is no distinction in the authors’ minds between the concepts.

And what do you make of this advice from the D&D Companion set?

After reaching “Name” level, characters should gain a new level for each 3 to 8 adventures. More adventures can cause player frustration; fewer adventures can make the game too easy, and eventually bore them. If you play twice or more each week, 6 to 8 adventures per level gained is recommended. If your games are once a week or less often, 3 to 5 adventures per level are recommended.

Again, “adventure” here may well be a synonym for “game session”. If not, what’s the relevance of the number of times you play per week? If it doesn’t mean game session, what does it mean? One castle? One dungeon? One module?

On the other hand, “adventure” is sometimes used as a synonym for “module”. The D&D Expert set says, for instance, that “The Isle of Dread is a wilderness adventure designed for use with the D&D Expert rules.” There’s no way that the Isle of Dread is meant to be played in one session. And there’s no way that characters are meant to play through 3 to 8 giant modules like Isle of Dread in order to gain one level.

Is “adventure” one of those words like “level” with a lot of meanings?

I have a feeling that “adventure” usually means something vague: not exactly “game session”, but maybe “the amount of exploration that the DM thinks will take approximately one game session”. But I’m interested in what you guys think. Is there some old-school assumption about this word’s meaning that never made it into a rule book?

Lots of games have explicit game-session mechanics. Savage Worlds give you so many bennies per game session, for instance. Many D&D fans reject the idea of something that artificial as an explicit rules element. However, it seems to me that the game session has been baked into D&D since at least the 80s.

The funny thing is that 5e developers say that they’re thinking of returning to the “adventure” as an explicit challenge-balancing mechanism. If you take them literally, that sounds like a return to the game session as as a game mechanic.

Holiday D&D Next Playtest Feedback

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

The newest version or the D&D Playtest came out a couple weeks ago with many an exciting change! I thought about doing a disgusting Christmas theme and making a list of “naughty” and “nice” features of the new playtest, but my sense of decency prevailed. The good and bad highlights below:


Fighters, Rogues, and Monks have the same hit progressions, martial damage dice, and bonus damage: Frankly, as far as class features go, these are all pretty barebones and basic, so I am perfectly happy to see these qualities shared by each class. It goes a LONG ways towards balancing them in combat relative to each other, and there is still a lot of room to distinguish them from each other with maneuvers and other abilities.

Skill Dice: These introduce more variance to skill checks, which I tend to prefer, as it evens the playing field between disparate opponents and makes success or failure more uncertain at various difficulty levels (the uncertainty, of course, being why you roll the dice to begin with). Skill dice also address some potential concerns with the rogue. Rerolling skill dice is a nice ability but less powerful than rerolling a d20. Also, spending skill dice provides the rogue with more flexibility in using skills without giving them yet another advantage in the basic success/failure mechanic.

-Rogue Schemes: The alternative options for sneak attack are surprisingly viable, considering how big a part of the class that ability has been in previous editions. Also, requiring the rogue to give up advantage to use sneak attack or assassinate helps balance those abilities and make using them an interesting choice.


Feats: A number of feats seem poorly balanced. Two-Weapon Strike and Riposte both seem a bit too powerful, unless I am missing something important. With regards to TWS, guaranteed advantage is tough to pass up, especially for a rogue with sneak attack, and it doesn’t appear to have many downsides (d8 damage die compared to a d12?). Riposte seems like a no-brainer for any tank types, adding to their damage and increasing their chances of using their martial damage dice considerably. Of course, some feats are plain-out underpowered. Weapon focus, for example, adds a mere 1/6 damage per martial damage die!

Cleric hit progression, martial damage dice, and bonus damage: These max out at +2, 4d6, and +5 by level 20, which is considerably less than HALF the bonuses of the fighter, rogue, and monk (+5, 6d6, +20). Now with Divine Power, clerics do improve noticeably to +6, 4d6, +9, but that is still 18 damage behind the other classes. I think the expenditure of a mid to high level spell (depending on what level you are) should even the ground a bit more (or clerics should just be more effective to begin with). The bottom line is that WotC needs to determine if clerics should be capable of being relatively effective melee combatants or not; their current state feels like they are making a promise about the class that they can’t deliver on.

Spell Damage + Effects: Spells still seem a bit underwhelming compared to fighter/rogue/monk damage output. Let’s use a really simple example: a level one fighter with a two-handed sword can do about 13 damage when they hit with their Greatsword (1d12+3+1d6). Rogues and monks are a little lower at 11 (1d8+3+1d6). A wizard, in contrast, does only 5.5 damage + a minor effect with their Cantrip, which is a lot to lag behind; I’d be much more comfortable with them adding their ability mod to cantrip damage to keep up a bit. 1st level spells are similarly lacking: Burning Hands does about 10.5 damage (3d6), with a save for half. With the potential to hit multiple targets and reliably do damage even on a miss, this is certainly better than a normal hit. If a wizard could do this sort of thing at-will, I might say they were a bit overpowered, but with a limit of twice a day I am not impressed. Things don’t appear to change much at higher levels, with a 9th level fireball doing about 42 damage (12d6) versus the 51.5 damage (1d12+4+6d6+20) of the same fighter at level 20. Mike Mearls made a comment that he thought each class should look totally awesome when they do what they are best at; the wizard should wish he was the fighter when he chops enemies in half round after round, but then the fighter should look enviously at the wizard when he blows a ton of enemies apart with a well placed fireball. I’m just not convinced we’re there yet.