Tag Archives: puzzles

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.

9 popular things in D&D that I fail to appreciate

I love Dungeons & Dragons enough to spend money to write a blog about it, but I dislike some elements of fantasy role playing. Perhaps “dislike” is too strong. I don’t want to squash your fun. This is not a rant; this is a cry for help. Help me understand the appeal of these 9 aspects of our hobby.

Real world cultures with different names. In the 1930s, authors helped readers swallow the fantasy of places like Hyboria and Middle Earth by setting them in ages lost to history. We’ve now grown so accustomed to fantasy versions of Europe that we can take them without the sugar of a lost age. But I, for one, can only stomach one analogue culture at a time. In the 1980s, every TSR staffer who read a book on the Aztecs or Mongols felt compelled to write a campaign box. Now, every corner of Faerûn and Greyhawk offers more cheap knock offs than the guy selling Rollex and Guccee at the flea market. My problem comes from my compulsion to invent explanations for some cultural farrago, a problem I share with the authors of Banestorm. (Young persons: If “farrago” appears on your SAT, you’re welcome. Gary did the same for me.)

Puzzles that depend on English letters, words, and spelling. Nobody who dwells in the Forgotten Realms speaks English, except Ed Greenwood under an assumed name. When the adventurers stop at the Old Inn, we just imagine its name is translated from “Ye Olde Inne” or something. I accept this, but when a D&D puzzle depends on English spelling, I feel like ye olde innkeeper just offered me a Bud Lite. The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb feels a lot less bizarre and menacing after [Spoilers!] you enter by keying “WELCOME” at the door. Don’t forget to wipe your feet. (Note: Despite my peeve, I liked the puzzles in the 2013 D&D Championship, so I’m not unreasonable.)

Underwater adventures. At some point, every dungeon master desperate for a new idea hits upon the underwater adventure. Many are so hard up for material that the concept seems promising. Don’t feel bad; in 1977 similar desperation reached the professionals in the Happy Days writers’ room. Soon, players are fighting seafood and creatures in seashell bras. Resist this impulse.

Underwater adventures can go two ways:

  • You treat the sea with a measure of respect, and you wind up with guys in flooded armor swallowing “air pills” or something, but still unable to speak and thrashing as uselessly as fish in a boat. Even the chainmail bikinis rust.
  • You use magic and hand waving to simplify the environment to the Spongebob version of underwater. Spongebob is the guy who lives under the sea, lights fires, and has a bathtub.

I can tell you what underwater adventures would really be like. You would drown.

Mounts. I get that your warhorse has intelligence 6, uses the litterbox, and takes sugar with his tea, but must you insist on riding it underground? Do you know how tall a warhorse and rider is? How will you fit the damn thing through the doors? Whenever I DM for a guy with a mount, he insists I decide between (a) making the dungeon into the equestrian version of handicap accessible with 15-foot-tall doors and ramps between levels or (b) being TOTALLY UNREASONABLE and NERFING HIS ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT. I know that some specialized D&D campaigns offer plenty of opportunities for Silver to join the fun, but folks who want to bring their horse in the house should probably be playing Bella Sera.

Druids. Let’s see. I can select a class that can turn invisible and throw fireballs, or I can play a druid and cast Warp Wood and Shillelagh. I’ll stick with spells I can pronounce and that also damage more than the woodwork. To make things worse, druids become ineffectual underground—in a game with a name that starts with Dungeons. Do druids sound good to you anyway? In original D&D, you had to battle other druids to reach high levels—as if there were a shortage of trees to hug. Oh, and all the other players have to put up with all your tiresome tree hugging.

Pets. Young people love having imaginary pets that fight for them. This accounts for Anne McCaffry’s bestsellers and the Pokémon millions lining the pockets of ground-floor Wizards of the Coast shareholders. Young person, I appreciate that 4E makes your woodland friends playable as familiar spirit animal companions. I only make two requests:

  1. Limit your retinue to one pal. I have literally run tables where the pets outnumbered the characters. If I had attempted to realistically role play the scene where the zoo enters the tavern, the campaign never would have reached scene 1 with the patron at the bar.
  2. Know the rules for your creature. If rule (2) where actually enforced, no one in the history of D&D would have ever played a character with a pet.

Bards This. Enough said? I played a bard once in a 3E game. My character stood in the background and I had to imagine that my lute strumming helped the party. To be clear, “lute strumming” is not a euphemism, but if it were, my contribution would have been just as useful. No one remembered to apply the bonuses coming from my musical inspiration. Fourth edition improved matters by making bards into musical spell weavers who pretty much operate like every other PC in 4E. I once played with a guy who re-skinned all his bard powers with the titles of Metallica songs. At least I think that’s what he did. In 4E, (a) no one understands what the hell anyone else is doing on their turn and (b) in 4E most power names already overlap with the titles of metal songs.

Stupid word play from game authors. (Note: Stupid word play from players is a-okay.) The MOST SERIOUS FANTASY GAME EVER, Chivalry & Sorcery, suggests this dungeon trap: “The Case of Nerves, a box which falls on the hapless intruder, inside of which are—‘nerves.’ [The intruder] immediately checks morale -20%, and failure sends him screaming down the hall.” Get it? A case of ‘nerves!’ I want game authors to save their comedy riffs for their HBO specials. I am not alone. Everyone knows the first role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. Ken St. Andre created the second RPG, Tunnels & Trolls. T&T featured concise and understandable rules, which, unlike original D&D, didn’t have to be deciphered by word of mouth and then held together by spit and house rules. In an alternate universe, T&T was a smash and D&D is a curiosity like the Landlord’s Game. In that universe, Ken St. Andre did not fill his smash hit with spell names like Rock-a-Bye, Whammy, and Take That, You Fiend! Meanwhile, in our world, T&T just thrived for solo play because alone, you never had to say aloud, “I cast Yassa-Massa.”

Apple Lane for Runequest

Apple Lane for Runequest

Furry races. Exhibit A: Spelljammer. This setting includes anthropomorphic hippos and space hamsters.  Jeff Grubb writes, “The infamous giant space hamster also came out of ship designs. The gnome ship looked like a galleon and a sidewheeler slammed into each other. Someone asked what the big paddlewheel housings were for, since there was no air other than in the air bubbles. I said they were giant hamster wheels. Roger Moore (editor of Dragon) thought that was hilarious and it was off to the races with the giant space hamster. So I’m not taking the fall for that one by myself.” Exhibit B: Runequest. This game featured the most sober, serious world building this side of Empire of the Petal Throne. I love Runequest and would probably be writing a Runequest blog now except that the setting included anthropomorphic ducks like Donald and Howard. Ducks! Sorry. Deal breaker. I like to dress in character, so according to THE MAN, I need to choose a character wearing pants.

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.”

Gen Con 2013 recap and the D&D Championship visits the Lost City

I’m back from Gen Con and four days of terrific gaming.

For this year, Wizards of the Coast elected to focus its attention on exposing as many as possible to Dungeons & Dragons Next, and so they dropped all Living Forgotten Realms events from the convention. Pushing D&D Next seemed to work. Players new to D&D Next filled my tables and I met a lot of Pathfinder devotees willing to sample the new D&D system.

The lack of LFR disappointed some players and judges, but I appreciated the chance to run D&D Next for the first time. The absence of LFR at this convention doesn’t signal the end of fourth edition or of Living Forgotten Realms. New LFR adventures are coming. The Winter Fantasy convention will feature a slate of LFR events, including a new, paragon-level battle interactive.

2013 D&D Championship - battling Zargon in the lost city

2013 D&D Championship – battling Zargon in the lost city

Although I dungeon mastered the Crisis in Candlekeep delve twice, my DM highlights came from running the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure three times. Murder in Baldur’s Gate forced me to develop an aspect of my DM skills that I’ve rarely exercised in the past. I’ll write about that in an upcoming post.

As usual, playing the 2013 Dungeons & Dragons Championship delivered as much fun as I ever have playing D&D. The Championship features a lethal adventure intended to test even the best teams of players. The unforgiving challenge brings a sense of peril that you never see in typical adventures, because in typical adventures the odds always favor the players. The event’s time pressure amps up the urgency and demands fast play.

The Lost City (1982) by Tom Moldvay

The Lost City (1982) by Tom Moldvay

This year the author of the championship adventure, M. Sean Molley, created a tribute to the 1982 Lost City adventure by Tom Moldvay. The first round dared teams to recover three staffs from locations in the lost city. Earlier fourth edition championships played solely as tactical miniature battles, but this year’s adventure added puzzles to the mix—a welcome nod to the old tournament classics. The final round required characters to use the staffs in a fight to destroy past and present versions of Zargon, the evil demigod of the lost city. I marvel at how skillfully a battle with so many variables was balanced on the narrow line between difficult and impossible.

As a dungeon master, I admire the DMs in the championship, who must play fast, fair, and show total command of the rules. They do enjoy some perks: Where else can a DM coupe de grace a fallen character without straining D&D’s social contract? Even among this elite crew, our DMs Brian and Sean stood out as exceptional. Plus, our DM for the finals happened to be the adventure’s author.

I played on the team that claimed second place—for the third year in a row. We’re like the 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills of the D&D Championship. Still, I’m thrilled to do well.

Will next year’s Championship be the first to feature the next iteration of the D&D rules?

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.

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.