Dungeons & Dragons Tips: Know Your Character’s Abilities

Playing Dungeons & Dragons well requires several skills. You don’t need to be great in all of them, but it helps to have some familiarity with all of them. For parts of the game like role-playing and exploration, you get better at them with practice. This is especially true of role-playing. The more you speak to DM-controlled characters, the better you get at it. I’m quite good at it now. I was hopeless when I started. You can get better!

However, one aspect of the game which you do have control over is in knowing what you character can do, mechanically speaking. This is especially true of combat situations, where a group of players who know what they can do and can work together are far superior to a bunch of rag-tag adventures who don’t even realize that Healing Word can be used along with another attack!

It’s worthwhile reviewing what your character can do every so often, especially after you gain a few levels. It should be noted that the official character sheets are very good at not showing you what you can do. I strongly suggest that you get a blank piece of paper, and start making a new list. Writing it all out will help you remember it all later – and you can use the sheet to refer to in the game.

Part of the point of this is to get used to the differences between your abilities and attacks. Lightning Arrow is an attack, but Hunter’s Mark is a modifier to your attacks. By categorizing the abilities, you can get a better handle on what works together and what you can do. Likewise, keeping track of the action type (and whether an ability requires concentration) is also important.

Here’s one suggested format of the sheet; I’m sure you can improve on it.

Attacks – list all the ways you have of attacking/damaging monsters here. Use the following columns:

  • Name
  • Action Type (e.g. Action, Bonus Action, Reaction, None)
  • Number of Attacks
  • Attack Roll/Saving Throw
  • Range of Attack
  • Damage Roll
  • Average Damage
  • Additional Effects

Modifiers – list all the ways you have of changing the effectiveness of attacks, saving throws and checks. Use the following columns:

  • Name
  • Action Type
  • Modifier
  • Range
  • Conditions & Notes (what allows the modifier to work)

Other – list all abilities that don’t fall under the above categories

  • Name
  • Action Type
  • Range
  • Effects

A few sample entries:

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On Collecting Miniatures

You will occasionally see people like me banging on about all the miniatures we have and how they really, really enhance our Dungeons & Dragons experiences. Then you look at your own collection of three miniatures and a bunch of chess pieces and wonder how other people ever got their miniature collections.

Here’s the truth: Miniature collecting is expensive. Most likely financially – most miniatures cost a significant amount – but miniatures can also cost you time, even if you don’t pay that much for them. That’s because the cheaper miniatures typically need to be painted, which is a terribly time-consuming affair.

I occasionally get asked why I don’t just buy cheaper Reaper miniatures and paint them instead of buying the WizKids random lines. Well, the truth is I have backed all three Bones Kickstarters. I have hundreds of unpainted miniatures. I don’t have time to paint them. When you work full-time and run three sessions of D&D a week, in addition to occasionally blogging and writing D&D adventures, you don’t have much time left over. “Time is Money”, as Benjamin Franklin said. The time I save by not painting the miniatures myself is worth more to me than the extra money I spend.

For those of you who have more time than I have, then by all means, paint your miniatures! They’ll look awesome and I’ll be jealous.

At present, there are three major ways of getting (cheaper) miniatures for use in D&D.

The first is to buy the WizKids lines of D&D Icons and Pathfinder Battles. Yes, though the Pathfinder line has a different design aesthetic, the minis are perfectly useable in D&D games. These miniatures are pre-painted but come in blind packaging so you don’t know exactly what 4 miniatures you’ll be getting in each box. This infuriates a lot of people, who like to know what miniatures they’re getting. One of the ways to get around this is to buy in bulk. A case of D&D Icons (that’s 32 boosters, all packed together) will possibly give you a full set or quite close to it, with about 1 of each rare, 2-3 of each uncommon and 3-4 of each common miniature. The exact numbers vary by release, and some sets have too many miniatures to all appear in a case. Buying a case costs a lot of money, though.

The second is to buy the miniatures from the WizKids lines of D&D Icons and Pathfinder Battles… but from resellers who have opened the boxes and are now selling individual miniatures. Due to the way the rarity system works with reselling, this means the common miniatures are cheaper (often much cheaper than you’d expect) and the rare miniatures can be terribly expensive. So, it’s great for building an army of orcs or goblins, and not that great for getting a beholder.

The third is to buy Reaper Bones. The cheapest way is in one of their Kickstarters, although the gap between the Kickstarter and fulfillment has reached a point where I’m not sure that it’s feasible to do another one. Their third Kickstarter took my money 19 months ago, and still hasn’t delivered the miniatures, although it’s likely they’ll arrive in the next couple of months (6+ months late). You can also buy individual miniatures for quite low prices. However, you’ll have to paint them yourself.

An Orc from Reaper Bones sells for US$2.79 from their webstore. A prepainted Orc from one of the older D&D Minis lines sells for about US$2.50-$3.50 at Miniatures Market. A Beholder? $30.

There are other places to get miniatures. Occasionally a company does a Kickstarter that give you a nice lot of miniatures at a reasonable price. Reaper and other companies also have lines of metal miniatures, although I find them an absolute pain to assemble, paint and transport, especially the last. And then there’s Games Workshop, which have a particular disadvantage for use in D&D by being of the wrong scale compared to all the other miniatures. And they’re expensive and you need to paint them. (But the quality of the miniatures is very high).

By a curious twist of fate, I was in exactly the right place at the right time when the D&D Miniatures first started getting produced in 2003. At that time, a pack of eight random minis cost US$10 – it went up to US$13 after a few months. So, I was able to pick up a lot of miniatures quite cheaply at these lower costs. Unfortunately, shortly after the line began, the price of oil sky-rocketed. This had two effects on the miniatures’ cost. One, plastics are made from oil, so that obviously had a direct effect on the price. The other part is the shipping costs. Taken together, they meant the days of really cheap minis were behind us. (In 2002, oil was $23 per barrel. In 2005, it had doubled. From 2008-2014, it sat around $80-$90 per barrel).

One question that continually pops up is why the WizKids lines use blind packaging. Why don’t they sell them individually so you know what you’re getting? Well, the reason relates to how many miniatures D&D potentially has, and the cost of producing miniatures that are less popular than other miniatures. The overall effect is to reduce the cost of the miniatures. Back in 2003, I coined a law (Merric’s Law of Miniatures) to describe the phenomenon, which I restate here: Non-Random Packaging, Cheap Prices, and a Large Range of Figures: Choose two. If you’d like a fuller discussion of why they do random miniatures, let me know.

As for my advice to the beginning miniature collector: Be patient. Gaining a good D&D miniatures collection takes a lot of time and money. It’s quite fine to proxy the miniatures you don’t have yet. Just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into; it will take a lot of money and/or time.

Alternative options, such as the Pathfinder Pawns, are perfectly legitimate and much more affordable.

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D&D Adventurers League checklist update

Just a note that I’ve updated my checklist of D&D Adventurers League adventures to include new Author-Only adventures and Con-Created Content.

It’s available on the DMs Guild.

It lists each of the D&D adventures that can be played in the League, breaking them down into season and tier.

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To Miniature, or not To Miniature

My friend Teos Abadia recently made fun of me for not opening a bunch of D&D Miniatures boxes that have been sitting on my shelf for the past six months or so. They’re still not open, and I’ve just put more boxes of the latest miniature release on top of them… likewise unopened.

The idea was that I’d open them and review them, but life has been extremely crazy of late – some good, some bad – and I just haven’t found the time.

It did make me wonder about my use of miniatures in D&D. The fact is that I own a lot of miniatures – somewhere upwards of 3,000 – and if I want to field an orc army for the player characters to face, I can do that. There’s just a basic problem with that: it requires me to find that orc army first. Once you have so many miniatures (and I’ve been buying the plastic D&D ones since 2003), you need to find the ones you need. It takes time. For me to get the minis out for a 4-hour session can easily take an hour or more.

That’s a significant amount of time. At least transporting the plastic miniatures is easy.

However, if you’re using miniatures, it can look fantastic (even without the 3D terrain).

Many players also much prefer the D&D experience when miniatures are involved. Different people visualise combat and action in different ways. So, by bringing miniatures to the game, I help those people who have trouble working out what I’m describing without player aids.

The flip side to this is that there are many encounters that I run that I’ve got no idea of what the monsters will be in advance. This is especially true during the big wilderness travel bits of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Curse of Strahd and Out of the Abyss. Will the players encounter trolls, ogres or perytons? No idea. Yes, I could take a big bag of minis with me, but there comes a time when it’s just too much effort.

Not playing at my house also doesn’t help.

I was writing an adventure recently and I apologised in the text to anyone who liked using miniatures. There are some combats (particularly those in three dimensions) that miniatures struggle to represent.

Ultimately, I think I should be using minis more than I have been. I go through phases of miniature use. Sometimes I use them for every combat. Other times, it’s Theatre of the Mind all the time. And, with 5E, it’s been very much TotM in the ascendance. Time to change things up!

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5E Supplement Review: The Undertaker

Every so often, a rather unusual product enters my review pile. This is the case with The Undertaker, a character background designed by Jerry LeNeave, known better to me as DreadGazeebo on Twitter. The product is just a solitary page, which describes the background.

It’s also an object lesson on how to design personality traits for a background. I read them, and I’m inspired by them. I want to play a character using some of the traits described. Even if I don’t use the Undertaker entire, they’re adaptable to a range of character types; admittedly, one that tends to have a tinge of the macabre.

The Undertaker shows the importance of good writing and good development of ideas. The mechanics for the background, slight though they are, don’t hold my interest as well. They also bring up an interesting point about backgrounds: is the background something you have been in the past, or something you continue to be in the present? In some cases, such as the Criminal and the Folk Hero, I can well understand that your background is something you don’t abandon. However, in many other cases, it’s something now behind you. The Hermit comes to mind.

The Undertaker background has a class feature that allows you to gain a living as an undertaker. This isn’t that interesting, especially as you’d expect that most of the time you’ll be far better served by just looting another dungeon. The optional background feature that grants you a bonus with something related to undead is more interesting, although – as a DM – I’d refine it and make it a little more specific before using it in a campaign.

The most disappointing feature about this product is that it isn’t a collection of ten or more backgrounds. It stands alone, giving a glimpse of further areas that can be explored in the game.

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5E Adventure Review: Screams at Sunset

Screams at Sunset is an adventure for levels 2-4 by Jeff C. Stevens. It is also an adventure for levels 4-6, if you use the alternative version with monsters from Volo’s Guide to Monsters.

The adventure begins with the characters coming to the aid of a farmstead that is being attacked by goblinoids – goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears – and allows the characters to investigate the mystery of why the goblins are suddenly more aggressive. A band of hapless militiamen helps emphasize the threat and the need for adventurers, and a dangerously intelligent boss awaits at the end of the adventure.

Each of the acts of the adventure is nicely detailed, with enough incidental details to make for memorable encounters. The premise and details help elevate this above what could be a mundane hack’n’slash scenario. The adventure primarily focuses on combat and role-playing. The final solution to the adventure could involve either. There are ethical decisions to be made, and I like having those.

There’s also one encounter where starting a fight can summon more monsters, so the players have to deal with the situation being more difficult than it first appeared; a good test of their playing skill.

The chief problem the adventure suffers is from writing that needs to be tightened up, in some cases, a lot. I’ve discovered that it can be hard to move from DM-mode to author-mode; in DM-mode, you want to preserve mystery and hint at the answers. You shouldn’t be doing this as an adventure author: lay out the mysteries in your adventure’s introduction, so the DM isn’t surprised by the shape of the adventure. A synopsis is very useful for reminding the DM of the salient points of the adventure, especially just before running it.

Occasionally the presentation of the encounters is not ordered as I would arrange it; for instance, the militia camp gives the generic encounters first and the essential encounters second; I’d reverse that order and use the introduction to the militia’s leader to also serve as a point to display the camp and present encounter opportunities. There are also a few grammatical mistakes and clumsy phrasings in the text.

The adventure is illustrated by attractive pieces of black and white line art that break up the text. Abbreviated monster statistics are available in the appendix, but they leave out important information (such as ability scores, saving throws and skills), and you should still own a copy of the relevant books. The stats are great for quick combats, but less useful once spells that require saving throws start getting used. The maps are very attractive and readable.

Screams at Sunset is an effective adventure, also available as part of an adventure bundle. It’s one that is well worth investigating.

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A Tip for Quicker Play of Dungeons & Dragons Combat

It has not escaped my attention that not everyone is as fast as arithmetic as I am. Adding two numbers together can take time. The play of the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons isn’t as bad for this as 3E (where adding 17 and 24 together wasn’t that unusual at the higher levels).

Combat in D&D often plays like this:

“I attack and roll an 8… add 5… Does a 13 hit?”

“Yes. How much damage?”

“4 plus 3 is 7, plus 4… 11 damage!”

Once you have a fighter with multiple attacks and the player isn’t that good with numbers… things can slow down significantly, creating frustration to other players at the table. How, then, to improve the speed?

Well, you can use average damage (as the monsters do in the Monster Manual). This works, but it is often not very satisfying. Rolling damage is one of the high points of the fighter’s play.

However, you can also improve the speed of combat by changing the way you determine if an attack hits.

The trick is that if you know the monster’s AC – and there’s rarely a reason the DM won’t tell you – you can quickly work out the number the die needs to roll. So, if you have an Attack Bonus of +5 and you’re attacking a Armour Class of 13, you need to roll an 8 or higher on the die. (Target Number = Armour Class – Attack Bonus). Once you know that number, you don’t have to look it up again. Just remember it. “I need an 8 to hit the goblin.” Thus, the exchange becomes:

“I attack and roll an 8! Hit! Damage is 4 plus 3 is 7, plus 4… 11 damage!”

Calculating what you need to roll on the die rather than rolling the die and then doing the calculation is quicker.

Another method you can use is to pre-calculate the target numbers. This method dates from the original days of D&D. Draw up a grid, and label the tops of the columns with the ACs from 10 to 20. Then, for each weapon, work out the number you need to roll to hit those ACs and put them in the cells below.

Thus, for a fighter with a Longsword with a +5 attack bonus and a Longbow with a +2 attack bonus, we get:

Then, in combat, the DM tells the player the goblins have an AC of 13. Looking on the table, it’s simple to determine that the longsword needs an 8 on the die, and the longbow needs a 11 on the die.

Players who are quick with numbers don’t need this technique, but remembering what the target number is tends to speed up combat significantly.

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A New Dungeons & Dragons Campaign

For the first time in a little while, I started a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign on Friday. As with most of my home campaigns (as opposed to the store-based play where I run the published adventures in the Forgotten Realms), this campaign is set in the venerable World of Greyhawk setting. I’ve been running campaigns in that world since 1998, and I was playing the world long before that. So, I have a wealth of history to work with. I’m very familiar with this world.

Although I’m writing much material for the campaign myself, I don’t limit myself to not use published sources if convenient. So, the beginning of the campaign draws upon material published by Troll Lord Games’: Gary Gygax’s and Jeff Talanian’s Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, being the first such source. I’m lucky enough to have a copy – if you click on that link, you can see what a limited supply does for the price… However, if you are familiar with The Keep on the Borderlands, you’ll soon understand the set-up of the Mouths of Madness, those humanoid-infested caverns that ring the base of Castle Zagyg/Castle Greyhawk.

In summary: there’s a great ruined castle with a lot of dungeons below it, and, although there are entrances to the dungeons from the main part of the castle, there are also entrances from the Mouths below.

Many a D&D campaign has started with no thought more than “let’s find monster and kill them”. It’s an extremely fun way of playing a game, but I want this game to be (slightly) more than that. So, I did two things to start this campaign off in a distinctive fashion.

The first was that I got all the players to submit character ideas to me secretly. That is, each submitted three character concepts (consisting of race, class and some background details) by e-mail, and then I chose one for them to play, keeping an eye on overall party balance. I then discouraged players talking about their characters in terms of game mechanics. The initial introductions were very interesting, as everyone tried to work out what everyone was playing. The discussions about party marching order were particularly fun.

The second was I gave the initial quest to them by a moderately shady character (there’s a secret entrance to the castle’s library from the caves – use it to recover a scroll for me), and also gave each of them a secret quest/information based on their backgrounds.

So, we have a standard dungeon adventure, but with each of the players not knowing exactly what characters everyone else is playing, nor what their goals are. No, these ideas aren’t original to me. However, it makes things interesting!

A word about the Mouths of Madness. They’re very definitely based on the Caves of Chaos of Keep on the Borderlands. Each holds a different humanoid tribe (orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds), and each has grudges against the other tribes and wants to gain supremacy of the area. The Mouths have more notes about the humanoids allying with the characters against the other tribes than in the original Caves, but the map of the Mouths isn’t as well-constructed as the Caves. Which is to say, the Caves guided new characters to the easier tribes first; the Mouths don’t have that guidance. Thus, in the first session, the PCs ended up investigating all the high-level caves first!

I have definite ideas about who the mysterious patron is, and the main factions moving behind the scenes. More on those in future instalments!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Greyhawk | 2 Comments

Tales from the Yawning Portal – Adventure Retrospectives

Wizards of the Coast have announced their first product of 2017. It’s a compilation of seven previous-published adventures, updated and revised for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Its name? Tales from the Yawning Portal.

I’ve had the pleasure of playing or dungeon-mastering all seven of the adventures that will be released in this product, so it seems appropriate to do something extremely unusual: write a retrospective about the adventures contained in a product that hasn’t been released yet. This amuses me. So, these are retrospectives on my experiences with the adventures in their original printings.

Dungeons & Dragons owes a lot to the shared experiences of players playing adventures. Over the years it has been around, there have been a lot of adventures published, but only a few of them really approach classic status. Most of the adventures in this new product very easily meet the requirements to be considered classic, and they’ve all seen a lot of play.

It can be hard for new players to understand all the history of the game, so this product is a great introduction to it, helping people to discover the old adventures again, and to see some of the range of experiences that Dungeons & Dragons has to offer.

It should be noted that all of these adventures are very definitely dungeon adventures. As a result, it will be very easy to drop them into an ongoing game if you desire; although there’s nothing stopping you from playing through each adventure in order.

The Sunless Citadel

Designed by Bruce Cordell. Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. Original Release 2000, character levels 1-2.

The Sunless Citadel was the first adventure released for the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The year 2000 was an exciting time to be a D&D fan. Over the past few years, we’d watched in horror as TSR (the original publisher of D&D) had lost its way and eventually go bankrupt. The second edition was feeling old and tired, and the sale of TSR to Wizards of the Coast in 1997 promised exciting things. Finally, in 2000, we had it: a new edition of the game. And it was a major, major overhaul of the system – one that was far more amenable to expanding the system.

The Sunless Citadel is very much a dungeon adventure. After a couple of pages giving a brief description of the nearby town (and some rumours and quests to get players started), we’re into the dungeon: a fortress that sunk into the earth in a prior age, and now is inhabited by a number of dangerous inhabitants.

I didn’t run this as my first 3E session. A couple of weeks before the Player’s Handbook came out, I’d started up my homebrew Greyhawk campaign, and so I was inventing my own material for our first sessions. (Quite a lot of it, actually, as neither the Monster Manual nor Dungeon Master’s Guide were out, either!) However, I had a lot of friends interested in D&D, so it wasn’t long before I started up a new campaign that started with The Sunless Citadel.

For many people, the defining feature of The Sunless Citadel was the Keeper of the Dragons, named Meepo, a poor kobold who has lost his pet (a white dragon wyrmling), and was adopted by many groups as a mascot. We didn’t do so, and thus missed out on a lot of fun.

One of the aspects that makes The Sunless Citadel an interesting adventure is that the hooks and rumours all hint at different aspects of the citadel. There’s a feeling that you keep discovering secrets as you play the adventure. Three groups claim territory in sections of the dungeon, allowing the players a chance to see a more structured dungeon than just a collection of randomly-populated rooms.

The Forge of Fury

Designed by Richard Baker. Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. Original Release 2000, character levels 3-4.

The Forge of Fury was the second adventure for Third Edition. Most people played it immediately after playing The Sunless Citadel, but, unlike today’s adventure paths, they weren’t related, except that there was a map in the first adventure that led to the second. It very much stood on its own. So, that means that if you just want to play this adventure, you can – you don’t need to play The Sunless Citadel first.

This adventure is very well-regarded. (It came in as the 12th-best adventure of all time in a 2004 poll). It’s another dungeon adventure, describing an abandoned stronghold made by the dwarven smith, Durgeddin. One of the main features of the dungeon is that it’s divided into five distinct sections, each section having its own character and set of encounters.

There’s one encounter in this adventure everyone talks about: a Roper down the bottom of the dungeon. In an adventure for 3rd-level characters, the Roper is rated as a challenge for 10th-level characters. It’s an intelligence test for players – are they smart enough to run or negotiate their way past the encounter? It should be noted that, in 3E, the Roper can talk. There’s a call-back to this encounter in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but the designers didn’t realise that the 5th-edition Ropers can’t talk! How this encounter will play out in this adventure is anyone’s guess…

When I ran the adventure, negotiation wasn’t what the characters wanted to do. They wanted to kill the roper! And, in 3rd edition, the roper’s tendrils drained the target of 2d8 points of Strength! This was a great shock to the party. The cleric captured by the roper suddenly was drained to only two points of Strength, and the other party members had to cut him free and flee as quickly as they could.

I’ll admit that this is the adventure that, of the seven, I like the least. It’s a perfectly competent dungeon, but I never really warmed to it. I’m probably missing something. It’ll will be interesting to revisit it.

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

Designed by Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Original Release 1980, character levels 3-7.

Many of the early D&D adventures were first used as tournament scenarios. A D&D tournament back then was much different from the game at conventions these days. You were competing against other groups, seeing how far you could get and how many of the encounters you could overcome. So, the encounters were a real test of your ingenuity and playing skill.

Tamoachan starts with the characters trapped in the bottom of a Mesoamerican-style ziggurat, with a poisonous atmosphere slowly choking them, and they have to get out through a number of very strange and inventive encounters. The logic behind the encounters tends to be “challenge the players” rather than what makes naturalistic sense, but what makes Tamoachan so memorable is all the references to Mesoamerican mythology. This gives the adventure a distinct style that feels very different to almost every other adventure published, before or after.

I ran it for my players last year as part of my D&D 5E Greyhawk campaign. (I was converting it on-the-fly). They found it a memorable experience, although there’s a lot of the encounter designs that didn’t make sense to them. Modern design is often very different to what you find here.

The publishing of Tamoachan as a normal scenario allows you to enter the ziggurat from the top, rather than having it as an escape scenario. That’s how I used it, and it’s likely such will be retained in the reprint.

One unusual fact about the original adventure: It was written for a group of exactly three characters. For a time when six to nine characters was more standard, this makes it very unusual.

Dead in Thay

Designed by Scott Fitzgerald Gray. Dungeons & Dragons Next. Original Release 2014, character levels 6-8.

The current edition of Dungeons & Dragons didn’t happen overnight. Wizards of the Coast spent two years playtesting it before release. And it was a public playtest, with groups all around the world participating. In stores, the D&D Encounters program provided a large number of those people. As a cap-stone to the adventures, we got Dead in Thay, a multi-table dungeon where up to four groups could adventure through the dungeon at the same time.

That’s what happened at my local gaming store. We had three groups for most of the campaign, and ended with four. All who were exploring the dungeon, seeking the items required to defeat the Red Wizards and protect the Sword Coast from their invasion plans.

I wrote up a set of reports of the play here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

The multitable aspect of the adventure made it very memorable. I had monsters that fled from one group running into another. We kept track on a big board of where everyone was and which encounters had been overcome.

It’s hard to say how it will be released in this product, as it was a really big product. I expect we’ll only see one quarter of the map, and the multitable aspect removed. The original is one of my two favourite adventures in this product.

White Plume Mountain

Designed by Lawrence Schick. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Original Release 1979, character levels 5-10.

When Lawrence Schick applied to be hired as a designer at TSR, he sent them a sample adventure – the best bits of his home adventures, all put into the same adventure – to show what he could do. He was quite surprised when they published the adventure without changing a word! (Thus giving the D&D world Blackrazor, an intelligent sword which is just a little like Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer).

White Plume Mountain has never been known as making a lot of sense. The plot is that a wizard who lives within White Plume Mountain has stolen three magic weapons and the players are hired to recover them. The dungeon is of a style known as a “funhouse dungeon” – it’s got a lot of encounters that don’t relate to each other that much, nor really to the fantasy world where they exist.

It is, however, an awful lot of fun to play. Not if you’re looking for a serious adventure, but if you just want to have fun, White Plume Mountain has it in spades. It’s also exceptionally deadly. I ran it a decade ago using the original rules, and we had a fantastic time. I also killed a lot of characters – or they killed themselves. Hard to say. Fireball in AD&D can really take out a party…

This is one of my two favourite adventures in this package. Yes, I really love the wacky encounters. Sometimes, you just want to have fun!

Against the Giants

Designed by Gary Gygax. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Original Release 1978, character levels 8-12.

The very first adventures released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons by TSR were the three modules of Against the Giants. They were slender adventures by later standards – 8 pages, 8 pages and 16 pages – but they were tremendously influential and well-regarded, especially once the succeeding trilogy of “D” adventures were released. Alas, Vault of the Drow is not part of this package, but the adventures in Against the Giants are a lot of fun.

One aspect of their design that is quite important is that the threat and complexity grows throughout the adventures. The first adventure, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, is a simple design which has a set piece of the characters attacking a large number of hill giants (and their guests) who are attending a feast. Giants were weaker then compared to how they would become in later editions, though still being dangerous, so the magic-users would get to use fireball spells very effectively!

However, the environment of Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl is as much a threat as the monsters, and by the final adventure, the adventurers need to overcome the fiendishly intelligent (and powerful) Fire Giants. What began as a simple hack’n’slash adventure is anything but by the end, and the revelations as to who is behind everything would provide the game with its first iconic monster.

Against the Giants was the first adventure I tried to run, back in 1982. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and because the maps of the compilation adventure weren’t labelled, I had great trouble at working out which map corresponded to the Steading. It wasn’t the most memorable session, but it was the first I attempted to DM. Later on, I’d run the adventure again, and it was fascinating to see how more experienced players dealt with the giants.

Tomb of Horrors

Designed by Gary Gygax. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Original Release 1978, character levels 5-14.

How new players will find Tomb of Horrors is probably not that much different to how the original players who played it found it: Stunned disbelief is my guess.

Gary Gygax designed this adventure to show players who had high-level characters but little play experience that there was more to D&D than just good statistics. As a result, it has become famed as the iconic Killer Dungeon. Many characters have entered the Tomb, few have returned.

Gygax’s original players – his son Ernie, and his friend Rob Kuntz – both were able to overcome the Tomb in their own ways, but it’s certain that most players weren’t familiar with Gygax’s style, and found it much more difficult. I first played the adventure in the 80s, and I was definitely not an expert player. I was playing a kender thief my DM gave me, and I soon found myself trapped without any possessions at all (and no clothes!) in an empty cell…

There’s not many monsters in Tomb of Horrors, but the tension is high throughout. There’s a lot of treasure in the end – if you claim it – and back in the day, this was very important, as you gained far more XP for treasure gained than monsters overcome.

Tomb of Horrors is an iconic adventure, although it is in no way what you normally want in a D&D adventure. Once designed, you didn’t need another adventure like it. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it’s an adventure that is an important part of D&D lore, and one that will be fascinating to see used by new players – all of whom are likely to have new stories about how their characters died!

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Rules Spotlight: Surprise and the Assassin

The rules for the Assassin (a Roguish archetype) in the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons include an extremely powerful ability: Assassinate. It’s the signature ability of the class, and it can be very effective. A reminder of what it does:

You have advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn’t taken a turn in the combat yet. In addition, any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit.

However, as it uses the Surprise rules – and those rules were different in earlier versions of the game – I’ve seen many people be confused about how it works. This article discusses the rules and their interpretation.

The starting point is Jeremy Crawford’s explanation of surprise, from Sage Advice November 2015:

The first step of any combat is this: the DM determines whether anyone in the combat is surprised (reread “Combat Step by Step” on page 189 of the Player’s Handbook). This determination happens only once during a fight and only at the beginning. In other words, once a fight starts, you can’t be surprised again, although a hidden foe can still gain the normal benefits from being unseen (see “Unseen Attackers and Targets” on page 194 of the Player’s Handbook).

To be surprised, you must be caught off guard, usually because you failed to notice foes being stealthy or you were startled by an enemy with a special ability, such as the gelatinous cube’s Transparent trait, that makes it exceptionally surprising. You can be surprised even if your companions aren’t, and you aren’t surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares.

If anyone is surprised, no actions are taken yet. First, initiative is rolled as normal. Then, the first round of combat starts, and the unsurprised combatants act in initiative order. A surprised creature can’t move or take an action or a reaction until its first turn ends (remember that being unable to take an action also means you can’t take a bonus action). In effect, a surprised creature skips its first turn in a fight. Once that turn ends, the creature is no longer surprised.

In short, activity in a combat is always ordered by initiative, whether or not someone is surprised, and after the first round of combat has passed, surprise is no longer a factor. You can still try to hide from your foes and gain the benefits conferred by being hidden, but you don’t deprive your foes of their turns when you do so.

One of the notable things to take away from the explanation of surprise is this: You can’t surprise a creature if it has spotted (or heard) any foe. Not just you. If you’re hidden, but your dwarven fighter friend is clanking away and rolled a 0 for their Dexterity (Stealth) check, you’ll still be hidden (and can gain advantage against targets that haven’t spotted you), but because the foe spotted your friend, it isn’t surprised. Surprise is a state that individual creatures can be in; it’s no longer the case that the entire opposition is surprised or not.

The next thing is that surprise ends once a creature’s first turn in the initiative order has finished. This has some unfortunate implications to the assassin who rolls low for initiative. Those high-Dexterity creatures who rolled better initiative than you? They’re not surprised any more by the time you act. Although the weapon of warning (can’t be surprised, advantage on initiative rolls) is very good at frustrating assassins, it’s also the assassin’s friend. Advantage on initiative checks? Yes, please!

Given all of this, the Assassin has one major problem using Assassinate – the other members of the party. Those dwarven fighters just keep causing you to lose surprise, don’t they!

Back in AD&D, the entry for elves and halflings read like this:

If alone and not in metal armor (or if well in advance – 90′ or more – of a party which does not consist entirely of elves and/or halflings) an elven character moves so silently that he or she will surprise monsters 66 2/3% (d6, 1 through 4) of the time

That suggests the solution. All you need to do is adventure alone! Or adventure by scouting ahead – 90 feet or more – in front of the party. (Talk to your DM about how far you need to be ahead of the party to be considered “on your own”). Of course, the trouble with doing so is that your friends can’t help you when you get into trouble…

A related issue that often comes up in play is the player who announces “I attack” and expects to surprise the opponents (and thus get to attack before anyone else). The transition from negotiation to combat (or exploration to combat) is not explicitly handled as an exception the rules. Thus, if a player wishes to attack first before anyone can react, this is not possible. Upon a player indicating their intention to attack, move into the combat sequence – determine surprise, and determine initiative. Yes, the player might end up attacking last; the initiative roll indicates that he’s not as fast as he thinks, and everyone else has reacted.

If you’re feeling kind, you might allow a character who attacks whilst in the middle of a negotiation to make a Charisma (Deception) check against the passive Wisdom (Insight) scores of everyone else; creatures that don’t perceive the character’s attentions could potentially be considered surprised. However, this is a non-standard ruling and should be used only if you feel it enhances your game.

Although rare, it can happen that a creature is unaware of the existence of enemies, yet is not surprised and gets to act before its foes. In this case, I would have the creature acts on its initiative count as normal, doing whatever it was doing before the combat sequence started.

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