Tuesday, January 26, 2016

OD&D: There Is No Substitute

You can now buy Original Dungeons & Dragons at D&D Classics. Specifically this is the 2013 reissue by Wizards of the Coast, which added new cover art to the OD&D booklets and cleaned up the typesetting (using the same Futura font).

At $10, you get the  three original  booklets in their final 7th printing form. This unfortunately removes the Balrog from the game, but you can find Zach Howard's Balrog Reference Sheet which includes the OD&D monster listing, the relevant rules from Chainmail, and all references to the Balrog that had been removed through the first four books of OD&D. So with that sheet you get back the original and best of the demonic beasts haunting the dungeons.

The rest of the references are just names. Ents became treants, hobbits became halflings, et cetera. There is no special need for a sheet, just have your players use the correct terms.

If you want a reference for the setting material implied in the booklets, I wrote The Original D&D Setting which is a modestly popular resource. Philotomy's Musings are a set of ponderings that you should read if you want to run OD&D, as they establish a good baseline set of items.

Should you want more monsters, there is a compilation here. I would recommend spending some quality time over at Finarvyn's Original D&D Discussion forum in general as it has lots of ideas for things you can do with OD&D.

There is no substituting for the original booklets. Read them; check out the supplemental material; read them sideways if you have to, but by all means, see what the original game had to say. And play it - for its simplicity as well as its richness.

Follow its procedures for dungeon stocking, and you'll find that the dungeons Gary was looking to create are very different from the ones most gamers are used to. Get into its simple exploration rules and you'll find the heart of how the game is meant to run. Run your encounters with its reaction tables and there's a whole social game that is so easily ignored. Construct combat on its basis and it quickly becomes clear that this is not a game for fair fights (or, unless you ignore morale, a game where every fight is to the death). This is a brilliant game. Enjoy it.

It is lightning in a bottle and while plenty of other games are enjoyable, nothing will ever substitute for the original work that started this hobby.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Learning from Nature: the Mechanics of Traps

A fascinating article in the Atlantic describes the mechanism of the Venus flytrap as scientists have studied it. It's a great description of the Venus flytrap's mechanics, which through evolution shows how an unthinking plant can hijack the instinctive survival response of an animal. Its process is instructive in how we can think about trap design.

First, the trap is appealing. A fly comes along because it smells something sweet. By making itself attractive the flytrap uses the appearance of other plants around it as an offensive weapon. Since the fly can't tell immediately that it's a trap, it comes in to inspect. Only then is it doomed. This is a good principle for elaborate traps in D&D. PCs are always looking for treasure. Appearing to present a treasure is a good way to present a trap, but not the ideal way.

D&D players aren't, no matter what some referees may tell you, as dumb as flies. A trap that's simply too obvious, such as a chest of shimmering jewels and gold coins unguarded in the middle of a room, will be regarded with the utmost paranoia. It's obviously a trap. A really great baited trap is one that looks like hidden treasure. It's hidden in a secret compartment or panel that can be found by careful PCs. Such a subversion is cruel, but sometimes the best way to spring a trap on players is to make them work for it.

Second, the trap has error-checking. It only closes when two of its cilia are brushed. This is a wonderful principle for mechanical traps: the trap is not triggered on the first pass. The primary reason for this is to avoid false alarms, as described in the article. This is good and pragmatic. But with a D&D style trap, there is a further benefit where the party is drawn deeper into the trap before it springs. A simple pit or arrow trap will kill only one member of a party, but it is reasonable for trap designer to aim for multiple kills. And it may also be a way for monsters (or clever PCs) to avoid a trap by letting it reset after the first trigger.

There are two good ways to implement this principle with a D&D trap. One is to require a single trigger to be pressed more than once, such as a pressure plate that activates a two-step process. The first step cocks the arrow and the second fires it. The other is to have two separate triggers, one that starts the trap process and a second that finishes it. Either can work and both are nasty surprises.

Third, the trap imprisons without killing. This can be useful in a faction dungeon where the monsters might prefer to question a member of a rival group spying on their territory rather than killing them. The victims of such a trap become useful bait or can be traded in a prisoner exchange. This can lead to a tense period where the PCs have an opportunity to try to escape before the monsters who set the trap come to check it. Or the designer may have abandoned it and the trapped characters are stuck until a wandering monster comes along.

A trap that doesn't kill outright is extra fun if it affects only a single PC. The rest of the group simply sees the lead PC go missing and isn't sure exactly where they are, while the trapped character has to deal with their predicament on their own. It presents the immediate dilemma of how much effort to spend on saving the trapped character. And as noted about the factions above, such a PC may be a bargaining chip that stops the rest of the characters from barging in and killing a monster group.

Fourth and most brutal, the trap makes its victim kill itself. The fly's struggles against its captivity doom it. Standing still would be the best policy, but it goes against their instincts. This can be copied in straightforward ways, such as by having the character trapped so tight that they can't struggle to get out without impaling themselves on a spike, or puncturing a container of poison gas or acid. It could also be a question of physics, if the trap is suspended more than 10' above the ground. Even a simple quicksand type of trap, where struggling to extract yourself actually pulls you in further, does a great job with this principle.

But this can be used in more devious and subtle ways. Efforts to escape can let the players, who again are still smarter than flies, outthink themselves. Elements of the trap itself may be unstable or unsafe, or designed in a misleading way. What looks like it will open a door actually operates a hidden ballista, or opens a chamber above full of heavy rocks. You can go way too far in this direction and wind up in Grimtooth's Traps, but I think there's a lot of fun trap design short of that.

I love the concept of the Venus Flytrap. It's an elegant and simple life form, and does its work without even the simplistic thought patterns of the fly, but it does something very intricate and involved. Its principles can lend a lot to any trap in your dungeon, whether you pick one or all four.

Oh, and don't forget the simplest way to apply lessons from this article in your dungeon: giant Venus Flytraps.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Tao of the Empty Room

The dungeon stocking table in OD&D results in 5 out of every 9 rooms being empty. (We're excluding rooms stocked by the referee.) These rooms have no monsters and no treasure.

I've written before that empty rooms are critical for spacing and timing in OD&D. The question that we have to ask, though, is how empty they should be.

Of course, some of these rooms will be trap rooms. Those are good, noble, and deserve their own separate post. I will make one side observation about traps here: pit traps in OD&D only trigger on 1 or 2 in 1d6. A pit trap that has PCs have passed over without it opening can be even more dangerous than one that is fresh, because the PCs think that nothing is there. But here we are mostly talking about the empty ones.

Sometimes rooms should be empty of anything at all. This is a useful reminder to the referee that the dungeon is a mythic underworld. Not every square inch of the underground needs a rationale. In logistical terms this also allows the referee to use rooms that only appear to be empty. When they turn out to contain traps or secret treasure, the reward is all the better.

James Maliszewski wrote about the mystique of the empty room. Every turn in a dungeon is a use of resources runs the a risk of wandering monsters. Timekeeping being important, such empty rooms become tense situations.

But not all empty rooms have to be devoid of everything. When you have members of a dungeon faction in an area, nearby empty rooms can create a more "lived-in" feeling. This could mean, for instance, that there is a second area where denizens spend their time. Monsters might even split their time between the area that the map key indicates for them and an ostensibly "emtpy" room. This also makes it possible for PCs finding the empty room first to get a clue of what is up ahead.

There could also be structural reasons for the room to be empty. A room noted as empty on the key might, for instance, have a large pool of standing water. Perhaps it is unsound, with cracks in walls or floor. Anyone who has been through a home inspection can think of many reasons a room for a room to want for occupants. Mold, mildew, even just something with an unbearable stench makes for a good excuse.

If your dungeon has tinkering monsters, the room could house a partial or failed construction project. A bunch of bricks might have been removed from the wall or ceiling. There may be the discarded makings of a fortification. This is a good excuse to give fodder for clever PCs to make attacks on monsters.

Another interesting trick is to use a room that is only mostly empty. Such a room might have architectural interest that provides hints to the history and nature of the dungeon. It can also have one of several physical features typical of underground areas. A fun one is to have a spot where it is possible to see or hear what is happening in an adjacent room. Perhaps there is a loose stone, a pipe, or a spot where the acoustics just work out.

Remnants make a great feature of the mostly empty room. A discarded wine skin or broken weapon implies that the PCs aren't the only adventurers who have been in the dungeon. Broken or torn and generally useless items are classic red herrings. They also present opportunities for the referee to place vermin and insects that don't merit a proper monster entry. Even non-poisonous insects can make for a great creepy underground experience. (Such vermin can later appear in monsters' stew-pots as a fun callback.)

The condition of empty rooms is one of the most useful ways to give out information about the dungeon. The condition of its floor can hold crucial information about what lives in the dungeon and where. One floor may be dusty and another well-trodden. A particular path may bear the marks of frequent traffic, especially when clawed feet walk across stone.

A fun variation is to feature graffiti on the walls. Scratched or painted writing and pictures are another excellent source of hints. For an extra twist, consider having graffiti on the ceiling to reward players who think of checking above their PCs' heads.

There is also the opportunity here to make the dungeon get weirder the deeper the PCs go in it. If the first few levels are a bit more quotidian, you can change things up with empty rooms that seem more Stygian and have stranger features. The random noise table from the 1e DMG is a great resource for unexplainable sounds. Likewise, air currents deeper underground and shifts in temperature or humidity become ominous.

One of the reasons I like the empty and mostly empty rooms so much is that they avoid the "fantasy IKEA" effect. Excessive rooms full of stored stuff takes away the mystique from the dungeon. I also don't like it because generally I prefer when the dungeon is well scavenged. A room that was once a dining room shouldn't have a table in good shape; it should either have rubble or nothing in it.

A critical fact about empty rooms is that, in a living dungeon, they don't need to stay empty forever. Putting monsters in a room that players have already explored and found empty is the best payoff for having empty rooms. A group of monsters that wasn't finished off the first time might change addresses, or a new monster might move in. Given the 5 of 9 ratio, there should be more rooms available than taken, so the dungeon can make a complete change through play. This is one of the factors that keeps drawing me to the megadungeon idea.

The title of this post implies its central idea: the Tao of empty rooms matters. Letting a dungeon room stay empty can be more rewarding than you'd think.