As I write this installment, I've just returned from the Gen Con 2000 Game Fair, where the new edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook was released amid much fanfare. Many of you who have written over the last several months have asked if and when I'll begin referencing the new edition's rules in "Dungeoncraft." Now that the project's veil of secrecy has been lifted, I can answer those two questions: (1) yes, of course; and (2) right now. From this installment forward, I'll refer exclusively to the new rules when preparing this column.
Does this mean I'll go back and rewrite the previous twenty-three installments for the new rules? Well, no. Fortunately, the rules haven't changed enough to invalidate the majority of the advice I've offered over the last two years. For the most part, building a world and preparing a campaign under the new rules is much like building a world and preparing a campaign under the old rules. I'll occasionally revisit and revise some of my old advice in the installments to come, but for now you can safely assume that most of what I've presented so far is as valid under the new rules as it was when you first read it.
This doesn't mean that the new edition doesn't change the DM's job description. In some ways, the new game is very different from its predecessor and requires some very different approaches. In order to make this transition over to the new rules as easy as possible, I'm devoting this installment and the next to a discussion of how the new rules might impact the Dungeon Master. I can guarantee you that the first thing your players are going to do after getting their brand new copies of the Player's Handbook is to start looking for ways they can use all those new rules, feats, and skills to their advantage. Consider these two installments our opportunity, as DMs, to do the same.
When Should I Switch Over to the New Rules?
Before I consider the rules themselves, it's worth spending a few paragraphs discussing when -- or if -- you should migrate your existing campaigns over to the new rules. The most important thing to remember when you are considering these questions is that you shouldn't be in any sort of hurry to fix something that isn't broken. Sudden change can be bad. If your campaign is progressing well and your players are having fun, take your time before making the big switch. Give yourself and your players an opportunity to fully digest the new rules and familiarize yourselves with their idiosyncrasies.
In the meantime, you might try running one or two new edition "one-shot" game sessions outside the bounds of your regular campaign. This insures that everyone has some combat experience before you risk your real game and the players' beloved PCs.
The easiest way to organize a one-shot session, of course, is to pick up a copy of Dungeon Magazine and run one of the excellent adventures within. If your players are really dedicated to your current campaign, though, completely abandoning it runs the risk of dampening their interest and interfering with your momentum. In this case, you might design a special one-shot scenario set on the same world as your regular campaign, but using entirely different PCs. Take advantage of this opportunity to give your players a brief glimpse into an entirely different facet of your setting. Two particularly interesting tactics immediately come to mind:
Design an adventure that allows the players to assume the roles of their traditional
Suppose, for instance, that your campaign regularly pits the players against an infamous tribe of orcs (like the Aris campaign I've built in these articles). The adventure you run to introduce your players to the new rules might put them in the roles of the orcs for a change. Maybe they have to kidnap a princess or acquire a powerful magic item from a nearby band of elves. If you do this right, you might even leave yourself with a great springboard for an adventure in the "real" campaign. Once they've successfully captured that princess, maybe the players must resume their traditional roles to pursue the orcs and retrieve her!
Give the players the opportunity to play legendary and long-dead characters from your campaign setting.
In the Aris-based adventure "Secrets of the Scar" from Dungeon 80, a legendary order of clerics once operated a hidden temple, and some of the world's most interesting and formative events took place within the confines of their secret stronghold. An interesting "practice" adventure might place the players in the roles of those clerics and call upon them to protect the stronghold as it stood several hundred years ago. Not only would such an adventure give your players the sense that they are making an important contribution to the history of your game world, it might also give them the added pleasure of playing high-level characters for a change.
Even after you are sure that you and your players have plenty of experience with the new game rules, you should only migrate your campaign once you're certain that you've had enough time to carefully consider all the implications of the conversion. Whatever methods you employ, though, the full process is certain to be time-consuming and require a lot of care. Again, don't feel rushed. Your players have waited this long for the new rules, and they can wait another couple months if necessary.
A few of you might be wondering if you should ever switch over to the new rules. While it might seem like a lot of work to migrate to the new edition, I guarantee that the exciting opportunities the new rules open up will make the transition worthwhile. You should also note that not adopting the new rules will eventually make it more difficult to play the game. Unless you are using the new rules, you'll no longer have easy access to new game elements introduced in products and magazines published by Wizards of the Coast. Eventually, you'll find it harder and harder to locate players who are familiar with your chosen flavor. As a consequence, your decision should probably center around "when" and not "if." Even those of you who are heavily dependent on special 2nd edition rules are likely to see new edition replacements come your way eventually. Again, feel free to delay the conversion until you are completely comfortable.
The Heart of the New Edition
A large portion of the rules changes introduced in the new edition fall into a single bracket. Despite its voluminous rulebooks, old fashioned D&D was simple and unsophisticated at its core. The old rules handled lots of sticky situations by not handling the situation at all. Whenever something unusual happened or a player decided to take an unexpected action, the DM was forced to resolve the situation by making an arbitrary judgment or inventing a new rule on the fly. Suppose a non-thief is forced to scale a wall in order to escape pursuit, or a fighter tries to bluff an enemy into making a tactical blunder. Do their efforts succeed? The old rules provided no real guidance for resolution, forcing the DM to improvise. It was situations like these that inspired the Third Rule of Dungeoncraft.
Although the old approach usually worked well once you got used to it, it also stymied some beginning DMs and forced them to "freeze up" during play. With absolutely no rules advice to fall back on, these beginners sometimes found the process of making snap decisions daunting. In turn, they would develop all sorts of bad habits in order to avoid being put on the spot.
The new rules adopt an entirely different philosophy and attempt to provide a much more comprehensive set of guidelines for resolving a wide variety of actions and situations. The best illustration of this philosophy is the interlocking series of ability and skill checks that can be used to resolve just about anything a player might attempt. Although the DM is still forced to decide exactly what attributes and skills apply to an action and how difficult the action is, it's often easier to make these simple decisions than to make a completely arbitrary ruling with no guidance at all. Another illustration of the new philosophy is the series of comprehensive rules for handling unique situations presented in the new Dungeon Master's Guide. Although the new rules don't really allow us to get rid of the Third Rule of Dungeoncraft altogether, they guarantee that we're forced to invoke it less often.
The new edition gives you more tools to work with, but it's worth noting that the new approach has a particularly interesting repercussion. The new, meatier rules spell out a comprehensive set of modifiers, difficulty classes, and special situations in great detail. Although its much easier to keep track of all these rules than it might seem, it's quite easy to forget a stray modifier or improperly compute a difficulty class here and there in the heat of the moment. What makes this a problem is the fact that the players are often just as familiar with the rules as you are, and you'll find that many of them take great delight in pointing out each and every modifier or dice roll you blow. Many times, these protests come after you've already resolved the roll in question and moved on -- sometimes long after. "Hey everybody! I just realized that when she killed my cohort in that last battle she forgot to take into account the penalty for fighting with two weapons!" Sometimes these lapses might seem so egregious that your sense of fairness will tempt you to "back up" the game and replay the situation. In fact, I found myself in this position so often during the early test games I ran using the new rules that I was inspired to debut a Fifth Rule of Dungeoncraft.
Once a roll has been made and you've moved on, you should never reset events to an earlier state in order to correct a mistake. Doing so can only interrupt the game's momentum and runs the risk of confusing your players. If you need to rationalize such a decision, put it down to fickle fate -- a lucky (or unlucky) break caused by potent karma or the intervention of capricious gods. After all, in the real world unusual and unexplainable things happen all the time. In fact, you might even use a particularly significant gaffe as a springboard for an adventure that explains the error. With that big (but forgotten) modifier in his favor, how could Lokir have possibly missed when he attacked that hill giant? If the blow had connected, Lokir might have killed the giant in time to save Mokk, his fallen comrade! A few adventures later, maybe Lokir discovers that he accidentally offended the high priest of a war god on one of his previous exploits and the god has sinced cursed him with horrible luck in battle. To remove the curse, Lokir must right his earlier wrong and beg for the high priest's forgiveness.
Of course, the Fifth Rule doesn't imply that you should never accept a player's advice on how to resolve a situation or refuse to acknowledge any forgotten modifiers pointed out by the players before the dice are rolled. The fact that you can count on your players to be on the lookout for modifiers you've forgotten is one of the reasons why it's easier to keep track of the new rules than it might seem. Once a situation has been resolved and play has moved on, though, all outcomes should be considered final. Although some players might find this stance a bit difficult to deal with at first, they'll quickly get used to it as long as you're consistent.
Well, that wraps up another installment. More thoughts on the new edition next month.