1e to 4e: Bringing wandering monsters back into D&D

Random monster encounters played an important role in character advancement in early editions of D&D and in many video RPGs, as this assortment of random monsters for Nintendo’s Dragon Warrior game illustrates. Image copyright strategywiki.org.

While perusing some old .pdfs of legacy edition Dungeons & Dragons modules, I was struck by how common random monster encounter tables were in the old adventures, and was reminded of the prominence of random encounters in the rules themselves. The first edition (1e) Dungeon Master’s Guide had an entire appendix devoted to such encounters, and the 1e Monster Manual II included an index that grouped creatures from three monster volumes by terrain and encounter frequency, to make generating one’s own encounter tables easier.

I was also struck by how such tables are absent in every fourth edition (4e) product I’ve thus far seen.

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When historical accuracy makes for better fantasy

Containing the exhumed bones of about six million dead behind walls constructed from human remains, the Catacombs of Paris is perhaps the largest example of historic charnel hosues. It also provides inspiration for a perfect necromancer lair for any fantasy RPG. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Dungeons & Dragons game is that players don’t need advanced degrees in history in order to have a playable fantasy. In fact, not being historically accurate (at least about the historical Medieval society most D&D campaigns mimic) can sometimes be an advantage, as fantasy gaming is less about how things were as how players think they were (for more about managing player expectations, consider reading this post). Just as truth is often stranger than fiction, though, there are times when accurate history can lead to better fantasy; one such situation involves how Medieval and Renaissance societies disposed of their dead.While reading a section about the development of modern cemeteries in Harold Schechter’s The Whole Death Catalog, it dawned on me that many of my homebrew adventure settings – and a surprisingly large number of published RPG settings – were historically inaccurate about graveyards in ways that could result in missed opportunities for creating unsettling, and therefore memorable, settings for D&D encounters.

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Describing zombies: a dungeon master’s reference

With a little bit of effort, a DM can make far more disturbing zombies than this. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Author’s note: if you are having a meal or snacking at your keyboard or smart phone as you read this, you may want to finish eating before proceeding. This post describes the natural decay of human remains in a rather graphic manner, which could affect a reader’s appetite.

Zombies are a staple of most fantasy and horror role-playing games, and have become so common in films and comic books that little effort is required on the part of a Dungeons & Dragons player to imagine what a zombie looks or acts like. It is so easy to imagine zombies, in fact, that many dungeon masters don’t devote much effort toward describing them, since players can mentally fill in the necessary level of detail for purposes of play.

Assuming that is true, why would a DM make a point of describing zombies more vividly? The answer is that doing so can make an ordinary zombie encounter more dramatic and memorable, even if the monsters used in every zombie encounter are mechanically identical.

Of course, providing more detail as a means of improving the play experience is nothing new. This blog has posted on the topic of improving read-aloud text for that express purpose. But, as few of us have extensive experience with human corpses, what details should a DM add?

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On ‘What to do about the Orc Children’

This post initially started as a comment to this post on Hack & Slash, regarding what to do with the noncombatant offspring of evil humanoids, but it grew too lengthy to be a comment, so it is presented as a post here. It was a rather short post, but the comment discussion that follows really develops the topic well, and is one of the best examples of reader/blogger interaction I’ve seen.

The post outlines an adventuring party’s typical responses to captured enemy noncombatants based on character alignment, as quoted below:

What to do with the Orc Children?

  • Lawful Good: Kill Them!
  • Neutral Good: *Hangs head*, kill them!
  • Chaotic Good: Kill them!
  • Chaotic Neutral: Uh, maybe we shou-nahh Kill ’em!
  • True Neutral: Look at what you did to my garden! DIE!
  • Lawful Neutral: Eliminate them!
  • Lawful Evil: ENSLAVE THEM!
  • Neutral Evil: Run free to die in the wild!
  • Chaotic Evil: KILL THEM!

Players coming to the hobby more recently may not remember it, but monster lairs in 1e modules were frequently populated with plenty of noncombatants, with no real notes about what to do with them after the heroes dispatched the monsters who could fight back. Strangely, the practice seemed to disappear in modules of all subsequent versions of the game.

Taken in the spirit I believe it was offered, some of the original post was funny – especially the neutral’s take about what happened to his garden (since the 1e rules specified that Druids were the only true neutrals). It was funny, not because I think slaying the helpless is humorous, but because those responses rang true with virtually every 1e Dungeons & Dragons game I played in, mastered or even observed; it was funny in the same way a political cartoon can be funny. While it is important to note that my being in my early teenage years at the time may have influenced my views on the topic during the 1e days, I totally understand the place from which the post’s author is speaking.

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Reverse engineering: using 4e adventure design techniques to create a 1e scenario

Author’s note: this is not an edition wars post. Trolls seeking to espouse one edition over another are invited to excrete their comments elsewhere, as they will be summarily deleted here.

While working on a future post, I had occasion to reference the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. The book had been undisturbed on the shelf for a very long time.

As it turned out, I spent far longer perusing the book than necessary. I stopped at most of the tables, at virtually every line art drawing, and at frequently referenced passages and monster statistics that, even after not touching 1e for the better part of 10 years, I could still recite from memory.

While I still play 4e when those rare playing opportunities arise – and 4e remains my system of choice, as it appeals to my inner wargamer while, in my own personal estimation, being a mechanically simpler game than any of its predecessors – reviewing the 1e DMG caused me to reflect on what 1e was that 4e isn’t – and the other way around. I found that I missed certain aspects of 1e, such as the variety of spells, magic items that are more than powered-up versions of their first-level selves and how successfully finding a secret door only told players that it was there, not how to open it. It was enough to make me want to run a 1e game to experience that sort of play again, and led to my decision to take up finishing an old 1e writing project that has patiently waited in a file folder these 10 years, now that my schooling is temporarily ended and work has calmed down somewhat.

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Tips for writing romance adventures – just in time for Valentine’s Day

With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, it seems prudent to examine the role romance can play in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Let’s begin by viewing a highly informative video clip about how not to include romance in a fantasy setting, courtesy of Ator: the Fighting Eagle:

The moral of this story is twofold: don’t give the object of your affection a bear as a gift, and don’t ask your sister to marry you. Now, let’s continue.

There are three over-arcing themes in pre-modern literature: death, religion and love. And while most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns have plenty of the first and occasional allusions to the second, the third is usually entirely absent. Of course, there are often good reasons for this, as romance can detract from a storyline that would otherwise hold greater appeal for certain audiences. For example, consider how many purists were annoyed at  Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films for making Arwen, a decidedly minor character, far more prominent in the films as a love interest for Aragorn, a circumstance that was entirely absent in the books.

The fact that few published adventures have romance as a central theme isn’t surprising, given that D&D is largely marketed to males, who aren’t exactly famous for their sophisticated emotional wiring. About the only such product this writer can think of meeting that criterion is the 1e classic Beyond the Crystal Cave, which cast the heroes in the role of a search-and-recovery team for a pair of lost lovers.

It was a boring adventure.

So is creating romance adventures even worth the effort? Indeed it is, so long as a handful of maxims are followed.

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Write a gripping mystery adventure in four steps

Mystery and crime-solving adventures have always presented a fascinating alternative to typical fantasy role-playing game (RPG) fare, while also presenting a formidable design challenge for the Dungeon Master (DM). At first glance, it is apparent that the mystery fiction author has a pronounced advantage over the RPG adventure designer; the former has control over the actions of all characters involved in the story, while the latter only has control over the non-player character (NPC) criminals and neutrals. As a result, the challenge behind writing a mystery adventure involves how the DM can bring the protagonists (in this case, the heroes) to a solution to a crime at an engaging pace and appropriate difficulty while having no control over the primary characters whatsoever.

The solution to this problem dates back to 1928. Continue reading