Tag Archives: Tomb of Horrors

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.”

Fourth edition gives traps a new design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem: Traps can slow play to tedium.

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

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

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

Fourth edition gives traps a new design

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

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

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

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

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

Justifying battlefield traps

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

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

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

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

A history of traps in Dungeons & Dragons

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

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

Book 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play

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

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

Wandering monsters speed play

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

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

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

Wandering monsters discourage the 5-minute work day

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

Wandering monsters make travel times and distances meaningful

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

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

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

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

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

Spells that can ruin adventures

Have you ever had an adventure spoiled by a spell? Through the history of Dungeons & Dragons, a variety of spells carried the potential to short circuit or spoil whole categories of adventures—at least without significant planning to avoid the spells’ potential.

Spells like Detect Lie (later Discern Lies) and Zone of Truth threaten to eliminate intrigue. They would turn A Song and Ice and Fire into short story.

When spells like Commune and Speak with Dead in the game, you can forget whodunits.

The Prince of Murder’s army of assassins cannot keep him safe in his mountain aerie if the characters can scry and fry.

Many of the adventure spoiling spells existed in the early days, but given the play styles of the times, they posed few problems.

Once upon a time D&D games took place in huge sprawling dungeons like the one under Castle Greyhawk, where monsters wandered and players balanced their own encounters by deciding how deep they dared to go.

Adventures never featured intrigue. You never needed to find the real killer from among a group of suspects. As the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures advertised, “NPCs were there to be killed.”

Detect Lie probably started as a way to determine if the captive Kobold was lying about the treasure behind the “untrapped” door ahead. It also deterred the thief from stealing your stuff. Know Alignment simply existed so the cleric could tell the paladin who to kill first.

A few troublesome spells existed in the early days, but Gary built in solutions for the DM. The description of Commune says, “It is probably that the referee will limit the use of Commune to one per adventure, one per week, or even one per month, for the gods dislike frequent interruption.” Strangely, when you want to know who betrayed the party, the gods always prove too busy. The Contact other Plane spell could potentially gather lies or drive the caster insane. How bad do you want to know? In practice, these spells typically provided the Dungeon Master with a way to give hints to stuck players.

In the early days, information spells couldn’t ruin adventures, but travel and movement spells could.

As long as the players stayed indoors, Fly wasn’t a big deal. Outside, it let players fly past obstacle and enemies or just bomb and strafe them from out of reach. Every DM who fails to plan for flying will see mid-level encounters ruined, but you learn fast.

Ethereal travel can threaten to take dungeons right of the game. Any cleric with the 5th level Plane Shift spell could take seven friends ethereal, allowing them to waft through the dangerous dungeon stuff and go straight for the treasure. AD&D attempted to limit the problem by populating the ethereal with tough wandering monsters and the random Ether Cyclone. Apparently that failed to deter enough adventurers because Tomb of Horrors includes this note: “Character who become astral or ethereal in the Tomb will attract a type I-IV demon 1 in 6, with a check made each round.”

The Manual of the Planes finally gave Acererak and other dungeon makers options other than contracting with the Abyss for ethereal security. Now you could overlap your stronghold with barriers such as ethereal stone, or you could mix gorgon blood into your mortar. Inexplicably, third edition made the gorgon-blood trick an optional rule. Thanks guys. Who’s side are you on?

By the time 3E came around, some designers had become so immersed in the story slant of D&D that they forgot how broken ethereal travel could be. How else can we explain Ghostform–just add invisibility to Ghostform and you can phase through any dungeon. Ghostform appeared at 4th level and rose to 8th in errata! The four level revision must be a record.

Eventually, even in the early days, the mega-dungeon seemed a little tired to a lot of folks. Dave Arneson started mocking the routine in his Blackmoor campaign, where the dungeon entrance featured turnstiles and holy water dispensers.

In the mid 70s, at a kitchen table somewhere, for the first time ever, a DM told his players that their characters met a cloaked stranger in the back of the inn with a special job. The plotted adventure was born. Suddenly the DM needed to plan adventures around a class of spells that could ruin everything.

You might suppose the new interest in plot would lead the second edition designers to reconsider all the spells that stand as an obstacle to fun plot elements like mystery, double-dealing, and skulduggery. Mostly, the designers doubled down by adding spells like Zone of Truth. At least they added a saving throw to Detect Lie, giving any DMs willing to fudge die rolls the power to save their adventures. (Unless the players just rely on Detect Evil to determine who to kill.)

I cannot imagine situations where the truth and alignment-determining spells add to the game. They only stand as an obstacle to certain types of adventures.

Next: Scry and fry

Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations

Tomb of Horrors from 1978 stands as the first adventure to include a set of illustrations keyed to the various locations. TSR dabbled with keyed illustrations in two more early adventures, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1979) and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980).

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.

Both Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks originated as tournament adventures, and the Tomb of Horrors was designed to present a similar challenge.  Of all the adventures to appear in the first three years of published modules, I suspect these three included keyed illustrations for the same reason the Hidden Shrine introduce boxed text. The illustrations gave tournament players a clear, consistent picture of each location, complete with all those tantalizing clues.

Keyed illustrations offer the biggest payoff when they show complicated architecture and decorative details—elements better shown than described. Think of the intricate decorations along the passage into the Tomb of Horrors or the terraced room in White Plume Mountain. I can’t match the skill of a professional artist, but as a DM, I often clarify some architectural detail by sketching a quick illustration.

Apparently, the expense of devoting so many pages to illustrations drove TSR to virtually abandon them. Return to the Tomb of Horrors and the fourth edition, hardcover Tomb of Horrors do continue the tradition. Aside from the Tomb series, only the 1984 oddity, XL-1 Quest for the Heartstone and the fourth edition throwback Thunderspire Labyrinth include keyed illustrations.

Current published adventures typically include a few illustrations, but the layout drops them into the text, making them difficult to share with the players. Often, the page layout flows text around the contours of the picture, further limiting them to the DMs eyes only. What a waste. If the adventure includes art, present it so the DM can easily share it.

D&D adventures dropped keyed illustrations and started including battle maps in a way that mirrors an evolution in play style. In the early D&D game, you played by describing exactly what actions your character performed to overcome an adventure’s challenges. In those early tournament adventures, if you entered combat, it meant that you had probably made a mistake. The adventure’s illustrations provided more than flavor, they provided the information you needed to make decisions. The fourth edition game centers around the action on the battle map, and the details of the traps and obstacles do not matter so much; the player just needs to know what skill to use. I like the richer tactical combat enabled by battle maps and figures, but I miss the days when an illustration invited so many possibilities.

In an adventure, do you like keyed illustrations, or would you rather see pages devoted to additional text?

Next: Picturing the dungeon – Other publishers revive keyed illustrations

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.