Tag Archives: player skill

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.

Little-known D&D classics: Escape from Astigar’s Lair

In 1980, Judges Guild published Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a slim module that sold for just $2. The adventure so charmed me that after I ran it, I created a similar challenge of my own to unleash on players.

Escape From Astigar's LairAstigar’s Lair originally served as a tournament module at Michicon ’80.  Instead of accommodating a table full of players for several hours, two players tackle the lair in just sixty minutes. In this era of 2-hour combat encounters, imagine finishing a fun, fast-paced, 22-room dungeon in under an hour!

As with many competition modules from the era, the module includes a scoring system. Players gain points for surmounting challenges while losing points for blunders. Unlike other similar modules, Astigar’s Lair sometimes awards points for decisions based on the characters’ personality quirks.

The action starts when the wizard Egad dons a cursed helm and becomes possessed by the evil spirit of the mighty Astigar. Players take the roles of the druid Danier and the ranger Therain, who begin shackled to a wall in Astigar’s dungeon complex. The escape encourages shrewd problem solving. How can you cross a chamber swarming with flying lizards as voracious as piranha? How can you force Egad to remove the cursed helm? The obstacles in the lair inspired challenges that I would add to my own game.

By necessity, the module’s authors anticipate certain solutions for the dungeon’s obstacles. For instance, the characters have only one way to escape from the shackles in that first scene. However, the judge’s introduction writes, “Points are awarded for creativity (one player in play testing threw paint at the rhinoceros beetle, blinding the beetle and allowing it to be more easily defeated).” Sure enough, the scoring now awards 10 points for throwing paint in the beetle’s eyes. I like this approach, because as a Dungeon Master, the real joy of confounding players comes not from when players repeat the solution I anticipate, but from when they surprise me with something new. (See “Player skill without player frustration,” for more.)

As a young player, I remember reading the druid’s class description in Eldritch Wizardry, and wondering why anyone would choose a character who changed into weak, mundane animals, and who cast spells like Warp Wood that seemed nearly useless. In Astigar’s Lair, the druid Danier only knows quirky spells like Heat Metal and Shillelagh, but the adventure invites clever solutions using all those spells.

I loved how Escape from Astigar’s Lair showed that combining oddball powers with some imagination could prove more fun than blasting away.

Spinning a narrative around a skill challenge

(Part 5 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2’s example skill challenge shows the Dungeon Master responding to each success or failure in the traditional DM role─by telling the players what happens in the game world as a result of their actions.

On page 83, the DMG2 advises dungeon masters that each success or failure should do the following:

  • Introduce a new option that the PCs can pursue.
  • Change the situation, such as sending the PCs to a new location, introducing new NPCs, or adding a complication.
  • Grant the players a tangible congruence for the check’s success or failure (as appropriate), one that influences their subsequent decisions.

This puts the DM back in the DM’s role, but it puts a burden on the DM running the challenge. Before, I just had to determine if a player’s justification for applying a skill made sense. Now I have to respond to each success or failure with an ongoing narrative. That’s okay; that’s the job I signed up for as a DM. But the format for a written skill challenge description remains focused on the skills available to the players and the possible justifications for using them. The format never evolves to give the DM more help spinning a narrative around the challenge.

Just as every failed check leads closer to failure, every successful check overcomes some barrier to success, but reveals a new, tangible obstacle or complication.

So in a well-run skill challenge, the DM faces his own challenge of inventing new complications to thwart the players even as they earn each success. (Sometimes I’m reminded of the infamous babelfish puzzle in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy computer game, where your countless attempts to get the fish each result in it slipping into yet another inaccessible spot.) Written skill challenges sometimes help by suggesting the sorts of obstacles that each skill might overcome, but the written format is far, far from optimal for the task.

Skill challenges also limit the number of successes players can earn with each skill. That guideline remains good. No one wants a boring and repetitive challenge where one character chips away at a problem with the same skill.  But this guideline adds another hurdle for you, as the DM. As you narrate the challenge and pose new complications to meet every success, you must craft situations that invite the skills which remain available, while closing off the avenues that are now blocked. You get extra credit for creating complications that force the characters on the sidelines to participate.

Now we have a challenge for the DM as well as the players. Ironically, while the skill challenge mechanic initially tried to sideline the DM to a secondary role, running a good skill challenge now becomes one of the DM’s most thorny tasks.

I approach the task with a little extra preparation.

When I prepare to run a ready-made skill challenge in a published adventure, I am less interested in the list of recommended skills than in the obstacles and complications that the author says the skills might overcome. With a particularly sketchy challenge, I may list a few obstacles of my own, so I am prepared to present new situations as the players advanced through the challenge. I want specific obstacles that invite more than one solution. You can pick the lock or break down the door.  Obviously, most obstacles are not simple barriers like a locked door. For example, in an investigation skill challenge, a success might reveal a new lead that carries the characters across town to a new obstacle─anything from a cryptic note hidden under a floorboard to a reluctant witness who won’t talk until you eliminate the source of her fear.

Of course, tangible obstacles also invite creative solutions, so be prepared to welcome the players’ ideas, and to mark off successes without any rolls. For more, see my post on player skill without player frustration.

In my preparation, I also consider the setbacks the players might encounter with a failed check. With each failed roll, I want to tell the players exactly how the failure draws their characters closer to a catastrophe.

Despite my preparation, when I run for organized play, I respect the skill challenge the author presents. When my players compare notes with players from the next table, I want my players to say, “Your skill challenge sounds just like ours, but ours seemed like more fun.” (Actually, I want every skill challenge to be more fun. That’s why I’m writing all this.)

Next: an example

The skill challenge: good intentions, half baked

(Part 2 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

The forth edition rules make the encounter the central activity of the Dungeons & Dragons game. The Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “Encounters are the exciting part of the D&D game,” (p.22) and encourages dungeon masters to shorten the intervals between encounters. “Move the PCs quickly from encounter to encounter, and on to the fun!” (p.105)

Page 105 includes more revealing advice. “As much as possible, fast-forward through the parts of an adventure that aren’t fun.  An encounter with two guards at the city gate isn’t fun.  Tell the players they get through the gate without much trouble and move on to the fun.  Niggling details about food supplies and encumbrance usually aren’t fun, so don’t sweat them, and let the players get to the adventure and on to the fun.  Long treks through endless corridors in the ancient dwarven stronghold beneath the mountains aren’t fun.”

Personally, I think that two of those activities do seem fun—especially the trek through the dwarven stronghold. I think the passage reveals something about how the 4E designers disastrously misread some of the audience for the fourth edition game, but that’s a topic for another post.

More to the point, the passage lists the sorts of interaction and exploration that skill challenges try to turn into encounters.

The 4E designers recognized that D&D includes more than combat, so they needed a game activity that gave players an opportunity to use skills and that held the same weight as the game’s core activity, the encounter. I imagine the 4E designers filling a white board with goals like these:

  • Skill challenges should be worth experience points to give them importance equal to a combat encounter.
  • Skill challenges need a difficulty and mechanical rigor similar to a combat encounter.
  • Skill challenge mechanic should enable every player to participate, not just the players with obvious skills.

The last goal reverses the early class balance of the game, in a good way. Through most of D&D history, some characters fared poorly in combat, but got a chance to shine in exploration and role playing. In the original game, thieves were not particularly useful in a fight, but fights were short and the players spent most of their time exploring, so the thief enjoyed plenty of time in the spotlight. In 4E, the rogue ranks as one of the most effective classes in combat, but every other class gets an equal chance to shine outside of combat.

The original skill challenge rules have players rolling initiative and taking turns. To make sure that everyone has a chance to contribute on their turn, players take the role of inventing circumstances where their characters can contribute. The turn structure ensures that everyone must contribute. You cannot pass a turn. “Characters must make a check on their turns using one of the identified, primary skills or they must use a different skill, if they can come up with a way to use it to contribute to the challenge.” (p.74)  This often leads to strained justifications for skill checks.

“Does the chieftain like acrobatics?  By using acrobats and interpretive dance, perhaps I can convince him not to attack the village.”

As the name suggests, skill challenges focus on skills, not on the players’ problem-solving abilities. As I wrote in Player skill without player frustration, 4E attempted to eliminate frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. 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 strength.

The designers saw another benefit of focusing on skills. Social skills such as diplomacy, bluff, and intimidate allow players who feel uncomfortable with play-acting to contribute without stepping out of their comfort zone. As a DM, I’ve encountered plenty of players who freeze up when I encourage them to speak as their character. I think they miss a fun aspect of the game, but I don’t force it. Nonetheless, I insist players say more than, “I diplomacize the king and I roll….”

Next: Speed factor, weapon armor class adjustments, and skill challenges

Player skill without player 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. (See Zork 2, part 2 for more.)Zork II Box Art

Back when D&D 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. I loved it.

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. With table-top games, that never has to happen.

The great thing about table-top games is that the dungeon master can allow creative solutions.

Sadly, not every DM is open to creative solutions. Typically, these DMs fall into the mindset of beating the players. Frustrated players mean I’m winning D&D!

Fourth edition attempted to eliminate frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. 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 strength.

But when the game emphasizes 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. I suppose this improves on playing guess-the-solution-I-thought-of with an inflexible DM, but the picking a skill and rolling is much less fun than D&D can be.

Of course, you can emphasize player-skill with any edition of D&D.

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? 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. Is Gary guilty of the same sort of inflexible, narrow approach that I criticize? Yes. In the case of Tomb of Horrors, that’s the way Gary wanted it. He created the Tomb to be “ready for those fans who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game.”

When I DM, I love to be surprised. I think 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 the 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 wouldn’t actually work.
  • Watch out for clever 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.