Monthly Archives: November 2013

Puzzle traps

In my previous post, I introduced gotcha traps, the first of my two categories of traps. This post reveals my second category.

puzzle traps

While characters must search for gotcha traps, puzzle traps always come with clues that signal their presence. With puzzle traps, the fun comes from either deciphering the clues to locate the trap or from working out a method to evade the trap, or both. The details of these traps matter. Because puzzle traps exist as tests of player ingenuity rather than character skill, the party’s rogue probably lacks any special advantage. Players rarely disable a puzzle trap with a quick check, rather they work out the game-world steps required to circumvent the threat. For more on the sort of game-world problem solving encouraged by puzzle traps, see my post, “Player skill without player frustration.”

Puzzle traps work like other obstacles that demand player ingenuity to bypass, but they bear an extra burden to be fair because of the danger to the characters. If an ordinary obstacle proves inscrutable, the game just slows until the players go another way—or the dungeon master has something come through the sealed door from the other side.

On the other hand, the stronger the warning signs that accompany a trap, the more you can increase the trap’s peril. If the players find a gem surround by a ring of blasted corpses, they will accept a certain lethality. Everyone loves to see a reckless instigator get zapped.

“Something about that gem just seems a little off to me.”

“Gee guys, something about that gem just seems a little off to me.”

To make puzzle traps work in the game, players must see evidence of their presence. Include clues that hint about the traps. Make the clues just subtle enough so the players either feel clever for figuring things or chagrined because they missed all the hints that now seem obvious. The last thing you want is players feeling they’re characters are dying because the DM wants to prove his superior ability to add arbitrary traps that kill characters.

sigil of levitationFor example, if the players spot a shaft going up with spikes at the top, they will fairly expect a trap that flings them up using, say, a sigil of levitation. But if the shaft is covered by a hidden trapdoor and players only find the smashed helmet of the last guy to crash up, the clue rates as too obscure.

Trap builders seldom advertise their work, but clues can come for other sources:

  • Earlier explorers leave signs that a trap has been triggered or bypassed. For example, the characters enter a room with spikes driven into the stone walls at ankle height. When triggered, the bottom of the floor opens to a pit. The spikes gave prior explorers a place to stand.
  • Disabled, tripped, or obvious examples of a trap appear earlier in the dungeon, revealing tell-tale signs of similar traps later on. For example, statues of warriors poised with real weapons line a passage. Midway down the passage, a decapitated skeleton reveals the two statues rigged to swing their swords. Later, the party finds a similarly decorated passage, but this time the trap triggers two statues bearing crossbows.
  • Maps, rumors, or hints reach the players from earlier expeditions or from other dungeon residents. These sorts of clues can bring social skills underground. Can the players trust a captive to lead them past a trap, or to lead them into one?
  • The dungeon’s builders built in puzzles or clues to test intruders’ cunning. For example, the entrance hall of the Tomb of Horrors includes a lengthy clue written into the floor. (Too bad Acererak’s obfuscated, ambiguous clues are almost as likely to send characters to doom as to success. Do avoid anything green though.)
  • Current denizens left evidence of the methods they use to bypass a trap. For example, players wade through a partially flooded passage and find a broad plank near a door. Unknown to the players, the door opens onto an unflooded stairway down. Opening the door causes a rush of water to sweep the the players down the stairs. Before opening the door, the dungeon’s inhabitants block the water by setting the plank across the bottom of the door, and then they step over the plank.
  • The trap gives signs of arming arming before it triggers. For example, someone steps on a floor tile and hears an audible click. This forces the rest of the party to search for a way to disarm or avoid the trap before the unlucky character raises a foot.

Usually, with puzzle traps, using the clues to decipher the nature of the trap leads to fairly simple countermeasures. Don’t stand there. Don’t touch that. But sometimes evading a trap can present as much of a puzzle as finding it. For example, consider my reverse pit, with the upward shaft and the sigil of levitation. To bypass the trap’s obstacle, players might need to secure someone with a rope to be raised to a passage half way up the shaft.

As I wrote this post, I scoured some classic, trap-filled dungeons looking for examples of the sort of puzzle traps that I recommend. Even though the classics served as my inspiration, I found few examples that suited my principles. Are my standards for trap design overly high? What published adventures contain puzzle traps such as the ones I recommend?

Related: Ars Lundi did a post on traps that reaches some of the same conclusions as I do. In the post, Ben Robbins calls the two categories zap traps and interactive traps. I like his term of “interactive traps” better than my term “puzzle traps.”

Gotcha traps

Return to Undermountain trapLongtime Dungeons & Dragons designer Steve Winter puts traps into four categories. While I like the ideas inspired by his story traps and back traps, I focus trap design on two categories.

  • Gotcha traps are the traps thieves can find and disarm. When triggered, they can deal damage comparable to the attrition of a combat encounter.
  • Puzzle traps are the traps that defy a rogue or thief’s skills, but that reveal clues to their presence. With strong enough clues, puzzle traps can be death traps.

Both categories under the umbrella of D&D traps, but they share almost nothing in common. Each contributes different elements to the game and requires a different approach to design.

Gotcha traps

Gotcha traps include things like trap doors, poison darts, and falling rocks. As my name suggests, these traps catch unwary adventurers by surprise. Typically, no one cares about the mechanisms and operation of these traps, so the rogue just rolls to disable them, or the party steps around them.

Gotcha traps contribute to the game in three ways:

  • They offer the rogue a chance to shine—and not by demonstrating her ability to backstab a magical crossbow turret for massive damage.
  • They add to the ambiance of the dungeon. I like my dungeons to feel like dangerous places where one wrong step can bring sudden death (even if it probably won’t). On page 6 of Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gary Gygax writes, “Besides those [traps] already indicated on the sample level, there are a number of other easily added tricks and traps. The fear of ‘death,’ its risk each time, is one of the most stimulating parts of the game. It therefore behooves the campaign referee to include as many mystifying and dangerous areas as is consistent with a reasonable chance for survival.”
  • They cool off the instigator. You know that guy who grows impatient with caution and planning, and so just opens all the doors at once? Everyone who enjoys a more thoughtful game and everyone who actually cares about keeping their character alive loves to see that guy get zapped.

To make gotcha traps work in the game, follow three guidelines:

  • Gotcha traps must appear in places that attract attention and in places where a trap might make sense. This means dungeon doors, chests, and mysterious idols make fair places for traps. However, if you punish players with a tripwire in a random corridor or a pressure plate in an empty room, players soon learn to check everything and play grinds to a halt. If the players stumble on a gotcha trap in a place they failed to search, they should feel guilty of an oversight, not victim of a pernicious dungeon master.
  • Gotcha traps cannot inflict more damage than a typical combat encounter. Blown rolls will cause players to blunder into some gotcha traps, so the effects cannot be lethal. You can read Grimtooth’s traps, but do not put them in play. In Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gary writes, “There is no question that a player’s character could easily be killed by falling into a pit thirty feet deep or into a shallow pit filled with poisoned spikes, and this is quite undesirable in most instances.”
  • Gotcha traps must appear infrequently so they don’t grow tiresome.

Next: Puzzle traps.

Fourth edition gives traps a new design

When the fourth edition designers rethought D&D, they saw traps as posing two core problems:

  • Traps can frustrate players
  • Traps can slow play to tedium

Problem: Traps that challenge player ingenuity can lead to player frustration.

This problem arises when when dungeon masters limit the players to a preconceived menu of potential solutions. This approach riddles the Tomb of Horrors, which includes many predicaments that require curiously-specific recipes of spells or actions to escape.

Have you ever noticed how the Tomb of Horrors makes the demi-lich only vulnerable to a short list of curiously-specific attacks?

The demi-lich’s skull can be harmed only as follows:

  • a forget spell will force the skull to sink down without taking a soul
  • a shatter spell thrown at it inflicts 10 h.p. of damage
  • a power word, kill pronounced from the an astral or ethereal magic-user will destroy it.
  • only a fighter with a vorpal blade, a ranger with a sword of sharpness +5, or a vorpal weapon, or a paladin with the like or even a +4 weapon can inflict damage on the skull
  • an exorcise spell will cause it to sink as a forget does
  • a dispel evil spell inflicts 5 h.p. of damage
  • a holy word pronounced against it will inflict 20 h.p. of damage
  • a thief slinging one of the large gems in the crypt will inflict 1 h.p. of damage per 10,00 g.p. of value, i.e. 1, 5,, or 10 h.p. of damage, but the gem is thereby shattered

A power word, kill does nothing, unless you happen to be ethereal or astral! How would anyone think of that?

Despite creating these odd recipes, Gary Gygax had the wisdom to allow an unexpected solution. In the Foreword to Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Gary writes the following: “In one tournament use of the setting, a team managed to triumph by using the crown and scepter found earlier as the ultimate tool against the demilich. As Acererak’s skull levitated, one PC set said crown firmly upon the bony pate; another tapped the regal adornment with the ‘wrong’ end of the scepter. Poof! Scratch one demilich, and give the tournament’s first place to the innovative team of players who thought of this novel solution. Russ Stambaugh, the DM for the group, was stunned. ‘Could that work?’ he asked. I shrugged, admitted I certainly hadn’t thought of it and  that it was a stroke of genius that deserved a reward.

In Traps!, fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “In the early days, DMs all too often felt compelled to demonstrate their cleverness and punish players for making ‘wrong’ choices—even a choice as simple and random as which passage to explore.” For example, Tomb of Horrors.

I explored this subject in my post, “Player skill without player frustration.”

Problem: Traps can slow play to tedium.

Regarding the problem of slow play, Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “The ‘right’ way to play the game was to slowly and laboriously search each 10-foot square of dungeon before you set foot on it, or to use magic that made traps completely pointless. Neither option was much fun.”

Radney-MacFarland never mentions that old-school traps require wandering monsters or some other time pressure to avoid grinding the game to a halt. Of course, if time pressure denied characters the chance to look for the trap that killed them, the hazard seems arbitrary and unfair.

I wrote about this subject in my post, “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.”

Fourth edition gives traps a new design

Radney-MacFarland admits designers thought about “disappearing” traps from the game, but decided to try fixing them first.

The 4E design sought to fix the problem of frustrated players by eliminating traps that only challenge player ingenuity. “We wanted to expand the ways in which you could counter a trap. Much like figuring out that sometimes you wanted other skills to allow a character to recognize a trap’s threat, we made an effort to design traps that could be countered with an interesting skill uses.” Skill checks became the core mechanic for resolving traps. The game invited dungeon masters to allow as many different skills as plausible so everyone could share the fun of making skill checks.

Most players prefer traps that require ingenuity to overcome, because such challenges make the players’ decisions matter in the game world. But not all players favor this play style. Remember that player who insisted that a disable trap roll enables their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge? He may have grown up to be a 4E designer. Still, the designers recognized that turning traps into a cause for skill checks failed to offer enough fun, so they redesign went farther.

“Most traps work best when they ‘replace’ a monster in a combat encounter, or serve as a hazard equally threatening to both sides.” In 4E, traps become a sort of stationary monster that the characters can disable or attack. Like monsters, traps make attacks, grant experience, and have solo and elite varieties. In this new concept, traps add spice to combat encounters, allow rogues to strut their skills, and target monsters as well as players—a new tactical element.

Radney-MacFarland writes, “Don’t fret, rogue fans. That class and other characters trained in Thievery are still the party’s best hope to shut down traps quickly and well.” But fourth-edition rogues soon learned to approach traps like everyone else, by attacking. Fourth-edition rogues inflict so much damage that a series of thievery checks always took longer than just attacking a battlefield trap.

Justifying battlefield traps

In the game world, the battlefield trap always seemed hard to justify. I pity dungeon builders stupid enough to bother enchanting, say, an automatic-crossbow trap rather than an iron defender or other construct. Unlike constructs, traps (a) cannot move, (b) can be disabled, and (c) will attack your guards as well as intruders. The dungeon builder’s henchmen, hired to fight alongside their master’s indiscriminate death machines, should look for a job at a better class of dungeon.

Faced with justifying battlefield traps, adventure writers opted to make them target player characters, but now they just played like monsters—ineffective, immobile monsters.

The 4E approach to traps never proved as satisfying as hoped. As the edition evolved, we saw a gradual return to classic traps, even with all their problems.

Next: I separate traps into two categories: gotcha traps and puzzle traps.

A history of traps in Dungeons & Dragons

In original Dungeons & Dragons, the three brown books only include one rule for traps. “Traps are usually sprung by a roll of a 1 or a 2 when any character passes over or by them.” That’s it. The rules never explain how characters can find traps without resorting to magic. This lone rule works with the early play style. If you wanted to find pit traps, you just told your dungeon master how you pushed down on the floor ahead with your 10’ pole. Or you sent your hireling ahead first.

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

In traditional D&D play, players rely almost entirely on their ingenuity to overcome traps and other obstacles in the game. Most players enjoy this style of play because their own observations, judgement, and decisions matter in the game world. If we preferred random chance and freedom from decisions, we would play Candyland.

In Book III, Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gary Gygax lists a dozen tricks and traps such as slanting passages, sinking rooms, and one-way doors. All foil mapping or freedom of movement, and none need rules to play, just player ingenuity.

Undoubtedly, Gary had thought of other traps such as spring blades, poison needles, and warning bells, but his list conspicuously omits any traps that seem to require game-world dexterity or knowledge to overcome.

In the May 1974 issue of a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter, Gary Gygax presented the thief class. In his introduction, Gary tells how the class was suggested by a gamer named Gary Schweitzer (probably Santa Monica gamer Gary Switzer). “He mentioned that his group was developing a new class of character—thieves. Gary gave me a few details of how they were considering this character type, and from from these I have constructed tentative rules for the class.” See Gygax’s “The Thief Addition” (1974) for more. In 1975, Supplement I: Greyhawk made the class official.

The thief class featured the ability to “remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)” At level 1, the thief boasts a 10% chance! So when your new thief says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” the party should dive for cover. Original thieves enjoy no special ability to detect traps. Keep your hirelings in front.

The thief’s limit to disabling “small trap devices” seems to exist as an attempt to confine thieves to working on traps that require a character’s game-world knowledge and dexterity. For example, a chest rigged to release deadly gas requires a thief’s game-world finesse, and a die roll. Big traps like pits and rolling boulders, which can be beaten through player ingenuity, remain outside of the thief’s skills. Players can tell the DM the steps their characters take to bridge a pit or to chock the rolling-boulder trap.

In the summer of 1975, Gary Gygax brought the Tomb of Horrors to the Origins convention for a D&D tournament. One of the tournament’s players wrote a first-hand account of the event for issue 4 of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Even though the party includes two members of the new thief class, the Tomb offers virtually no place for them to disarm traps, and the Tomb [SPOILERS!] is loaded with traps. To determine when players get caught by traps, Gary fills the adventure with an ad-hoc system of saving throws, rolls of 1-2 on a d6, and verbal countdowns. (Player tip: If the DM begins to count down, run!) The Tomb’s legendary status comes from the mix of ingenuity, divination, and attrition required to bypass its memorable deathtraps, rather than the number of disarm checks needed. (DM Tip: if you run the Tomb and allow thieves to detect or disarm much, you’re doing it wrong. The Tomb of Tiresome Checks is a different adventure.)

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, thieves finally gained the ability to locate traps. A low-level rogue’s odds remained dismal, quickly upstaged when the priest gains Find Traps at level 3.

The rogue or thief’s limit to finding and disarming small traps remained in second edition. “These include poisoned needles, spring blades, deadly gasses, and warning bells,” but do not include “large, mechanical traps.”

In third edition, traps gained a systematic treatment, complete with triggers, effects, and difficulty classes.

By third edition, the trapfinding ability enabled rogues the chance to locate and disable anything that the DM categorizes as a trap, small or large, magical or mundane. This gave rogues more chances to shine, but heightened the tension between the traps a thief can find and disable and the traps that test player ingenuity. We have all encountered players who insist that a disable trap roll will enable their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge. So does staying at home, but neither tactic leads to much fun.

Next: Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons invents a new kind of trap.

Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play

In my last post, I reviewed the history of wandering monsters and random encounters in Dungeons & Dragons and discussed how the game changed to meet my own negative views of wandering monsters. However, I failed to see how wandering monsters can benefit D&D; now I begin to see.

Wandering monsters can enhance Dungeons & Dragons play in three ways:

Wandering monsters speed play

On page 97 of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, Gary Gygax recommends “frequent checking for wandering monsters” as one method to speed play. He suggests saying, “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far.” Without wandering monsters, players can slow the game with meticulous play, searching everything, checking everything, accomplishing nothing. “Now we check the trap for traps.”

Unlike most dungeon crawls, The Tomb of Horrors lacks wandering monsters. The Tomb rewards painstaking caution, so the lack of random encounters accounts for some of the Tomb’s reputation for slowing to a punishing slog. While some players may enjoy excavating the Tomb like archaeologists, for most players, the caution amounts to pure tedium. Outside of Gary’s home group, the first players to explore the Tome of Horrors worked under the real-time pressure of a D&D tournament.

Without random encounters, adventures must inject time pressure from other sources. This explains all the lair assaults where players must stop a ritual’s completion, or the poison gas rising through the The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan.

Wandering monsters discourage the 5-minute work day

Ever since D&D expanded beyond mega-dungeons filled with wandering monsters, the game’s designers and dungeon masters have struggled to penalize the five-minute work day—the players’ ability to tackle one short encounter and then replenish their resources by sleeping before moving on. In the game’s early days, wandering monsters eliminated the players’ ability to retreat from the dungeon without risk, because new monsters would wander in to occupy the players’ way out. Players could spike shut the doors of a room, keep watch, and hope for the best, but that strategy brought danger too. Without wandering monsters, 4E attempted to discourage the 5-minute work day by creating renewable encounter powers, and by granting action points to encourage players to advance. Ultimately, a source of in-game time pressure stands as the best remedy for the 5-minute work day.

Wandering monsters make travel times and distances meaningful

From the Odyssey to Tolkien to now, tales of great journeys dominate fantasy fiction. But in our games, players routinely cut across great distances, traveling by map, or with a quick synopsis from the DM. Random encounters turn distances into a challenge that cannot be dismissed.

I credit this insight to the Radiating Gnome’s terrific post, “Random Encounters: Friend or Foe?” The Gnome writes, “Our characters were faced with a journey from one city to another. We looked at the hand-drawn map and I realized I was counting out the days we would have to travel, and thinking about how many encounters we would have to face along the way. A strange bit of alchemy had taken place—random encounters had made the distance between the two locations real. We had to talk seriously about what sort of supplies we might need to take, and think about the sort of encounters we might run into based on the routes we selected.”

To make the most of this benefit, players must understand that travel brings a risk of unplanned encounters. Also, I recommend emulating the wandering monster tables of the old days, where players could meet rare threats too dangerous to fight.

I have served as a dungeon master on and off for decades, and up to now, I don’t think I have ever rolled a random encounter. With the arrival of D&D Next, I suspect that will change. (Rolls dice.) “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU—so far.”

Update: When I wrote this post, I knew this topic had already inspired some insightful writing. The Radiating Gnome’s terrific post, “Random Encounters: Friend or Foe?” nearly convinced me to find another topic. Soon after I posted, James Wyatt weighed in with a Wandering Monsters post on wandering monsters. Today I discovered Steve Winter’s case for wandering monsters, plus he convinced me to replace wandering monsters with random encounters. Steve’s posts are so good that I wish I had written them.