Tag Archives: player skill

The 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. Except for the Find Traps spell, the rules never explain how characters can find traps. In D&D’s original 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. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

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 foiled a retreat from the dungeon. They threatened to make characters lose their way out, or worse, deliver them to a deeper level and more more dangerous foes. None of these traps 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 finesse 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.” 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 aptitude, 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  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.) See Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain.

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. This thief ability implied that no one else could find traps—after all, other classes lacked a Find Traps percentage. Third edition set this limitation in the rules by allowing rogues (and only rogues) to find traps “well hidden” behind a 20 or higher Search difficulty.

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. 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.

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.

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. See 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. See 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 fourth-edition 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.

Many 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. The fourth edition design aimed to please players who insisted that a disable trap roll enabled their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge. 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 fourth edition, 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.

The fourth-edition 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.

Fifth-edition traps

Although complex traps revisit the good ideas from fourth edition’s battlefield traps, most fifth-edition traps recall the ones from before fourth edition. The rules offer advice for avoiding the problems with traps. “Traps are most effective when their presence comes as a surprise, not when they appear so often that the characters spend all their effort watching out for the next one.”

Just like thieves in D&D’s original game, fifth-edition rogues lack any special ability to find traps. Now, to find a trap, any character can attempt a Wisdom (Perception) check. The rules specifically allow players to find traps by looking in the right places. “You should allow a character to discover a trap without making an ability check if an action would clearly reveal the trap’s presence. For example, if a character lifts a rug that conceals a pressure plate, the character has found the trigger and no check is required.”

Depending on the trap, the best way to disarm may be a Dexterity or Strength check, but player ingenuity often works. “As with many situations, you shouldn’t allow die rolling to override clever play and good planning.” If disarming a device requires a check, the rogue’s proficiency with thieves tools can help.

Ironically, rogues rarely have high Wisdom, so they rate as bad at finding traps. Lucky for today’s rogues, the class pivoted from unlock-and-disarm specialists to hidden snipers. See The Thief’s Strange Trip From Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination.

5 Reasons Someone Might Build a Dungeon Filled With Clues, Tests, and Riddles

Dungeons & Dragons features a long tradition of dungeons built with tricks and puzzles to test and confound intruders.

C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness cover

C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness

Funhouse dungeons filled with odd challenges such as White Plume Mountain and Ghost Tower of Inverness rate as some of the most beloved adventures of D&D’s golden age. Most players enjoy these sorts of conundrums.

But why would any dungeon builder construct a room that forced intruders to answer riddles or to move like chess pieces on a huge board? Traditionally, dungeon authors provided one of two answers:

  • “The builder was crazy.”
  • “Are you going to keep asking annoying questions or are you going to play the game?”

Unless your players signed up to play in a game set in 1978, dungeons built by insane, magical pranksters no longer seem fresh or plausible; the life-size chess boards and reverse-gravity rooms can feel tired and silly. Also, while the crazy-wizard premise offers dungeon authors complete freedom, it gives little backstory to serve as a source of inspiration.

Still, Keraptis, Galap-Dreidel, and I all share an affection for pitting adventures against a strange and confounding room, so I will list some other reasons why a dungeon’s architects might build in clues and tests for intruders.

Some of these reasons assume that a dungeon exists to help guard or defend something: treasure in tombs, powerful or dangerous items in vaults, creatures in lairs or prisons. These dungeons’ built-in challenges allow worthy intruders through, and tempt the unworthy to die trying.

A test of merit

From the sword in the stone to the quest for the princess’s hand, fantasy offers plenty of examples of tests to reveal the worthy. A dungeon’s challenges could be constructed to reward the worthy and slay those lacking.

In the 2013 D&D Championship, players needed to solve three puzzles to retrieve three magic staffs. The puzzles were created to prevent the addled, insane cultists of Zargon from seizing the staffs before worthy champions.

Dungeon Crawl Classics 15: Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen

Dungeon Crawl Classics 15: Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen

In the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen, the tomb is a prison for the evil Sphinx Queen. “The labyrinth below consists of a series of guardian creatures and traps, designed both to test the party (to ensure that they’re powerful enough to destroy Ankharet and her crown) and to teach them of the now-forgotten glories of the Sphinx Empire.”

The clues tempt intruders with false hopes for success

The dungeon includes clues and puzzles so that the any survivors who escape will spread tales that serve as a challenge, tempting more adventurers to test their meddle.

The original Tomb of Horrors acts as trap to capture the souls of the strongest adventurers for some wicked purpose. The ambiguous clues written on the tomb’s floor seem almost as likely to lead to death as to success, so could they be a lure for more victims?

Challenges taunt intruders with the builder’s genius

The dungeon’s builder is like the serial killer who leaves clues because he wants to flaunt his genius over the cops pursuing him, or because his name is Edward Nigma so what else? This premise works as a more plausible version of the insane prankster.

The 2010, fourth edition Tomb of Horrors says, “It’s not enough for Acererak to win; he has to to prove his superiority by by saying, ‘I gave you a chance, and you still weren’t smart enough to beat me.’”

Someone wishes for the dungeon to fail its purpose

During a dungeon’s construction, something may have worked to sabotage it so that it ultimately fails its purpose. This sabotage can come from a few sources:

  • psychological conflict. We’ve all heard stories of the killer who secretly wished to be caught. Suppose a dungeon builder’s inner demons—or real, live demons—drive her to create a dungeon’s death traps, but her better nature, or some compulsion, or even a foe’s geas drives her to bury clues with the traps.
  • architects and workers. Most dungeon builders recruit architects and workers to construct their vaults. The patrons always boast of retirement plans, while they plan to slay their workers to preserve the dungeon’s secrets. But suppose the architects added clues as a means of revenge on their overlord? This results in a dungeon filled with clues subtle enough to escape the overlord’s notice, but within the grasp of clever adventurers.

    Charles IV of Spain and his Family paid for a portrait that flattered them with glittering jewels and finery, but the family’s dead eyes reveal them as foolish and banal.

    Buyer beware: Charles IV of Spain and his Family paid for a portrait that flattered them with glittering jewels and finery, but the family’s dead eyes reveal what artist Francisco Goya thought of them.

  • bargains. Fantasy includes many examples where bargains with mystical powers give a scheme an Achilles heel. Here, the dungeon’s weakness comes from the same, mighty powers called to help construction. Great magic often comes from a source with its own, unknowable motives.
    In the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, Tears of the Genie, the Grand Caliph binds a djinni in his dungeon, but the gods of Àereth force the Grand Caliph hide the means of freeing the djinni within the prison.

Dungeon crawling is a sport

XCrawl Crawl or Die

XCrawl

If adventurers crowd the streets and dungeons lie under every mountain, then dungeon crawling could become sport. This premise supports the six Challenge of Champions adventures that appeared in Dungeon magazine. Pandahead productions combined dungeon crawling for sport with all the posturing and pay-per-view rights of professional wrestling to create XCrawl. This premise abandons the mystery and enchantment of the exploring ruins, and replaces the thrill of confronting evil with artificial challenges and, in the case of XCrawl, humor.

If mortals can find sport in dungeons, then gods can too. Beedo from Dreams in the Lich House imagines death mountain, a place where the death god Hades can lure the land’s heroes, and then collect their skulls as trophies. This concept fits with the Olympians’ penchant for using mortal proxies as toys. “The other gods, for that matter, are greatly entertained when heroes overcome the machinations of the death god, and have gone so far as to sprinkle Hades’ sprawling dungeon with divine boons, godly weapons, and hidden shrines and sanctuaries where their beloved champions might gain a small respite.”

A religion or cult demands it

When Mike Shel decided to write an adventure inspired by Tomb of Horrors, he realized that the original tomb failed to provide much justification for its built-in clues and challenges. For The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb, he created a cult of mud sorcerers, who “delighted in riddles and conundrums, disdaining those who couldn’t equal their mental prowess.” And then he gave them a reason for planting clues. “It may puzzle your players that Tzolo would leave hints lying about for would-be grave robbers. However, the clues were intended for for her liberating servants.”

Mike Shel was on to something. D&D’s assumed background needs a cult or religion that provides a ready-made excuse for dungeons that test characters with puzzles and strange obstacles. The mud sorcerers point the way, but their plan seems flawed. Why build clues for your servants that could also aid meddling do-gooders?

I propose a new creation.

The cult of Seermock, god of wealth and power through cunning

Seermock serves as a secret patron to those of wealth and power who earned their status through scheming and manipulation. Although few know of the cult’s existence, Seermock gladly spurns the common herd that he deems unworthy. Seermock upholds these principles:

  • Wealth and power exist as a reward reserved for the cunning, while those of lesser intellect deserve impoverishment, servitude, and then death.
  • The weak minded who wish to claim wealth and power must suffer punishment for their presumption.
  • Bequeathing wealth on the unworthy only rewards the foolish. Those cunning enough to join Seermock after death must strive to protect their worldly gains from those of dull wit.

Like many figures of wealth and power, followers of Seermock strive to memorialize their achievements with grand tombs. But followers of Seermock build their tombs to test those who attempt to seize the riches inside, rewarding the clever while slaying others presumptuous enough to seek treasures they do not deserve.

The Fun Thing D&D Players Love that No One Mentions and that the Game Almost Lost

Game mastering advice tends to lavish attention on what players enjoy. Things like playing a role, enjoying a sense of power, plotting strategies, and so on.

Another pleasure of role-playing games ranks just as high, even though the folks who offer game mastering advice rarely mention it.

Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world. Humans love finding order in a jumble. The impulse drives scientists, detectives, and conspiracy theorists.

In Dungeons & Dragons, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions—call them traps and toys.

The joy of figuring things out led to a type of adventure that didn’t exist during the first years of role playing. Investigation adventures now rank as one of the most popular styles. Much of the fun of an investigation or mystery comes from connecting the dots between clues. The challenges come along the way.

For example, players investigating missing magical reagents might start with the guild alchemist. He stole the reagents to help a secret lover out of a jam. Under pressure, the alchemist explains that his lover hasn’t been seen since getting the reagents, but that the couple used to meet at an particular inn. This leads to the innkeeper, who saw someone with the lover’s description meeting with someone wearing a flower that only grows at the royal arboretum. One clue leads to the next. Investigations ask player to make connections and figure things out.

Before investigations, player still found pleasure in figuring things out. Tomb of Horrors is packed with things to figure out. Taunting clues, secret doors, false endings, and so on. This abundance leads to some of the Tomb’s lasting appeal. But the tomb also set a terrible example.

In the Tomb, players figure things out to advance or to survive. Too often, D&D adventures have forced players to figure out puzzles to continue. For example, countless adventures include a magic portal that requires just the right activation to open. If players fail to figure out the key, they reach a dead end. Or in the case of the Tomb, they’re dead, the end. About everything in the Tomb works that way.

This sort of design gave puzzles—D&D’s original thing to figure out—a bad rap. No one likes to feel stuck or frustrated or stupid.

To avoid such bad feelings, fourth edition’s designers emphasized character skill over player skill. They aimed for a D&D game where no player felt forced to figure anything out. Accidentally, they nearly lost a source of fun.

Nonetheless, adventures that force players to solve a puzzle risk a bad D&D session. But players still love to figure things out, and the best adventures give them lots of chances to indulge—if the players like.

When you create adventures, rather than forcing players to puzzle out something that blocks their way, add more toys to figure out. For instance, imagine a magic fountain that the players can ignore. Scattered coins lie under its clear water. A bag of coins hangs from a hook. Tossing in a coin causes the waters to cloud and show a room somewhere. At the far end stands a statue of a king. The vision fades. Dropping a second coin reveals the same room from a different angle. This time a statue of a queen faces the viewer. Players can move on, but interacting with the puzzle reveals something interesting to figure out.

Fun adventures come sprinkled with things to figure out.

The best traps challenge players to figure something out. Puzzle traps hint at their presence. The fun comes from either deciphering clues to locate the trap or from working out a method to evade the trap, or both. Players rarely disable a puzzle trap with a quick check, rather they figure out the game-world steps required to avoid the threat.

I used to think that the fun of figuring things out came from the thrill of beating a difficult puzzle. The harder the challenge, the greater the thrill of victory. I was wrong. Part of the fun of figuring things out comes from feeling smart and successful. When players stall on a confounding problem, they just feel thwarted. The best puzzles serve just enough challenge so players suppose that they succeeded where others might fail.

Examining the coins reveals the faces of kings and queens. When the players toss in the queen’s coin, they see the king’s statue, and vice versa. Any party could figure out the fountain’s operation, especially if tossing another coin reveals a familiar place. Casting a coin temporarily reveals a view from a royal statue depicting the figure on the coin. Still, figuring out the fountain will bring fun.

Once players figure things out, they appreciate rewards that validate their success. Sometimes insight leads to treasure or an easier encounter. At first, the alchemist pretends to know nothing of the missing reagents, but if the players find a hidden love letter and make the connection, he cracks. That fountain could reveal some secrets in the adventure ahead.

In investigations, figuring advances the plot, but the same joy can come from spotting and making connections that don’t affect an outcome. Movie Easter eggs bring this pleasure.

The chance to figure things out provides a painless way to deliver backstory to the players—if they care. Start with the story and add ways to reveal it to the players. Avoid using journal entries. Think of subtler clues that reveal history in bite-size chunks. In Tomb of Annihilation, the Garden of Nangalore reveals its story in clues scattered throughout the site. Success here even leads to a reward: At the end, players who figure out the story can fare better when they meet the queen.

The next time you dream up an adventure, add things for your group’s actors and tacticians, but also add something to figure out.

Challenging Your Players’ Skill Without Risking Frustration

The Zork II computer game from 1981 includes a locked door that you can open by solving a clever puzzle. The door has the old-fashioned sort of lock that lets you look through the keyhole and see the other side. Except here, the key is in the other side of the lock. You slide a mat under the door, and then poke the key out onto the mat. When you pull the mat back, you have the key.Zork II Box Art

Back when Dungeons & Dragons consisted of the original brown box, before skills, before rogues, before thieves, all the obstacles in the game invited that style of play. You overcame obstacles by immersing yourself in the game world, making decisions, and problem solving. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

This style of play suffers from the same problem as the puzzle in Zork. When Zork II came out, I had only ever seen that sort of old-fashioned lock in my grandma’s house. And if you’ve never examined that kind of lock, the door puzzle simply leaves you stuck and frustrated.

In the old computer adventure games, when you became stuck and frustrated, you had to send money for a hint sheet, and then wait for it to arrive in the mail.

Fourth edition attempted to eliminate such frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. During this era, Dungeon magazine’s submission guidelines warned authors to create challenges for the characters, not the players. When every obstacle has a DC and multiple skills, then no one gets frustrated. If you find a locked door, you can pick the lock with Thievery, or break the door with Athletics.

No one gets frustrated, but no one feels engaged either. When the game only challenges character skill, the players never need to make meaningful decisions or engage the game world. They just look at their character sheet for the best applicable skill. This improves on playing guess-the-solution-I-thought-of with an inflexible DM, but the picking a skill and rolling is less fun than D&D can be.

The fourth-edition designers must have know this, but they emphasized selecting skills and rolling outcomes for a two reasons:

  • To add weight to the choices players make when they build characters. See The Pros and Cons of D&D’s Ability Checks.
  • To prevent inflexible DMs from hurting the game. Fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland wrote, “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.”

Such inflexible, punitive DMs neared extinction decades ago. When Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea asked players to cite the traits of a good DM, flexible ranked first.

Dungeon masters can challenge players without risking player frustration, because DMs can allow creative solutions.

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 Acererak’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? Also, the demi-lich is vulnerable to the destruction of very expensive gems. That messes with the players in the best(?) old-school tradition. Only someone immersed in that tradition would even consider the gem attack.

Once, I thought that this list exposed Gary Gygax as an inflexible DM working to punish players. After all, he devised the tomb to challenge—and frustrate—those “fans who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game.”

Now, I see the list differently. I suspect Gary created Acererak with no vulnerabilities in mind, but as he ran the adventure, players invented attacks. If Gary judged them reasonable, he allowed them to work. When Gary wrote the adventure for publication, he listed the attacks he had allowed so far.

Gary Gygax had the wisdom to allow a creative solution. In the Foreword to Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Gary wrote, “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.

When I DM, I love to be surprised. One of the great joys of being a DM is crafting some trap or obstacle, leaving a couple ways to overcome it, and then watching as the players crack the problem with a third way. I’ve run campaigns for groups who proved so good at coming up with unexpected solutions, that I stopped worrying about planning any solutions. I just sat back and watched the players come of with something.

I have three bits of advice for refereeing game-world obstacles that demand player skill to overcome.

  • Watch the players for signs of frustration. Be prepared to let he characters uncover a new clue, or to just have something on the other side of that locked door come and open it.
  • It’s good to say yes, but avoid being too quick to accept implausible solutions. If a couple of players are deeply engaged in a predicament, and you allow any dumb idea to work, they just get annoyed. The last thing you want is a player arguing that something you allowed should fail.
  • Watch out for clever, repeatable ideas that break the game. I remember a player who regaled me with a story that he remembered fondly. His party defeated a dragon by enclosing it in a wall of force shaped like a giant fishbowl, complete with an opening on top too small for escape. Next, they created water above the opening, filling the fishbowl and drowning the dragon. I suspect that no version of Wall of Force ever actually allowed such shenanigans, but as a one-time trick, the stunt created a moment the players’ loved. I wonder what the DM decided to do when the players kept trying to repeat it. If you can use this trick on a dragon, the dungeon becomes your aquarium.

The Pros and Cons of D&D’s Ability Checks

In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, players searched by telling the dungeon master where they wanted to look, and then the dungeon master told them if something was there. The game resolved most actions using back and forth dialog, plus clear cause and effect. Before skills and core mechanics, resolution relied on the on the logic of the game world. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

Old-school gamers swear by this method, and with good reason: It grants players, and not the dice, control over their characters’ fates. It makes player decisions and ingenuity count. The details of the game world matter.

But some tasks demand a character’s talents to succeed, so this sort of resolution cannot cover every action: listening at doors, creeping behind an enemy, balancing atop a rope spanning a moat.

Once skills and ability checks entered the game, they began to spread. Over the years, D&D’s rules encouraged players to rely more on checks. This trend peaked in fourth edition. In skill challenges, players overcame obstacles by explaining how their character’s skills could help, and by rolling checks. As written, players never needed to engage the game world or to show ingenuity. They just found the best applicable skill.

Although fourth edition promoted checks more than many players wanted, the emphasis brought advantages.

Making characters unique

In the original D&D game, characters that shared a class and level all played about the same. Without ability checks, their ability scores rarely affected play. Without skills, they all featured the same capabilities.

The fourth-edition designers created a game optimized for a style of play where players built awesome characters and then showed them off in encounters—either battles or skill challenges. Character building became as much a part of playing D&D as time at the table.

By emphasizing checks, the game highlights each character’s talents and limitations. When a player invests in a persuasive character with a high charisma, they can win allies with a die roll. On the other side, if you play a character with an 8 Intelligence, your own brains cover some of your character’s stupidity, except when you make intelligence checks. You might solve a real puzzle, but an abstract one makes your character face a check.

Commenting on another post, Andrea Back describes it well, “Without skills, you end up with you playing you in a fantasy dress, with all your own limitations and qualities laid bare.”

On the other hand…

In the fourth edition, designers made the mistake of emphasized the parts of D&D that video games do best. If you want character building, electronic games offer more options, and you can play your character at any hour from the comfort of home. Tabletop games thrive when the focus on aspects that computers can’t match, so why focus on choosing skills and playing against random chance? By joining live players and a DM, we gain the ability to speak as our character and attempt any action, even ones not in the rules.

Skipping the dull parts

Sometimes a check can provide a shortcut for tasks that could prove dull. If the players want to search a cluttered room, but want to avoid the tedium of describing how they cut the straw mattresses, sift the dirt in the flowerpots, and so on and on, a check seems like a time saver. Fourth edition’s Streetwise skill seems contrived to skip the urban role-playing that the designers found tiresome.

On the other hand…

As a DM, I steer the game away from activities no one seems to enjoy, but I feel wary of letting someone use a die roll to cheat the other players out of the fun of interacting with the game world and actually playing the game. However, if the entire table agrees, we can just substitute a Wisdom (Survival) check for that trip to Tomb of Horrors.

Shaping the game

Different players favor at different parts of the D&D game. Some lavish attention on crafting characters. For them, the fun at the table comes from showing off their creations. Fourth edition was made for players like this.

Some players use their character to shape the sort of game they want to play. Sometimes this means making a character good in an area where the player feels weak. If you lack charm, but play a charismatic paladin, you can let a persuasion roll do all the talking. Even the most timid player can enjoy the benefits of a magnetic personality.

Sometimes players craft characters able to breeze through challenges that the player finds tiresome. They claim that their character has more brains, and ask to solve a puzzle with a check. I once met a player who optimized characters for combat because he wanted to speed through the battles.

On the other hand…

We gather at the game table to enjoy the tactics, ingenuity, and silly voices. Most of the time, we would rather act as our character rather than just rolling dice on their behalf.

More than once I’ve seen a player make an impassioned speech in character, asking the Baron, for instance, to defend the settlers. The player’s voice trembles with passion as she speaks of courage, loyalty, and the honor of the Baron’s ancestors, calling their spirits by name. The player steps down from atop a chair to applause and tearing eyes. But then, feeling bound by the system, I ask for a Charisma (Persuasion) check with the advantage earned for an outstanding performance. Then the orator rolls, and flubs. Sorry, you fail.

In situations beyond diplomacy, specific actions can also make a check seem pointless. If someone taps the bottom of a chest looking for the secret compartment, skip the search check and just reveal the location. If someone describes an ingenious use of leverage to lift a gate, skip the strength check.

Rolling for surprise

We all savor the split-second drama of waiting to see the outcome of a die roll. Every player remembers a moment when a lucky roll made a crazy, long-shot scheme work, or when bad rolls caused a plan to unravel and forced everyone to plan B and then to C. If these moments came from a DM’s ruling, they would seem like cases of DMs steering the game to fit their story. The magic comes because the dice twisted fate, making a surprise that proved unforgettable.

On the other hand…

Sometimes an extreme roll lets a 98-pound weakling batter open a door or causes the mighty barbarian to fall from a rope. Such outliers diminish the qualities that make characters unique.

On an unlikely success or failure, sometimes I use some outside cause to explain the fluke. If the barbarian falls, did the knot slip loose? If a clumsy oaf picks a lock, did someone just forgot the latch? By narrating a cause outside the character’s control, the effect remains, but the character still feels consistent.

Finding the sweet spot

If an elite acrobat sprints across a swaying rope bridge, do you require a check or just let them show off? If someone specifically examines the bottom of a chest, do they still need a roll to find the hidden panel there? Can someone skip a puzzle if their genius character aces an intelligence check? If someone offers a generous bribe to a corrupt guard, do they still need persuasion?

I don’t know, but when I reach the table, I can judge.

Some players love to roll dice. For them, the game only moves when they make rolls. Others like speaking in funny voices or solving puzzles and boast of sessions where no one rolled a die. Most players favor a style in the middle.

Original D&D and fourth edition mark extreme approaches to ability checks, from no checks to a game that can—if players choose—rely entirely on checks. Each approach brings some advantages. In our games, we can adopt either style—or find a balance that suits us.

How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke

In my last post, I explained how challenging myself to say yes to players made me a better dungeon master, even though I sometimes said no.

Sometime in the 90s, I returned gaming conventions after more than a decade away. Some folks played Dungeons & Dragons differently than I remembered. I played with a DM who said yes to more gifts than Santa Claus. Any time a player wanted to try some lame scheme, the DM would permit it—and grant a big bonus for creative thinking. His game held no challenges. It only existed for his players to show off.

My DM’s habit of saying yes should have created a collaborative story that enchanted me, but instead I felt bored.

Some folks equate saying yes with good storytelling. From this perspective, characters are the foundation of story. Players control the characters. Only bad DMs keep the storytelling to themselves. Saying yes to the players lets them contribute to a shared story.

Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique abilities. In one convention game, a water genasi monk’s fast swim speed let her breeze through this encounter.

Except good storytelling rests on characters who face obstacles. If you make obstacles that just enable characters to demonstrate how great they are, then you create a certain, notoriously dull sort of story. Your story features a Mary Sue who can only impress everyone by being wonderful.

In D&D, players never ask a DM to say yes to something that adds obstacles. Players ask for advantages. Players see a high Performance skill on their character sheet, and then ask to sing a cave-in away because maybe the right note starts a landslide. Saying yes isn’t the route to compelling stories.

But D&D isn’t really a storytelling game. Nobody wants to hear a story about your D&D character. The fun of D&D comes from playing the game. For most of us a big part of that fun comes from a chance to feel wonderful and impressive in our character’s shoes.

I often meet players who want to win D&D when they devise a superior character. The play at the table, for them, just offers a victory lap.

So does my desire for a game that challenges me and my characters make me an oddity?

For most players, credible obstacles help make role-playing games compelling. Call of Cthulhu typically ends in insanity or death, but you still get to thwart a dark god against overwhelming odds. Your characters’ losses make them more heroic than the D&D characters who always come out of scrapes better than before.

Nobody sits at a D&D table for vicarious insanity or death. In D&D, characters improve by gaining experience and magical gear. That steady improvement makes the game addictive. D&D players relish chances to show off.

I suspect most players crave a mix of challenges, chances to show off, and chances to feel powerful by overcoming real challenges.

Case in point: My friend Tom is a by-the-book DM with stronger mastery of the rules than anyone I know. Some have called him a dick DM, and he wears that label with a note of pride. He doesn’t try to win against players, but he won’t say yes to a brazen attempt to use Performance. Tom is an expert at running monsters so they make tough, canny foes. Sometimes Tom kills characters. He killed one of mine. If D&D players favored DMs who simply let characters show off, then Tom would rate as a bad DM. Not Tom. As a DM, he reached an elite, level-4 ranking in the Heralds Guild of DMs. This means Tom served a DM at conventions for table after table of strangers, and earned nearly perfect scores on their feedback forms. In his games, when characters show off, they earned it.

D&D works best when DMs find a balance between credible challenges and letting each player feel like a bad ass.

NFL star Cam Newton dominates pee-wee football

Sometimes finding the right mix just requires the players and DM to focus on their roles: Players work to make their characters awesome, while their DM takes charge of posing challenges. In this role, the DM acts as the characters’ biggest fan. As a fan, I want the characters to triumph against real tests. I want a 6’5” 250 pound NFL quarterback to face elite athletes rather than pee-wee football players. Let the Fantastic Four beat Doctor Doom rather than Paste-Pot Pete.

So as a DM, when the players ask you to say yes to something that ruins a challenge, you can say no without feeling like a bad DM who refuses to share the game with players. They have their part, you have yours.

Sometimes, your role as fan of the characters might call for a yes. I can think of three perfect occasions:

1. Say yes to inventive solutions.

When I started as a DM, I followed Gary Gygax’s model. I pitted my players against the most devious deathtraps I could invent. I would build in ways for the players to surmount the obstacles, but the players’ solutions rarely matched mine. The 6 or more brains across the table always proved more clever than me. Soon I stopped including solutions to the predicaments. The players across the table still escaped every impossible pinch. Their invention surprised me and I relished it.

I don’t recommend pitting players against impossible situations, but I do recommend learning to love an ingenious solution. Some DMs grow so attached to a “correct” solution to a predicament, that they reject their players’ ingenuity.

For more, see Player Skill Without Player Frustration.

2. Say yes to stunts and exploits that go outside the rules.

A few years ago I ran the Confrontation in Candlekeep delve at Gen Con. At the end, a dragon flies from Candlekeep tower to tower, table to table, exchanging attacks. At one stop, a character jumped atop the dragon and rode it table to table. After the event, the player giddily recounted the tale to anyone who would listen. He wasn’t alone. Players loved riding the dragon so much that DMs made it part of the adventure. Designer Teos Abadia remembers, “The result was great fun, a nice mechanic for players ending up at other tables, and some really spectacular falls!”

In Mike Shea’s post, A Collection of Awesome Events, he asks players to recount an awesome D&D moment, and then reaches a surprising conclusion: Players love it when they get to break the game. Riding the dragon steps outside the usual exchange of blows in a D&D battle. The Player’s Handbook offer no rules for it. But for players of Candlekeep, it created unforgettable moments.

When players suggest a bold or clever idea that ends a big encounter or that wrecks a major villain, I feel tempted to reject it. I worked to set the stage and a sudden end feels like a waste of effort. But for players, an ordinary battle can’t match the excitement of that one time when they broke the game.

3. Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique qualities.

At a convention, I ran an adventure where a pack of wolves confronted the characters. One player tried to make friends with the beasts and I asked for an Animal Handling check.

The player showed his character sheet. “My background happens to be Raised by Wolves.”

“Turns out, you know these wolves.”

Obviously, if some unique quality grants an advantage that threatens to regularly upstage the other characters, you can still say yes, once. After that, the wolves the player meets might be rivals.

Is it noticed? How to run alertness

Introducing the spot check

In this post, I cite “spot checks” to refer to third edition’s Spot checks, Next’s Wisdom (Perception) checks, and tests of awareness made with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception skill.

The Spot skill and its descendents rate a character’s ability to notice something while doing other things like traveling, fighting, or resting. Before Spot entered the game, unless you searched, you noticed the things the game master decided you noticed. A thief might hide from you, but their success depended on their roll to hide, not on your ability to spot.

Spot the spider

Can you see me?

When the game master simply decides what the characters perceive, the game plays fine. After all, the game master adds things to an adventure to enrich the adventure. If you let the dice say that the PCs fail to catch a scent of brimstone, or fail to spot the cloud of bats erupting from the cliffside, then the game suffers.

Nonetheless, when Spot skill entered the game, game masters and designers dutifully worked spot checks into every situation. Whenever the party opened a door or topped a hill, everyone made a new round of spot checks. At some game tables, every bit of information had to be earned with a spot check.

I will explain why you should skip many spot rolls, reserving the spot check for a small number of specific circumstances.

Passive perception and taking 10

Fourth edition attempted to rein in spot rolls by introducing passive perception. In principle, a dungeon master could skip perception rolls and use the characters’ passive perception to determine just what they notice as they explore.

“Passive perception checks help you set the scene. They tell you right away how much of the details of a room or encounter area the characters notice.” – Fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide p.26

Passive perception extends the mechanic of taking-10. Instead of players stating that they take 10, the game master assumes it.

Passive perception avoids putting the players on alert by asking for a roll when they see nothing. And it avoids interrupting the narrative for all those rolls.

What’s not to like?

The problem with passive perception

Passive perception forces the dungeon master to do the extra work of tracking all the passive perception scores and of setting perception DCs. Typically, this extra effort only yields a process that amounts to the DM deciding in advance what the PCs will notice. Seem familiar?

Most DMs running for regular groups know the approximate perception bonuses of the PCs. If you bother to create something interesting or something that advances the adventure, would you hide it behind a DC that prevents the group from ever seeing it? Never. Not even authors of published adventures will hide things that enrich the adventure beyond the perception of a typical party.

Secrets add fun to the game, but only when uncovered. If the players overlook the secret door, it’s just another wall. – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

But suppose a virtuous DM devises an adventure that gives keen-eyed parties a significantly different experience than unwary parties. The players still never know that their keen-senses paid off. The work of managing perception stays in the DM’s head, its effects unnoticed by the players, extra work, arguably for nothing.

If you would set the DC required to spot something within the reach of the PCs’ passive perception or take-10 value, then skip the DC. They spot it. The players will not ask you to show your work.

As a diceless method of resolving spot checks, passive perception falls short, but it still works as a way to set a difficulty class. More on that later.

The play value of rolling to spot

None of this means that you must always decide in advance what the players see. Random rolls can add an element to the game.

  • Unpredictability makes role-playing games interesting, mainly for the game master. The printed adventure cannot surprise the GM. Only the players actions and the random luck of the die add surprises to the game.
  • Randomness helps the game master keep some distance from the characters’ fates. The players should see the course of the game determined by their choices and by the luck of the die, not by the GM’s whims and mood.

Ask for spot checks (a) when success is uncertain, and (b) success hinges on keen senses in the game world.

Group perception checks almost always succeed

The outcome of group perception checks is rarely uncertain enough to merit a check.

Anytime every player can attempt a spot check, someone will succeed. Suppose a party of five adventurers, all with +0 to their check, passes something that requires a spot DC of 15, what D&D Next considers a moderate DC. If one person rolls, the chance of success is 30%. If everyone rolls, each has a 30% chance of success, which means the odds of someone succeeding grows to 83%. This supposes that no one is particularly good at spotting—everyone has a +0. One alert character pushes the chance of success closer to 90%.

When the odds of everyone missing something amounts to a rare fumble, does stopping the action to roll make sense? With some groups, absolutely. In particular, younger players love to roll, so group rolls create excitement despite the minimal chance of failure. Let them roll.

“Listen or Spot checks can get repetitive and dull if players have to make them over and over, especially when it usually only takes one success out of the whole group to succeed, making their success typically a foregone conclusion. Think twice before asking for such checks. They’re interesting when the PCs are trying to find a hiding or invisible foe, but get dull fast when they’re walking through the woods and you ask for them for every hour of travel.” – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

For most groups, you can consider any ordinary group perception check an automatic success. Skip the pointless activity, tell them what they see, and move on.

When you devise adventures, never mistake a group perception task difficulty for a challenge. On the rare occasions a group fails to spot something, they fumbled. This certainty is not a bad thing. In most cases you want the players to spot the “hidden” things in your adventure, either because these interesting things enrich the adventure, or because they advance the plot.

Hard checks change the equation. These checks impose DCs so high that only one or two members of the party can even hope to succeed. That’s the water elemental stirring the reeds under the bridge, or the key glimmering below the school of silvery fish. In these cases, allow a roll. You must be comfortable with the likelihood that no one will spot the ambush or the key.

If your players have become accustomed to calling for group perception checks, you can tell them not to waste their time, or you can let them have their fun, knowing that their success is virtually certain.

Individual perception checks may merit a roll

Of course, many spot checks can only be attempted by a character or two. This gives you a chance to add an element of uncertainty, and gives your players a potential reward for investing in perception.

Sometimes a spot task may be limited to the characters…

  • leading the party in marching order.
  • with darkvision or another requisite ability
  • spending an action the heat of battle to look
  • with applicable talents such as the ability to spot traps or arcane phenomena
  • taking the role of lookout

The D&D Next exploration system turns some of these limitations into specific rules: “When a character chooses to keep watch as an exploration task, the character makes a Wisdom (Perception) check to detect hidden creatures and an Intelligence (Search) check to detect hidden objects (such as traps and secret doors) as the group travels during the current exploration turn.”

D&D Next writes this as a rule, but it applies to other games too. In many situations, only a few members of the party can make perception checks. Their skills pay here. Keeping watch is a task akin to mapping or tracking.

“Don’t be afraid, in some cases, to only allow one or two characters to make the check. It’s with in your prerogative to rule that most of the party is preoccupied in other activities while one character is more or less ‘keeping watch.’ This isn’t covered in the rules, but in a case-by-case basis, you can decide that only a character who’s trying to listen or keep an eye out has a chance of making a check.” – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

Group perception checks guarantee success, so individual checks like these represent a chance for players who invested in perception skills to reap benefits.

Even if only one or two characters can possibly notice something, you might ask all the players to make the roll, and then only consider the checks from those able to notice. This avoids giving clues about, say, the location of the breeze coming from the unseen exit.

Favor search over spot

Before you ask for a spot check, consider whether a search makes more sense. In most cases, this comes down to the circumstances, see “Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation.” Sometimes, you may be tempted to give someone a chance to spot something hidden, but hypothetically visible to spot. Favor making the players search. Searching plays better than spotting for a couple of reasons:

  • Searching engages the characters in action, forcing them closer for a look.
  • Searching invites the players to make decisions about when, where, and how to search, and how much time to risk.

If someone steps into a room, aces a die roll, and sees the key at the bottom of the fountain and the odd scratches on the floor behind the chest, you have replaced the interaction and decision making demanded by a search with an abstract roll.

Hiding and sneaking

When one creature attempts to hide from others, do not ask for spot or listen checks. Instead, use passive perception or take-10 scores to set the DC to sneak or hide. Pit the active creature’s stealth check versus the highest applicable take-10 score. In the case when a group could roll to spot, this method makes hiding possible, because group perception checks virtually always succeed.

In combat, if someone chooses to look for a hiding creature, they can spend an action and roll versus the hiding creature’s check. In Pathfinder and 3E, active looking takes a move action. In 4E, active looking takes a standard action.

The same system works for ambushes. If someone hides to ambush, they roll to hide. Later, when the ambush springs, compare the hide check against the highest passive perception or take-10 score of the targets.

While this procedure may not follow your game’s written rules, it makes sense because the targets of the ambush are busy traveling and, by default, taking 10 on perception.

Five questions to ask before calling for a Spot check

The game master almost always asks players to make spot checks, except when players take an action in combat to look for something.

As a game master, before you ask for a check, consider these five questions:

  1. Is something sneaking or hiding? Skip the spot check. Instead, use the party’s best take-10 (passive perception) scores to set the DC for the hide or sneak attempt.
  2. Can the thing to spot be noticed from the character’s vantage? If not, wait for the players to search.
  3. Does noticing something fall within the take-10 value of the most perceptive PC? Do not roll. Something is noticed.
  4. Does everyone in the party have a chance to notice something? Do not roll. Something is noticed.
  5. Are only one or two characters in position to notice something? Ask for a perception check.

Next: How to run an ambush

When should a game master call for a check?

In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, players searched by telling the dungeon master where they wanted to look, and then the dungeon master told them if something was there. The game resolved most actions using back and forth dialog, plus clear cause and effect. Before skills and core mechanics, resolution relied on the on the logic of the game world.

Old-school gamers swear by this method, and with good reason: It grants players, and not the dice, control over their characters’ fates. It makes player decisions and ingenuity count. The details of the game world matter.

But some tasks demand a character’s talents to succeed, so this sort of resolution cannot cover every action: listening at doors, creeping behind an enemy, balancing atop a rope spanning a moat. Until skills entered D&D, the game relied on checks like the d6 rolls that tell whether you spot the secret door or whether you can hear anything behind it.

Once skills and ability checks entered the game, they began to spread. Sometimes a check can provide a shortcut for tasks that could prove dull. If the players want to search a cluttered room, but want to avoid the tedium of describing how they cut the straw mattresses, sift the dirt in the flowerpots, and so on and on, a search check seems like a time saver. (In an upcoming post, I will suggest how to run these scenes without tedium and without skipping to a search roll.) Fourth edition’s Streetwise skill seems contrived to skip all the urban role-playing that the designers apparently found tiresome.

Some players lobby for checks as a way to bypass challenges they dislike. More than once, I’ve heard the player argue that their character is smarter or more charming than they are, and so a simple intelligence or diplomacy check should provide a solution to a puzzle or to a role-playing scene.

White Plume MountainAs a game master, I steer the game away from activities no one seems to enjoy, but I feel wary of letting someone use a die roll to cheat the other players out of the fun of interacting with the game world and actually playing the game. However, if the entire table agrees, we can just substitute a Dungeoneering check for that trip to White Plume Mountain.

While some actions require a die roll to resolve, as often as possible, I prefer to rely the logical cause and effect of the game world. Players say where they want to look, and I say if something is there.

I have a confession to make. When I run a game with skills, sometimes I feel bad if I fail to let players use their skills. After all, the game says you can use Search to find stuff, Diplomacy to sweet talk the Baron, and so on. The players invested in these skills while dreaming of chances to use them.

To help me decide when to call for a check, I settled on two principles:

  • Limit checks to situations where no more description of an action can determine whether it succeeds or fails.

  • Clever and specific actions that would probably succeed, do succeed, even when a skill applies.

More than once I’ve seen a player make an impassioned speech in character, asking the Baron, for instance, to defend the settlers. The player’s voice trembles with passion as he speaks of courage, loyalty, and the honor of the Baron’s ancestors, calling their spirits by name. The player steps down from atop a chair to applause and tearing eyes. But then, feeling bound by the system, I ask for a diplomacy check at +2, which the orator flubs. Sorry, you fail.

No more. Screw the check. Now, I will rise to applaud, and in the character of the Baron, rally my men to glory!

In situations beyond diplomacy, specific actions can also trump skills. If someone taps the bottom of a chest looking for the secret compartment, skip the search check and just reveal the location. If someone describes an ingenious use of leverage to lift a gate, skip the strength check.

When you apply these two principles, the players will lose a few chances to use skills. Accept that. Skills like Perception and Diplomacy rank as the game’s most frequently used, so players will still get chances to use these skills in situations with no obvious outcome. As for Streetwise, good riddance.

Related: Player skill without player frustration and Puzzle traps.

5 reasons someone might build a dungeon filled with clues and tests

In “Puzzle traps,” I explained how the most fun traps come with clues that alert players to the danger. I listed a few reasons why clues might accompany traps even though their builders want them to be unnoticed.

In addition to the accidental clues I suggested for puzzle traps, Dungeons & Dragons features a long tradition of tricks and puzzles constructed in a dungeon builder’s effort to test and confound intruders.

C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness cover

C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness

Most players enjoy these sorts of conundrums. Funhouse dungeons filled with odd challenges such as White Plume Mountain and Ghost Tower of Inverness rate as some of the most beloved adventures of Dungeons & Dragons’s golden age.

But why would any dungeon builder construct a room that forced intruders to answer riddles or to move like chess pieces on a huge board? Traditionally, dungeon authors provided one of two answers:

  • “The builder was crazy.”
  • “Are you going to keep asking annoying questions or are you going to play the game?”

Unless your players signed up to play in a game set in 1978, dungeons built by insane, magical pranksters no longer seem fresh or plausible; the life-size chess boards and reverse-gravity rooms can feel tired and silly. Also, while the crazy-wizard premise offers dungeon authors complete freedom, it gives little backstory to serve as a source of inspiration.

Still, Keraptis, Galap-Dreidel, and I all share an affection for pitting adventures against a strange and confounding room, so I will list some other reasons why a dungeon’s architects might build in clues and tests for intruders.

Some of these reasons assume that a dungeon exists to help guard or defend something: treasure in tombs, powerful or dangerous items in vaults, creatures in lairs or prisons. These dungeons’ built-in challenges allow worthy intruders through, and tempt the unworthy to die trying.

A test of merit

From the sword in the stone to the quest for the princess’s hand, fantasy offers plenty of examples of tests to reveal the worthy. A dungeon’s challenges could be constructed to reward the worthy and slay those lacking.

In the 2013 D&D Championship, players needed to solve three puzzles to retrieve three magic staffs. The puzzles were created to prevent the addled, insane cultists of Zargon from seizing the staffs before worthy champions.

Dungeon Crawl Classics 15: Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen

Dungeon Crawl Classics 15: Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen

In the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, Lost Tomb of the Sphinx Queen, the tomb is a prison for the evil Sphinx Queen. “The labyrinth below consists of a series of guardian creatures and traps, designed both to test the party (to ensure that they’re powerful enough to destroy Ankharet and her crown) and to teach them of the now-forgotten glories of the Sphinx Empire.”

The clues tempt intruders with false hopes for success

The dungeon includes clues and puzzles so that the any survivors who escape will spread tales that serve as a challenge, tempting more adventurers to test their meddle.

The original The Tomb of Horrors acts as trap to capture the souls of the strongest adventurers for some wicked purpose. The ambiguous clues written on the tomb’s floor seem almost as likely to lead to death as to success, so could they be a lure for more victims?

Challenges taunt intruders with the builder’s genius

The dungeon’s builder is like the serial killer who leaves clues because he wants to flaunt his genius over the cops pursuing him, or because his name is Edward Nigma so what else? This premise works as a more plausible version of the insane prankster.

The 2010, fourth edition Tomb of Horrors says, “It’s not enough for Acererak to win; he has to to prove his superiority by by saying, ‘I gave you a chance, and you still weren’t smart enough to beat me.’”

Someone wishes for the dungeon to fail its purpose

During a dungeon’s construction, something may have worked to sabotage it so that it ultimately fails its purpose. This sabotage can come from a few sources:

  • psychological conflict. We’ve all heard stories of the killer who secretly wished to be caught. Suppose a dungeon builder’s inner demons—or real, live demons—drive her to create a dungeon’s death traps, but her better nature, or some compulsion, or even a foe’s geas drives her to bury clues with the traps.
  • architects and workers. Most dungeon builders recruit architects and workers to construct their vaults. The patrons always boast of retirement plans, while they plan to slay their workers to preserve the dungeon’s secrets. But suppose the architects added clues as a means of revenge on their overlord? This results in a dungeon filled with clues subtle enough to escape the overlord’s notice, but within the grasp of clever adventurers.
    Charles IV of Spain and his Family paid for a portrait that flattered them with glittering jewels and finery, but the family’s dead eyes reveal them as foolish and banal.

    Buyer beware: Charles IV of Spain and his Family paid for a portrait that flattered them with glittering jewels
    and finery, but the family’s dead eyes reveal them as foolish and banal.

  • bargains. Fantasy includes many examples where bargains with mystical powers give a scheme an Achilles heel. Here, the dungeon’s weakness comes from the same, mighty powers called to help construction. Great magic often comes from a source with its own, unknowable motives.
    In the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, Tears of the Genie, the Grand Caliph binds a djinni in his dungeon, but the gods of Àereth force the Grand Caliph hide the means of freeing the djinni within the prison.

Dungeon crawling is a sport

XCrawl Crawl or Die

XCrawl

If adventurers crowd the streets and dungeons lie under every mountain, then dungeon crawling could become sport. This premise supports the six Challenge of Champions adventures that appeared in Dungeon magazine. Pandahead productions combined dungeon crawling for sport with all the posturing and pay-per-view rights of professional wrestling to create XCrawl. This premise abandons the mystery and enchantment of the exploring ruins, and replaces the thrill of confronting evil with artificial challenges and, in the case of XCrawl, humor.

If mortals can find sport in dungeons, then gods can too. Beedo from Dreams in the Lich House imagines death mountain, a place where the death god Hades can lure the land’s heroes, and then collect their skulls as trophies. This concept fits with the Olympians’ penchant for using mortal proxies as toys. “The other gods, for that matter, are greatly entertained when heroes overcome the machinations of the death god, and have gone so far as to sprinkle Hades’ sprawling dungeon with divine boons, godly weapons, and hidden shrines and sanctuaries where their beloved champions might gain a small respite.”

A religion or cult demands it

When Mike Shel decided to write an adventure inspired by Tomb of Horrors, he realized that the original tomb failed to provide much justification for its built-in clues and challenges. For The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb, he created a cult of mud sorcerers, who “delighted in riddles and conundrums, disdaining those who couldn’t equal their mental prowess.” And then he gave them a reason for planting clues. “It may puzzle your players that Tzolo would leave hints lying about for would-be grave robbers. However, the clues were intended for for her liberating servants.”

Mike Shel was on to something. D&D’s assumed background needs a cult or religion that provides a ready-made excuse for dungeons that test characters with puzzles and strange obstacles. The mud sorcerers point the way, but their plan seems flawed. Why build clues for your servants that could also aid meddling do-gooders?

I propose a new creation.

The cult of Seermock, god of wealth and power through cunning

Seermock serves as a secret patron to those of wealth and power who earned their status through scheming and manipulation. Although few know of the cult’s existence, Seermock gladly spurns the common herd that he deems unworthy. Seermock upholds these principles:

  • Wealth and power exist as a reward reserved for the cunning, while those of lesser intellect deserve impoverishment, servitude and then death.
  • The weak minded who wish to claim wealth and power must suffer punishment for their presumption.
  • Bequeathing wealth on the unworthy only rewards the foolish. Those cunning enough to join Seermock after death must strive to protect their worldly gains from those of dull wit.

Like many figures of wealth and power, followers of Seermock strive to memorialize their achievements with grand tombs. But followers of Seermock build their tombs to test those who attempt to seize the riches inside, rewarding the clever while slaying others presumptuous enough to seek treasures they do not deserve.

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.”