Design & Development01/20/2006

Proud Nails

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, Dave Noonan continues with the Likes and Dislikes miniseries, taking a look at the design side.

What Dave would like to hit with a really big hammer. Plus elven gymnasts.

Like many D&D players, I spent my high school years on a college-preparation track, full of courses like calculus, physics, etc. That means I never got to take wood shop—and boy, do I regret it now.

I regret it because learning woodworking by yourself is expensive, slow, and frustrating. You should see my garage—I’ve got this huge rack of misshapen boards, poorly cut or wrongly measured. Maybe that’s because I’m no good at the whole “measure twice, cut once” thing. I’m a game designer—I get to measure once, then playtest, then go with what the playtest taught you.

Among the things I should have learned from wood shop is the notion of the “proud nail.” In woodworking parlance, the proud nail is the nail that isn’t quite far enough into the wood. It’s sticking out just a little bit—just enough to tick you off.

D&D has some proud nails. They’re rules that are just a little bit off. They’re things that aren’t explained quite right. They won’t mess up your game on a week-by-week basis, but you sure notice them when they rear their ugly heads.

Here are some aspects of D&D I consider to be proud nails. If they weren’t already in black and white, I’d take an extra swing of the ol’ design hammer at them.

Bow Ranges

I did enough bow hunting in high school to know that a 110-foot range increment for a composite longbow is bogus. A shot beyond 30 yards or so is rarely worth taking—you’re better off sneaking up closer or letting the animal wander nearer to you. But a reasonably competent archer can fire the length of a football field and suffer only a moderate penalty—even if the foe is moving and otherwise making itself a tough target.

D&D is mostly a game of shorter-range encounters, so it doesn’t come up much. But whenever one of my players makes a 400-foot bow shot, I grind my teeth. I tell myself that I’m simulating heroic fantasy, not reality. But it sticks in my craw.

Incidentally, I’m not disputing that a bow is capable of launching an arrow that far. But doing so requires a high, arcing ballistic trajectory that owes a lot more to artillery than traditional archery. Those English longbowmen weren’t always aiming at individual foes. They'd often fire a hail of arrows, knowing that they’d score hits against the massed troops off in the distance.

Saving Throws for Worn Items

Automatic Failures and Successes

A natural 1 on a saving throw is always a failure, and the spell may cause damage to exposed items:

Table 10-1 Items Affected by Magical Attacks

Order Item
1st Shield
2nd Armor
3rd Magic helmet, hat, or headband
4th Item in hand (including a weapon, wand, or the like)
5th Magic cloak
6th Stowed or sheathed weapon
7th Magic bracers
8th Magic clothing
9th Magic jewelry (including rings)
10th Anything else

Don’t get me wrong—I like this rule, and I’m always alert for when the players at my table roll a natural “1” on their saves so I can blow up their stuff.

So why is this a proud nail for me? Because I can never find the darn table. The game grinds to a halt every time someone rolls a “1” because I’m flipping through the book, looking for the item saving throw rules. And once I find it, there’s more wasted time as I play “Twenty Questions” with the unlucky player. “Do you have a shield? Armor? Magic helmet, hat, or headband?”

For the record, the rule is on pg. 177 of the Player’s Handbook, in the “Items Surviving After a Saving Throw" section. But it’s never the first place I look. A search in the index for “Item saving throws” gets you nothing. “Saving throws, for objects” and “objects, saving throws” send you to the Smashing an Object rules on pg. 165 of the Player’s Handbook. Interesting, but the wrong place. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has “magic items, saving throws against” and “magic items, damaging” entries, but they’re also the wrong place. Now you see why it takes me so long to find the table.

There’s a whole category of important rules that we managed to hide deep within the rules—they’re all proud nails as far as I’m concerned. Another example: It’s increasingly likely that PCs have access to damage reduction (through a spell, magic item, or unusual racial heritage). When PCs are hit by manufactured weapons, that’s easy to adjudicate, because most D&D players can remember or accurately guess which weapons are bludgeoning, slashing, or piercing.

But I can’t always remember what the rules are for natural weapons. Is a bite piercing, slashing, or bludgeoning? Turns out it’s all three—and I know this because an entry on pg. 312 of the Monster Manual tells me so, in the seventh paragraph of a glossary entry for “natural weapons.” If you searched through the core books looking under “damage reduction” entries, you’d come up dry. Well-hidden rules are a proud nail I’d really like to hammer into oblivion.

Seemingly Random Spell-Like Ability Lists

How about a monster with the following spell-like abilities: charm person, cone of cold, darkness, invisibility, gaseous form, polymorph, and sleep. See the theme there? See how the monster’s magic powers let it tap into a cool mythological root or enable an interesting encounter?

Me neither.

This monster has two separate abilities (darkness and invisibility) that both effectively turn the encounter into a game of Battleship. “Is the monster in square A-4? You sank my monster!” And it has gaseous form, because apparently it needs a third getaway ability. The monster has sleep, but the creature will never be used against PCs with 4 Hit Dice or less. And polymorph? Don’t get me started on polymorph.

Does this monster sound even more random when I tell you it’s a flying giant with spell resistance and regeneration?

This is a real monster: The orge mage. Why is it this way? Because when we redesigned monsters for the 3.0 edition of the game in 2000, we opted for a more literal, almost line-by-line translation of the 2nd edition monsters. As a result, the ogre mage is a bit of a proud nail. It’s a CR 8 monster with a 9d6 area attack and only 37 hit points. If we wanted intelligent, rapacious, cruel magic-using giants, we could have done better by retaining the concept, not retaining the specific abilities.

Horses That Are 10 feet Square

In general, I like the square bases that we adopted with the revisions to the game back in 2003. The Large monsters work great as 10-foot square creatures, and it was always a pain to rotate around these strange 5-foot by 10-foot creatures, especially when they moved diagonally.

But it one particular case, the 10-foot square rule for a Large creature bugs me: the horse. I want my PCs to ride in a line, shoulder to shoulder like in The Magnificent Seven. When they do that, they shouldn’t take up a 70-foot swath of desert.

I don’t have a better answer. A special rule for crowding horses into a formation is probably too rarely situational to be worth designing. A 5-foot by 10-foot horse is problematic for expert D&D players, let alone the 13-year-old whose paladin just reached 5th level. A 5-foot square horse just strains credulity (and it’d make a really tippy miniature). So I’m resigned to letting this proud nail continue to bug me.

Tanglefoot Bags

I love the idea behind these things. But they’re so good that I had to ban them in the games I DM.

Let’s compare and contrast. On the one hand, you’ve got the lowly 50 gp tanglefoot bag. What do you get for your 50 gold coins? If you hit with a ranged touch attack (read: totally easy), your foe takes –2 penalty on attacks, –4 on Dex (and thus –2 on AC, –2 on Reflex saves, and another –2 on ranged attacks), and gets its movement speed cut in half. But wait, there’s more. Then your foe has to make a save (Reflex DC 15). A foe that fails can’t move at all. It lasts 2d4 rounds; you can get rid of the “glued to the floor” effect early, but not the penalties.

Tangent Alert!: During the 2004 Olympics, we spent some time applying the D&D rules to various events. Among our findings:

  • Based on height and weight, U.S. gymnast Carly Patterson would be a tall female elf, and her Russian rival Svetlana Khorkina would be a slim female half-elf. The Hamm twins are as tall and as heavy as the average male half-elf. The wrestler Rulon Gardner is in the 69th percentile for half-orc height and weight. And sprinter Maurice Green and soccer star Mia Hamm are very close to the D&D height and weight averages for humans.
  • The best Olympic archers are 7th-level rangers, based on their accuracy against a Fine, stationary target 230 feet away and some reasonable assumptions about feat choices.
  • Weightlifter Shane Hamman? Str 23, based on his snatch weight.
  • A 6th-level monk with a +5 movement speed feat can hit a world record for the marathon, which is 27,687 5-foot squares long.

On the other hand, say you hit your foe with an enervation spell. If you hit with a ranged touch attack (sound familiar?), your foe will suffer an average attack penalty of –2.5, plus the same penalty on saving throws and skill checks. If they’re a spellcaster, they’ll lose some spells. And unlike tanglefoot bags, multiple enervations stack. But your foe doesn’t take an AC hit and can move around just fine, so I think it’s an open question whether it’s worse to get hit with an enervation or a tanglefoot bag.

And at the point where we’re comparing a 4th-level spell to tanglefoot bag, I’m seeing a proud nail. I don’t want my players to agonize over which is better: the power of blackest necromancy or a bag full of glue?

Gnome and Halfling Height and Weight

I have a three-year-old son. When he was a toddler at age two, I made a troubling discovery: He was on the height and weight charts for halflings and gnomes. Yet his hands were so small that he needed them both to wield an ordinary pencil. Borrow a two-year-old (return when you’re done), and you’ll see what I mean. Once you grasp just how small gnomes and halflings are, it’s hard to take them seriously as melee combatants. Halflings start at 2 feet, 8 inches tall and 27 pounds. That’s crazy small. In my mind, I imagine gnomes and halflings as bigger than that—call it “Elijah Wood size,” so it’s just an annoyance—proud nail territory.

So that’s my list of proud nails. What are yours? Send us an email at and let us know what the proud nails are at your gaming table. Remember, a proud nail is just sticking up a little. We want the really minor, nitpicky complaints, not things like “A level- and class-based system is antithetical to free-form roleplay.” You should be able to fix a proud nail with one more whack of the hammer, not extensive redesigns of the whole project.

You Craft the Creature

We've been voting these past several weeks, and gearing up for the creature concepts that will put forward by R&D. In the meantime, let's recap where we're at with our good friend, the [AMM]:

  • “Mastermind”
  • Large Aberration
  • Challenge Rating: 15+
  • Special Abilities: Blasphemous Geometries, Wild Magic Aura
  • Defense: Special power (e.g., repulsion field, flame aura, etc.)
  • Environment: Forest
  • Minions: Evil Fey
  • Enemies: Elves

We've also completed nominations for the Tactics & Tips: You Craft the Creature competition, when we asked your advice on how to handle such a foe. Nominations can be read in the following message board thread; be sure to look for the Top 5 nominees to be voted on in the days ahead.

In the meantime, we wanted to continue with our next poll, this time about ability scores. For starters, which ability score is the most important/highest for the [AMM]?

What ability score is most important?

And, since this mastermind has more than its fair share of tricks, what ability score is second most important/highest?

What ability score is next most important?

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.


Thoughts or suggestions for this article? Topics for future Design & Development articles you'd like to see covered? By all means, please feel free to write directly to the authors, at:

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