Tag Archives: Tomb of Horrors

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.

Dungeon Masters, Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead

Every dungeon master sometimes throws characters into a combat encounter, and then sees players do something unexpected. We never expect a peaceful dialog. Later, the characters reach a mountain outpost stocked with perfectly crafted encounters and the players show ingenuity by, say, triggering an avalanche that buries the place. Sometimes, every DM wants to say, “Come on, you all took intelligence as a dump stat. Just fight the monsters!”

Sometime in most dungeon masters’ careers, we plot a grand adventure for characters, complete with dramatic beats, treachery, revelations, and a climax. Then the players impulsively murder the traitor in session 1. In session 3, instead of escaping as planned, the evil mastermind dies too. The threat of such reversals tempt any dungeon master to railroad.

All these setbacks come from preparing encounters and plots that expect players to behave as expected. Often players do something surprising that leaves the plans in ruin.

Such planning misfires stem from taking the wrong mindset to prepare for a Dungeons & Dragons game.

For a better approach, follow two principles:

  • Prepare situations instead of encounters.
  • Prepare clues and villains instead of plots.

Situations form the bones of an adventure.

Game-world situations are the arrangements of locations and non-player characters that stand between the characters and what they want. The most elemental form of a situation includes (a) an obstacle, like a bridge blocked by a troll hungry for the party’s delicious gnome, and (b) a goal, like the other side. Often the difference between a small situation and an encounter is a mindset. An encounter starts as a situation with an assumed plot—perhaps as simple as (1) the characters fight and (2) they win. A situation stops assuming a plot and fills in other details like what the monsters want. (Hint: Not to wait in a room until heroes come to murder them.) A small situation might resemble a combat encounter complete with monsters to (probably) fight, but the situation mindset opens DMs for other courses of action. Maybe the characters talk, or sneak, or dislike the gnome.

Unlike combat, exploration, or interaction scenes, situations bring enough flexibility to play in different ways.

Larger situations often resemble dungeons. From a situation mindset, players could solve the Tomb of Horrors by excavating it from the top down—or by skipping it. Rather than grave robbing, real heroes should battle evil overlords. They have treasure too. (Perhaps by looting the tomb, the heroes can defeat the overlord by getting enough gold to cause runaway inflation. I want an adventure where evil is thwarted because it can’t make payroll.)

Tomb of Annihilation includes more modern takes on the dungeon as situation. Within the campaign, The Fain of the Night Serpent features factions, intrigue, and a McGuffin to recover. The Tomb of Nine Gods resembles the Tomb of Horrors, but with the time limit and an objective bigger than runaway inflation.

Situations can go beyond locations. For instance, a masquerade could be a situation where players need to uncover a spy. The characters might find their target through deception, magic, or by picking a suspect’s pockets to gain stolen plans.

The Prince of Murder’s network of covert assassins could form another situation. Instead of predicting which encounters the characters will face as they unravel the network, the DM invents a organization that reacts to the players’ actions.

As with combat encounters, a boring situation can lead it to dull scenes. Good situations include features that lead to interesting play. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea has advice for creating situations. “Develop situations with lots of options, lots of hooks, and lots of interesting things the characters can interact with.”

So a situation that might feature combat may include a location primed for a dynamic battle. A situation that might include role playing may include memorable NPCs, but should at least include NPCs that want something.

I think of developing situations as piling kindling. Add enough incendiary ingredients so that if a spark flares, the scenes catch fire.

These details rarely require more work. Most dungeon masters will feel comfortable improvising some of the pieces. Plus, the situation mindset often frees DMs from worrying about contingencies. DMs who build situations spend less time preparing responses for every potential action because consequences stem naturally from the situation.

Mike touts the virtues of situations. “D&D is a lot more fun when we can watch scenes unfold in new and interesting ways well beyond what we originally intended. In order for that to happen, however, we need to build environments with all of the right elements to give characters, and their players, the chance to take things in lots of different directions.”

For situations, Tom “Dungeon Bastard” Lommel plans one extra element: He prepares a menu of potential outcomes. He lists wins that represent total success, complications that bring success at a cost, and setbacks that represent failure. “One thing I always get bogged down in is analysis paralysis,” Tom says. “This is a road map for me to respond to what the party is doing. I have a list of plausible options at my command and I don’t have to think about it in the moment.”

I like Tom’s strategy because, in the heat of a game session, I struggle to improvise reactions to sweeping victories and epic fails. Such grand outcomes often threaten to upend the game. An easy win can’t cut a 4-hour convention adventure to a half-hour assassination. Instead, I want to reward ingenuity with some success, and then add reasonable complications that keep one move from ending the game. A total-party kill shouldn’t abort a long-running campaign arc short of a satisfying conclusion. Instead, I want the characters captured, or to lose the magic key, or to suffer the gloating of the rival who saves them. (Forget bludgeoning, adventurers hate blows to their pride most because they wound the player too.) At the least, I always plan ways to turn total-party kills into setbacks that spare the campaign.

Tom uses a storyteller’s sense of drama to help decide among outcomes. His choice results from the usual factors of the player’s choices and the luck of the die, but also from what suits the narrative. Will an up-beat or a down-beat better add drama? Is the table spoiling for a fight or for a lull? Does the session’s pace leave time for complications?

Instead of preparing encounters, prepare situations. The mindset opens you to plan less for what the players might do, while making you ready for anything.

Next: Dungeon masters: Instead of plots, prepare secrets, clues, and leads.

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.

Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

When Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax designed Dungeons & Dragons, they aimed for fun. In 1978 Gary wrote, “Enjoyment is the real reason for D&D being created, written, and published.” To Gary, when players fell in love with the game and spread their enthusiasm to new fans, D&D proved fun. Forty-some years later, the community of D&D fans continues to grow and thrive.

If players’ enthusiasm reveals the fun in D&D, then not every part of the original game passes the test—at least for most players. Over five editions, the game has lost some things that few players enjoyed. Only players seeking a deliberately old school style embrace things like mapping, strict encumbrance, spell blowback, and damage to treasure.

In the original D&D game, the party’s mapper served an essential role. Mappers translated the dungeon master’s descriptions of dimensions and distances onto graph paper. In Mapping—or Not-Fun Things That Dungeons & Dragons Players Learned to Skip, Part 1, I wondered why the game emphasized mapping, even though few players enjoyed it. I titled the post “Part 1” because I planned a series of posts making light of equally un-fun activities in the early game.

Dave and Gary created rules designed to create “a game which is fun to play and set so as to provide maximum enjoyment for as long a period of time as possible.” They showed a talent for finding the fun in dragons and in dungeons. Why did some parts of the game miss the target?

Perhaps the new game proved so thrilling that players overlooked its rough parts. Then, over time, gamers noticed rules they did not enjoy.

Mainly though, Dave and Gary actually enjoyed some aspects of the game that many players failed to appreciate.

Despite inventing the original non-competitive role-playing game, Dave and Gary loved competition and tests of skill in games. After all, both men held a lifelong passion for competitive games. “Games are usually for diversion or amusement, although sometimes they are played for a stake (gambling) or prizes,” Gary wrote. “They are typically contests.”

This love for competition shows in the way Gary and TSR always brought Dungeons & Dragons to conventions as a tournament. Early on, Dragon magazine and TSR sponsored competitions for dungeon masters, dungeon design, and “D&D masters.”

D&D rewarded ingenuity and resource management. Players took care to avoid fights they couldn’t win, to claim treasure without a fight, and to retreat from the dungeon when they ran low on spells and hit points.

Mapping tested skill. Gary relished any chance to frustrate mappers. The original rules’ half page of “Tricks and Traps” lists nothing but slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to thwart mapping. The tricks did more than waste graph paper—they threatened character’s lives. Heroes lured to a lower level of the dungeon faced more dangerous monsters. Lost heroes could run out of resources before they escaped the dungeon. Originally, Find the Path found an escape path.

Resource management tested skill. In a multi-level dungeon with uncertain maps, players always needed to consider whether to press ahead or to retreat from the dungeon. Pressing ahead offered more treasure but cost spells and hit points. Retreat imposed a cost too. Wandering monsters might still attack and they carried minimal treasure. Under these circumstances, spells like Leomund’s Tiny Hut offered a safe rest and a vital advantage.

Encumbrance tested skill. Gold is heavy, so early adventurers brought mules and porters to help empty the dungeon. Encumbrance forced players to make hard choices about the gold worth hauling, and the silver they might leave behind. Gary created Tenser’s Floating Disk on behalf of his son Ernie and every other player who wanted a painless way to recover every last copper from the dungeon.

Spells that ruined treasure tested skill. Even in D&D’s original rules, Fireball delivered more damage than other third-level spells. But Fireball destroyed treasure, and players hated seeing treasure within their grasp destroyed. Gary enjoyed this test of skill. His son Ernie recalled casting Fireball and how his father “would always let you know whatever cool thing you had destroyed. Normally it was difficult to figure out what anything was, but once it was destroyed, my dad would share. ‘Oh, it’s a real shame.’” See
Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve. Cone of Cold deals the damage of a fireball without destroying anything, but as a 5th-level spell.

Vancian casting tested skill. In the wake of D&D’s release, every aspiring, RPG designer replaced spell memorization with spell points. But spell points never brought the added strategy of choosing which spells to memorize. In D&D, casters needed to decide whether to memorize an attack spell or a utility spell like Find the Path, Leomund’s Tiny Hut, or Tenser’s Floating Disk. As for rituals that characters can cast without choosing to forego another spell, Gary would not approve.

Tomb of Horrors became Gary’s earliest dungeon design to reach print. By today’s standards of storytelling, saying yes to players, and letting characters shine, the dungeon rates as nearly unplayable. But no other dungeon reveals Gary’s love of competition so well. The tomb served as a tournament at the Origins convention in 1975. In his notes to the dungeon master, Gary promises that the Tomb of Horrors “is a thinking person’s module.” He warns, “If your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy.” The tomb works as resource management challenge, where the resources are henchmen and divination spells. Locating Acererak’s hoard demands finding 15 hidden and concealed doors. Those secret passages make as much of a barrier to claiming the gold as the traps. Midway through, the tomb tries to fool players into thinking they reached the end. If the tomb aimed to present a story of players thwarting evil, it failed. But as a test of skill for players who keep score in gold, the tomb offered fun.

For Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, that’s what games were for.

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.

How Running Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan Reversed My Opinion of It

Three years and a day ago, I asked if C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan was overrated. While I enjoyed the dungeon’s flavor, I felt the adventure owed its classic reputation more to nostalgia than to quality.

But when I passed that judgement, I had never run the adventure. Recently, the Shrine’s conversion in Tales from the Yawning Portal convinced me to run it. I half expected a slog through a flooded museum filled with gotcha traps. Playing the adventure proved me wrong.

In this post, I revisit my old review and explain what playing the Shrine revealed.

The adventure C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980) ranked 18 on Dungeon magazine’s list of the “30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time.” Compiled “with help from an all-star panel of judges including Ed Greenwood, Christopher Perkins, Bruce Cordell, and Monte Cook,” the list appeared in Dungeon 116, published November 2004. In the years to follow,
Wizards of the Coast released versions of the shine for 4th and 5th editions—more evidence that the adventure ranked as a classic.

Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

As you may know from my posts lauding tournament modules, I love modules stemming from competitions, especially those complete with scoring information—not that I ever keep score. The best tournament adventures focus on a series of challenges that demand player ingenuity. Both Escape from Astigar’s Lair and the Fez series feature an array of clever obstacles. Also, I love adventures with keyed illustrations for the players. The Hidden Shrine comes from the D&D tournament run at the Origins Game Fair in 1979, and includes point sheets and wonderfully evocative illustrations. Between the reputation and the scoring sheets, the Shrine seems like a certain classic in my book.

Except soon after the Shrine’s release, I started reading the adventure with an eye to running it, but lost interest, mired in the mud, slime, and rubble of the first level.

In the wake of the accolades, I figured that I my first look at the module must have stopped before I reached the good bits. Then I saw the shrine ranked #3 on Willmark’s list, “The Five Worst AD&D Modules of All Time and discovered that someone seemed to share my impression.

Inside the Hidden Shrine

Opinions of this adventure seem mixed. Players who probed the Shrine as a traditional dungeon crawl tended to brand the adventure as a slog. Folks who played with  red-shirted, pregenerated characters and a brisk pace enforced by the poison gas tended to enjoy the adventure. So for the best game, you play the Shrine as designed, as a race against time to escape a death trap.

Some reviewers of the Shrine paint the dungeon as an deathtrap. That fit its origin as a tournament adventure intended to grind up characters and reveal a winner. In competition, parties consisted of just 3 characters, so the dungeon must have proved unforgiving. But at my table, the adventure posed a fair challenge to a group of 5, fifth-level characters. Nobody died. One character will sleep for the next 5000 years unless the party pays to lift his curse.

I started the adventure with characters trapped at the lowest level, racing to escape the poisonous red fog. The device worked brilliantly. The players felt  urgency and peril, but they could afford short rests, so they never saw their resources exhausted. 

Does the The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan stand as a classic or an overrated dud?

Classic Overrated dud
Background. The Hidden Shrine draws from a caricature of Aztec and Mayan culture, just as traditional D&D draws from a caricature of the European middle ages. In a retrospective, James Maliszewski wrote, “The Mesoamerican flavor gives the whole thing an ambiance quite unlike other D&D modules. The whole thing has an ‘alien,’ exotic quality to it, which I think adds greatly to its appeal.” The background leads the adventure to pit the characters against monstrous snails, crayfish, and hermit crabs. While exotic, these creatures seem more suited to meeting Dora the Explorer than to menacing adventurers.
Dora jokes aside, the creatures seemed exotic rather than silly. At a table filled with longtime players and kids who read the Monster Manual for kicks, the unique creatures created a dash of wonder. The players enjoyed the challenge of deducing each monster’s abilities and temperament.

As a dungeon master, I wished that the text explained more of some creatures’ motives. The adventure seemed to default to the outdated assumption that everything in a dungeon attacks on sight.

Locations. The Shrine features some unforgettable locations and cunning predicaments. In a ranking of classic modules, Loren Rosson III cites locations such as, “The Chapel of the Feathered Servant (one player fights an imaginary foe while the others are forced by a winged serpent to solve a puzzle), the Hall of the Smoking Mirrors (look into them if you dare), and the Hidden Room of the Alter-Ego (a statue duplicates the looks of one of the players and comes to life while that player turns to stone).” I love the immense room spanned by a miniature city, and featuring a duel with a doppelganger behind a curtain of flame. Dungeon’s 30-greatest list marks this as the Shrine’s defining moment. Particularly on the first level, the good moments seem overwhelmed by locations where PCs clear rubble, slog through silt and slime, and spring hidden traps. Too few of the adventure’s challenges require much ingenuity to surmount, threatening to turn the shrine into a tiresome struggle of attrition.
I fretted that the Shine might turn into a tiresome slog, but play proved me wrong. The adventure’s text lavishes description on every room, including the mud and slime. Perhaps the chore of digesting all the verbiage fooled me into thinking that playing the adventure would also prove tiresome. 

Not every test of ingenuity requires a grand set-piece along the lines of a living chess room or frictionless hall. The Shrine mixes some grand tests with more mundane barriers. My players devised surprising and inventive solutions for obstacles big and small, and I loved watching their plans unfold.

Some reviewers joke that the secret to escaping the Shrine is don’t touch anything. Sure, if you don’t like treasure. Every corner of the Shrine includes includes items that inspire curiosity and lure characters into touching. The dungeon packs so many interesting features that my players’ exploration took more sessions than I expected. 

Illustrations. In “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations,” I wrote, “I first saw keyed illustrations in the Hidden Shrine and I became enchanted. The illustrations transported me into the Shrine more vividly than any text description could. The pictures showed detail that would have required all of those hypothetical 1000 words, and the details tantalized me with potential clues to the mysteries of the Shrine. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the Shrine, the designers loosed their imaginations, and it showed in the pictures.” The battle with the fire-breathing bat creature on the cover never takes place in the adventure.
The pictures still enrich the adventure. I wish the adventure had included illustrations for areas 42 and 45. I wish I had noticed that the original adventure included maps for areas 42 and 45. They would have helped me.
Authors Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason reached beyond Aztec and Mayan culture for inspiration. In Jeff Dee’s illustration of the miniature city, the dragon boat in the room’s center looks oddly Chinese. The idea for the room and the boat comes from the article, “China’s Incredible Find,” in the April 1978 issue of National Goegraphic. The article features a fold-out picture of the sepulcher of China’s first emperor. A dragon boat bearing the copper coffin floats in a river of mercury at the center of a miniature recreation of the empire. The description notes that “invaders would have had to pass booby traps of hair-trigger crossbows to reach this prize.”

Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

Sepulcher of China’s first emperor

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan earns its place as classic. Run it as a race to escape and enjoy the Shrine’s wealth of flavor and detail. Savor the Shrine’s ingenuity and the ideas it draws from your players.

What Could be Better than Wandering Monsters?

In a D&D game without time pressure, all the risk and adventure disappear. Players gain time for painstaking caution. After every 5-minute adventuring day, characters can recuperate. As locked doors fall to axes and walls fall to picks, dungeon obstacles disappear.

Every adventure needs a source of time pressure. In the original D&D game, time pressure came from the threat of wandering monsters. But wandering monsters suffer drawbacks. The threat of wandering monsters speeds the game, but a random fight against 1d4 basilisks just stalls the narrative. See Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract.

As D&D matured, characters found bigger goals than “loot the dungeon.” Dungeon masters gained another source of time pressure: A race against time or against enemies. Escape the Hidden Shrine before poison gas chokes you. Retrieve the Rod of Seven Parts before rivals. Chase a crazed Derro through tunnels. Slay a giant lord before reinforcements arrive.

In the best adventures, whenever players consider whether they can rest, they must weigh the cost of stopping. But when a goal takes days or weeks to achieve, little of that urgency drives the characters in the dungeon. When characters face months campaigning against evil, a little extra time in the dungeon hardly matters.

How can a dungeon master make dungeon adventures feel tense and active? In this post, I share 4 classic techniques. Then I tell a secret: the lazy way to make stopping in a dungeon feel like a risk.

Make random encounters better

Not every dungeon brings the urgency of poison gas or a midnight summoning. Sometimes players just need to feel that every moment they delay brings a risk of attack.

For random encounters to shape behavior, the players need to understand the danger of standing still. In You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (And So Do I), I recommend explaining the risk of random encounters, and then making the rolls in plain sight. If you track time, keep the tally in view too. Check off the hours, 10 minutes at a time, on the squares of your battle mat. Seeing the time advance will inspire players to keep a steady advance.

Wandering monsters in G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

Gary Gygax’s first adventure in print, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978) hints at some other ways to improve wandering monsters.

  • Reduce the frequency. In original D&D, monsters had a 1 in 6 chance of appearing every 10 minutes, but Gary’s published adventured kept lowering the frequency. The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests rolling every hour and starting an encounter on a d20 roll of 18 or higher.
  • Make the monsters fit the location. Bigger dungeons tend to feature areas ruled by factions and areas that fit a theme. Random encounters should fit the neighborhood.
  • Give monsters a reason to wander. Gary said that good modules should have a reason for everything. When monsters have a purpose, you can imagine how they react, what they carry, and other things that make them more interesting than 4d4 orcs. Most importantly, the dungeon stops feeling random and starts feeling like a place where things happen even when no adventurers see.

Prepare random encounters in advance

Random encounters work better when you prepare them in advance because you gain time to embellish them. At the table, roll to see whether an encounter occurs, but then use a prepared encounter.

When you run a published adventure with encounter tables, you can roll in advance or just pick your favorite to prepare. Then decide why the monsters wander and think what they carry and how they will act. See Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want. Consider taking treasure, a clue, or a story element from another part of the dungeon and assigning it to the wanderer.

If you create your own adventure, skip random encounter tables. Prepare one wandering encounter per area. If your hourly roll prompts a random encounter, use the one you prepared.

Real time pressure

In 1975, GaryGygax brought Tomb of Horrors to the Origins convention to serve as a tournament adventure. Teams of 15 players (!) competed to thwart Acererak’s deathtrap. Despite the tomb’s lack of wandering monsters, a 4-hour time slot turned the adventure into a race against time. Since then, real time limits provide the most exciting source of time pressure. Players need to do more than press ahead; they must play quickly. Real time pressure makes the D&D Open so thrilling. Real time limits fuel the best multi-table Epic adventures. I love these games, but they feature players racing for high scores or for glory against other tables. Can a real time limit work when a table plays alone? Today’s players would expect their DM to adjust an adventure to fit the time. I doubt one table could match the urgency of a competition.

Beyond wandering monsters

DMs tend to run dungeons as static places where nothing happens until the characters reach a keyed location. I’m as guilty as anyone. The players deserve most of our attention, leaving little thought for the monsters lurking in other rooms.

Despite our tendencies, dungeons play best when players feel at risk even when they stand still. Not every dungeon relies on wandering monsters to create this feeling.

Organized resistance

Some dungeons feature organized resistance. When adventurers arrive, factions of monsters can sound an alert and organize a defense. Parties that stand still come under siege.

While exciting, such dungeons challenge DMs. To manage the resistance, we must remember the monsters in a faction, their locations, and figure their responses to the players. I run these adventures by marking the monsters and locations on the dungeon map. Without such a reference, my evil pets wouldn’t stand a chance.

Scheduled movements

Map showing my notes for an organized resistance to a party entering from 1

In dungeons like the Sacred Stone Monastery in Princes of the Apocalypse, the monks eat meals, perform training, and so on according to a daily schedule described in the key. In theory, a DM should somehow account for the time of day and the denizens’ movements. (All creatures in dungeons are denizens. Only Gary knew why.) I admire the ambition of such dungeons, but never bother paying much attention to the schedule. In practice, the monks could gather in the shrine at dusk, or they could just happen to be in the shrine when characters arrive. No player will notice the difference.

The lazy way to pressure dungeon explorers

Let me share a secret: Even if your dungeon lacks organized resistance, and you skip wandering monsters, and you never track scheduled movements, you can still make stopping feel perilous.

To make players feel at risk even when they stop, attack them sometimes when they stop.

Players grow accustomed to dungeons where nothing happens until characters enter a new location. An occasional attack that breaks this pattern makes players realize the dungeon isn’t a safe place to linger. Plus the dungeon and it’s denizens will seem active—a place where things happen beyond the characters’ current location. These sorts of encounters contribute to immersion.

When you devise a dungeon, plan an unkeyed encounter or two that fits the theme.

Sometime as the characters stop to search, investigate, or collect treasure, start the encounter. Have monsters enter from a direction that fits the logic of the place. Perhaps the monsters sneak in for a surprise attack. Perhaps the monsters stumble on the characters.

I find the notion of monsters busting in on the heroes for a change appealing. With the characters scattered around the room, such reversals create unusual, and fun, tactical situations.

In published adventures, you can create similar encounters by just pulling the monsters from a location until after the characters arrive. Pick a room with monsters and some interesting features that might occupy the players’ time. Then assume the monsters have temporarily left the room. As the characters interact with the fountain or the bookcase, the monsters return.

Suddenly nothing in the dungeon feels safe. That’s how I like my underground deathtraps.

Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract

In 1980, Dungeons & Dragons players at my high school traded stories that confirmed Tomb of Horrors as the HARDEST DUNGEON EVER. Then someone told me how to beat it. Just hire a bunch of guys with shovels to excavate the tomb from the skull-faced hilltop down. A laborer worked for as little as 1 gp per month. The excavation takes months in the game world, but only a moment in the real world. Digging out the tomb avoids most of its perils. Most. I don’t think the job site’s days-without-an-accident sign will often count past 0.

In a D&D game without time pressure, all the risk and adventure disappear.

In the original D&D game, time pressure came from the threat of wandering monsters. At the end of every 10-minute turn, the dungeon master checked for wandering monsters. On a d6 roll of 6, monsters appeared and probably attacked. These fights punished delay by forcing adventurers to risk death fighting for pocket change—if that. Most monsters lack pockets.

When a dungeon lacks wandering monsters, players can slow the game by taking meticulous care, searching everything, checking everything, accomplishing nothing. If characters have ample time, many dungeon obstacles disappear. Locked doors fall to axes; walls fall to picks. The Tomb of Horrors stands no chance against a bunch of guys with time and shovels.

Wandering monsters made dungeons work

The threat of random attacks forces urgency on players. Instead of slowing down for painstaking caution, and instead of stopping to dig around obstacles, characters have to keep moving.

In 1974, wandering monsters did little to diminish D&D’s fun. Even the most routine fights still seemed fresh and exciting.

The original rules made timekeeping easy. Combat aside, most actions in a dungeon took a 10-minute turn and every turn brought a chance of an encounter.

Exploring dungeons did take characters a surprising amount of time. In a 10-minute turn, a typical party could explore just 60 feet of tunnel. “Mapping and casually examining” a 20×20 foot room took 10 minutes, then a search took another 10. For every hour in the dungeon and after every battle, characters required a 10-minute rest. By the rules, searching and mapping took much longer than anyone but Gary Gygax figured.

All the while, wandering monsters kept coming, depleting precious spells and hit points.

Keeping time

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules challenged DMs to do more timekeeping. “It is essential that on accurate time record be kept so that the DM can determine when to check for wandering monsters and in order to keep a strict check on the duration of some spells,” Gary explained in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. “Keep a side record of time on a separate sheet of paper, marking off the turns as they pass.”

While timekeeping and wandering monsters kept dungeon crawls moving, players came to dislike the bookkeeping and the interruptions.

Timekeeping created a chore with little payoff. Besides, figuring the passage of time in the game world seemed like guesswork.

Wandering monsters work better when they remain only a threat

The threat of wandering monsters speeds the game, but the actual monsters just stall the narrative. As D&D players began focusing on stories, wandering monsters seemed like a distraction. Nobody wanted to pause their quest to battle 1d4 random basilisks.

Even Gary seemed to lose interest in wandering monsters. His introduction to the Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed DMs to skip them to maintain excitement. “The rules call for wandering monsters, but these can be not only irritating—if not deadly—but the appearance of such can actually spoil a game by interfering with an orderly expedition.” Gary made wandering monsters easy to skip. In the AD&D rules, he forgot to explain when or how to roll for wandering monsters. Nobody noticed.

By fourth edition, D&D eliminated wandering monsters. DMs built encounters according to a precise recipe that required planning, and not the whim of the dice. And because each encounter took an hour or more to play, the game could hardly spare time for random delays that fail to advance the narrative.

The fifth-edition designers returned random encounters to the game, but without much enthusiasm. The Dungeon Master’s Guide warns, “You don’t want to spend time distracted by random encounters that add nothing to the adventure narrative or that interfere with the overall pace you’re trying to set.”

Even though wandering monsters fell from favor, few players saw a sudden rise in tedium.

Action and D&D’s social contract

To keep a brisk pace, many D&D games just rely on the game’s social contract. Players recklessly advance their characters through the dungeon because stopping would bore everyone. Even Gary recommended using social pressure to discourage plodding. The Dungeon Master’s Guide, he advises DMs to mock “over-cautious behavior as near cowardice.”

Tomb of Horrors has no wandering monsters and no time pressure, but when Gary ran it at home, his players finished quickly. Rob Kuntz finished in 4 hours.

Characters can hire crews with shovels, but nobody wants to play that way.

Tomb of Horrors heads a long list of published D&D adventures that lack time pressure. Even when adventures press characters to finish in days, the pressure never trickles down into the dungeon. If the characters fight a long campaign against evil, a few extra days spent in a dungeon hardly matter.

Thanks to the social contact, these dungeons still work, but real time pressure improves adventures.

Too often, players realize that they can rest and resupply after every 5-minute adventuring day. Suddenly they must choose whether (a) to press recklessly ahead for no good reason or (b) to follow a safe and tiresome strategy. No game—no adventure—thrives by forcing players to choose between fun and an optimal strategy.

Next: What could be better than wandering monsters?

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.

Basic and Advanced—Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions (Part 3)

By 1976, Dungeons & Dragons had reached beyond the audience of miniature gamers who stood a chance of understanding the inches, attack matrices, and Chainmail conventions spread across 7 little, brown books. Co-creator Gary Gygax saw his original rules limit D&D’s growth. He saw accessible imitators like Tunnels & Trolls and Warlock attract players.

But D&D’s sketchy rules caused other problems.

In Los Angeles in 1975, Lee Gold started Alarums & Excursions, a fanzine that collected articles and comments from D&D enthusiasts. Her zine attracted contributions by Gary Gygax and influenced the entire role-playing hobby. When the D&D house rules used around Caltech diverged from the brown books, Gold ruled that experience awarded in these Warlock games would no longer apply to characters in other Los Angeles D&D games. Her ruling appears in A&E issue 5, from October 1975.

In these days, players tended to take characters from one DM’s dungeon to another, much like today’s organized play brings players from one game table to another. The megadungeons of the era made dropping in for a delve easy—so long as the DMs ran similar games. But unlike today’s Adventurer’s League, the early games followed no campaign standards and shared no dungeons. Back then, every DM saw players bring outrageous characters from another dungeon.

In the March 1980 issue of Dragon, Gygax said that the original books “were hastily put together in late-night and spare-time hours, by and large, with little or no editing. Each supplement reflected development and evolution of the game, so there was contradiction, duplication, and vast areas of ambiguity and non-direction.”

Even if DMs played by the book, they disagreed about Gygax’s intentions. Old school gamers still dispute how Elves were supposed to switch between acting as a magic user and a fighting man. And to fill areas of “non-direction,” players needed house rules.

At best, house rules tended to get spread among players in a region, so nearby players might share rules for elves, morale, and negative hit points. These sorts of house rules turned into the Warlock rules and the Perrin Conventions.

D&D’s original rules invited so many house rules that players struggled to go from one DM to another. When players gathered at conventions, Gygax saw the trouble. “It’s very frustrating for someone to go from one place to another and sit in on a game that he or she doesn’t recognize and it’s called Dungeons and Dragons.”

At conventions, D&D games continued the wargaming tradition of competitive tournaments. The party that achieved the most won. For example, Tomb of Horrors debuted in a competition held at Origins in 1975. The G, D, and A-series adventures all came from tournaments. The first tournaments drew judges from Gary Gygax’s friends and family, but soon similar D&D competitions appeared everywhere.

Gygax understood that such events demanded a consistent set of rules. “I was not satisfied with Dungeons & Dragons in that it did not allow continuity of play from group to group and from region to region”

In the December 1977 issue of Dragon, Gygax recalled making a plan. “Two years ago, we determined to revise the whole of D&D in order to clean up the errors and fill in the holes. The project is a long and complicated one, a task not accomplished overnight.

“Some players have impatiently demanded immediate release of [revised] material, but we are not about to step into that mess again,” he wrote. “D&D originally came out as it did because of demands of those who had tested it and fallen in love with the concept.”

Gygax realized his revision would take years—ultimately 3 years of work. But D&D needed help immediately.

Help came from a man who had mixed D&D with the Warlock rules—a D&D “parody” that needled Gary Gygax. “As if by divine inspiration,” J. Eric Holmes contacted TSR and volunteered to revise the original rules into a beginners’ book.

Tim Kask recalls the decision to take D&D into two directions: “With the input from Mr. Holmes, they were going to scale back the system and rewrite it for a younger market in a form that would be easier to grasp.” With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, they would “re-publish the game, correcting all of the contradictions, and dropping bits and pieces that hadn’t worked well.”

Next: Recreating Dungeons & Dragons without Dave Arneson—while Dave works at TSR